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Tennis Week Interview: Taylor Dent

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12-18-2003, 07:30 PM
The Tennis Week Interview: Taylor Dent

By Richard Pagliaro
12/20/2003

Taylor Dent proved he was a tennis insider this year. Now he's set his sights on solidifying his status as one of tennis' top talents by building on a late-season surge that saw him construct an 11-match win streak and capture two championships in his final three tournaments.

The 22-year-old Dent emerged as one of the world's premier players indoors, raising the roof in registering a 16-2 record in ATP indoor matches and capturing consecutive tournament titles in Bangkok and Moscow.

Since retiring from his fourth-round U.S. Open match with Andre Agassi due to a strained lower right hamstring, the 22-year-old Dent surrendered only four sets in winning 11 of his final 12 matches in a commanding conclusion to the 2003 season.

Dent defeated the then top-ranked player in the world, Juan Carlos Ferrero, 6-3, 7-6(5) to claim his third career championship at the Thailand Open in Bangkok and followed that performance by beating Sargis Sargsian, 7-6(5), 6-4, to become the first American man to win the Kremlin Cup in Moscow.

"I like to press off second the second serve and get in there and make them pass me," Dent said after defeating Ferrero. "That's what I'm at the baseline for — to get short balls and come in on them. That's always my strategy. The most improved thing about my game has been my serve accuracy. My mental toughness is also better. In the past I've broken guys enough to win matches, but I haven't held serve. Now I'm serving well enough to hold comfortably most of the time."

Throughout his career, Dent has delivered his top tennis against tennis' top players and his relentless attack has earned the respect of many of his opponents.

"He’s a guy that can really take you out of your rhythm," Agassi said after overcoming Dent in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. "He’s a difficult guy to play against. …First of all, the serve speaks for itself; it’s a big serve. He has real good hands up at net, covers the net really well."

His net play was devastatingly effective in the Memphis final in February as Dent dropped only five games in crushing Andy Roddick, 6-1, 6-4 in the final.

"That first set was a joke. If I could do that every match, it would be something special," Dent told Tennis Week after the match. " In the past, I'd say that (focus) wouldn't be a strength for me, but this week I was really bearing down and focusing. I felt really comfortable out there."

The court has always been like a second home to Dent, who comes from a tennis family.

Some children grow up with pacifiers and graduate to security blankets, but Dent always felt at home with a racquet in one hand and a ball in the other ready to serve. Both his parents were successful tennis pros. Dent’s mother, Betty Ann Grubb, reached the 1977 U.S. Open doubles final with Dr. Renee Richards and was a top 10 player in the United States. His father, Australian Phil Dent, was a consistent top 20 player who reached the 1974 Australian Open final where he was beaten by Jimmy Connors, 7-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

Dent, who split with coach Brad Stine shortly after the U.S. Open, has been working with his 53-year-old father Phil throughout the fall season and says he's pleased with the progress he's made. The Dents are the only father and son to win ATP tournaments in the Open Era.

A tremendous talent with a seismic serve, Dent has been derailed in the past by injury and inactivity. He’s making up for lost time with his aggressive, athletic attack that puts persistent pressure on opponents to produce passing shots — as well as his commitment to conditioning. Dent has hired a full-time trainer to accompany him on Tour.

Dent concluded the 2003 season with a 28-12 record. He is undefeated (4-0) in his career tournament finals and has beaten such notable names as James Blake, Roddick and Ferrero in three of the four finals he's played.

Currently ranked No. 33, Dent could conceivably crack the top 20 with a strong start to the 2004 season. Injury knocked him out of the Australian Open this year, so Dent will arrive Down Under next month with an opportunity to earn valuable ranking points playing on the hard-court surface that suits his style in front of Australian fans who appreciate his approach.

"He hasn't broken into the top 20 yet, but it's coming," the top-ranked Roddick said. "I think he should definitely be up there."

He hasn't spent too much of his training time sitting down.

Yesterday, Dent talked to Tennis Week from his hotel room in Khon Kaen. He has been touring Thailand playing on the Paradorn Srichaphan Super Tour where Dent defeated the talented Thai in their first meeting. In this interview, Dent discusses his performance in 2003 and his goals for the upcoming season. An intelligent, insightful player, his approach to interviews is a bit like his playing style: Dent is direct and has fun with the process.

Tennis Week: You had such a strong finish to the 2003 season — winning two tournament titles in consecutive weeks to finish the season with three championships on the year — were you doing anything different in terms of match play or preparation that helped? Or was it more a case of your game being so lethal indoors (all three of Dent's titles this year came indoors)?

Taylor Dent: I believe there were two things that helped me at the U.S. Open and win these two tittles: one, my serve-and-volley game was clicking and two, working on my speed and endurance has made me more dangerous from baseline. These two aspects were key to me playing well.

Tennis Week: Have you hired a new coach? If not, are there any you would like to
work with? Will you have one in place before the Australian Open? Is your dad (former pro Phil Dent) still traveling and working with you?

Taylor Dent: I am working with my father Phil for the time being. If I hire a new coach, it would have to be someone with a lot of serve-and-volley experience, which is rare these days. I am also inclined to say that these last couple of months with my dad have been pretty successful.

Tennis Week: What is your goal for the Australian Open and for the 2004 season?

Taylor Dent: My goal for 2004 is being one of the Tour leaders in serve-hold percentage. If I do that, winning matches will follow.

Tennis Week: You scored impressive wins over two of the top three players in the world — Grand Slam champions Roddick and Ferrero — in two of the three finals you played this year and you've consistently played well against the best players (beating Gonzalez at the U.S. Open and holding a lead on Agassi at the U.S. Open). What is it about playing the top players that brings out some of your best tennis? How can you apply that to matches against players who are not ranked as highly?

Taylor Dent: Any player, ranked high or low, is inclined to prepare different if one is playing the No. 1 player in the world. The great players are able to always prepare the same. I am working hard to be able to do that for every match.

Tennis Week: Injuries interrupted your season. Are you doing anything
to try to prevent potential injuries in 2004?

Taylor Dent: I hired a full-time trainer, Nick Anthony, who has not left my side since I started working with him. Every little pain I feel, he is all over it and helps me "attack" the problem. So far it has been great and I am working hard to prevent any future injuries.

Tennis Week: What is the most enjoyable — and least enjoyable — aspect of your
job?

Taylor Dent: Most enjoyable: improving my game and obviously winning. Least enjoyable: not improving my game and not winning.

Tennis Week: I've heard your are playing on Paradorn Srichaphan's Tour in Thailand? How is that going?

Taylor Dent: The Paradorn Super Tour is great! We are traveling through Thailand playing in four different cities and it is such a great experience to see this country and learn its culture. I was here a couple of months ago for the Bangkok ATP event and loved the atmosphere.

Tennis Week: You've been playing pretty regularly since the U.S. Open. Did you take any time off from tennis after the ATP season ended?

Taylor Dent: After Paris (the BNP Paribas Masters), I took a week off and have been working hard since to get ready for Australia. See you Down Under!