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Andreas Seppi: Win The Crowd, Win Your Freedom

Australian Open Special

Seppi© Getty ImagesAndreas Seppi cools down in the Garden Square fountain on-site at Melbourne Park.

Playing the best tennis of his life and with a new eye for the dramatic, Andreas Seppi has finally won the hearts of his fellow Italians… and the liberating confidence that he is a Top 20 player in waiting.

It is always interesting to observe in human behaviour how powerful a catalyst the mind can be when images are driven deep into the sub-conscious at a young and impressionable age. Such is the case with Italy’s Seppi. One has to wonder at the effects of all those tennis posters that he hung on his bedroom wall as a little boy. And one photograph in particular attracted his attention more than the others: a poster of Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

“It was his backhand that I really admired,” admits Seppi. “I wanted to have a backhand like his. I even cut out a small photo of him and placed it in my wallet. I have kept it all these years and when I won Moscow (2012 - d. Bellucci), I showed it to him after the trophy presentation. He was kind enough to autograph it for me.”

“I wanted to have a backhand like his.”

As a young boy, Seppi preferred to play a variety of sports like snow skiing, ice hockey, football and tennis. Though he did not take tennis seriously early on, once he turned 14 years old his desire for tennis seemingly developed a will of its own.

“I first started playing tennis when I was seven years old,” Seppi says. “But my father was playing rugby and ice hockey and my mother was a ski instructor in the winter. It was not until I was 14 that I decided to focus on tennis. I do think that when you are young it is good to play a combination of other sports. I think it helped me to develop as an athlete and to maintain a balance.”

Seppi made another odd decision. His first and only coach, Massimo Sartori, went out of the box and devised a plan for Seppi to play only a few junior tournaments. In fact, Seppi played only one junior grand slam, Roland Garros, when he was already ranked World No. 499 on the men’s tour.

“My coach had a plan,” Seppi says. “And he did some things with my schedule that were not in the normal routine. He mixed a lot of Satellites with a few junior events. He wanted me to see not only where I wanted to go, but where I was actually at. It worked for us.”

Seppi, KafelnikovToday, at the age of 28, Seppi is playing his best tennis ever. He finished 2012 with a career-high Emirates ATP Ranking of World No. 25, while winning two ATP World Tour titles at Belgrade (d. Paire) and Moscow (d. Bellucci), and also reaching the finals of Eastbourne (l. Roddick) and Metz (l. to Tsonga).

Even so, throughout his professional career, he had not been fully embraced by the Italian public until last year at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome. There, on the legendary Stadio Pietrangeli, Seppi took to the stage and shined bright for all of Italy to see. His epic match with Stanislas Wawrinka will go down in Italian tennis history as one of the all time great battles.

“Until then, he (Seppi) was always considered too cold for the Italian people,” says his longtime coach of 18 years, Massimo Sartori. “Andy keeps to himself a lot. He is very calm and you could say that at times he is something of an introvert. Italians like to see fire and passion in sports.”

If there is one thing that the Italians love more than beautiful women, fast cars, designer suits and gelato, it is a good drama. And at the Foro Italico the standard has long been set high. Old hands still talk about the days of hot- blooded Adriano Panatta who entertained the crowd so much that he often drove them into a raving frenzy.”

For those Italians who prefer drop shots and derring-do, Seppi must have seemed like stale bread. However, Seppi warmed their appetite up by chopping down big man John Isner in three sets in the second round. His first ever win over a Top 10- ranked player.

“If there is one thing that the Italians love more than beautiful women, fast cars, designer suits and gelato, it is a good drama.”

Tennis fans in hordes crossed the bridge over the Tiber River, walked up the Via dei Gladiotori and made their way to the Foro Italico. With its sunken red clay court, marble statues of classic Romans standing guard and stone pine trees surrounding the Stadio Pietrangeli, Seppi and Wawrinka entered for what was supposed to be just another third-round match. However, there was nothing typical about this match. Officially, it would last three hours and twenty minutes. But for all those in attendance, it would forever be talked about as a clasico. 

Like a drum roll, the constant hand clapping and foot stomping began building to a crescendo. Back and forth went Seppi and Wawrinka. By the time Seppi saved two match points in the second set, the amount of prayers, curses and ‘mama mias’ hurled at the heavens sounded more like an AC Milan football game than a tennis match. Day soon turned into night and the air became damp and conditions heavy. The third set could only end in one way- a tie-break. Seppi could not have started better as he took a 3-0 lead. Then the constant strain and pressure of transitioning from underdog to favourite, took its toll. Seppi began to choke. One, two, three, and finally, six unforced errors in a row. With three match points, Wawrinka had certain victory. Appearing resigned to his fate, Seppi reached for the chain around his neck, relaxed and proceeded to save three match points. Seppi converted on his first match point, winning the contest and a legion of fans.

“For sure, it was my favourite match,” admits Seppi. “It is for moments like this, that we play tennis. To live this moment is worth all the heartbreaks of past failures.”

Seppi“After 18 years training, travelling and competing together, there is no question that Andy is family,” admits Massimo Sartori. “To see someone you care about go through this drama and come out victorious is a gift from the heavens. It is a moment in life that I will always cherish and one that we will always share together.”

At the 2013 Apia International Sydney, Seppi walks into the locker room and strips off his shirt while the sweat still pours down his 6’3” frame. Thanks to a new trainer and fitness regimen, Seppi’s shoulders are little broader.

“This past winter I changed trainers,” says Seppi. “And we worked more on my upper back and shoulders as I was always a bit tight. This has helped me a lot on the serve. I feel much better on the court.”

Outdoors, Seppi likes to play with a hat pulled down low concealing his aqua blue eyes and an oval face punctuated with a prominent dimple and patches of stubble. Even in the best of times, his sandy blonde hair appears dishevelled, but with a smile as easy as Sunday morning Seppi has retained his boyish good looks. His natural glow shows that he was tanned long ago on the ski slopes of the Dolomite Mountains.

When asked what made the difference in his improved performance last year, Seppi takes his time and measures his words carefully. 

“I think first I have a lot of experience,” Seppi says. “I feel more comfortable on the court. I know myself a little bit better in certain situations in a match. I feel much more comfortable than when I was ranked No. 35 three or four years ago.  Now, I feel much more comfortable with my ranking and myself. I think that if I stay healthy I can continue to improve.

“I feel much more comfortable with my ranking and myself.”

“After looking back over my career so far, there are always a few things here or there,” Seppi continues. “But I don’t think I would change my coach of 18 years. It was not just inside the court that he trained me but outside the court too. How to behave, how to make decisions, and how to become a man. He taught me nice things too, like how to learn to enjoy the journey.  For me it was always a dream travelling around playing tennis. Everybody asks me if I am tired of travelling so much, but no, this is what I always wanted to do. My dream was to one day join the ATP World Tour. And I think my best years are yet to come.”

Seppi’s dream began long ago with cut-out posters of tennis players he pasted on his bedroom wall. As the tennis world turns it would be interesting to know who will be the next young tennis star inspired by an Seppi poster.

Editor’s Note: In 2013 the format of DEUCE changes from a four-times-a-year magazine format to a regular series of rolling features. We feel that this new format will allow us to provide you with more timely and relevant features about the stars of the ATP World Tour.

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