Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Apr 1, 2001 – Dr. John F. Murray – The recent Citrix Championships in Delray Beach, Florida was a week filled with exhilirating men’s tennis. It only seemed like yesterday when the explosive Austrian, Stefan Koubek, brushed aside his 2nd set collapse, re-focused, and claimed the 2000 Citrix title over the qualifying Spaniard, Alex Calatrava. Could Koubek do it again on the hard courts, or would there be a new champ, perhaps the fellow I saw roaring past me on US1 in a blue Jaguar?
Mark Baron and Fred Stolle directed another fine week of tennis for this growing International Series event which draws higher talent each year. A big thanks is due media director Lisa Franson for her tireless efforts, thanks to the Tennis Server for media credentials, and I appreciate all the players who spent time with me this year talking the mental game. I also enjoyed meeting ATP executives Miki Singh and Paul Settles.
Andrei Stoliarov, one of the top player from Russia in the main draw, accepted my challenge to two games of ping pong while he had several hours to kill before a match. He unfortunately prevailed 21-14, 21-15, but he warmed up at least thirty minutes while I hadn’t picked up a paddle in over two years. He’s toast in ’02!
I discussed match preparation with many players, some who had read this column too. At the top of professional tennis, I am always impressed with the constant desire to learn and improve. Individual mental approaches to the game vary widely on the pro tour, but everyone I spoke with admitted that the mental game accounts for at least 70% of performance. Given the loneliness, constant travel, brutal competitiveness, and match pressure, many players said this percentage should be above 90%, and tennis is only becoming more competitive. Mental Equipment readers are aware of many nuances in sport psychology, but our knowledge and understanding is continually evolving.
Let’s get out on the courts!
Top seeds this year included Rafter, Lapentti, Moya, Gambill, Gaudio, Calatrava, and Santoro. Wildcards included Spadea, Roddick, and Dent, and the qualifiers were Saulnier, Wessells, Saretta, and Kempes.
The qualifying rounds are always exciting. Many qualifying matches have only 20-100 spectators at Citrix, and can be seen up close while almost standing on the court. The next time you go to a tournament, don’t wait for the main draw. This is where the action is and it beats watching from a corner seat 99 rows up!
Before his first match, I asked the tall Dutchman, Peter Wessels, if he was going to win the tournament. He lit up and exclaimed, “I need to qualify first!” Judging by his brilliant run (wins over Melo, Schulkin, and Delgado to qualify, and wins over Stoltenberg, Calatrava, and Kempes to reach the semi-finals where he eventually lost to Malisse), this modesty worked wonders. Wessells’ attitude is a model for players at all levels, combining healthy modesty, enthusiasm, and a complete focus on the present. If that wasn’t it, something clicked this week because he told me he had lost in the first round of several events in a row prior to Delray Beach.
The Frenchman Cyril Saulnier qualified by defeating Ytai Abougzir, a promising young player who was a little too wild off the ground. Saulnier would lose in the first round of the main draw to the powerful serving Wayne Arthurs from Australia who made it to the semi-finals. Saretta had more luck, defeating Christopher Rochus of Belgium before falling to the talented Fabrice Santoro of France. The final qualifier, Edwin Kempes, surprised Juan Balcells of Spain in the first round and Carlos Moya in the second before finally losing to Wessels.
The defending champion, Austria’s #1 Stefan Koubek, was knocked out in the first round 6-4, 6-3, but the opponent was the powerful former world #1, Carlos Moya. I had a chance to touch base with Stefan briefly and wished him well. Recall that Koubek granted me an extensive interview last year, leading to a cover story about him in Sport Magazine Austria and preceding my sport psychology lecture series in Europe. He had read the story – and was quite pleasant despite his early exit. I’m hopeful he has better times ahead.
Wayne Arthurs’ serve and volley game was on fire all week. Sitting right behind the returner, I could feel the awesome thump of the ball as it slammed into the fence and almost ripped a hole through the green windscreen. Arthurs rode his slice serve out wide to victories over Saulnier, Markus Hantschk of Germany, and Patrick Rafter before running smack into Jan Michael Gambill in the semi-finals.
Xavier Malisse rolled over the Italian Davide Sanguinetti, scorched Lapentti 6-1, 6-1, and took down Santoro in the Quarterfinals to set up the match with Wessels. Questioned about his mental game in the past, Malisse showed only signs of mental toughness this year to accompany some very powerful groundstrokes and serves.
Jan Michael Gambill served his way to an enthusiastic win over French Open champion Sergi Bruguera, won by default after Greg Rusedski strained a muscle (unfortunate becasue I really wanted to see his serve up close), and trounced Chris Woodruff to reach the semifinals against Arthurs.
Jan Michael Gambill over Wayne Arthurs 6-3, 6-7 (3) 7-6 (8):
The first set was very odd, going to Gambill 6-3. Arthurs couldn’t figure out where the service line was, making 9 double faults and 5 or 6 foot faults. The foot faults had to disrupt his focus but he would eventually get it together. The second set was a thriller. With Arthurs up 3-1 behind incredible serving and low volleys, Gambill stormed back to take a 5-4 lead behind his own brand of serve and volley and precise passing shots. At 6-6, Arthurs prevailed in the second set tiebreak behind a relentless serve and volley attack, often stabbing winning volleys when it seemed like Gambill had passed easily. The third set saw Arthurs up 3-1, 4-3, 5-4, and 6-5 with three match points! Gambill never quit, pulling out the match 10-8 in the third set tiebreaker. Every time Jan Michael was written off, he summoned up greater intensity with forcing approach shots on two match points and an ace on another. When push came to shove, Gambill slammed a backhand winner on the line in an amazing display of timing and courage. He told me after the match that he did not want to let Arthurs come to the net there at the end, so he hit harder, forcing Arturs from corner to corner with his two-handed style off both sides. This was one of the best matches I’ve seen in a while – and Gambill showed why he is one of the toughest and smartest players on the tour. Between Gambill and Roddick, American tennis is starting to look very good (by the way, they won the doubles over Myles Wakefield and Thomas Shimada, another great team living in Hilton Head, South Carolina).
Xavier Malisse over Peter Wessels 7-5 6-4:
Mallise served beautifully in the first set. At 4-4, Mallise held and Wessels also held with a fine serve and volley attack on the fast courts. Mallise displayed his Courier-like inside out forehand several times and went on to break Wessels with deadly low returns that even Pete Sampras would hate. In the second set, Mallise did it again. Despite a nice attack, the X-Man returned low and forced the error to break for a 3-1 advantage. Both players held for 5-2 Mallise until Wessels broke and held to make it 5-4. This is when Mallise’s passing shots and lobs took on a whole new dimension. He hit the line twice and steamrolled to the finals.
Jan Michael Gambill over Xavier Mallise 7-5, 6-4:
Mallise played well, but Gambill must have been riding on pure confidence after surviving 3 match points the day before. The first set was a real battle with players holding serve. Mallise got sloppy at the end and made several uncharacteristic errors to fall 7-5. Down 3-2, 40-0, Mallise showed some toughness and fought back hard to the win a game. Gambill, turned his serve up a notch every game and ended up serving exceptionally well. At 5-4 Gambill, Mallise’s serve began to falter and Gambill broke. The real difference in this match was that Gambill served much better with a higher first service percentage, many more aces and service winners, fewer double faults, and a real “go for it” attitude that any sport psychologist would be proud of.
Tennis is alive and well down here in South Florida. As I strike these keys, I’m eagerly following matches down here at the Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne. I have the feeling that Gambill will do well here too (he is still on a roll), especially if he keeps hitting as smoothly as he drives that Jaguar down US1.