Unconventional guide

“It is a great feeling to share my experiences when many of the top 100 players (mostly women) come to me,” says Christian Filhol, who has guided top players such as Mary Pierce, Elena Dementieva, Justine Henin, Marion Bartoli and Cara Black. By V.V. Subrahmanyam.

He is a players’ delight, not only for his vast knowledge of the sport but also his simple living. He avoids star accommodation and instead prefers to sleep in his car when he is on the move. That is Christian Filhol, for you. The 51-year-old Frenchman prefers to be known as ‘advisor’ rather than a ‘coach’, having guided top players such as Mary Pierce, Elena Dementieva, Justine-Henin, Marion Bartoli, Cara Black, to name a few, in their careers.

Therefore, when this genteel ‘advisor’ was at the Sania Mirza Tennis Academy (SMTA) for a 10-day stint, the trainees at the world-class facility (it has nine synthetic courts, while two clay courts would come up soon) were doubly delighted.

Filhol took the trainees by surprise when he said grunting was an essential ingredient of the players’ training programme. “It not only shows your intensity, but also helps you raise the level of your game. Yes, there are quite a few like Sania, who don’t do this but show their intensity in different ways. Yes, I don’t like it (grunting) to be with the specific intent of intimidating the opponent as some big players do,” he pointed out.

According to Filhol, he has never missed a Grand Slam event in the last 21 years ever since his passion for the game grew beyond the shores of France. “His passion for the sport is something unbelievable. Give him a chance, he will be at the tennis court for 18 hours a day,” Imran Mirza, father of Sania, chipped in.

“It is a great feeling to share my experiences when many of the top 100 players (mostly women) come to me,” said Filhol, who is on his second visit to India. He had come to Bangalore last year.

“The SMTA is splendid, quiet and ideal for the players. I sincerely believe that many champions will come out of this, for they have the inspirational figure of Sania frequently sharing her knowledge and experience with the trainees,” said Filhol.

A big admirer of the Indian, the Frenchman termed Sania’s fierce forehand as the ‘forehand for the future’. “She has the best forehand in women’s tennis and even the guys in the mixed doubles don’t enjoy this natural stroke of hers. It has power, precision and it is disguised,” Filhol said.

Interestingly, Filhol is the president of a body (its name is yet to be decided) that promotes tennis as a team sport, which features four players with some minor deviations in the rules to make it more spectator-friendly. “I am always upset that tennis is not treated as a team sport. It is important to think about the future (of the game) as a team sport,” he said, looking to Imran, who is the vice-president of the body.

“I am really pleased that some of the big names in women’s tennis came to me when they were in their teens and went on to become stars,” said the modest Frenchman, who is some sort of a walking encyclopaedia of tennis. He has jotted down plenty of notes while keeping track of the performances of the players across the world.

“This is the reason why many keep calling me for training stints. I share my inputs with them, suggest minor corrections after watching the thousands of hours of video footage I have,” Filhol said. However, he does not want to name any single player as the best, for he believes that winning a Grand Slam is good, but not very huge. There are many who have faded after just one Grand Slam win, he contends.

“Everybody is different. I just look for consistency. Every time I watch matches, if it is not possible to video, I take down notes. This is why I like to work with many players who are really good to me like Cara Black, who is like my sister,” he said.

“I feel bored after a few days of being at home. I love travelling, have friends across the world and I miss them if I don’t meet them,” Filhol said with a smile.

What advice does he generally give to young talent?

“It is very important not to look at fame and money as the goals while playing tennis. You have to enjoy every aspect of the game, stay focussed, work really hard. And if you feel you are down and out in a match, play the lob perfectly to unsettle the opponent’s rhythm and get back into the game. Nothing is impossible,” said Filhol.

Much to the delight of the Mirzas, Filhol said he would try to visit the SMTA frequently and work with the trainees. “I work a lot now with the Chinese players, as they are quite happy with the success of Li Na who was with me for some time. So, whenever I find time, I will try to be in Hyderabad,” the Frenchman signed off.