Pistolese was a junior world champion of the ITF in 1985, and had plenty of wins against top ten players in the late Eighties, winning one ATP title. He started coaching when still a player, teaming up with Monica Seles and went on to work on both the WTA and ATP tours, with Takao Suzuki, Davide Sanguinetti, Anna Smashnova, Simone Bolelli, Michael Berrer, Robin Soderling and now Daniela Hantuchova.
What did you learn from working with Monica Seles?
Well, the details. Professionalism, to be consistent in everything that you do and to have a mission every day to deliver the best that you can and become the best in the world.
And does your approach to players change once you have major success?
Yes, of course when I became Robin Soderling’s coach, it was very demanding. With Monica I wasn’t really her coach, just a hitting partner but with Robin I had to be responsible for his game. I said to myself that I should do exactly the same job. You should be a tailor, in my opinion. There should be a testing time, four or five tournaments, where you get as much information as you can. The final deal should only be made after this because you should make sure that they like you and you like them.
That way is in both your interests. If you’re going to coach somebody full time then you’ll be with them all year long, breakfast, lunch and dinner. You need to make sure there’s a human empathy that goes both ways.
And how do you sustain success and keep it fresh when you know everything about them and they know everything about you?
Well, I think things change over the years. Initially it may be more teaching and learning but when you achieve something together, the relationship changes because the player knows tennis almost like the coach does or, in some ways, even better. You need to be more of a mirror and help in a different way.
It’s more the player asking you things, more of a 50-50 relationship and the environment around the player becomes very important. At a professional level, you get physical trainers, physios etc. who are in the team and it’s important to let these other people whom you trust give their opinion. Sometimes they should go to tournaments with a player without you so the player doesn’t get bored with you. You have to be really clever to prevent problems.
Emotionally speaking, you mustn’t think everything is the same as four, five, six years ago. The coach needs to see the future and prepare so potential problems don’t occur.
How do you change your own energy when things go negatively?
It’s a matter of reading what’s happening well. If things are negative, you have to identify why. It’s not impossible that the level of your player is good but your opponent’s is simply better. So you need to communicate something to change this. One key word in tennis is ‘concentration.’
There are four kinds of concentration: external and internal which can both be wide or narrow. For external concentration you can either concentrate on the whole court or just a specific part of it. For internal concentration, which regards your body, you can either concentrate widely, for example, staying low while you play or concentrate narrowly on a particular part such as the wrist or shoulder. Most of the time, what is missing is the internal wide concentration. They’re too tight, not breathing well, they talk to themselves negatively. To deal with that you firstly have to be sure the player understands these different types of concentration. ‘Concentration,’ along with the word ‘talent’ are probably the two most utilised words in the tennis world.
What is your definition of talent?
My definition is the ability to translate the potential you have into results. The idea of telling kids they do or don’t have talent is wrong because they can think “well, when God distributed talent, I must have been in the toilet…” It’s not something coming out of the sky.
Can you give us two attributes that make you the coach that you are?
The first thing no coach can be without is passion. My life has been tennis since I was born. The second one is the challenge. As a player and as a coach, what makes our job a life is that the learning never ends. You never stop updating, looking at what you can improve, teaching things that you learnt maybe three months ago, not ten years ago. The Greek philosopher says Panta Rhei which means everything flows, everything moves. Life is like a river, the river’s current continuously brings different things and that’s the way to look at it.
What are the essential traits of a champion which you cannot coach, in your opinion?
When you look at the personality and personal life that players have and how that affects their tennis, there are things you cannot coach. That’s the way that they are and that’s it. It comes from their family, from their DNA, from their culture. There’s nothing that you can do about it but you can know it and it’s good to know the family and the player’s environment. You can’t change this most of the time but you can try to put it into a good context for tennis.
Do you think that the ability to take pain and suffering is something which champions have which is quite special?
I’m very careful with the terminology. If you talk about ‘pain’ and ‘suffering’ players are less likely to be with you. At least, that’s my experience. If you talk about ‘the challenge’ and being ‘curious as to where your limits are,’ it’s the same thing just phrased differently.
The words which you choose have a big effect. You can talk about the brain being the most powerful and unexplored part of the body and say that we want to explore it. The body’s really tired, you have cramping, you have lactic acid all over your body but the brain is able to keep going. Then you go into self-talking, what you say to yourself at this moment. In this respect the player needs to work a lot. If he says to himself “I’m tired,” then he will be more tired than he actually is. He should say, “I’m tired but my opponent’s tired too and I can still go on, I’m not fresh but I can still go on for another 10 minutes and win the match.” I’m sure somebody like Nadal is only positive in their self-talking.
Do you believe that pretty much everything a player needs can be coached?
I think what you can coach, how much you can coach and how much you can make a difference is directly affected by the fundamental culture of the player. This is not necessarily them having a degree or anything but how curious they are and how deep they go into things. So the answer is, it depends. What you want, from an early age, is to keep them open-minded and explain things to them, listen to them so they can discover themselves and know themselves well. Then it is easier to coach. You mustn’t forget that tennis players are human beings. First, coach the person and if you prepare the land well you can then coach the tennis player.