A wildcard worth playing
Yesterday marked the commencement of the final Major tennis event of the year, the US Open. I’m thrilled to be competing in New York this year, armed with a career-high ranking of 14th after my ATP tournament victory last week in Winston-Salem. I was over the moon to have achieved my third career title, after several unsuccessful final bids.
Funnily enough, I did not originally enter the tournament in Winston-Salem, North Carolina this year. When I was deciding upon my schedule, choosing to play said World Tour 250 tournament would have meant five competition weeks in a row ahead of the US Open. From past experience, I have found that trying to play too many tournaments becomes physically exhausting and can lead to injury. Firm in the belief that I would do well in the three bigger hard court tournaments in Washington DC, Montreal, and Cincinnati, I decided not to enter an event the week preceding the year’s final Major.
Unfortunately, tennis schedules don’t always go as planned and after crashing out in my first two matches in Washington and Montreal respectively, I felt fresh enough to consider playing during the week I had originally scheduled as a rest period. Fortunately, the tournament director at the Winston-Salem Open, Bill Oakes, still had a wildcard available and generously extended an invitation allowing me to play in the main draw.
I was thrilled to be able to return to the event for a second consecutive year. It’s a great tournament in a small town, where everyone gets excited about the tennis festivities. The tournament site is located on the Wake Forest University campus, so the facilities are excellent despite it being a smaller venue. As a former collegiate athlete myself, I always enjoy the environment that a university setting provides. The combination of a college town coupled with an intimate venue leads to a special atmosphere at Winston-Salem. As a competitor, I really enjoyed the enthusiastic fan base over the tournament.
Winston-Salem is a strong competition but it usually fails to draw too many top 20 ATP tour players for the same scheduling reasons I outlined earlier in the post. Most players want to remain fresh heading into the physically taxing five-set matches that await them at the US Open. As it turned out, I was the second seed in the tournament draw. I knew that if I played well, I would have a chance to go the distance and I’m delighted I did.
PLAYING WITHOUT THE WEIGHT OF PRESSURE
In order to afford myself the best opportunity to succeed, my focus in Winston-Salem was to keep things loose and relaxed. For one, I tried to quieten my mind and play without any pressure or expectations. With the Open around the corner, I told myself there was really nothing to worry about if I failed to perform as expected at the event. There was no time to get hung-up, and if I lost, my wife Kelsey and I would immediately head out to the Big Apple, where I could practice and train with fellow top professionals.
Given that the Winston-Salem Open came on the eve of such a pivotal event in the year, I also had a strong focus on physical treatment and body maintenance. I did extended treatment sessions, gym work and stretching to ensure my physical health. My physiotherapist, Florian Zitzelsberger, was brilliant in attending to my body’s needs and keeping me in peak physical condition throughout the week. Although I got off to a rough start in my first match at the tournament (dropping the first set), I felt in top shape for the rest of the tournament. I served well and was both calm and composed throughout. It feels great to finally take home a title after a few attempts in a row at finals without success.
To cap off an already superb week, as finalists at the Winston-Salem Open, my opponent, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, and I were treated to private flights from North Carolina to New York with our support teams in tow. Due to the exorbitant expense of private air travel, we don’t often get from point A to B so luxuriously. The ease of travel with such a massive tournament only a few days away really makes a huge difference.
At the US Open, I will play 17-year-old Russian Andrey Rublev in my first round match today (7.30 pm, SA time). I’m match-prepared and my main focus will be on keeping my body loose. I’ve now had a few days to get to grips with the slightly different conditions in New York. My body feels in good nick and I’m eager to start the last slam of the year.
My opponent, Rublev, is the youngest player in the ATP top 200, and I’m sure the 2014 Us Open Junior quarterfinalist is feeling fearless after coming through the qualifying draw last week. I will have my work cut out for me but after excellent preparation over the last few weeks, I’m feeling excited and confident for the competition that lies ahead.
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