FAMILY MAN WITT JOINS WILLIAMS TENNIS CLAN
Former ATP pro David Witt joins the entourage of Venus, Serena, papa Richard and the rest of the Williams clan as their traveling hitting partner through Wimbledon — and possibly more
Tennis fans watching the Williams sisters’ matches during the French Open and Wimbledon were greeted with a new sight — former tour player and Ponte Vedra Beach resident David Witt in the Williams’ player’s box.
Witt, a long-time acquaintance of the sisters, took up the role of hitting partner just before the French Open for the South Florida-based duo. The arrangement will continue through the grasscourt season and the end of Wimbledon, when Witt and the Williams’ will sit down to discuss a potential full-time arrangement.
“I think it started four years ago at Amelia Island because they knew I was from here,” said Witt of his early contact with the sisters. “Venus’ agent Carlos Fleming kind of knew me from when I played and that I lived here, because they’re always looking for hitting partners everywhere they go. So I started doing it at Amelia Island and it worked out good. Three years ago I was married and this and that, it was kind of tough, they wanted to do something more but they knew it would be kind of difficult.”
Now single, Witt is taking a temporary leave of absence from his teaching pro position at Deerwood Country Club to explore the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that draws on his ability and experience as a former tour player. The 6-foot-3, blonde-haired Witt exploded onto the tennis scene in 1990 before turning pro in 1991, featured in a story in TENNIS magazine as the next big thing. Plagued by injuries throughout much of his pro career, his highlights included a Challenger-level title and a semifinal at the ATP-level Stella Artois Championships/Queen’s Club tournament on grass. His career win resume included victories over Greg Rusedski, Mats Wilander, Tim Mayotte and Malivai Washington when he retired from the pro circuit in 1998, achieving a career-high ranking of No. 128.
This year the relationship took off after Witt served as a hitting partner for Venus in Amelia Island, then again the following week at the WTA Tour event in Charleston.
“Two years ago they were thinking about me going to Charleston and it didn’t happen,” Witt said. “This year it did happen, so we’ve been getting along good and I’ve been hitting a lot with Venus, going down to West Palm. It was funny because on the way here I got a text from Venus who is in Turkey [at the WTA Tour event in Istanbul] and she was like, ‘I hope you’re still working out, I need you to be a Spanish grinder. Have a safe flight and I’ll see you in Paris.'”
Venus has benefited from the partnership early on as the elder Williams sister was more active during the claycourt run-up to the French Open.
“You know, he’s really a great guy,” Venus Williams says of Witt. “He’s really nice. He hits really well. He runs down a lot of balls. But, I mean we haven’t talked so much about what’s happening in the future. So we’ll see.”
The Williams sisters’ parents, Richard and Oracene, have a reputation for letting few official “coaches” near their daughters, and Witt is adamant that his support is as a hitting partner — albeit one with a great deal of experience to lend.
“I’m hitting with both, I don’t know if you want to say ‘hitting’ or ‘working with,'” Witt says. “We’re kind of on a trial basis and if it works out, if we’re getting along good — I know my boundaries as far as more of their workout or hitting partner, and in the practices I talk to their dad a little bit and if he likes what I’m saying he’ll tell me to come up to the net and tell Serena or Venus what I was saying. I don’t push that issue, I just let it happen if it happens. I think the more that I become comfortable with them — I think it’s pretty known that their dad and their mom are their coaches, and that’s great.”
Anyone familiar with the Williams sisters knows that to call them competitive is an understatement in regard to what they can achieve from comebacks — witness Venus’ 2005 Wimbledon win as the No. 14 seed, ousting Maria Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport, or Serena’s monumental win at this year’s Australian Open when no one gave her a chance. Witt says the competitiveness is apparent in their workouts, when the sisters get irate if sensing he isn’t putting balls away when they play points.
“When we’re playing points I’ll have a chance to put it away, and maybe I won’t put it away, it’s kind of happened a couple of times when Venus will look at me and go, ‘David don’t hit it at me,'” Witt says. “You know they want me to put it away if we’re playing, depending on what we’re trying to do. If we’re playing points, they don’t want any slack. Their dad likes how I change it up, hitting heavy topspin and slice. On the clay that is what they’re going to be looking for, playing with the Mauresmos and the Henins. A lot of those types of players that can just stay out there and grind so we’ve been doing a lot of that type of stuff.”
Serena says she appreciates Witt’s ability to mix it up and show them different looks in their workouts.
“David Witt is a great guy, first of all,” Serena said before the French Open. “Second, he’s very consistent. He does very well on [clay]. If I say hit some soft balls, he does it. He does whatever I ask and he does it very well, and he’s able to play a harder game, a fast game, a slow game. He pretty much does it all.”
According to Witt, the coaching from father Richard that brought each of the sisters to the top of the game is apparent in their practice sessions.
“It’s pretty structured. In West Palm the dad would orchestrate the practices, we’d start out short [court] then move back, just do a lot of crosscourt pattern stuff, down the line, me moving them,” Witt said. “We were doing a lot of 15-20 ball rallies where they were grinding, a lot of swinging volleys, you know they like to come in and hit that high ball and put it away. A lot of attacking second serves which they are very good at.”
At this year’s French Open, Serena Williams lost the first set to an unheralded opponent before a rain delay halted play. After receiving some coaching from father Richard during the delay, she came back and steamrolled her opponent 6-1, 6-1 in the final two sets. It is this lack of match play, due to their multiple injuries, where the Williams sisters sometimes struggle with the mental aspect of the game in their attempted march back to the top of the rankings.
“They are really big and strong, but I think the biggest thing is if they start to miss, they get a little tentative and they back off of attacking so much,” Witt says. “I think so much of their game is attack and overpower, if they see someone isn’t taking their racquet back quick enough or something like that, they will really jump on that and expose that.”
While parents Richard and Oracene drove the Williams sisters to the top of the sport, some pundits believe Venus and Serena could benefit from a new coaching perspective as they enter the latter years of their careers. Boston Globe columnist and tennis historian Bud Collins was one to not pull any punches at this year’s French Open.
“During her press conference, Venus talked about her parents, who are both here this year, always telling her the same old stuff when it comes to their roles as coaches,” Collins wrote. “I can tell you that if she’s getting tired of hearing the same message from her nearest and dearest, she can try hearing my voice if she’d like. I promise you that if she was listening to me, she’d hear something very different. I would be telling Venus to slice those backhands and get to the net. When you’re as tall as Venus and have a wingspan that wide, she could own the net.”
Whether his position develops from hitting partner to more of a coaching position or not, Witt realizes that opportunities such as this are fleeting and he will enjoy them as they come.
“It is a gamble because you know with any type of athlete, if they wake up on the wrong side of the bed or they’re not playing great or they lose first round two weeks in a row…” said Witt on the pro sports mentality. “It’s not really a mental thing with you if they’re doing good, it’s more of a ‘Hey I’m doing good’ and they get comfortable with you. So I’m willing to take a gamble. It’s not everyday that two of the best tennis players in the world ask you to travel and be there, I think it’s worth it if it comes to that.”
This article originally appeared in the July issue of JAX Tennis Magazine, covering Jacksonville and Northeast Florida. Media kit at www.jaxtennismagazine.com
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