"It's Kind of a Dance"

Thursday, August 16, 2012 /by

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by Bobby Chintapalli

MASON, OHIO — Today’s practice schedule shows Radek Stepanek is hitting with Viktor Troicki, but it doesn’t show why. If the practice schedule tells half the story, the draw tells much of the rest, with the order of play weighing in too. Fans may deduce the reasons, especially those with curiosity about such matters and access to this information.

Back to Stepanek and Troicki, who are scheduled to practice on Court 3 at 9:30 this morning. That’s the who, what, where and when. Now the why: Both want to hit with someone at their level (i.e., a fellow pro). Both are scheduled to play at 11:00 — Stepanek plays Mardy Fish and Troicki faces Juan Martin del Potro — so they want that someone around the same time. And the key —  they’re on different halves of the draw. So they’d get reacquainted with each other’s games but couldn’t use that knowledge unless both reached the final.

While other factors come into play, explains ATP PR & Marketing manager Austin Nunn, this is the norm. And the norm can get interesting: “A player may think, ‘I want to hit with this guy, but we may play in the quarters so I’ll practice with him early then I’ll kind of move along.’ It’s kind of a dance to figure all this out.”

And all must dance. On the WTA tour, male hitting partners often fill the role fellow players do on the ATP tour. WTA players hit with each other too but not nearly as much. The top WTA players in particular work with male hitting partners, who can more easily generate their level of power (and do so without going all out and thereby risking injuries). ATP pros, on the other hand, must play fellow pros to face comparable power.

Not surprisingly few ATP players have full-time hitting partners. The exception among the Top 10 is Novak Djokovic, who has a traveling hitting partner in Dusan Vemic and doesn’t practice with other players often.

Rafael Nadal likes to practice with friend and fellow Spanish tennis player Marc Lopez and hits with him a lot when they’re at the same tournaments (Lopez is a doubles specialist). And the Americans are unique in that they mostly practice with each other. Whether it’s Andy Roddick hitting with Sam Querrey and John Isner or Ryan Harrison hitting with all the others, and likely because they’re close, they hit together much of the time.

Then there’s Tommy Haas, who’s in a unique situation with his coach, Christian Groh, who’s also a hitting partner. Among Top 30 players, Haas hits with his coach the most. He hits with other players too, but he hits mostly with Groh. That's Groh with Haas in the picture above. More on Groh below, where he answers a few questions.

For full-on hits most other players rely on assorted fellow pros. And on their coaches, who help identify hitting partners and set up practice sessions. With the top guys, coaches generally talk to coaches. When setting up a hit, coaches must consider various things. Is the next opponent a lefty? Then they’ll look for a lefty hitting partner. Does Player X need to work on something Player Y does well? If so they may set up a practice session with Player Y. Can they find the lefty and Player Y on the opposite half of the draw? That’s ideal.

Sometimes players are scheduled to practice together before the draw comes out, only to later discover they’re playing each other in the first round. “It’s funny because there are so many occasions where you have guys who before the draw comes out are hitting with each other. Then the draw comes out and they go, ‘I’m playing him? I just hit with him.’ Or they’ve scheduled a practice for tomorrow.’”

In those cases, Nunn guesses, half cancel the session and half don’t. If they don’t, says Nunn, “It’s just not a very talkative practice.”

Players can always be more talkative at the next tournament — especially if they’re far away from each other in the draw. Being friendly helps. Because there’s always another week, there’s always another tournament and there’s no denying players need each other.

Nunn says, humorously, “It’s not like a player can say, ‘I don’t want to hit with you, because I don’t like you.’ Otherwise later he’ll be sitting there going, ‘I have no one to hit with — could you please hit with me?’ only to hear, ‘No, you were mean to me!’ That’s why you see coaches go over to each other and say ‘nice match’ whether their player won or lost. They have to maintain that relationship, because they’re going to help his player as much as his player is going to help theirs. Everyone’s in the same boat.”

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Christian Groh, 30, is coaching Tommy Haas, 34. After starting the year ranked No. 205, Haas is now ranked No. 23. In June he won Halle, where he beat Roger Federer in the final, and has since reached the Hamburg and Washington, DC finals. It took the top-seeded Djokovic to beat him in three sets in Toronto last week and del Potro to defeat him in Cincinnati this week. He is, as Nunn puts it, “in the Renaissance part of his career.” The player is also, as the announcer said after his loss to del Potro yesterday, a “Cincinnati favorite.” The smiling woman beside me qualified — “female favorite,” she said. Perhaps. In any case yesterday at the Western & Southern Open, I talked to Groh about how he and Haas started working together, their unique coaching situation and a bit more. Here’s some of that interview.

How did you start working together?

I was coaching Michael Berrer for a couple of tournaments last year in the U.S. That’s how I met Tommy at the LA Open in 2011. I think he was watching a couple of practices with us, but at this time he still had a coach. We met again at the U.S. Open and chitchatted a little bit. Then I hadn’t seen him for a while, and all of a sudden I got a call from him.

He was looking for a hitting partner initially?

He didn’t get too detailed. He said he was looking for someone and said, “Can you come up to LA for a hit?” I live in San Diego, so I went up to LA. So we hit for a day and right away he said, “That’s fine. Let’s do it. Can you come with me to Delray Beach?” I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”

He hits with other players as well as hitting a lot with you?

I’m hitting with him a lot. I guess that’s because I’m still a little young actually to be a coach. When it all started in February I think he was mainly looking for someone to hit with, somebody that’s at a decent level. I hit with him a lot, but in tournaments it depends and he plays more sets with other players. Sometimes when he has a day it can happen that he doesn’t play with other players and I play with him. In Paris we did it this way all the time.

How do coaches decide what players to practice with?

We always talk about it a little bit. If he’s playing a certain type of guy, you look for somebody to practice with that kind of plays a similar style. Sometimes it’s not that easy with all the scheduling. You just make sure at least if he’s playing a right-hander that he practices with a right-hander.

Talk about your background in tennis.

I played as a pro for like a year about 10 years ago. Then I stopped and decided to go to college. I went to San Diego State University and got my bachelor's and MBA right after. But I always stayed close to tennis. There were some good USTA juniors and others that I was hitting with.

His results have been great. You must be feeling pretty good.

I don’t know how much it’s me. Obviously the guy knows how to play, that’s for sure.

What is a coach’s role when working with a player who has so much experience?

You remind him of stuff. Every player falls back to the same habits, so you remind him of certain things. I’m really big into fitness and nutrition, so I like to have a close eye on that. Tommy also has his physio, who works with him, does certain exercises for him to strengthen his hip, where he had surgery, and keep the body aligned and everything.

What are your goals for him?

At the beginning of the year we said Top 50. He got there so quickly. Then we said Top 30. After U.S. Open he already got that one. I mean, Top 10 at the end of the year — why not? It’s a big goal, but you gotta have a big goal with him. And he can do it — he’s playing well.

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