For more than 30 years, rugby has been a huge part of Mark Bennett’s life.

He was a Welsh international in the back row and he shared in two Grand Slams on the coaching front, while he’s had spells with a number of different teams as player and coach.

But now, he is taking a radical departure.

The former flanker is moving into tennis to become the fitness coach to one of the world’s top players, Alexander Zverev.

German superstar Zverev is ranked sixth in the world and has just reached the semi-finals of the French Open, having made the US Open final last year.

It’s a switch of sports which will see Bennett leave his post as Head of Performance for Russian Rugby, a job he has held since 2018.

So how has it all come about?

“A guy who I coached in my first stint at Bristol in the early 2000s, Ross Beattie, opened up a health club in Monaco, in Monte Carlo,” he explains.

“He has been very successful there and has a lot of professional athletes who train with him.

“I just had a phone call out of the blue from him a couple of months ago where he said he had a guy who was really keen to get a new strength and conditioning coach and wanted to speak to me.

“That turned out to be Alexander. I had a couple of conversations with him on the phone and he said ‘Look, why don’t you come out and spend some time with me?’.

“So I went out there for ten days just before he travelled to the French Open.

“I really enjoyed it. It was very different, very refreshing.

“I said to him, ‘Look, I know nothing about tennis’.

“He said: ‘Yes, but you know how to get people fast, how to get people strong, how to get people fit and that’s what I need’.

“So he offered me a job and everything has fallen into place. It’s the right time and the right type of job.

“A change in sports will do me good. I’ve been involved in rugby for a long, long time. It will be good to see something a little different.”

Bennett will link up with Zverev once he completes his final month of commitments with Russia, who have games coming up against Spain and Portugal.

Then it will be on to his new venture.

“It will about planning his physical training and trying to make sure he gets into tournaments in the best shape he can be,” said Bennett.

“I was really impressed by his attitude to training, how competitive he is.

“He’s not happy being ranked sixth in the world. He wants to be number one, he wants to win Grand Slams and it’s just a fantastic opportunity to work with one of the best athletes in the world in his sport.

“I was very surprised how good he was physically and how much work he actually did in terms of his volume of training.

“That was very interesting for me. He was doing five or six hours of training every single day.

“It’s an opportunity to do something really different. Fingers crossed I can help him.

“He is keen for me to go across after Wimbledon to plan for next year.”

Germany's Alexander Zverev in action at the French Open where he reached the semi-finals

Bennett envisages spending some 30 weeks a year working with Zverev, mainly in Monte Carlo, where the Hamburg-born 24-year-old resides.

“That’s a similar time commitment to Russia, but this new role will mainly be in the south of France, which makes travel easier,” he said.

“That’s where he will do most of his training away from tournaments, so I will be back and forth.

“Working in professional sport is a 24 hour a day job. You don’t relax, you’ve always got something to do, you’ve always got somebody phoning you.

“You’ve got work to do out of hours, you are always stressed about results, thinking about the game.

“Russia has been four weeks away, four weeks at home. So at least when I’m home, I’m really home. I don’t worry about the job, I don’t have too much work to do.

“When I am in Russia then, I am happy to spend 16 hours a day working because there’s not a lot else to do in reality.

“So I quite liked that.

“This job, where I will travel and then come home, is very similar and I think it certainly suits my personality better and makes it easier to get the right balance.”

Bennett had playing spells with his home-town club Neath, Swansea and Bristol, but it was during his 114-game stint with Cardiff over some seven seasons in the 1990s that he really made his mark.

A teak-hard breakaway forward, he won three Wales caps, all in 1995.

There was a debut against New Zealand in that year’s World Cup in Johannesburg and he was back at Ellis Park a few months later to face South Africa.

He scored a try against the world champions, in a shock start to the game, before making his final appearance for Wales at home to Fiji.

“I injured my shoulder not long after that playing for Cardiff against Neath,” he recalls.

“I ended up having an operation and I never really got back to the same level after that. I struggled.

“So I was lucky that those Wales games came for me when they did.

“You can always ask for more caps, but if you are only going to have three, playing against the All Blacks and the Springboks isn’t too bad.

“I was lucky the way the fixtures fell.”

After hanging up his boots in 1999, Bennett - ultra fit as a player - moved into strength and conditioning coaching.

He had stints with Bristol, the Scarlets, the Celtic Warriors and the WRU, going on to be part of the management team as Wales won the Grand Slams of 2005 and 2008.

Further roles followed with the Ospreys, as two league titles were claimed, and Bristol again, prior to a spell as Head of Sports Science and Medicine with the RFU.

Former Wales fitness coach Mark Bennett

Then came the move to Russia, which has seen him work with Lyn Jones and Shaun Connor.

“It’s been challenging because you spend a lot of time away from home, travelling,” he said.

“But it’s been a great experience.

“I can’t say a bad thing about Russia. I was really unsure when I took the role.

“I didn’t know what to expect or what the people would be like, but it’s been fantastic. I can’t speak highly enough about the job, the people, the country.”

But, now, his time there is coming to an end.

“Covid has made things difficult in terms of the travelling and the restrictions,” he said.

“I had quite a long stint in Moscow on my own at the start of the year.

“I was there from the beginning of January to the end of March away from my family. It was a long, long time.

“One of the things with the job is we thought it would be nice for the family to see some of Russia, but the situation with the travel and the visas makes it very difficult.

“Now I have an opportunity of doing something very different, where the travelling will be a bit easier.”

Father-of-three Bennett, 53, is back in the family home just outside Skewen at the moment, but on Sunday he will head out to Spain for a two-week training camp with the Russian squad.

That will culminate in a game against Spain, before he travels to Russia for another two week camp and a further Rugby Europe Championship match versus Portugal.

And that will be that.

So how will it feel walking away from the sport that has been his job for so long?

“I am bound to miss rugby and I get quite emotional when I think of everything it has given me and everything I have managed to do,” he said.

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“But I also think about what my family have missed out on because of it sometimes, which makes it difficult.

“I still think I have a lot to offer rugby, some ideas to offer Welsh rugby.

“I am still really keen to be involved in rugby at some point in the future.

“But the time is probably not right now and this chance has come up and a change is as good as a rest.

“I just think maybe some time in tennis will give me a new perspective and new ideas.”

So, there you have it, from one Grand Slam sport to another.