This interview with Nick Saviano by Colette Lewis was posted on Tennis Recruiting Network.
Although long considered one of the top developmental coaches in the world, 58-year-old Nick Saviano did not vault into the limelight until 2014, when he became the tour coach for Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. Saviano had worked with Bouchard regularly since she first began training at his Academy in Florida at age 12, and their partnership last year saw the now 20-year-old from Montreal reach the semifinals at the Australian and French Opens and the final at Wimbledon. She ended the year No. 7 in the WTA rankings, up from 32 the previous year.
Saviano and Bouchard have since parted ways, with Saviano now coaching Sloane Stephens, another young player Saviano has worked with for many years at his academy, Saviano High Performance Tennis, currently located at the Veltri Tennis Center in Plantation, Florida.
A two-time All-American at Stanford, which won NCAA team titles in 1973 and 1974, his freshman and sophomore years, Saviano then turned pro and spent eight and a half years on the ATP tour, winning one singles and three doubles titles and reaching a high of 48 in the rankings.
After retiring at age 28, Saviano began his coaching career, working with the USTA as a national coach, director of coaching for men’s tennis and director of coaching education and sports science. He left the USTA in 2002, after 15 years, to start his own academy, where he can still be found feeding balls to eight-year-olds with grand slam dreams.
While in Florida last month, I sat down with Saviano to talk about his coaching philosophy, why he is now coaching at the tour level, how that differs from developmental coaching, and many other topics.
Questions and Answers
Colette Lewis (CL): How has coaching changed in the three decades you’ve been involved in it?
Nick Saviano (NS): Coaching has fundamentally not changed very much at the core. If you’re talking about the specifics of what you coach on a court because the game has changed, yes, but the value system should not change. At the center and core of my philosophy is that when you work with a young person, it’s a sacred trust. It’s a sacred trust to the young person and it’s a sacred trust to the parents. That has not changed in the past 20 years and I don’t believe that should change in the next 100 years.
From that other fundamental principles emanate. I personally have to be committed to excellence, try to provide the highest quality of information, and do only what is fundamentally in the best interest of the child.
I’ve been blessed to be able to work with many talented, outstanding people in a multitude of ways. I feel fortunate, and I think one of the reasons I have so many long-term relationships – I’m still close to people like Jim Courier and Justin Gimelstob, and even more recently, some of the young gals I’ve worked with since they were young – is that there’s a trust, and people know that I’m going to try to do the right thing first and foremost.
From a business component, that will long term turn out to be a good move anyway. It’s not always easy to do that, but you have to have the courage of your convictions to try to do the right things.
CL: What are your thoughts on all the celebrity coaches, players who have been grand slam champions, coming back to coach?
NS: The fact that players who were all time greats are choosing to get into coaching I think is wonderful. I take a backseat in coaching to no one. I also don’t put myself in front of people either. In other words, I don’t look at somebody and say, ‘oh, they were ranked higher than me, therefore they’re a better coach.’ Conversely, I don’t look at somebody who wasn’t a world-class player, like I was for nine years, and say, ‘they can’t coach.’
Now, if one looks at the greatest coaches of all times, in every single sport, in all of the arts, music – generally speaking, you would find an interesting list, and it usually doesn’t include a lot of all-time great performers. That’s not to say any of them couldn’t be, but for whatever reason, there are a lot of coaches who achieve tremendous things that weren’t great players.
There’s not a direct correlation between being a great player and a great coach, nor does that discredit somebody from that. However, what is required, if you’re working with younger people, is a skill set. You have to understand the developmental stages. For a great player to work with an outstanding, world-class player that doesn’t really need that much development, but possibly needs some guidance, or confidence, or a couple of thoughts, strategically or tactically, clearly these people have much to offer. I have tremendous respect for all those people and I think it’s wonderful that they’re in the game.
CL: How does the developmental side of coaching differ from tour coaching?
NS: For me, coaching on the tour is almost like stealing candy from a baby. When I say that, it’s stressful in that there are other challenges, but a lot of the stuff is not esoteric. These players are skilled, they’re talented, they’re athletic, a lot of times they need simple adjustments to help get them over the top. Developing a talent is far, far different than going with someone who has won six or seven grand slam titles and decides they need a new voice. I’m amused by people who say that someone who has won six grand slams needs someone to help them win the big matches. I’m sorry, but that train has already left. If you’ve won five, six grand slams, a Davis Cup, I think they understand. However, it doesn’t mean having a new voice isn’t going to be helpful, absolutely.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with young players who aren’t that advanced, all the way up to great players. I’ve been blessed to be on the court with players when they were No. 1 and winning multiple grand slams. I’ve been blessed to work with people when they were younger who went on to win grand slams. But for me, personally, in my life, I came off the tour the day my daughter was born.
