In Gil They Trust
by James Buddell|
Frederico Gil has streamlined his lifestyle to become Portugal's highest-ever ranked player. He has also single-handedly renewed interest in the sport in his homeland.
Surprising as it may seem, at the Estoril Open in early May, Frederico Gil became the first home-grown player to gain direct entry into the main draw of Portugal’s ATP World Tour 250 tournament. In the first round he was drawn to meet James Blake – just one of the star players Tournament Director João Lagos had cajoled into appearing at the 20th edition of the clay-court tournament.
It was the most sought-after ticket of the week and a record crowd of 6,165 – a 20-year high for a Wednesday – passed through the gates. About 5,500 spectators watched Gil's gutsy performance [a 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 loss] on centre court, while other fans turned up to sample the atmosphere outside the stadium.
At 24, Gil's transformation has not been instantaneous. Now ranked No. 67, he won his first South African Airways ATP Rankings point in April 2002 and became the first Portuguese to reach the Estoril Open quarter-finals (2006, 2008) on two occasions. But over the course of the past 12 months former pro João Cunha Silva, his coach since 2002, and a group of dedicated coaches have worked tirelessly in order to give Gil an opportunity to compete regularly on the ATP World Tour circuit.
"At the end of last year I made some changes to my game," said Gil in the pleasant surroundings of the Estadio Nacional, home to Portugal's Estoril Open. "I started to believe in myself also as a result of the personal changes I had made in my life. Previously when I travelled to play at tournaments I often didn’t play my best, but now I am happy and am ready to work hard. Now, I believe it and am ready to work and make it happen."
During the off-season Gil spent a gruelling six weeks "off-road running, weight training and on-court practising for 12 hours a day" with Rui Machado and Pedro Sousa, which reaped dividends immediately at his first ATP World Tour tournaments of the 2009 ATP World Tour season. Back-to-back semi-finals at Johannesburg and Costa do Sauipe in February gave Gil extra confidence, a bump up the South African Airways ATP 2009 Rankings and renewed belief.
"I have produced some good results but I realise that I'm not No. 10 and I still have a lot of work to do and a long way to go," commented Gil. "At this level everything has to be so good. You have to adapt your game match-to-match depending on your opponent. You have to have a clear mind in order to respond fast. While I have improved my first serve a lot, I am trying to be aggressive from the baseline and attempt to finish the points quickly by coming to the net. Every day I am working towards my goal to become a more complete player."
Manuel Perez, an RTP television commentator and a writer for the Portuguese sports newspaper O Jogo, confirmed, "For me Frederico's rise up the rankings has been a great surprise. If you asked me two or three years ago if he could reach the Top 100, I would have said 'no'. But now I must say everyone in Portugal is surprised by his current ranking.
Under the guidance of Silva, a former pro and World No. 106, Gil has improved tremendously – adding extra zip to his first service, adding extra kick to his second delivery and a willingness to attack the short ball more in the mid-court.
"I have never seen a Portuguese player so mentally strong in 23 years of following the sport," admitted Perez. "His greatest strength is his mentality. He isn’t a talent like Nuno Marques, who everybody said could be a Top 30 player but [who] made mistakes during his career. Frederico knows how hard the tour is. He knows how to practise and how to manage the press intruding in his personal life."
So far Gil has been able to keep his personal life private. But he admits, "My life is changing and I have to learn about the importance of resting, practising to improve my tennis, to spend time with my family and make my own time."
Gil's father, Rui, a director of an insurance company, has been a major presence in his life. Gil asks for his father's thoughts after his matches. The pair often plays golf together.
"My parents had no experience of playing tennis before I was born, but my father started when he was 31," explained Gil. "In his youth he had played football for Benfica juniors as he had been inspired by my grandfather, Rui Gil, who played professionally for Benfica. I started playing tennis at the age of five, when my parents built a court in the courtyard garden of our home. Another grandfather had built four houses together and had given one house to my mother and another to my uncle."
Gil still resides in Sintra, a historic town in the suburbs of Lisbon, with his family. He is left alone, but finds his only trouble is how to live with a level of expectation that football's Cristiano Ronaldo, the FIFA World Player of the Year at Manchester United, and World and Olympic triple jump champion Nelson Évora are all too familiar.
"Everybody has seen my results in recent months and they watched my match [against Blake in Estoril] with a different intensity and expectation than before," said Gil. "Honestly, I am not looking to the Top 50. I know it is a long way away, as I am losing ranking points. My objective this year is to build consistency and maintain my ranking – around 70 or 80 – in order to play ATP-level tournaments and in some instances avoid the top players in the first round.
"I know that if I start to play ATP World Tour tournaments regularly, but lose in the first round my ranking will drop. It's a delicate balance. If I reached the final or won an ATP Challenger tournament I'd pick up a few points, but I really don't want to be No. 54 or something one week and the next week lower down.
"I want to improve my forehand, be more aggressive on court. I aim to be more positive on the court each day. My volley and smash need improving, too. I'm aiming for consistency and building my ranking slowly."
In a country so consumed by football, Gil's attitude is refreshing.
"For Portugal it would make the public very proud to have a player reach an ATP World Tour final or even win a title, because for a country that pays so much attention to football a tennis idol would be something special," Perez concluded.
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