Leaders By Example
DEUCE US Open 2012
by James Buddell|
Daniel Nestor turns, throws up the ball, tilts his head and serves, launching himself to the net. Twenty five metres away, Max Mirnyi split steps to strike a backhand return crosscourt. It finds the feet of Nestor, who reacts instinctively and volleys back. Mirnyi is now on the service line, the pair exchange three more volleys as both edge closer to the net. The point ends with a Mirnyi lob volley, followed by a quip and laughter.
Returning to their baselines, Mirnyi and Nestor are getting down to business: practising with purpose and discipline. They may have played a combined total of 2,774 tour-level singles and doubles matches – Mirnyi 1,369 and Nestor 1,405 – but both ATP World Tour veterans remain highly competitive and intense in training or matches. Mirnyi has won 46 combined titles from 87 finals, while Nestor has lifted 79 doubles trophies from a record 130 finals.
Two-time Australian Open semi-finalist Jeff Coetzee recalls, "Danny and I did some quick hands at Queen’s Club, a couple years back, and he kept losing to me, but never wanted to give up. I told him, ‘Nesty, it is okay, you can lose to me. It's not that bad!'" The 35-year-old South African, who has known Mirnyi since their junior days, admits, "Max has always been a tough cookie to compete against. Both of them love the battle!" Wesley Moodie told DEUCE, "You always know Nestor’s going to give 100 per cent, whether it is a match, practice set, table tennis or challenging some of the top singles players to a one-set showdown."
"Max has always been a tough cookie to compete against. Both of them love the battle"
For the past three months, Mirnyi and Nestor have jointly held No. 1 in the ATP Doubles Rankings. Of course, both characters, blessed with tremendous physical and mental strengths, have previous experience at the doubles summit. Mirnyi, 35, has been World No. 1 for a total of 55 weeks in his 17 years as pro while Nestor, two weeks shy of his 40th birthday and contesting his 22nd pro season, has amassed 106 weeks.
Neither player likes losing. Both players are determined for a strong finish to the 2012 ATP World Tour season. "We always aim to win every tournament we enter," Nestor told DEUCE. "If we aren’t playing well, we both have the experience to adjust, so we’re not like a deer in headlights." Mirnyi concurs, adding, "With age you realise the value of the bigger events, where the best players compete. You recognise the prestige to win these titles. We don’t know how long we will be playing, so we try and seize opportunities."
Over the past 20 months, Mirnyi and Nestor have won some of the sport’s biggest titles (8-5 overall in finals), including two at Roland Garros and last year’s Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Earlier this month, the pair received confirmation that they had qualified for the elite eight-man season finale. For Nestor, it is a source of great pride. "The event is amazing; The O2 in London is a great place to play. Spectators come to watch both singles and doubles in huge numbers." Nestor, a four-time champion, will be making his 14th appearance and two-time titlist Mirnyi will taking his ninth shot at the prestigious trophy.
So are there any other reasons why Mirnyi and Nestor have remained at the top? Moodie, who picked up the 2005 Wimbledon title with Stephen Huss before he retired last year, told DEUCE, "Daniel has an immense love for the game and competition. I always found him so consistent. Max is the flashier player, but he serves and moves well. By playing with Daniel, Max probably feels like he can swing freely, which would make him a dangerous player. They complement each other well." Former ATP pro Robbie Koenig believes, "Max, if anything, is a slightly more intense character than Danny. Max brings a lot of discipline to everything he does, and that is why he’s been so good for so long."
Another reason is that they take nothing for granted. Their pre-match preparation is exact. "Max is very good at taking care of the details," says Koenig. Says Mirnyi, "I have a set time when I eat and warm-up. The ultimate goal for me is to stay fit. Tennis demands a lot of physicality, so for me to stay out on tour all year, hitting the gym is part of my daily routine for rehab and stretching routines." Nestor admits, "Doubles has become more explosive and reactionary; quick points, quick agility steps and high-energy rallies. Cardio isn’t really the most important thing for doubles, so at tournaments light weights help. But away from tournaments, I probably do more cardio."
