Shahar Peer’s coach, Pablo Giacopelli, blogged last week from the Barclays Dubai Tennis Championships, keeping us updated on both Shahar’s on-court progress and the surreal security procedures she was subject to as the first Israeli professional sportswoman to compete in the U.A.E. His player’s Dubai debut was a success, with Peer playing her way through a tough draw before falling to defending champ Venus Williams in the semifinals. I wanted to find out from Giacopelli how Peer found a way to flourish under such intense conditions.
Giacopelli is part of the Arizona-based iTUSA Tennis Academy and has spent the last six years traveling the globe with the WTA tour. Before working with Shahar, he coached Kaia Kanepi and Colombian player Catalina Castano, among others. He’s currently in Israel, where he and Peer are preparing for Indian Wells. We spoke on Tuesday via telephone.
Q. You began working with Shahar in November of 2008, what was it like at the beginning?
Giacopelli: I got a former top player who was dropping in the rankings, who was obviously desperate to regain her position of what she has been. (Peer reached a career high ranking of #15 in 2007. She’s currently ranked 20th.) She came to me with a ranking of 45 but the only reason she finished 45 for that year was because the year finished. If the year would have kept going, I imagine that Shahar would have finished between 70 and 90 in the world. She was dropping very fast.
Q: Was an injury causing the drop?
Giacopelli: No. The results weren’t there and she wasn’t playing very good tennis. After (2008) Wimbledon I don’t think she won a match. Obviously it was a combination of confidence and lack of confidence and just not being able to find her way. Which happens to a lot of them. You don’t have to look far – look at Chakvetadze, Vaidisova, Cornet. Look at Kaia Kanepi who I used to work with – today she’s 96 in the world and when I left her she was 20. These girls can climb very quickly, but they can drop very quickly if the right environment is not being created around them.
Q. How did you two progress?
Giacopelli: I knew we’d need at least 3 solid months of tennis, which we didn’t really get until the (2009) U.S. Open. First we were denied entry into Dubai in February (of 2009), which meant we couldn’t play Dubai or any tournament for 3 weeks. That really hit her hard, you know. She was starting to play well. We were in the semifinals of Pattaya and obviously very excited that she was going to play in Dubai. While she was playing the semifinal, I was informed in a text message that her visa had been turned down. So when she came off the court she said “I lost (this match) but at least I’m going to Dubai.” And I had to deliver the news to her, “Well actually, you’re not.” You can imagine the impact that had on her mentally and emotionally.
Peer’s 2009 was interrupted by another major setback. A stress fracture in her foot, discovered during May’s Estoril Open, sidelined her for 10 weeks and caused her to miss Rome, Madrid and Roland Garros. It wasn’t until the US Open, Pablo says, that things finally started “coming together” for Peer. She lost there in the 3rd round to Kuznetsova and then won back-to-back titles in Guangzhou and Tashkent. This year, she’s made it to the semis of Auckland (lost to Yanina Wickmayer) and the finals of Hobart (lost to A. Bondarenko) before losing to Caroline Wozniacki in the third round of the Australian Open. And then came last week’s Dubai debut, with 25 body guards and movement restricted to hotel and tournament site. Pablo says Shahar made the most of the high pressure situation.
Q. What was Shahar’s mindset going into the Dubai tournament this year?
Giacopelli: As far as Dubai was concerned, I know she was desperate to win that first match. I think that’s understandable because she didn’t want to go there and get thrown out of the tournament straight away because of the situation that was upon us last year. . .I think she wanted to go there and show, “Look, I am good enough to be here. I deserve to be here and let me show you.” And I think that was something that was in all of our minds but at the same time that wasn’t our inspiration. But she wanted desperately to win that first match and she didn’t get a very easy first round. (Peer beat world #15, Yanina Wickmayer, in 3 sets.)
Q. And how did you both handle the distractions caused by all the political controversy?
We went there (to Dubai) prepared, and we wanted the situation to make us better, not bitter. That was our aim, that was our focus, to become better out of this. Even if she didn’t win, to face it and overcome it in a way which would not only provide people with a view of her as a great champion and graceful person but also show that she was able to assimilate whatever needed to be assimilated in order for her to continue to progress as a player and as a person. We went there with that very much in mind and that’s what we focused on and that’s what happened. It’s made her and me much better. Her as a player, me as a coach, as a team, together, there’s been a lot of improvement there and we learned a lot about each other, about the situation and about what we are capable of achieving together.
Q. Shahar has a reputation as a fighter and a competitor on court, does this attitude apply off-court, as well?
Giacopelli: Israelis are born into a reality which is completely different from the reality that you and I have been born into (Giacopelli is from Argentina.) They are born into a conflict. That reality shapes them in a particular way . . . So to put it in perspective she is a fighter and a tough competitor. But I think now the noise she makes on court is being backed up a lot more by substance. Where as before there was a lot of noise but not a lot of substance behind her. It’s easy to make noise. It’s harder to back it up. It’s like a dog that barks doesn’t usually bite. She’s becoming more of a dog that still barks but is biting a lot more. But I’m not saying she’s a dog. (laughs)
Q. What have you been working on with her game?
Giacopelli: We’ve changed the way she plays tennis. She’s become a much more aggressive player on court. We’ve designed a game around her strengths to help her dictate rather than be dictated to and be a full-time counter-puncher like she was before. Her serve has improved a lot. I changed her serve completely which has been an evolution that’s come little by little. She comes to net a lot more than she used to to finish her points. Her forehand is a lot better stroke than it used to be. She’s able to do much more with it. She can use it to finish points and set up points. Her physical stamina is a lot better as well. We’ve worked very hard with that in the pre-season. She has two new trainers in Israel who are very, very good.
Q. Was your experience in Dubai a confidence booster for you as coach?
Giacopelli: It’s almost like a confidence booster but if you said to me “Pablo, look, you’re going to have to go through this situation to get your confidence boosted,” I’d probably say, “can we not find an easier way?”
Q. Is Dubai a stepping stone to greater success?
Giacopelli: It’s a great stepping stone. It’s not the corner stone of where we want to get to. It’s a great stepping stone to reaffirm what we’ve already worked on and can achieve. To show her what she’s capable of and how good she actually is. We need to use the momentum. You create momentum through these situations. You don’t see it, but you know it’s there. You feel it. It’s like a skateboard when you’re going downhill – you just have to make sure you stay on the skateboard and negotiate the turns that are coming along.
Q. So does Peer have what it takes to beat people like Serena, Venus, Kim and Justine this season?
Giacopelli: I still think she has a way to go before she can consistently beat people like that. But I think Dubai has shown her and the world of tennis that – look, she beat the No. 3 player in the world (Wozniacki in the Rd. of 16 – some revenge for the Australian Open loss) – there’s no reason why she can’t beat the No. 2 or even No. 1. players on a good day.
Q. And do you ever as a coach talk about winning a Major?
Giacopelli: Ayyyyy! You work towards it but don’t talk about it. From time to time you might touch on the subject. Winning a slam is a very special situation that very few players ever experience and trying to make it a goal – I wouldn’t make it a goal. I’d make it a goal that comes out of reaching other goals. Like an off-product. There’s a lot of things that need to come together for you to win a slam, not just your tennis. We’ve clearly set performance goals in terms of her tennis and those results are coming. If she could’ve beat Venus, she could’ve won Dubai. But before a slam you have to win one of those. We’re moving in the right direction. I don’t want to put pressure on her by talking about it. You don’t try to win a slam, anyway, you just go out there and win it.
Click here to read Pablo Giacopelli’s blog