Nicolas Almagro isn’t making as much progress on hard court as we thought he would. What does he need to do?
What is up with Nicolas Almagro? This is a strongly built guy with a big serve and flat hard shots yet he can’t get it going on outdoor hard court and he’s even worse indoors.
Almagro lost to Simone Bolelli in the first round in this week’s Masters Series event in Madrid. Not only was Bolelli a lucky loser but Almagro went on to lose the second set by the frightening score of 6-1 after losing the first set in a tiebreaker. And that’s the second week in a row he’s done it. Last week in Metz he lost the second set to Eduard Schwank 6-2 after losing the first set in a tiebreaker. That was a first round loss too.
Losing the second set that badly was a weak response to a disappointing but not disastrous event – losing a tiebreaker. Almagro’s first response was to get mad. After missing a shot to go down 15-40 on his serve early in the second set, Almagro smashed his racket on the bottom of his shoe and mangled it. The racket that is, not his foot. Though I imagine it couldn’t have felt good.
He followed that up by mistaking the Pista Central for rush hour in Barcelona. He was down 0-3 in the second set when he bunted a soft overhead long. Two points later he served the ball before Bolelli was ready. At the very least, smashing a racket implies that you’re stopping and thinking about the situation, but here was Almagro blithely marching forward in a downward spiraling direction. I’d have faked a foot injury or something, anything, to slow the world down a bit and give myself a good talking to. The dead quiet of his home country spectators probably made him feel even worse.
In times like this, a player has to take the smallest glimpse of hope and pump it up into something encouraging because there’s no stasis in competitive sports. You’re getting better or worse, it’s very seldom that you cruise, and that’s what was disturbing. Almagro is number 17 in the world and he was accepting his thrashing. He wasn’t exactly lying down and saying “hit me,” it was more like a grim march with no self-reflection or change in tactics or even despair outside of that smashed racket.
Somewhere in his psyche Almagro has to find that desperation. Maybe it’s as simple as refusing to look bad in front of spectators or fellow players. Maybe it’s throwing caution to the wind and hitting out until he finds something that works. Anything to change things up – especially himself. When passion should take over, disappointment followed by a dejected acceptance seems to take over.
Players do different things when they’re behind. Rafael Nadal holds steady and, when a situation presents itself, he jumps right in and takes advantage of it. Other players change their strategy. Things are going badly as it is and no one is as steady as Nadal, so players usually need to do something different. James Blake suffers from this problem: he has no backup plan and he bristles at the idea that he should have one. Some players have the opposite problem: they give up their game strategy without giving it significant time to succeed, but that’s rare.
The truly successful players raise the level of their game but how do they do that? Sorry about going on and on here. I’m still recovering from the death of one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace. I’ve been reading his essays nonstop and he was known to go on a bit. Don’t worry, though, I won’t resort to the footnotes and addendums on footnotes he was famous for.
What Wallace did well was to get to the heart of the matter and the heart of the matter here is: What does it mean to raise the level of your game? And how do learn to do it? You have to find a place within you that wants to win more than anything else in the world (okay, with a few exceptions such treasuring your loved ones as much as yourself). If you’re a professional athlete and you can’t find that place inside you, you’re in tough luck because what other profession gives you as much license to be self-absorbed except maybe movie stardom or hedge fund trading.
It took Pete Sampras a few years to figure out that he was willing to be the guy with a target on his back and not the guy who was more willing to live with the pain of ending tournaments with a loss than be the target of the sniping and jealousy that goes with being number one; that winning was important enough to put up with feeling separate from other players rather than being one of the guys, or having the media bug you and dissect you and misquote you and ask if maybe it wasn’t time to retire when you still had a few slams left in you.
In other words, someone who would rather hide than sit in full view like those people at charity fundraisers who sit on a platform over a bucket of water waiting for someone to hit the target and collapse the platform sending them hurtling into the water. It’s purposely embarrassing to fall in the water and most of us, me included, would rather throw at the target.
Novak Djokovic got a taste of it this year after he won a slam in Australia. Last year he was the darling of the slams with his imitations of Nadal and Andy Roddick and any other player with the slightest tic. This year Roddick teased Djokovic about his medical injury timeouts and he didn’t respond well. The crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium booed him mercilessly when he complained about Roddick’s comments after beating Roddick in the quarterfinals at the US Open. Djokovic will survive and win more slams because he’s willing to put himself in that situation. Winning is more important than having everyone in the stadium love you.
So, ultimately, I can sympathize with Almagro because I’d rather be loved than admired. But going up the rankings is a step by step process and he could start with a baby step. Personally, I’d send him off to a hypnotherapist to learn how to relax when he gets behind in a match instead of getting mad or giving up, but he might consider that too esoteric and, in any case, he’s not likely to listen to me. At the very least, he’s going to have to do something different and risk looking worse before he gets better because losing badly while trying is a whole lot better than giving up.