The Michigander

by: Peter Bodo | September 28, 2006

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2006_09_28_michigander I can see by your replies to my last post that this idea of catching up with folks is, well, catching. I'm definitely going to be doing it on a regular basis, especially during "slow" periods. Theoretically, this is not a slow period; as Kamakshi pointed out this morning, the global reach of the game is such that there's an excellent chance this week that there is a live, ATP or WTA match in progress - at any hour of the day, anywhere in the world.

How's that for a 24/7 sport? The question, of course, is who really  cares about the events in progress (there are six official WTA or ATP events going on as I write this) in Guangzhou, Mumbai, or Bangkok? Answer: people in and around Bangkok, Mumbai and Guangzhou - and that's just for starters.

Still, this isn't exactly made-for-blogging action, so I thought why not catch up with one of favorite old-school guys, Todd Martin? You know, the Michigander (don't you just love that word, it's like. . . barnyard or something) with the erect carriage and deadpan wit best known for reaching two Grand Slam singles finals (Australian Open, 1994; U.S. Open, 1998) and going gray at age 7.

It's a pity that  Martin never won a major. Who can forget Martin's amazing, after midnight  comeback  win over Greg Rusedski in the 1999 U.S. Open?  Or how about his epic last hurrah against Carlos Moya, just one-year later, when Todd did a victory lap on the floor of Arthur Ashe Stadium, hugging and high-fiving the loyal fans who had stayed to cheer him on until almost 1:30 morning? What about that 1996 Wimbledon semifinal - whoops. . . let's move along, shall we (After leading Mal Washington 5-1 in the fifth and serving for the match twice, Martin lost 10-8 in the fifth and spoke the two most dreaded words in tennis after "Roger Federer": I choked)?

Oh, Todd. You had it, buddy. Dang it all!

Todd now lives in Jacksonville, Fla., near ATP headquarters, after having moved there in the late 1990s to take advantage of the climate, the ATP's training facilities, and the abundance of hitting partners. His wife, Amy, is a beauty who would never be mistaken for one of the I'm-so-hot-and-so-in-your-face-about-it girlfriends who populate the player lounges of the world. They have two kids, Jack, a toddler, and Cash, an infant. Behind every child's name, I always figured, may be a good story.

Todd and Amy both loved the name "Jack" - for no particular reason. One less source of potential, connubial disagreement, right? End of story. Almost. It turns out that Todd and Amy also wanted to acknowledge Todd's late father, Dale. But they felt that Jack Dale Martin sounded too, well, as Todd put it, "NASCAR-ish." The solution: name the boy Jackson Dale Martin. I guess they learned their lesson - or not - because the new baby is, officially, "Cassius."

I've always loved William Faulkner's book, As I Lay Dying. The story (what there is of it) is told through the eyes of a handful of characters, one of whom is named Cash. This, I want you to know, had nothing whatsoever to do with the name of the Martins baby. Was it, perhaps, Shakespearian (Julius Caesar, anyone?). Nah. They just liked the name.

Todd is coaching Mardy Fish these days, helping train young players (more on that later) and playing on Jim Courier's Outback Champions Tour (he  lost to the boss in the third of this year's five events, which was just held in Charlotte, N.C.). Like me, you may have wondered how and why guys who retire and swear they'll never set foot near a tennis court again do so with such predictable, set-your-watch-by-it regularity. Todd laughed when I asked him:

Funny you mention that. When I retired, I told a friend that if he ever caught me trying to play again, he should stop me. So last year, Jim (Courier) catches me in a weak moment and convinces me to play in the very first of his Champions events. I get home later after my first match in that event and there's an email waiting from me from this old friend, saying: "Todd - remember,  you're not allowed to do this!"

It turns out that Todd enjoyed his return to tennis so much that midway through his second match in Houston last year, he shouted over to Courier: This is fun, sign me up!

"But seriously, Todd," I said: "Why do players always do this?"

He had an interesting answer that I hadn't thought of before. The first thing that most players think of when you say the word "compete" is all the training, travel and perceived sacrifices they make for the sake of the profession. Thus, when they say, don't ever let me do this again, they're talking mostly about the whole way of life - not just hitting some balls for the fun of it.

Okay, I can buy that - but with grain of salt larger than a BB but smaller than a beach ball. I still find in these "You'll never catch me playing tennis after I retire" soliloquies a strange need to declare independence from the game (Perhaps retirement, at first, is some sort 12-step program intended to cure an addiction?). There's also this urge to repudiate the game - and not necessarily, or exclusively, in a healthy way: I am too old and beat up to be as good as I once once, therefore the game of tennis no longer exists for me. Hah!

In any event, Todd is back in the fold. He's playing three of the 5 Champions Tour events this year, he did a turn of World Team Tennis this summer, and he even played in the senior division of the U.S. Open. He says, "Thats it. That's enough."

Apart from spending about 15 weeks with Fish, Todd is helping his coach and mentor Rick Fermin with the Altheus Tennis Academy, an interesting training enterprise under the corporate banner of Altheus. Todd told me this is an "athletic development" company that takes comers from all sports, and offers them what Todd characterized as "A fully integrated, holistic approach to training and improving - something that exceeds the resources provided by most tennis academies,  but without taking the kids from their families."

In other words, by not providing room-and-board, the ATC is going against the grain of today's thinking. But Todd has a soft spot for the approach. He himself never left his home in East Lansing, Mich. to help further his game. He was close to his parents and Fermin, who at the time was an active USTA member and local tennis club owner/operator. Todd simply wanted to stay at home in  his comfort zone. "In my experience," Todd said, "There's just no substitute to staying with your family."

The ATC is based in Rye, N.Y., a perfect location for an enterprise of this sort. Suburban New York and Connecticut are awash in kids from upscale homes - kids who live in the midst of a strong tennis infrastructure of clubs and players, but who have multiple options and may not want to put all of their eggs into the single basket of tennis at too early an age. Theoretically, the academy could keep such kids from falling off the developmental radar until such time as they are willing or able to commit to top-level tennis.

So how does Todd feel about the USTA's recent decision to open an official "sleep-away" academy of its own? "I'm not opposed to that," he said. "In fact,  that's probably what they ought to be doing. And God knows some of my peers who went to academies (Jim Courier, Andre Agassi) were more successful than I was. But kids are different, and their needs are all different."

Todd has some interesting thoughts on U.S. tennis. He's convinced that in the U.S., unlike, say, Europe, tennis does not attract the best athletes (tennis, after all, is the number two or three sport behind King Soccer in many nations). Morever, he doesn't think we teach kids the game as well as other nations now do. That's a deadly one-two punch, isn't it?

Todd feels that having played a lot of soccer and basketball as a youth gave him a developmental leg up, and it complimented the one quality of his that almost all players share, the gift of terrific eye-hand co-ordination (or, as Todd likes to call it, Stickball talent). The best way to maximize a player's Stickball talent, according to Martin, is to compliment it with an equal amount of emphasis on the development of the torso and lower body. That is, make everyone play soccer or basketball, and then try to select the kids with great eye-hand for tennis (rather than select the kids with great eye-hand and concentrate on developing their tennis). I'd never heard it put quite this way, but it makes sense. But don't expect it to be a magic bullet.

And perhaps you wonder, like me, whether Mardy Fish can transcend his role as a good player (actually, I would describe him first and foremost as an interesting player). Todd says: "Mardy has an abundance of 'Stickball talent,' but he has fundamental issues with the way he organizes his body to hit balls, and how he organizes himself to compete. I think all of those issues can be addressed; none of them is the kind of thing you can't do anything about anymore."

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