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Tursunov: “I wasn’t hopping from one player to another, I wouldn’t do that”

Tursunov speaks exclusively to Carole Bouchard about his topsy-turvy year so far

Dmitry Tursunov portrait, 2019 May 3, 2019 – Madrid, MADRID, SPAIN – Dmitry Tursunov during All Access Hour at the 2019 Mutua Madrid Open WTA Premier Mandatory tennis tournament

Dmitry Tursunov has been a busy coach in 2022 but he might have preferred a shorter rollercoaster ride. He’s now coaching Belinda Bencic, and is currently in Bratislava preparing for the Fed Cup tie; he had started the year still coaching Anett Kontaveit, who enjoyed an outstanding patch with him from the end of 2021, before spending part of the summer with Emma Raducanu. Three top players in one year might be testing any other coach’s tolerance level.

Here he explains what really went down with Raducanu and why he’s now committed to, hopefully, a long-term challenge with Bencic: long-term being kind of a trigger word for tennis coaches those days.

Belinda Bencic at the WTA Guadalajara Open
Belinda Bencic at the WTA Guadalajara Open Image Credit: AI/ Reuters/ Panoramic

Tursunov is known for being quite the outspoken type, whether as a coach now or as a top player not that long ago. So he did not really enjoy reading all the gossip about the end of his collaboration with Emma Raducanu all over social media – a situation that unfortunately goes with the territory while being associated with not only a top player but also a player that has shot to that level of fame in so little time.

The former coach of Aryna Sabalenka, whom he helped reach the Top 10, has nothing remotely acrimonious to say about his short time with Raducanu. It’s just how the player-coach system is working these days: sometimes even when you want it to work out, you just can’t make it happen.   

“I was walking away from Emma regardless of whether there was another available or not”

As a matter of fact, he might be the only coach that Raducanu hasn’t fired but who just decided to walk away. So obviously tennis curiosity was raised: why would he leave and had he ditched the British player in order to take the coaching job with Belinda Bencic? “No, I didn’t. It’s absolutely not true,” explains Tursunov who really wants those rumours to stop. “I was walking away from Emma regardless of whether there was another [player] available or not. We didn’t agree on the terms and there were some red flags that just couldn’t be ignored. So that’s why it’s a little frustrating to read things like that… I wasn’t hopping from one player to another, I wouldn’t do that.”

Emma Raducanu at the 2022 US Open
Emma Raducanu at the 2022 US Open Image Credit: AI/ Reuters/ Panoramic

Working with Raducanu as a coach seems to be a challenging situation since she won the US Open in 2021 but still Tursunov was willing to find a way to keep going after his trial period this summer. “Our trial period was over at the US Open but I stuck around, trying to see if there was going to be a way to impress the team (he laughs). I really wanted to make it work.”

He has indeed nothing but good things to say about his time with Raducanu. “First of all, she’s absolutely great, she’s a hard worker and she doesn’t think or act like she’s a superstar. She is hungry to improve and is obsessed with tennis. I think it’s quite a rare combination. So I really loved working with her, and I really wanted to make it work. It was a very difficult decision for me to walk away from a player that I like and respect.”

“Emma is a hard worker and she doesn’t think or act like she’s a superstar”

Only maybe, as it seems to be the coaching trend of late, it’s indicative of not having had the chance to get more time to work. 

“In my opinion, she’s minimum a one-year project but I would say that she’s probably a two-and-a-half-year project to be on the safe side. Of course, it’s hard to say that and it’s hard for people to understand how it is possible because she already won the US Open. But, in my opinion, her game is very raw, and I think in many ways it could use a lot of improvement. It’s going to take some time, but as I said to her and to pretty much everyone on her team: I think you just need to have one voice and just try that for a bit. And then if it doesn’t work, you cross that off your list.”

“But she has a tremendous upside: she’s extremely talented, she’s very athletic, and very coordinated so she can get away with some things that other players can’t. The ingredients are very good, but you can still mess it up. So I felt it was going to be an interesting project, but a very long-term project, and as a coach, you want to have a belief that you’re going to be at work for that period. But of course, with her coaching situation, there’s now a thought going through every coach’s mind… So I was really hoping to find a solution to continue, which is why I stayed for a few weeks past the trial period. But in the end, we just couldn’t agree on the terms so I had to leave, and Belinda had nothing to do with that.”

