How Guido Pella won the mental game—and leads the ATP in wins on clay

How Guido Pella won the mental game—and leads the ATP in wins on clay

“I started the therapy last year on the Asian swing in September or October," he says. "Tennis is 80 percent in the mind. If your mind is right, it is possible that you are going to win more matches."

On Tuesday, Argentina’s rapidly evolving Guido Pella advanced to the round of 16 of the Mutua Madrid Open after upsetting No. 12-seeded Daniil Medvedev, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3.

Pella has realized some of his largest dreams this season, winning his first ATP tour title in Sao Paulo, competing every week on the dirt with regular success. He has ascended from No. 79 in the world at this time last year, to his 2018 year-end status at No. 58, to his current career-high location at No. 26. This good-natured fellow has been a quarterfinalist or better in six of the seven clay-court tournaments he has played in 2019, capturing 20 of 25 matches on his favorite surface—including today's victory over Medvedev. He currently leads the entire tour in victories on clay.

The Argentine is living in another competitive universe after making these substantial inroads, but every now and then he needs an escape from the daily rigors of professional tennis to rest his mind and recharge his emotional batteries. He told me in a telephone interview last week from Munich that he cherishes going to Disney World with his girlfriend, other pals or family as often as possible.

“I think it is the most magical place on earth,” explains the soon-to-be 29-year-old. “I have gone there since I was a boy and have lost count of how many times I have done it. I have been to the one in France [Disneyland Paris], to Orlando [Walt Disney World Resort] and Disneyland in California, and I will try to get to the Shanghai Disney Resort this year at the end of the Asian swing. In tennis tournaments, you have a lot of pressure in every match you play, but going inside these Disney parks is very peaceful. Every time I am there I can forget about everything and not feel any pressure or any concerns about my life in tennis. That is the key for why I am going to Disney parks. I am so comfortable when I go there.”

Pella’s growing comfort on and off the court can also be attributed to his stronger emotional stock. His mental toughness has been very apparent these days. One of the chief reasons for that is his commitment to having therapy on a weekly basis, telephoning a psychologist from wherever he is on the road playing tournaments and benefitting from speaking openly about whatever is on his mind.

“I started the therapy last year on the Asian swing in September or October," he says. "Tennis is 80 percent in the mind. If your mind is right, it is possible that you are going to win more matches. I have many feelings inside of me, so talking to this person has helped me a lot to understand my tennis better and to realize why I was losing matches even when I was playing good. I have the right feeling in my mind now and the right attitude, and that is why I am winning so many matches. I speak with this woman not about my tennis now but anything else like my childhood and when I was starting to play tennis. This is working out well for me. I know myself better.”

He also finally knows what it takes to succeed on his own terms. Taking the Brasil Open title in Sao Paulo was a major breakthrough for Pella. In the last two rounds, he toppled Laslo Djere of Serbia and Chile’s Christian Garin—22-year-old Garin just ruled in Munich, securing his second title of the season.

“Winning my first tournament in Sao Paulo this year was for sure the biggest thing that has happened to me in my career besides Davis Cup," says Pella. "It was an unbelievable feeling because I had lost four finals before that, so I was thinking I couldn’t do it. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. After the Australian swing I started to play much better. I had a great tournament in my country in Cordoba and I was in the final, but those feelings after losing were a little too much for me [he led 6-3, 4-2 over countryman Juan Ignacio Londero but was beaten 3-6, 7-5, 6-1]. Then I was in the semifinals in Buenos Aires but I had my revenge when I won Sao Paulo. That was really a relief. It was the key for why I have been winning many matches since then.”

Having accomplished so much this season, Pella has another view of himself altogether. He confirms, “Every time I step on the court since Sao Paulo I feel different. I am enjoying myself more playing at this level and [Munich] is my third quarterfinal in a row. To me this is very special. I am working very hard on my tennis and on my mind but winning that tournament in Sao Paulo was everything.”

