I knew it took some time but I think I'm gonna be forgiven when you see how long that interview is. Here is only the 1st half of it. The rest is coming up.
From Tennis Magazine, April 2006, by Guy Barbier.
Tennis Magazine: Let's first talk about your famous QF at the AO. What do you think about all this now?
At the moment? It's just been extraordinary. I had been fighting for all this for so long. I knew time was playing against me. Until you're 25, you tell yourself, this is gonna happen. And at 28: still not there! At 30, things get seriously complicated. So, at more than 33, it's just fabulous. I've received many congratulation messages. I've decided to reply to all of them, at my own rhythm of course, but to all. If people take care of sending you a message, you just have to do it...
TM: How did you celebrate it?
In Australia, we stayed 2 more days in Melbourne, to celebrate this our way: under the sun, on the beach, all the family together, a few good restaurants. And then, we flied back home.
TM: How was the arrival in Geneva?
It's been quiet, usual routine, school for Djenae, up at 6.45am. And physical training to stay fit.
TM: Despite all the experience, which is yours, to have reached such a goal can still reinforce your confidence, teach you something. What do you think?
Whatever you do in life, its most of all important to do it, to know that you can do it. And from this moment on, why not do it again? Though I know that doing it twice will be very tough. On clay especially. RG is undoubtedly the tournament where my chances of getting far are the poorest. That surface is very demanding and the older you get, the further my game goes away from clay's characteristics.
TM: To come closer to grass rules, still settled on the Wimbledon goal?
Yes, the point is to lighten my programm on clay in order to come on grass with my full means. The details aren't settled yet, but it is more than likely that I do that way.
TM: Pretty everywhere in Australia, and of course in France, as well as everywhere else, your Australian performance has brought you many praises. Doesn't that tribute come too late to your taste?
Things happen when they are meant to. And if that happens to me now, it's because I've thought alot about my game. At 22 or 24, with the game I was playing, I just couldn't hope getting such compliments. I used to have a defensive game which wasn't really fascinating nor funny to watch. Now, people can feel I'm having a blast on a court, that I'm enjoying it. And my style of game is so far away from what is played today that they appreciate it all the more. They come to see something different. That they like or not doesn't matter. They come to see something different.
TM: But isn't there a small trap to avoid falling into, to be tempted to make too much "for the crowd"?
Yes, it's true. It can be dangerous. That matches turn out like exhibitions. And that I start missing easy shots, playing wrong. To play, just for the sake of it. You should always keep in mind that the goal is to win.
TM: Let's come back on your goal of the QF, those who remember about your precocity can be surprised that you didn't look further. What were your goals, your dreams as a young player?
But I just had no goal! Tennis was a game. I've won bunches of titles as a junior, and at 16, I remember I asked myself something in RG. My parents were present, with my coach: do I want to become a pro? The point was to give the best I could, not to become n°1 or to win RG. So, people may have imagined I would go higher, I would win a GS, but it wasn't realistic. Me, I was already pretty happy to have become a pro. And my dad had told me: you've made your choice, so now, go full blast and no regrets, you'll see how it goes. Actually, I simply didn't have the means to be N°1, that's all!
TM: But there had to be an unknown part for you. From which moment did you get aware of your true possibilities and of your limits?
When I reached 20. I was ranked about 20. It was already great. I didn't feel I could go higher. Mostly because of the tennis I was playing at that time. And physically, I simply couldn't go till the end in a GS. So, that said, when I look back at it all, if, between 18 and 25, I could have been able to play the tennis I play today, so maybe, during the 2nd part of my career, I could have hoped for something better. But at that time, I was locked up in a style of game that had me lose my time.
TM: Too defensive, is that it?
Yes, totally defensive. In fact, in the opposite of what I used to practise among juniors.When I started as a pro, I started to play, not to win, but not to lose. But I had so much pressure on my shoulders. People were expecting so much from me, especially in French events, that if I happened to do 1 fault, I had the impression I was guilty of something serious! Hence, I was doing very few errors, but also very few points! I was unable to take the initiative because I was afraid of the outside judgement. I had thus locked myself in that game: no fault, no point!
TM: Did you talk about this with a psy?
My only psy was my dad. When I went to see him in November 1996, I was a bit desperate. My ranking was getting low and most of all, my pleasure was drowning. I asked him for advice. About how he was seeing my game and what I had to do to find back my efficiency, to have fun again on a court. He told me: you were a creator when you were a kid, in all that you were doing. There's no reason to not do it today. We've watched videos, talked about the style of game that 2-handed players have to play...He adviced me to play forth, to play doubles and then, I started my 2nd career.
TM: You thus consider your career with 2 distinct phases?
Yes, before and after 1996. I started to regularly play doubles since January 1997. That's pretty simple: today, I have 23 titles, doubles and singles altogether. 22 of them are from the 2nd part! I'd say that, between 1988 and 1995, I've undergone basic training. In 1996, I've analyzed. And from 1997, I've entered my real career.
TM: Yet, when you reached your 1st 8th of final, in RG, at only 18, you must have told yourself it was only the beginning of a great adventure. What followed could only be harder?
