Top Coach Eric Riley gives wise advice to Coco Gauff and the US tennis talents

The American coach talked in depth about US tennis, between the present and the future, giving advice to both top players and young tennis players

by Lorenzo Ciotti
Top Coach Eric Riley gives wise advice to Coco Gauff and the US tennis talents
© Clive Brunskill / Staff Getty Images Sport

Tennis Coach Eric Riley kindly granted an interview to Tennis World USA, in which he focused his attention on US tennis.

The former coach of Pam Shriver and Lisa Raymond and founder of TeamRiley Tennis Inc. analyzed the current differences in American men's and women's tennis, focusing both on the stars who are achieving excellent results on the WTA and ATP Tours, and on the importance of the US collegiate system.

Riley has experienced the full evolution of many tennis players over his four decades coaching top players on the Tour. 

Erik Riley and Angelika Blake
Erik Riley and Angelika Blake© © Eric with Stanford University’s #1, Angelica Blake, the 2023 ITA Northwest Most Improved Senior

US tennis is finding a good structure both among women and men. Coco Gauff, Jessica Pegula, Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz and Tommy Paul: What can they achieve in 2024?

US Tennis is benefiting from an influx of super talent. The American men’s player results are improving but we haven’t won a Slam since Andy Roddick. We need to see the American players making the adjustments to not only stay in the top of the rankings but also to win. Something is wrong, we aren’t winning the Slams.

Gauff has no limitations if she improves her forehand and copes with the pressures that come with the expectations of being the next great one, which means people are going to be studying her film work and exploiting her weaknesses. Coco has an experienced super coach that will help her. She doesn’t have real limitations. She has to manage the mental approach and she has Brad Gilbert who can certainly help her with that.

Pegula fired the coach who got her to the precipice of the world number one ranking. By virtue of doing that, be it a good or bad decision, Pegula has heaped insurmountable pressure upon herself to win 4 matches or more at any of the three remaining grand slams this year. I have seen tennis for so long and the evolution of the players. Jessica has to play the best tennis of her career. She can hopefully achieve staying in the top 10.

Tiafoe has to gain traction because right now he is skidding a bit. He has to understand who he is as a tennis player. He has gotten to top 10 in the world without clarity on who he is as a tennis player because he was so gifted to cover his weakness on his way up to his acme. When Fran considers what he can be as an offensive juggernaut in the sport of pro tennis, he will be unstoppable. This will help him win 7 matches in a row, not just 5. 

Fritz can hopefully stay in the top 15 in 2024. As hard as he works, what specific things is he doing to stay ranked in the top 15 in the world? What is he doing to beat the 14 people ranked ahead of him. He has to pinpoint what he needs to improve. He was already 5 in the world. He is also on a bit of a decline. It is in these situations that you have to make adjustments.   

Paul has had some good wins. He is in a good place and has had solid results. In 2024, he has to maintain staying in the top 25. Once you get up there, it isn’t that easy to stay. 

Shelton's results speak for themselves. His game is moving in the right direction. He is back to work and this year. He can hope to solidify himself within the top 20. Getting there is one thing. Staying inside the top 20 is another.

Coco Gauff
Coco Gauff© Francois Nel / Staff Getty Images Sport

What do you think US tennis needs, to be able to return to dominating like in past years? With Coco Gauff, women's tennis is in good hands, does men's tennis still need a step?

The global nature of the sport, the stars are not coming from one place. The top players are coming from multiple places. Tennis development can’t take credit for the great ones. For a stretch there, the talent was coming from the US and Australia.

US tennis is not in a great place. We are behind the eight ball. We haven’t had a men’s Slam champion since Andy Roddick. The women have been doing very well. The Williams sisters, Sloane Stephens and Coco Gauff. However, those women their success isn’t tied to any centralized developmental program in the US. Their success is tied to a insatiable work ethic and talent.

If you had to give advice from a technical point of view to these players, what would you tell them? While what would you say to them, from an emotional and motivational point of view?

