1994, Holland… Myself, Mark Hilton, Simon Dickson and David Sherwood arrive at the ‘Windmill Cup’ (a top Under 14 European event where the best juniors in the world congregate each year). We walk into the club with that feeling of a knot in your stomach. Who is playing the tournament? What do they think of me? Do I belong? ‘Oh God, there is Juan Carlos who won Tarbes (World Championship Under 14s)’ ‘I hope I don’t draw him’ etc…
We have all been there, whether it be the school disco, your first day at school, a new job or even your first day at a new tennis club/academy.
The week goes on and gradually you become more comfortable with the ‘others’ to the point that you are talking freely with your peers and your heart rate slows down, so all becomes a little more clear.
Wednesday night is Karaoke night.. One boy from Chile called Fernando belts out an inhabited version of Phil Collins ‘Another Day in Paradise’. Others follow and show whether they have the guts or not. I didn’t…Maybe this also showed in my confidence (or lack of) on the singles court. I would have been up there for a duet!
I have had this same feeling at different times in my tennis life. Notably walking into the changing rooms at Wimbledon for the first time. I also had it at my first futures event, it took me 6-7 tournaments to belong at that level and this was a pattern throughout my playing time at each level and to a lesser degree as a coach. Do not underestimate the importance of feeling like you belong and its relationship to your performance. When a player is comfortable the rest often follows.
Now lets fast forward to May 2013, I am in Rome with one of players from the Academy, Joshua Ward-Hibbert. We were kindly invited by Frederik Nielsen to spend a few days practising and getting involved in the world on the tour (currently 19 in the world ATP Doubles and 2012 Wimbledon Champion). Freddie is a very popular guy on the tour which has been great for Josh and I, as we have met many players!
Josh is making the transition from a relatively successful junior career into the ‘pro game’. He is currently playing at the futures level where after 6 months he is starting to go deep into the Main Draw events and looking like he belongs at this level, so I wanted to introduce him into the top level of the game (the Masters series events where the top 50 players in the world compete) so that he can:-
- Know the level – this is the level he wants to be after all. It is key he knows what to measure himself up to.
- Networking – the feeling of ‘belonging’. Having breakfast with Murray and lunch with Dimitrov, not to mention hitting with these top players means Josh is now ‘known’ at this level. The next time it will be easier.
- Inspiration – I know it has inspired me to work even harder with all our players.
As we arrive early evening, we walk into a room full of tennis players all sitting with their trays from the buffet (just like in Holland all those years ago) except this time I recognise 50% of the players not through personal experience of seeing them in real life, but from seeing them on telly!
Robson with her team, Wozniaki on a table with Janowicz, Niemenen, Berdych, Stephens, Bryan Brothers, Baghdatis, Ferrer, the list goes on. The next day we arrive for breakfast. On one table Murray and his team, another Williams and their team, to Kevin Anderson, to Wozniaki and her boyfriend Rory Mcilroy.
It hit me nothing has changed! From Under 14 tennis through to highest level in world tennis. It is still a game for individuals with your on court rivals mixing off the court.
Cliques are formed, friends are made, enemies are avoided, numbers are exchanged and I am sure hearts are broken whether through romance or the world of doubles partners!
The difference, livings are now being made! Super stars are born! But the same things ring true, we love the life that tennis brings us, the friendships we make, the countries we experience and opportunities we have. The same potential downside is there, the long weeks on the road, missing family/friends, sleeping in hotels (albeit nicer ones), the airports, the train stations.. The upside outweighs the downside though…
… and if this is not the case then I suggest you dedicate your life to another sport/passion.
Oh yeah, I nearly forgot to tell you, the young Phil Collins from Chile was Fernando Gonzalez!
All the best to everyone over the coming clay court season.
Control the controllables.
Director, SotoTennis Academy
Inspiring Excellence | Tennis Academy Spain