The Tennis Week Interview: Richard Krajicek
By Richard Pagliaro
Friday, February 06, 2009
1996 Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek is one of the few pros with a winning record vs. Pete Sampras (6-4).
It was love at first sight, or more accurately, love at first sound that launched Richard Krajicek's tennis career.
From the time Krajicek first picked up a tennis racquet at the age of four, all he ever really wanted to do was play the sport he loved — that childhood affinity for tennis blossomed into full-blown affection the first time Krajicek found the sweep spot of his racquet and heard the positive pop of ball meeting strings — a sound that satisfies tennis players the way a cork bursting forth from a bottle of champagne excites revelers.
An immensely gifted player, Krajicek's classic style of play saw him capture 17 tournament titles, including the 1996 Wimbledon championship where he did not drop a set in crushing conquests of Michael Stich in the quarterfinals, Pete Sampras in the semis and Mal Washington in the final made memorable by the pre-match sprint of the streaker on Centre Court.
The Rotterdam native's attacking style of play and ability to impose his game on opponents saw him achieve success against some of tennis' top champions —Krajicek beat 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras in six of their 10 meetings, registered a 7-2 record against Patrick Rafter, held a 4-3 edge over Stefan Edberg, split eight career clashes with Boris Becker — and made him an all-surface threat.
"I never really liked big servers, the guys who could do to me what I routinely did to them," Pete Sampras wrote in his memoir. "Returning serve and hitting passing shots wree not my strengths. I was okay with them, but having to do that over and over took me out of my comfort zone. Krajicek could really put the pressure on; if had his serve going, he was very tough to beat and that put more pressure on my service games."
Years of combating a chronic elbow injury finally took a toll on the man whose sound serve-and-volley style carried him to the semifinals of the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon as well as three quarterfinal appearances at the U.S. Open.
Sidelined for 20 months after undergoing elbow surgery on March 29th, 2001, Krajicek made a triumphant return to Wimbledon in 2002 where he beat James Blake, Paradorn Srichaphan and Mark Philippoussis in a taut, tiebreak struggle 6-7(2), 7-6(4), 6-7(1), 7-6(5), 6-4 win to reach the quarterfinals where he fell to Xavier Malisse, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7. His performance helped him earn ATP Comeback Player Of The Year honors in 2002.
It was a triumphant return to Grand Slam tennis for Krajicek, but unfortunately his elbow could not bear the stress of consistent play. Seven years after Krajicek stood on Centre Court and raised the Wimbledon championship trophy aloft, the pain that plagued his right elbow prevented him from raising his racquet without discomfort and Krajicek retired at age 31 having surpassed his most ambitious tennis dreams.
"I want to have the feeling that I can win," Krajicek said in announcing his retirement at the Ordina Open. "But if my arm starts to hurt after a few service games, that's not realistic. That's why I've decided to stop. I achieved more and reached higher in the in the world ranks than I had ever dreamed as a child."
The first Dutchman to win Wimbledon remains a major player in tennis these days as tournament director for the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam. The indoor event celebrates its 36th anniversary when it begins on Monday with World No. 1 Rafael Nadal and 2008 US Open finalist Andy Murray both scheduled to play singles and doubles in headlining a deep field that features Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Nikolay Davydenko, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon, David Ferrer, Ivo Karlovic, defending champion Michael Llodra and 2008 runner-up Robin Soderling.
Nadal plays Italian Simone Bolelli in his opening-round match set for 7:30 p.m. local time on Wednesday. Murray opens Tuesday night against Croatian Ivan Ljubicic, the losing finalist of the 2005 and 2007 editions in Ahoy Rotterdam. Rotterdam, which routinely draws large crowds, earned ATP Tournament of the Year honors last year. Llodra faces a tough test against big-serving Croatian Karlovic. Another interesting match-up in the first round is the all-Russian match between Nikolay Davydenko and Igor Andreev.
These days, Krajicek keeps busy running the tournament, writing a book about the greatest players in tennis history, overseeing the Richard Krajicek Foundation, which builds sports facilities for children in the inner cities of Holland and spending time with his wife, actress Daphne Deckers and the couple's two children.
"My daughter plays for fun and she turns 11 in March. My son will be 9 in May; he plays five times a week and he wants to play seven times a week," Krajicek said with a chuckle. "He hits the ball nicely and he's only 8 — I have to say he gets me excited seeing the enthusiasm he has for the game. As long as they're having fun, that's the important thing."
Tennis Week caught up with Krajicek shortly after he completed a bike ride home for this interview in which he discusses the upcoming Rotterdam tournament, the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry and the challenge of making the career transition from top 10 player to tournament director.
