Lopez Steps Out Of The Shadows
by Robert Davis|
It’s time to take Feliciano Lopez seriously. Long overshadowed on court by his own good looks and his successful countrymen, the Spaniard is now a Top 20 contender with dreams of Olympic glory.
From the Players’ Lounge at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia a call is placed to the Hotel Parco Dei Principi for Feliciano Lopez, who happens to be is sitting in the lobby. There is just one problem: The receptionist at the hotel does not know who Feliciano Lopez is, or even what he looks like. The voice on the other end helps her out a little.
“Bello. Bello. Bellissimo!”
Immediately, the receptionist locates Lopez.
“As an athlete I would first like to be talked about for my tennis results”
For such a long time Feliciano Lopez was recognised more for his model good looks than his tennis game. Now, at the age of 30, he is playing the best tennis of his career. Having bided his time and honed his game, Lopez entered the Top 20 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings for the first time in his career last year. Now, Lopez has emerged from the shadows of Spain’s stable of tennis greats and served notice that he himself is a contender.
“Yes, at times it can be a bit annoying,” admits Lopez, when asked about all the attention paid to his looks rather than his game. “Obviously, as an athlete I would first like to be talked about for my tennis results, and then whatever else. But I have to do my part on the court, too.”
Up until last spring, Lopez was considered a career Top 35 player. But Lopez was not satisfied and he knew he needed something different if he was going to make a run at the top. Time was running out, and his search for a new coach took him way outside the box. Lopez called up a long-time friend and former Top 10 player, Alberto Berasategui, even though his countryman had been away from tennis for more than 10 years.
“I was thinking about taking a new coach,” begins Lopez, “and the best person would be Alberto because we were always on the phone over the years. Plus, when I left the Federation as a junior and was in transition from the juniors to professional, I trained with him and his coach, Francisco Roig, for about a year. They helped me a lot then in many ways. But then Alberto retired from tennis and completely got away from the sport. Now he has a family with four kids. I never thought he would say yes, but he did. I was so surprised and happy.”
“I never had the intention to return to the ATP tour as a coach,” says Berasategui. “I was going to work as a commentator last year at Roland Garros with Tomas Carbonell. Then Feliciano called me and asked if I could help him. We have been close friends for a long time. I thought the idea was interesting and that I could help him. The timing was good. Feliciano has arrived at a certain point in his life and he has matured greatly.”
“I was very surprised when they started together,” admits Carlos Moya, “because Alberto had been gone for so long. But it turned out to be a good choice. Also, when you hire a new coach the player is always more open-minded. You tend to listen more and take information easier.”
From that point, Lopez started taking aim at the Top 20 and all standing in his way. He reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals for the third time, the semi-finals of the Shanghai Rolex Masters and the Round of 16 at the Australian Open.
“I think my tennis is better now than when I was younger,” explains Lopez. “I play more relaxed, I enjoy my sport, and in general I enjoy the tour more, even when I go to practice and when I have to take a plane. I did not expect at my age - I am going to be 31 in September - to be this healthy. All these things add up.”
“Feliciano has arrived at as certain point in his life and he has matured greatly”
“Maybe the most important improvement for Feli the last year has been the serenity of his mind,” says Berasategui. “We get along very well on and off the court. He loves to train, and not only in tennis but fitness, too. Yes, there might have been times in his career when he did not, but he has matured and he seems to be enjoying it again. No doubt there can be some things on the tour that are boring, but you get to a stage where it becomes fun again. On the technical side he has added more topspin backhands to his game and not just slicing so much.”
It is no secret that the men’s game has gotten slower. The courts, that is. Players who approach the net early in the point are all but extinct. So, how does Feliciano Lopez manage to rise up the rankings with a throwback style of serve, slice and volley?
First off, take a good long look at his body. Lopez stands at 6’2”, but he has been blessed with a large pair of broad shoulders that taper down into the perfect V-shaped back defined by thick obliques that bulge out from his abs. And that frame is powered by calf muscles from hell. Lopez is built like an Olympic 100 metre swimmer.
“Feli is a great athlete,” says Moya. “He has a great serve and volley game. I think 15 years ago he would have been ranked much higher than today. He has matured a lot, and has been playing some good tennis. When he is playing well, it is very tough to play him because of his style.”
Speaking of the Olympics, it is no secret that the Spanish Tennis Federation goes by rankings when selecting the four singles players for the Games. While few are openly talking about it, the final spot on Spain’s Olympic tennis team is surely on the minds of some. Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro have all wrapped up the first three slots. The fourth and final place is a running battle between Fernando Verdasco and Lopez, currently 16th and 17th in the South African Airways ATP Rankings.
“The Olympics has not been the best for Feliciano’s tennis this year,” says Berasategui. “The last few months I think he has put too much pressure on himself and, as a result, not played as free as he can. Since the Australian Open, he has had too much in his head, trying to maintain his ranking. I think it has been counter-productive. The only thing that I can hope for is that we have a good campaign at Roland Garros and, win or lose, he qualifies or does not qualify. Let this be over and let’s get back to improving his tennis game.”
“The most important improvement for Feli has been the serenity of his mind”
“Obviously, since I knew the Olympic Games were going to be at Wimbledon I was thinking about being there,” says Lopez. “It is a great opportunity for me as it is on grass. And at my age, maybe my last for singles. To be honest, I think it might have been too much pressure that I put on myself and kept me from playing my best. At Barcelona I had match points (against Ferrer). I had been playing great but could not close. There were three or four matches like this, and my attitude in Rome was not good because I lost so many matches in a row with so many chances and that pressure in my mind, it was too much. I should not have put that in my mind so much.”
“Feliciano can still improve,” says Berasategui. “The main thing with his style of play is to be more bold when he is serving and winning the game. There is no need for him to get nervous.”
Feliciano Lopez will do well to heed his coach Alberto Berasategui’s advice of staying relaxed and playing bold at Roland Garros if his dream of participating in the singles draw at the 2012 Olympics is to come true. If Lopez can somehow grab the spot on the team, we can expect big things from Spain’s newest star this summer.
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