Develop your game for the future. Work on all aspects of your game. Many players just want to work on what they do well. Most players are one dimensional. The players need to work on developing their entire game so they have other options to win points in a tennis match.

COCO GAUFF:  Make sure she listens to Brad Gilbert. He has the knowledge and can deliver the message that she needs to understand manage her personal expectations and exterior expectations. She has to find the desire to work at a higher level and keep improving to be the best she can be.

JESSICA PEGULA: Needs to hold the line and not slip backwards.  She needs to play up in the court more and stop backing up on the high ball.  She has to come in and finish more at the net. 

FRANCES TIAFOE:  Tiafoe has to understand who he is as a tennis player and impose his offensive weapons to impose his will on his opponents. He is not taking charge the way he should be.

TAYLOR FRITZ: He has really achieved a lot in his career and he has one of the toughest coaches in the world. At his height with his serve, why isn’t he at the net more? Taylor needs to serve and volley on some points to give his opponents a different look.

BEN SHELDON: Ben is still growing and maturing. He has a chance to be #1 in the world because we know he can go deep on a hard court or grass. He has a very good serve but he has to make sure he is developing all of his weapons. He needs to make sure to use his serve as an offensive tactic to get forward more.

If you could choose, who would coach among the tennis players mentioned above, to bring out their still unexpressed potential?

These players are all very special. These are among the best tennis players in the world. Lets get something straight, they are extraordinary tennis players and athletes. Being around the game for four decades, I have seen the best in every corner of the world. I have coached them, coached against them and played against them. Hopefully, these current American players can all motivate each other to do great things. 

Tennis is tough, it is about confidence which is not easy to maintain. Each one of these players would be a dream to coach. Hopefully, these players are bringing in coaches that know the game and can help them improve to have a long career. A very experienced coach is a necessity in today’s competitive game.     

Having been around so many champions, Martina, Chrissy Evert and Pam Shriver, those players were playing for greatness and to make history. They are the most driven athletes of all time. I saw how they worked. They did things differently. To have a long career in tennis, you have to work and keep getting better. Your quality in 2023, won’t win in 2024. You have to keep improving. 

Ben Shelton
Ben Shelton© Matthew Stockman / Staff Getty Images Sport

How do you see the long-term future of US tennis?

We see that as a bright future because we have young stars. The ones with the most potential are Coco Gauff and Ben Sheldon. American tennis is looking pretty good.

Talking about college tennis, you coach Stanford's Angelica Blake: in your opinion, is she ready to make the leap to the pros?

After solid results in this college season, she will be ready. Angelica Blake has a very complete game. 

Angelica Blake
Angelica Blake© Stanford University website
Tennis Coach Eric Riley and Stanford University top women’s player Angelica Blake watching film which has been a big part of h
Tennis Coach Eric Riley and Stanford University top women’s player Angelica Blake watching film which has been a big part of h© Eric Riley

Which teams can aspire to the next NCAA titles in the spring?

NCAA WOMENS: UNC, Oklahoma State University, Texas and Stanford

Is the college reservoir today as important as in the past, to provide new US players for the WTA and ATP Tour?

There is no clear cut pathway in tennis, however, there is one thing we know for sure. Top collegiate tennis is pro grade tennis. It is the minor leagues of tennis.  The level of college tennis is higher than it has ever been.

There are more foreign players in the system getting scholarships working on their game. The word is out now, college tennis with all the scholarships, the free equipment, racquets and the quality of the players in the college game. 

It is a great opportunity to get yourself ready for pro tennis. Go to college, get a free American education and play against some of the best players in the world.

What advice would you give to a young collegiate tennis player who aspires to become a professional tennis player?

Stay the course and make sure to set your sights on the best you can be. IF you are getting close to the top of the college ranking, your level of play is going to be good enough to sustain you as a pro player. You have to think about lining up your pro-game. 

Coco Gauff