A new coach and new methods lift the competitive fortunes for national tennis stars facing the pro tour challenge. Words by Fred Walker

Gloria Liang, Carol Zhao and Amy He have a few things in common. They are tennis players. They are national tennis champions. They are all products of a unique tennis programme at the Ontario Racquet Club (ORC) in Mississauga. And it doesn’t end there. Solomiya Zinko is the provincial under-16 and under-18 champion. They’re currently in the process of preparing for the next round of competitions in March. In the meantime, Zhao has graduated from ORC to Tennis Canada’s training centre in Montreal where she’s in the next stage of her development. But there are many more young, very young budding tennis champions waiting in the wings of ORC’s programme.

Gary Muller is the Director of Tennis at ORC. He oversees the development of these aspiring champions. He’s been in that role for just a year but already his teaching philosophy is showing results.

Muller, 46, a native of South Africa, joined ORC after a career on the professional tour (ATP) in which he ranked in the top 50 in singles play with impressive wins over such established stars as Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Stefan Edberg. In doubles he once ranked as high as number 7. After 12-years on the tour, he turned his talents to coaching and worked with Australian Open winner, Thomas Johansson and Jonas Bjorkman, who won six Grand Slam Doubles titles and three singles titles while working with Muller.

Muller had a number of coaching options in Canada but ORC and Mississauga drew him for a number of reasons. “There were a lot of options”, the engaging southpaw says. “It had to be a situation where there was a really good base and secondly there had to be a large base to feed from.”

Oakville and Mississauga met those qualifications. “I’m more performance-minded. I had an academy in Austria which was mainly performance. A lot of the kids on the tour now, I used to work with when they were 12, 13 and

While he developed young tennis stars from their early teens, Muller’s plans for ORC are to start with youngsters at an even earlier age. “I’ve always wanted to build a big base starting as young as six-years old and letting them grow through the system which would create a great foundation for them to be able to continue and if tennis is something they want to take seriously, we’ll have that opportunity for them. Or if tennis is just one of the sports they want to play, that’s fine too.”

Muller believes in a program begun by Tennis Canada, (the governing body for the sport in Canada), called progressive tennis, which gives youngsters an opportunity to improve their tennis skills much quicker than ever before. “I have six and seven year-olds hitting rallies of 300, 400 and 500 shots which was unheard of when we were young because we weren’t strong enough to control the ball. Now they’re able to do it because there’s a ball that doesn’t bounce as high, it’s not as fast, so there’s a lot more control, so you can create a great stroke foundation for them to grow into the regular ball which helps them a whole lot as they get older. With this system you’re going to find there’ll be a huge base of extraordinary tennis players. Technology has changed the game of tennis not only at the competitive level but developmental stage as well. No longer will using adult-sized racquets with handles cut down to accommodate smaller and younger players. Today, racquets are made specifically for four, five and six year-olds.

Muller has a staff of 15 professional tennis coaches and instructors and they work with more than 400 kids every week.

Among them is Head Tennis Professional Andrea Rabzak who has been a part of the ORC coaching program for the past ten years. She says, “we’ve seen a lot of top Canadian juniors come through here but this is probably the best group I’ve had since I’ve been here.” That group includes the likes of Liang, He, Zhao and Zinko.

“We started with Gloria when she was six so she’s been our poster-girl for some time and through Gloria we got Carol Zhao who’s the number one player in Canada right now and through Carol we got Amy and Solomiya.”

Gloria was the only one who started in the ORC programme as a six-year-old where the concentration was on fundamentals. “That’s where they learn on-court discipline because they have to be able to do the same thing over and over again. If you’re relentless with that they become very solid. The best example of that is Gloria. Her technique is basically perfect,” says Rabzak.

So what differentiates a budding star like Gloria from an established, accomplished tennis professional like those on the WTA Tour? According to Andrea Rabzak it’s “her mind. The only thing that’s going to hold Gloria back is Gloria.” So I posed the argument isn’t that what separates all top performers? Mental toughness. Rabzak’s take differs slightly. “I think you have to have certain things… with the three girls we have now, who’ve all won national championships or provincial titles, they have what we call in tennis a fast hand and they can really uncork on a ball and let it go. They have a couple of shots…some big weapons. They make it look effortless. They have great wheels and they have a shot. That’s what distinguishes them from others.”

“We’ve seen a lot of top Canadian juniors come through here but this is probably the best group I’ve had since I’ve been here.” Andrea Rabzak Ontario Racquet Club Head Tennis Professional

So, is the professional women’s tennis tour in the future for these girls? That’s perhaps jumping the gun a little. After all, they’re only 15, 16, and 17-years of age. They’re not yet ready for the tour but if and when they are there are a lot of hurdles to clear. First of all it takes money…a lot of money. Andrea Rabzak suggests they’d need $150,000 a year if they don’t have the support of their tennis federation. That kind of money would go toward travel costs, play and having a coach with them. Unless they’ve got a fairy godmother to help with the finances or manage to obtain an enthusiastic sponsor it’s very difficult. The more logical next step would be college where athletic scholarships pave the way for their continued development. Again, Rabzak enthuses about the possibilities. “At school you have everything there: fitness, a coach, travel with the team, they pay to play pro tournaments. It makes a lot of sense to go to college first, get a great base and then go out and play.”

The story doesn’t end here. ORC has scoured the region for potential superstars. Beginning at the grassroots level, they have identified through an extensive fitness programme, 12 of the best kids in the area aged 5-to7 who have never played tennis before. Their fitness scores, according to Rabzak, “were off the charts that Tennis Canada has given us. So we have subsidized this programme to teach these kids how to play because we want to get great athletes into the sport.”