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Dmitry Tursunov, the frank interview with the outspoken coach who helped Kontaveit to become a winning machine

Dmitry Tursunov, former Top 20 player and winner of the Davis Cup in 2006, was maybe the last name you’d have expected to see wanting to become a coach after his career. But he did – and he is doing it well

Dmitry Tursunov, 2022 Dmitry Tursunov by © Rob Prange / Shutterstock / SIPA

2022 Australian Open | Draws | Schedule | Kontaveit – Tauson (Thursday)

As flashy with his game as he is with his temper, the Russian Dmitry Tursunov has already left his mark on the coaching side of the sport. In 2011, he started by mentoring Aslan Karatsev, then 17 years old, then in 2018 he coached Elena Vesnina, followed later that year by Aryna Sabalenka, who was a top 10 player when they ended their collaboration in 2020.

Now, it’s Anett Kontaveit that he’s brought into the top 10 (currently world No 7) after an extraordinary end of the season with four titles (Cleveland, Ostrava, Moscow, Cluj) and a final at the WTA Finals.

Tursunov likes to say that he enjoys “acting like an idiot” but really knows “what I’m talking about”: it’s been his way to cope with his job as a player and remains the one he uses to do the same as a coach now. “It’s a lonely place here!”, he laughed, adding: “Today you’re a winner, tomorrow everyone forgets about it so… My ego has been slapped around a few times in this lifetime so I really understand that success can come and go.” 

My ego has been slapped around a few times in this lifetime so I really understand that success can come and go

Dmitry Tursunov

We caught up with him during the tournament in Sydney where Kontaveit was starting her season and ended reaching the semi-finals, losing to Barbora Krejcikova (0-6, 6-4, 7-6). As a coach, he proved to be exactly the same as the player he once was: he spoke his mind without a care in the world about mincing his words. And that’s actually his coaching method: he’s going to try to push all the buttons, whether you like it or not, in order to see progress.

TENNIS MAJORS : Maybe you had time this winter to think about your crazily good end of year with Anett, so why do you think it clicked so well between you two?

Tursunov: Listen, I’d love to say that it’s thanks to me. Obviously, she found a way to motivate herself. And I helped her with her game, I helped her with maybe structuring some things a little bit better in her head, the way she sees her game, but the coach can only provide the information. So my job is to figure out what type of information would be the best for her at the moment. And I guess I did that well but again, she was ready to receive that information, wanted to try something different, something new. And she wanted to improve, to maybe prove that to herself. Whatever the motivation is, it doesn’t really matter, the point is that the motivation was there. And that definitely is the biggest piece of the puzzle.

Anett Kontaveit, WTA Finals 2021 – © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

What did you see in her game that you wanted to change?

Tursunov: I felt like naturally she’s quite aggressive, but she wasn’t really utilising that. I think she was playing a role of a player that she is not. And so the question was why it happens. And the question is, also can she play as a more aggressive player, or need to develop some shots or a better understanding of court positioning? It’s my job to figure out what she can add to the game to really match her character and help her bring out the best of her personality into her game.

I read a quote from you saying that a lot of players who could improve are not improving: why do you think it's the case?

Tursunov: It’s the same question, like why do some people, when they don’t have a lot of money, still spend it on buying things they don’t need? Sometimes a player is quite talented but that’s not what their passion is. Very few combinations are like Rafa where it’s a hard worker and a passionate person, and also someone quite talented. It’s a question to each individual player: why is their priority not to improve? I was never super fanatical about tennis. Had I been more fanatical, I would have definitely been a better player. I probably would have done things differently or would have made better choices for my tennis. You have to give up something: some players are willing to give up relationships or spend all their money on improving their tennis, but some players aren’t willing to do that.

Anett Kontaveit and Dmitry Tursunov in 2021 Akron, Guadalajara (© Rob Prange/Shutterstock/SIPA)

How would you describe your coaching method? Because obviously between Aryna Sabalenka and now Anett Kontaveit, you've done something right.

Tursunov: Aryna was doing well without me as well. So who knows, whether I was a big piece of that puzzle or not, but my philosophy is that there’s no point in lying to the player. If the player is not good at something, then you have to be honest. That’s not because you’re trying to insult them: you’re trying to help them improve. So there’s no point in dancing around the issue. 

