South Florida was recently invaded by some of the top tennis players in the world in three consecutive tournaments. I had the privilege to work with players and cover the International Tennis Championships of Delray Beach for the Tennis Server. I also made it to the new $50,000 Challenger of North Miami Beach (won by Vince Spadea) and the NASDAQ 100 on Key Biscayne (won by Serena Williams and Andre Agassi) in which I interviewed four top players for a story in USTA Magazine. In this edition of Mental Equipment, I focus on the highlights of the Delray Beach event.
While I tend to view tennis from a somewhat nontraditional mental lens, more players are explaining that the mental game cannot be ignored. I interviewed many top 100 players again this year. I began by asking each player how important (in percentages) they felt their mental game is to success on the ATP or WTA Tour. The lowest response was 70% while the highest was 99%! While many players are working with a sport psychologist or practicing mental skills regularly, a surprising number still take a more casual and irregular approach to mental training even though they acknowledge the extreme importance.
Called the Citrix Tennis Championships the past couple years, and now seeking a new title sponsor, this tournament never ceases to thrill. Stephan Koubek captivated the crowd two years ago with his passionate three-set victory over Alex Calatrava, while Jan Michael Gambill fought off Xavier Malisse in the finals last year after surviving multiple match points. Would one of these two fighters prevail or would there be a new champion in this beautiful town on the ocean?
Mark Baron and Fred Stolle co-directed another fine week of tennis for this growing International Series event. Another round of applause is due tireless media director Lisa Franson. Thanks go out to Cliff Kurtzman and the Tennis Server for media credentials, and I again appreciate all the players who spent time talking tennis. I also enjoyed discussing injuries with ATP trainer Bill Norris, and enjoyed meeting Director of Sales Ivan Baron, and Iggy Jovanovic from the ATP.
Marius Barnard is a solid doubles player who has been on the tour since 1988. We talked for 30 minutes about his career and the trials and tribulations of travel and competition. He is an impressive person who is beginning to ponder what life will be like after tennis. I enjoyed his views on the mental game and motivation, and how he sometimes performs better when he stops trying so hard. He expressed a possible interest in becoming a sport psychologist and we need more of them. If youre reading Marius, call me anytime. Ill trade you sport psychology tips for an improved backhand topspin!
I really enjoyed talking with Michael Llorda, Stefan Koubek, Kristian Pless, Paul Goldstein, Scott Humphries, Andrei Stoliarov, Michael Russell, Mardy Fish, Jeff Morrison, Nicolas Massu, Leander Paes, Davide Sanguinetti, Jarkko Nieminen and Tom Vanhoudt. I enjoyed picking many of their brains for their keys to mental strength.
I focused this year on the topics of match preparation and closing out the opponent (the killer instinct).
Top seeds this year were (1) Roddick (2) Gambill (3) Koubek (4) Massu (5) Sanguinetti (6) Burgsmuller (7) Nieminen and (7) Hipfl.
The qualifying rounds are often more fun and competitive than main draw matches. The top four qualifiers, earning entry into the main draw, were American Chris Woodruff, Feliciano Lopez of Spain, Alexandre Simoni of Brazil and Martin Verkerk of the Netherlands.
A rising star among the youngest crop of players is Eric Nunez who lost in the first round of the qualifying tournament to Simoni. Nunez won the first set 6-1 and almost won the second, losing 7-6. In the third set he was ahead 4-3, seeming to dominate in many ways, before he had to retire due to muscle cramps. Watch out for this pesky American from Florida. He is coached by his father, Colon, who coached Andre Gomez to a French Open championship over Andre Agassi in 1990. In my humble opinon, this kid Eric has the raw tools to be great.
Feliciano Lopez is another rising Spaniard. After qualifying with wins over Scott Draper, George Bastl, and Filippo Volandri, Lopez went to the main draw and dispatched of Chris Woodruff and Michael Russell before falling at last to Anthony Dupuis 7-6, 7-6. What a great showing! Watch out for him too.
