Text size

Shahar Peer is stuck. The graph of her progress, which skyrocketed like a high-tech company during the startup boom, has reached a plateau in recent months. It has even dipped a little. This may be a short-term phenomenon, or maybe a mid-term one, but Peer herself calls the current stage of her career "critical." It is a highly significant one.

The sudden halt in progress coincided with her decision to replace her team of Israeli coaches, headed by Dedi Yaakov, with an international ensemble headed by Jose Higueras. The timing of the dramatic decision raised eyebrows in the local and international tennis world, as did her firing of new coach Adam Peterson after just six weeks.

Peer's meteoric rise in women's tennis thrust her and her father Dov, who is in charge of the managerial and financial side of her career, into the big money game. An intertwined world of commercial representatives seeking endorsements, players' agents and top coaches. It is possible that, while she was rocketing up the rankings, Peer and her family were victims of a minor case of vertigo. They believe that the hiatus is just a passing problem. So what went wrong?

Former coach Dedi Yaakov has his own take. "After the Israeli national team's games in the Fed Cup at the end of April, I began to get a sense that things were happening behind the scenes. No one spoke to me, and I had no clear sense of what was happening, because Shahar's progress and the results were excellent.

"And then Shahar came to me one evening after training and said, 'Listen, Dedi, I want to talk to you. This is very difficult for me. You have a family, and that is making it hard for you to accompany me on tour. I'm at a stage of my career where I cannot afford to make mistakes, and I feel that I need someone to accompany me most of the year.'

"I understood from that conversation that the issue was really troubling her, and that she wanted me to accompany her to most of the tournaments overseas. She wanted at least 30 weeks a year, and that was something I couldn't give her.

"My reply to her was instinctive. I told her that I appreciated her talking to me openly, but that her success thus far was proof that it could be done. I told her that she was better off with my being their part-time, because we know each other, than for her to take on a full-time coach who doesn't know her at all. I told her that I would accept and respect whatever decision she made.

"A week later, again after training, she turned to me and said, 'I'm going to look for someone on a full-time basis. Let's work together for another month and end it after the French Open.'

"It was hard for me to accept, but I felt that I owed it to her on a personal level, given all that we had been through over the previous six years. I felt that I must remain professional right up to the end."

The big bang

Israel's success helped Peer climb to the upper echelons of the women's game. Perhaps not in terms of rankings' points, but certainly in terms of self-confidence. For the first time, she carried the national team on her back. "The Big Bang," is how Yaakov describes it. "Over a five-day period she played a different nationality every day and beat them all. On the last day, she beat Ana Ivanovic of Croatia, who was ranked No. 17 in the world at the time ? the first time she had beaten a Top 20 player. Everything just came together for her."

After that came the farewell conversation. Three months have gone by, and Yaakov is still having trouble comprehending. "The timing was completely paradoxical. Incomprehensible. Players and coaches often part ways; it's part of the game. His question is: when do you do it? When there is a plateau of non-progress, or when the relationship has exhausted itself, or at the end of the season ? but this happened in mid-season, when the professional relationship was working well.

"We were on an upward wave, so wait until the end of the season in November. I asked myself, 'Why now?' Even now I have no clear answer. The only answer I got was the official answer? that top of their list of priorities was to hire a coach who would be with Shahar all year long."

When Yaakov says 'their,' he means the Peer family. Shahar is wrapped up in competitions and, as usual, her father Dov serves as spokesman. "It wasn't the family's decision," he insists. "It was Shahar's. She makes all the major decisions and she reached the conclusion that she wouldn't compromise any more. She wanted a full-time coach. Her season is made up of 25 weeks of tournaments, 10 to 15 weeks training abroad and another 10 to 15 weeks in Israel. Forty weeks every year she is overseas, and she didn't want a part-time coach."

The tennis world thinks in terms of weeks. The planned schedule for next season, like all of Peer's previous season, was for Yaakov to accompany her to around 13 weeks of competition abroad ?)in addition to the Fed Cup matches ?(fitness coach Dr. Yuval Higger would accompany her for another six weeks and an assortment of foreign coaches work with her for another six weeks.

"It worked excellently," says Yaakov. "Shahar is hungry to learn and we always wanted her to learn from a wide variety of professionals. Over the years, we have worked with Bob Brett, who coached Boris Becker and Goran Ivanisevic, with Gustavo Kuerten's coach and with other top coaches."

Honeymoon period

Yaakov and Peer spent May overseas, although officially they had split. They had a busy period of four tournaments in as many weeks. Peer won the singles tournament in Prague, and topped that off with her first doubles triumph. She arrived in Rome exhausted and lost in the first round. That gave her a chance to recuperate and she came back to win the Istanbul tourney. Thereafter, she reached the round-of-32 at the French Open, beating several of the world's top players on the way. By the end of the four weeks, she had climbed to 23rd in the world.

"May was a very difficult month for me," reflects Yaakov. "On the one hand, you know you're quitting, but on the other hand, the professional connection is very much alive. Every tournament ask yourself how she will do this time, and she gets result after result. She reached a new high every tournament. Off the court, there was a kind of awkwardness between us, but we knew how to separate the personal from the professional. Shahar is very good at 'business as usual.' I didn't wait for her to come and tell me explicitly, I knew that the partnership was over."

Peer built a new coaching team and a new training program. The Israelis, Yaakov and Higger, were replaced by an international team. Spanish coach Jose Higueras, who heads a tennis academy in Palm Springs and who has coached Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras, replaced Yaakov as head coach, and will accompany Peer for 10 weeks every season. Adam Peterson, a former player who coached Lindsay Davenport, among others, was selected to accompany Peer for the rest of the season.

"I knew Peterson before," says Yaakov. "He was a college player, won a few tournaments on the professional circuit and then went into coaching. He's an amiable guy. He was single, available and young, and they were looking for someone who could be with Shahar for 30 weeks."

In Israel, in the meantime, Yaakov and Peer ? now officially split up ? continued working together. The women's national team, which is captained by Yaakov, was preparing to host Indonesia in the Fed Cup. Business as usual. When the Indonesians refused to come to Israel, Peer set off on her own.

Her relationship with Peterson lasted less than two months. She lost in the first round of the Eastbourne tournament and the second round at Wimbledon.

"At first they said there was a click between them and then they said there wasn't," is how Yaakov sums up what he knows about the short-lived relationship.

Peer's press release also spoke about "incompatibility" between player and coach. "They didn't click," explains Dov Peer. "They reached the decision together, along with Jose, who is in overall charge. Professionally and personally, it just wasn't right."

"It was a trial period," says Peterson, who also piles endless praise on his former charge. "She 's a great player who will be even greater. There was a problem with personal compatibility," he adds cautiously, "and there were business problems, too. But they were very fair with me." Asked whether the decision to split was mutual, Peterson says that he would have ptreferred things to work out differently. "I don't like to start something and then leave before it's finished."

Peterson's temporary replacement is 25-year-old Dan Hanegbi, an Israeli ex-player who studies in California and who accompanied Peer at the Bank of the West Classic this week. The Peer family has not yet decided which coach will accompany her for 30 weeks every season.

"Right now, we don't have anyone lined up," confirms Dov Peer, "but we have Jose, which is the mainstay of Shahar's coaching team and our relationship with him is excellent. All of Shahar's decisions were taken after months of consideration, and she is determined to continue. There are plenty of candidates for the position, and I'm sure she will select the right one."