Saturday, July 19, 2008

Posted 07/18/2008 @ 12 :20 PM Peter Bodo Tennis World

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently had a chance to catch up with Gil Reyes, the man who trained Andre Agassi during the remarkable resurgence that transformed him from a "mere" multiple Grand Slam title winner into a beloved icon of tennis. All you need to know about the indebtedness and loyalty Andre feels toward Gil is that Andre named his first born "Jaden Gil."

I called Gil because he's back on the pro tour radar, as part of the Adidas Player Development program, the innovative system whereby shoe and apparel manufacturer Adidas provides athletes under contract to the brand with high-quality support on everything from nutrition to tennis strategy. The most noteworthy athlete to exploit this free support structure is Ana Ivanovic. Grand Slam champions usually hire the best coaches and advisers money can buy. Ana, by contrast, got hers free.

Sven Groeneveld, the most renowned coach (as well as a founding mastermind) of the Adidas program is Ivanovic's only coach - even though Sven is duty-bound to refrain from advising Ivanovic on what she needs to do before confrontations with other Adidas players. So, for two year running in the French Open final, Sven was not only excluded from drawing up the game plan on the evening before the match, during the final he was absent from his usual post, the player guest box. That's because on each occasion, Ivanovic was playing another Adidas athlete (Justine Henin in 2007, Dinara Safina this year).

Anyway, Gil joined the Adidas team recently, and his impact was made known almost immediately. He worked with Sam Querrey, preparing the young American's legs for the European clay-court season. Until this year, Querrey had exactly one win on clay in an ATP event. After working with Gil for two weeks in Las Vegas, Querrey went to Monte Carlo and beat Carlos Moya, Andreas Seppi and Richard Gasquet before he lost to Novak Djokovic. " 'How did this happen?'," Sam asked me, Gil recalled. "I said it was easy - you just asked your body to do something new and it responded. It underlined my basic belief that an aware athlete is always learning to ask more of his body. Training is seen by some as monotonous, and I'd say anybody who feels that way isn't doing the right kind of training."

Here's a funny thing about Gil. Andre's fans love him for who he is - his personality. This has tended to obscure the amount of work Agassi put into his career, particularly in the later stages. In some ways, many of Agassi's fans didn't even want to hear that he left his all on the practice court and in the gym, day after day, because they preferred to cling to their perception of Agassi as a spontaneous, mercurial, sometimes wayward talent, never entirely at ease with his identity as a pro tennis player.

The facts suggest otherwise, and if you don't believe me, you can ask Gil. He's worked with Agassi for nearly two decades, leaving his post as the highly successful strength coach of the NCAA Division I University of Las Vegas, Nevada, basketball squad (Gil was their strength coach when the Runnin' Rebels won the 1990 NCAA championships).

You want to know what Andre and Gil did, work-out wise, on December 11th, 2002? Call Gil. How about March 5, 1994? Call Gil. Pick a day, any day, from the time they began working together Andre retired, and Gil can look up exactly what they did that day at the facility informally called the Agassi Training Center. Every workout they ever went through is written down and saved in a binder.

That's a tribute to the extreme degree of professionalism both men brought to the partnership, and it's too bad if that runs counter to the way we wish to remember Andre. The bottom line is that Agassi worked like a dog, although a well-treated, much-loved one. Here's my theory, for what it's worth: In Gil Reyes, Andre - a young man often at odds with, and in rebellion against, his father, Mike - found the father figure that a part of him longed to hold. It takes just a few minutes of conversation with Gil to realize that he's an extraordinarily sensitive man, in spite of the fact that he's built like a brick you-know-what and could probably take any two Ultimate Fighting idols and snap them in half. Trust me - that's not a slight of the cage warriors.

Gil understood Agassi perfectly, right from the get-go. As he says, "In his heart, Andre was always a seeker. He was in search of his best, and I happened to be the one who helped him realize that in his identity as a tennis player."

Today, Agassi's Grand Slam trophies and his Olympic Games gold medal are on display not on the armoire in the living room he shares with his wife, Steffi Graf. They're on a shelf at the Agassi Training Center. It was the place Andre and Gil designed and built when they grew tired of working out in the garage at Gil's home. Gil designed all the equipment (the machines) and had them fabricated with an overarching philosophy in mind: Strength training is a separate, unique endeavor, not an add-on or afterthought intended simply to make a player "stronger" in what might be called the dictionary sense of the word. Gil had two goals in mind for Andre, and anyone else who works with him: First, to get stronger. Second, to accomplish that safely, with minimum stress or potential for damage through over-exertion or fatigue.

"We really pride ourselves on the fact that we're safe," Gil told me. "Young tennis athletes are not weight lifters, and shouldn't be expected to do some of the things lifters do. One of our priorities is to ensure that when we work on a particular muscle or group, we don't risk collateral damage to other groups. If a player just spent two hours serving, his serving shoulder is fatigued. He shouldn't just go into the gym and start pushing iron. Actually, I've always believed that going straight from the court to the weight room is not a good thing."