Tennis Week: Richard, you had a fantastic final in Rotterdam last year with Llodra edging Soderling 7-6 in the third to take the title in a thrilling final. I know you have Nadal and Murray playing next week, what can you tell us about the tournament and what are you most excited about?
Richard Krajicek: We have the No. 1 player in the world, Rafael Nadal, and we haven't had that for the last three years since we had Roger Federer. So having Nadal, the Australian Open champion, which is the first time we've had the Australian Open champion since Federer was last here, is great for us. And both Nadal and Andy Murray will be playing singles and doubles so that gives fans more opportunity to see them, which is exciting.
Tennis Week: Rotterdam was voted ATP Tournament of the Year last year. What do you attribute the success — both in terms of attendance, drawing top players and stability of sponsor — to as you celebrate the 36th year of the event?
Richard Krajicek: I think of course we've always been a pretty big tournament. Now we have the 500 Series status and so that always helps. There are good ranking points to be made for the players and we've tried to create a good atmosphere for them. Also we have a very good venue and a beautiful center court, which is always filled. We have enough room to put three practice courts in whereas normally indoor events have a nice arena and have the practice courts at a separate place. It's a good stop for the players, we have a very good, supportive and solid sponsor, which also helps in that we've been able to bump up the prize money.
Tennis Week: We're obviously coping with the challenges of a tough economy here in the States and sports sponsorship across the board is down domestically — though Indian Wells has a new title sponsor in BNP Paribas — are you concerned that the economy is going to adversely impact tennis in general and tennis sponsorship in particular?
Richard Krajicek: At the moment I am curious, to be honest. Not concerned yet, but I am curious. I just wonder what is going to happen? A lot of times you have to keep on maintaining a high profile as a company so that people know you are out there — it's good promotion for the companies and brands — if that's not going to continue then my curiosity will change to concern. I haven't heard any negative stories yet so we'll have to see how it goes. Maybe it can go the other way, but we've seen what can happen with the stock market and huge losses there so at this point I think many of us our wondering how it will go.
Tennis Week: What was the biggest challenge in making the transition from a top player to a tournament director?
Richard Krajicek: There are a few differences. Number one, as a tournament director, the central point of focus is the tournament and not you. Because normally, as a player, it was all about me and I had to train hard and people around me had to work hard to try to help me achieve results. Now, as a tournament director you work as part of a team trying to create success for the event. Your focus is making the tournament a big success, making the crowd, the sponsor and the players happy. As a tournament director you're a team player and it's not about me. I had to get used to that. As a player you're pretty focused on yourself that way so I think that was a challenge. Also, as a player you always have next week. Should you lose early or have a bad week you can say "Let's forget about it and focus on next week" and you can make good on what didn't go right the following week whereas as a tournament director the entire focus of the season is on this one week and we have to do everything possible to make it right. As a player, I didn't realize how much effort goes into making a successful event and how many people working together are required to make the tournament a success.
Tennis Week: You are one of the few people who had a winning record against Pete Sampras, I think you won four in a row against him at one point. Nadal has now beaten Federer five times in a row. If you're Roger or if you were coaching Roger, what changes does he need to make to stop the losing skid vs. Rafa? Is it technical, tactical or something else?
Richard Krajicek: It's definitely not technical because technically I think Roger is the superior player. For me, it's mental. I haven't looked at thee statistics, but it's interesting to see the majors Roger has won have not been as long compared to the major matches he's played against Rafa. The thing that is happening now is Rafa is not only beating him on clay and a few hard-court events, like Dubai, now Rafa has beaten him on grass and hard court in majors. Out of the 18 major finals Roger has played all five of his losses were to Nadal so it's hard for him to get to Nadal and he starts to doubt himself at crucial moments. I think, for me, Roger has to maybe spend a few more hours training and somehow finding the energy and resistance to mentally and physically last that long against Rafa. Because he made a great comeback in the fourth set. He was a little down and out and maybe lucky to win that long, demanding game at 2-all in the fourth set and suddenly he wins that fourth set, 6-3. So you're thinking "Okay, he's going to take him out now" but then he just ran out of steam and Nadal does not wear down. And in his speech and reaction after the match you see how disappointed and frustrated he's starting to get.
Tennis Week: Does Roger have to try to shorten the points or alter his approach to playing the points against Rafa?
