One woman on a mission is Serena Williams, who will look to equal Margaret Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles record of 48 years standing — and firmly establish herself as the greatest female player of all time. The man helping mastermind her challenge is Patrick Mouratoglou, her coach and tennis’s most exciting off-court power player.
Unless you’re a fully fledged tennis fan, you’ve probably never heard of Mouratoglou, the game’s charismatic star-maker. The dashing, grey-streaked, Greek-French 51-year-old has coached Williams since 2012, helping steer her to 10 of her 23 Grand Slams. The pair briefly dated early on in their working relationship — highly unusual for a coach and sports star and something neither party has ever publicly discussed. Despite their romantic break-up, they have remained one of the most formidable professional tennis pairings in the history of the game.
‘You can’t compare Williams with Court, who dominated women’s tennis in the 1960s and 1970s’, Mouratoglou tells me, looking tanned and energised in the middle of Roland Garros, the French Open. ‘Serena is the greatest of all time. It’s not even a question,’ he says firmly, with a heavy French accent. ‘The Margaret Court record was a different time. It was not a professional sport. It was amateur — I’m not trying to be rude.’ He’s certainly straight-talking and lively company.
Mouratoglou’s job is definitely made easier by having the greatest female player as his charge, but what does he see as the secret to their partnership? ‘There has to be great trust and the player has to look up to the coach, otherwise it has no chance of working. And in the case of Serena and myself, it goes both ways. Whenever I say anything, she doesn’t doubt it for one second. When you reach that level of trust, it’s incredibly successful. And the key to a long-lasting relationship with a player is to win. If you lose games, it’s finished.’
Since Williams hasn’t triumphed at a Grand Slam since 2017’s Australian Open, before she gave birth to her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr, there’s a lot riding on their campaign to help her lift Wimbledon’s Venus Rosewater Dish. While he doesn’t show any signs of tension, he admits that as a coach, ‘There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of stress, and you have to absorb the stress of the players.’
Most coaches on the tour operate in the shadows (sometimes contractually so) but not Mouratoglou, who basks in the spotlight, appearing on podcasts with Mike Tyson and starring in basketball player LeBron James’s Netflix show, The Playbook, where coaches share the rules they live by to achieve success. He’s super-active on social media, giving training tips for free on Instagram and has an expanding empire of tennis academies in France, Greece and Dubai. He’s also an outspoken presence who has a masterplan to disrupt a sometimes-stuffy sport (more on this later).
At Wimbledon, as well as sitting beside Williams’s family and celebrity friends such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z, you’ll see Mouratoglou popping up in other players’ boxes as he’s also the visionary behind two of the most exciting new talents: 22-year-old Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas and 17-year-old American sensation Coco Gauff. Both players are entering Wimbledon following sensational runs at Roland Garros. Tsitsipas stormed through the draw to reach the men’s final, only to lose narrowly to Novak Djokovic, while Gauff became the youngest Grand Slam quarter-finalist since 2006. (You may also remember her exploding on to the tennis scene at 2019’s Wimbledon when she knocked out Venus Williams, aged just 15).
While Mouratoglou is full-time coach to Williams, he advises Tsitsipas and Gauff, who’ve been training at his academy in the South of France since they were kids. ‘I scouted Coco when she was 10. And I indirectly work with Tsitsipas [his father Apostolos is his main coach] who I discovered on YouTube when he was 15.’ He clearly has an eye for world-beating talent, so what does it take to catch Mouratoglou’s attention? ‘I try to see the player that they will become, not what they are,’ he says. Personality (‘champions don’t process the same way as other people’), competitiveness (‘their job is not doing forehands and backhands — their job is to win’) and margin for improvement (‘when Stefanos arrived at the academy, he looked like a 50-year-old player hitting balls on the weekend. Now he is a machine’) are the key three ingredients.
Not since the 1990s when Nick Bollettieri nurtured the talents of Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Jim Courier has there been a coach who can boast multiple megastars in his stable. Mouratoglou’s ‘city of tennis’ near Nice has 34 tennis courts, two schools (French and American), fitness studios, swimming pools (one in the shape of a tennis racquet) and player accommodation, enabling him to develop multiple players at once. Even stars he doesn’t coach, including Novak Djokovic, can be found training there. His dream factory for would-be champions is a far cry from his humble coaching beginnings in 1996, when he rented two courts at a club with the simple, sweet ambition of helping young players achieve their tennis goals.