Gil takes a great deal of pride in the fact that Agassi won the Australian Open four times, at a time of year when everyone, at least in theory, was prepared for the Grand Slam grind. "Andre was so ready in Melbourne that he actually requested day matches, so that he could play in that intense heat. The officials always cringed when he asked for that, because the (television) ratings wars are played out at night."

Everyone talks about how much the game has changed in recent years, and Gil endorses the idea. "Today's players aren't chasing shots, they're running after lasers. It's become a game of rapid, violent accelerations and equally violent stops and changes of direction. You see how many hip injuries there are today? That's probably the reason. Players are needing to slam on the brakes like never before, which is why there's an premium today on learning to use your thighs as shock absorbers for every C.O.D"

That's Gil-speak, for change of direction.

Andre The operational phrase for every responsible trainer, according to Gil, is "wear and tear." He believes that young players are committed, but wonders if they're sufficiently schooled in the nuances of off-court training. "The persistent sociology in tennis has been that there's no real strength and conditioning regimen in place. It commonly comes down for many of these young players to have a dad in charge. I have nothing against the role of parents in tennis, but you just can't expect an parent to be on top of these things. That's the sociology of our industry, for better or worse."

Gil believes that Rafael Nadal is the new proto-type for developing players - after all, the talent of Roger Federer is self-evident and it doesn't take long for a youngster or his mentors to recognize that the bar he sets is virtually unattainable. But Nadal - that's a different story. To many, Nadal 's success owes as much to hard work and strength as it does to talent. While this certainly sells Nadal short, legions of juniors are thinking: If I can just get as big and powerful as Nadal, I've got a shot. . .

This puts a new premium on strength training, and we have yet to see where that will lead. "There are many, many coaches who know what they're doing," Gil says. "I have to believe they'll respond to this new sensibility out there."

The Agassi Training Center is not a public space; it's a private gym where Gil trains whomever he chooses. It strikes me that a stint at the ATC might benefit Federer; you all saw how he rubbed his serving shoulder late in that Wimbledon final, and how the sting seemed to depart from his backhand under persistent bombardment from Nadal's heavy topspin shots - particularly off the forehand wing. But Federer (and Nadal) are Nike athletes, and Gil has thrown his lot in with Adidas. You know who that leaves: three players who could benefit enormously from some time with Gil: Novak Djokovic, Marat Safin, and Marcos Baghdatis. I'll be curious to see if any of them makes the effort.

It's hard to describe how uplifting it was to talk with Gil. The man just radiates good intentions, which explains why he is so often called Yoda-like. I've always bought into that; how could you not, when Gil says things like: "My best teaching is done with my ears open, my eyes open, and my mouth closed. I had a special thing with Andre. He was a teaching me what I needed to learn, and that ultimately led both of us to reap enormous rewards. I don't know if that can every be duplicated."

Two things you can take from the smooth-hitting Slovak.

1. Keep it simple. I often see club players try to imitate the wristy ground strokes that many top players use. That’s fine for the pros because they have the time to continually perfect and groove their swings, but it’s not a good idea if you don’t play a lot. Why? The more elements you have in a stroke, the more difficult it will be to produce when the pressure is on. One of the key fundamentals of tennis is creating a solid technical foundation so that when the match gets tight, your strokes don’t fall apart. Daniela Hantuchova, whose ground strokes are some of the cleanest in the game, obviously did a great job of that in her formative years. Hantuchova hits the ball much like Lindsay Davenport, using long, fluid, uncomplicated strokes. Her forehand and backhand have gradual low-to-high sweeps to them, not extreme low-to-high movements, giving her topspin for safety but enabling her to drive through the ball. In fact, her technique is so sound that it’s easy for her to hit penetrating shots even when she’s under pressure.

To get a feel for hitting clean, deep drives, try this in practice. Using a moderately low-to-high stroke, hit the ball 3 feet past the baseline while not allowing it to clear the net by more than 2 or 3 feet. It’s difficult to do because you really have to hit through the ball. If your mechanics are correct, your follow-through won’t be much above shoulder height. Also, make sure you get in good position; if you don’t set up so you can make contact between your knees and rib cage—which Hantuchova does beautifully—you won’t have much success with this drill.

2. Round out your game. Whether she’s blasting forehands and back-hands or hitting volleys, Hantuchova is comfortable in all parts of the court. I think a big reason for this is that she has played so much doubles. (In case you didn’t know, Hantuchova owns a career Grand Slam in mixed doubles.) Balancing your singles game with a regular dose of two-on-two will teach you different ways to win points. When Hantuchova competes in singles, she frequently finishes points with volleys because her ground strokes create opportunities for her to approach the net. This is a skill that doubles has helped her refine. Another thing that doubles has done for Hantuchova’s game—and it should do the same for yours—is force her to have an aggressive mentality on her returns. When returning in doubles, you have to pick a target and go for it in order to avoid the person at net. This has taught Hantuchova to be offensive from the first hit. In today’s game, even at the club level, if you can instill fear in your opponent that you will attack weak second serves, it will pay big dividends. It may not win you the point right away, but it will become a factor later on in the match when the pressure is on.

Article by Paul Annacone -