And that’s kind of the problem with a lot of players is they’re just not willing to hear the truth: they want to hear that the problem is maybe with the racquet or with the grips, or maybe with their mum or their dad and it takes a certain maturity and self-awareness to admit to yourself that there’s a problem. So that’s the first step: being honest with the player and telling them, ‘If you hire me as a coach, then you’re asking for my opinion’. So if I’m giving my opinion, it’s then the decision of the player to use it or not. I don’t care, I’m getting paid one way or the other!

The younger generation has a hard time dealing with an honest assessment

Dmitry Tursunov

It has become routine to see coaches getting fired after a few months, especially on the women's tour, whatever the results of the players are. Have you noticed a change in that player-coach relationship?

Tursunov: Honestly, I think it’s the younger generation that becomes very emotionally sensitive and has a hard time dealing with an honest assessment. I feel also that patience and work ethic are a little bit different: there are a lot more distractions in the world. The life, in general, is becoming a lot faster. But it takes a certain process to become a good player. And it takes experience, and it takes time. So you cannot speed that up. And you have quite a few young players that don’t mature as fast. 

They live in a bit of a cocoon or a bubble. So for them, hiring or firing someone is often an emotional decision: if today I feel like I want to fire someone and I have the ability to do so, I have that power so I’m just gonna fire you, and they don’t really take the time to analyse and to weigh the decision, they don’t really think about what effect it’s going to have on the coach or whatever. And there’s a lot of noise around tennis as well. Especially when you get better as a player, as your ranking goes up, all of a sudden a lot of people want to help, and they’re your best friend, they’ve been cheering for you for the last ten years. They only started calling in today after you get into the Top 20! (he laughs

Dmitry Tursunov (© Zuma / Panoramic)

So there’s a lot of these things that for a young player to make a smart decision, it is very hard. So that’s why there’s a lot of bad decision-making. Because they don’t have the experience, so how can they make a good decision? I see a lot of players succeed because they’re lucky to have the right people around them, and it has nothing to do with their wisdom. So I think there’s a bit of that going around on tour and it’s a lot easier to blame someone else for your loss. And unfortunately, as a coach you really don’t control this.

“If you’re the person who’s screaming “iceberg ahead”, you’re the toxic person”

Dmitry Tursunov

And so it has to also change the way you work and interact with a player…

Tursunov: It’s how the game is, that’s the rules of the game and if you want to play by those rules, you will have to be a lot more considerate of how you deliver information. You have to think like, “If I say it this way, it’s gonna create a conflict, so how am I going to deliver information?” So a lot of times, as a coach, you’re not able to hit the panic button early because if you start telling the player that this is not good enough, that ‘I don’t care if you’ve won’, it’s still a problem and we’ve still got to go and practise, then you create a conflict, and the conflict always ends in a toxic environment. 

And every psychologist nowadays tells pretty much every single person that comes to them that you got to get rid of toxic people in your life. So if you’re the person who’s screaming “iceberg ahead”, you’re the toxic person. So you just have to sit and sometimes watch the ship hit the iceberg. And then when that happens, and the captain runs up to you and says “Oh my God, what do we do”, then it’s like, “okay, well, now we got to fix that”. A lot of players waste a lot of time doing stupid things but that’s a bit their fault because that’s how the rules are created by the players.

Had someone told you, when you were a player, that you’d become a coach on the WTA, would you have believed it?

Tursunov: And I probably wouldn’t have guessed that I was going to be doing that. But I think there’s a certain stigma between ATP players, when they look at someone who’s coaching WTA, like they sort of think like, “Oh, this guy must be a pretty bad coach, because if he was a good coach, he probably wouldn’t be coaching WTA.” But I didn’t have any offers on the ATP and I was looking for work so I took the work that was there. I don’t feel ashamed of it. It has its challenges for sure. But, you know, and especially, me being a player in the past, being quite stubborn myself as pretty much every tennis player is, just thinking about myself all the time. 

