Getting a Grip: Mannarino's career-saving swing change

by: Ravi Ubha | April 28, 2015

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Retooling strokes at the pro level in tennis is a rare and risky proposition. Sometimes, however, it’s an inescapable reality. 

Shoulder troubles, for instance, prompted Maria Sharapova to tinker with her service motion. Ernests Gulbis dramatically altered his forehand setup and grip, resulting in this:

Sharapova and the ever evocative Gulbis—whose slide continues—are high-profile examples, but the case of Adrian Mannarino is less known, especially outside his native France.

Every player, it seems, has a story to tell. Delving into Mannarino’s background, the Frenchman’s turbulent career owes itself to an assortment of significant injuries. Thus, despite playing the best tennis of his life—Mannarino reached a career-high No. 29 ranking earlier this month—the left-hander needs no reminding of the volatile existence an athlete leads.   

About the time Mannarino first cracked the Top 50 during the grass-court swing in 2011, he began to experience pain in his left hand. He didn’t know back then why the pain came, and even now can’t explain its origins. 

“I tried to play one or two tournaments but I realized it was impossible for me to hold the racket,” Mannarino said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t understand. I didn’t change anything, but the pain was coming. I thought it was going to leave me, but it didn’t.  

“Every day the pain was a bit more.”

Intent on climbing the rankings and making a living for himself, Mannarino continued to compete. But as the recent plight of Juan Martin del Potro shows, embarking in battle with a visibly weaker wing—in the Argentine’s case, his backhand—is no recipe for success. 

In Mannarino’s case, it was his forehand that became a severe hindrance. He couldn’t hit one, and it was no secret in the locker room. His loss to Roger Federer in the second round at Wimbledon in 2011 was part of a skid that saw Mannarino lose 10 of 13 matches.

All three wins came against players outside the Top 100. 

“Well, the first thing is, the forehand for me at the time was always the weaker shot, so the best tactic was to play [to my] forehand,” the 26-year-old said. “The second thing was, I was injured and couldn’t play the forehand. So yeah, all the players knew it. 

“I was entering the court always happy to play, but in the end it was always the same conclusion. It wasn’t the best time of my life. It was complicated.” 

Compounding his frustration, Mannarino said, was the advice he received from four specialists he consulted in Paris. Two suggested exploratory surgery. There was no guarantee of finding anything, and the procedure itself might have ended Mannarino’s career. He declined. 

One brought up the idea of wearing a glove, like golfers, and the last specialist said the pain wouldn’t ever subside and that Mannarino should just forget about tennis. His emotional state deteriorated. 

“The emotions weren’t the best because you are going to see a specialist and you realize he doesn’t give a sh-- about what you are saying to him,” said Mannarino, who likes to take the ball early with his compact forehand and backhand. “To him, if I was going to play or not play, it’s not going to change his life. 

“Second, he’s not going to give you any solutions so you felt like you went to see him for nothing, and you are especially disappointed. The third point is that it costs you a lot of money.” 

Without a firm diagnosis, Plan B was required. Altering the grip on the forehand seemed like the lone alternative. If that didn’t work, a premature end to his days on the tour beckoned. The hard graft began with his then coach, Olivier Ramos. 

“It was a big change,” said Mannarino, also pegged back in his career by a serious knee injury roughly six years ago, and a hip complaint after his hand troubles necessitated “many” injections. “I realized even if I was able to play [with the old grip], I wasn’t able to play well. So I took three months off and worked on this. I changed completely the way I was holding the racket. 

“I can’t complain. It’s been positive.” 

Free of any discomfort in the hand, reverting to his old grip isn’t a consideration. 

“The new grip is much better for my game,” he said. “I have no reason to change it again.”

Mannarino’s rise in the rankings allowed him to play at the Monte Carlo Masters for the first time, although illness and a right wrist injury contributed to a lopsided loss to Marcel Granollers and forced him to withdraw from Estoril this week. He is hoping to be ready for Madrid, where Mannarino once bageled David Ferrer; he is the last man not named Rafael Nadal to take a set off Ferrer 6-0 on clay. 

Adding to the instability, L’Equipe reported last week that Mannarino and coach Eric Prodon had gone their separate ways. 

Still, Mannarino is closing in on a seeding at the French Open after making his first ATP final (Auckland) and reaching the fourth round at both Indian Wells and Miami. His 2015 form, along with health issues affecting his better known countrymen, means the French No. 5 must be in captain Arnaud Clement’s thoughts as an outside pick when Les Bleus visit Great Britain in the pick of the Davis Cup quarterfinals at Queen’s Club in July. 

“I’m really happy, but I’m also a really big competitor,” said Mannarino. “I’m trying to work on my game, to work as hard as I can and to get better results all the time. 

“For sure it’s easier for me now. This is a good moment of my life. I’m trying to take it as is and enjoy it on the court.” 

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