The Temperamental Talent
by Robert Davis
© Copa Claro
Spain’s Nicolas Almagro finally broke into the Top 10 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings this past April.
Jose Perlas likens his protégé Nicolas Almagro to nuclear energy. If used for war, it’s bad. If used for power production, it’s good. The trick, he says, is to channel the volatile Almagro towards peaceful purposes to achieve maximum potential.
Watching Nicolas Almagro play tennis is like watching a tempest in a teacup. When he hits the ball one is never really sure if he is grunting, groaning or just simply shouting curses. Like a hammer pounding an anvil, Almagro prefers to bash the ball into a million little pieces. For the most part it is not pretty tennis, but whoever said that the Spanish prized beauty over brute force? No, they prefer to leave the aesthetics of the game to their French neighbours while they are content to march off with the gold.
In 1985, the year that Almagro was born, Spain had zero players in the Top 10 of the ATP Rankings and only four players in the Top 100. Today, Spain boasts three in the Top 10 – including Almagro – and 22 in the Top 100. In the years between then and now, the Spanish perfected a system of defensive minded tennis built around kick serves and footwork that ran from east to west in order to hit heavy topspin forehands. Yards behind the baseline they camped, rallying back and forth till either darkness halted play or the umpire died of old age.
Maybe Nicolas Almagro did not get the message. He might have confused “keep the ball in play” with “smack the damn ball away”? Or more likely he was going to hit the ball however and wherever the hell he wanted. You can only imagine the headache his junior tennis coaches must have had trying to get little ‘Nico’ to simply rally with the other kids. Proud or insolent, confident or cocky, whatever names Nicolas Almagro was called back then nobody dared to say that he did not have loads of talent.
Antonio Martinez, long time coach of Juan Carlos Ferrero, remembers Nicolas Almagro as a junior.
“I saw him play when he was young,” recalls Martinez. “He was not known so much as a fighter as much as a terminator. He wanted to win the point very quickly. I remember once in an ITF Junior event he won the final 6-1, 6-0. Impressionate, hombre. Very impressive.”
“He always had a lot of talent,” claims Toni Nadal. “And he hit the ball very hard as a little boy.”
The youngest of three sons, Nicolas Almagro grew up playing tennis with his two older brothers in their hometown of Murcia. Murcia is the end of the line of the Iberian Peninsula, a region of hard rock scrub pines and vast plateaus better known for breeding bulls than producing tennis players. Nicolas Almagro showed promise early. By the age of 14 he bagged his first ATP point, and three years later he won six ITF Futures in seven finals and even won an ATP Challenger. But by then the Spanish had become spoiled. Winning Futures was mere child’s play for a nation dominating the tennis tour and often labelled the ‘Spanish Armada’ by the press.
To say that Almagro has a flair for dramatics would be putting it lightly. One only has to look at his technique. A service motion that looks like a Greco-Roman archer shooting an arrow high into the sky and a backhand that resembles more a matador performing with the cape than a tennis stroke. Just how Almagro manages to create so many acute angles off the backhand that result in clean winners defies logic. He takes the racquet back high up over his shoulder with a windmill windup that could power half of Spain. When and where he actually decides to hit the backhand is anyone’s guess, but it seems that he makes up his mind somewhere between falling off his back foot and the point of contact. His target is now easy enough to see, the spot on the court farthest from his opponent.
“He has one of the best backhands in the world,” claims Toni Nadal.
“Many people think he can be in the Top 5,” says Antonio Martinez, “because he has two big weapons with his ground strokes and his serve – especially the second serve, which is great. But that backhand, that is special.”
For all the praise of Almagro’s power, it is his character that draws the most attention. Often times over the years, it seemed as if he was Don Quixote waging wars against windmills.
“He is aggressive, and he can get mad quickly,” states Albert Costa. “He moved to Barcelona to be with Jose Perlas and they are improving. He is trying to calm Almagro’s temperamental character and it appears to be working.”
”In the beginning of his tennis, his character was a bit complicated,” comments Martinez. “Inside the court he can be difficult, but outside he is great. Now that he has been with Perlas, he has improved his character muchísimo.”
Not everyone saw Almagro’s temper as a negative.
“What I feel about Nicolas Almagro is that he has a touch of Latino in him, much more than your normal Spanish player,” says Nicolas Pereira, current ESPN commentator and former ATP player. “I love his game.”
So that was the situation when famed Spanish coach, Jose Perlas, took over.
