Interview with
José Higueras

by Peter Figura

Spring 2017

A former professional player, a successful tour coach, a USTA elite development coach and he created the José Higueras Tennis Training Center. He loves tennis.

Q.When you took the job with the USTA in 2008, American tennis had a lot of problems. What made you decide to take the job with the USTA and move from one-on-one coaching and being extremely successful, to signing on to something that really wasn’t looking promising?

A.When it comes to tennis I was always trying to make a decision that would be challenging for me and the one that would be worth getting involved with. So I thought that, as tennis in the US was in such disarray, it would take a very long time to improve the situation. When talking to the USTA I needed reassurance and a commitment that they would give us enough time to try to fix it. When I got that, I thought that I could make a difference. I love tennis, and I could help a lot of kids, but most importantly I could help a lot of coaches. And that’s basically, how it started. It was a difficult couple of years, but I think now we have a system in place and are slowly starting to see the results. You have to realize that this is a 10-15 year project, so we are now in our 9th year.

Q.Did you get that 10-15 year time commitment?

A.My role is slightly changing now. I will be doing what I used to do – spending 20-21 weeks with our coaches, continuing coaching education, but I will also be supervising the development of our kids, our best prospects. But generally speaking yes, the commitment was and still is there.

Q.How was the transition from working with the best of the best in tennis to the “mess” you’ve described of American tennis?

A.Well, it was the toughest job I’ve ever had, and the most challenging too. Coaching someone is quite easy compared to what we went through reinventing American tennis.

José is always looking to improve his coaching skills.

Q.What was the most challenging?

A.Nothing was in place. And I mean – nothing! My understanding of the job was that I will take care of my coaches and the tennis centers, but once I got there I realized that there was zero teaching structure through the entire country. You know we can coach a few kids, but we cannot coach the entire country. So we put together a teaching and coaching philosophy, then took this program across the US. We went to each and every part of the country to have all the coaches on board with us. It was very difficult because of the lack of structure and the private sector wasn’t too interested in getting involved. It took us a lot of conversations and convincing to slowly bringing people to “our side”. It was an eye opener for me how far behind we were.

Q.You’ve once said that is never easy to work for a Federation. Can you expand on this?

A.All my experiences thus far with the USTA were that of an independent coach/contractor. I’ve always worked like that, and being an “employee” was a big change. It took me something like 4-5 months to say yes to the job. The reason was that I knew the USTA and realized all the policies, how much politics would be involved, so I was concerned that this would prevent me from accomplishing my goals. But I was assured that it was not going to be the case.

Q.Transition to teaching more on clay, was that a big part of your strategy?

A.Not really, because our kids were playing on clay already. And you know, every surface teaches you to do something well. Each surface will teach you something different and something to do right. With clay we’ve decided to take our kids to some tournaments to play more on that surface. So for example before the French Open we will go to Spain for a few weeks to play some Futures, and of course to practice there.

Q.How did you manage to put all this together, program, coaches, training etc.? Bringing everyone together?

A.In the beginning it was a fight. I remember going to places where, after my presentation, someone would stand and say: “Jose everything you’ve said is wrong”. So that’s what I meant as a challenge. When you start from what I’ve just described – it’s not easy. And many coaches were very reluctant. But once they started seeing that we actually meant what we were saying and wanted to include people in our programs, and we were not saying that everything we were proposing was perfect, nor that we knew everything, we started seeing some changes. We were working with 3,000 coaches a year, so the job was huge.


Q.Who else was involved?

A.Patrick McEnroe and I started this. And if you can imagine we had to start with teaching coaches how to feed balls! We started from zero, and it was hard to see any results for some time. But after a while we could see the difference. Mainly who wants to be a coach and who just wants to have a job. A lot of things improved over those years so finally the program is working the way we’ve designed it.

Q.Is there a reason why at some point there were many more good girls playing tennis in the US than there were boys?

