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Hernandez helped Sugiyama, Matsuoka reach majors

Coach serves up support for Japan’s budding tennis stars

by Magdalena Osumi

“Many kids, when they start playing, they let the ball bounce twice,” says Rodrigo Hernandez, talking about tennis, but also about life. “You have to give your best from the first ball. You have to perform on the court during practice as if you were playing a match. Never give up, even in practice.”

Touching down in Japan for the first time in 1986, the Colombia-born coach and player brought with him a wealth of experience and expertise gained from working with and competing against some of the greats of world tennis. Like many a new arrival, he didn’t expect to stay longer than a year.

Fast-forward to today and the 62-year-old is still here, having spent nearly 30 years coaching up-and-coming young players at one of the best-known and most respected tennis academies in Japan.

“I want to be a role model for my students,” said Hernandez, who oversees the coaching of all of the 100-odd young players at the Ebara Shonan Sports Center academy in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Born to Spanish expats in Colombia, Hernandez spent his youth in Cali, the country’s second city, also known as the Branch of Heaven and the Salsa Capital of the World. Among the locals, however, Cali often goes by another name: the Sports Capital of Colombia.

Encouraged by his parents, Hernandez started playing tennis at around 8 or 9 years old.

“My mother, who was a recreational player, taught me how to play,” he said. “I loved the game and wanted to become a player.”

In his youth, though, Hernandez put his dream of studying abroad above his tennis, and at the age of 16 he moved to Texas, where he studied at school for a year before entering Lamar University in Beaumont.

“I just loved coaching,” he said. “While I was at university, I studied coaching and really enjoyed it. I taught during my days off at that time.”

After graduating from Lamar, Hernandez traveled throughout Europe playing club tournaments. He then returned to New York, where he spent a few years working at tennis clubs.

During the summer of 1972, the year the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) was established, Hernandez started working for Harry Hopman, the renowned Australian coach and player who led his national team to a record 16 victories in the Davis Cup.

Hernandez, who worked for Hopman for several summers, said he owes a lot to his mentor.

“He was a real hard worker,” he said, recalling how training sessions with Hopman resembled real matches. “You were exhausted by the time the session finished. This is how the kids should learn, to go for every ball. You get mentally stronger if you do your best, and at least you should make an effort.”

You won’t accomplish anything if you don’t put your mind to it, he added — words that could have come from Hopman himself, a strict disciplinarian who coached such Australian tennis legends as 11-time Grand Slam winner Rod Laver and five-time Wimbledon champ Lew Hoad.

During the winter seasons, Hernandez worked at the Port Washington Tennis Academy in Long Island, New York, where he met John McEnroe, the fiery former world No. 1 famous for his on-court outbursts.

“I’ve known him since he was 14,” Hernandez said. “His mother would bring him over to the academy for training sessions.”

The young McEnroe, who would go on to win 77 singles and 71 doubles titles, loved to play chess, and used to bring those skills to the tennis court, remembers Hernandez, who is full of admiration for the player.

“I went to see him play in a charity match last November in Tokyo, where he lost to Kei Nishikori,” he added. “Now he’s 54, but he still hits the ball so well, and after so many years he remembered me. We talked about the good old days.”

When Hopman began splitting his time between academies in New York and Florida, Hernandez, together with fellow coach Bob Brett — considered by some to be one of one of the greatest coaches ever — moved to Florida, working at Harry Hopman’s tennis academy in Largo until 1984. During that time, many Grand Slam champions, including Andres Gomez of Ecuador and Argentinian Guillermo Vilas, came to train at the academy.

Hernandez spent the next two years in Bologna, Italy, coaching the “Harry Hopman’s Tennis Camp” training program, until the Australian coach’s death from a heart attack in December 1985 aged 79.

He came to Japan in 1986, having had experience coaching Japanese players at Hopman’s camp in Florida.

Hernandez worked for the Japan Tennis Association and traveled with junior players to Europe, coaching the Japanese men’s Davis Cup team and women’s Fed Cup players.

