The Legendary Coach Eric Riley: "I'd tell Gauff and Shelton both the same message"

The former coach of Pam Shriver and Lisa Raymond granted an interview to Tennis World USA, in which he talked about the most important topics of this tennis Era

by Lorenzo Ciotti
The Legendary Coach Eric Riley: "I'd tell Gauff and Shelton both the same message"
© Eric Riley

The legendary tennis coach Eric Riley kindly granted an exclusive interview with Tennis World USA, during which he explored many significant topics. For over four decades, TeamRiley Tennis Inc. founder has coached some of the world's top-ranked tennis players to numerous international titles on the professional tour.

Two players coached by Eric have been nominated for the International Tennis Hall of Fame, one being inducted. Several of Eric's players have achieved the No.1 world rankings in doubles and reached the Top-5 ranking in singles.

Eric coached International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee Pam Shriver through the final decade of her career. He also coached career doubles Grand Slam winner Lisa Raymond. In 1996, Eric coached Lisa to her first professional singles title in Canada, the Challenge Belle, in Quebec City.

In 1997, Eric coached Lisa at the Australian Open Doubles Final, where her partner was Lindsay Davenport. In July 2008, Lisa Raymond partnered with Samantha Stosur and got to the Wimbledon Doubles Final, where they lost to Venus nd Serena Williams.

In 2017, Eric worked with Marcus Willis before his Wimbledon run. More recently, Eric's player list includes 2023 Stanford University No.1 player Angelica Blake and many ranked juniors. As a professional player, Eric had a world ranking for 8 consecutive years on the ATP Tour, from 1984 to 1991.

Prior to his career in professional tennis, Eric played No.1 on the University of Pennsylvania Tennis Team and was the first African American tennis captain for a men's team in the Ivy League. Mr. Riley, who currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, covered many topics, such as the evolution of tennis over the years, the role of the super coach, the rising stars of the NCAA, mental health in the game and the future of US tennis.

Eric Riley and Angelica Blake© Eric Riley

Mr. Riley, what has changed in collegiate tennis, compared to the past? Do you think that today's training methods are better than a few decades ago?

The collegiate tennis game itself hasn’t changed.

The dimensions of the court are the same and weight of the ball is the same. What has changed, the players are stronger, maybe a bit faster and the average size of the player is becoming taller. Additionally, there is more depth from the global allure of American college tennis.

More international players from a higher level are being attracted to these top NCAA tennis scholarship opportunities. An American education scholarship is highly desirable. International players can get that education and prepare for the professional tour.

Unless you have the mental focus and superior physical attributes of say a Frances Tiafoe where you go right to the pros, American players as well as international players who need more development can get to the top of the college game to prepare for the professional tour.

Things aren’t really changing, the collegiate talent pool is stronger. More depth raises the standard for everyone.

Over the past few decades, how has a collegiate tennis player's perspective on the continuation of his/her career evolved? Are there more possibilities today than in the past to make the leap in quality and get to the WTA and ATP Tour?

Some collegiate players are being enticed to play professionally because of the money.

Some say, “I’ll go try the pro tour”. Because of the possibility, the desire to do that is higher than it used to be. There are more tournaments now. To get to the top is difficult, it has always been hard. The money is attractive and it draws the top athletes.

However, those top opportunities are few. Only 128 players can be in the main draw of the Slams. There are many players talented enough to be in there but they do not have the numbers to do it. More players are going the college route before turning to the pros.

College tennis is a solid training ground for the professional ranks and attracting talent, not just American talent but players from around the world. If you are good enough to climb to the top of the tennis rankings in college, that is ample indication that you are ready for the next level.

Ben Shelton was the 2022 NCAA Men’s Singles Champion while at the University of Florida and turned pro. We saw the success he just had this year. Peyton Stearns was the 2022 NCAA Women’s Singles Champion while at University of Texas, we saw her crack into the top 50 this year after being the best collegiate women’s player.

I do not think a lot has changed in college tennis. The top collegiate players have always done well in the pros. It has always been a solid training ground for the pros. What is different at the collegiate level is the talent level is a bit higher now.

There are so many players with professional experience playing in college now. There are many world ranked professional players playing in college.

Frances Tiafoe© Matthew Stockman / Staff Getty Images Sport

What advice do you offer to those top collegiate players thinking about making the leap?

My best advice for today’s top collegiate players interested in making the switch to the pros....pull in a professional coach earlier in the journey.

A top player going into their final year of collegiate tennis should be lining up their professional coach and working with them that final season to prepare to make the switch from college to the ATP or WTA Tour. The segway from a college coach to a professional coach must begin earlier.

A college player isn’t going pro without this coach versed on the professional tour, a coach who will first help navigate the professional level and then help the player win. The pro coach helps determine what tournaments to play and when to play them.

Plus, the coach guides the transition of the player’s game from the collegiate level to the professional level. College players don’t understand what playing on the tour entails. There is nothing easy about it. They need this guidance and support.

How do you rate the work of the NCAA?

Recently, I have had the opportunity to attend NCAA Women’s tournaments while coaching Stanford University’s current #1 singles player Angelica Blake. Angelica only lost 3 matches this past year and 2 were to the NCAA finalists.

