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From Paris with love

There is no question that the four Grand Slams produce an unrivalled level of excitement and expectation that no regular season tournament can muster. The Slams represent the pinnacle of our sport and are events every tennis player aspires to win.

The week before Roland Garros serves up a variety of emotions. I find it important to maintain a balance between relaxing (enjoying the time spent at Roland Garros and around the amazing city of Paris) and having an intensity and focus in preparing for the competition.

Some players, like myself, arrived over a week before the tournament proper began in order to prepare. After playing two tournaments back-to back-in Madrid and Rome, my approach this week has been to take the first few days easy (a perfect opportunity to explore the city – my wife and I visited Musee D’Orsay), use the middle of the week to have fairly intense practice sessions and spend the last couple days engaging in lighter practice, which allows my body to recover ahead of my forthcoming fixtures.

Practising at Roland Garros the first few days I was here had an almost eerie feel to it. The grounds were practically empty and other than a few essential services up and running, like practice court bookings, only a few players had arrived. It seemed hard to believe that in only a week one of world tennis’s biggest tournaments would be staged here.

Since Roland Garros is played at the end of the clay court season, most physical preparation done by players has essentially taken place in earlier weeks. Most of us pros spend this week focused on staying healthy and fresh, sharp on the court and most importantly preparing our minds for peak performance.

To achieve the above, I typically split my practices into two parts. One is focused on improving specific shots and the other concentrated on playing points against other players. In both types of practices, the areas I’m working on are very specific to my game and how best to maximise my results on clay. Essentially these practices are both a continuation and culmination of everything I’ve been working on over the clay court season.

People often ask me how my training differs during this time of the season. To answer, I have to explain some of the challenges clay courts pose, as well as the nature of clay-court tennis. I have given careful consideration to what makes a great clay-court player.

Tennis is a unique sport in that nearly every person on tour has their own distinct style of play, strengths and weaknesses. This allows for some players to excel on certain surfaces while others seem to invariably struggle.

In my previous blog, I discussed specific elements of the clay surface that benefit my game. However, in spite of the noted benefits there are a few drawbacks to the ‘dirt.’ The biggest challenge for me, and many players for that matter, is movement. Without good movement, a clay court can feel enormous. It is no coincidence that the top five men in the game possess arguably the best movement.

In order to be successful on clay, one has to be able to play particularly well on defence. Although I aim to be as aggressive as possible, the bottom line is that to do so I also have to run and move well. Good movement results in getting a lot of shots back in play, which in turn allows me to wait for the right opportunities to wrest control of points.

With the noted challenges in mind, some of the most important aspects of my physical clay-court preparation involves working on: pushing off to change direction, sliding into balls to increase speed, recovering quickly from previous shots and remaining ready to run in any direction at any given time. I work tirelessly on these aspects during practice with my coach and long-time friend GD Jones.

For those who grew up playing on clay, this type of movement is more natural. For somebody like me, who didn’t play on clay until I was much older, it’s important to spend time each year on improving my ability to cover the court.

When preparing for each match, there are subtle changes in my game plan tailored to my different opponents. However, for the most part playing ‘my game’ remains the overriding focus.

My game plan is as follows: I attempt to control as many points as possible by using my strengths (my serve and aggressive groundstrokes) and use the clay surface to assist my efforts. I play defence when necessary, buying myself time within the rallies to hopefully gain control of the point. By focusing on these key elements, I believe I can deal effectively with the challenges clay courts present.

With the tournament now just days away, I’m excited for its start. The draw ceremony today will reveal which player I oppose in round one.

I’m pleased with the many improvements I’ve made on clay and happy with the way I’m currently playing. Last year I reached the third round, therefore my aim is to improve upon that result in 2013.

However, there are no easy matches at tour level and I will have to play to my potential regardless of whom my opponent may be.

Wish me luck!

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