A.That’s still the case! I think one of the reasons is that we have many more girls in the sport of tennis. The boys have many more options like basketball, football, baseball, soccer. For girls with a view to make pretty good money from sport – tennis is a good one. So because of that we’ve had many more good female athletes involved in our sport. Besides that we’ve had a terrific person responsible woman’s tennis – Ola Malmquist from the USTA.

Q.You were also involved in creating this now famous training centre in Orlando.

A.Yes, it took us quite a long time to get this done, and it’s a terrific facility. My only regret is that we didn’t do it earlier so I could move there. It’s the best facility I’ve seen. But even with the best training centre you still need people that will make this work. People will always be more important than any training facility we may have.

Q.Would you go back to coaching on the tour?

A.Under the right circumstances – yes! As I’ve said so many times – I love tennis and that would be great to work with someone. But it would have to be a right person. Not just a right player.

Q.Can you explain this?

A.I am old school. I like working with someone who not only is a good player but also understands the concept of respect. Respect meaning you treat me the same way you want to be treated. Coaching for me is not about money. Many people probably don’t know that in my coaching career I’ve never had a signed contract with the player. We just work together. And this was because the day they didn’t want to work with me was our last day. And this was working the other way around too. That way we just parted our ways and could still be friends. But it would be very exciting to work with someone who wants to master the game.

Q.What’s your take on the game of tennis right now? Let’s start with the men.

A.Well, it’s obvious that with Rafa and Roger we have two of the all-time best players. Roger to me is the best of all time, but Rafa is following very closely. But not only are they are great players, they are also terrific ambassadors for tennis. I’ve been lucky to know both of them and know them pretty well. One thing that would describe them outside of tennis – they are a class act. It would be a dream come true for any coach to work with someone like that. We need some of the young guys to look up to those two and give something back to tennis.

Q.Speaking of Roger. You were working with him in the past, so were you surprised at what he did in Australia?

A.I am not surprised in anything with Roger for as long as he wants to play. You only stop playing tennis for two reasons. Either you’re burned out mentally, or your body gives up. And if those two things are there, Roger would play until he is 65 (laughing). He loves to play, so if his body responds, he will continue, and he will play well. But to answer your questions: did I expect him winning the Australian Open? I would say no, but am I 100% surprised that he did – not either.

Q.What about the women's side?

A.We’ve had a dominant force in Serena and with Venus being very close. I think as the game goes forward we will see more of a variety in women’s tennis. The athletes are better. Everyone is serving better, even on the girl’s side. But besides that you need players to carry the sport. They have to have a bit of charisma in whatever way. Just look at the guys: McEnroe had a very different charisma than Roger does, but he too was a force in tennis and carried it on, whether people liked it or not. So the more players who understand this the better tennis is going to be.

Q.Who do you like most from the young guys?

A.I like the entire group I’ve mentioned. And in the US we have a good group of guys like Francic Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz, Riley Opelka, Jared Donaldson, Stefan Kozlov. They will be as good as they want to be.

Q.What’s the biggest challenge in converting those top junior prospects into a good professional player?

A.This is the toughest jump. Junior tennis has nothing to do with pro tennis. If you’re good in juniors that does not mean that you know how to play tennis. One thing that concerns me is that there is too much money too early in the game. Just because they have a good potential (but they still have not done anything) does not mean you should get all that money. This might make things complicated for some of them. Simply they may not see that they still have not won anything and the road to be a good player is a long one. But since they already have all that money, they simply may not see that. And that is a challenge.

Q.Who was the most enjoyable to work with and to whose game were you able to contribute the most?

A.Well, my objective was always to make someone a better player. That may not directly mean more wins on the Tour. But I would say that the experience I’ve had with Roger was a very unique one. Not only he is an exceptional player, he is also a very high quality person. That was very refreshing to see and experience from someone of his stature. But I‘ve had great experiences with most of the players I coached like Courier, Chang, Bruguera, Moya, and I’ve always learned from all of them.