During the U.S. Open, I spoke with Cecil Mamiit, a former Top 100 player and member of the Filipino Davis Cup Team. In part two of our conversation, we discussed the limitations of “feel,” as well as the hitting partner’s role on the pro tour. (For part one, click here.)
Justin diFeliciantonio: We’ve talked about your early experiences with the Babolat Pure Drive. What about with Luxilon? What was your take when it first hit the tour?
Cecil Mamiit: When Luxilon first came out, I had a hard time buying into it. [In the early 2000s] I never really gave it a full year to try; I thought it was unpredictable, because of how much tension it would lose. I mean, I wasn’t used to constantly cutting [the Luxilon] out and playing with it strung fresh. With the synthetic gut, I didn’t like it when it was fresh. I liked it after a good half hour of hitting, you know, really broken in. The synthetic gut felt more consistent at the time.
JD: I imagine you were customizing your racquets those days.
CM: Yeah, I was. When I was with Wilson, I had the pleasure of having them help me out with the customization. With Babolat, I went to [a pro shop called] Racquets, Rackets, in Arcadia, CA. They would weight and balance my frames.
JD: How did you go about playtesting and making adjustments? What was your process like?
CM: I was trying out different weights until I found something I liked. And after deciding on one, every racquet was [matched and] made the same for me. I’d also tinker around and add [lead] tape by myself. I tinkered a lot with putting tape in different locations on the frame to try and get a different feel.
But it was tough. I think all these things: It’s tough to figure out on your own. What I’m finding out as a coach is how great it is to have someone feel the ball you hit on the other side. For me, I can hit the ball and think, “That feels good.” But I don’t really see all the effects that a different string, different tension, different weight, or different racquet will have on the ball. One may feel good, but maybe it doesn’t give the result you want coming out off the racquet.
JD: So you’re a bit skeptical of what you feel?
CM: Sometimes when I hear myself talk about this stuff, giving all this description, I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. [Laughing] [Throughout my career] I’ve been all over the place. For me, it was always, “Oh, this feels good.” And all you’re gauging is that if you go to a tournament and it wins, you’re going to stick with it. Whereas, if you go to a practice court and you hit a few [with a bunch of racquets], your coach can determine if, say, you’re getting more pop. It’s critical to have a good coach who can really see these changes and whether they’re accomplishing your goals.
JD: It’s important to have a good hitting partner, too. I’ve read that you worked with Maria Sharapova in this capacity. What does it take to be an exemplary sparring partner?
Hitting partners are there to set up the ball for whatever the coach wants the player to do. It sounds simple, but actually doing it consistently is very tough. Because you’re trying to groove them and get their confidence up, and that’s tricky. For me, it was about trying to bridge the relationship between the coach and the player—seeing what he’s trying to do for her, the player, and then manipulating the ball in order for her to believe in what the coach is trying to tell her.
JD: What do you mean?
CM: Like, if we’re working on low balls, I’m manipulating the ball to be low, so that she can keep on hitting it and trusting it. It takes repetition to get that feel. But if I can’t hit that shot low and with slice in exactly the way the coach wants it to be hit, then the player might not start believing. And the coach can see: If the coach tries to hit with the player, he can’t evaluate him or her from different angles. To do his job, he needs the help of a good hitter.
JD: And if you’re not consistently perfect, then she may not get into that groove?
CM: Right, exactly. Hitting partners are ones who always give a great ball that’s consistent and true to what the rest of the field is hitting. I felt like I was always good, because I’m pretty fast, and I can get a lot of balls back. I’m like a human ball machine who can go from different places, different angles, and just hit you another ball. [Laughing]
JD: It seems on tour that it’s more the women who utilize hitting partners, not the men. Why is that?
CM: It’s a tough question. The subject of a hitting partner is weird, it’s interesting. I know guys use hitting partners to practice. Growing up, I practiced at Bollettieri’s, so I was a hitting partner for Boris Becker and Petr Korda—all the pros went over there to play. I traveled to Munich three times with Boris Becker to hit with him. I think that really helped me a lot in my game.
But yeah, I get this vibe: I don’t know if everyone feels like there’s a need for hitting partners. People say, like, “girls should be practicing with each other,” things like that. But for the women, I think they always travel with hitting partners just to make sure to always have somebody who’s better than them. But it’s a good question. I’m really not sure why it’s like that.