By Joel Drucker
As the sun sets over California’s Coachella Valley, USTA Director of Coaching Jose Higueras sits down to do something he has done thousands of times—something that, to him, never gets old. Higueras is here on Stadium Two at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, primed to watch 18-year-old American Ryan Harrison take on another young pro, 20-year-old Canadian Milos Raonic. Higueras settles in to a courtside seat in the stadium’s southeast corner. He greets a few friends, drapes a towel over his legs, fixes his green eyes on the two hopefuls and begins to see and think his way through a match with all the deep engagement a Renaissance literature professor brings to Shakespeare. Tennis, says Higueras, “is the only thing I like and know how to do.”
Over the course of more than 20 years as a coach, Higueras has participated in many significant moments. In 1989, he was in the player’s box at Roland Garros with Michael Chang when the precocious 17-yearold became the fi rst American man to win the French Open singles title since Tony Trabert, 34 years earlier. Two years later, Higueras once again greatly aided an American’s Parisian triumph, this time with future U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier—a victory Courier repeated alongside Higueras a year later.
Higueras’ work with Hall of Famers Chang and Courier are just two highlights of a coaching resume that also includes time with Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Todd Martin, U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez and—every bit as important to Higueras—dozens more players of various levels. Brad Stine worked alongside Higueras as part of Courier’s braintrust for the better part of four years. According to Stine, “What’s great about Jose is that he doesn’t just say, ‘Do it this way.’ He takes players as individuals and looks to understand their technical, physical and mental attributes.”
“You need to understand how each person learns,” says the 58-year-old Higueras. “Michael and Jim, for example, took in ideas quite differently. When I’d tell Michael to do something, he’d think about it for a day or two, then tell me what he thought about it. When I started with Jim, he’d do what I suggested immediately—at least when we started working together. Neither approach is better than the other.”
Courier worked with Higueras for most of the 1990s. “Jose has a calming effect on people,” he says. “I’m more high-strung. Jose helped me learn to manage my emotions better and to see that hitting a winner counts the same as getting an error. I became not just a better tennis player, but in large part, with Jose, went from a boy to a man.” According to USTA General Manager of Player Development Patrick McEnroe, “Jose is a one-of-a-kind person. He’s a great coach, a great teacher and even more, a great person.”
Higueras joined the USTA two years ago. Though he’d had a few part-time gigs with the organization over the years, this was his fi rst permanent position—in fact, the first full-time job of his life. Over the course of his coaching career, one of Higueras’ primary sources of leverage has been the purity of his commitment. “I’ve never had a contract with a player,” he says, “and that means either of us can end it at any time.” That level of mutual freedom has often proved liberating.
As Courier notes, “Jose is a cowboy.” And besides his solitary time on a horse, Higueras cherishes his independence and was uncertain if he and the USTA would be a good fit. It took Higueras nearly six months to decide to join the USTA—knowing that he was going to work not just on the court exclusively with players but even more, with coaches.
Says McEnroe, “It was a no-brainer for us to want Jose, but he wasn’t going to rush into it. I think what excited him was that we were going to try and do it in a different way. This was a real opportunity for all of us—the chance to impart Jose’s considerable wisdom to coaches all over the country.”
“I love to teach,” says Higueras, in explaining why he accepted the USTA’s offer. “I think I love to teach more than I love to coach, though both things go somewhat together. This is a big challenge and a big opportunity. I’m helping to put a program together, sharing my knowledge and my experience and trying to offer a little different picture of how we want our kids to play.
“I get to work with some wonderful and talented kids and coaches, and hopefully we can really make a difference—not only in making these kids better players but in making a real difference in their lives.”
According to Martin, “Some coaches know the Xs and Os but not much about development. Others know development but not many Xs and Os. Then there’s Jose. He can hit for the cycle.”
Says Higueras, “We are trying to have an effect and change the culture of what it takes to be a good player.” Fanatical about proper footwork, drills and consistency, Higueras believes “our kids don’t play as well as they hit” and adds, “I get a little annoyed when I see the pressures put on little kids just because they’ve already got a sectional ranking. Some people play for the wrong reasons, for the pursuit of money. The right reason to play is because you have the passion inside you, the love of competition and the challenge of mastery.”
But while many coaches believe they hold all the answers, Higueras enjoys asking questions. Over the course of his time with the USTA he has spent thousands of hours talking with coaches and players. Says Higueras, “In doing this for so long, I’ve come to see that teaching and coaching is not just about transferring information from one person to another. What matters most is how you relate to one another.” As McEnroe notes, “Jose loves it when coaches come on the court and show things to him. He’s very inclusive, very open to learning.”
It only makes sense that a coach as cerebral as Higueras would inspire the same in his charges. Indeed, Higueras works at least as hard at developing the minds of his players as he does at developing their strokes. In a game that is ever-evolving, he knows that if a player doesn’t also evolve, he most surely will be left behind.
“Tennis has changed quite a bit over the years in terms of speed,” Higueras notes. “The hard courts are slower, the grass is slower, and the clay, of course, is a slow surface as well…. It is a different game today, so there is much more to be done in terms of understanding how to construct points, how to win a backcourt exchange, how to play smart percentage tennis. Tennis has gone in a different direction, and I’m not sure we’ve done a good job in following that direction.
“We have many talented players. I want to make them smarter players. You can have the best strokes in the game but you have to know how to use them and when to use them. You have to know how to position yourself to make the most of them. Success in tennis is about decision making, it’s about giving yourself the best shot to win the point.”
In many ways, Higueras’ evolution as a coach has its roots in his career as a player. Growing up in Barcelona as the son of a construction worker, Higueras lived near the prestigious Real Club. At age 9, he worked at the club as a ballboy for two-and-a- half cents per hour. He made a paddle from a fruit box and in time took to tennis. “It turned out a lot of us ballboys were pretty good, so they had us play interclub matches,” says Higueras. “Tennis was my way out.”
By age 26, Higueras had cracked the Top 10. Higueras’ fundamental belief is that “tennis is a game of errors. A good player learns how to minimize them, to properly understand when it’s time for offense and when it’s time for defense.” As you might expect from a Spaniard, initially Higueras excelled at defense. His best results were on clay, where relentless concentration and air-tight groundstrokes made him an exceptionally formidable competitor.
But the best—and the worst—was yet to come. Stricken with hepatitis, Higueras’ health was severely compromised for much of 1980 and 81. Around this time, having fallen in love with a woman from Palm Springs, Higueras relocated to California and began to enhance his game.
“That’s when I became a big believer in doing things well on every surface,” he says. “I began to see how even a guy like me who’d been raised on clay could learn to attack.” In 1982 and 83, he notched his best Grand Slam results, reaching the semis at Roland Garros two straight years—dropping just six games in routing No. 1 seed Jimmy Connors there in 82—and attaining a career-high ranking of No. 6 in the world.
Having played the game at such a high level, Higueras certainly brings a distinct brand of credibility to his work as a coach. But as many of Higueras’ peers note, he doesn’t overstate his playing credentials. “Tell you what,” he’ll often tell a player of any skill level, “you tell me what you think, I’ll tell you what I think—and if you think I’m wrong, tell me, because I might be wrong.” According to Martin, “He puts a lot of responsibility on the player. He demands a high level of engagement.”
But the cowboy knows he must harness many horses and forces. Says Higueras, “I am constantly learning about this game from all the people I meet, all the ideas they bring me and all the ways we can learn about tennis together. Nobody strictly learns things by themselves.”