AllyR in Cinci – practice sessions

Photo by AllyR

Photo by AllyR

Still reeling from a fantastic few days here. The last 3 days have shown all 4 top men in action, and I thank my lucky stars that the trend will continue tomorrow. Tonight’s match was a nice reminder of the Rafa of old. Let’s all hope that trend continues too. 14-4 head-to-head is pretty good for the confidence, no?

Lately I’ve been feeling the need to shoot my own commercial, “It Must Be Love: Practice Courts Edition.” Matches are filled with an atmosphere of tension and of course the battle and result are what it’s all about, but the practice courts offer such a unique opportunity to observe the process of developing the player. I’ve been to see several practice sessions, with an emphasis on Rafa and Roger, and I feel like I’ve come away with a better big-picture understanding of the boys. Last weekend and early this week they practiced on off days. At the time I wasn’t considering the impact that would have on the nature of their training sessions, but now that we’re late in the tournament it couldn’t be more clear that those off day sessions were the real deal, and now that they’re deep in the draw, they’re in preservation mode.

On his off days, Rog showed up at the site early, practiced with a “name” player (does Gimelstob still count as a name?) for 90 minutes or so, and spent much of his time playing 2-on-1. The other day he asked Justin to run him around more, try to hit winners, requested specific shots to return against (“now first serves over 120,” “now second serves way out wide,”), working up a sweat in an empty early morning center court. Today we arrived early to catch his practice session and were surprised to find it was totally different than the early days of the tourney. WAY more people crowding around to watch. He stayed on court 30 minutes, didn’t take more than 2 steps to track down anything, didn’t hardly hit a first serve the whole time (maybe at all?), then zipped up his RF jacket and headed back to the locker room. This was clearly a walk thru, not a practice session.

Rafa’s practices have definitely been more intense throughout the week, but still an obvious difference between off days and match days. Early in the week he booked sessions for 2 hours, arrived on time, and proceeded with the type of practice session he had obviously undergone countless times before. There’s a rhythm to them. Arrive happy, settle in to the chairs, arrange some water bottles, change the shirt (!), stretches with Maymo, rubber band work-out, then slow and easy groundies from the baseline. Very gradually, the intensity picks up. 20 minutes in the grunting starts. Then the running. Before you know it, the lasso forehand is in full effect, and he’s glaring at the ball like he was born to punish it. The boy works his famous ass off. Volleys, overheads, serves, and just when you fear it might be drawing to a close, he says something to his practice partner in Spanish, spins his racquet, elects to receive, and we’re into a practice set (which he promptly loses decisively, if this week is any indication). I got spoiled to this routine, and, like with Rog, was surprised when the routine changed later in the week as he worked himself into the tournament.

Before the Seppi match I skipped out of center court to watch Rafa’s practice session and found that it included less movement, no practice set, and a lot more talky-talky with Roig. I attended with a friend who is originally from Puerto Rico and happens to coach tennis and specializes in the clay game. How lucky to have him around that day. He stood by and tried to pick up as much of Roig’s instruction as he could. According to my friend, Rafa’s native language is like 2 steps away from Spanish, so it was hit and miss for him, but when I watch all I ever get is “ahora” and “si” so this was a huge bonus to have a little translation happening. Once I managed to tear myself away from my little photo peephole in the fencing*, I asked my friend what he had heard.

“They talked about how to hit the ball,” he said cautiously.
“You mean like against Seppi tonight?”
“No, just for himself, in general.”
“Like spin or flat?”
“No, more basic than that. The forehand mostly.”
“Like lasso or across the chest?”
“No… Like how to make contact with the ball. Like you would with a little kid just starting out.”

What? My friend seemed befuddled by this as well. This makes me think that when Rafa talks about how he’s always working on improving his game, he’s talking about improving at a level I hadn’t considered. This guy has probably hit a million forehands in his day, and now he’s at a Masters event being coached on how to make contact with the ball.

OK, what else did they say?

“Roig spent some time on the importance of the no-look.”
“He said Rafa shouldn’t telegraph where he’s going, especially with the pass. Give him a head fake down the line and take it cross-court.”

My friend seemed equally bewildered by this advice. I am a truly untalented player, so I am lucky to make a pass, much less incorporate a tactic like a head-fake into the shot. But my friend seemed to think that this was also beginner stuff, stuff Rafa would have learned long ago. Another example of a really basic strategy being honed here. And sure enough, watch some footage from this week and you see examples of Rafa executing the no-look. Worked on Berdych a time or two tonight for sure.

As Rafa took the court and began warm up that night, my friend remembered another tidbit he’d picked up at the practice session. In the on-court warm-up, we got to the volley part and Rafa netted his first 2 forehand volleys Seppi fed to him. Instead of “finishing on a make,” he quickly retreated and pointed up, indicating that he was ready to move on and take overheads. My friend recounted, “In practice, the forehand volley wasn’t working. At all. Roig had coached him to bend his elbow a little more. Still didn’t work, but whatever. Now he doesn’t want Seppi to realize this shot is a problem today, so he’s trying to change the subject.”