Richard Krajicek: The tough thing for Roger is that he's still making all the (major) finals. It's not like he's playing worse and starting to lose to different guys: he's basically only losing to one guy (in majors). So you're like "Okay is he doing that much wrong if he's beating most other guys?" If I was Roger, my focus would be on Nadal because I'm losing to Nadal and I have to figure out why and how to change that. I have to grind a little bit more in practice. And as an attacking player myself, I would say come more to net a bit more. Roger had a few easier volleys in the final, but he lacked a little confidence. Roger's got great volleys so for me he's got to come in a little bit more in the earlier rounds of tournaments before he plays Rafa and be willing to attack a little more even if that means losing a few more points in the earlier rounds. I believe Roger should attack more and keep the points short. He has the ability to do it and he should practice it against other players when he is beating them comfortably. Not only that, I believe that keeping the points short is a good tactic against the game of Nadal. I believe that Nadal's biggest talent is his focus and concentration after playing three to four hours of tennis, which can obviously be very difficult. And Federer's talent is to play quick and beautiful points and to hit winners from both sides and at the net. By playing quick points, Federer can try to keep the match short, which should be to his favor. Because the last few years have shown that the longer the match lasts, the more it favors Nadal, who has an excellent five-set record.
Tennis Week: For instance, against Roddick in the semis Roger could have attacked a bit more?
Richard Krajicek: Exactly. Exactly. Roger needs to play net more in the earlier rounds, in my view, so he can be a little bit sharper around the net when he plays Rafa. I think he has to keep the rallies shorter against Nadal. You're not going to hit Nadal off the court: he's one of the fastest guys to ever play tennis. For me, Nadal is the strongest mentally I've ever seen in tennis — stronger even than Connors or Borg — that's my opinion especially after last year's Wimbledon final. Most guys get discouraged when they don't convert a match point in a final. Not Nadal. He came out fighting even harder in the fifth set and was not discouraged at all. Nadal is incredibly strong mentally.
Tennis Week: Of the other young top 10 players: Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whose game really excites you?
Richard Krajicek: I like to watch all of those players for different reasons. I like to watch Murray: he plays fast, can take the ball earlier and has a beautiful backhand. Tsonga is a very strong player who can attack as well. I really enjoy watching today's tennis. It's exciting, the only thing I am missing is two or three serve and volley players like a Patrick Rafter, a Tim Henman, a Stefan Edberg. Tennis is fantastic to watch nowadays and what I see in the box office at our tournament is tennis has never been so alive as it is now in Holland. The Nadal-Federer rivalry has taken tennis to new peaks, which is fantastic. It would be nice to see one or two serve-and-volley players and I think it would be great to see the contrasting styles between the baseliners and a few serve-and-volley players. Now, we have good contrasting styles from the baseline, Nadal is a great counter puncher who plays an exciting grinding, running style and Murray plays a little bit quicker from the back of the court so you are seeing variation from the baseline. A couple of good serve and volleyer players would make this perfect but I think nowadays tennis is very blessed with such a strong and very dynamic generation that we have now. The whole top 10 is great to watch, they are fantastic players and it makes me as a tennis lover and tennis fan feel blessed.
Tennis Week: The last time I spoke to Pete Sampras his remarks are very similar to what you just said though Sampras said he believes the slower surface speed combined with the racquet technology that makes returners so lethal means serve-and-volley tennis is essentially extinct in singles. Do you agree?
Richard Krajicek: That's what I understand — at least about the slower surfaces — and it does appear the guys are returning so well. On the other hand, remember Jonas Bjorkman made the semifinals of Wimbledon and if you go back attacking players like myself, Patrick Rafter, Tim Henman, Michael Stich all made semifinals at Roland Garros. We had some success on clay because we played this atypical game and kept the rallies short in playing the type of attacking tennis perhaps the clay-courters are not accustomed to facing. Maybe it's true that it's tougher to play serve-and-volley and I thought that way until a few years ago when Bjorkman made the Wimbledon semifinals. It still takes longer for a serve-and-volleyer to develop and fully bloom.
Tennis Week: Who is the best player you faced and who is the best player you have seen?
Richard Krajicek: I think, tennis-wise the level Roger played a few years ago — he played so quick and so beautiful and was so confident — I think I have to say Roger. On the other hand you have Pete Sampras who was No. 1 six years in a row and won 14 Grand Slam titles and obviously that is a fantastic record and you have Borg with an over 80 percent winning percentage. I'm actually writing a book now about the top players and researching the book you realize there were so many unbelievable players with great records like Arthur Larson: he only had one or two Grand Slams, but his story and being there for the landing of D-Day is remarkable. So you come to appreciate how many great players have played.
Tennis Week: I remember reading you worked with Elena Dementieva. What are your thoughts on her development the past year.
Richard Krajicek: I just helped her one week on serve so you cannot do much in that one week. But I am very happy to see Elena play so well. She's a classy persona, she works very, very hard and she puts so much effort into things. It was a shame her serve was holding her back, but now she has come full circle and addressed that. She's worked so hard to improve and so it was great to see her win the Olympic gold medal. I think she really deserves to win a Grand Slam title and if she keeps working she can.