Spain’s Generation Game
by Jason Goodall|
Under a ‘pay it forward’ system in which each generation nurtures the next, Spain has developed into a tennis powerhouse and become an attractive training ground for the game’s young talent.
When the ATP produced its very first official ranking list on August 23 1973 there were only two Spaniards among the Top 50 – Manuel Orantes and Andres Gimeno. On Monday, 25 April 2011, the number of Spanish players inside the Top 50 had more than quadrupled from the original two to nine, while the nation boasted a staggering 13 in the Top 100. To add to that, that same day Nicolas Almagro became the 17th Spaniard to join the Top 10 club in the history of the ATP Rankings. So how exactly has Spain, in less than 40 years, utterly transformed itself into the undisputed powerhouse of tennis?
In 1993 Sergi Bruguera became the first Spaniard to win a Grand Slam title since Orantes in 1975 when he triumphed at Roland Garros, and while he was undoubtedly the leading man of his generation, he was ably supported by the likes of 1994 Roland Garros finalist Alberto Berasategui, former Rome champion and World No. 7 Emilio Sanchez, and former World No. 10 Carlos Costa. This kind of success was no fluke, however, and it was the coaches working with these players that many credit with sowing the seeds of this Spanish armada of talent.
“Back in the day there were players like Sergi Bruguera and Emilio Sanchez and their coaches, Pato Alvarez and [Sergi’s father] Luis Bruguera, and they created the feeling that by working the way they worked, it was possible to get better results at international level,” explains Jose Perlas, who is currently coaching Almagro. “Players at a lower level, as I considered myself to be at that time, understood and learned that they were creating a system and we started to believe it was possible to get really good results. Because those coaches worked with younger players, as well, a second generation was achieved; Alex Corretja, Albert Costa, Carlos Moya and Felix Mantilla along with many others at that time.
“Then, the same situation triggered the next generation; younger coaches learning from older ones, they see the results, they imitate, and they keep on progressing and so a successful system was formed.”
One of the products of that system, 1998 and 2001 Roland Garros finalist Corretja, stresses it wasn’t only the coaches who were key, however, but that the older, more experienced and higher-ranked players themselves also fulfilled an important role by mixing with the juniors at that time.
“This is very important in the development of the younger players,” says Corretja. “When I was young I was lucky enough to practise with players like Emilio Sanchez and Carlos Costa as well as many others and it was unbelievable for me as I was dying to get on the court with them.
“Younger coaches learn from older ones, they see the results, they imitate, and they keep on progressing”
"When I was a little bit older I used to practise with some of the younger players coming through, like Carlos Moya and Juan Carlos Ferrero, and now the young guys in Spain are practising with them so it works really well.”
Having benefited from the system himself, the belief that older players have a duty to nurture young talent wasn’t lost on Moya, who famously took current World No. 1 Rafael Nadal under his wing when the Mallorcan was a young teenager taking his first tentative steps on the professional circuit.
“I got to know Carlos way before I started playing on the tour and I practised with him a lot back home in Mallorca,” says Nadal. “I trusted him and he gave me a lot of confidence.”
Spanish pros are fortunate that the temperate climate allows players to practice outdoor year-round and for juniors to develop their games fully on clay, an important element that many top coaches insist is the best way to develop young talent. When the likes of Bruguera, Berasategui, Sanchez and Costa were enjoying their success, their specialist subject was most certainly clay-court tennis; between them they amassed 49 tour-level titles during their careers, with 46 of them won on the dirt.
But change was afoot, and a new breed of Spanish players were being groomed for stardom; those that would make a concerted effort to broaden their horizons, eager for success on other surfaces besides clay.
Nadal has undoubtedly stolen all of the headlines in that respect and understandably so with Grand Slam titles on hard courts at the Australian Open in 2009, more recently last season at the US Open, and of course, most famously, on the lawns of Wimbledon in 2008 and 2010.
It would be foolish, however, to forget Moya’s run to the final in Melbourne back in 1997, which must have helped other Spanish players believe that success at the majors was possible outside Paris. Moya’s climb to the summit of the singles rankings in 1999 – he was the first Spanish player to do so – is testament to his adaptability. Becoming the best player in the world is impossible if you can’t play extremely well on all surfaces, especially clay and hard courts given the proliferation of tournaments now held on that surface.
