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The 10th Anniversary of My Best ATP Tournament: The SAP San Jose 250

Today’s Guest Post for our Premium Members is written by Coach Todd Widom. Enjoy!

Even The Underdog Has His Moment In The Sun or Shall We Say The Lights Since It Was Indoors

As many people listen to the former players and commentators on television about their glory days in tennis, and how this and that may have come easy to them years ago, I will give you a little different perspective of how an underdog can sometimes come through against the odds.  Many different aspects of tennis did not come easy for me, which definitely helps me in my current business of developing junior players.  When certain aspects of tennis come easy to someone, that particular person may have trouble communicating how to execute various strategies or game plans.

I entered the 2009 season optimistic that I would have some great results after working on some very specific things with my coach Pierre Arnold during the offseason.  What we worked on was opening the court with more angles, and trying to take the ball a bit earlier because at 25 years old, I felt like my legs were slowing down after all the years of training and competing.  I remember feeling very comfortable doing this as I thought I was executing this new style of play quite well.  I always considered myself a very smart player with a lot of heart and guts, and I was willing to win or lose the match on my terms because for me, the worst feeling I could ever have was to lose a match playing scared and passive.  I many times speak about the foundation of junior tennis players not being up to par with what they would like to achieve on the tennis court.  I had to adapt my game plan daily depending on who I played and the surfaces I played on.  Without this foundation growing up and great years of guidance and training from Pierre and his best friend and late partner, Jorge Paris, I would not have had a chance to be able to have multiple options on how to pick apart my opponents.  The goal growing up was to have a well-rounded game that could work on all surfaces for when I was competing against the world’s best.

Many people only hear and see the superstars on the ATP Tour.  I was a top five nationally ranked 16 and under player and I held the number one ranking nationally for the 18 and under division.  I received a full scholarship to the University of Miami and chose this school to stay close to Pierre and to be coached by Jay Berger (ATP career high ranking of 7) who was trained by Pierre and Jorge.  At 18 years old, it was nothing more than a financial decision for me to go to college and not turn professional.  After a couple of months of college tennis, I was a top ranked college player.  I turned professional after the NCAA tournament in 2003 and I started to have some great results in the minor leagues of professional tennis.  The pro tour was very tough for me physically as I endured a torn rotator cuff, a torn hip two times, torn meniscus, dislocated knee, and cancer removed from my left eye.  I was almost always a couple of matches away from going broke and this is the reality for many tennis players trying to make the big show.  I remember thinking that I hope that whatever I end up doing after my tennis career is over, would not be as stressful as trying to beat the best tennis players in the world, week after week.  In fact, my last year of competing, I was sleeping less hours, and I was finding my hair in my pillow and my hat, which I attribute to the stress of trying to stay alive on the ATP Tour.

I am going to give you the inside story of how I could beat some of the best players in the world when I was considered undersized, not fast enough, and not possessing a big enough serve to compete with the world’s best tennis players.  The start of 2009 did not start out too great as I skipped Australia and went to Ecuador.  I lost in the second round to Santiago Giraldo after choking away the second set.  He was not exactly a bad player as his career high ranking on the ATP tour was top 30.  I then traveled to Carson, California to play Vince Spadea who at one time was a top 20 player.  I had him on the ropes and lost a close three set battle 6-4 in the third set in three hours.  I then traveled to Dallas, Texas and drew Ramon Delgado from Paraguay.  I had trained with Ramon a bit, I knew his game well and I had beaten him before.  He was a former top 50 player.  I was able to beat him in straight sets which put me against Amer Delic, in the second round and who was a guy I had grown up with in Florida and played in college.  Amer was known for his incredible serve and was just a pure talent.  He was also known for taking the best players in the world, on the biggest stages in the world, to very tough and tight matches.  I had two match points on Amer in the second set on his serve and I did not convert, and I lost another close match in the third set.  This time, Pierre watched me lose this tough battle and I was ready to break some rackets.  My arm was killing me but as a pro athlete, you need to suck up the pain sometimes.

