"He's a dangerous man, who has no business in a gentlemen's sport." Ten days ago, after being assaulted by the father of Bernard Tomic, for whom he's the hitting partner, the confessions of Thomas Drouet shook the tennis world. Is hitting partner a truly dangerous profession? We take this opportunity cast some light on this job of the shadows.
"And then he gave me a vicious head-butt." The diagnosis is heavy: open brow, messed up neck, fainting and nasal fracture. In an interview with the French magazine l'Equipe, Thomas Drouet spoke about the assault that took place on Saturday 6th of May at a Madrid hotel, during the ATP Madrid tournament. His assailant? The father of his training partner, the Australian player Bernard Tomic. The reason: The French player reportedly refused to bring him a bottle of milk. Pure tabloid theatre. "I know Thomas’ version because I saw him at the Marseille tournament. The relationship was very difficult; he was not always paid as he should have been. Since the beginning it's been complicated. He's a bit nuts, Tomic Sr." offers Erick Counil, acting hitting partner for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. "I think this man is insane” adds Hugo Lecoq, national coach to the French Tennis Federation (FFT) and former hitting partner of Amelie Mauresmo and Tatiana Golovin. According to him, most of the time, no contract binds the player to the person who return their balls at training: "I put some people in contact with players, with Capriati in particular, and it is true that they had difficulties getting paid, or sometimes even never getting paid. Yet, whether that you're in the Top 100 or in the Top 5, you should pay your hitting partner as you pay your physio, or your coach."
Where to find a good hitting partner? Often in the family of the athlete himself, brothers in many cases… Otherwise, for the external members of the entourage, the recruitment is mainly done by agents or coaches. The big hitters of the tour often pick amongst the best juniors, but more likely search around the lower reaches of the ATP rankings, between the 150th and 250th place worldwide. But if girls like Victoria Azarenka or the Williams sisters have a single hitting partner, the more mortal members of the profession find their partners among amateur players, and employ them part-time. It's called a "freelance" job; a little hand-off before or during tournaments, paid directly by the players. "Between 300 and 600 pounds for a full week. They could use me as much as they wanted" says Hugo, coach at the club of Levallois, who arrived in the “profession" in 2003 after a stint with Mary Pierce for Roland Garros.
Food, service and "anti-sex" clause
In the gap between the father and the coach, it is sometimes difficult for these training partners to find their place. "The hitting partner must stay in the background. I think he should not interfere in the relationship between the coach and the player,” says Lecoq. “If we made mistakes repeatedly, if we can't meet the demands of the coach or player on specific exercises, you can be really damaging for the quality of the athlete's training. There is a kind of pressure. It's like the coaching profession, overnight you can be ousted from the staff." Top-spin slice and the ability to keep getting the ball back over the net. Like most of his colleagues, Hugo must possess a wide technical range of shots to give confidence to the player he works with. Even at the risk of altering his own game. “When I get on the court as the hitting partner, I prepare as if I were competing; I'm hot, I'm focused. At no time do I play for myself. I play for them,” he says. “I remember at one point I began to have trouble when I used to play with the girls and had to make weak second serves.”
In his "career" as a training partner, Lecoq has only worked with female players. "My daughters" as he calls them: "Female players are a little more secretive about what they do, they don't like to reveal too much. Relationships are often strained between girls and therefore they don't really train together and make more use of male hitting partner.” When the latter accept to do it, it is often for very specific reasons. Thus the French Jonathan Eysseric, former junior No. 1, found himself assigned to be the hitting partner for Roger Federer during the clay court season in 2007. Why was he chosen? Because he had a powerful left arm and Federer asked him to play "like Nadal." But most of the time, except for a few exceptions, players call upon friends from the tour, or friends of the club. This is how Erick Counil, manager of a tennis shop in Nantes, a good player but ranked nowhere today, found himself on the opposite side of the net to the tricolour number one. It all started with a joke at the end of last year. "What are you doing for the Masters?” asked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga... "Nothing special" said Erick. "Then I'll take you for a week in London.” A week that proved to be a roaring success. "Before talking business, we are first and foremost very good friends, Jo and I. We see each other at training and we see each other a little in the evening, we eat together, we share more, it relaxes him, he has less pressure. It feels good to be surrounded by friends in the tough environment of the tour." A world so hard that the few who do have contracts are not entitled to love. In the case of Dieter Kindlmann, hitting partner of Maria Sharapova, a clause stipulates that he's not allowed to... have sex with her.
By Victor Le Grand and Quentin Moynet