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Pere Riba: Zheng's coach knows what it takes to beat Sabalenka

  • Ravi Ubha

If Pere Riba’s playing career had gone the way he hoped, he might still be competing on the pro tour.

But after injuries and a car accident dealt the Spaniard a nasty hand, coaching is thrusting him into the spotlight.

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At Australian Open 2024, his 21-year-old charge, Zheng Qinwen, has become just the second Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam singles final after her idol, Li Na.

In a rare feat, it means Riba will have found himself in the players’ box with two different players in consecutive Grand Slam finals.

At September’s US Open final, Riba sat alongside Brad Gilbert to watch as Coco Gauff beat Aryna Sabalenka.

Sabalenka just happens to be Zheng’s opponent on Saturday at Rod Laver Arena.

“I started to coach because in my head it was not the idea to stop to play tennis,” the 35-year-old said on Friday. “If my body was in perfect condition, my dream was to continue playing.

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“But the situation arrived like that. One day I have the car accident, and then at that point, to be a coach is the closest feeling that you can have like a player. I started to do it, and I really enjoy it. I really love it. 

Gilbert knows that from their brief spell together. The renowned coach told that Riba is a “very nice guy who is passionate about coaching.”

In his playing days, Riba underwent hernia surgery and then a more serious hip operation – the latter at a time when he had been rapidly climbing the ranks.

Well after a spell on the junior circuit with Rafael Nadal, reaching a peak of 65th in the world and beating a future Grand Slam finalist, Kei Nishikori, at the Madrid Masters, Riba embarked on another comeback.

But in 2018 at a Challenger in Florida, the vehicle he was travelling in alongside Chilean pro Cristian Garin got hit by another car. Riba suffered injuries serious enough to prompt a hospital stay.

He told Spanish tennis website Punto de Break that if he hadn’t been in such good physical shape at the time, the injuries could have been even more serious.

A year later, he contested his farewell match and embarked on a foray into coaching.  

Pere Riba and Brad Gilbert at the US Open

He teamed with US pro Varvara Lepchenko – they practised on at least one occasion with Serena Williams – and later partnered with a nearly 18-year-old Zheng.

One of Riba’s principles is to treat each player he works with individually, rather than copying and pasting.

“My philosophy, I don't say it is the right one, but you cannot coach every player the same way that you are coaching the other ones,” said Riba.

His mum’s ill health, Riba said, led to his departure from Team Gauff but now “everything is under control.”

When he became available again, Riba got the call from Zheng.

Her then coach, Wim Fissette, left to rejoin Naomi Osaka as part of a not uncommon coaching carousel in tennis.

“I was happy that she [called me] and to continue the work that we were doing in the past,” Riba said.

The Spaniard saw Gauff rally from a set down to beat Sabalenka in New York, but during the defence of her Australian Open crown world No.2 Sabalenka hasn’t dropped a set. Her path included a narrow win over Gauff in the semifinals.

Zheng lost to Sabalenka in her maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal at Flushing Meadows and hasn’t faced a top-50 player yet at AO 2024.

Riba is well aware of the challenge facing the 12th seed.  

“The evolution of Qinwen is, every month she's better and better and better,” he said. “Still, she is so young. She arrives with very good feelings. She arrives really motivated. And then if she plays her game, she will have her chances.

“But, of course, all of us, we know Aryna, and we know it's going to be a really complicated match.”

If the winners’ trophy doesn’t come in Melbourne this weekend, Riba remains convinced that Zheng’s level – and work ethic – will continue to take her far in the game.

“I never see in my life a player with that work ethic that she has, always is ready for practice, really hard worker,” Riba said.

“The first week that we start to work, long time ago, I say, ‘Okay, 7 in the morning, we go to practice.’ Then we practice a lot of hours. I say next day the same, next day the same. I was thinking that after four or five days, she's gonna say, ‘I'm tired.’

“I have to say sometimes we are getting angry, because she wants to do more, and me, I have to stop her.

“Then you can imagine the dreams that she has, that she really wants to be there in the top, and I’m really, really happy for her, because she deserves it.”