Between the summers of 2011 and 2012, Serena Williams was arguably at her lowest ebb. In July 2010, she cut her feet in an accident and missed the remainder of the season.

In the 2012 French Open, she lost for the first time in the first round of a Grand Slam match. This prompted her to seek help from Patrick Mouratoglou, a coach from the suburbs of Paris.

The Frenchman’s coaching helped as Williams finished the season on a high, winning Wimbledon and followed the next two years with three more Grand Slam titles which were a precursor to an unprecedented third Serena Slam (she held all four majors at the same time, albeit not in the same calendar year) in 2015. In just two-and-a-half years with Mouratoglou, Williams had won eight Grand Slam titles, taking her overall tally to 21.

After a tough 2016, Williams won the 2017 Australian Open without dropping a set. What made the result even more remarkable was the startling fact that she was pregnant.

The turnaround from the 2012 setback has been remarkable. After her 2017 Australian Open victory, Williams is only one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slams.

Re-instilling belief

A huge amount of credit for this unprecedented late-career renaissance goes to Mouratoglou. The coach, in an interview during the 2016 US Open, explained that his primary task was to re-instill the belief in Williams that she could win championships again. Once she regained her confidence, the American star was back to her dominant self.

Siddharth Deshmukh, the business head for talent management at Anglian Management Group, says, “Continued success in any career comes as a result of sheer belief in one’s abilities. It’s passion that keeps serial winners going. It’s not the just prize money, it is about the winning feeling, or the love of what they do. The greatest winners do not give up, they keep fighting to remain on top of their game."

Rediscovering belief was only one part of Williams’ resurgence. Working with coach Mike Shilstone since 2008, the 36-year-old consolidated her strongest weapon, the serve. A 10-minute shoulder exercise which she practises daily has ensured speedy recuperation. Shilstone, with a mixture of exercises from American football, army drills, and baseball, has contributed in equal part to her resurgence.

Father and coach from childhood, Richard Williams, provided the technical and moral framework to both Williams and her elder sister, Venus (also a multiple Grand Slam champion) to succeed.

Serena’s father and first coach Richard Williams. Photo: Getty Images
Serena’s father and first coach Richard Williams. Photo: Getty Images

Adversity is not a hindrance

Mouratoglou, asked about the reasons for Williams’ mental strength in a 2015 interview to Sports Illustrated, said: “There are things you can and can’t explain. I think first of all, she has a certain education from her family that makes her a really tough person, an unbelievable competitor."

The Williams sisters were raised in difficult financial circumstances, with their father believing that their tennis success would be a way out of their predicament.

“She was raised with nothing, she comes from nowhere and she became maybe the biggest player of all-time because of her mentality. Plus, I think, the father did it with both sisters, so it has to do with the education a lot. When education meets a personality like Serena, it creates, maybe the biggest champion of all-time. She has something she was born with and it’s her character. She refuses to lose. And when she refuses to lose, she finds solutions that are incredible," said Mouratoglu.

Indranil Das Blah, CEO of entertainment and talent company Kwan, feels that adversity at a young age can be a great motivating factor in future success. “Most of the successful players have come out of adversity. If you cannot afford three meals a day or cannot take a roof over your head for granted, you work 100 times harder than the person who has it easy. You have been through so much in life, so you want to prove your detractors wrong," he says.

“If you look at businesses or start-ups, most people did not really have much when they started out. Adversity makes a strong character, there are no two ways about it," he adds.

Mouratoglu knew the remarkable story of the rise of Williams from the neighbourhoods of Compton, and rather than impose new ideas, he chose to trust the very character, which, in his words, Williams was born with, to navigate trying circumstances.

Coaching a Star is a series that looks at ideas from coaches of tennis champions that lead to their success and what lessons managers can draw from these.

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