Coach Kevin O’Neill’s Background: O’Neill began playing tennis at the age of 6, when his family moved to Sacramento via Los Angeles. With good coaches and a passion for the game, he began to become a solid player over the next five years. He then moved to Napa and began training with Steve Stefanki (Larry’s older brother), and became one of the top junior players in Northern California, before heading east for college. After spending freshman year at Clemson University, O’Neill transferred to Pepperdine University to be closer to home and his coach for the remainder of his college career. (“And the school is gorgeous…located in Malibu.”)
Despite being a successful junior and college tennis player, O’Neill hadn’t ever thought about coaching as a potential career. He figured he would go to law school just like his twin sister and close friend had decided. It wasn’t until he decided to help a friend (in the mid 90’s) run a tennis club that he found coaching to be of interest. The club, located in The Hamptons, gave O’Neill the opportunity to reconnect with the tennis community once again. “It wasn’t too long before I had the chance to hit with Martina Navratilova while she was training for the Wimbledon doubles. She knew my coach Steve (Stefanki), but she also liked how I volleyed and did some things in practice.” She told O’Neill one day, “You ever think about coaching at the pro level?” And that’s when the wheels began to turn for him…that this could be something.
McNally Connection: O’Neill has known the McNally family for many years. The relationship stems from both parties having ties to Alexa Glatch (WTA player), whom both Lynn McNally (Caty’s mother) and O’Neill coached (still helps her). Lynn, who coached Glatch as a beginner, remained friends with the Glatch family long after they left Cincinnati. One day years later, during the fall season of 2006, Glatch and O’Neill were about to head to Canada/the Midwest for some tournaments and needed a place to train. The Glatch family reached out to the McNally’s about O’Neill and Alexa staying in Cincinnati and training at Harper’s Point and it “worked out great”, according to O’Neill. “I had known Lynn some…she was a good player in the juniors and in college at Northwestern. Caty was about four at the time…John was about seven. I remember taking the kids out trick or treating one time. That trip is how I got to know Lynn, Caty and the family.”
He began helping Lynn McNally coach Caty and her brother John full time a few years back after Wimbledon in 2016.
Nate Walroth: What did you see in the siblings that made you want to coach them?
Kevin O’Neill: John had a great track record as a junior. He lost maybe one match in the 16s. Caty (12) wasn’t at that level yet, but she had a great imagination. She benefited big time from growing up and having her older brother to hit against.
NW: Why/How did the relationship work well from the beginning with Lynn and Caty?
KO: We (Kevin & Lynn) agreed on our tennis philosophies…which style of play we like. Being dictative, trying to come forward. Mixing in some serve and volley. Coaching players to be all court, not one dimensional . A la…a guy like Roger Federer.”
O’Neill thought for a minute and then continued on why the relationship has flourished, “We see eye to eye not only as coaches….but from a moral and values place as well. That’s key to good relationships. Also, the relationship I had with Alexa likely helped gain trust from Lynn & Caty’s father John. We also like to do similar things for fun, our interests, and beliefs all pretty much aligned beautifully. It helps a lot to have that.
NW: Is there every any issues with there being two coaches?
KO: No, we are very similar. When you’re traveling as much as tennis players do, you need stability (to be successful). Caty may hear two voices but she gets one message. We’re on the same page. There’s really not anything drastically different from what I’ll say, or Lynn says.
NW: Was there ever a doubt that she could make it at the tour level?
KO: No. She had all the tools from an athletic standpoint. Caty played basketball and other sports which helped her development as an athlete. She was a big strong girl and you could see that at a fairly young age. She just had to keep making the natural progressions….keep the right perspective …and continue putting in the proper work in and I knew Lynn would keep her on task.
NW: What is the “right perspective”?
KO: Tennis is a game. Just like mini golf and other games we play for fun I tell Caty. It’s okay to get frustrated and testy sometimes, but you can’t just give up and not give a full effort. It’s a game, you compete, play and have fun. Win or lose you still have fun competing. That’s what I want her to take away from tennis. You play to win for sure, but being a professional athlete is one of the best jobs in the world….enjoy it..have fun with it and take in ALL the experiences.
NW: What are the challenges coaching Caty?
KO: Coaching her is somewhat easy for me because she plays and sees the game how Lynn and I do. Taking time away from the opponent and moving forward. Make the court small for you and big for them…getting opponent out of position so you can get forward. It’s almost like coaching myself. It’s also easy for me because we have similar personalities. She loves to compete and get after it, but she stays calm and cool.
NW: What do you think of the culture around junior tennis? Rankings are always the big discussion.
