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Daniel Vallverdu's Path to Coaching

by Kevin Ivany

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Four months after earning a degree from the University of Miami, Daniel Vallverdu was pursuing his dreams, leading Venezuela at the Davis Cup for his first post-collegiate tournament.

In the 2009 Group II finals against the Dominican Republic, the Valencia, Venezuela, native took center court against Victor Estrella Burgos, who went on to reach a top-50 ranking (No. 43) in 2015.

In the middle of the match, Vallverdu felt a sharp pain in his groin but continued to compete. Dropping a hard-fought four-set match, little did the former Hurricane standout know that his playing days would be behind him, while a new path was set to begin.

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A dual-sport athlete growing up, Vallverdu dominated the pool and the hard court from a young age.

However, with the high-level of talent he portrayed in both, he was asked to make a decision around his 10th birthday. When confronted by both his swimming and tennis coaches about taking his game to a new level, one factor played a major role in his ultimate decision.

“When I heard from the swimming coaches that I was going to have to come in for practice before school at 6 a.m., I thought tennis might be an easier route,” Vallverdu recalled with a laugh. “So, I gave up on swimming and chose tennis. My sister, [Laura] actually started playing a little before me, but then I took it on after her.

“I was quite good, I was actually No. 1 in my state and the coaches were definitely very disappointed that I decided to stop. But I just felt that the training regime was not something that I was very interested in,” Vallverdu added. “But I was a very good swimmer, I was actually a better swimmer than I was a tennis player. The coaches were a bit surprised I chose tennis, but I think it turned out okay.”

Once making the decision to focus on mastering his skills with a racket, his connection to South Florida sprouted.

Making annual trips during summer and winter breaks to Aventura, Fla., Vallverdu focused on his game at the Nuñez Tennis Academy up until his freshman year of high school, before making the full-time move to the Sunshine State for the year.

After discussing it further with his family, Vallverdu spent his last three years of high school in Barcelona, Spain, training at the city’s tennis academy.

“That is when I met Andy [Murray] and we were training partners for all those years and eventually doubles partners,” Vallverdu said. “We became super close and we never actually lost a match in our doubles and junior careers, so I guess that made us even closer than we already were.”

With so much success at the junior level, Vallverdu had another key decision to make involving the sport of tennis, debating if he should plan to attend college or make the immediate jump to the pro ranks.

“I had played a few Future ITF Tournaments during my last year of high school and then after high school, at that time I wasn’t allowed to be a professional, I was just doing it as an amateur,” Vallverdu said. “At that time I was doing quite well, I was making the finals in Futures. So, it was not an easy decision, but with my family, we thought that it was the right route to take, and then after college I could then think about going professional, if that was what I ended up deciding to do.

“When we decided college was the right path for me, I told my dad, ‘Well if that is the path I am taking, I only want to go to Miami, I don’t want to go anywhere else,’” Vallverdu added. “Since I was kid, I felt like it was my second home. I had friends in Miami, but a lot of my Venezuelan friends also had moved to Miami at that time, so it did feel like home for me. And obviously, the weather being quite similar to how it was back home, I thought that would be a great fit for me. Then after talking to the former coach, Mario Rincon, I knew it was the school for me and I didn’t even want to look anywhere else. I was going to have a great time.”

It is obviously a very Latin culture city, so it does feel quite similar to my background. But more than that, there is something about the city that makes you feel like even when you live there, it is some type of holiday. So, it just gave me a great feeling as a young athlete. Good weather, friends around, happy vibe in general. Also, I love sports. So, having the Dolphins, Heat and a lot of the tennis pros based out of South Florida, it just felt like the right environment to be in if I wanted to be a top athlete. So, it checked a lot of boxes and I had the advantage that I had been going there since I was a kid. It felt like my second home.

Daniel Vallverdu

It did not take long for Vallverdu to find success at Miami, as his freshman year (2005-06) was certainly memorable for the Hurricanes.

A season where Miami finished 20-5 (9-2 ACC), swept ACC honors–Vallverdu earned Freshman of the Year accolades, his double partner Luigi D’Agord captured Player of the Year honors and Rincon secured the Coach of the Year award–and reached the Round of 16 of the NCAA Tournament, there was a lot to be proud of in 2006.

