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
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
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
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,
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
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.
Keep pushing your mental skills to a higher level. I'll see you next month!