***Jean-Francois Mathieu is the stuff of urban legends, most of it true. A truly gifted individual both physically and technically. A gifted competitor who has a deep understanding of the tactical aspects of Tennis. Jean-Francois was the under 18’s National champion as well as the under 14’s finalist at age 11, 4th place at Nationals 16’s as a 12 yr old and a 3rd place finish at Nationals 18’s losing to Andrew Sznajder as a 13 year old. Jean-Francois was touted by many to be one of Canada’s best prospects for a successful pro carreer, unfortunately an undisciplined work ethic kept him from fulfilling his potential.
Jean-Francois is now 41 yrs old and he coaches and trains National level kids at the Nun’s Island tennis Club, his home club for the last 32 years. Of interest is his very disciplined physical training regiment coupled with very healthy nutritional discipline.
Jean-Francois is still an active Tennis player. He can hold his own at 41 against all of our top National junior Champions. He’s won a couple of Senior men’s Nationals losing only a couple of games along the way as well as a silver medal 2nd place finish at the senior World Championships in Mallorca, Spain.***
ONcourt: Do you have any regrets about your own Tennis career and if you could go back what would you change?
Jean-Francois: I do. I grew up watching Connors, McEnroe and Borg… Unfortunately I was influenced by the “bad boys” of tennis rather than the great, disciplined example of Borg. I identified with players who acted up, lost their temper, had an abundance of talent and seemed not to have to work very hard to achieve success. McEnroe’s legend was one of unhealthy eating habits. It was also reported he did not practice very hard. The game came very naturally to him and we as kids looked up to his Rock star persona. Unfortunately in my case, I emulated it as well. I coasted in my most important years as a junior, satisfied with my success, interested in many offcourt distractions. I never gave myself a chance. As a 14 year old I was the best player in the world for my age. I had wins over Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Todd Martin, Malivai Washington, Guillermo Perez Roldan, Jonathan Starks, Wade Mcguire and Mark Knowles to name a few. From that moment on, the game as well as all of the above mentioned players passed me by. It was my fault, I was getting up every day and not giving my 100% in practice. If you leave 10%, 20%, and on some days not even bother to show up at all for practice, it adds up. Everyone else is putting in the hours, on and off court. That is the recipe for success. That is my regret and I would do things a different way if I could go back and have a 2nd chance.
ONcourt: How do these regrets translate into your approach to the development of the kids you coach?
JF: I am a very intense Coach. I demand and expect 100% effort from my players. My goal is for everyone of my kids to achieve their maximum potential, whatever that may be. I teach them, I drill with them, I play matches with them. I ask that they out hustle me, the coach. I lead by example and the message is loud and clear. I have become very disciplined in my own training and eating habits. I coach at a very high intensity level. It’s a case of “do as I do” as I have learned from my past mistakes. I will not allow any of my players to repeat the patterns of my youth. I will stop coaching any player, no matter the level or ranking (and I have), if I feel they are not respectful to the game of Tennis, their opportunity and in most cases, the sacrifice their parents are making.
ONcourt: How good of a Coach could you be? Is it an objective of yours? Will you try to maximize your potential?
JF: Difficult question to answer, how good? I can answer that by saying I’m a Coach that has been formed over 30 some odd years having been coached by some of the best. Andre Labelle found me and gave me my fundamentals. Louis Cayer built upon that for another 2 years. I went to Nick Bolletieri’s to work with Harry Hopman; was at Rod Laver’s academy and then Pierre Lamarche gave me his heart and soul for 2 years. I’ve seen all the best Coaches, it has given me my base. I’m a big fan of the sport, I learn a whole lot watching and absorbing grand Slam Tennis 4 times a year, every year. I give it my 100%. trying to make up for what was left on the table in my own career. My next Coaching Challenge will be to try to form a player from scratch. I have some life long friends that have young children and their love for the sport as well as our friendship gives us the chance to try and do something special, a la Tony Nadal. It takes trust to build something like this and it takes commitment. I see it as a full time mentoring and developmental labor of love. One where hours are not counted and certainly not all billed. I will try to Coach and teach these kids as I would my very own.
ONcourt: In your mind what are the main ingredients of becoming a top 20 Player on tour?
JF: Tennis has changed a lot since I first started. We’ve seen some #1 players with weaknesses in the past. For example: Stefan Edberg with a weak forehand, Pete Sampras as great as he was with a very limited backhand, Andre Agassi with limited mobility compared to the present day top 4. Those are a few examples and there are many more. Today’s modern champions have no weaknesses. The top 4 right now are incredibly solid in every aspect of the game. To compete with the best now and break into the top tier you have to be incredibly fast with great anticipation: you have to be incredibly strong mentally. Technique has to be perfect and the physical ability to train, recover and avoid injuries has to be there as well. Tennis has reached a point where so many matches, even the early rounds turn on a few key points. The margin for error and lapses in concentration has become almost nil. Nadal being the best I’ve ever seen. We’ve seen a genius appear (Federer) and then we’ve seen players develop to counter and neutralise that genius with court coverage and raw speed. Nadal and Djoko can now get to every Federer shots and counter attack from unbelievable positions. Nadal also came along to challenge Fed with a mental capacity of such deep focus and concentration, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. The game keeps evolving and continues to do so even as we as coaches are training and developing players. We need to adapt and be flexible in our coaching and training methods, always learning. I see Tennis in terms of Darwin’s survival of the fittest – only the strong evolve and adapt to an ever changing and evolving sport. There are new questions being asked on the Tennis court, new speeds, new Geometry. Do you as a player, have the answers; if not, how quickly can you learn them? That, in a nut shell is my take on the game today.
ONcourt: What are your dreams and goals as a coach, and in your life?
JF: I’m living my dream in a way. I’m involved in a sport I love. I’m involved with some of Canada’s best players helping me learn as a Coach and sharing every bit of knowledge I’ve acquired over many, many years. It keeps me extremely fit to be on a Tennis court all day which in turn keeps my mind very sharp. I believe in this healthy competitve sport and I think a young person will be better off later in life for having the opportunity to participate, compete and develop respect for this great sport no matter what level is reached. On a personal level, I’ve reached many of my goals, I’m getting closer to being the man I want to be, having come from being the boy I wish I was not. I have great friends, I enjoy catching up with old friends as was the case with Pierre (during his visit to Nationals 16’s). I was happy to have a chance to look him in the eye, as a man, and thank him for everything he did for me, and tried to do for me as a teen. My only regret, not being receptive to the great message being delivered.