Players’ boxes in tennis stadiums are getting more and more crowded these days.
Teams and entourages continue to expand but one notable – and perhaps most useful – addition has been the presence of sports psychologists as a crucial member of a player’s camp, travelling on tour with the rest of the coaching staff.
World No 1 Iga Swiatek has been the most prominent example and has spoken at length about the benefits of having her sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz accompanying her at most tournaments.
Men’s world No 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas said he was feeling “centred” and “in the zone” this week at the Caja Magica and when he was asked why, he pointed to his sports psychologist Kostas Pergantis, who was sat in his press conference at the back of the room.
Tunisian Ons Jabeur is also reaping the rewards of having her psychologist with her at events.
The world No 10 advanced to the biggest final of her career this week in Madrid with Frenchwoman Melanie Maillard in her corner.
Maillard has been working with Jabeur since 2017, but most of the work they’ve been doing has been virtual. In the two events Maillard has been on-site, Jabeur made her maiden Wimbledon quarter-finals last year, before her impressive exploits in the Spanish capital this week.
“So everything goes to Melanie, of course,” Jabeur said with a laugh, paying credit to her psychologist.
“We discussed that from last year already that I need her with me for more tournaments obviously, because whether you like it or not, it's much easier than to speak to her virtually.
“I think to be here and she's here and I see her that she's in my box, it helps me a lot. Also, at the same time, all the hard work we did before [is paying off].
“Definitely she's coming to more tournaments. She's my lucky charm right now,” added the Tunisian.
“If I win this tournament, literally, I'm taking her to Rome with me. I don't care about her family, no, she's coming with me.”
A closer connection
The idea to have Maillard join the Jabeur camp this week in Madrid was to bring some female energy to the team, since the North African spends most of her time with two men, her coach Issam Jellali and her husband/fitness trainer Karim Kamoun.
Maillard has been shadowing Jabeur all week, attending her practices and her matches, and talking frequently not just to her player, but to Jellali and Kamoun as well.
“That’s why I like to come to tournaments because I have a lot of time to talk to everybody,” Maillard told The National in Madrid.
“When I’m not at tournaments, I just talk to Ons, and sometimes when I come it’s very intensive and I can talk to everyone and I can feel and I can observe.
“In my job, there are three different things: the mentality and the way the player is using their brain to concentrate and do their job; the psychology, how they’re feeling, how are the relationships around them, how they can put some things away to get focused on what they have to do, but they have to share how they feel and use their words to share.
“And the third is the energy, how is Ons in her energy, and I look at her and I can see how she is.
“So it’s important for me to see and sometimes to feel how she is and then I can tell Karim or Issam or Ons, ‘Let’s try this or that’.”
Working with coaches
Maillard has lots of experience plying her trade in a tennis environment dating back to 1998, when she was hired by the French Tennis Federation (FFT) to work with young players, and their coaches.
The first generation she worked with were players like Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Richard Gasquet. A big part of her job was working with coaches at the federation.
“We have to help them understand how human beings work and it was a large portion of my job for them to improve their relationship with the players,” she explained.
“The FFT asked us to do a lot of work for that. To understand how they can manage the parents and all the environment around the player, because it’s a lot.
“It’s not one player playing, it’s one player, the parents, the family, the country. So they have to understand that the player is not just a machine, and that they just have to do what they ask them to do. They have feelings, they have relations in the morning, in the night and that everything is very important to understand and feel.”
Challenges of tennis
Maillard discussed how the core work done with most athletes is to help them love themselves, respect themselves and understand that they can be in control of their own destiny.
She explains how tennis can be a particularly challenging sport in the mental department.
“In tennis, you know when it starts, you never know when it ends,” she said. “When you go on court, you’ve got a lot of time thinking and being by yourself.
“We think for an hour of play, it’s just 15 minutes real play, and the rest of the time it’s mental play.
“So you have to understand how it helps you to be concentrated and focused on what you have to do because you’ve got a lot of thoughts coming in your head and feelings in your body.
“You have to calm down to be clever with the intention you must have. It’s to be in power with what is coming in your head and your body and you have to know how you work; and that in tennis is very, very difficult. You have so many thoughts that are not so good to have because it makes you go in a different way than you want it to.”
Anyone who has been following Jabeur from a young age knows she has always been regarded as a phenomenal talent. She won the Roland Garros junior title at 16 but it took her six more years to crack the top 100 for the first time on the women’s tour.
Since then, Jabeur has made history for the region with a series of unprecedented achievements. She is the first Arab player – man or woman – to be ranked in the top 10 in tennis and on Saturday, could become the first Arab to win a 1000-level tournament.
So how did Jabeur harness her skills and finally translate it into success on the WTA circuit?
“She believes more in herself. She used to be not so self confident,” said Maillard.
“She was a bit shy, now she wants to share so many things. She’s what I call a heart-open player. She had to face some fears she had and one of those fears was, ‘Who am I to put myself on the scene and is it useful for the people?’
“And when she understood that, she said, ‘Okay I go now, I don’t have to be so shy’. And to love more herself. She can love a lot of people, she wants to share a lot, she had to love herself too.
“So that was a big task, and to make her love working too. And to listen to all what she had to say. She didn’t know that she could say all what she had to say.”
Maillard believes having Kamoun, Jabeur’s husband, join her full-time on tour as her fitness trainer helped the Tunisian find stability in a gruelling atmosphere, and it gave her someone to confide in.
Carrying hopes of a continent
As a trail blazer for Africa and the Arab world, Jabeur carries the hopes of an entire region on her shoulders, which is not necessarily the case for other players on tour.
“She had to make sense of this responsibility and to face it,” said Maillard.
“She took it that way and I think that was in her all along, she just had to accept it and to allow it to come out.
“She is someone very strong and she knows what she has to do and why and each time she goes on court she has to remember that this is bigger than her but that she can take this responsibility.”
Jabeur feels she has found her purpose, and has chosen to embrace her role as a pioneer. She has also found empowerment in vocalising her big goals, and believes she is capable of achieving them. At the start of the year, Jabeur said she wanted to crack the top five in the rankings and to win more titles. If she triumphs in Madrid on Saturday, she will return to her career-high mark of No 7 in the world.
The crafty North African has been on a revenge tour this week, taking out Olympic champion Belinda Bencic, ex-world No 1 Simona Halep, and Russia’s Ekaterina Alexandrova – all players who have defeated her recently or on multiple occasions.
“I do feel pretty confident, pretty ready to accept any challenge right now coming,” Jabeur said ahead of the final.
Travelling is key
Tsitsipas joked that if the tour offered higher prize money, he can afford to have Pergantis his psychologist travel more frequently with him to tournaments.
Maillard believes tennis can benefit a lot from having psychologists on-site with their players.
“Because now everybody is very good in tennis, very good physically, and the psychology is what makes the difference,” she said.
“They travel so much, they have no roots, and so they have to find it in themselves and we help for that.
“Because the best friend must be them and their body and how they can manage to try to feel better, even if they are tired. It’s not easy with everybody in the team because everybody has feelings, everybody has a life, it’s very difficult.”