Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick, 2004

The story of a 18 year old kid who defeats the world number one to help his team win the Davis Cup trophy.

From Rafael Nadal’s autobiography, Rafa:

You didn’t need especially fine antennae on the eve of the Davis Cup Final of 2004 to spot the disgruntlement in the faces of Juan Carlos Ferrero and Tommy Robredo, denied their places in history by the eighteen-year-old upstart Nadal.
It was obvious by anybody watching the team press conference the night before the first day of play, seeing the foursome pose for photographs, that the Spanish team was not a portrait of patriotic harmony. Carlos Moya, Spain’s number one, spoke with ambassadorial poise; Ferrero and Robredo looked as if they would rather be somewhere else; Nadal fidgeted, stared at his feet and forced smiles that did little to disguise his unease.

“When Rafa came to me and said he was willing to cede his place in the match against Roddick to one of the two older guys, I said no, that was the captains’ call and, anyway, he had my full confidence. But inside,” Moya recalls, “I had my doubts.” Moya transmitted the same message to Toni Nadal, who was also uncomfortable. “The decision has been made,” Moya said, “and I saw no point in causing even more tension in the group, and adding to the pressure on Rafa, who was in a dilemma, by saying anything else.”

Moya spoke bluntly to Ferrero, asking him to take the decision on the chin and remember that he had played his part in getting Spain to the final. The Davis Cup record books would show that, and wins for him and Nadal would mean victory for him too. Whether they bought the argument or not, Rafa’s doubts as to the legitimacy of him playing was now an added factor of concern for Moya. Had Rafa been more brash, less sensitive, had he either not picked up on, or simply not been bothered by, the ill feeling that suddenly plagued the group, he would at least have been going into the decisive match against the experienced American number one in a less cluttered frame of mind. But that was not the case.
Moya knew very well that beneath the gladiatorial front he put on during a match there lurked a wary, sensitive soul; he knew the Clark Kent Rafa the indecisive one who had to hear many opinions before he could make up his mind, the one afraid of the dark, frightened of dogs. When Nadal visited Moya at home, Moya had to lock up his dog up in a bedroom, otherwise Nadal would be completely incapable of settling down.

He was a highly strung young man alert to other people’s feelings, accustomed to a protected and harmonious family environment, out of sorts when there was bad blood. Spain’s Davis Cup family was distinctly out of sorts now, and making things worse, Nadal was – if not the cause – certainly at the heart of the problem. Getting his head in order for the biggest match of his life, Moya sensed, was going to be a bigger challenge than usual for his young friend. As if that were not bad enough, Moya could not help reminding himself that Rafa, however sharp he might have looked in training that week, had lost just fourteen days earlier against a player ranked 400 in the world. And his serve was conspicuously weaker than Roddick’s, which was almost 50 percent faster.

But Moya did also have reasons to believe in his young teammate. he had know Rafa since he was twelve years old, had trained with him scores of times, and had been beaten by him two years earlier in an important tournament. No top professional had been closer to Rafa, and none would continue to remain on more intimate terms with him, than his fellow Mallorcan.

Read more:
2004 Davis Cup final: Nadal defeats Roddick

Les Petits As, Les Petits As, juniors tournament

Extract from 25 Years of the Tennis Europe Junior Tour:

Amidst the frenetic bustle of the ‘village’ set up every year in the foyer of Tarbes’ Parc des Expositions to accompany Les Petits As, a big screen showing the second week of the Australian Open looms over the central eating area. The two tournaments on opposite sides of the globe thus progress concurrently to their respective climaxes: the superstars battling through Melbourne nights before 15,000 spectators for $40m and one of the four greatest prizes in the sport, the juniors fighting their hearts out in a cold indoor hall in the Pyrénées in front of 2,000 diehard fans and no money, but arguably the most prestigious 14 & Under trophy in the world.

It’s about as neat an encapsulation of the extremes of a tennis career as you could find – but it feels fitting to have it here. The iconic competitors whose every forehand and fist pump is magnified and replayed over us may seem larger than life, but many of them once passed through this hall in a small French town: 2015 Australian Open finalists Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray first played each other here in 2000. Fifteen years on, they serve as inspiration to the awestruck kids who dream of following in their footsteps.

“Everyone who wins here is a star!”

marvels top girls’ seed Anastasia Potapova, of Russia – the eventual champion this year.

Tarbes, a community of 50,000 in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has a proud sporting tradition – indeed, it was voted the third sportiest town in France by L’Équipe in 2010 based on the quantity and variety of sports it offered, and the financial support for them. It made sense, then, that Jean-Claude and Claudine Knaebel – a local couple with a passion for tennis – found it an accommodating site for their brainchild back in 1983.

“We knew that the 12-14 year olds were good players already – but amateurs, while the category above them had already started playing on the professional circuit,” says Claudine. “We wanted to give the youngsters experience in their own tournament.”

