Ebden Riding High
by Matt Fitzgerald|
Matthew Ebden exemplifies the notion that nothing can replace the value of hard work. At 24, the Australian has come into his own on the ATP World Tour and looks to play an integral role in helping his country regain its past Davis Cup glory.
Travelling can be one of the less glamorous perks of being a professional athlete. On one unfortunate evening, Matthew Ebden had his flight cancelled, unable to get rebooked for a later departure. As a music festival in town that night prevented him from reserving a hotel room, Ebden was forced to sleep on the airport terminal’s floor with a single airplane blanket.
Waking up stiff, cranky and short of shuteye, Ebden was reminded of all the previous times he was stranded overnight in an airport, except this instance was a far cry from his experiences getting stuck en route to his next Futures event. He was flying from the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Miami, anxious to get home so he could prepare for his live rubber debut in Australia’s Davis Cup tie against the Republic of Korea in Brisbane.
“I’m trying to become the best player I can; not only for myself, but for my country”
“Playing Davis Cup is such a rich tradition in Australia. We have incredible champions and past legends that are still around and involved with the sport,” Ebden expresses. “Guys like Tony Roche, Patrick Rafter, Todd Woodbridge and Lleyton Hewitt are all helping me along. I’m trying to become the best player I can; not only for myself, but for my country. It’s a great honour and I’ll always put everything on the line. Lleyton has shown that every time he steps out there. He’s been a great role model the past few years.”
Ebden’s Davis Cup appointment was a reward for the innate work ethic that has kept the Australian striving for excellence. A native of South Africa, Ebden excelled in balancing tennis and academics when his parents relocated to Perth to foster better opportunities in athletics for their three children. He finished high school a year early after skipping Year 9, opening an extra season to train and develop before turning pro.
“I think it’s important no matter what you do in life, to always dedicate yourself. It’s going to take a lot of hard work and commitment to get to where you want to be,” says Ebden. “I think it’s something Australians have in our culture. Rafter is always encouraging us to work hard. I hope I can take that along with the abilities I have and continue developing my game style, so I can become capable of becoming one of the best players in the world.”
Ebden’s parents encouraged their son to be prepared for all career pathways. Speaking with DEUCE in London, his father Charles revealed, “It became obvious that he would become a late developer when he was a teenager, and wouldn’t mature physically until he was 21 or 22. He played all the sports for a while until he decided when he was 14 that he was going to go for tennis. We were mindful that he should have a good education. He wanted to be a lawyer at the time. He knew that to do that, he’d have to get top marks in the school exams. We advised him to keep his options open early and work flat out to get the best results open in case he decided not to go down the tennis route.”
Possessing an all-court game, Ebden idolised Andre Agassi, Stefan Edberg and Wayne Ferreira as a child, and later on, Rafter and Roger Federer. Now in peak physical form, Ebden’s admiration for these greats is evident in his shot-making ability, as if he wrote his own playbook emulating each to mould himself into a complete player.
Ebden explains, “Agassi was a maestro from the baseline. Edberg and Rafter served and volleyed. Federer came out and became that dominant all-court player. That’s a style I like to play. It’s something I’ve been working on to have an aggressive, winning game that can beat the top players in the world.”
“He's never going to be satisfied with one individual win”
Hewitt, who has used every ounce of his 5’11”, 170 pound frame to make the most of his talent, agrees that Ebden’s game is suited for all surfaces. “He’s a good player. He prefers playing on the quicker courts, so I think, definitely, the grass is going to suit him a lot better than clay. He’s an all-court player,” the former World No. 1 says.
“He’s got a very sneaky first serve. I think when he’s serving well, his whole game comes together and he attacks pretty well. He’s a really good athlete out there and we need more guys from Australia in the Top 100. He has a good attitude. He trains extremely hard as well, which is a good thing. Hopefully more juniors in Australia can do that.”