To most seasoned observers, the new version of Pella was most apparent in Monte Carlo when he confronted Nadal in his first Masters 1000 quarterfinal appearance. They had clashed in 2017 at Indian Wells, and the Spaniard granted Pella only five games across two sets. At Roland Garros in 2018, Nadal demolished Pella 6-2, 6-1, 6-1. But this time around on the red clay, Nadal had to fight furiously from behind to win 7-6 (1), 6-3.

“I entered the court with a different feeling this time against Rafa,” explains Pella. “I was thinking I could actually beat him. That was the first thing that I did good in that match. I was playing a very good match against Rafa with my strategy, playing deep and aggressive. I was serving really good. I broke him two times and was 4-1 up in the first set. After that, Rafa was fighting for every ball and every point. It is very tough to beat this guy. He is the best player in the world on clay. But after that match I was happy because I felt closer to him. If I play Rafa again, I will be more prepared to face him and I will make a better job. I have room to improve with my tennis.”

One way this southpaw has already made immense progress is with his revised approach to being a lefty. He is exploiting that advantage more purposefully than he previously did.

“The first years of my career, I didn’t play like a lefty," he says. "In the past, my backhand was much better than my forehand, so when I played the matches I was playing like a righty and didn’t use my advantage of being a lefty. But in the last three or four years I have improved my forehand a lot. Now I am playing much more deep in the court and much more aggressive. If you can play this way, you can have the advantage because you can play your forehand cross to the other guy’s backhand, which is a very good thing to do. Now I can play more angles and play more with my forehand. I couldn’t do that in the past. I feel more balance in my game because I can play from both sides. When I start missing my backhand, I know I have my forehand, and when I miss my forehand I know I have my backhand. My game is improving.”

That improvement is not coincidental. Assisting Pella every step of the way in recent months as a coach has been Jose Acasuso, a countryman who reached a career high of No. 20 in the world in 2006. As Pella comments, “We got together last year and he told me how he wanted me to play. We have followed that line of work. He is helping me a lot to improve my game. He knows what is going to be better for my game. We started working together after the French Open last year, and it has been full time since after the US Open. I think he is a big reason I am getting better.”

Yet, Pella understands there are still areas of the arena where he could perform with more conviction.

“I need to improve my lefty serve a little bit to keep pressure on the other guy," he says. "My net game could improve a lot. And I need to be more aggressive. I am doing that much better than in the past, but in moments of pressure I need to do it more and not just wait at the baseline and see what happens. I need to go for it. If I am able to do that, I will be much better off in future tournaments.”

While some players define progress strictly by the numbers, and get carried away with precisely where they stand in the rankings, Pella is not one of them. He is more motivated about making certain his game is in full working order. As he puts it, “I am not very good with goals. I am just trying to improve my game and trying to be happy on the court. But if I had to tell you a ranking goal it would be Top 20 someday. I know I am close now, but there are big names in the Top 20 so I will have to play better and more consistently during the European tour. But it is all on clay so I will have my chances of course.”

Pella pauses briefly, and then adds, “The most important thing is to keep playing like this and keep improving my tennis every day like I am doing right now. I would love to be Top 10 someday, but I know that goal is very tough. I have to be doing much better in bigger tournaments. My best result in a Grand Slam tournament is third round, so I will try to improve that mark and keep winning matches at Grand Slams and Masters 1000s so I can get higher in the rankings.”

Pella looks around his profession and sees a lot of players thriving in their thirties. He believes his best is yet to come. “I think I have a lot of room to improve,” he reaffirms. “I am on the right path at 29. Nowadays a lot of players are playing good after 30 or 31, so I think I will be one of those players. I have to be healthy and keep working hard to do better in the next years.”

Having said that, Guido Pella is looking at life these days through much clearer lens, examining his possibilities and options realistically, taking on the challenge of potential meetings with even the game’s elite as something to embrace. He concludes, “I am not scared of anybody now. I know I can lose to anybody because tennis is really, really tough. But I can also win against anybody. So if I play against Roger or Rafa or Nole, I will have to play my best tennis to beat these guys, but on court I see myself now in a different way. I just want to see what I can do against everyone. I am feeling good about finding out where my best tennis will take me.”