WIMBLEDON, England — Already coaching one American tennis icon, Eric Hechtman added another: logging the extra miles and the extra hours to try to help both Venus and Serena Williams get the most out of however many matches or seasons they have left.
“If they are both good with it, I’m absolutely good with it,” Hechtman said in an interview at Wimbledon last week. “They are family. They are super close with each other. It’s been great so far.”
Hechtman, a 38-year-old club professional and father of three from Miami, jokes that he is “old” but he is younger than both his star pupils.
Venus is 42. Serena is 40. But neither is ready to retire even if Venus has not played on tour in nearly a year and Serena has not played singles on tour since last year’s Wimbledon.
Both sisters are back in London, however, with Serena set to face Harmony Tan, an unseeded Frenchwoman, on Centre Court on Tuesday in the first round. Venus, who practiced on the grass at the All England Club over the weekend, is not playing in the singles or women’s doubles tournaments but could still take a wild-card entry into the 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 long trip across the Atlantic just to attend a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert on Sunday with her sister, Isha Price, and Hechtman.
“Lots of fun,” said Hechtman, who did not confirm Venus Williams’s Wimbledon plans but did confirm that she is not ready to call it a career.
“I don’t want to necessarily speak for their plans, but they are definitely not ready to retire,” Hechtman said. “Look, they both love the game. They are both champions. They both love working hard and putting in the work. So, as long as you’ve got that, who’s to say you can set parameters on things, right?”
The Williamses were raised to ignore the usual tennis boundaries: 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 early, just as there are skeptics now as both sisters have become part-time players at best in their 40s, but there is no arguing with their achievements or their staying power. 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 have joined forces to win six doubles titles, going 6-0 in finals (they are 17-0 in all their Grand Slam and Olympic doubles finals together).“They’ve broken barriers for everything, for women, for the way the game is played,” Hechtman said. “They transcended tennis from a power perspective, and they are continuing to do it at their age. And I don’t think they even think about that. They are just homing in on themselves, and what they want to do, and there you go. To me, the more I can learn from those types of people, the better it is.”
Hechtman, a self-described “tennis nerd,” was a successful junior who went on to play at the University of Miami.
Evan Zeder, a longtime friend and former junior rival, has known Hechtman since they were 8.
“He has always been brutally honest, for better or worse, and I think that has to be refreshing for people like Venus and Serena who are two legends to have someone who can be brutally honest without an agenda,” said Zeder, now head of global tennis sports marketing for New Balance.
Zeder remembers Hechtman wearing basketball shorts and a Legionnaire cap on court. “The kind Ivan Lendl used to wear,” Zeder said. “And he just kind of beat to his own drum.”
He also had grit. Zeder remembers Hechtman getting severe cramps late in the decisive set of one of their matches as 18-year-olds and refusing to quit, taking massive cuts at the ball going for winners because he could no longer run. Zeder said Hechtman kept looking across the net and smiling.
“He was trying to get in my head, and it worked,” Zeder said.
“After Eric served it out, he ended up in a full body cramp and was taken to the hospital, where he spent the whole night with an I.V.,” Zeder said. “He came out and could barely walk in the finals and got smoked, and I was fresh as a daisy and had to play for third place.”
Hechtman said he had offers from other Division I programs but chose to stay at home to support his mother Brenda, who had cancer and died during his sophomore year.
He tried to play on the pro tour for about six months after college. “To be honest, I didn’t give myself a fair shot,” Hechtman said.
He went to law school but began working as a teaching professional as well and eventually received an offer to become the tennis director at the Royal Palm Tennis Club, a private club in Miami with a strong junior program.
“I didn’t have a passion for law,” he said. “My passion is definitely tennis, and when that opportunity came up, it wasn’t that tough a choice.”
He has spent much of the last 15 years developing junior players and said more than 50 of his pupils had gone on to play in college. But he also has worked as an occasional hitting partner for professional players. He said he was introduced to Venus Williams around 2008 and met and eventually hit with Serena as well, but both sisters had their own long-term coaches: Venus was working with the American David Witt and Serena with the 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 the director of tennis at Royal Palm, Hechtman said he has been getting up before dawn, making the two-hour drive north to Venus’s home in Jupiter Island to train with each sister in separate sessions and then making the two-hour drive home to work at the club.
He and his wife, Alexandra, have three children, sons Noah, 7, and Chase, 5, and daughter Madison, 3.
“I make sure I’m at home by 6,” he said.
This is the kind of multitasking to which the Williams sisters can relate with their outside businesses and in Serena’s case, her daughter Olympia, 4, with her husband Alexis Ohanian.
Serena has yet to speak publicly in detail about her new coach, but she was asked on Saturday what it was like to be back at Wimbledon without Mouratoglou, who helped her win 10 Grand Slam singles titles in their nearly 10 years together.
“Oh my,” she said. “I didn’t even think about it. I don’t know. It feels good. I’m having a wonderful time here.”
Hechtman said he respected Witt’s and Mouratoglou’s previous work. “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 court with Richard Williams, who though diminished by a stroke, still attends some of his daughters’ practices.
“Sometimes he’ll throw in some coaching and obviously he’s got a unique eye for the game,” Hechtman said. “He made his mark in the history of the sport. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. He coached them from scratch to becoming two of the greatest ever.”
Hechtman, too, would one day like to take a player from beginner to the top of the pro game, but for now his task is much shorter term: helping two champions chase success far beyond the usual finish line of a tennis career.
“You can just see it in their eyes, the passion for it,” Hechtman said. “I’ve been on the court with any type of person you can imagine from kids that don’t want to be out there to kids that are motivated to adult recreational tennis players. This is the best experience so far, and you can take what they’ve accomplished out of the equation. It’s about their attitude and how a practice goes. If you’re a tennis nerd, it’s as good as it gets.”
Source: NY Times