Yes, it's been hard. In 1991, for a few months, I've told myself "wow, the 8th at 18, without losing a set, beating Mats Wilander for the 2nd rd..." I then thought I was on the right way. But in fact, I had no future with my style of game. If you watch those matches I've played in RG, you can see I hardly made any errors. That others, Wilander included, were missing before me. I didn't go for the victory. In the 1st part of my career, I actually never lost a match because I was making many errors. I was doing nothing. And when I got aware of those limits, in 1996, my level of pleasure was the lowest. My 1st thought has been to tell myself: I am gonna pack my rackets and do something else. And that's my father, who, fast, got me out of there.
TM: 1996 has also been the year of your wrist injury...
I've always thought that this injury wasn't hazardous. Because 1996 is the year when I stop training, when I miss RG, when I play almost all of my matches with my mind wandering somewhere else and, in Prague, when I hit that linesman, do I really think about hitting my backhand or about little birds? It was also the year I was building up my private life- I had met Chris Laure in 1995. I was distracted. No more pleasure on the court, no more ambition. I was in the middle of some crisis, partly due to my awareness of my game and its limits. Actually, that injury has only been good for me, it gave me some time to think.
TM: Which has been the 1st tournament of your "re-birth"?
Marseille 1997. I had been working with my father for only 2 months. I had a WC, I was ranked 150. And when I reached the semis, I saw that in playing a more offensive game, tennis was just fabulous. And on top of that, I can defeat the best! I've been lucky to be quickly rewarded, after I changed my game in 1996, as soon as February 1997.
TM: Tennis is known to be a sport that leads to individualism. And you, you're said to be individualistic to the extreme. Is that right?
I'm neither more individualistic, nor selfish- both notions join for me- than other tennis players. I indeed think that all players are individualistic and I think it's vital to be. A tennis player is someone who makes his own planning, who has to find his own game, his own training rhythm, he has to organize his life, learn how to know his body and who is bound to think big time by himself. All this leads to individualism. And the player quickly feels like seeing things change around him. The more I step forward in time, the more convictions I have in my methods, in what is good or bad for me. I think I'm open to everything in some preparation times. But, as soon as competition time is on again, I hold on to my certainties, and I've worked to have them.
TM: Your style of game can also require a specific preparation...
Not so much my style. More the vision of what it has to be. Each day, when I enter a court, I have to have fun, to laugh. I will, all of a sudden, feel like doing a shot totally crazy, and I also want a fun touch in each of my trainings.
TM: Would you say that you prepare like the other players?
Hmmmm....On the court, I don't see that much difference. Or maybe I will work on dropshot which isn't used by others, or the sliced forehand which nobody is interested in anymore!
TM: Do you feel any regrets now, as to how you've led your career?
I would have liked knowing all I know today when I was 18! (smiles). I'm overjoyed with my career. All this has been built up, step by step, and if I'm almost at my best level so late, it is because I've asked myself ten thousand questions. Holidays are part of the success. It took me some time to realize this. When I was 18 and that I was having holidays, I had that impression I was ruining my career, I was moving more slowly than others.
TM: And when have you started going on holidays?
In the 2nd part of my career, from 1997 on.
TM: At the end of the day, isn't it Chris Laure who freed you from that obsessional vision of tennis?
Yes, it certainly is. Before being with Chris, I was living alone in my flat. When they were coming home, my friends used to tell me : look at your life, it's really no fun! In bed at 8.30pm, soya in my salad, and instead of olive oil, lemon juice. Sauceless pasta, no cheese. Never any dessert. I wasn't going out. I had a very strict way of life. And I thought I had to if I wanted to succeed. If I had gone on that way, I certainly would have stopped playing. Today, I've realized that a tennis player can do everything, like anyone else. Except that he has to pick his moments. I can drink wine, I can sleep late, eat a sauerkraut. But when I'm in the middle of a tournament, I sleep early and I eat no sauerkraut! Another thing I'm sure about concerning my way of life and my preparation, it is that I don't need to do running anymore. I've run thousands of times during the 1st part of my career, between 12 and 25. And I'm convinced that if I'm so strong today, it is because of those thousands of miles. Now, for me, cycling has replaced running. Because I think that, given the 100 matches I play every year, it would be ridiculous to add traumas either to my knees, ankles, lumbar vertebra, etc....I have enough of those when I play on hard! So, all the built up for me now, it's on the bike.
TM: You've played 19 players who became world N°1. You beat them all, except Roddick (2-0), Lendl (1-0) but most of all, Yevgeni Kafelnikov, who got you 6/0! What did he have that embarrassed you so much, Kafelnikov?
First, I've always played him when he was at his best level. And also because I had nothing problematic to offer. In the backhand's line, he was better than me, in the forehand's, he was even better. My serve didn't absolutely bother him, and I had trouble returning his. I had no way out. Unless a bad match on his part. And against me, that simply never happened! I don't have the same feeling of being powerless when I play Roddick, against whom I've recently lost 6/4 7/6 in Lyon...
To Be Continued.....