Written by: Craig Mercer
***Craig Mercer is currently the Director of Operations at ACE Tennis and the Head Coach of ACE Tennis at the newly acquired Howard Park Tennis Club location. Ranked as high as #3 in Canadian junior tennis, Craig competed in more than 20 Junior Nationals for Team Atlantic and Team Quebec. Craig has a Masters of Sports Management, is a Tennis Canada Coach 2 and is currently pursuing his Coach 3. A Team Ontario provincial coach, Craig has a deep interest in the growth and development of our sport in this country. ***
Last month I traveled to Barcelona for two main reasons. The first was to check up on a 12-year-old player that I coach, Alberto Vergara. Alberto is in Barcelona for two months to gain independence, learn to play on clay and to build his mental and physical strength and endurance. I wanted to ensure that the objectives that I shared with the coaches at the Bruguera Tennis Academy Top Team before Alberto left were being focused on. As well, I wanted to learn their coaching philosophies and methods and to see how I could translate the work that they are doing back to our training in Canada.
The second reason for going to Barcelona was to get a better picture as to why Spain is developing so many great players and to see what their strengths and weaknesses are in my journey to help Canada become a world tennis power. In this article I will share my general findings on “Why Spain is so Good: the Seven Spanish Secrets to World Tennis Dominance”. In a future article I will talk about how we can apply some of their strengths to enhance the Canadian system.
When asking the question “why is Spain so good”, I received a lot of consistent responses. My perspective is coming from spending time at Bruguera Academy, Academia Sanchez-Casal, the u18 Catalan Provincials at the Catalan Tennis Federation, Tennis Club Laieta and Club David Lloyd. I spent time on and off court with coaches, players and parents. I also spent a lot of time with my friend Anna, who is born, raised and lives in Barcelona and was a top 800 WTA player before retiring and pursuing her education and coaching.
Okay, so here it is: “the Seven Spanish Secrets to World Tennis Dominance”.
- Program Structure
First of all, I was in Barcelona, historically the mecca of tennis in Spain. One thing that I learned very quickly when I arrived is that many people in Barcelona and Catalonia do not like to be called “Spanish” or do not like to be thought of being from Spain. They are Catalan. These proud people are serious about their identity and culture and they are serious about their sport. On my very first day I went to an FC Barcelona game and experienced sport culture at its finest. On the 17th minute of each half the crowd chants in Catalan “we want to separate, we want to separate”. This is to represent when Catalonia lost their independence to Spain in 1714. The pride that these people have in their culture is exemplified in the way they support their sports teams and athletes. A win for FC Barcelona or for any athlete of theirs, is like a win for the people of the region.
I was told that sport is more important for most people in Catalonia than work and school. To strive to be the next Messi, or Nadal, is much more highly regarded socially than becoming a high flying entrepreneur or big time lawyer. Although football is by far the most popular sport in the country, tennis is widely played and followed by the public. When I wasn’t on the tennis courts I was getting to know the city and it seemed that every public place I saw for sport was being used. Sport seemed to be a major part of the Catalan culture.
Overall I could sense the passion of the coaches I met while in Barcelona. It was clear that they are serious about developing players and that they love the sport. They are also mostly former players. The fact that they are former high level junior to professional level players means that they have an idea of what it feels like to be in battle in our sport. It is a unique sport and these coaches bring a very “raw” approach to their coaching. None of them are “certified” and they do not have formal coaching education per se. What they do is prioritize and help players master what they feel is important. Maybe their players might lack in certain areas, but the philosophy seems to be that if the player is “exceptional” in specific areas, then they will be more likely to excel than being “good” in every aspect of the game. A perfect example of the passion and commitment to developing players was when I was at the u18 Catalan Provincials. While watching the u14 European boys champion play I looked at my friend Anna and said, “notice how for every single player they have at least one coach watching their match?” Anna turned to me, and with a bewildered look said, “of course.” To her, not having a coach present at an important tournament was equivalent to what it would be to a hockey team going to play a game without a coach, it doesn’t happen.
In the mornings players would usually work with one other player and their coach. As many would call it “semi-private”. Each coach is responsible for no more than 4 players. The afternoons the players would play matches. There is a large emphasis on fitness with the fitness/tennis ratio closer to 50/50. They do two separate fitness sessions per day. This ratio certainly changes depending on what phase of the year they are in, but the philosophy is clear that the physical component is of paramount importance.
Training on clay courts is great for developing young players. One reason is that clay is softer on the body, thus less stress is put on the body allowing players to be less interfered with injuries during their developmental years. Because clay courts play slower players learn to have mental and physical endurance and patience. If a player can learn to have these characteristics as they develop they are more likely to be able to train harder, be more disciplined with their shot selection and be able to handle difficult situations in match play.
The weather is beautiful in Barcelona. It is mostly sunny and even in February the sun is shining on your face. Playing outdoors all year round means that players constantly have to fight, or the way I like to put it “embrace” the elements. Wind, rain, cold, heat, sun, or whatever Mother Nature throws at the player he/she is constantly required to adjust, to adapt, to push through and learn to use the elements to their advantage. Concentration, patience, the ability to adapt and persevere is all tested while dealing with the elements. These are important qualities to be a professional tennis player.
Barcelona, Spain and Europe is relatively small, easy and cost efficient to travel. This allows far more opportunities for training and tournament exposure. Barcelona alone hosts many tournaments each year at all levels and age groups. It is argued that the vast amount of competitive opportunities in the area helps bread professional level players.
- Players do not have to incur the expense of traveling afar to earn those first few ATP/WTA points. This means that instead of their money going towards travel expenses, they can use this money for training and other areas to help their game.
- The heavy exposure to these events inspires players to compete and to believe. Younger players see the older players and their peers who train at their academy competing in these events and they strive toward competing at that level.
- The coaches are able to coach at tournaments easily as they do not have to travel very far.
- The fact that young players are exposed to so many tournaments each year they are constantly learning how to cope with wins and losses, they learn that tournament play is just part of the developmental process. Their fear of competing is lessened.
One good player inspires another and another and so the pool grows. It began with Sergi Bruguera in the early-mid 90’s, then if you track the history of Spanish tennis you will see how Spanish players inspired each other and helped one another. To be inspired is arguably the most important thing for a player. This can come from a coach, but there is something special and natural about when players inspire players to push their limits, are there for each other and inspire one another to believe.
In this article I shared my observations as to why “Spain is so good”. So, as you can see, there is no big “secret” per se. Although there are many things we can learn from our friends in Spain, they do have weaknesses and threats that could hurt the sport in their country. In my next article entitled “The Decline of the Tennis Superpower?” I will highlight some of these concerns. I will then follow with an article on where I think Canadian tennis is going.
My week in Barcelona was an exceptional professional and personal development opportunity. Mucho Gracias to the Vergara family for their support and thank you to Doug Burke and Pierre Lamarche (my bosses) from ACE Tennis for encouraging me to go.