“And then I met my wife, Kaoru, in 1988 or 1989, when she was a league tennis player of the Tennis Japan League,” he said. “At that time she was playing for Nippon Denso. We got married in 1992.”

Hernandez coached some of Japan’s top talents, including Shuzo Matsuoka, who reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals in 1995, and Ai Sugiyama, who became Japan’s top-ranked player ever in 2004, reaching No. 8 in the world.

“They were fantastic players, very serious and willing to work hard,” he recalled. “That’s how you achieve success.”

He said he feels delighted every time he gets an opportunity to teach a good player.

“When I practiced with Ai Sugiyama, she was always putting so much effort into every ball, always trying to give her best,” Hernandez explained. “I wish every player was like her or like Matsuoka,” with whom Hernandez worked for about a year and a half.

His philosophy is that players have to give 100 percent or more at all times, he said, never giving up. Combine this with mutual trust and chemistry between the coach and the student and you have a winning formula, according to Hernandez.

“I feel good if my students perform well and try to be positive,” he said. “I want the kids to follow me as I always care for them.”

At first, working with Japanese players didn’t come easy, Hernandez said, as many of the young ones would feel intimidated, were uncommunicative and would avoid eye contact. This was particularly frustrating for Hernandez, whose training method relies on a great deal on feedback.

“It’s important and helps get your point across,” he said.

In his daily work as a professional coach, Hernandez stressed that he focuses on the individual needs of each student, as well as on honing his own coaching skills, which involves gaining a better understanding of players’ physical, mental and technical strengths and weaknesses.

Coaching is not just about the strokes, he stresses; it’s also about teaching values so that you can improve as a person.

“I tell students they’re never going to hit perfectly, but they will improve,” he said. “I want to motivate them, emphasize the positives, not negatives, because when you make a mistake, you are learning.”

Hernandez — or Rod, as he’s known to most of his fellow coaches and students — speaks with confidence about his own work.

“I wouldn’t say any of my lessons were bad, from the very first to the last one scheduled in a day,” he said. “I always try to encourage and make [the players] relax. I want them to see me doing well, so they can be able to perform well.”

He stressed, however, that aspiring players should not neglect their education, expressing his disappointment with students who give up the chance of a college education to play professionally.

“If you get better education, you can play better, expand your mentality,” he said. “For many, going abroad would help [them] become more independent and while being schooled for free, if they manage to get a scholarship, they could still play a lot of tennis and learn from other players.”

He said Japan has many talented players, some of whom lack mental strength, which is indispensable on the court, and others for whom overcoming the language barrier is a challenge.

“I’ve learned a lot from tennis,” he added. “What I like about tennis is that you can learn to communicate, make friends and learn about different cultures and languages.”

Rod, who represented Colombia in the Davis Cup once, in 1970, said he wanted to be a good serve-and-volleyer in his youth. Since then tennis has evolved significantly, becoming a more powerful game based on groundstrokes from the baseline. Over the last 10 years, racket technology and strings have changed, too.

He has helped a handful of former students reach the Grand Slams, including such players as Yone Kamio, who made it to the French Open and Wimbledon, and Matsuoka, who also played at Wimbledon.

“Years ago, when I was coaching Matsuoka, he played John McEnroe in the quarterfinals of the Japan Open. Matsuoka lost 7-6 7-6, but that was a wonderful match,” he recalled. “Every time [the players] won, I felt satisfied, but it’s still their success, not mine.”

Both his sons — Takumi, 21, a university student, and Toru, a second-grader at a famous sports-focused high school in Kyushu — dream of becoming professional tennis players. Together with his wife, who also works as a tennis coach and still plays at seniors tournaments, or sons, he often comes to the academy to practice.

“There is no day off for me, but I enjoy it,” he said, laughing. “I think I’d like to coach as long as I can, and since tennis has always been so good to me, I’d like to do something good for tennis.”

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