The Spanish System

Written by Adrian Rattenbury

In the last 20 years Spanish tennis has produced a World Number 1 every five years: Arancha Sánchez Vicario (1995); Carlos Moya (1999); Juan Carlos Ferrero (2003) and Rafa Nadal (2008 & current). At present Rafael Nadal has achieved, nº1 ATP, Olympic Gold medallist in Beijing, four times winner of the French Open, double Wimbledon Champion after playing in three consecutive finals. He is the first Spaniard to win the Australian Open and has recently added the US Open becoming only the 7th player in history to collect a career Grand Slam and the youngest to achieve this in the modern era. All this helps to confirm the unrivalled success of Spanish tennis on all surfaces over the last two decades.

So how do they do it? What is the magic recipe? What is their system?

Quite simply they don’t have one! They have systems, programmes, development plans and coaching pathways, but the leading academies in Spanish tennis create, adopt and develop their own. The Governing Body in Spain has a total annual budget of €4million and as such has very little power to influence, coerce, demand or ultimately dictate what coaches, clubs, players and parents should or shouldn’t do. This decision is left to the coaches, clubs, players and parents. There is no one system as it is quite clear that one single system cannot fit all the players. The structure in Spain allows players to find a club, coach and/or an academy that suits their requirements, their learning style, it’s their choice. If they go to one academy that doesn’t suit them they can move on to one with a different view, different approach or different style until they find one that matches their requirements.

Virtually none of the top Spanish juniors receive any funding from the Federation. They must find sponsors, backers or simply rely on parental support. There is no such thing as a free place in a Spanish Academy. When Andy Murray was training at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona he had to pay, the same as with other players such as Kuzetznova. The payment is considered part of the commitment and a motivating factor in the player wanting to and needing to put in 100% to get their value for money. A far distance from the £15miilion spent by the LTA on our “performance” players per annum. Four times that of the total budget of the Spanish Federation.

How do the players in Spain get so good in the first place. The club system is strong, it supports and encourages the junior players, it introduces them into the senior ranks when they have the ability not when they are “old enough”. Virtually every club will have a professional coach and they will support and assist this coach in developing a programme, running events and developing the players at the club at all levels. The coach is seen as a real asset and benefit to the club and its members. The clubs are effectively, efficiently and professionally run, albeit still mainly by a representative committee of the members.

Coaching in Spain is of a very high standard indeed. The technical information provided to coaches at the first stage of training is the most up to date available and is based on constant and consistent research and development of the professional game. This technical base encourages players to develop a solid fundamental base which will hold them in good stead for their development in future years. This base is the focus of the coaches and players in the early years and there is little “rush” to get them into competition. Although competition is available, the players will only be encouraged to enter a competition when they have developed a technical core of strokes. The feeling in Spain is that by entering competitions before this base is established actually encourages the player to develop “bad” habits, as with competition the focus is always on winning. Whether we like it or not and as such players will adapt and adopt ways of playing which may win matches at 7/8 years old but will not encourage the technical base and will not benefit them in the long run. All this being said there is always a level of competition included in most coaching sessions, it is just not necessarily one on one singles.

Mini-tennis has become the corner stone of junior tennis and development in the UK and there is little doubt that this has its place in the initial introduction of the game to younger children. Extending the reach of the game into more schools, and as the first part of a players development. There is little mini-tennis, though in Spain. Although some clubs and coaches may use a low compression ball, there is no programme that requires or even encourages the different balls at the different ages on a different size court and there is certainly no competition framework at all for mini-tennis. Kids will start to compete on a full court with a full ball in sanctioned tournaments when they are ready, not when they are old enough. Emilio Sanchez is a firm believer of working with players on their physiological age not their birthdate. The size of child at the age of 10 can vary dramatically and it would only seem common sense to deal with that child based on their ability as with all children and not on their age. If you are 8 and you can and want to play on a full court with a “normal” ball in a competition it is your choice. There are no rules and regulations to stop you and even with the introduction of the new programme of the International Tennis Federation, the Academies and coaching organisations not only in Spain but in other countries including the USA have already stated they will not be adopting the new rules of competition which are based on age groups from 7-11.
The simple facts of the Spanish System is that there isn’t one! There are many and it is this flexible, practical and simple approach that has helped to make Spanish tennis as successful as it has been for the past 20 years and, with 13 players in the top 100 on the ATP Tour, continues to be today.