Although many of you will know of Yves Boulais because he coached, and later married Patricia Hy (see article on Patricia Hy in OT Fall 2016 issue), you may not know that Yves has also been the coach of US player Alison Riske since she was 14. When Alison came to Mississauga to train for a month with Yves recently, ONTENNIS took the opportunity to interview him about his coaching and his relationship with Alison.
Q.You have been coaching Alison on and off since she was 14. Did you think when you first met her that she had the potential to make it on the WTA tour?
A.Well it’s funny you ask that because she was very, very energetic. Actually, she was of one of the few players I’ve ever coached who, from first minute you’d be on the court to the last minute, had a lot of energy and she was always very motivated to learn. So although I rarely think that way, Alison looked like a good candidate when she was 14.
Q.Alison’s career to date has been somewhat streaky – she has had stretches of great results followed by stretches of plateauing. Have you figured out what aspects of her game help her (or hinder her)?
A.We haven’t worked all the time together. When we work together we work a lot on rhythm and adaptation and things like this. The times when we didn’t, things kind of went away and the level of consistency of what she doing was affected quite a bit. Then she would try to force things in her game, and she didn’t too well and her game kind of disappeared. The thing that saved her was her fighting spirit. She’s a big fighter. So that’s what kept her in. But when she loses her rhythm things get more difficult.
Q.How do you help her with rhythm?
A.I use a lot of adaptation - understanding the principle of ball that you receive and what you’re trying to do. I’m very systematic in the way I coach, I break it down part by part. We begin with how we start point and then, after that, the shot that follows. I develop my players with these kind of principles.
Q.What aspects of Alison’s game are you most able to help her with – (strategic, emotional, fitness, technical)?
A.A little bit of everything. For fitness she has the USTA basically taking care of that pretty much all the time and she’s been doing very well with them. The parts I help with are technically, tactically quite a lot and mentally also. We have frequent conversations about the mental aspect of the game, trying to make her visualise and trying to get her to believe in what she’s capable of.
Q.What about scheduling, choice of tournaments etc.?
A.Alison has been pretty much doing her own scheduling. As you know I’m not I’m not full time all the time, but I’m participating. She will pass something onto me and ask me what I think and I will give her my 2 cents worth.
Q.You are not able to work with Alison full time – and only occasionally have you traveled with her – do you communicate with her on a regular basis?
A.All the time!. When she’s in tournaments I do a match plan. If she plays someone I know, I communicate with the coach so I to have some hint. I know quite a lot of people on the tour, so I’m almost always able to have some information. Our routine is for me to text her the match plan the night before. and she reads it in the morning, before the match, and that’s the way we’ve been working.
Q.Alison has had support from her siblings and her parents – do you communicate with other members of her family?
A.Not frequently. When I started with her, her parents disappeared from the scene almost right away. I asked Ali how come, because normally parents are so involved. I had one conversation with her dad and many with her sister, Sarah, who I had coached. She was a college player and also played the tour a little bit; so I was coaching Sarah before and I still have a conversation with Sarah quite frequently.
Q.Alison is currently ranked 39 – does she have a target in terms of where she would like to end up in the rankings or does she focus more on getting a few key results and the ranking?
A.She’s 39 now, her best ranking ever. I think personally she does have a target. For me I believe if things turn out the proper way she’s in a very good position to finish the year in the top 20. She’s been playing really well, provided she stays healthy and there’s not too much bad luck along the road. If you look at her current ranking, she’s 39 but she didn’t win one round in a Grand Slam last year. She has beaten top ten players. So she’s definitely a potential Quarterfinal or Semi-finalist in a Grand Slam. If she gets one of these during the year, things are going to be pretty good for her.
Q.What do you see as Alison’s greatest strengths?
A.I think it’s her mental aspect. She’s ready to play every day and that what makes her fun to train too. She rarely has a bad day, one day out of 30 maybe, it’s really special. She’s always in a good mood, always has a lot of energy and when she competes, she prepares well and she usually gets the most out of the situation all the time.
Q.Why do you think she wants to come to cold and snowy Mississauga to work on her game in the off season?
A.I don’t know actually. I think we have a very good relationship. Over the years she became really close to me and my family I think she feels comfortable with the coaching I give her, and vice versa, I feel very comfortable coaching her and helping her.
Q.Does she stay with you and your family?
A.Not really. She rents an apartment and she usually stays in her apartment.
Q.Do you think there is any difference between coaching a woman player and a man player?
A.There is some difference in the approach. Obviously, Tennis is tennis. But with female players you’re going to have to deal much more with the emotional aspect of tennis, like winning and losing, you’re going to deal much more with that aspect. For men it’s a little different game. You’re talking about tactics much more, tactics are predominant in that aspect, you do also address some mental aspects; it depends on the guys. Some guys I coach, I’m not going to mention any names, are not very different from the women that I coach honestly.
Q.With Patricia you worked with her when she was thinking of quitting. She had great results early in life and then wasn’t able to maintain them. You were able to help her come back to great heights. What did you learn from working with Patricia that you have applied to working with Alison?
A.Patricia she was about 25 when we met and she had had great early results. I learnt a lot actually. When I started with Patricia I was very new at this job. At the time I was following a lot of Tony Robbins seminars and I thought his life coaching was very applicable to the mental aspect of tennis. I kind of used that as a stepping stone to help Patricia. It really worked well and she responded really well to it. That gave me the confidence to help other players. Patricia was late in her career so being able to make her believe that she could do it was important. So it definitely helped me as a coach and to be able to help Alison in that aspect also.
Q.How have you evolved as a coach over the time you have been working with Alison.
A.I’ve evolved a lot. At this point I was starting to believe in myself quite a lot as a coach. Being a coach is a little bit like a being a player; once you’ve done something, you start believing it. You have more confidence, you can articulate it, so I became a little bit more courageous. If players start to get on a tangent emotionally, eventually you get to know its not the right place, you’ve got to get them out of it and be a little more prompt in changing their direction. That helped me a lot to coach.
Q.Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A.You coach all kinds of players. I worked with Genie Bouchard for a long time. The players who are fun to work with and who have fun doing what they are doing, tend to have a longer career It’s easier when you start to see it from the part just break it down into pieces and it’s not such a big emotional any more. Once you kind of get there it becomes a lot of fun. When I was in China with her (Alison) at the end of the year every day was a fun day. She understood exactly what I was telling her we were working on a lot of things. It was motivating for the coach and motivating for the players when you go somewhere. That’s the part I really appreciate from her.
Q.Do you think its really important to have an Emotional connection.
A.It helps a lot. These days a lot of players take a coach as only a business aspect - it has its benefits. On the other hand, when things get really tough there’s no connection, then there’s a break up all the time. I think it helped Alison that we had that connection. She went through some really tough times but we never lost faith and we kept working. Things turned around.
I feel it’s important to feel connected. I’ve coached players with whom I am not that connected and I helped them too. But you’re limited in the amount you can coach if you don’t have that connection.