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Basic Instincts

DEUCE

Soares and Ullyett© Getty Images

For a 20-year ATP World Tour veteran with traditional doubles instincts, teaming with a partner who anchors himself to the baseline has been a game changer. But Kevin Ullyett's new partnership with Bruno Soares has given both players a fresh perspective that is beginning to pay off.

One by one Kevin Ullyett’s rivals and friends have faded into retirement for a variety of reasons. At 37 and contesting his 20th professional season, Ullyett is closing on 500 career doubles wins and has spent almost a decade ranked inside the Top 10.

Over the course of his professional career, Ullyett has partnered 72 players in Grand Slam, ATP World Tour and ATP Challenger Tour tournaments. He eulogises a former partner, Daniel Nestor, as “the best player of my generation,” while some of his regular team mates have included Wayne Black (116 tournaments), Paul Hanley (47), Jonas Bjorkman (20) and Grant Stafford (18).

Ullyett, who won the 2005 Australian Open and 2001 US Open with Black, isn’t planning to retire just yet. But, admittedly, at the start of each year he keeps thinking “this is tough” when he contemplates a flight Down Under away from his wife and two young children in London. But his bones don’t creak and his muscles don’t ache after matches. From his London base he continues to work hard at the Sutton Tennis Academy, which is led by former pro Jeremy Bates, and finds time for occasional practice sessions with Andy and Jamie Murray.

"There are worse ways to make a living"

“I’m going to play as long as I feel I can compete and enjoy it,” admitted Ullyett, a winner of 33 titles on the ATP World Tour. “Right now I am doing both. There are worse ways to make a living. I have had a lot of advice from 10-15 guys and not one said they packed it in when they shouldn’t have. Not one has said to me ‘Pack it in’. The real world is not as fun as travelling around to great places.”

This year Ullyett has joined forces with Brazilian Bruno Soares, a larger-than-life character who has rocketed up the ATP World Tour Doubles Rankings since returning from a career-threatening knee injury in July 2007.

Soares, by his own admission, enjoyed limited success prior to his injury. And during his convalescence from knee surgery he believed he would never return. As a result “after four of five months of treatment, when I didn’t think my knee injury was getting better, I knew I had to do something.

“I had money in the bank and wanted to open something. My wife’s cousin had just graduated from college and he wanted to open a fitness centre. We went along to see what it was like, then opened two in my city [Belo Horizonte]. I worked for a year or two, but when my wife graduated she took over the role and I started playing tennis again.”

Soares returned to the professional circuit as a doubles player, inspired by his compatriots Marcelo Melo and Andre Sa. “Coming back from surgery I asked myself what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to play ATP and Grand Slam tournaments. I saw [Marcelo] Melo and [Andre] Sa competing and doing well, so I knew if I returned and committed to doubles I wouldn’t be alone as the only Brazilian. I don’t know if it was luck, but I did well really fast.”

The 27-year-old Soares came to prominence in May 2008 when he partnered Dusan Vemic to the Roland Garros semi-finals, upsetting Bjorkman and Ullyett in the quarter-finals. So when Bjorkman told Ullyett he wasn’t going to play doubles in Nottingham, a former ATP World Tour grass-court tournament, the Zimbabwean was quick to call Soares. The new team went on to win the title in their maiden ATP World Tour tournament.

“It’s great playing with a new partner,” said Ullyett. “Not that it gets boring with the same guy each week, but it’s a breath of fresh air. A guy’s energy level picks up and that’s why first off they reach finals and clinch titles.”

When Bjorkman, who partnered Ullyett to the 2008 Wimbledon final, retired at the end of last season, the Zimbabwean immediately knew whom he should ask to form a new team. “I felt playing with Jonas, it put a bit of pressure on me,” explained Ullyett. “Obviously the guy has done so much. I often felt a little bit under the pump, which took me a little time to get over. But with Bruno I have never felt so relaxed playing with someone in my life. Not that Jonas is uptight, but I am really enjoying it. I have gotten a second wind... I enjoy practising and playing matches.”

With the exception of Ullyett’s exquisite off-backhand return from the deuce court, there is little offensive weaponry that distinguishes the team from rivals. Neither player has a big serve or goes after risky, flashy winners; both players complement and exploit their strengths. “Kevin is very good at the net and I have good strokes at the back,” said Soares, who often stays back on his second serve, which is a marked contrast to Ullyett’s former partner Bjorkman.

“A couple of years ago everyone had to serve and volley as the balls were flying around more, but now conditions are heavy and slower,” added Soares. “It’s good to mix it up, serve-volleying or staying back. I think it is a good combination because I’m able to set up points for Kevin at the net.”

By their own admission Soares and Ullyett endured a slow start to the 2009 ATP World Tour season, hindered by losing six of the seven match tie-breaks contested leading into Roland Garros. But recently the pair enjoyed semi-final showings at ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournaments in Rome and Madrid to boost their chances of qualifying for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, which is at the top of the team’s list of priorities.

“We haven’t been playing badly; each week we have gotten better,” said Ullyett. “But we’ve just been unlucky in the match tie-breaks. We could have gotten a title or reached a final, but that’s the nature of tennis. It’s so close between winning and losing.

“I think as a team we have improved everything, particularly in the last few weeks where we’re not making the silly small errors. Our standard of play is constant and over a long period of time that will win us more matches. Hopefully we can keep it up.”
  


 

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