Love those practice courts. Where else do you get the context like this? I will miss them the most when I get back home (well, maybe beside the hotel bar and the elevator).

*For those hoping for some lusty Rafa bits: I was squatted in my customary peephole in the windbreaker netting at the practice court fencing for most of the practice session before Seppi. At one point, Rafa walked straight up to me (ok, to the fence, but you know), turned around, and leaned back. His famous ass landed smack dab where my face had been for the past hour. As he leaned back against the fence, it gave a little and I actually had to MOVE MY FACE BACK to avoid touching his rear end with my nose. I was of course surrounded by dozens of people who had their eyes locked on him, and saw the whole thing play out. Lots of laughter. “You gonna get a picture of that?” was the question posed from the peanut gallery around me. I tried briefly, but damn autofocus wouldn’t take a shot so close up with my long lens, and I was positively beside myself, unable to work the camera controls, and instead simply sat and stared straight ahead at it until I was too self-conscious to continue, and looked down at my lap until he moved away. I have the image of his white shorts poofing out at me through the holes in the chain link burned into my brain. Have we discussed how charmed my life has been this week?

36 Responses

  1. miri says:

    Thanks again for posting – very interesting to hear about the details of the practice sessions. The ones I got to see were like the longer ones you mentioned. I did, however, see a lot of long talks with Roig and was dying to know what they were talking about.

  2. Delta says:

    Your litterary expertise is as intriging as Miri’s was from Montreal, so many thanks for your insight into your experience with that adorable creature! “Flove” the camera shots as well. Top it all off with a “V”
    for Nadal, and eruption will abound across “Nadalnews & the Globe!

  3. Carol says:

    ” I actually had to MOVE MY FACE BACK to avoid touching his rear end with my nose.”

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, AllyR – you’ve been a lucky, lucky lady in Cinci.

    Soo much self-restraint to avoid raising a hand to pat that tighty bot… Respect for our guy, good for you!

    • mary says:

      Great report Ally. Between you, miri & a few more that have blogged on this site, you all make heaps better journo’s. If stories came out like this all the time in mags people would be scampering to buy a subscription. Fab I tell ya!!
      Do you think he was oblivious to you there or was it deliberate. With a lense like that what was he thinking? :0 ;)
      Just imagine if you had a black marker pen. LOL!!!!

      • Atch2 says:

        Ok Mary, what would u have drawn/written on that famous ass?

        U r a fellow Rafancatic so u r passionate abt what u write and it shows. Luv readg your stories AllyR, so much stuff no formal journo could give us. And U describe them so well that I can imagine as if I was there with u.

        Since reading everyone’s personal accounts of watching live tennis at Montreal and Cincy, I am now permanently green with envy.

    • An says:

      Well, ok self restraint to avoid raising a hand is good… but i dont think i should have moved my face back!! If he was making contact all by himself…. well of all the A**es in the world, his where alowd to make my nose hurt!

      But yes, you are one lucky lady and we can only say, thank you a lot for sharing this verry intresting information.

  4. killian says:

    Great story, Ally–and the photo for this post is absolutely. . .>faints<
    Very interesting about the different intensity and focus of the various practice sessions; reminds me of dance: no matter what, we always go back to plies (how to make contact with the ball). There's an amazing vid of Natalia Makarova IN CLASS–not performance, but class, going through the basic exercises for the millionth time in her life, and it is fascinating. Thanks for the glimpse (through the fence) of what that's like on the tennis court.

  5. Eliana says:

    Thanks Ally, that was great! Love when you observed Rafa “glaring at the ball like he was born to punish it” It’s true! But I’ll tell you, that IS one lucky ball…Your insight and your friend’s is so great from my point of view because me been sincere, I love tennis since I was a teenager, but I’m very, VERY basic in my technique knowledge (Kindergarten level maybe?).

    And I admire you for respecting the guy through the peephole. I don’t know what I would’ve done in your place!

  6. patzin says:

    thanks for the lovely photos and your summary – great. You are good at summarizing the events and making them feel very real. A talent for sure.

  7. Wooffie says:

    What an excellent post, Ally. You have done such a good job of bringing the tournament alive for us with all of this information. Fantastic *applause* *applause* *applause*

  8. faecoleman says:

    Great reading Ally thank you, love the way you describe your experiences down there in Cincy co Rafa!!

  9. Suzanne says:

    Thanks so much, Ally, for including us in your adventures. I guess Roig’s vollying advice must have worked last night as our boy didn’t miss one net shot…I think he was 8 of 8! Now if RF can just hang on and beat Mooooooray today and Rafi can win this sucker, the rankings should head in the right direction, correcto? If it happens, that would get his seeding gurarnteed on the opposite end of Fed for the Open.

  10. patzin says:

    Interesting comment – Rafa’s language is ‘2 steps away from Spanish’. My spanish is very limited, but this kind of keeps me from thinking I will ever understand an interview. Oh well – Mallorcan stands on its own.