Winning 12 of 13 matches over a midseason slate featuring 11 ranked opponents, the Hurricanes soared into the top-10 of the national polls.

“For me, my freshman year was special,” Vallverdu said. “Obviously, it was my first year so everything was really new, but one thing that struck me was that it was a team where you knew every single member of the team was on the same page and everyone was heading in the same direction. The seniors leading the team, they wanted to finish their careers in the right way and they wanted to have a strong season. So, a few of them gave up on either playing at a higher position to have better players play up top.

“I just felt the synergy of the unit was very in line with every position of the team. You didn’t feel like anyone was pulling in a different direction, everyone was a complete unit,” Vallverdu continued. “Obviously, that came from the leadership of the seniors. You could feel that from the first day I arrived, there was only one goal, to beat some specific teams in the conference and do very well in NCAAs. The seniors made sure everyone was on the same page, I felt everyone played a major role in that season. I had a fantastic time my freshman year and I think it really helped me coming into college sports and UM and understand what it meant to be a Hurricane. Between [Eric] Hechtman, [John] Hois, [Tim] Krebs, [Josh] Cohen, those guys really made us know what it meant to be a Cane and be a part of The U.”

Competing alongside D’Agord in doubles, the pair reached as high as No. 10 in the national doubles rankings in 2006, boasting a 19-5 mark at the top doubles position. The tandem beat a pair of top-30 doubles teams en route to a quarterfinal appearance in the NCAA Doubles Tournament, dropping a closely contested tiebreaker with Pepperdine’s third-ranked duo, Scott Doerner and Andre Begemann.

As a junior, he was ranked top-10 throughout the spring in singles and as a high as No. 3, claiming All-America–in singles and doubles–All-ACC and ITA Southeast Region Player to Watch honors. In doubles, he teamed up with Carl Sundberg and reached the Round of 16 of the NCAA Doubles Tournament, before opening the 2008-09 season ranked atop the preseason poll.

“Obviously the beginning with Luigi, he was a great player, it was hard not to do well having him as a partner. So, I guess I got lucky to be picked to be his partner my freshman year,” Vallverdu said. “With Carl, I think it really just clicked for the two of us. I really, really liked Carl. He was a very hard worker, very quiet, very Scandinavian in his own way and I think we complimented each other very well. He was a lefty and I was a righty, so I think it clicked and we found our way just by our personalities more than anything, so it just really clicked and I just had an amazing time competing with him.”

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With his collegiate career behind him, the four-time All-American began to make the shift to professional competition, however his playing days came to a halt as fast as they began.

Playing through the pain he felt in his groin during the Davis Cup finals, Vallverdu learned he would have to undergo surgery.

“By the time I was ready to focus on playing professional tennis, I was obviously in a good place after playing four years at Miami, and winning so much” Vallverdu said. “I thought I developed to a point where I was ready to compete on tour. But then, obviously, you can’t really control getting injured or not. After the surgery, you start asking a lot of questions. I was only 24, but I wondered, ‘Is it too late to start pursuing my professional career now?’ I didn’t not know how I was going to react after going through the surgery, so there were a lot of question marks going through my head, but I was still quite committed to play professionally.”

It was during this time that a new opportunity arose out of the blue, from his former teammate in Barcelona.

Murray, ranked second in the world at the time, had just split ties with his former coach following a semifinals defeat to Rafael Nadal at Wimbeldon in 2010, when he decided to reach out to Vallverdu.

“I was in Miami rehabbing and he had just returned from Wimbledon after parting ways with his coach.” Vallverdu said. “But he had to go on the next trip and he didn’t have a coach to go with so he said, ‘Look Dani, I don’t have a coach at the moment, so do you just want to come with me and help me out and see how it goes?’”

With plans to make a return to the courts as a player, Vallverdu had another important decision to make in his young career.

“Obviously, we had spent a lot of time together since we were 15 years old, so not only did I know him as a professional, but also as a friend,” Vallverdu said. “When I moved to Miami for school he actually based himself out of there and bought a place in Miami, so he could train in Miami while I was in school, so we kept training together even through my years at UM.

