Benni Becker’s Long Hard Trip Back to the Top Fifty

Benjamin Becker started off his ATP career with a bang by reaching the fourth round at the U.S. Open and ending Andre Agassi’s career in the process. After dropping out of the top 100 he’s back in the top 50. What happened along the way?

LA Tennis Open Day 2

In 2006/2007, Benjamin Becker reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open and got to the semifinals and a final in three other events. In 2008 he had only three quarterfinals and by early 2009 he was down to a ranking of 135. Then in April of this year, he got on a roll that started with three challenger titles in four weeks and ended in June with his first ATP title at s’Hertogenbosch.

In Los Angeles today, I asked him how that all went down. Let’s start with April and work our way backwards.

Number one, he changed his coach just before the Miami event at the end of March. Ah yes, the coach bump. Happens all the time on the ATP tour.

Andy Roddick’s results bump up every time he hires a new coach. After hiring Brad Gilbert he won his only slam and got to number one. After hiring Jimmy Connors he won the Cincinnati Masters and got to the final at the U.S. Open. After hiring Larry Stefanki he came within a hair of winning Wimbledon. Not long after hiring a new coach last year, Juan Martin Del Potro won four tournaments in a row.

Why does this happen? Is it like a new romance? A new relationship? Is everything hunky dory because you haven’t known each other long enough to develop conflicts? Am I being too cynical?

The secret may lie in listening. Benni had actually been coaching himself since the Paris event last year and who knows, maybe he just wanted to save some money, but this is the reason he gave:

Before the coach takes care of the tactics but I wanted to do it myself because I feel like if I do it, I’ll also do it on the court and learn from it better than if someone tells you do to it and you’re nodding but you don’t really hear.

For sure a player listens to himself, but what about his longtime coach? Maybe the old coach’s voice becomes background noise while the new coach’s voice is saying something new and exciting enough to actually pay attention to, just as we sometimes dismiss the ramblings of our longtime boss while we hang on every word of a new boss to make sure we know what we’re suppose to be doing.

Why did Benni fall down the rankings? In a word, pressure. Winning a few big matches can come easily, repeating it means wrestling with expectations that weren’t there be before:

Before I had nothing to lose. I never expected to be that high in the rankings and all of a sudden I find myself in the top 50 and I started thinking about it and I started to defend it and then you don’t play as well.

You don’t play as well and your ranking drops and you put more pressure on yourself and you get more and more unhappy and then, one day, you’ve dropped out of the magic top 100. Instead of playing to win, you play to keep your ranking. You play to hold on to what you have instead of taking the risks that might lose you a match here and there but are necessary if you want to beat higher ranked players. On top of that, you still have to travel from country to country and continent to continent only to lose in the first round more often than not.

It’s all too much and by the time Bangkok rolled around last September, Benni couldn’t do it anymore. It wasn’t working. It wasn’t even making sense. But he’s a smart guy – don’t underestimate the value of a college education, or, more specifically, the maturity that a college education gives you time to develop – and he made an adjustment:

If I want to do this I have to have fun too. So I’m trying to have fun. Trying to do things that maybe don’t help my tennis but make me happy. Because players who are happy, they enjoy themselves and they’re doing better.

I didn’t ask him what those things might be. Maybe I should have. And it may or may not be enough. Benni lost in two tiebreakers to John Isner today thereby losing in the first round. But I’ve been interviewing Benni since he started winning challengers in 2005 and I’ve always been impressed with his smarts. I don’t know how high he’ll go in the rankings but I’m pretty sure he’s resourceful enough to find a way to stay in that magic top 100 and that would make for a pretty good career.