“Of course, I would rather stick around and work with one player”

If you give Tursunov a choice, of course, he’d stay with just one player for at least a full season. It just looks like it’s becoming a rare thing on tour those days and also that sometimes one needs to be brave enough to walk away. “Of course, I would rather stick around and work with one player but again I don’t always make that decision. With Emma, I walked away, yes. That was my choice. I could have stuck around, I could have agreed on everything that her team proposed. But, deep down, I felt like that wasn’t the right thing to do. As difficult of a decision to walk away as it was, because I’ve never really walked away from a player, I felt like that was the right decision. Emotionally, I wanted to stay, but logically, I felt like I needed to leave. I felt like there were going to be problems later and I wanted to avoid them for my own peace of mind.”

The upside of this situation has to be that now Tursunov can see how in demand he is among the top players. If he admits that work was tough to get right after he stopped working with Sabalenka, he seems to now be on the stars of the tour shortlist. That’s what bringing players to the Top 10 would do, logically. But also maybe it’s also the signal that players have decided to go again for the types of coaches that are going to push them and tell them like it is. Maybe now they are ready again.

Belinda Bencic is not searching for anything else. The Olympic champion of Tokyo, who was fourth in the world in February 2020 and is now ranked 13, was adamant she wanted to work with Tursunov in order to be pushed out of her comfort zone. She picked him in order to be challenged: a sufficiently rare occurrence right now on tour that Tursunov was logically receptive to the 25-year-old’s offer.

“I strongly believe that he’s a very good coach and he can improve me, my game, and the mental part”: Bencic

“She didn’t really need to do a lot of convincing!” smiles Tursunov. “She called me and asked me if I was available and if I was interested in working with her. I told her that right now I’m working with Emma so that was obviously out of the question, but that I’d let her know if something was to change. And then when with Emma we couldn’t come to an agreement, then that’s when I called Belinda. I said it looks like I’m available so we met, we talked, and then we just decided to start working together.” 

That simple? That simple. “With Belinda, her approach was very different: there was no trial, she just said, ‘Listen, I’ve read stuff about you, I’ve seen how you work, I want to work with you. So, what’s it going to take?’ After two or three days of conversations, we made a decision. So, in that sense, it was much easier. The commitment was staggering.”

Bencic could surely stay in the Top 20 or 30 very comfortably without changing anything right now, but the Swiss wants more. “I strongly believe that he’s a very good coach and he can improve me, my game, and the mental part. I’m super happy that he decided to work with me. I want to make it great and want to improve. I really wanted to work with him. I saw the partnerships he had with other players and he had great success,” she said to the WTA website.

Yet, despite Bencic’s enthusiasm, Tursunov has too much experience to think it’ll be an easy road. She doesn’t bring him in to ensure she stays where she is, but to change enough things to get her back to the very top of the game with of course surely a Grand Slam title as a goal. Since their start in Guadalajara, things are going well and he hopes it’ll remain like that as long as possible despite the tricky mission he’s on with her.

“What I admire about a player is that desire to improve”

“Ultimately, I’m hired to help someone improve. And so in that sense, it’s one thing when you hire a coach to just maintain your level and another one when you hire someone to help you improve because that means that you just have to change things. That’s going to be the difficult part because changing certain things or approaches to how you train or technical stuff, that’s always difficult. So that’s going to be the question: how much is she is willing to get out of her comfort zone? And of course there is a huge amount of responsibility on me. I’m making changes to an established player and any failures along the way reflect on me as a coach just as much as it does on a player. So I feel we are partners in that sense of the word.

“Belinda is obviously talented. But there are a lot of talented players out there. It’s just a question of how much she’s willing to suffer mentally. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand: they think it’s quite easy to change but it’s not. You’re used to doing something one way and then all of a sudden, it has to be done differently. To change things, you have to go through this period where something just isn’t feeling comfortable or familiar. You’re gonna have a lot of doubts in your mind. So you have to be strongly convinced that the change is going to be for the better. There has to be a very solid commitment. And that’s the difficult part of it. We all say, ‘oh, I want to be better’, but ultimately if things don’t work out right away…”

“Before you start planting in the garden you have to clean everything out”

There’s already a lot of admiration from Tursunov toward Bencic’s mindset right now. As a former player, he knows how difficult it is to decide to change. And as a coach, he praises the trust it requires in the process and in the person who sets that process up.

“What I admire about a player is that desire to improve. Not a single coach can help a player that doesn’t want to improve or feels they’re good enough already. It’s much easier to work with a player that is seeking to get better. Now, saying it and doing it are slightly different, but at least that’s a good start. She seems like she wants to get better. And she realizes she cannot always rely on plan A, and that she needs a plan B on the court. To improve, you have to be out of your comfort zone.”

