USTA Magazine – May 30, 2004 – Michael McNulty – After a mid-career spiral into oblivion, Vince Spadea has proven himself a tennis force to be reckoned with.
The herd of tourists shuffled through the hallowed hallways of NBC studios in New York City. Past the old ghosts of Saturday Night Live. Down to where Matt and Katie wake up the nation. Up to Conan O’Brien’s late-night lair.
Vince Spadea was one of them. A tourist.
Of course, the scene was all wrong. World-class tennis players don’t take studio tours with strangers in Manhattan during Labor Day Weekend. World-class tennis players compete at the US Open before adoring fans in Queens during Labor Day Weekend.
When the 70-minute tour ended and the other tourists scattered, Spadea left Rockefeller Center on foot. He had no place to go. Nowhere to be.
“Here I was wandering the streets of New York City, kind of floating and not truly feeling anything. It was quiet and lonely,” Spadea says about the long holiday weekend in 2001. “No agencies were interested in me. I had no clothing deals. I was calling 1-800 numbers of sporting goods companies saying, “Can you get me some free shirts?”
Spadea reached SoHo wherein his cell phone range.
“How’d you do at the Open?” the voice asked. It was an acquaintance.
Vince paused. This was it. Rock bottom. “Actually, I didn’t play at the Open,” he said. “I didn’t qualify.”
Vince Spadea’s career was at a crossroads. His psyche was fragile. His confidence was shot. His game was a mess. And to think, everything had appeared so bright for the Boca Raton, Fla., resident two years earlier, in 1999. It had been his best year as a pro: the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and at Monte Carlo the final at Indianapolis, the round of 16 at the US Open. A N. 19 ranking. Spadea’s name was being mentioned with America’s top tennis threats.
So when Spadea lost to Lleyton Hewitt in Lyon, France, in October of that year, no one would have predicted that all of Spadea’s promise and expectations would begin to slowly unravel. But they did. That defeat marked the beginning of an ATP record-setting 21-consecutive-match losing streak that would send Spadea into a delirium-inducing tailspin.
Spadea is sick of hearing about the streak, and its understandable. Twenty-one consecutive losses. During the headline-grabbing eight-month-long odyssey, Spadea traveled from France to Germany to Russia to Australia to the United States to Monaco to Spain to Italy to Germany (again) and the France (again), without winning even once.
“It was very tough to watch, the worst,” says Vincent Spadea, Sr., who has traveled extensively with his son and often acted as coach. “You kept thinking every week that he’s break out of it and play the way he’s capable of playing.”
For many reasons-nagging injury, poor play, tough draws, bad luck, negative press-Spadea couldn’t stop the bleeding. “The bottom line is I lost my passion,” Spadea says. “It’s amazing how you can go from the top to zero.”
Zero is where Spadea was in Manhattan in 2001. The American tennis world was hosting its sparkling showcase event in Queens, and he was in the wrong borough. Before the 2001 US Open, he played numerous Challenger tournaments and failed to reach the final in any of them. He was desperately trying to raise a ranking that, at one point, plummeted to a comatose N. 229. A career in tennis-his dream-was circling the drain. He began to wonder about other professions.
But while this internal struggle was being waged, the competitor inside him refused to die. The competitor inside him chose to fight. “I wanted vindication that I belonged,” Spadea says, but he didn’t know how to orchestrate a comeback of such magnitude. The summer of 2001 was drawing to a close, and it had been almost two years since he had been a formidable opponent on the ATP Tour. “I was 27 years old and starting over,” he says. “I needed to surround myself with people who were passionate about tennis.”
He set about that task immediately. One of the individuals he tapped was Pete Sampras’ old coach, Pete Fischer, who helped restructure Spadea’s serve. Another was Andre Agassi, who’d made his own comeback in 1998. IN the autumn of 2001, Agassi and his wife Steffi Graf, hosted Spadea at their Las Vegas home for a week so he could train.
The other major piece in the Spadea rebirth project was sport performance psychologist John Murray, who works with professional tennis and football players. Considering tennis is the most solo of sports (at least boxers get advice between rounds, and golfers have the assistance of a caddy), controlling emotion when things fail on the court is a daunting proposition. While some other athletes may have shunned psychology, Spadea embraced a mental overhaul.
