One of those Serenas, the Frenchman told us just before the 2014 Wimbledon Championships, “is a champion with a killer instinct once she steps on the court.” That’s the fight-mode Serena we all recognize from the small screen, the woman who is regarded as the greatest female player of her generation. But there’s another Serena, Mouratoglou says, and she is “funny [and] nice and cares for people.” You probably wouldn’t recognize this Serena; it was only after Mouratoglou and Williams began their on-court collaboration that he became aware of her.
The roots of the coach and player’s partnership took hold in 2012, shortly after Williams endured a crushing loss to Virginie Razzano, then ranked 111th in the world, in the first round of the French Open. As The New York Times reported at the time, Williams and Mouratoglou knew each other well enough to say hello when their paths crossed at tournaments, but their relationship didn’t go much deeper. That all changed when Williams contacted Mouratoglou after the French Open: She was staying at her apartment in Paris and needed a place to train before Wimbledon. Mouratoglou invited her to hit at his tennis academy outside the city.
As they continued to get to know each other, it didn’t surprise Mouratoglou to find that Williams was professional and hardworking. “What I did not expect,” he says now, “was the other side of her, that she can be so funny and so capable of self-derision.”
It was through getting to know this second, softer Serena, and by understanding her fears, dreams and goals, that Mouratoglou was able to change her play. As he puts it, he “had to enter into Serena’s world” and learn her “language.” (Mouratoglou already speaks excellent English, so that’s not what he means here. Meanwhile, Williams has been working hard on her French, even giving post-match interviews en francais.)
“When you coach someone, you have to speak the same language, as the same words do not have the same meaning for everyone, Mouratoglou says. “It took me a few months to learn that new language, Serena’s language, to be able to communicate with her, to understand her and to be heard and understood by her.” (The two are also believed to be romantically involved, although they have never officially confirmed being in a relationship.)
Following the 2012 French Open, Williams wasn’t casting for a new coach; she just wanted to work that humiliating loss out of her system. Yet a bond was formed on the practice courts. Soon after, the two crossed the English Channel for Wimbledon—together. Williams swept the tournament, claiming the women’s singles title and winning in women’s doubles alongside her sister Venus. Later that summer, she won the gold medal for both singles and doubles at the London 2012 Olympic Games and then again won the singles event at the US Open, in the process reclaiming the ranking of number-one female tennis player in the world.
This professional relationship broke new ground for the coach: It was the first time Mouratoglou had ever coached someone to a Grand Slam title. Now, Mouratoglou says that “everything is possible” for Williams, and later this summer, the 32-year-old will attempt to win her third consecutive (and sixth overall) US Open. And she conceivably could finish her career with more Grand Slam singles titles than Steffi Graf, who holds the Open Era record of 22.
What’s Mouratoglou’s secret? Unlike other tennis coaches, he isn’t dictatorial. Speaking to USA Today, Williams credited the pair’s success to open and honest communication, and her coach agrees. “We understand each other really well, and we respect each other a lot,” he tells us, adding that his “purpose has always been to keep what makes her who she is while adding some new things, or making some changes, to make her even more successful.” Williams, he says, is a relentless competitor, “never satisfied” and always looking to improve.
So, should we regard Williams as the greatest female tennis player of all time? And how motivated is she by her place in the history books? “I think that Serena is probably playing the best tennis that anyone ever did,” says Mouratoglou, “but only the titles will tell you. That is what is great in sport: People remember the winners. She is already one of the greatest. It is up to her to become the greatest by beating the records.”
- PHOTOGRAPH BY RINDOFF/CHARRIAU
- PHOTOGRAPH BY ELLA LING/BPI/REX; COURTESY OF THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
- PHOTOGRAPH BY MARK BLINCH/REUTERS