TORONTO – Rob Steckley beams as he speaks about Lucie Safarova in advance of her first Rogers Cup singles match Wednesday morning against Russia’s Daria Gavrilova.
Steckley, the Toronto-born-and-raised coach, talks about how much Safarova has improved under his tutelage and how much better the No. 7-ranked player in the world can still be.
But Steckley is just as proud of how much he’s been able to help change Sarafova’s demeanour.
For all the technical and tactical changes he’s preached – closing her stance to develop a stronger hitting point and teaching how to construct and win points – he insists Sarafova wouldn’t be where she is today without lightening up.
“When I met her seven years ago, she was an entirely different person,” Steckley, 35, said. “We would actually have a conversation with you looking at the ground. She wouldn’t actually look at you in the eye. Whether it was a confidence thing, she just wasn’t comfortable.
“Over the years we’ve had talks as friends. Especially now working together, I’ve been able to bring that side out in her where she’s able to have a lot more fun.”
And Steckley – dressed in a straight-billed cap with a man bun peaking out the back – is the perfect person to bring that fun side out in her.
The pair first worked together in 2012 and officially signed off on their coach-athlete relationship late in the 2013 season. It took so long in part because, as Steckley puts it, “she had some reservations about my personality.”
He loves to talk and is quick with a quip.
It still seems like tennis’s version of the odd couple. He calls her an “introvert.” She calls him “crazy.”
Yet, in a classic case of opposites attracting, the mentorship has been the perfect tonic for Safarova.
Having turned 28 in February, Sarafova is having the best season of her career.
The Czech lefty made the final at the French Open, losing in three sets to (who else?) Serena Williams. She also won the Australian and French Open doubles titles with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, whose husband Justin is good friends with Steckley.
“He’s a good coach. He has a fun personality,” said Safarova, who is also playing doubles with Mattek-Sands in Toronto. “Tennis is a lot of power and repetitions. Sometimes you can get, not frustrated, but there are a lot of the same things. It’s a lot of routine. It’s nice to have someone who brings a fun spirit.
“He always comes up with something and surprises me. It’s been three years almost that we’ve been working. My tennis has been going great – the best results of my career so far. I’m really happy about that.”
While Steckley’s jovial, kooky nature has been slowly meshed with Safarova, it hasn’t always served him so well.
Growing up in North York, Steckley was a promising junior player, but only reached a career-high mark of 464 in the pros.
He marched to the beat of his own drummer at times and – as the National Post’s Kaitlyn McGrath documents – that led to its share of problems.
“When I was playing back in the day, I was always told to be quiet,” Steckley said. “If you’re not quiet then you’re not focused. If you’re not focused, you’re not going to get the results.
“I always lived my life being outspoken, being the one who thought outside the box. It got me in trouble throughout the years because, as a kid, you don’t know exactly where that’s taking you. Tennis is a pretty straight-forward sport and there’s no room for thinking outside the box unless you’re really, really producing results. Over the years I’ve been able to find myself and keep my personality. I’ve been able to harness it.”
Steckley admits he made his share of mistakes. When asked what his biggest one was, he thought for second before replying: “There were a lot.”
“I try to tune them all out and just focus on what’s working for me,” he said.
Then he continued.
“People that have a creative side ... are misunderstood for not being focused,” Steckley said. “A lot of my junior career and into my early 20s was about was trying to tell people who felt that I wasn’t focused that I actually am focused. I just have a different way of looking at it.
“The message I’ve been telling people is you have to know when and where to be yourself, but always understand that you have to be yourself.”
There was once no fun in tennis for Steckley. He actually left the sport nearly a decade ago, figuring he didn’t enjoy it anymore.
That proved to be folly.
“Eventually you get outside and you realize that it was a huge opportunity, a huge part of your life,” he said. “The reason that you didn’t enjoy something is for reasons that you created.
“That’s exactly why I decided to get into coaching. I was ready to tackle it on and my time expire (as a player). I felt like I was still young enough to capitalize on branching out and being a new type of coach.”
After working with, among others, Canadians Aleksandra Wozniak and Frank Dancevic, Steckley has reached a high point with Safarova.
Steckley spends his non-tennis days at home in Woodbridge with his girlfriend, Jennifer, and their two-year-old daughter, Rain.
He insists he hasn’t mellowed much. He’s just a bit more serious than he once was and picks his spots for humour better.
And it’s led to a promising stretch of tennis with Safarova, one he expects will only get better.
“She’s a top-five player in my opinion,” Steckley said. “She’s a player that could get to two (overall) eventually ... And if Serena retires, one.
“Lucie has more room for improvement, more room for growth. We believe we can get there.”
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