That might have actually been the only obstacle he faced while working with Raducanu – and that he couldn’t get enough time to get over. “The only difficult thing with her – that you actually have to do with every player – is trying to change certain things: she believed that she had to play a certain way. So I was trying to convince her to change that mindset and change her convictions about her own game. You come in but before you start planting in the garden you have to clean everything out. Then you plant when everything is clean. That’s what I was trying to do and there was maybe a minor difficulty with that but I think we got past that and were on the right track, and she was starting to trust me a little bit more. At least, that was my perception.”  

“Belinda is very committed and you have to appreciate when a player makes that type of commitment”

Where some players are potentially just searching for someone who would fix special issues in their game, much like an outsourced job for a freelancer on a short-term basis, Bencic is searching for a full partnership from the A to the Z of her game. “Those are two different approaches and so both as a coach and a player, you need to be very clear on what approach it’s going to be. But I like to stick around, to work long-term.”

When asked who made and is still making coaching decisions for Raducanu, Tursunov didn’t have an answer but with Bencic he can at least be sure it’s the player who is ready to take full responsibility for her working situation. “Belinda is very committed. She has no clue whether it’s going to work out or not. I could completely mess up her game. But she trusted me by making that decision and you have to appreciate when a player makes that type of commitment. To me, it was more telling than anything else. In one year, if she’s going to turn around and say okay, well, I tried my best, but it was a bad decision, it’s okay: I take responsibility for it, no one forced me, no one talked me into it. So I think that it’s a very good sign for a player to take a kind of gamble but owning the decision.”

“I feel like starting from scratch for the third time this year in some ways”

He just asked her to be patient with him because when you’re on your third player of a single season, it’s not easy to adjust.

“I told her that she was my third player of the year and that she needed to be a little bit more patient with me. I’m gonna be frustrated because I feel like I’m repeating the same thing over. As a coach, it’s very exciting to go from A to Z, but I feel like I’ve been going from A to B and then back to A and that’s very frustrating. And a lot of times when you explain something to a person, it takes a while to get the point across, and then you want to move on to the next stage. But here I feel like I’m starting from scratch for the third time this year in some ways. It takes you a little less patience to deliver the same message so I told Belinda to be patient here and she has to understand where it’s coming from. It’s not because I think she is an idiot but because I’ve been saying the same thing over and over this year. That’s the bad part of it.”

Iga Swiatek at the 2022 Ostrava Open
Iga Swiatek at the 2022 Ostrava Open Image Credit: CTK Photobank / Panoramic

Tursunov has also been coaching players who had to witness the rise to power of Iga Swiatek. And it’s surely no coincidence that someone like Belinda Bencic is now deciding to try everything possible to reach the next level. “Iga is more introverted and you get a sense that she’s different. She reminds me of Daniil Medvedev in that way,” says Tursunov. “But the thing is that a lot of players are not really focusing on their game right now… If you’re Top 10 and you don’t have to be the best you can be to be there, it’s going to be more difficult to push yourself. This is where a lot of the frustration of the coaches is: they’re like ‘you can improve!’ and the player says ‘why should I?’”

“Iga is pushing them and showing them ‘hey, you think you’re good but you’re not’”

But now the bar has been raised so high by Swiatek for the rest of the field that it’s way too often out of reach. As we tend to get frustrated with the lack of consistency inside the Top 10, Swiatek’s reign might be the trigger we were waiting for. There’s no chance to catch up with her if one doesn’t start to commit entirely to the improvement process. Swiatek’s game is ruthless so it’s up to the others to get there too or there will be very few chances to shine for them. 

“You would think that at some point it would start resonating,” hopes Tursunov. “Andy Murray worked incredibly hard to just be able to stand on the same court as Roger, Rafa, and Novak, in the beginning of his career. It’s not like that on the WTA at the moment. On the men’s tour, the competition is a lot closer and that’s not at all about a men versus women thing, it’s just how the state of the competition is today. But that’s what Iga is now doing to her opponents on the WTA Tour: she’s pushing them and showing them, ‘hey, you think you’re good but you’re not’. It’s easier to raise the bar when there are two, three, or four people competing for the same thing, but it’s harder when you’re by yourself. If someone decides they want to be more as a player, be a better player, then they’ll start making decisions that are reflecting that. They’ll try to figure out how to get better and that’s actually what Belinda is trying to do right now. She’s trying to push herself to a different level. So as a coach, I respect it, and as a former player I understand that’s the right thing to do.” 

In an era of the game where one can feel sugar-coating has become a mandatory skill for any coach who wants to keep their job, the Tursunov method is a breath of fresh air. A reminder that there are still coaches out there who aren’t ready to compromise on what’s needed to get to the top of the game and stay there.

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