The lifestyle, for me personally, wasn’t conducive to raising a family and being married the way I wanted to. So I turned down a lot of great players. I turned down Capriati when she was the hottest item in the world; clearly she was going to win a grand slam title. I turned down Courier when he was 19 years old and the hottest player in the world. I’ve turned down many players since then. When you have that kind of talent already there, it’s not the same as starting with someone at 10, 11 and working their way up.
CL: Does the latter give you more satisfaction?
NS: They both give me satisfaction. I enjoyed enormously travelling with Genie [Bouchard] and helping her try to win a grand slam. She got a lot closer than people would have thought at the start of the year. She was closer to winning the French than Wimbledon, in my opinion. She was closer to beating Sharapova in that semifinal and I liked her odds in the final if she had played Halep. I’m not saying she would have won, but I’m saying at Wimbledon, she was beaten by Kvitova, who played too well for her on that day. I thought she had more of a shot at the French.
Now my youngest daughter is 25, my wife and I have been married 32 years and will be married for the rest of our days, and we have a very close knit family. So it’s not a big deal for me to travel some. I have the academy set up, so I get a little bit of the best of both worlds, and I’m going to be traveling this year with Sloane [Stephens]. Exactly how many events, I’m not sure. I don’t particularly like to travel, but I certainly can go 15 weeks or something like that.
CL: Is coaching overrated?
NS: In some regards it’s underrated, in other regards, it’s overrated. When you are talking about mentorship, when you’re talking about guidance of a young person during their formative years, creating world-class fundamentals which will enable the player to be everything they can be at the different stages of development, it is absolutely a critical component to developing a world-class player. Show me somebody who has achieved real greatness and there are key individuals you can pick out that were there during the formative stages of development.
CL: Which coaches in other sports do you admire?
NS: Bill Belichick. Year after year after year they have players come and go, assistant coaches come and go and he’s always got them in the hunt, always got them striving for excellence.
Pat Riley in basketball, Vince Lombardi in football, John Wooden in basketball.
In tennis, Nick Bollettieri for his innovations, his genius concepts of the academy and promotions, just getting things done.
Robert Lansdorp has done some great things, developmentally. Harry Hopman, who in his own way was truly a great coach. Pancho Segura was very, very knowledgeable.
CL: Does everything have to go right to make the transition from great junior to great professional?
NS: Everyone’s different, but there are fundamental principles. So much of it has to do with how they are raised. Being taught a commitment to doing things as well as they can do them. A commitment to go beyond excellence. There’s a courage required, an inner strength. Sometimes some people are faced with tremendous adversity and it forces them to be stronger and tougher. I’ve seen other people who have been given a wonderful plush kind of background and upbringing and yet they have this burning desire to be everything they can be. So it’s not just about the haves and the have-nots. That’s not a valid argument and there’s too much empirical information to refute that.
When you see people who are going to achieve greatness, they have the courage to meet their fears and strive out for what they want. They’re not impeded by what other people are going to think; they’re not afraid to reach for it. They accept that they could fall on their face, but they want to go for it anyway. You can’t hedge and be great. Courage is a really, really important word when you’re talking about people who accomplish great things.
To achieve greatness you have to realize that you don’t guarantee the result. Ever. So you get totally absorbed in controlling the things you can control and maximizing that to the fullest.
CL: Have you been approached by the USTA regarding the General Manager of Player Development position recently vacated by Patrick McEnroe?
NS: I’ve made it pretty clear that I have no interest in leaving the private sector.
CL: Do you think the USTA belongs in Player Development?
NS: There’s certainly a place for the USTA to facilitate in the development of top world-class players, and there’s a very significant role for the private sector there. It’s a matter of having the knowledge and the skill and the good intentions to put something together that is very synergistic, as opposed to something that disincentivizes many people to be involved with top American players.
CL: What is the one thing you hope any student of yours, regardless of their talent level, learns from you?
NS: I want them to learn to strive to go beyond excellence, to be everything that they can be in the areas that are important to them in their lives. And that principles, values, they mean something. Values of integrity, work ethic. I want each one of them to know how special they are. I want to be teaching life skills and principles and doing it using tennis as that vehicle.