“Carlos is one of the greatest sportsmen that we’ve ever had,” insists Nadal. “He’s a great person and has been a great example to us all. He was a pioneer when he became the first World No. 1 we have had in Spain and I’ve been fortunate to know him.”
Juan Carlos Ferrero followed in Moya’s footsteps when six years later he was No. 1 in the world for eight weeks during the autumn of 2003, and while there’s no question that Ferrero was at his best on clay having claimed the Roland Garros title earlier that season, it’s worth remembering that he was also runner-up at the US Open that same year.
“More attention is being paid to developing superior athletes rather than producing methodical metronomes”
“When someone Spanish who is close to you gets to No. 1, you think to yourself that if you have a similar level, then you can reach the top, too," said Ferrero. "For Spanish tennis, Carlos was the first to become No. 1 and he led the way for others, like myself and Rafa, who learnt a lot from him."
More recently, other Spanish players have become more adept at playing on hard courts at the highest level; a record five players made it through to the last 16 at the 2011 Australian Open, and leading the pack was David Ferrer, who reached the semi-finals to equal his best-ever showing at that level. Interestingly, the only other occasion he has reached the semi-finals at a Grand Slam was in New York at the US Open in 2007, again on hard courts.
And this is perhaps where the greatest changes have taken place in Spain. Much more training is now being done on that surface than at any time in the past and more attention is being paid to developing superior athletes rather than focusing only on producing methodical metronomes.
“We play a lot on clay in Spain because we have a lot of clay courts and it’s good for learning the game, but now the focus is much more on hard courts because there are so many more hard court tournaments on the tour,” explains Javier Piles, who has coached Ferrer since he was a boy.
“The most important thing to work on when trying to develop your game on hard is to improve your speed around the court. On clay the players learn to move and hit their shots on balance even when they are under pressure and this helps them a lot. On hard, you need speed so this is where the biggest change has come as I think now tennis at the highest level is 70 per cent physical.
“Very few Spanish players are really tall and so not many of them can serve at over 200 kilometres an hour all the time so they have to work really hard from the back of the court and so they need to be in great condition. Before, players would spend 90 per cent of the time hitting balls and then maybe go for a run or train on the bike, whereas now their training is based on almost 50 per cent tennis and 50 per cent conditioning. That’s how important it has become.”
“We are like a family and we always try to help each other as much as we can”
And it’s not only home-grown players that have benefitted from the Spanish methods of training. Russia’s Marat Safin was an early advocate of training in Spain, along with the likes of countryman Igor Andreev, Britain’s Andy Murray and this season’s rising Canadian star Milos Raonic, who is coached by Galo Blanco at the 4Slam Tennis Academy near Barcelona.
“We believe in a lot of hard work and we all have a great passion for the sport,” said Blanco, who scored wins over the likes of Pete Sampras on the way to achieving a career-high ranking of No. 40 in May 1998.
“We are like a family and we always try to help each other as much as we can. When I started a lot of the top players like Alberto Berasategui and Carlos Costa helped me to become a good player by letting me share coaches and practices with them. I learned a lot from them as a player, and now with this knowledge and my experience as a player I’m trying to do the same as a coach with the players I work with. Milos has amazing potential. I don’t want him to play like the Spaniards, but if he gets our mentality I think he will be a top player.”
Having experienced the Spanish methods first–hand, Raonic himself seems enamored with his set-up. “I spent six weeks in Spain at my coach’s academy before the start of this season and it was great,” said the Canadian No. 1, who qualified and reached the fourth round of the Australian Open earlier this year, before winning his first ATP World Tour title in San Jose two weeks later.
“I trained mostly on hard courts in the off-season because I was getting ready for Australia but then during the clay-court season obviously the training is done on clay. I also work with a physical trainer [Toni Estalella] and there’s a lot of focus on that during my training blocks, both in terms of my footwork and injury prevention, which is obviously very important.
“The Spanish players are great – they’ll do anything for each other and they were very welcoming with me. I think that’s one of the reasons they keep having so much success because they’ll do anything for each other and try and influence the next generation of players as much as they possibly can. I think that’s one of the main reasons they have so many players ranked inside the Top 100, because they take such good care of each other.
“Before, I’d always had the facilities but the main thing that struck me in Spain was the intensity and focus that everybody brought to every session, and that’s perfect preparation for life on the tour.”
Leading tennis writer & commentator Jason Goodall is a former British No. 2
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