Nieminen doing things his way on final lap of farewell tour

by: Ravi Ubha | October 14, 2015

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The former world No. 13 will retire after Stockholm next week. (AP Photo)

Jarkko Nieminen changed his routine in Kuala Lumpur.

Instead of staying in his hotel room to enjoy a coffee, he took a walk, saw a bit of Malaysia’s capital and sipped his coffee at a place in the city.

Don’t get Nieminen wrong. He wasn’t slacking when it came to practice, and his will to win hasn’t wavered. But the new dad and world No. 141 plans to retire after Stockholm next week, weighed down by the travel and inability to consistently play at his highest level. He was keen to, if only slightly, do things differently during his farewell tour.

“I think I’ve been able to enjoy the weeks even more because maybe I’m not coming back here at all, or at least not as a player,” Nieminen said in a telephone interview. “So if I have some time, I’ll go around and see really where I am.”

Where the Finn has found himself for most of the past 15 years on the tour was inside the Top 50. His fitness, athleticism, return game and backhand were the main reasons Nieminen found success after turning pro, and he was featured in the year-end Top 100 each season from 2001, despite suffering wrist injuries in 2004 and 2009. He reached a high of No. 13 in 2006, and the grinder appeared in three Grand Slam quarterfinals. 

He was no-fuss and unassuming, often times unaccompanied by a traveling coach. And you’d be hard pressed to find a fellow pro who speaks negatively about Nieminen, a member of the tour’s player council for four years.

Roger Federer is a long-time friend. On Nov. 9, the Swiss faces Nieminen in an exhibition in Helsinki also featuring hockey greats Teemu Selanne and Peter Forsberg. Novak Djokovic praised him after they met in the second round of Wimbledon, the third of three occasions this year where the left-hander got to play on centre court at a Grand Slam. Not a bad way to go out.

In the first round of Wimbledon, Nieminen battled past fellow 34-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, 11-9 in one of the best matches of the fortnight. 

“I have a very nice relationship with Jarkko for many years,” Djokovic told reporters at Wimbledon. “When I was coming into professional tennis as an 18-year-old, I was playing a challenger in Helsinki. That’s where I met him.
“Ever since then he’s been very kind to me. He’s one of the nicest guys on the tour that I know, on the court and off the court.” 

Nieminen’s path to pro tennis was highly unusual, which makes his achievements more impressive. He hails from a nation where tennis is, or at least prior to Nieminen’s arrival, an afterthought. Nieminen became interested in the sport through his parents, who were recreational players and sometimes taught tennis.

He played several different sports growing up in Finland—tennis, hockey, soccer, track and field and basketball—and even after winning the junior U.S. Open in 1999, stayed in high school. The thought of playing tennis for a living only occurred to Nieminen after that title in New York.

There were no academies and correspondence courses for the native of Masku, a small town in southwest Finland about a two-hour drive from Helsinki, where Nieminen now has his own tennis academy. 

“I played every day, but the first time I started to play like a professional—before school, after school—I was pretty old, at least for nowadays,” Nieminen said. “At my academy, the kids are practicing a lot.

“I think many others, they want to be a tennis pro. I don’t think I was an average example.” 

Nieminen gave himself one year on the circuit to see if he had the potential to make it. It wasn’t so much an ultimatum; rather he bought himself time, pondering what he would do if the results didn’t follow. 

“My thought was to play tennis for one year and see where I go,” Nieminen said. “During that year I’ll figure out what I want to study in the future, these kinds of things. Then everything went so well. Now, here we are, 15 years later. One year became 15.” 

He won his first ATP title in Auckland in 2006, and a second one in Sydney in 2012. 

Nieminen isn’t one to dwell on his 2-11 record in finals. (Look closer and you’ll see that Nieminen lost to a fine group of players, including Federer and David Nalbandian twice, James Blake, Gael Monfils, Juan Monaco and Gaston Gaudio.) The week that Guillermo Garcia-Lopez beat him in Bangkok in 2010, the Spaniard seemed to have destiny on his side, saving 51 of 60 break points.

“You look at the stats and think I get tight in the finals and I would have no problem to say it,” he said. “I got tight in many matches in my career, but I must say, not in those finals. Maybe one or two where I didn’t play the level I played that week. But I would say, nine, 10 of those, I was just the second best player of that week. There was no drama in that.”

His soft second serve has also received much attention.

“That’s maybe one of the reasons I didn’t get to the Top 10 because almost all of those guys served better than me,” Nieminen, quick to point out that his record in Challenger finals was 10-4, said. “That’s a fact. When I became Top 50, Top 30, I was like, ‘Oh, crap, my serve is like this and these guys are serving better than me.’”

Nieminen is practicing this week before playing in Stockholm, which holds special memories: The Swedish capital, not far from Nieminen’s home, is where he contested his first ATP match in 2000 and reached his first ATP final a year later.

When it’s over, spending time with his daughter and family, being a tourist and one day becoming Finland’s Davis Cup captain are on the agenda. He didn’t rule out traveling as a coach part-time in the future, either.

“There are so many things I’ll miss. The adrenaline before the matches, during them, that’s impossible to replace. Locker-room talk with the players, bull-s**t talk,” he said. “But they are things I won’t cry and miss. I realize I’ve been doing it for 15 years and am part of a special group doing that. My goal was to play one year. I played (Pete) Sampras, (Andre) Agassi, and now (the Big Four) and others.

“There are so many great moments I will miss—and in a great way.”

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