A year ago next month, Telegraph Sport published a first-person column from Pam Shriver – the five-time Wimbledon doubles champion – in which she revealed her inappropriate relationship with a coach 33 years her senior.
Shriver hoped the column would shine a light on the boundary-blurring cases that continue to plague women’s football. But her new role as a backup campaigner also took her down an unexpected path – one that saw her offering cheers from the players box on Sunday night as Donna Vekic won the WTA event in Monterrey.
Once best known as a pundit and broadcaster, Shriver has now joined the ranks of ‘supercoaches’ – a term originally coined when Andy Murray hired Ivan Lendl in 2011, and since applied to returning legends like Boris Becker (who worked with Novak Djokovic), Carlos Moya (who still works with Rafael Nadal) and Conchita Martinez (who coaches Garbine Muguruza).
“I had no intention of coaching at this level,” Shriver told Telegraph Sport. “I did team coaching in college and occasional backyard work. But that all changed when I went to San Diego in October for a WTA 500 event.
“I wanted to talk to some players about saving. Donna” – a 26-year-old Croatian who sits on the WTA Players Council – “was on my shortlist. I saw her beat Lauren Davis in qualifying, and before I talked about anything else, I told her that she wasn’t applying some of her abilities as well as she could. Things like attacking second serves with more purpose or serving better from the spot [which means hitting the corners of the box rather than the middle].
“Overall, I felt that with more clarity, her power play should be more upside and definitely not in the mid-70s – where she was ranked then.”
Vekic was so impressed with Shriver’s analysis that she practically hired her on the spot. Now, just under five months later, Vekic has climbed 54 places on the ranking ladder to 23rd in the world – just four places shy of his career best. She has won 19 of 23 matches since that first conversation and capped the purplest patch of her career by beating world No. 5 Caroline Garcia in Sunday’s final in Monterrey.
Speaking at January’s Australian Open – where she fell to eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka in the quarter-finals – Vekic said of Shriver: “We clicked instantly in San Diego. She’s a coach, consultant, mentor, whatever you want to call her.
Shriver fits the standard “supercoach” paradigm in that it doesn’t deal too much with the technicalities. This mainly comes down to Vekic’s daily coach, Nikola Horvat, a fellow Croatian. Instead, she provides tactical advice, aids in training, scouts opponents, and lends moral support.
Almost every modern player who has hired one of these 20th century tennis legends has seen an increase in their results, although Martina Navratilova – Shriver’s doubles partner throughout the 1980s – never really succeeded. to inspire Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska when they briefly teamed up in 2015.
Shriver’s impact, however, was particularly striking. She also joins a hugely underrepresented group: female coaches working in elite tennis. Now that the aforementioned Muguruza has dropped in the rankings, the only top 100 players other than Vekic who list female coaches in their support staff are Jil Teichmann (Arantxa Parra Santonja), Daria Saville (Nicole Pratt), Alison Van Uytvanck (Ann Devries) and Sara Sorribes Tormo (Silvia Soler Espinosa).
The challenge now for Shriver will be to reconcile his coaching with his previous broadcast commitments. Over the next fortnight – the length of the Indian Wells event often described as “the fifth major” – she will split her time between Vekic and Tennis Channel. “It’s not an easy juggle,” she said, “and we’re still learning as we go.”
But Shriver is optimistic about Vekic’s prospects this season, and in particular the fighting spirit that carried Vekic to Sunday night’s narrow 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 victory over an in-form Garcia.
“In each of the three tournaments I worked with her,” Shriver said, “she won a 7-6 match in the third set, which made a huge difference. This is one of the reasons why, if she stays healthy, I think she can fight for the majors and qualify for the WTA finals at the end of the year.
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