By now, most tennis followers would have heard of the comments from Toni Nadal, uncle and coach of Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal, in relation to the appointment of Spain’s new Davis Cup captain. For those living under a rock, a brief summary: Spain, after an 18 year stint in the Davis Cup World Group which saw them reach 7 finals and win 5 Davis Cups, has been relegated from the competition’s top tier after collapsing against Brazil in Sao Paulo earlier this month. That loss saw former world number one Carlos Moya retire as the Spanish Davis Cup captain, with his replacement being former WTA top 30 player Gala Leon.
The appointment of 40 year old Leon surprised Toni Nadal, who noted that his preference was for the captain’s role to be assumed by someone “with a background in the world of men’s tennis”. Such a preference, Nadal went on to explain, was because of the fact that the men’s game “isn’t the same as the women’s game on the tactical level”. Unsurprisingly, the comments have provoked plenty of debate (along with cries of sexism), with Nadal back-pedalling hard in an attempt to diffuse the situation, and allies such as Feliciano Lopez attempting to act as mediator and make light of Nadal’s comments.
Nadal clarified that he would have had no issue with Leon’s appointment if she had spent 10 years coaching on the ATP Tour, which makes you wonder whether Amelie Mauresmo will be putting her hand up for the role of French Davis Cup captain next decade if her partnership with Andy Murray really takes off. Mauresmo’s long-time rival Martina Hingis, who used her considerable tactical nous to overcome far stronger and more powerful players, is another former female star who would seem ideally suited to becoming a Davis Cup captain. No doubt watching Hingis advise Federer and Wawrinka would be a sight to behold for Swiss tennis fans!
To my mind, the most interesting question to come out of all of the furore surrounding Nadal’s comments is whether or not significant differences between the ATP and WTA Tours actually exist. There are, without doubt, certain differences between the men’s and women’s games. In the women’s game, for example, the serve is less of a weapon, and there are more breaks of serve as a result. And of course, the men’s game is more powerful. But do these differences represent anything meaningful at a tactical level? Just because a man hits the ball harder, or has a more threatening serve, doesn’t mean that one’s approach to beating him should necessarily change. A player will always seek to break serve, and will consider the use of a variety of tactics, in order to win a match. Certain tactics are often employed against powerful players (such as trying to maximize the number of returns into play, moving the opponent around the court to get him or her off-balance, and mixing up the pace and spin of one’s shots in order to break down the opponent’s rhythm). These tactics, however, would be of use whether the opponent is a powerful female player or a powerful male player.
Other than raw power and the serve factor, I can’t identify any material differences between the men’s and women’s games, and I can’t think of any way in which (from a coaching perspective) I would advise a female player differently to how I would advise a male player. Of course, part of being a coach is analyzing the relevant opponent and coming up with a strategy to implement against the opponent, but there is nothing to stop Leon attending to these tasks. And from a strategic standpoint more generally, the assortment of players on the WTA Tour, from the power players to the grinders, from the volatile to the ultra consistent, from the superstars to the floaters, seems just as varied as it is on the ATP Tour.
Nadal’s comments are somewhat analogous to the comments that used to be made regarding the elite football leagues in Europe. For decades, the prevailing wisdom was that a manager could not succeed in multiple leagues, on the basis that the way in which the game was played differed dramatically between England, Italy, Spain, France and Germany, among others. Such a view has, of course, proved to be anything but accurate, with managers such as Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti showing that it is indeed possible for a manager to achieve success across multiple European leagues.
Nadal seems to be implying that Leon won’t gel with the players on the Spanish Davis Cup team, but after years of success fueled by their legion of stars, Spain now faces a challenge to get back into the World Group. Their stars, many of whom have been apathetic about Davis Cup in recent years, may want to see a rejuvenation of Spain’s approach to Davis Cup. In hiring Leon, the Spanish tennis federation (the Real Federación Española de Tenis) has most definitely breathed new life into the country’s approach to the competition. Whether Leon prospers or flounders as captain remains to be seen, but I applaud the decision of the Spanish tennis federation to break new ground and appoint Leon. And, contrary to what Toni Nadal has said, I don’t think that there are material differences between the men’s and women’s game. As a result, I can’t see any reason why Leon can’t prosper as Davis Cup captain.
That’s it for this month. Enjoy your tennis and I’ll be back with another serve next month. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter: @satelliteserve.