Sometimes it is great to lose and other times it is not.  Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you are not so fortunate.  Here is one of those fortunate times that I lost even though at that moment when I lost to Amer, I was ready to tell Babolat to send me some more rackets because I broke them all.  You see, if I would have beaten Amer, I would have no story to tell you, but because I lost, I have a pretty good story.  If I had beaten Amer, I would have never made it to the qualifying of the SAP San Jose ATP tournament in San Jose, California.  Pierre went back to Florida and I took the first flight I could to California with my banged up shoulder.

After losing to Amer, I thought I would try my luck in California because there was nowhere else to play.  I was not even sure I could play because my shoulder was hurting.  I also was not too excited to go to San Jose because the main draw was played in the hockey arena where the San Jose Sharks play their NHL hockey games.  A couple days before the event, a tennis court was laid down for the week of the tennis tournament.  The qualifying matches were played at an alternate site, which I was not very fond of the first time I played there because the courts were so fast.  I lost first round of qualifying there previously and I never really thought I would ever be back again.  I showed up to the alternate site with my bad shoulder and realized that the courts had been resurfaced which was a positive thing for my game.  I practiced on them the day before qualifying and realized this was a good surface for me, but I was concerned about my shoulder.  The draw came out and I drew Artem Sitak who I had played a couple of times and had beaten.  My shoulder was starting to feel better and I won handily in two sets.  Later that day, I had to face Somdev Devvarman who had a stellar college career.  Somdev is known as the only guy to make the finals of the NCAA tournament three years in a row.  The first final he made was against John Isner, and Somdev won for the University of Virginia.  Somdev was an incredible defensive player and I just gave him no pace and ran like an animal until I had my chance to rip it by him.  The game plan worked like a charm as I won in two close sets.  The next day in the final round of qualifying, I faced my good friend Eric Nunez who I had grown up with in Florida.  I did not think I was going to be in the last round of qualifying and I did not think he would be either.  It was a huge moment for us to try to qualify.  We also agreed to room together to save some money before the tournament so it was a bit awkward to play your roommate in possibly the most important moment of your tennis career.  I am pretty sure I lost more hair that night.  I remember adjusting my game plan on my return of serve to surprise Eric and it worked in the third set to give me the victory.  I was excited to be in the fourth ATP main draw of my career.

It was time to try and get on the main court at the hockey arena and to get used to how that court plays.  When you are a lower ranked player, it is hard to get a practice court sometimes as the superstar’s book up the court.  I remember going very early in the morning to try to get court time.  The court was a slow lower bouncing court, which I was not sure, suited me.  The alternate site I had just played three matches on was a slow high bouncing court, which obviously worked well with my game.

As a young boy I had grown up watching the all-time greats like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi compete at the San Jose ATP tournament.  I was dreaming that one day I could play there and here was my chance after about 19 years of playing tennis.  The first problem, I mean opponent, is that I drew Robby Ginepri.

Robby Ginepri was a player I grew up with that I had looked up to.  Robby did not go to college and broke into the upper echelon of pro tennis quickly.  I was in college as I was watching him on television against the world’s best.  In fact, I never got more than two games in a practice set against him so my chances were slim I was even going to make this a match.  He was known as having one of the best return of serves, best backhands, and being one of the best athletes on the tour.  What was I known for on tour you may ask yourself?  Not much!  I was a minor league scrub compared to him.  It was like comparing a Toyota to a Ferrari.  I knew I had to come up with an incredible game plan to even make the match competitive.  I figured I had nothing to lose so I better bring my game or I would be booking a flight home.  The game plan I came up with was to serve him wide on both sides and hit the first ball angled to the open court.  I did not want to get into a backhand to backhand rally with him so when that did happen, I hit short slices to his backhand so he would move into the court which he did not like to do.  I would then hit my backhand down the line to his running forehand, which was his worst shot.  His second serve was attackable, so I knew I had to crush his second serve that I did.  Lastly, I knew when I came to the net he always passed behind the person.  For example, if you hit your backhand down the line to his forehand, he hit his forehand down the line.  If I hit my backhand approach crosscourt to his backhand, he would hit his backhand crosscourt thinking you would run to cover the forehand volley.  Knowing this going into the match was crucial as I knocked off many volleys for winners.  In my wildest dreams, I never would have thought I could ever beat him and I stood on the baseline ready to serve to 5-4 in the third set.  On the changeover I just kept telling myself to execute my plan like we were early in the first set.  Do not think of the moment.  I started the game off with three first serves and three forehand winners.  Robby then won two points and one was a return winner, which made me quite nervous.  At 40-30 I hit a first serve, ripped a forehand, and hit a volley winner to beat a former top 15-ranked player in the world, 6-4 in the third set.  