The local authorities immediately suggested the cavernous Parc des Expositions as a suitable venue, and – with coaches used as offices, a physio set up in a caravan and Yannick Noah, who went on to win Roland Garros that year, gracing posters – the first edition of Les Petits As welcomed competitors from four countries. By this year, that number had grown exponentially, with 32 countries represented across the singles main draws: traditional European hubs of the sport (France, Spain); recent emergent forces (Russia, Croatia), and overseas contingents travelling from as far as Asia and North America. The globalisation of tennis has been one of its most important narratives over the past two decades, and the quarter-final stage at Les Petits As proved a strong reminder of this. Over the day’s play, the diminutive fleet-footed Maltese Helene Pellicano took on the powerful Polish second seed Iga Swiatek in an absorbing match of stylistic contrasts; the ultra-aggressive strokes of Japan’s poker-faced Himari Sato, at 12 the youngest player left in either draw, thrilled spectators for a set as she pushed Russian 14th seed Kamilla Rakhimova to the brink of exit – but proved her undoing as they began to misfire throughout the deciding set. Meanwhile, though, another member of the Asian competitors, Taiwan’s Chun-Hsin Tseng, the boys’ fifth seed, was ruthlessly ending the surprise run of home favourite Adrien Gobat – and would ultimately go on to win the trophy.

Tseng is the latest example of the tournament’s pro-active approach to global expansion that has been so key to maintaining its prestige. Though he had never played in Europe before, tournament referee Michel Renaux had been impressed by the youngster’s game in an American junior event – and by his father’s devotion to his son’s nascent career, working nights so that he could coach his son during the day. Renaux extended a wild card invitation to Tseng – and it paid off, as Tseng swept to the title without the loss of a set, and indeed without the loss of any more than four games in any set, beating Europe’s top player Timofey Skatov (RUS) in the final.

There were echoes of the first time this policy paid off for the Tarbes organisers, back in its 1986 fourth edition.

“We wanted to enlarge the tournament,” recalls Claudine Knaebel. “We went to America and saw Michael Chang, spoke to his family and invited him to play. He came with his mother – it was his first time in Europe.”

The prodigious Chang also won the title – and, of course, just three years later was to become Roland Garros champion, a result that put Les Petits As on the tennis world’s radar in a huge way.
But if effective scouting is one side of the Tarbes story, the tournament’s success can also be attributed to what greets the players during their Pyrenean sojourn. Elite-level junior tennis can have something of a tough reputation: stories of temperamental, pushy or unsporting players, parents and coaches abound, and were famously the reason cited by Richard Williams for withdrawing his daughters, Venus and Serena, from junior competition. Yet at Les Petits As there is no ill behaviour on display, bar a few minor on-court grizzles.
This is a source of some pride to the organisers, who have gone to great lengths to create a ‘village’ atmosphere at the tournament. Food, clothing and equipment stalls line walkways near the courts; before and after their matches, players and coaches can be seen relaxing and socialising with each other. Indeed, Renaux states that the greatest challenge of his job – after maintaining the uniformity of the regulations – is to maintain this atmosphere.

“The aim for the players, because they are so young, is to find some conviviality in the village,” he says. “After the match, if they unfortunately lose, they are still with other players. At other tournaments, it is often just the coach and the hotel.”

This extends to supporting the children in times of real need, as well: the Knaebels recall 1995 as one of their most emotional years, when a talented 13-year-old Belgian competed the week after her mother had died. It was Justine Henin, a future legend of the game – and despite her personal trauma, she managed to make it all the way to the final that year, losing only to Croatia’s Mirjana Lucic.

It’s no wonder, then, that Tarbes holds long-lasting treasured memories for players who go on to professional careers. Renaux beams with pride as he describes Roger Federer and Kim Clijsters sending good luck text messages from Australia to the Petits As players, and 1994 champion Juan Carlos Ferrero later calling his time here his best memory as a junior. This year, one family is making a particularly special return. Way back in 1985, Canada’s Philippe Le Blanc became the first North American competitor at the tournament – again, scouted by the organisers. Two years later, his brother Sébastien followed. Both boys were coached by their father, Guy. This year, Sébastien and Guy are both back – but this time, from a different perspective, as Sébastien’s own son Alexandre is playing. Sébastien, an Olympic and Davis Cup player for Canada during his professional career, reminisces:

“This was such a boost for me, it was probably the start of everything. It hasn’t changed much – all the people, tournament directors and volunteers, are the same. They want the kids to have a good time, and the families also. The Tennis Europe Junior Tour taught me about hard work: make sure you play hard every time. We got lots of matches, met a lot of kids from all over the world. If you stay in Canada, you always play against the same kids and you never know how good you are.”

It’s to this end that Alexandre, who reaches the final of the consolation event, is now based in Barcelona.

“And in Europe you play on the red clay, which is a lot better than North American hard courts to learn the basics of the game,” notes Guy.

