It will be a special moment for Kenneth Jonassen when the Denmark head coach leads his team to its first-ever Thomas and Uber Cup Finals on home soil.
In this interview, Jonassen talks about the lead-up to the big event and how his team has been shaping up.
How have the last few months panned out, in terms of training and preparations?
Here in Denmark it’s been 19 weeks of continuous practice! That’s unprecedented time for us coaches and national players to practice. We’ve had some summer holidays where we closed the centre for 10 days, and players took some time off, but then we started off mid-July again.
When you work for 19 weeks you go with the mindset of development. You work on your skills, certain areas of the player’s weak points or strong points on and off-court. Suddenly, with five weeks to go, all the details need to come together. It’s a tournament mindset, from the players, supporting staff and the coaches: all the details have to come together. Because soon we need to perform. These four coming weeks are basically what we worked for. This is what we like, we like to work with players trying to get into peak condition for a major championships.
And with tournaments directly after the TUC, that’s an added bonus. It’s also a long stretch, but we’ve practised for a number of months, so we’ll be ready for that as well.
Given the time you had, have you done anything differently that will show during the tournament?
First of all, we’ve tried not to overdo it. We’ve no experience with that many continuous practice weeks. We had to make sure there was enough resting time for players. The goal was that every individual or pair will have a few extra things they’ve been working on that they can use in a game. Obviously in any sport where you push the limits, we’ve had to deal with small injuries, and that obviously sets your development back. But overall, we tried to stay focussed on the detailed work on an individual basis, and then certain special areas for each category.
It is very difficult to see the development when you practice against the same players day after day. All these things I don’t expect they will capitalise from the beginning, because it’s not that easy. But hopefully over time, when players become more confident, they will settle in and move a level up, and become a more rounded player.
A number of your senior players have retired in recent months. Is this a new era for the team?
In some sense it definitely is. We definitely have to look in a slightly different manner at the team. We still have world class players there, also players with a lot of experience. Half or more than half were in the team when Denmark won the Thomas Cup in 2016. But younger players are coming in and they’ve heard the stories from when they haven’t been part of it.
I think it’s a slow and big and natural change that some of the older players are not with us anymore. I think it’s a natural step. It’s a positive thing for me, in terms of giving younger players a chance to show themselves at a major championships.
Considering that many of your senior doubles players have retired, are your younger partnerships set, or are you still experimenting with combinations?
I think we’ll be looking at changing up, mix and match, it’s good time to try that at home, but then again that will be finalised over last four-five weeks where everything has to come together to a great plan and then we need to execute it in Aarhus. It also depends on our opponents and so on. We know the group stages, but that’s only step one. We have to be careful there, we have to take our measures to make sure we go through.
What do you make of your opponents in the group stage? Is it trickier for the women than for the men?
On paper, it looks like a good draw (India, Germany, Algeria) for the men, I won’t deny that. Obviously, we can say we are favourites. But with the changes in our team setup, we have to be aware we won’t have players with that kind of experience which we could rely on earlier.
Algeria I don’t know much about, I have to be honest, but we do know Germany very well, and there’s nothing they want more than to beat us in Denmark. So obviously we need to take care of business when we take on Germany.
With India, they have tremendous men’s singles, so we have to be really focussed, and also their top men’s doubles, they are a tough nut to crack. So I’m looking at it as open, that will tell us how we can fare against the other top eight nations. That’s going to show us where we stand, and the first step if we want to be successful.
In the women’s, Scotland have proved themselves in the European Team Championships; they beat Russia. So we have to be careful about that. The interesting matchup is against Canada. I don’t think we’ve played them many times. The Danish team is a group of very young girls, and with a potential to do well. So we’re looking at this as a long-term investment. More than half the team is 25 or younger, which is quite good for us.
What does it mean personally to you, to lead the team on home soil?
I’m trying to keep my personal emotions in check. Obviously it’s a huge thing. Right now, I’m just putting all my focus into the detailed everyday work with the players, trying to get into peak condition for the championships. But when we get there and when it starts, and there might be a national anthem at some point, I’m going to be hugely proud that I’m a part of this. Being a sportsman, I want to do well, and represent Denmark in the finest manner. It doesn’t always lead to wins – that will be nice – but it’s how we deal with pressure, how we keep on fighting, and how we show what we’re made of as a team, as individuals when it gets tough on court. For me, it’s not always measured in winning, it’s how we deal with the whole situation.
One of the extra pressures on you is that several former Danish players serve as commentators and will be watching you closely at home. Will that close scrutiny bother you?
The expectations from everybody with the history that Denmark has, the history that top players commentating on how we do our job, or how we should do our job, that’s just normal, but for me, I believe in what I’m doing, I believe in what my team of coaches is doing. I believe in what our association is doing. We are aware that, over the five categories, in some categories, we are struggling, but it’s development. And we’re taking it head-on.
But at a major championships there will be a lot of media and ex-players commentating on how we fare. For me that’s part of life, part of the job as head coach, you have to deal with it. For me, it’s about protecting the players, them not having to face what I would call unconstructive criticism from all coaches, and staying positive and keep believing in the process we’re working on.