How a tennis nerd gave Serena and Venus Williams a new lease on the game

WIMBLEDON, England — Already coaching an American tennis icon, Eric Hechtman has added another: racking up the miles and overtime to try and help Venus and Serena Williams get the most out of the number of games or seasons they they have left.

“If they’re both good at it, I’m absolutely good at it,” Hechtman said in an interview at Wimbledon last week. “They’re family. They’re super close to each other. It’s been great so far.

Hechtman, a 38-year-old club professional and father of three from Miami, jokes that he’s “old” but younger than his two star students.

Venus is 42 years old. Serena is 40 years old. But neither are ready to retire even though Venus hasn’t played on tour for nearly a year and Serena hasn’t played singles on tour since Wimbledon last year.

Both sisters are back in London, however, with Serena set to face unranked Frenchwoman Harmony Tan on center court in the first round on Tuesday. Venus, who trained on grass at the All England Club over the weekend, is not playing in the women’s singles or doubles tournaments but could still compete in mixed doubles.

The sisters like to keep their plans private for as long as possible, but it seems doubtful that Venus would have made the trip across the Atlantic just to attend a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert on Sunday with her sister, Isha Price, and Hechtman.

“A lot of fun,” said Hechtman, who did not confirm Venus Williams’ Wimbledon plans but confirmed she was not ready to make a career out of it.

“I don’t necessarily want to talk about their plans, but they’re definitely not ready to retire,” Hechtman said. “Listen, they both love the game. They are both champions. They both like to work hard and invest themselves. So as long as you have that, who’s to say you can set parameters on things, right? »

The Williams were raised to ignore the usual limitations of tennis: playing very little junior tennis before turning professional and being encouraged by their parents, Richard and Oracene, to actively pursue outside interests. There were skeptics at first, just as there are skeptics now as both sisters became part-time players at best in their 40s, but there’s no doubting their accomplishments or stamina. And while Serena clearly has the superior body of work, with 23 Grand Slam singles titles to Venus’s seven, Wimbledon is where their resumes are most closely aligned.

Venus has won five singles titles; Serena seven; and they joined forces to win six doubles titles, going 6-0 in finals (they are 17-0 in all of their Grand Slam and Olympic doubles finals). “They broke barriers for everything, for women, for the way the game is played,” Hechtman said. “They transcended tennis from a power standpoint, and they continue to do so at their age. And I don’t think they even think about it. They focus on themselves and what they want to do, and that’s it. For me, the more I can learn from these types of people, the better.

Hechtman, a self-proclaimed “tennis nerd,” was a successful junior who went on to play at the University of Miami.

Longtime friend and former junior rival Evan Zeder has known Hechtman since he was 8 years old.

“He’s always been brutally honest, for better or for worse, and I think it must be refreshing for people like Venus and Serena, who are both legends, to have someone who can be brutally honest without an agenda. “said Zeder, now head of global sports marketing for New Balance.

Zeder remembers Hechtman wearing basketball shorts and a Legionnaire’s cap on the court. “The kind that Ivan Lendl wore,” Zeder said. “And he just sort of beat his own drum.”

He also had guts. Zeder recalls Hechtman having severe cramps at the end of the deciding set of one of their matches when he was 18 and refusing to quit, taking massive cuts to the ball for the winners because he could no longer run. Zeder said Hechtman kept looking through the net and smiling.

“He was trying to get inside my head, and it worked,” Zeder said.

“After Eric served him, he went into a full body cramp and was taken to the hospital, where he spent the whole night on an IV,” Zeder said. “He came out and could barely walk in the final and got smoked, and I was fresh as a daisy and had to play for third place.”

Hechtman said he received offers from other Division I programs, but chose to stay home to support his mother Brenda, who had cancer and died in her second year.

He tried to play on the professional circuit for about six months after college. “To be honest, I didn’t give myself a good chance,” Hechtman said.

He went to law school but also started working as a professional teacher and eventually received an offer to become director of tennis at the Royal Palm Tennis Club, a private club in Miami with a strong junior program.

“I had no passion for law,” he says. “My passion is definitely tennis, and when this opportunity came it was not such a difficult choice.”

He has spent much of the past 15 years developing junior players and said more than 50 of his students went on to play in college. But he also worked as an occasional hitting partner for professional gamers. He said he was introduced to Venus Williams around 2008 and met and eventually hit it off with Serena as well, but both sisters had their own longtime coaches: Venus worked with American David Witt and Serena worked with Frenchman Patrick Mouratoglou.

But after Venus split with Witt, she hired Hechtman in 2019 and after Serena split with Mouratoglou earlier this year, she hired Hechtman with Venus’s approval.

Still director of tennis at the Royal Palm, Hechtman said he woke up before dawn, making the two-hour drive north to Venus’ home on Jupiter Island to train with each sister in sessions. separated, then making the two-hour journey home. work at the club.

He and his wife, Alexandra, have three children, sons Noah, 7, and Chase, 5, and daughter Madison, 3.

It’s the kind of multitasking the Williams sisters can relate to with their outside ventures and in the case of Serena, her 4-year-old daughter Olympia, with her husband Alexis Ohanian.

Serena has yet to speak publicly in detail about her new coach, but was asked on Saturday what it was like to be back at Wimbledon without Mouratoglou, who helped her win 10 Grand Grand singles titles. Slam in almost 10 years together.

“Oh my god,” she said. “I didn’t even think about it. I do not know. It feels good. I am having a wonderful time here.

Hechtman said he respects the earlier work of Witt and Mouratoglou. “I’m not the type of guy who’s going to steal someone’s job,” he said. “I have my business ethics, but when an opportunity like this comes along, I’m not going to say no for sure.”

Hechtman said he occasionally shares the grounds with Richard Williams, who, though diminished by a stroke, still attends some of his daughters’ practices.

“Sometimes he adds a bit of practice and obviously he has a unique eye for the game,” Hechtman said. “He marked the history of the sport. He belongs to the Hall of Fame. He trained them from the ground up to become two of the greatest of all time.

Hechtman, too, would like to one day take a player from rookie to the pinnacle of the professional game, but for now his task is much more short-term: helping two champions pursue success far beyond the goal line. usual arrival of a tennis career.

“You can see it in their eyes, the passion for it,” Hechtman said. “I’ve been on the court with just about every type of person you can imagine, from kids who don’t want to be there to motivated kids to adult recreational tennis players. It’s been the best experience yet. , and you can take what they’ve achieved out of the equation. It’s about their attitude and how a practice goes. If you’re a tennis nerd, that’s as good as it gets.

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