Coach Pablo Lozano has been interviewed by PuntodeBreak at the Tenisval Academy in Valencia. What you are about to read is an amazing and passionate story about a journey lasted 12 years side to side with our Sara Errani.
"So, can you tell us what happened, Pablo?
Well, a lot happened in 12 years. It is kind of weird for me to separate from Sara after such a long time now, and also seeing her picking up a new team, but that is how it's got to be. No one ever lasted this much in the whole Tour. Eventually, all things fall down on their own course, especially when the results are not favourable. The competition is so strong in this sport it makes you step up over and over again no matter what is in between, even an amazing friendship outside the court. Whenever a player gets unexpected results, he/she has no other chance to find a solution basing on his/her personal needs. It is here that she has built her success over the last 12 years: far from home, willing to do so many sacrifices in order to reach her goals. It is just a cycle with its natural end. Nothing extraordinary about it.
It is quite unfair that results are the only matter when you got a 12-year history behind you..
Results always come after a reason. It is not really about finishing a season at 12th or 20th position in the rankings. It was quite clear at one point, we all saw a lack of competitiveness in Sara, and that's quite the worst thing that could ever happen to such a consistent player like her. That's what really mattered, she was losing her essence and that was my fault. That's the reason why Sara's results have worsened. The situation wasn't right anymore, so we did everything we could trying to fix it, but we failed and eventually ended up taking this decision.
So you guys both agreed on taking this decision together?
I might say it all started back at the US Open. We didn't meet our expectations, nevertheless she was still 40th in world Singles ranking. That's the way I looked at it but evidently she felt differently, and you always should be able to tell it, especially if you're looking at a player like Sara. When you coach someone like her, to win is stunning, to lose...not so much. Luckily enough, there always have been more victories than losses, except for this last year. I don't mean to say I wasn't at ease with a loss, just that when it happens, the day passes through way slower for the athlete. It is very hard condition to bear but nothing has been like this year. Our decision was probably the toughest but also the best to take. The right one to make for her career. I could have never parted from her because of her results. When she told me about it I just didn't think about me and backed her 100%. Sara is like family to me.
Have you ever imagined your professional relationship to end up this way after 12 years?
To be honest with you, anytime she'd lost three matches in a row I thought it could be over. The wonderful relationship and our extraordinary connection does not count. That is just how it has to go. If I am responsible for your results and they are not what you expected, you need to make a decision. If you put me in charge and I am not able to deliver, then what are you paying me for? A coach is supposed to accept responsibility for that.
Toni Nadal usually says that he has never been responsible for any of Rafa's successes, nor for his losses now. Doesn't it sound quite weird to you?
I cannot speak for such an extraordinary coach as Toni is. Everyone is entitled of his own opinion and strategy. There's no secret about the fact that the player is the one who steps on court to play, however, he also needs to be directed the best way from outside in order to do so. It is also obvious that there are lots of veteran players nowadays. Many of them have got thousand of matches under their belts, and a coach is not as affecting as he was during their prime years. You can judge me as a valuable coach if you like, but that was just because of the value I had in my hands to mold. I did my best to coach Sara and she did her best to trust me. It came out as a good combination.
What was it like in the beginning?
I used to work as a coach at the Tenisval Academy when called me to work with her in another venue. She was 17 at that time and Top600 in world rankings. She came from Barcelona with a significant injury, so at first we decided to give it a try for a year. I was looking for someone to focus on and just like after 3 months the bigger picture started to emerge in front of me. I could see the major trust she put in me after such a short period of time, that's what convinced me to go further and made me want to do a bigger step. We moved at Tenisval the year after, where we add David Andres as personal trainer to the team, and started to work in group along with Ferrer, Anabel, Andreev, Kirilenko, etc. We continued to improve from that point on.
After all this time I bet you have stories for days. Tell me some of them.