An avid surfer, Ebden rode a wave of success on the tennis court in 2011. Having captured his first two ATP World Tour doubles titles, in Newport with Ryan Harrison and Atlanta with Alex Bogomolov Jr., Ebden’s singles game caught a pipeline during the Asian indoor hard-court swing. Following a second-round showing in Tokyo as a qualifier, Ebden then qualified into the Shanghai Rolex Masters, where he reached the quarter-finals following a third-round victory over World No. 12 Gilles Simon. He finished the season ranked No. 86 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings, earning a nomination for Most Improved Player of the Year by rising 110 places.
“I think the last two years I had some big wins here and there, but I wasn’t able to do it consistently, until towards the end of last year, starting in Tokyo,” reflects Ebden. “I went onto Shanghai, winning five matches, losing to Andy Murray in the quarters. It was a stepping out for me and to put those good couple of weeks together was really important for my ranking. It gave me a great platform for 2012.”
Harrison, one of Ebden’s closest friends on tour and one of last year’s breakthrough performers, explains, “That was a product of the work we had been putting in. There were many times the day after a loss where we went out to the practice courts, twice a day with two-hour sessions and went to the gym, working on our fitness. The more he saw me succeed, he starting pushing himself more. And vice versa. I fed off of his success.”
But there’s more to Ebden than just his workhorse mindset. His character is intertwined with personality traits of his idols, embodying the charisma of Agassi, the swagger of Federer and dependability of Hewitt, making the Australian a popular guy in the locker room. “Off the court, Matt’s best qualities are his morals and loyalty to people. He's the type of guy you can 100 per cent count on him to do it,” Harrison says. “He’ll do absolutely anything for his friends and family.”
“He goes out of his way to be friends with everyone”
Adds Ebden, “It’s very important to have good friendships and relationships in tennis and all areas of life. I like to chat and be friendly. Like with Ryan, we won our first title together and that probably made us closer. Then a week or two later, he broke into the Top 100 and a couple months later, I had some good results. We both worked our way up. It’s nice to have some friends to share it with.”
Charles Ebden has witnessed his son break out of his shell after being much more reserved as a child. “He was quiet when he was younger. We kept him at school and we think that was probably a good decision. He might have lost a little bit in timing with fellow players who got ahead of him initially. But we think in the longer term, it was a better policy. From what I can see on tour, he goes out of his way to be friends with everyone. He probably has half a dozen close friends, which is nice to see.”
At the BNP Paribas Open in March, having qualified into the main draw and entering the third round with four victories under his belt, Ebden secured his biggest win to date. He defeated World No. 8 and top-ranked American Mardy Fish in straight sets to register his first Top 10 victory. But the perfectionist in Ebden couldn’t fully appreciate the win, focussing on his run ending in the next round at the hands of John Isner.
“If you take into account the circumstances, Mardy being the No. 1 American and having such a good year last year, to beat him in one of the biggest tournaments in America was a great thing to do. It was unfortunate I couldn’t push on a few rounds after that, but I ran into John, who was playing some incredible tennis. It’s a place I want to get to one day, where those two guys are.”
Harrison predicts that Ebden’s aspiration and motivation will lift him towards new heights. “He'll do whatever it takes to get it what he wants. He's never going to be satisfied with one individual win. He expects to play well and beat good players. That self belief is what will allow him to maximise his potential. He has great athleticism to complement his ability to improve.”
Now that Ebden is a tour-level event regular, the Australian looks to break further ground, aiming to lift his first ATP World Tour trophy and to reach the Top 50. His father believes an improved second serve will help him attain those goals.
“I really love life right now and love what I do”
“He’s working on developing a much more aggressive second serve. I think now that he’s maturing, he wants to turn that into an attacking weapon. His ability to vary his game is good. He’s able to adapt to different players so well because he can change his game. A big strength is his serve and volley game, which is why he likes the grass and is a good doubles player.”
While Ebden perseveres for greater successes on the ATP World Tour, he couldn’t be happier with where he’s at right now. Engaged to long-time girlfriend Kim in January, it’s his appreciation for life that distinguishes him as one of the most likable guys in tennis, and what will make his dreams even sweeter when they are realised.
“I really love life right now and love what I do. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
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