And Dominic was winning, winning, winning.
But he was winning with mean tools.
Dominic was a moonball king.
The forehand was better. The forehand was a shot. Not faster than the backhand, but with pace, the forehand had a potential. With that one it was possible to make something. To make his backhand from those times a weapon would mean to change all principles of the physics.
The second problem was his playing attitude. Dominic was winning, winning, winning. But using mean tools. Dominic was a moonball king.
The tennis player Dominic Thiem had a natural expiry date. The construction of his game would collapse after he meets opponents, which would not defeat themselves; he would remain on the top, also on the international level, until the age of 14, 15, 16.
But then his opponents would be bodily strong and technically skilled enough to play his slow balls back as winners beyond his reach, just like you wipe away breadcrumbs from the table. Dominic would end his career in despair being 17 or 18 years old.
The third problem: Dominic’s personality. Dominic was raised in high-grade conditions. When coming into some room, he was greeting people. He was saying: please and thank you and he looked into eyes of another person, when giving him/her his hand. Remarkably sympathetic, nice, friendly.
But too kind and polite for a performance athlete. Too much of a future son-in-low, not enough Skoff or Koubek.
Dominic was exceptionally good in avoiding losses. He was not a type of a winner, he was a kind of no-loser. He was avoiding confrontations. When his colleagues were scuffling, he did hide away. His readiness for aggression was perfectly expressed in the trajectory of his backhand: max. 30 kmh at least 3 meters over the net.
When he apologized for a net roller, it was not courtesy but because he was really sorry for the opponent.
These were the three problems to solve.
To let it as is would mean to let Dominic win him deeper and deeper into cul-de sac.
The third milestone
The first main focus was working on shots. Serve, forehand and backhand are for a tennis player just like a hammer, nail and saw for a carpenter.
Dominic was my hobby. An energizer. After a training unit with him I was leaving the court fresh and loaded with energy. Was for me a new experience. So far it was me who had to invest energy on the court. Training units were often – with Skoff, Boris, Leconte or Koubek – power acts, a whirl of persuasion, overcoming of the open and hidden resistance of the player.
Nothing of this with Dominic. No resistance. Pure joy. Commitment. Passion. Listening. Concentration. Attention. Desire to learn. He was done so he was no more able to hold the racket upright. But he was still smiling.
From the passion of the boy energy was emerging, allowing the hardest work on the court.
And my task was all but complex. So far I was only interested in getting Dominic hitting the forehand fast.
On the other side of the net Dominic’s father delivered balls from the basket and I stand near Dominic and yelled at him:
“Hit ít! Hit it!” Hit it!”
He poked the ball and groaned from effort.
The same each day at noon, 2 hours long.
Because of his earlier wins Dominic has grown a kind of a lock in his head, preventing full speed hitting. The only goal of this lock was to avoid errors. We needed to dismantle this lock. We were doing this by letting Dominic do only one thing – to hit the ball with the highest strength he was able to. And to follow-through so, his elbow was sliding at his nose.
For some time, I have even forbidden him to hit the ball into the court. I have asked him to hit the ball so wide out, it lands not on the court, but on the fence.
I have forced him to make errors. Always out, never in the net. This would be completely false for the development of his skills.
Karin and Wolfgang (Dominic’s parents – PRF) were not yet 30 years old as they took a big decision. If Dominic had to go seriously the way to be professional player and this was slowly showing to happen, this is for next 10 or 15 years the central point of our life.
When 12 years old, Dominic started to lose.
The fourth milestone
With one hand
The double-handed backhand was the symbol for short-term success.
We could reach our long-term goal only with a single-handed backhand.
When the lock in Dominic’s head started to work, it was time to start to work on the backhand.
The biggest construction site.
The shot was disturbing me from the very beginning. Every hour, in which I did not work on that, I felt guilty. Over months I tried to let Dominic play so seldom the backhand – each forehand shot was an investment in the future Dominic, each backhand shot – a fallback to the old Dominic.
The player in my head was hitting single-handed backhand like Cedric Pioline, Stefan Edberg, Arnaud Boetsch, Gaston Gaudio or Boris (Becker – PRF). He could use variety: topspin, drive, slice, trajectory, length, he could build-up the game with this shot. To watch the player existing in my head, how he hits backhand, was also an aesthetic delight.
The player, standing before me, hold the racket with both hands like he was going to strangle it.
I think, Dominic was about 12 when I asked him for the first time to get his left hand off the racket.
This was the golden era of double-handed backhand. Roger Federer was the only one single SHBH-er in the Top Ten, on the other side – Nadal, Roddick, Safin, Davydenko, Agassi, Coria, Nalbandian, Johansson. The double-handed backhand was seen as the shot of the future. The reach was shorter but one could hit back and control the high bouncing topspin balls also on the height of the shoulder or even higher. How difficult was it with one hand, one could see even with Federer and his problems with Nadal’s forehand topspin.
To accept only the highest tempo possible, to the point of exhaustion, was not my malicious mood but prerequisite for Dominic’s outstanding hitting skills.
Because good tennis skills have no limits. Everyone world-class shot is a fluent and harmonic swing, free, without any limitations. In the best case it relaxes muscles like the racket was thrown to the ball. (A shot must be that obvious, that it can be performed with closed eyes. In training I ask Dominic often to serve with covered eyes.)
Delays in the shot are the basic evil. The movement is carried instead of being swung. The energy is blocked and misdirected. The control Is lost.
Only a free swing makes the player able to control the ball when hitting with maximal tempo.
This freedom is most easily reached when the player is just tired.
The fifth milestone
The load tolerance
Even if nothing goes well: a professional tennis player must nevertheless be able to win.
That “nevertheless” can be trained.
It’s false to create a nice environment for young players. Because they learn then to live and work in a nice environment. They get dependent from stable basic conditions. But the tour is not a laboratory. You are confronted here each day with new situations, weather, crowd, umpire, delays, different opponents.
It’s a job of a trainer to prepare his pupil for this.
I’m doing this principally from my very first hour spent with a new pupil.
A player saying, he can play only on court 3, is guaranteed to play next weeks on court 4. Who thinks, his cap is necessary, will play so long without it, until he has understood, it’s him, who decides about his performance, not the cap. A travel to the tournament I only possible, if daddy is also there? This is moving for me as a father. As a trainer I’m ordering travel ban for next three tournaments.
I know, many think, I’m arrogant and not sympathetic. But for a trainer it cannot matter if he is seen as sympathetic. His obligation is not to be loved but to get his work done.
One of my most important tasks is to teach my players to win. To win even if it’s going to be hard. When the temptation arrives to give up, stop to try, because external and internal resistances are too big, because “it does not make sense to make effort”, what a terrible sentence. It’s never pointless to make efforts.
Nothing is so easy as to lose.
You can lose without training, without effort.
The difference between winners and losers are the days, when it’s just about winning nevertheless.
This “nevertheless” one must learn.
It’s possible to learn.
It’s one of most important lessons for my pupils. No matter, if they will turn professional players some day or not.
The word, I have used most frequently in Dominic’s learning time was just “load tolerance”.
Dominic was no more one of the best in his age category in Austria. He was no more good enough to be sent to international tournaments. But he was since long time my dearest student. Dominic was for me just like enormous, wonderful, perfect piece of marble for a sculptor – I could see this growing every day.
Here it goes ro PART 3
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