"We don’t know how long we will be playing, so we try and seize opportunities"
Even their food intake is carefully monitored. "I never normally eat a lot before a match," Mirnyi told DEUCE. "I don’t tend to go in on a full stomach, as I prefer to be a little under-fed, than over-fed. If I need energy, I try to top-up by eating some bananas or energy bars shortly before I start playing." Nestor is equally cautious. "I normally have a bit of a nervous stomach, so I don’t eat that much. I eat sensibly the day before matches and on match days. The older I have got, the better my routine has become to get ready for matches."
The left-right handed combination have compiled an 87-33 match record, but are 70-9 overall after they win the first set – 40-3 in 2011 and 30-6 so far in 2012. Mirnyi is one of the sport’s biggest servers, solid at the net and on return of serve. Nestor is Mr Consistent, a lefty with a finely polished second serve. Neither player holds back, so at times it can be tough for opponents to win a series of points. So with such a large amount of experience, who is the team’s leader?
It’s tricky to answer. Koenig believes, "I would think Max plays the role of 'team leader' a bit more, but I can assure you that when Danny speaks – which is not all that often – Max will listen." Coetzee reckons, "A bit of both. Maybe, Daniel as he is the senior player of the two and more solid, with Max’s raw power complementing their games really well."
Even Mirnyi and Nestor struggle. "It’s hard to say," says Nestor. "We have our days when we feel better. Whoever feels better leads a little bit." Mirnyi believes, "I don’t think we have a team leader. We don’t establish that. We just try to play our best."
Perhaps both are team leaders. Each player has won an Olympic gold medal – Belarusian Mirnyi with Victoria Azarenka in the mixed doubles competition at the London 2012 Olympics and Canadian Nestor, before he won any of his eight Grand Slam championship men’s doubles titles, with Sebastien Lareau at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. They rarely put in a poor performance, which spells double-trouble for their rivals. Mirnyi and Nestor have lost just six opening-round matches in 39 tournaments since the start of the 2011 season.
"Hopefully both of us don’t play badly at the same time," says Mirnyi, on the threat of performing poorly. "This is what makes certain teams better than others. It does happen, but at the same time our level doesn’t drop so we don’t leak points. It’s natural to experience nerves before matches. But it’s a matter of how you channel it. Obviously, you want to be alert and be aware on every point. So I get through it by having a good warm-up, then taking some exaggerated footsteps at the beginning of the match."
Nestor, who has played more doubles matches than any other player in ATP World Tour history (since 1973), says, "By sticking to our game plan, knowing our strengths and focusing on what we do well, we don’t diverge into tricky situations. If we don’t execute for a couple of games we understand. We try and pick up on those things. We don’t go through sets or matches looking for an answer to our problems, we both realise why quickly. Obviously our opponents can play well themselves, but we don’t often get overwhelmed and leave the court thinking we haven’t done our best."
"Hopefully we can maintain that No. 1 ranking"
In the final three months of the 2012 ATP World Tour season, which culminates with the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals from 5-12 November, Nestor admits he and Mirnyi could well be locked in a "dog fight" for the year-end World No. 1 ranking with Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan. "I think we're going to be hopefully one of the top two teams going into London. Any time you're ranked No. 1 or in a dog fight with the Bryans for that position this late in the season you've done something well, so hopefully we can maintain that No. 1 ranking."
Going into the US Open, the Bryans (7,035) take a 720 point lead over Mirnyi and Nestor (6,315) in the ATP Doubles Team Rankings Race To London. "I think the twins are well aware of how good of a team Mirnyi and Nestor are, and nothing less than stellar performances through the end of the season will assure that they keep their spot in the ‘rankings penthouse’ at the year-end," admits Koenig, who now works as a colour commentator at every ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament and the Grand Slam championships.
"The gap between the Top 5 or 6 teams is very small these days," admits Nestor. "There isn’t as much space on the court, so matches are determined by precision, mixed with individual flair on the crucial points. It’s always tough to break serve, so only a few points decide matches. It could make the next few months very interesting."