Roma, 2005. We were playing with PlayStation at the tennis club during the break from the daily practices. She took Hewitt, like always, and I took Nalbandian. We used to battle for hours everytime. Now let me tell you what is like to be Sara Errani and playing games: it took us forever to end up in a tiebreak. I look at her and I saw her being all the way hyped up. So we decided to measure her pulse rate... It was 192. And she was just sitting on a chair playing games for fun! Why would you do that?! Anyway, that's when I saw she had a mine full of jewels inside. I cameto the conclusion that I constantly had to challenge her in order to keep her fire alive. She hadn't got the best "car" on the market but we managed to win many races anyway. Of course we tried to upgrade as many parts as we could, however, we knew we would never reach Sharapova's magnitude or Serena's power range. She had mobility, intelligence and unlimited resilience.
With her serve and her forehand, any other coach would have doubted the journey...
...Or would have made her serve at 190km/h. There is no doubt that the serve is one of the most important parts of the game, and that's why we have worked so much on it, but that's not the only one, especially for Sara's tennis. I get paid to make her win, not to make her tennis look good on court. She serves at 140km/h, 120km/h, even 100km/h. But that is not the point. I saw many virtues behind her flaws and I knew what it took to make the most out of them. I have always been fine with her serve and took pride in it. I just couldn't ask for the world and I knew that. Sara is a great scholar: she responds to inputs in a snap and is always able to apply the infos I give her to the current situation.
It has been a tale of faith, the one you had in Sara Errani from the very first moment you met her..
In the beginning I did not have that kind of faith that made me be sure for no reason about her reaching so many achievements. Wins make you confident. The more you can do whatever you want with the ball and feel good physically, the more you get confident. You don't win games just because someone says you're good enough to do so. I know it's very unusual, but she's always liked to be dragged down by people. I remember once telling her "Well, it wouldn't be such a deal when you will be back out of Top100" right after a loss when she was in Top10. Imagine how she felt when she became Top10 in Paris without having defeated not one Top10 player yet. She's always been one of a kind. For example, whenever she won, she wanted to keep playing. I remember that time in Palermo back in 2008. Her first singles title: almost anybody else would have rested the next week. Better yet, going back home to celebrate. We decided to go to Portoroz instead. We didn't want to be satisfied with just that little, even though she was at her 40% at the end of week. I told her: "Can you picture yourself playing there in this condition and make the others shake again?". She went there anyway and won the tournament, blasting anyone else in the draw.
The more I hear you talking, the more David Ferrer comes to my mind. They've got the same work ethic and the same personality.
He has always been a mirror to us. How couldn't she come to train at 08:45, when Ferru was already doing his running? For them to sacrifice their everyday life is always been part of the job. Davis has always been an example to look up to day after day.
Back to 2016. Isn't it curious that her worst ranking season came along with her best singles title?
That's curious because she didn't want to go there. First she played well in Sydney (lost to Kuznetsova in QFs), then she went out of Melbourne in R1 after she already had the win in her hands. It got worst in Federation Cup, where she lost 2 matches. When she came back here in Valencia, she was shattered. But then again, she needs more matches to feel good again, she's like a bulldozer that gets stronger fighting in the battlefield. So we decided to go to Dubai anyway at last minute. She cried everyday but she won the title at last. It was such a bad week for her. She squeezed the very last drop of energy she had left to be fine enough to play. She suffered terribly.
Is there any specific moment throughout all these years that made you take the most pride in her?
There isn't one in particular, it has been the team work here at the Academy that made me proud the most each and every day. I'll keep forever in my mind Sara's words at Roland Garros 2012, right after losing to Sharapova. We hustled the whole 2 weeks between Singles and Doubles, so I tried not to talk too much for her to be less stressed. But at the end of the finals, she came to me and said "Pablo, now is when I would need you more then ever." She reached QFs in Australia and then won in Acapulco, Barcelona and Budapest, plus she was n.1 in Doubles. Instead of taking credit for the success, she asked me for help. For me that was the most gratifying moment of all, as she was on top of the game but I truly felt she still needed me by her side. That's why I'm not picking any wins or titles over this. Nothing beat that moment. I don't take pride in her results but in her being just like she is both as person and as a player. It's easy to be proud of a victory. To ask me for help to improve again and again, that's what I value the most.