    • Suzanne says:

      I think that Catalan is to Spanish what Austrian German or Swiss German is to High German. Just some variations, like many of the Slavic language speakers can talk with each other, but miss some of the “flavor” of the converstaion. The difference is greater than, say, British English vs American or Austrilian English. Whatever language our boy is speaking, however, the international language of
      Rafans makes it easy to “get” what he’s about.

      • miri says:

        I don’t think I’d say that to a speaker of Catalan. It’s not a dialect; it’s considered to be it’s own language. Some people get very touchy if you call it a dialect.

      • Ally says:

        My friend says it’s not even Catalan they are speaking, but a dialect of that specific to Mallorca.

        Brief but solid practice session complete.

        • miri says:

          Yeah, he’s said in interviews that his first choice is Mallorquí, but if people don’t speak that, second is Catalan and third is Spanish.

  11. aRafaelite says:

    I LOVE this photo, Ally. I’ll let the others envy your close proximity to his famous bottom. I envy you taking this very beautiful close-up that just makes me want to reach out and brush his cheek (and not the one the rest of you were thinking about)! Lovely.

  12. mary says:

    ““They talked about how to hit the ball,” he said cautiously.
    “You mean like against Seppi tonight?”
    “No, just for himself, in general.”
    “Like spin or flat?”
    “No, more basic than that. The forehand mostly.”
    “Like lasso or across the chest?”
    “No… Like how to make contact with the ball. Like you would with a little kid just starting out.”

    I find this disturbing. To talk to an adult who has been playing the game since what 5 -4 like he is still 4-5 is rather strange. Or am I seeing into this a bit more than I should. Ever since I read this it’s been playing on my mind. I have 13 year old twins whom I wouldn’t speak to like this.

    • Ally says:

      Hm. I don’t take it that way. Not condescending, just… foundational? Reminds me of when he talks about “touching the ball well” which I thought sounded strange due to language issues, but maybe he’s talking about this basic ball striking stuff.

      • An says:

        Well i think its simple girls….

        Tennis is all about timing correctly, the ground of the whole game is touching the ball at the right moment, if you do that well you can do with the ball what you want, you can control the game…
        Sounds simple but at the same time timing the touch of the ball correctly is the hardest thing to do!!! Evry match, evry training again, so that a coach is advising the player what he should change in order to touch the ball at the exact right time is normal, i think.

        • Suzanne says:

          When coaches speak with their players, sometimes they do have to go back to the basics. Just listen to Brad Gilbert and Darren Cahill, both of whom were and are considered excellent coaches. Often when commentating, they’ll put on their coach caps and the things they speak of are very, very basic, but true. If it bugged Rafi and didn’t help, don’t you think he’d make a change of second-string coach? BTW, the fact that he takes three balls to inspect when serving is one of the simple devices they developed to slow him down (he learned that one too well as he often goes long between points…oops! At least he lost the sock adjustment move.). Evidently years ago he just flew from point to point without much of a pause to think and re-group and so they came up with basic things to slow him down. He even practiced them in practice! Basic, basic…sometimes that’s what they need.

          • Atch2 says:

            Thanks for explaining it. I was thinking abt this as well. It makes sense u should have a strong foundation by gettg the basics right first and then build on that.

  13. mary says:

    Well thanks Ally, An & Suzanne for your analogy’s. But wouldn’t Rafi know all this shit anyway? Whatever, dead horse now, he lost. But thanks again.

    • An says:

      Sure he knows it…. but he doesnt see himself hitting and the coach does and can tell him where he can improve..

    • Suzanne says:

      Have you ever tried balancing your checkbook and couldn’t get it right and then someone took one glance at it and saw the problem? Sometimes tennis players need a second set of eyes pointing out the obvious! Rafi has done darned well after such a long layoff and the pieces are starting to fall into place. Stubborn as he is, he does take coaching well, I believe.

  14. Suzanne says:

    He did gain some ground, however, as he is now only 585 points behind Moooooray. I just checked the ATP website and so if he does better than expected at the Open, he might just re-gain that place on the rankings list. Moooooray has a lot of points to defend!

  15. Suzanne says:

    One more thing; Rafi’s team from his website sure is more frequently communicative these days. It used to be that news about him was only sparsely updated there, but it seems like the update it almost daily now. Even though they posted an article quickly after the semi-final loss yesterday, they added this little tidbit today:

    UPDATE: Rafa will travel to New York this Sunday where he will begin training this week. On Monday we will let you know more about his plans and schedule for the rest of the week.

    Vamos Rafa!

    It’s fun to know where he is. Hopefully this is a good sign as he is wanting practice sessions there in Flushing Meadows rather than chancing jet lag like he did a few years ago. The draw ceremony is on Thursday (fingers crossed) and Arthur Ashe Kid’s Day is on Saturday. Whoever finds out the tv coverage schedule first, will you please pass that on to us? It is fun to see him playing in such a lighthearted event. I’ll see what I can find out, too.