FRENCH COACH TALKS ABOUT THE MAGIC OF LIFE, TENNIS AND AFRICA
‘It’s the story of my life,’ top tennis coach Yann Grizaud says when asked about the quotation tattooed on his left forearm.
Talking exclusively to The Voice after his first meeting with the Botswana press, he explains that the lines come from Nobel Prize winning Irish writer Samuel Beckett who wrote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed.
No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.’
“It’s a citation I have known for many years, but only got tattooed onto my arm three years ago after my treatment for prostate cancer. If I ever wrote a book that would be its title.”
If he did, it would document a life journey in which triumph and tragedy have walked hand in hand, and now takes on an unlikely new direction with his arrival in Botswana.
The 49-year-old French national has been a tennis coach for three decades and is the most qualified professional ever to come to this country.
Yann’s English is still a work in progress. His words are carefully considered, heavily accented, his eyes furrowed in concentration reflecting the strain between memory and a limited vocabulary.
And yet as he talks about his career and life philosophy, it is clear that he is a man of considerable experience who has much to offer both as a tennis coach and promoter of the human spirit.
He is here on a three-year contract and is excited about the challenges of developing the sport in what is at present something of a tennis backwater.
But whilst he does not see himself as a tennis prophet, his knowledge and passion for the game as a sport and a life skill makes him a master of his craft.
His coaching career began at the age of 18 after two tragic events changed the course of his life.
A promising footballer with the hopes of turning professional, at the age of 12 he fell off his bike and sustained a severe head injury, forcing him to give up the game.
That was when he turned to tennis.
“I was lucky. I took up tennis and found a coach who was both a teacher and a father figure. I became passionate about the sport and worked hard to improve my game.”
For six years he devoted himself to the disciplines of training, sharpening his skills and adopting a life style that avoided anything that would blunt his focus.
Then tragedy struck again when thugs, looking for money, smashed his back with a crowbar in a brutal car park attack.
The blows not only broke his bones, they also crushed his chances of becoming a professional player.
They could not, however, break his spirit.
In the months his injuries took to heal Yann was once again forced to reassess his dreams.
“ I am not bitter about what happened. I have no regrets. It’s life – a balance between magic and misery – you just have to catch the opportunities.”
Turning his attention to coaching, Yann applied the same dedication he had shown as a player, overcoming the difficulties to qualify as one of France’s top coaches.
In his 30 years as a professional he has coached junior players up to international level, becoming part of the French national programme for top 10-12-year-old’s, as well as being appointed Davis Cup captain.
Amongst his protégés are players like Richard Gasquet, former number one world junior, who has achieved a ranking of seven in the world professional circuit, and Virginie Razzano ranked number three as a junior and reaching 16 in the world as a professional.
And now, three months into his new life here, he is up for another challenge.
We are sipping coffee, sheltering from the 40 degree heat under an umbrella at the Thorn Tree café in Francistown.
Yann has just taken off his desert hat, which makes him look like a cross between a French legionnaire and a beekeeper.
He rolls down his socks to indicate a white patch below his deeply tanned legs.
“That was my colour before I came here,” he chuckles in his hypnotic French accent.
So what made him give up the cool of Paris for the fire of Francistown?
“I wanted a new feeling. My work before in France was going round in circles. I heard about the job opportunity at the School of Tennis and thought why not – it was a challenge. I feel like Africa is magic. I wanted to see for myself – to touch, feel, experience.”
He believes that children in Europe are not hungry enough.
“They have everything before they’ve achieved anything. It’s different in Botswana – the kids are respectful.
“There’s big potential in Africa – just like anywhere. The high level is in your head. You create your own high level. People need to dream. Too many people are like goats. They’re told what to do, where to go. Others decide for them.
“Tennis is a big opportunity to change your life.”
He sees his role as both a tennis coach and life teacher.
“The problem in the world is if you’re not the best it’s not good.”
For Yann, if one of his students does not develop into a professional player, ‘but becomes a good human – then I win.”
But the Frenchman is adamant that alone it is impossible to succeed. He is disappointed that no one from the Botswana Tennis Association has yet been in contact with him.
“I was looking forward to working with them and sharing experiences. I don’t know what is the ambition for tennis here. It’s an amazing challenge, but if you don’t believe, it’s not possible. Nobody thinks its possible because unlike football there are no examples to copy.”
He fears that there is a tendency to want to begin at the top without building the necessary foundations.
Without the support of the Association, players and parents, he believes the sport cannot progress here and cites lack of tournaments, player rankings and inadequate preparation as major obstacles.
“If you want, you can. It’s the culture of waiting that needs to change. In life you have to move.
“Everyone fails in life. You need to get up and try again. Failure is only the opportunity to try again in a more intelligent way.”
Yann’s life story has had its share of getting up and trying again.
Success is in the trying – and he has not come here to fail.