I was in disbelief and when we were in the locker room after the match, Robby had a towel over his head and I knew what he was thinking.  How could I ever lose to this guy?  Apparently, when Pierre heard the news from my future father-in-law that I beat Robby, he had to pull his car off the road in Florida due to his excitement.

My next match was against another American player I looked up to and this time it was Taylor Dent.  He was a former top 20 player as well.  I had seen him play many times on television and he was known to have one of the biggest serves in the world and best slice backhand and volleys.  His father was a famous Australian pro player.  Pierre this time told me to fly him out and I did not think twice because I knew the money I was going to make this week was going to be good.  Pierre gave me the game plan, which was to never hit two balls to the same spot as we were trying to turn this into a physical running match.  I also did not want him to attack me and come to the net.  Going into the match I felt like a superhero coming off the biggest win of my career over Robby.  Taylor’s first serve on the first point of the match was 144 mph and I hit the return as hard as I could for a winner.  I had to keep him off the net and after I broke him the first game of the match, he never served and volleyed again.  I ended up serving for the first set and choked it away.  I lost the set in a tiebreaker but won the next two sets 6-3, 6-2.  I served great and never hit two balls to the same side of the court for three sets.  In case you are wondering, Pierre is a genius mastermind coach, and I could follow a game plan to the tee.  This is how I was trained from a very young age by him and Jorge.

On to the quarterfinals, I went playing the best tennis of my career and hoping I would not wake up from this dream.  I was scheduled for the night session after Andy Roddick’s match, which led off the night session.  I warmed up with Andy who was someone I had trained with many times from when we were sixteen years old.  When the warm-up concluded, we were in the locker room and he tells me “the tournament starts now”!  I was thinking, “yeah it does for you.  My tournament started a week ago”!  Andy won his match over Tommy Haas in straight sets and it was now time for me to play the biggest match of my life, which would be against Radek Stepanek, Friday night in front of thousands of fans hoping for the underdog to pull off another miracle upset.

Radek Stepanek was known as an incredible transition player coming forward to the net.  He also possessed one of the best backhands in the world.  The goal was to break down his forehand, return well, and not let him move forward.  At five all in the first set, I was able to break his serve after ripping a return and he dumping a volley into the net.  I took the first set and this is where my dream became a nightmare.  What was amazing to me about Radek was how incredibly well he moved for a guy over 30 years old.  It was like he was floating as he was defending my ground stokes that I was ripping.  I got broken in the beginning of the second set and the guy got on a hot streak that just destroyed me.  I did not win another game after the first set and once he pumped his fist in my face after going up 2-0 in the second set, I did not know what to do.  He played flawless tennis and quite honestly, I never had anyone kick my ass for two sets like he did.  In fact, after he beat me, he beat Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish to win the title.  Fish and Roddick were probably considered two of the best indoor players in the world.  The following week in Memphis, Stepanek narrowly lost to Roddick in the final.  He was on quite a roll I guess.

What you can take away from this story is that you never know when you are going to catch on fire.  The other thing is that based on who you are going to play, you should have a very concrete game plan and do your research about how you are going to play that particular individual.  Too many junior players are getting on the court with no plan to execute and they are just running and hitting a ball.  If that is your child’s philosophy, they will only get to a certain level and then have trouble progressing to higher levels of tennis.  Best of luck, and remember, stay positive because you never know when it is your time.

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