Anett Kontaveit with Dmitry Tursunov in 2021, Cincinnati (© Zuma / Panoramic)

Of course, it’s quite a change but I feel like I can help a lot of players, it’s just a question of are they interested in that? Or are they interested more, and just hearing the nice things? And I’m sure that there are coaches that are better suited for being friends versus helping people improve, but at the end of the day, players make a decision: Do they want a friend or do they want a coach? I’m not saying that I’m gonna be like a drill sergeant. Ultimately, the player has to make their decision and have to be honest with themselves. Unfortunately, a lot of them are not just honest with themselves. They say: ‘I want to be No 1’, but the question is are they willing to sacrifice something for that?

I like coaching more. I never truly enjoyed competing

Am I wrong thinking that you like coaching more than you were liking playing?

Tursunov: No, I like coaching more. I never truly enjoyed competing, I’m not a super competitive person. And to me, coaching is more constructive. And playing is more destructive because you have to beat the other person. I like creating stuff, and for me helping a player is kind of like building their game, affecting different aspects. It’s like modifying a car, adding some nicer tyres, bigger brakes, and a bigger engine. So that’s kind of how I see it. And so for me, it’s more fun.

Is it a tough time for coaches right now?

Tursunov: I don’t know… I guess it’s again a question of what the players expect a coach to be. Right now I feel players expect a coach to be a lot more like a friend, someone who is like a travel buddy instead of someone who is going to make you improve or just help you. You have to have the desire to improve and honestly, I don’t see too many hungry players at the moment. Maybe three or four are really motivated and driven, but the rest is just really happy with what’s happening. Sure they’d like to win more but if they don’t, you don’t see them panic, they just think, ‘OK, I lost but it’s not too bad’. 

Sometimes, even a good result can actually be a problem because it masks the issues, gives a false sense of security. Someone with experience is able to tell the difference but it’s hard to have someone telling you, “You’ve won but we’re still pretty far’. I also think that professionalism is changing: there’s a lot of professional tennis players but they’re not super professional. But the thing is that they force coaches to be more silent, to be nice guys when actually we have to be the bad guys, we have to be the ones highlighting the problems and telling what needs to be improved. 

If you’re not allowed to do that, then you’re going to be out of work and then the nice guys will take your place. But then the nice guys always tell you everything is going great so what happens is that slowly the environment has created the coaches that are now on the tour. It has become a balancing act…Let’s see what the player allows you to work on, and then that’s what you work on. Anett is a smart girl so even if I have to think of how I deliver information, she’s smart enough to understand that me being nice all the time, saying everything is great, is not going to help her. Do you want me to be honest or do you want me to be nice? It’s her decision.

Dmitry Tursunov as a pro player in 2013, Montpellier (© JB Autissier / Panoramic)

Coaches like you nowadays also have to deal with a generation that’s been growing up with social media, whereas it’s something you haven't had to deal with…

Tursunov: A lot of coaches I’ve been talking with have told me they felt the younger generation was so much different, in the way they respond, they work, the attention span, that it was quite difficult: the disconnect in the way they see the world is quite significant. Even my generation is kind of looking at some things the players do at the moment and cringing. But the problem is that social media isn’t going away and there’s no way for a coach to control that anyway. But it has helped people develop those hyper-sensitive egos and those people trying to do things to be liked more. 

A lot of times, players tend to transfer that mindset on the court as well and go for these glamorous shots so they can be on YouTube highlights reels. I’m pretty sure it’s also how every generation speaks about the next one! But regarding social media, if I feel it’s going to be a huge problem or it​​’s going to affect the tennis, I will obviously have to intervene. It’s kind of weird how the younger generation is getting super sensitive to their social media: I don’t know how necessary it is for their career but it has become a part of their identity now. A lot of players should really reevaluate what they’re doing with their lives if they want to have different types of results but now it has become a habit and such a big part of their lives… 

Can Anett Kontaveit win a Grand Slam title this year?

Tursunov: She has that possibility. It’s hard to predict who is going to win nowadays and I’m pretty sure not too many people were getting their predictions correct the last two or three years. A few players are dangerous and difficult to beat so it’s going to be very difficult. Also, I’d be happy if she’d win but there are also things that we can improve and I’d love to do that but if she’s starting to win everything left and right it’s going to be even more difficult for me to do (he laughs). Sometimes it’s good to have a loss here and there to highlight things you can improve on.

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