Despite the renewed enthusiasm, Spadea went into the fall of 2001 knowing he would have to scratch and claw for wins on the USTA Pro Circuit if he wanted to see the ATP Tour again. He was now the sideshow veteran fighting for survival in a cutthroat landscape of rising young stars such as Andy Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish. He also faced a less luxurious environment than what he had grown accustomed to since turning pro in 1993. “I think I took it for granted,” Spadea says about the ATP lifestyle. “Now I was on a budget. I was driving a rent-a-car from city to city.” This after being picked up for matches by a shiny new Mercedes at upscale hotels. “I was going to Denny’s to make sure I had eggs before I played. I was sharing lockers, and playing in matches where the ballkids were older than the linespeople. It was a humbling experience, but it made me motivated.”
A fortuitous break didn’t hurt either. If Spadea ever got a sign that he wasn’t wasting his time, it was when he faced a match point against an obscure, less-talented Slovakian named Ladislav Svarc in the opening round of a Challenger event in Houston in October 2001. “I ended up saving the match point, winning the match, then winning the whole tournament,” Spadea says. “That was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had on a tennis court. It genuinely helped. I started enjoying playing, and I started to feel good out there again.”
Propelled by the win, Spadea made the finals of his next two Challengers in Burbank, Calif., and Tyler, Texas. After reaching the final at the Bermuda Challenger in April 2002, Spadea quietly qualified for the main draw in Rome. Yet he quickly lost to Mark Philippoussis in the first round. He played a few more tour events, including the Roland Garros, but found only moderate success for the rest of the year.
While waiting for a comeback chance, Spadea nourished his mind with inspirational biographies such as Rocky Marciano by Everett M. Skehan. “Marciano became heavyweight champion at 29,” Spadea says. “I think sometimes in tennis we put too much emphasis on guys getting old.” Spadea would turn 29 in 2003. And despite his positive philosophy on age, he knew there were only so many years of competition left in his body. He needed a breakthrough on the main tour.
That watershed locale was Memphis in February 2003, where Spadea reached the semifinals. Proving it wasn’t a fluke, 2003 also saw him reach the quarterfinals in San Jose and Los Angeles, the semi-finals in Moscow, and-far more importantly-the semis of two Masters Series events, Indian Wells and Monte Carlo. Spadea’s ranking reached No. 29, while his Champions Race position was as high as No. 10 during the spring and No. 18 at Wimbledon.
But Spadea’s biggest destination of all was still on the horizon. After beginning his 2004 season by advancing to quarterfinals in Adelaide and Auckland, Spadea made his way to Scottsdale, Ariz., for the Franklin Templeton Tennis Classic, a tournament at which he’d never, in four tries, even won a match. This time was different. He cruised through the first and second rounds, then beat Blake in three sets in the quarterfinals and came back from a set down to defeat top-seeded Roddick in the semis. His final stop: a three-set, 2-hour, 44-minute title match against Nicolas Kiefer. Showing the fortitude of a man determined not to let a dream slip by, Spadea saved seven of nine break points, including four in the final set, and won the match 7-5, 6-7, 6-3. After playing 223 ATP Tour events, Spadea finally won a singles title.
“To win a title,” Spadea says, “to beat Andy and James along the way, then having to dig as deep as I’ve ever had to dig and finish it off, is wonderful-I’d have to look in a thesaurus for a better word to say.”
Roddick remembers playing Spadea in 200 and 2001. “His confidence as really low then,” Roddick says. “He was missing a lot and getting discouraged. It’s definitely not that type of match now. Vince makes you work for it every time out there. He’s a grinder, he has more firepower and he returns well, and that separates him from a lot of other players.”
Against the steepest of odds, Vince Spadea has made it all the way back from the bottom. His revival is one of the grittiest displays of determination tennis has seen in years.
“It as a great effort to turn around his career, and his career had been pretty much in the toilet,” says Brad Gilbert, who oversaw Agassi’s resurgence. “Vince went back to the minor leagues and grinded and regained his confidence. Now he’s Top 30 in the world. It’s been a great performance.”
Still, Spadea insists there’s work left to do.
“I still feel there’s a lot in me. I think I can go higher,” he says. “I’d love to win a Grand Slam, but overall I want to be the best player I can be. This is what I love to do.”