Birmingham’s Tom Hill grew up playing alongside Nick Kyrgios, Frances Tiafoe, and Kyle Edmund. From the IMG Academy to Pepperdine, here’s how the Englishman became one of the best young coaches on tour.
WTA Insider: How did you get into tennis?
Hill: I believe I was about four years old when I first picked up a racket. I would just go play at the local clubs, do some tennis camps. I’m from Birmingham, England, lived there all my life but I have spent time with tennis in different places.
When I first became serious about tennis when I was 10, my family moved to Bollettieri Academy in Florida. So that was such a big sacrifice and commitment from my parents. That was when tennis probably became training four hours a day and taking it as if it was a job. I would do school in the morning or afternoon, tennis the other times. From then that’s when my tennis kickstarted and I improved a lot. So that’s when I was like, I love tennis. Let’s go.
My brother was in the academy too. He was two years younger, he was eight. But after one year he enjoyed it but he didn’t love it as much as I did. So he went back home. For me, training for that amount of time, I realized this is why I wanted to do.
My parents were so supportive. If I had told them I’m not enjoying this, they would have said let’s go home. That was very nice.
WTA Insider: When did you start to think you could play tennis professionally?
Hill: When I was 14, I’d had four years at the academy and the way the full-time program went, you would keep going up the groups. When I was 14 I got to the highest group that you could be in. The only other players that were there would be professionals.
But at 14, I wasn’t good enough to play with the professionals. The coach came up to me was like, you have the potential to do really well. You should go and test yourself with the best players in the world. That was when I started competing. The biggest tournament I had ever played was Eddie Herr, because that’s obviously at Bollettieri’s. But apart from that, I’d never played a huge international tournament.
When I tried playing ITFs at 15, it was like, wow, I’m traveling to all these cool places to go and compete. So that was when I was, like, you know, I have a chance here.
Tom Hill speaks with Maria Sakkari at 2019 Rome, where she made the biggest semifinal of her career. (©Jimmie48)
WTA Insider: You ended up going to Pepperdine University. Talk through that decision to go to college.
Hill: It’s always one of those decisions where, at 17, you have all these college coaches messaging you asking you to play for their school, but at the same time you’re like, I want to be a top pro. I injured my back, I got a stress fracture, and it kind of halted my progress a little bit. My parents said you’ve got some great Division I scholarship offers. Go for a year. If you’re doing great, you can always drop out but you can go back and finish your degree later on. My parents always valued education.
After my first year at Pepperdine I thought, to make it at the top of the sport, I don’t know if I’m that good enough. When I was playing juniors I was playing with Kyrgios, Coric, Edmund, Tiafoe. When I see all these guys now we all remember each other. When I compare where I was to where they were, I was just a bit behind. And it’s so tough to make it at the top of the sport.
So I finished my degree in marketing.
WTA Insider: How did you become a pro coach?
Hill: It’s been crazy. I mean obviously, I like doing it and it’s nice. Honestly, I never planned on getting into coaching at all. Max Eisenbud sent me a text to see if I wanted to do some hitting at IMG and this was right when I graduated from Pepperdine. I didn’t know what I was gonna do in my life so sure I’ll do it. So I did some hits with Sharapova, Madison Keys, and I thought this is fun. But I didn’t really know what was going to come from it.
“Obviously, my goal as a player was to get to this level. But I feel like I can live my career through my player.”
That’s where I met Danielle Collins. She had just finished with her coach and she asked can you coach me. I was like Danielle, I’ve never coached before, are you sure? She said I like the way we practice, let’s give it a shot. And then obviously the year with Danielle we went from No.220 when we started to No.39 in like eight months, I was like am I actually helping you or what’s going on?
And then I really enjoyed it. Obviously, my goal as a player was to get to this level. But I feel like I can live my career through my player. So when Danielle was playing, now when Maria’s playing, I feel like it’s also me out there. So I love it. It’s awesome.
WTA Insider: What’s your coaching philosophy?
Hill: Positivity and a hard work ethic on the court. As for style of play, I’m very open. I think it depends on who you’re coaching and what their strengths are. I told Danielle Collins very different things to what I tell Maria Sakkari.
But I would say positivity, mental toughness, hard work ethic, are the main philosophies I bring and try to ingrain into my player.
Tom Hill and Maria Sakkari keeping things light in practice at 2019 Roland Garros. (©Jimmie48)
WTA Insider: What were you like as a player and how does that inform how you coach?
Hill: My best shot was my forehand, but I was a nutcase. I was.
I think that’s helped because now when I see frustration in Maria, or in the past, Danielle, I can relate to how I was. Even when I think of my game, I wonder if I had done this differently would it have been a different outcome? Probably not. I hit with Goffin yesterday and I was like, Geez how good do these guys hit the ball. I could keep up, but this is tough.
But I can relate with the mental side where maybe, if I’d have been a bit more positive, if I’d not taken it so seriously, if I’d have just been a bit more positive with myself, things would be different.
It helps in on-court coaching, massively. When I come on court, Maria is normally very frustrated. It’s rare that she calls me on when she’s 4-1 up or 5-2 up. She’s normally struggling, there’s something not going right. The first thing would be to calm her down, because I can’t tell her something if her brain is functioning 100 miles an hour. So I’ll calm her down and then tell her something tactically that I think will help her.
Because I think if I was in her position, how would I best take in the information and do it that way? It’s worked a few times quite well.
WTA Insider: What is a good day and a bad day for you as a coach?
Hill: There’s always good days and bad days. I feel like a good day, whether it’s a tournament or whether it’s a practice day, is one where you come off the court feeling like we made progress today. Or, whatever we set out objective-wise for that practice, we took a step to getting closer to hitting where we want to.
There are bad days and it’s normal everyone has this. I think the main thing is not reacting too negatively to them, accepting that they happen. When Maria has a rough day, maybe there could be something non-tennis related that I might not even know about that’s affecting her game. It’s my job to try and get the most out of her for that day.
Like in the match in San Jose against Svitolina, I came on and said look, I know you’re not playing great but it happens, it’s normal, but let’s try and do something to at least give yourself a chance or make them earn it. And you see how much it can change. Maria was paying very well and towards the end of the match.
So I always think you can find positives in everything.