Local favorite Andy Roddicks star continues to rise. Seeded number one due to a tremendous 2001, Andy did not disappoint, rolling over Davydenko, Lee, Llorda, and Dupuis to reach the finals. His emotional maturity is improving and his serve and big forehand are getting better too. As he approached the finals he appeared extremely tired. He admitted that he was fighting a nasty cold (or something) and later would cancel his upcoming tournament appearance - stirring up a minor ATP controversy for not flying to the event to be examined by the tour physician. When I spoke with him briefly after his win over Dupuis, I can attest that he looked ready for a 13-week vacation totally exhausted hacking cough so I kept my distance. What more to say? Tennis and the travel can be brutal on the body?
Number two seed and defending champion Jan Michael Gambill looked very ready to win again. He thrilled the crowd in his first match against serve and volleying Wayne Arthurs. Amazingly, he fought off match point to prevail (as he did last year against Arthurs after being down 3 match points!) 6-7, 6-3, 7-6. It was guts and glory as usual. When I mentioned to his father and coach that many think Jan Michael likes to play from behind, Mr. Gambill replied" "anyone who thinks that does not know his game." After his second annual Houdini Act, Gambill went on to win over rising American Mardy Fish and Andre Sa from Brazil.
What happened to Stefan Koubek? Two years ago he won the event and my story on him prompted my Smart Tennis Sport Psychology Tour 2000! Hes had a great year so far (see Australian Open), but he ran into the hard hitting American buzz-saw named Michael Russell. Koubek played well but Russell was incredible - pounding low forehands and backhands and matching Koubek shot to shot with powerful blasts from the baseline. In my opinon, Koubek has matured mentally since his breakdown in the finals two years ago, but no luck this time around.
The fifth seed was a friendly and soft-spoken veteran named Davide Sanguinetti from Italy. He made it to the finals of this event about 6 years ago. He began by winning a tough first round match over Christophe Rochus 0-6, 6-4, 6-1 then easily beat Kristian Pless 6-3, 6-2 before defeating Paradorn Srichaphan from Thailand in three sets. This led to the semi-final match against Gambill.
Andy Roddick over Anthony Dupuis 7-6 (4) 6-4
Dupuis, ranked 82 in the world, was only able to break Roddicks big serve once in the match, in the sixth game of the first set. The second set stayed on serve until the final game when Dupuis double faulted. Overall it was an impressive performance by both the Frenchman and the Boca Raton prodigy. Roddick has so much raw power. With improved strategy and refinement, this guy is unstoppable.
Davide Sanguinetti over Jan Michael Gambill 7-6 (8) 6-3
This was a close match and a funny one too. Sanguinettis Lotto shoes fell apart (the rubber broke off the bottom) at 5-4, 15-0 in the first set and he was forced to borrow the the shoes worn by Iggy Jovanovic from the ATP Tour. Ive never seen anythink like this in a professional tournament. Showing the calm and relaxed style of his boyhood hero Milslov Mechir, along with some pretty nasty low groundstrokes delievered with an old- fashioned eastern grip, Gambill had to work extra hard to avoid mistakes with that two-handed on both sides style. Davide took full advantage. As Gambill later said "I thought his game would break down with the pressure but it didnt." Flat and low shots are hard to combat when that is not the norm on the tour. Jimmy Connors retired a long time ago. In a showcase of talent, the relaxed Italian master with the slow and low shots overcame the pressure-loving American blaster.
Davide Sanguinetti over Andy Roddick 6-4 4-6 6-4
You gotta love this match for the welfare of the game. Never count out a clever marksman and assume the young gun will win easily. Give Andy credit for the fight despite his illness. This was a fun match to watch. Roddick later would say "its hard to rip the ball against him because he keeps it so low." He went on "I tried to get in a groove and bully him around, but this took a lot of energy and I could not keep bluffing it." Sanguinetti wore out the young Roddick with his soft shots, control, and persistant passing shots and angles saying "I knew he was frustrated and I took the pace off the ball to see what would happen." He attributed his great success not to talent, but to a grueling 6-week workout routine that improved his confidence. By winning, Sanguinetti was the first player on the tour with two championships in 2002.
If you want a suntan and some great tennis in March, come down and to the International Tennis Championships. Delray Beach is a great little resort town by the sea with cozy restaurants and a European downtown feel. The tennis is up-close and excellent. Keep pushing your mental skills to a higher level and I'll see you again soon!