“When I had the offer from Andy to help him, that is when I had to make the decision to stop playing professionally and get into coaching,” Vallverdu added. “So, at the time, it was not so easy, because of course I wanted to give it a try myself and see how far I could go, but it didn’t take long that I had also chosen a very good path, I was happy with it and I was ready to commit to it fully.”

The partnership started off strong in the Great White North at the 2010 Toronto Masters, where Murray defeated Nadal in the semifinals before taking down Roger Federer for the title.

“It was quite a good start to the partnership,” Vallverdu said. “After a few weeks of being on that trip with him, he asked if I wanted to take that job seriously and start traveling full time with him. So, a few weeks after that first trip, that is when we officially started our partnership together and were with each other for five years. We won the gold medal in London, I was the coach for the British men’s tennis team for that Olympics, so that was quite special for me. And then he won the U.S. Open a month later and Wimbeldon the year after. So obviously those five years were very special for me and I was very privileged to be a part of it.”

The smooth transition to the sideline had a lot to do with the way Vallverdu played the game growing up, as he relied more on the tactical side of tennis rather than utilizing a specific weapon to wear out his opponents down.

“I didn’t have any big weapons when I played, so I had to rely more on understanding my opponents and the competition. So, I think that helped me a lot getting into coaching,” Vallverdu said. “I had to understand how to win matches without a weapon. I was quite quick on the court and I was quite a solid player all around. I didn’t really have many weaknesses, but at the same time I didn’t have a weapon where I could say, ‘I had a massive serve or was just winning with my forehand.’ So, I really had to work toward understanding how I could beat my opponent from across the net.

“I think that helped me understand the game tactically and also to understand the momentums in the matches,” Vallverdu continued. “When I was playing, I would say that was one of my strengths, to understand when, because when you look at a tennis match, it definitely has a lot of momentum switches and understanding when is important for knowing when to push the pedal or slow down. I think that was very important and one of my strengths was understanding what to do with them.”

After leading Murray through 2014, he partnered with Tomas Berdych (2014-16) and helped him reach his highest ranking at No. 4 in the world.

Shortly after he coached Grigor Dimitrov (2016-19), helping him reach new heights in 2017.

Dimitrov ended his 2017 season with significant milestones reached: first Masters 1000 title, first ATP Finals crown, five Tour finals, four tour titles, eight top-10 match wins and capped the year ranked third in the world.

“After Andy, I was with Tomas and that was very special to me because it was my first coaching job after Andy,” Vallverdu said. “You never know how something like that is going to go, so obviously having so much success at first was great. You always ask yourself as a professional, ‘Am I really good enough to help someone else?’

“So, that went very well and I helped him reach his highest ranking. And then Grigor was the next player I coached and that also went well,” Vallverdu continued. “And both professionally and personally I had a very, very good relationship with them and had very fond memories with both of those players, helping them reach their highest rankings.”

Currently, Vallverdu is coaching No. 18 Stan Wawrinka and sixth-ranked Karolina Pliskova, two unique jobs in their own ways.

Working part-time with Pliskova, Vallverdu has been granted the opportunity to work the women’s tour, while with Stan he is coaching an established player and three-time Grand Slam champion heading toward the end of his career.

“Obviously, I have to look at it a little differently, since he will be 36 next year, but it is extremely exciting because he is a player who has the potential to win big things still at his age,” Vallverdu said. “The goals may not be what they have always been, which at his level was to win slams and be a top-five player in the world, at the end of the year. But now, I think our No. 1 goal is to keep his body fit so he can be fully ready to compete each week. Especially now with a lot of young guys coming through. So, our dream goals would be to finish top 10 at the end of next year, which I know he can do, but we both also know it will not be easy. But I definitely believe he can do it.”

With so many unknowns in the world today, just over 10 years since an injury changed the course of history for Vallverdu, he is grateful for the opportunities he has received in tennis, while still having the opportunity to “compete.”

Living happily in Zurich with his wife and one-year-old twins, the future is bright for the UM great.