KO: When you’re 12, 13, 14 especially….worry about having all the shots and competing the right way. Not your ranking. I would tell Caty that all the time and still do. Lynn does as well. Who cares about your ranking? You don’t own a ranking, YOU OWN YOUR GAME!
NW: How did Coco and Caty partner up for the US Open juniors?
KO: It was before the US Open juniors and we were looking for a good partner. I remember I said, “You should ask Coco. You guys would play very well together.” But I left it completely up to Caty. I wanted her to have the right partner though. One that played offensive like her. Coco physically did not look like a typical 14-year-old at the time. She was hitting shots that you don’t see juniors hit.
NW: Why have the two worked so well together?
KO: In doubles, the team that gets to the net first will win more times than not. Caty and Coco both play a downhill style of doubles. They want to get forward behind forehands and serves. And they enjoy each other. They have fun practicing together and playing together.
NW: How do you think they were able to capture the tours/fans attention so quickly?
KO: They smile on the court and enjoy each other’s company out there. Fans recognize and relate to that I think. Seeing them have fun out there…going for their shots. Showing their personalities.
NW: How do they enjoy doubles matches compared to singles matches?
KO: They seem to enjoy doubles as much or more than singles. In singles, you’re talking to yourself and going through things alone, but in doubles you have a partner to talk to. In some ways they might even enjoy doubles more. They can laugh and talk to each other throughout different situations on court and overcome those battles together.
NW: Favorite McCoco match?
KO: I think the US Open was pretty awesome. Especially on the outside courts. In the first round, it was packed out there. I was talking to the girls before the match in the warm up area…and came out a little late. It was 5 to 6 people deep, standing room only, and I couldn’t get in. Luckily, Coco’s parents and Lynn saved me a seat and I got in after a changeover. We left people tickets and they couldn’t even watch. They had to go to a nearby bar that had a TV to watch. The second match was awesome too. They moved them to Louis Armstrong and it ended up being the largest crowd in WTA history for doubles.
NW: A piece of advice you often give Caty…
KO: I always tell Caty…when you’re playing singles….talk to yourself like you would talk to Coco. Be your own doubles partner. You wouldn’t say those nasty things to her…don’t say them to yourself either.
Having fun is the thing.Playing the wrong way and wining is dangerous. It tells your brain “maybe I should play like that again.”
1st match: Eastbourne (friendly)
1st tournament: US Open juniors (Champs)
1st WTA tournament: Washington DC (Champs)
Recently won a title together in Luxembourg
KO: They are very important in singles and doubles. Caty has them all. She can change directions, slice off court, scissor kick, and she’s learning to use the skyhook overhead. (“Connors used to do back in the 70’s when he was in trouble and couldn’t hit the overhead.”) We actually worked on that shot with Coco and Caty during practice a couple weeks ago in Europe. Instead of letting a tough lob bounce behind you, reach back behind yourself and hit it….to keep the opponent back. If you watch girls, you’ll notice that they won’t come forward if you take the ball out of the air. I want them to have that shot to stay on the attack or at least hold there ground. It was fun to see Coco do one in their doubles match and it worked….kept them at the net and the other team stayed on the baseline. And then Caty did one and they hadn’t ever used it before. Being willing to try stuff can expand your game.
NW: How do you teach them to become comfortable hitting those type of shots above their shoulder that most girls aren’t?
KO: The easiest way to teach someone how to serve in my opinion is to teach them how to throw. Girls don’t do it much, but if they learn how to throw…they’ll eventually have a good service and overhead motion.
NW: Do you understand the stigma around tennis that seems to insinuate players must focus on either doubles or singles?
KO: No. Why not play both? Doubles gives you a chance to get better as a player and also at the same time make a living. I don’t get why you have to pick doubles or singles. You play both to become the most complete player. If you want to be a really good, complete tennis player….you have to know how to do both. It’s going to help you in the long run to be more comfortable in different situations too. Because you’ve come through in doubles and you know those feelings that come with it. You’ll be more relaxed. No coach can duplicate a match situation. It’s the same court (little bigger), balls, and shots as singles. I don’t see the downside. You might have times where you are having a lot of success in singles or been on the road for four, five weeks and want some rest, but other than that…we play.
NW: Do you guys practice doubles much?
KO: Yes, but even when we’re practicing doubles…we’re practicing the same shots as singles. Those shots are all necessary to have!!!
NW: It’s crazy how much success they’ve both had this early in their careers (singles & doubles). Have you made any comments to them about it?
KO: Yeah. I actually told them the other day after a practice, “You guys could do this for the next 15-20 years of your life.” Be ready…