In fact, so impressed were the Leblancs by Les Petits As that it even inspired them to try their hand at setting up their own tournament, a 12 & Under team competition in Canada, which already counts much-touted talents such as Taylor Townsend and Françoise Abanda amongst its former players.

“We remembered how this was for us, and we tried to do the same thing,” says Sébastien.

Evidently, a successful tournament doesn’t just create the stars of tomorrow – but is key to the growth of the sport worldwide.

Finally some live tennis! My first live tournament of the year!

My first memories of Roland Garros are from the early 80’s, watching Lendl, Wilander, Navratilova, and Evert battle on one of the 3 French TV channels. And of course like every French people, I remember Noah’s historic win over Wilander in 1983, his overwhelming joy and his run to embrace his father.
Leconte booed during the trophy presentation in 1988, Edberg heartbreaking defeat against Chang in 1989, Agassi flashy outfits, Graf-Seles breathtaking final in 1992, Guga samba tennis in 1997… Time flies.

May 2004: my first trip to Roland Garros. Agassi, Safin, Ferrero, the Williams sisters, I finally got to see some of the best tennis players I had watched for years on TV.

Marat Safin, 2004:

Marat Safin, Peter Lundgren

Marat Safin

Fabrice Santoro and Peter Lundgren, 2004:

Peter Lundgren, Fabrice Santoro

Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2004:

Juan Carlos Ferrero

From then I was hooked, and Roland Garros 2004 was the first of many tournaments I’ve attended over the years: the US Open, the Queen’s, Bercy, the Lagardère Trophy, the Optima Open, the Open GDF Suez and of course Roland Garros (in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012).

Roger Federer, 2006:

Roger Federer

Ilie Nastase, 2007:

Ilie Nastase

Novak Djokovic, 2008:

Novak Djokovic

Court Philippe Chatrier, 2010:

Court Philippe Chatrier

Rafael Nadal, 2011:

Rafael Nadal

Maria Sharapova, 2012:

Maria Sharapova

The excitement of the first tournaments slowly let place to a kind of “been there, done that” feeling, but there’s
nothing like watching a sporting event courtside. Not only can you see and hear everything as it happens, but you also really feel part of the event. Of course, you don’t get the benefit of all those fancy TV replays and close-ups but you avoid annoying commentary.
One of the best thing is court-hopping. Wandering around the grounds with a simple 24€ pass, you get to see as much or as little of the event as you want: watch Sharapova practicing on court 12, Hewitt playing on court 7 or a Goerges-Stosur doubles match on court 16.

I’ll be onsite the first week, covering the tournament for Tennis Buzz but also guest posting for Grand Slam Gal.

Rafael Nadal and Nicolas Almagro, Barcelona Open 2013

Rafael Nadal captured his 8th Barcelona title, his fourth of the year by beating Nicolas Almagro 6-4 6-3.

Final Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell Trofeo Conde de Godó

Final Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell Trofeo Conde de Godó
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The new tennis season is fast approaching, and the best players in the world are busy training hard in preparation for another demanding and gruelling year on tour. But before we launch into 2013, we should take a moment to reflect on the careers and legacies of those who hung up their racquets for the last time in 2012…

Biggest ATP Retirement: Andy Roddick

Andy Roddick

On his 30th birthday, Andy Roddick called a press conference and revealed that the 2012 US Open would be his final competitive tournament. The decision caught everyone by surprise, but it seemed fitting for a man who, used to giving his all, knew that his body was no longer able to withstand a brutal training and playing regime.

Roddick had been his country’s number one player for most of the last decade. Blessed with one of the biggest serves in the history of the game, he regularly sent down unreturnable deliveries of over 220km/h, accompanied by his trademark compact swing and shotgun-like pop. He resembled an exuberant puppy on the court, pouncing on short balls and unleashing his formidable off-forehand with relish. Not the most naturally fluid of players, Roddick constantly strove to expand his arsenal of shots, and developed a very effective all-court game. Occasionally, his temper got the better of him, and umpires were often in his firing line, but he earned a reputation for being extremely gracious in defeat, and was a fan favourite wherever he played.

At the time, his 2003 US Open win seemed to herald the arrival of a new hero in American tennis, but Roddick’s main misfortune was to have shared an era with Roger Federer. He fell to the Swiss in four Grand Slam finals, including three at Wimbledon. The most heartbreaking was a 16-14 loss in the deciding set of the 2009 Wimbledon final, a match in which Roddick’s serve was broken only once. In all, he had a 3-21 record against Federer, and one wonders how much more decorated the Nebraskan’s career would have been without that perennial obstacle.

Biggest WTA Retirement: Kim Clijsters

Kim Clijsters

Kim Clijsters has the distinction of retiring for a second time in 2012. The Belgian originally called it a day in 2007, citing mounting injuries and her desire to start a family. The lure of competition proved too strong, however, and she returned to the WTA tour in 2009.
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