Mats Merkel: Hard Yards
Originally published on: 22/10/13 00:00
With the final Grand Slam of the season done and dusted, one of the biggest tests for players at this time of the year is to maintain momentum. The season is long, and between the start of the European clay swing and the end of the US Open it is very intense. Hard courts are a lot tougher on the body and less forgiving on joints – sooner or later you will feel it in your knees, your hips – your entire body will suffer and you will be in need of a break.
If you are a top player you can afford to take a few weeks off, but if you are lower down the rankings you don’t always have that luxury and have to think about prize money and defending points from the previous year.
But if you want to improve you have to take time off and focus on your game – building up your strength, working on your movement and fine-tuning your technique. This is a gamble because your rivals might be making more ranking points in your absence – being inside the top 32 is a major target for many players because you will be seeded at the Slams and, in theory, get an easier draw.
If you choose to take time off you must use the time effectively and really work at a high intensity. While your ranking might take a hit initially, in the longer term you should reap the benefits of improved results.
It is the same for any player, no matter what your standard. As a club player if you want to improve your game you can’t do it during competition. You have to be willing to invest time on the practice court.
A great example of someone who really committed to developing his game rather than just maintaining it was Fernando Verdasco back in 2008. He took a long training block in Las Vegas with his fitness trainer Vicente Calvo and really benefited from the experience of the adidas guys – Sven Groeneveld, and Andre Agassi’s former coach Darren Cahill and fitness trainer Gil Reyes. I was working with Fernando on a daily basis, preparing drills and making sure he was working at a high intensity and getting the most from his training.
The hard work paid off at the beginning of the 2009 season, when he reached the final in Brisbane before a superb run to the semi-finals at the Australian Open.
It was a very hot Australian summer we found ourselves in, but Fernando was in good shape and upset Andy Murray in the fourth round before beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals, eventually losing to Rafael Nadal in an epic semi-final lasting over five hours.
Fernando surprised Murray – Andy was just not ready for that intensity – I think he expected an easier match but the Spaniard’s efforts paid dividends.
For those who opt to keep playing, it’s vital to stay motivated and not just play for the sake of it. Towards the end of a long season it can be tough to encourage a player to travel to the other side of the world.
I convinced young Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker to travel to Asia in the autumn of 2010. He’d had a good summer, reaching the semi-finals at an ATP 500 in Barcelona and the US Open third round. He was exhausted and really didn’t want to go to Asia but I persuaded him it would be a worthwhile trip and would boost his ranking.
In fact, he only won one match in three tournaments but it was his first full season on the ATP Tour and a good learning experience. It was tough for him as he needed a break but he finished the year inside the top 50 having started it just inside the top 100. It’s tough to tell a player something they don’t want to hear but at the end of the day everything I do is in their best interests.
Yes, it is a strain on the body but it is part of the choice they made when turning professional. They have to remember they are living the dream – there are many others who would sacrifice everything to play on a sold-out Centre Court at the US Open or in Shanghai, or anywhere else for that matter.
Mats Merkel has worked with the likes of Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Caroline Wozniacki as part of the adidas Player Development Program. Mats has joined tennishead as a columnist and will be offering an insight into life on tour while sharing his views on current issues in the world of tennis.
2007: Hired by adidas on a four-day trial helping to distribute kit to players before US Open. Joined adidas as a consultant, travelling up to 30 weeks a year with adidas’ Player Development Program.
Coaching: Mats has worked with the likes of Justine Henin, Andy Murray, Fernando Verdasco, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic and Jo- Wilfried Tsonga. He is currently working with the next generation of tennis stars such as Kiki Mladenovic, Jack Sock and Monica Puig. “I love working with different players at any one time and enjoy the variety rather than being a full-time coach to a single player.”
Marketing: As well as helping organise promotional events during tournaments, Mats works with the adidas innovation team, helping develop new products – advising on how players are moving on court to inform research into shoe technology.
Scouting: Towards the end of the season Mats will attend high-profile junior events in Florida – the Eddie Herr International and the Orange Bowl – working with Claus Marten who has been involved in talent identification for over 25 years. He will report back to adidas on juniors already contracted with the brand and write reports on other players who show potential. “There are always going to be new Grand Slam champions and my goal is to make sure adidas has the next one, like Andy Murray is now, who is going to be winning Majors in seven or eight years’ time.”