His drive to help others is rooted in his own failure to make it as a tennis player, after his parents pulled the plug on his teenage aspirations in the hope he’d choose a more stable career. ‘I was one of the best players in France, and my only goal was to become a champion,’ he says. ‘When I got to 15, my parents decided that I had to stop. It was the end of my life. They didn’t believe in me as a tennis player, so I thought I’m going to spend the rest of my life believing in players and helping them achieve what they want to achieve — the chance I didn’t get. If you look at history, some coaches have changed the career of a player — Ivan Lendl changed the career of Andy Murray.’
“Out of the court, players are competing to be the nicest, the most polite, but this is all fake. We are humans, we’re not perfect”
Mouratoglou believes that coaches should be able to talk to their players during matches. ‘It’s allowed in all other sports. Tennis is the only sport in which the coaches have to hide. They’re not allowed to do their job. That has to be addressed. The WTA [Women’s Tennis Association] has made big progress because coaches are allowed [to talk to their player] once per set if the player asks for them [not including Grand Slams].’
If on-court coaching was allowed, he would have avoided what was perhaps his biggest professional low at the 2018 US Open, when Williams was accused of receiving coaching from Mouratoglou from the stands in her final against the young Japanese star, Naomi Osaka. Umpire Carlos Ramos gave her a code violation and the fall-out led to docked points, game penalties and a gradual meltdown that cost her the tournament. ‘One thing I’ve never done is cheat, ever,’ protested Williams during the match. ‘If he gives me a thumbs up he’s telling me to “Come on”. I don’t cheat to win. I’d rather lose.’ Despite the strain under which it must have put the pair, Williams has stuck with Mouratoglou and clearly believes he’s the person who can help her win more major championships. This Wimbledon, we can expect Williams to come out all-guns blazing in the Grand Slam she’s most likely to snatch.
With its long-held genteel traditions, rules and rituals, Wimbledon couldn’t be a starker contrast to what Mouratoglou is trying to create with his Ultimate Tennis Showdown, a disruptive tennis tournament series that he launched during last year’s lockdown. Fans watch online, via a subscription, a fast-paced format with shorter matches, trick shot tennis encouraged and players given freedom to joke around, shout and smash their racquets. The stars are given names like ‘The Viper’ (Britain’s Dan Evans) and ‘The Panther’ (Felix Auger-Aliassime).
As with cricket’s new Hundred and the botched football European Super League, it’s an attempt to make the game more appealing to a young, modern audience. Predictably, it’s caused a stir among traditionalists, but Mouratoglou is unrepentant. ‘People who are so into tradition, I tell them, if you love tennis, you should be 100 per cent behind UTS because I’m trying to bring new fans on board. I’m not trying to change tennis, I’m trying to propose a different kind of tennis and both of them can exist. The young generation don’t watch tennis at all. The average age of a tennis fan is around 61 years old and it’s getting older every year. Even the UTS players said they don’t watch tennis because it’s too long. Over the last 20 years, there has been an incredible revolution with the digital world. In the 1980s, there was nothing else to do except watch TV. Today you can watch TV, you can be on social media, you have the streaming platforms, you have the video games, you have esports. So the competition is incredible.’ If the sport doesn’t attract younger fans, he says, in 20 years’ time it will be in terminal decline.
While tennis has been enjoying extended golden years with Williams’s dominance in the women’s game and the rivalries between Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in the men’s, some of the spice has been missing this millennium. Increased pressure on the players to be perfect for the brands they represent and exhibit flawless sportsmanship has, at times, made the game bland. Mouratoglou misses the ‘fire and ice’ days of John McEnroe and Björn Borg. ‘We tell the people, “Don’t be yourself.” So they’re not themselves. In the 1980s, it was incredibly authentic, but today it’s not. The players don’t express their emotions on the court. They complain they would love to, but they can’t because of the code of conduct.’
On the main tour, players are penalised for swearing, outbursts and talking back to the umpire — all ingredients that make matches more dramatic. That kind of good behaviour is expected beyond the court too. ‘Out of the court, they’re competing to be the nicest, the most polite, but this is all fake. We are humans, we’re not perfect. Imagine watching a movie with people who are all perfect, nice and polite. Where’s the story? You reduce the story of a tennis match into two people hitting a tennis ball, but it’s much more than that.’ Whatever happens this Wimbledon — Williams smashing records, Tsitsipas toppling the old guard or Gauff knocking out more legends — Mouratoglou is certain to be at the heart of the drama.