She is absolutely one to watch as she wraps up her NCAA career next spring. I was also particularly impressed from what I saw from Lea Ma from University of Georgia and Fiona Crawley from UNC (University of North Carolina), having seen them play, they have the upside ability to play on the pro tour.

Ma has made the leap this year, Crawley should be prepping to make the switch if she isn’t already. You should find more NCAA tennis stats by following this link.

Ben Shelton© Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Staff Getty Images Sport

US Tennis has a bright future with Coco Gauff and Ben Shelton.

What advice would you give to such young but already successful players?

I would tell Coco Gauff and Ben Shelton both the same message. Both had their break while young so now, from this day forward, the journey does not get easier.

They must enjoy the journey. The expectations, the pressure is now, more than ever, immense and gets to be a difficult thing to manage. Especially on the women’s side. I have seen it firsthand. Shelton’s father knows the ropes at the pro level which is a huge benefit for him.

Both must embrace the challenges ahead and meet them head on. The fact is there are higher expectations on Coco Gauff and Ben Shelton now. More pressure on them both publicly and privately. You have people spending more and more time training just to beat them.

After their 2023 success, the road ahead is now tougher for them. Some players will take their foot off the gas when they have this kind of breakthrough. Coco and Ben must roll up their sleeves and work on their weaknesses.

Coco Gauff© Clive Brunskill / Staff Getty Images Sport

Let's talk about current tennis.

You were the coach of Pam Shriver and Lisa Raymond. With your experience, what do you think of the trend tennis players have today to include a super coach in their team?

The super coach for a great player is not a new trend.

When I coached Pam Shriver and Lisa Raymond, Ivan Lendl had Australian Champion Tony Roche, Steffi Graf had Heinz Gunthardt, Jim Courier with Jose Higueras and fast forward to more current we saw the publicity surrounding Coco Gauff with super coach Brad Gilbert during the US Open, this year.

A successful super coach, a marque couch, must put ego aside and be the best supporting actor, collaborating with the player’s already established team to help the player win tennis matches. Super coaches understand the highest level of competition as they have coached (and sometimes played) at the top center courts in the world.

What are the three most important qualities that a super coach can bring to the team of an already successful and established athlete?

A super coach is a well-respected successful player or coach or both who has the experience- technical & tactical- as well as communicative abilities to enable a high-level player to move to the next level.

A super coach can come for a player make the jump from 99 to 19, a Top 12 player to top 3. They work at the highest level and have the eminent knowledge & communicative know how to get the job done. The qualities of the super coach are used to build the player’s confidence in competition.

It is imperative that the super coach puts everyone on the player’s team at ease. The player’s team needs to understand their jobs are not at stake. These are the good things we do. Super coaches make winning adjustments to a player’s current program.

He or she must embrace the team that is in place and make a complementary list of all that has been done well to help the player be the best they can be to date. He or she has to respect the system that is in place, and figure out a way to enhance what is already there.

After recognizing list of things begin done well, the super coach identifies what can be done better to help the player improve his confidence to a) enhance his or her weapons b) improve his or her weaknesses. Super Coaches then design a plan, a 3-month, 6-month and 12-month plan, strictly focused on #2 above and support the player’s team in executing the plan.

Eric Riley© Eric Riley

Mental health and psychology are the basis of the athlete's balance. What are the biggest difficulties today, compared to the 80s and 90s?

Distraction and access of the telephone and social media are the biggest challenges of today’s players.

Secondly, increased pressure on winning immediately which off sets positive self esteem and developing your game during the teen years, younger years. The focus always becomes immediate success. However, you must develop your game.

Developing your tennis game takes 5-10 years, developing your game for the future is more important than trying to focus solely on winning right now. Young players need good self esteem and feel good about what they are doing.

It is not an overnight success, it is a hill you climb. Tennis takes a while. If you stick with the program and to borrow a Sixers motto, “trust the process,” success will follow.

Peyton© Clive Brunskill / Staff Getty Images Sport

We are finally seeing more black tennis players on the Tour.

Do you think there is still racism in tennis today? Has something changed?

We have to give the international sport of tennis a positive grade on the adjustments that have been made as far as the treatment of all tennis players.

I would be remised to not mention Athea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. Then came Zina Garrison and Laurie McNeal, Leslie Allen. These were black players that won tour events. Because of the greatness of Venus and Serena Williams as well as Billy Jean King, doors were opened for everyone.

Venus and Serena showed their greatness and it was respected and revered globally. It wasn’t their skin color; it was their skill that was respected which helps to break down barriers in tennis for all cultures. The walls have been broken down and globally black players have been embraced in tennis.

What does tennis mean to you?

Outside of my family and friends, tennis is everything to me. It has been a passion since they first time I saw Arthur Ashe hit a tennis ball in 1969. I never wanted to do anything else in my life beside play tennis and be around professional tennis.

Outside of my faith, tennis is the reason I get up every day of my life. I have been able to share it with my twin brother when we traveled on tour together for 4 years. Also, vicariously with my daughter who played over a decade on the pro women’s tour.

I have traveled to over 20 countries coaching tennis professionally and met lifelong friends. People tell me my passion for tennis is contagious. I am blessed with the career I have had in the sport the past 4 decades.

Pam Shriver Lisa Raymond