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On The Rise... Thiemo de Bakker


de Bakker© Getty ImagesWary of comparisons with Richard Krajicek, the 1996 Wimbledon champion, Thiemo de Bakker is ensuring his breakthrough into the Top 50 doesn’t falter.

Four years after winning the Wimbledon junior title, Thiemo de Bakker has once again lifted hopes of a new  'golden generation' of Dutch tennis with his Top 50 breakthrough this season. Now, as he approaches his 22nd birthday, de Bakker is determined to raise his game to the next level.

It’s almost easy to forget that Thiemo de Bakker is just 21 years of age – in fact, the fifth youngest player in the current Top 100 – given that great things have been expected from the Dutchman for quite some time now. Listen to former World No. 4 Richard Krajicek, who asserts, “Thiemo is by far the biggest talent we have ever had in Dutch tennis,” or to former ATP World Tour Champions Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt, who’ve both labelled him a dangerous player, and it’s clear why.

Ten years after Krajicek became the first player from The Netherlands to win the Wimbledon title, de Bakker – another tall Dutchman with a big serve – captured the attention of his countrymen by replicating the achievement at the junior level and finishing the 2006 season as the world’s top-ranked junior.

"Thiemo is by far the biggest talent we have ever had in Dutch tennis"

With his success came big expectations in a nation a decade removed from a ‘golden generation’ featuring Krajicek, Jan Siemerink, Paul Haarhuis and Jacco Eltingh, and eager to see the revival of a strong tennis tradition. Combined with the accomplishments of players like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray during their teenage years, hopes ran high that de Bakker could follow suit and carry the mantle for Holland.

But his transition to the tour, as is the case for many successful juniors, didn’t go exactly as planned.

While Juan Martin del Potro – exactly four days younger than the Dutchman – was making his breakthrough in the summer of 2008, winning his first four ATP World Tour titles in consecutive tournament appearances, de Bakker was playing on the ATP Challenger Tour and could count his number of tour-level main draw victories on one hand.

de Bakker“They all want it quick, but you have to realise that everyone develops and matures at different times,” says Rohan Goetzke, Krajicek’s long-time coach and the current Technical Director at the Dutch Tennis Federation. “A lot of young players are being compared to a Nadal or a Djokovic or a Murray, but they’re exceptions. For sure some people will say he’s behind schedule, but if you see the line we mapped out in the rankings and the goals, he’s on the line.”

But for a player touted as the next big thing in Dutch tennis, the relatively slow progress led to frustration and concern. “The expectations got lower and lower. A lot of us thought he would never make it,” admits Dutch journalist Dick Springer. The inner tennis circle also had its share of skeptics. “There was talk that he was underachieving at one stage and what was going on,” remembers Goetzke.

For all the conversation swirling around him, de Bakker remained unperturbed. “I was so young. For me it didn’t really matter if it took a year or three years.” Springer recalls, “He was honest about it, saying there are more things in life that I like. He was very nice, but not very serious.”

"I was so young. For me it didn’t really matter if it took a year or three years."

The turning point, ironically enough, came while he was on holiday in early 2009. While de Bakker lay on the beach, he reflected on everything he’d done and, more importantly, on what he hadn’t achieved. During his younger years, de Bakker managed to coast through on talent, but that didn’t cut it anymore. “I didn’t have to work real hard, and that came back on me,” he says. At that moment, he made the decision to do what it takes to make it on the professional tour.

With new focus, he began putting in the necessary hours on and off the court to improve his game and fitness – “I started working harder, being more serious; that was the biggest change” – and within months, the difference was noticeable. He went on a tear on the Challenger circuit, winning four titles and compiling a 23-2 record over a six-tournament stretch, and then followed with a quality win over a 13th-ranked Gael Monfils in the Davis Cup World Group play-offs on home soil.

“At the end of the year I started winning the important matches,” he says. “That gave me confidence. After that, I played more decent. My basic game started to be pretty solid. From there I started to play better and better, more confident each week.”

Though success arrived in a sudden flood of titles, it didn’t come as a complete surprise to those around him. “When he has something in his head and made up his mind to do something, he will do everything to reach this goal,” says Mats Merkel, of the Adidas Player Development Program, who has been sharing coaching duties with Goetzke and Davis Cup captain Siemerink this season.

de BakkerDe Bakker’s determination was evident as he began his first full season on the ATP World Tour. After finishing just within the year-end Top 100, he set out a new goal of cracking the Top 50 in 2010 and reached his goal four months into the year – courtesy of a semi-final showing in Barcelona with wins over former Roland Garros champion Juan Carlos Ferrero and World No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. By mid-June, he’d broken the Top 40 barrier.

“I knew I had the capability, but you still have to do it,” says de Bakker. “Until now I’ve had a pretty decent year, and I’m happy with the way it’s gone. Hopefully I can bring it up even higher and see how far it goes.”

To continue his development, de Bakker added physical trainer Damian Prasad to his team this summer and made the trip to Las Vegas in the dead heat of July for a 13-day training session with the Adidas Player Development program. A typical day began with an 8 a.m. breakfast, followed by two-and-a-half hour strength sessions with Gil Reyes, lunch, two hours of practice with Merkel and Darren Cahill, physical treatment, dinner at 8:30 p.m., and an occasional trip to the go-kart track. “On the court he likes to work hard and be efficient at the same time. Come in, get the work done and get out again to relax the mind and get away from the site,” says Merkel.

De Bakker’s efforts this season have once again reignited chatter in his home country, where Davis Cup ties have become a hot ticket with both de Bakker and Robin Haase ranked in the Top 100 and Jesse Huta Galung and Igor Sijsling also on their way up. “Now everybody is already talking about how long will it take Thiemo before he wins his first big tournament. They’re even thinking about will he be the next Richard Krajicek, to win a Grand Slam title,” says Springer.

"He has ability. We’ll have to see if he can wear those shoes."

Goetzke has always had faith in de Bakker, but is careful not to make any predictions when he hears the comparisons between Krajicek and de Bakker. “He’s put himself in the position where he’s playing with the big boys, which is a big step for him,” says Goetzke. “He’s winning matches at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000s, in the Grand Slams. The thing is to move up and consolidate himself in those big tournaments and see if he can make that next step… He has ability. We’ll have to see if he can wear those shoes.”

De Bakker still feels he has a long way to go before he can earn comparisons to the likes of Krajicek, but understands the hopes he shoulders. “They expect more. I think that’s normal. I do my best and try to win every match. I try to improve every week, and I think there’s nothing more I can do.” As for now, de Bakker is more concerned with realistic goals for this season. “I still have a lot of points to defend,” he says. “If I can end up Top 50, 40, I’ll be pretty happy. For sure I want to be higher, but to be reasonable it’s a good thing to start with.”

de BakkerThe next few years should provide a more accurate benchmark of de Bakker’s standing on the ATP World Tour as he continues to refine his game, improve his fitness and grow in confidence and experience. Krajicek, who won the Wimbledon title at 24 years of age, believes that de Bakker is on the right track to the top. “Since April 2009, he has changed the way he approaches the game. He is now much more professional and understands that he has to work hard to get results. If he continues this way, then he can win Grand Slams and become a Top 5 player in the near future.”

But there’s no sense of urgency from de Bakker, whom Merkel describes as “a very calm person who likes to observe things precisely”. Given that the average age of players in the Top 100 is 26 and the average of the Top 10 is 25, de Bakker is actually way ahead of the game.

“Now I’m still pretty young, I think,” he says. “It took me a while, but I got here and that’s the most important thing.”

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