“I knew him a little before we started, and I had heard about his personality and temperament,” says Jose Perlas. “He has a very strong character, the youngest of the family and he is used to getting his way. He had many years of behaving one way, and it is not easy to change quickly. He has made a big improvement, but the biggest change was from the inside and not from me. He made an agreement with himself to improve. That was the first step. Secondly, his fundamentals are very good. Antonio Gonzales Palencia was the one that has created all his tennis. I don’t know about his past, but since he has been in Barcelona, he has done all that we asked and even more. I am very pleased with Nico’s effort. He is a lovely person, and a great person to travel with.”
“Pepe (Perlas) was an important change in my life,” admits Almagro. “He has given me all that was inside of him so I can get better. He brought a new working philosophy and since then everything is going well.”
“The only thing that I want is to be at peace with my tennis,” continues Almagro. “If people talk about me or not, I don’t know, the only thing I want is to keep on working. Working like I am doing. And for sure the results are going to keep on coming.”
If you are apt to believe that all roads lead to Rome, then figuratively speaking the same could be said that any major clay-court conquests must run through Rafa. Back in the juniors, Almagro was the hot-headed, hard-hitting bad boy. And Nadal was the hard-headed, hot-hitting little gentleman. That they would clash and clash hard was inevitable.
“It was always difficult when they played,” recalls Toni Nadal.
The years passed and they grew from boys to men and so it came on a warm sunny spring day back in May of 2010 that the man from Mallorca met the man from Murcia in the middle of Spain. Call it high noon in Madrid. Nicolas Almagro entered the stadium court with his high forehead tilted back like royalty, prominent Roman nose up in the air and hard-set jaw jutting out in defiance. Rafael Nadal marched in like, well, like he always does: A gladiator about to kill or be killed.
From ball one Rafa began whacking one brutal forehand after another, sending Almagro scrambling side to side with clouds of clay whirling up around his shoes. Almagro slapped his ground strokes around the court like he was smacking a bull on the butt. As the battle heated up you could almost hear the crowd singing ‘ole’ with every ground stroke. At one point early in the third set it got so intense that the Policia Nacional was put on alert.
As he usually does on clay, Rafael Nadal won the match, but not before Nicolas Almagro served notice that he was finally fit; physically and, most importantly, emotionally.
“My intensity and emotions can be a strength and a weakness at times,” admits Almagro. ”I have noticed since working with Pepe (Perlas), I am much more serene and relaxed on the court. And that allows me to play my best tennis.”
“Sometimes he gets too violent,” claims Perlas. “But this is not all bad. It is like atomic energy. If we use it for war, then it is bad. But if we use it to make electricity then it is good.”
Almagro was finally getting the message. And when the ATP World Tour swung through Latin America, he was firing on all cylinders. Almagro is no stranger to success in Latin America, having won there before, but this time was different.
“The biggest difference between the past and now,” admits Almagro, “is that I believe much more in my game and in me as a player.”
Nicolas Almagro would go on to win 13 straight matches and two titles, Costa do Sauipe and Buenos Aires. And now, Almagro found himself in a third consecutive final in Acapulco versus David Ferrer. But there was much more on the line than just a trophy.
“We knew that if he beat Ferrer in the final of Acapulco he would be Top 10,” says Perlas. “Of course that is one of the goals of any tennis player, but we did not talk about it. If we think only of getting into the Top 10 it can destroy all of our work. Yes, we are conscious of the points and rankings, but what is on our minds and in our mouths is the here and now. And our main objective is for Nico to continue improving as a player. The ranking will be a result of his evolution as a professional athlete.”
A surefire way to see what a man has under the hood is to check his record in the final set. Whether it be the third or the fifth makes no difference. Winning the final set is as good a gut check as it gets in tennis. And so far this year, Almagro has shown the grit and grind that Spanish players are known for. Almagro has won the decisive third set seven out of 11 matches. And he won the only fifth set he has played so far, a thriller against Igor Andreev, in Melbourne.
“The biggest difference this year is that he has matured,” claims Perlas. “And he did a great physical training in the pre-season that allowed him to maintain a high level during all those tough matches in three weeks in Latin America.”
Nicolas Almagro finally entered the Top 10 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings in Barcelona this year. It has been a long journey for Almagro and to make that final step at the club where he began training with Perlas made it all the more special.
“He has made big improvements the past year,” says Costa. “Perlas knows what to do and how to do it. Credit to Nicolas for doing the work.”
Power can be a two-edged sword. The challenge, as Nicolas Almagro has learned, is how to wield it. By controlling his temper and building his body, Almagro has risen to meet the expectations that for so long seemed just out of his reach.