I guess you both should value as much all the achievements you've reached, coming from a player with physical limits like Sara.
What defines talent? I have always claimed that Sara is a normal person, just like the 90% of the people, however, that doesn't mean she can't also have something special that can be trained to perfection, if you know how to do so. I have never looked at her and thought: “She was a nobody, and look at where we are now". She's got extraordinary abilities but unfortunately they are not so appealing to other people. If everybody played like Sharapova, the tallest or the strongest player would always win, so I had to find the way to match all of that with a 5'3 ft player. I refuse to believe that any player like her would quit without even trying just because of what she looks like. You need to work with what you got and find the way to take advantage out of it. It really moves me, not because it's her but watching such a player doing that, finding new means in order to be successful. What truly pisses me off is her losing to powerful blockhead players: they don't really know the game, or why they play that way, but still people value them the most either because they're 6 ft tall or serve killers. It is going to sell more since is way more marketable, but that's it. It is not going to be easy but you can do it, just like Sara did. If I could pick my team, I would always chose 11 Erranis.
How much this separation affects your life at this point?
Well, I would definitively start to look only after my needs from this point on. For the past 12 years my job was to put her first. But I am going to miss her so much... Especially in our daily routine. I love playing tennis with her, that's why I did it as much as I could over all this time. It's been a pleasure to watch her competing, going beyond her limits... I won't miss victories and titles. I will take my time to decide what's best for me next, I got plenty of time now.
Do you have anything in mind already?
I've got lots of things in mind but of course it will have to be something related to pro tennis. I don't feel like going back on Tour and travel 20 weeks a year again. Neither I and my family won't allow this again that soon. But quite frankly, I don't know what's up with her ath this point. I might go back coaching her for 20 years more if she's willing to last like Navratilova did. The only thing for sure is that I'll enjoy all the time I got now to spend it with my wife and kids.
When the time is right, what would you like to do?
It would probably be something similar to what I've done with Sara, but possibly in a bigger team. It has always been just me and David Andres - the best trainer in the world - the whole time. I could really help having someone else to back us up from time to time during the season. In 10 years, I've never missed more than 10 tournaments, and we all know she one of the most active players on Tour. I'd stick with David and call other people in to form a quality team and travel. Just not now.
Following the success with Sara, I can see why you want to start all over from scratch.
To me it might be less stressing but also riskier. Like I said, I could have been dismissed by Sara several times when things weren't so good. Each one has got a different goal, maybe your player will decide that reaching Top10 is enough and drop you right afterwards. It is happened already, it's no big deal. It is gratifying to take someone to that point but you are going to enjoy it only when you got there. There's no guarantee in between, the player needs to trust the process. I have always told Sara to pay me only if she needed me, and that's just like she did.
So what's up with Sara now? Where is she headed?
I think she will be back in Italy, where she can stay closer to her loved ones. Valencia has been a nice place to be, but it was just a place of work for her. I am quite sure she will go home to rejoin her family.
Whatever team she will pick up next, what do you feel she would need to look for right now, basing on what has been missing this year?
What happened this year was just a life lesson. There is no doubt that her new team will do its best. I think the essential is to find the right way to work together and having a constant exchange of ideas. She was the one who taught me how to help her, not the contrary. At the end of the day, what matters the most for the coach is to make it happen the way she wants it to happen.
Keys, Pliskova, Muguruza… What WTA is going to be like? Can you still see Sara on higher levels, like the Top20?
That's not what she expects from herself. She didn't do it either while she was playing great or bad. She will eventually going back where she belongs. She will push hard to make it, and if she will manage to do it also with enthusiasm and joy there's no doubt she will succeed and be back again in Top30"."