Coaches' Corner: Playing 'Bad Psychologist' To Foki The 'Volcano'
Alejandro Davidovich Fokina has become one of the men of the moment on the ATP Tour. With a game based on power and a will to throw himself around the court when required, the Spaniard has gained the respect of his peers. His stunning performance at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, where he reached his first tour-level final, has earned him a career-high spot of No. 27 in the ATP Rankings.
His coach Jorge Aguirre, who has been with him from childhood through to his professional career, knows the Andalusian better than anyone. With the young 22-year-old ready to fulfil his dreams on the ATP Tour, his mentor spoke to ATPTour.com about his progress.
Were you expecting a result like the one in Monte Carlo?
It’s complicated. I’ve thought Alex was looking in good shape in every respect for a few months. His attitude, the intention, the dedication, his level... Then, when the results don’t come, it all seems to fade away. When you win two matches, you think everything is great. After the way it went for us in Marrakech, you never think you’ll get to Monte Carlo and have a great tournament like that.
That’s Alex though. We arrived there really hoping to do well. Then the circumstances aligned and he had an amazing week.
After beating a legend, a lot of players struggle to perform. Davidovich did the opposite after he beat Djokovic.
I know Alex very well, especially his personality. During this time, when it looked like he could maintain his level, his performances have dropped. He hasn’t responded to expectations. But I also know that when he feels inner confidence after beating a player like Novak, he falls asleep knowing that he can compete with anyone and beat anyone. When Alex feels that, he becomes a very dangerous player.
The day after beating Djokovic, it’s difficult to perform on court. But Alex has that ability to feel powerful on and off the court and to want more. Deep down, he had the confidence that he could play well.
How do you manage a week like this mentally?
I think much better than previous times. He has recognised the small mistakes that he may have made previously when he had peaks at a high level. Not just since last season — since 2019 he has been having moments where his level would shoot up. He was struggling to manage that.
All these years of work, with a few telling-offs (laughs), with chats and analysis, it will help him tolerate this new situation that has arisen. He was looking forward to it with great excitement and strength. He wants to compete more, to get back out on court. He still has his moments of doubt. Right now he is convinced of what he wants and where he wants to go.
Alejandro said that without you, he would not be a tennis player. How do you define your relationship?
It’s a very special relationship. We can all see what the world of sport is like. The players tend to look for blame when they have three straight defeats. Coaches can struggle to deal with the implications of that and the commitment of combining the personal side with the professional side.
In our case, they have come together, partly because of the sporting ambition I have. For many years I have loved producing players and trying to be among the world elite. When we started with Alex I saw that possibility. I fight with all my strength to help him as much as possible.
Alex has confidence, loyalty and the conviction that he is in the best hands he thinks he can be in. Trying to overcome any kind of slump, which everyone has, he does it without looking elsewhere. He looks inwardly knowing where he has made a mistake or where we all make mistakes, but without blaming anyone.
We want to improve between us all, putting things on the table like in any relationship you want to last. That’s the key: We both want the other to triumph. That gives us great strength to spur each other on mutually.
Alejandro acknowledged that you are just as immersed in the matches as he is.
For me, it changes. Working with Alex is not easy, because he’s a volcano. He’s a torrent of emotions. There are times when he needs to see me very calm because he’s overexcited on court. If I get overexcited too, it could get really over the top. Other times, if I notice that he’s lacking conviction or a little belief and needs to step up, it’s good for him to see that I believe in him at that time and that he has my strength, if I can transmit it to him. Really, I’m trying to read what the match requires from him and I behave in accordance.
What are Alejandro’s biggest personal strengths?
Seeing a 22-year-old guy with the loyalty and honesty he has with us with is really wonderful. Both with me, with the psychologist, with the fitness trainers... he’s someone that doesn’t do things for the sake of it. He is very committed to those close to him. He’s very close to his friends; he has a great need for affection. He has that affectionate side that sometimes he doesn’t show, but it is there.
He is still a 22-year-old guy looking to fight for his dream. He has been a brilliant tennis player since he was little. He is grappling with his character to become a great player and so that people can see what a great guy he is.
Where does he have room for improvement?
There is generally room for improvement in every facet, which is both good and bad. There is nothing that stands out among all his strengths. When he manages to focus all his energy on the match, on one specific point, he is able to do a lot. He can play from the baseline, hit forehands and backhands, his serve and his return are good, he moves well, he can transition from defence to attack, he attacks very violently...
When he’s not doing so well, it seems like everything is very bad. Because he doesn’t have one standout strength, we can’t say that when he is in danger he can fall back on his serve and forehand. That ability to do everything well is where the room for improvement lies. There is a percentage margin in everything.
With time, he will serve better, his forehand will become increasingly stable, the shots will be cleaner. He is changing the height of his backhands better, moving more fluidly across the baseline on both clay and hard court, improving at the net... He needs a little of everything to become a more complete player.
How does a psychologist work with a volcano?
The team has always had Antonio [de Dios] who, as well as being a psychologist, is one of my best friends. Antonio has been working with Alex since he was 11 years old. We’ve been working together for a long time. I also studied psychology; it’s a part of sport that I really like. I’m the bad psychologist and Antonio is the good psychologist.
I like that facet because technique is fundamental, but what happens between your ears before each shot is what makes the body either follow the ball or stay back, or you’re more cramped. That mental work in the background is key and Alejandro takes it on board very well. We believe in it and we’re always very reliant on Antonio.
Do you think the ascent of Carlos Alcaraz could spur him on?
Definitely. Historically that has been the case. A few years ago it looked like Alex was the one on the rise, and now Carlos has appeared and he is a stratospheric player. I’m sure this is great for us. You’re 22 years old and it looks like you’re playing well, then an 18-year-old kid comes along and overtakes you and devours his competition.
It's very good for him to see that it’s not about age. It’s a question of moments, potential, fighting for what you want. I’m sure they will really help each other mutually in this case. At the end of the day, they are two good friends and great tennis players. In Spain we will enjoy ourselves and they will both try to have the best run they can. It’s really wonderful and hopefully they will both become great tennis players.
What would you be happy with in the coming weeks?
We’ve had a couple of days of rest, so that he can recover from an intense week. This Wednesday we’re going to start training with preparations for Estoril in mind. We’ll go to Portugal at the weekend.
Honestly, we won’t change what we’ve been saying to him over the last 10 days. What we all want is for Alex to find his ‘A’ game more consistently. We want him to recognise himself every time he goes out on court, to be convinced he can play at that level. To tell himself, ‘I can move in this way, I can serve like that.’ To recognise himself every time he goes out on court and every week when he competes.
Whatever results he deserves will come. But we want a month and a half to go by and for him to be able to say he recognises Alex. That’s the goal, to get to June or July and say that we’ve had a few months where I see Alex and I recognise him.
What we want is that every time Alex goes out on a court, be it to compete or to train, that he does so with the utmost excitement and dedication. Be it Wimbledon, the French Open or an exhibition match. Hopefully we can achieve that as soon as possible.