The Hunger Games
US Open 2012
by Robert Davis
Juan Monaco has fought his way to the Top 10 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings.
Juan Monaco knows that he relies on hard work and great fitness to win tennis matches, but credits something very different for his most recent success on the ATP World Tour.
It is one of those really cold winter mornings in the Pampas of Argentina. The kind where the wind whips down the Tandil Mountains and the red clay tennis courts at the Club Independiente are frozen rock hard. It is early, about eight o’clock and if the boys are lucky they will get a couple of hours of practice in before the sun starts to thaw the courts into a mud-like muck, rendering them unplayable. Twelve year old Juan Monaco is running side to side, hugging the baseline, smoothly looping balls back across the net crosscourt, even though his fingers are nearly numb with cold. He is focused this morning on making clean contact on every shot.
Times are tough all over Argentina, and especially so in the small town of Tandil.
"When ‘Pico’ (Monaco) was young, we did not have much money at all and we could not afford to buy balls often," relates Marcelo Gomez, Monaco's childhood coach. "I told the boys that to play a point in tennis you only need one ball. So they trained with one ball."
At the time that Monaco was developing his tennis game, Argentina was suffering one of the worst economic crises in its history.
"There are so many times that we only got one ball for practice," Monaco tells DEUCE. "And if we lost it, or the ball broke, then the training was over and we had to do physical conditioning. We all came from a small town and if you could see the club and how bad the condition of the courts was, you would not believe it.
"Those of us from Tandil often talk about it," continues Monaco. "Other countries have invested millions of dollars in player development. We had zero investment. However, each challenge that we faced in Tandil prepared us better for when we went out to play in Buenos Aires or further away against other players who had a lot more support. This pushed us and gave us good foundation. And we had great coaches. We had so much hunger to be professionals. And we worked very hard from a young age."
"All the kids saw how much effort we put into them, pushing to make them professionals," says Gomez. "It was very tough, but I believe that this contributed to their success in the end. I think all of these events early in his life is the reason that he never stops fighting during a match."
The town of Tandil has produced some great players; Monaco, Juan Martin del Potro, Guillermo Perez-Roldan, Mariano Zabaleta, Diego Junqueira and Maximo Gonzalez grew up there. The foundation of Tandil tennis can be traced back to the school of Raul Perez-Roldan, father of Guillermo, who drew up the blueprint for Tandil’s tennis glory.
"Each of us had a predecessor. An example to follow in Tandil," says Monaco. "First Guillermo (Perez-Roldan) then Mariano (Zabaleta) and then me and then delPo (Del Potro). Always the younger one had someone to look up to. I believe that this was very important. We felt that if he could do it, we could do it. And I was very fortunate to have Zabaleta. He is a very important person in my life. He has guided me since I knew I wanted to be a professional. I could not have had a better person; he is very loving and caring. He is my big brother. Even now, if I have to ask someone's advice, I will ask him."
Even with such examples to follow and mentors to question, no supply of determination and desire would help Argentina in the midst of one its worst economic crises in history. The economy was so bad that a country with such a proud tennis history, having produced players like Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc, lost sponsors, while tournaments were cancelled. It would get much worse before it got better. For a young 15-year-old Juan Monaco, it would mean making a decision that could possibly affect the rest of his life.
"It was very complicated in Argentina and I was worried that I could not advance my career as a professional," remembers Monaco. "That is why my family began considering sending me to Spain. In Spain there were many tournaments and training. We thought making a base in Barcelona would be ideal. It was a very difficult decision. I was 15 years old and my family was not really all in agreement. My mother did not want me to go. My tennis coach and fitness coach did not want me to go. There were quite a few discussions in my house. It would be a great sacrifice. If I was going to be a professional player, I would have to leave everything and everyone I knew for my dream."
"When I sat down with his father and he told me that Juan was going to Spain, it was the worst day of my career, even until now," recalls Gomez. "It was so terrible because Pico was the first player that I had formed absolutely by me. He was more than a player, he was like my son. To this day, I remember the moment, place and everything that was said during that meeting. But I was also conscious that you cannot take away what you don’t have to give. And the economic forecast in Argentina was getting worse, not better. It was a hard blow to take, but it all worked out for the best in the end."
Yes, it did work out and in 2007 Juan Monaco reached a then-career-high South African Airways ATP Ranking of No. 14. There is no mystery to what makes Monaco win tennis matches. He is considered by his colleagues as one of the fittest tennis players on the tour. He wins with attitude, hustle and great footwork.
"Fitness is my main weapon. I put a lot of importance on physical training," admits Monaco. "I win by fighting and I need to be in top shape."
Since he began playing tennis, Monaco has had only one strength and conditioning coach, or rather a father and son team, the Menchon family. When the father slowed down from travelling the Tour, his son, Ignacio “Nacho” Menchon took over.
"What I respect about Juan is how he behaves during adversity," says Menchon. "His character to work through the tough times is really special. He has handled the setbacks of injuries to his ankle and wrist with a great attitude.
"He feels very close to his football team, Estudiantes de La Plata," continues Menchon. "And he even has a tattoo from the team on in his leg. He tries to apply the mantra of his football team to his tennis training and competition; discipline, teamwork, and self-sacrifice."
One would not think that Juan Monaco taking a holiday to a beach resort in Thailand right before an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai would be filled with discipline, teamwork and self-sacrifice. However, not everyone goes on holiday with Rafael Nadal. The holiday was in 2010 and the trip would revitalise Monaco’s career.
"I was feeling bad," remembers Monaco. "I had lost a lot of time due to injuries. Then I lost first round at Roland Garros, first round in Cincinnati, qualies of New Haven, first round in the US Open and then I lost my match in the Davis Cup quarter-finals to France. I was struggling. Rafa called and invited me to go to Thailand with him. We trained so hard every day and then enjoyed the beach and Playstation in the afternoons. It turned out to be great for me. Rafa is one of my best friends from tennis."
If you consider training with Nadal as rest and relaxation then good on you. But it worked for Monaco. Immediately, in his next tournament back he reached the semi-finals in Shanghai. The comeback was now on. He made steady progress throughout 2011, making the fourth round at the US Open, the final in Valencia and quarter-finals in Paris-Bercy. The only downside to 2011 was losing the Davis Cup final to Spain. All things considered, you could say Juan Monaco was back in full force.
The newest member of the team is Gustavo Marcaccio, who began coaching Monaco at the end of 2011.
"I can confide in Gustavo and I trust his capacity as a coach," says Monaco. "Secondly, he is a dear friend. At this time in my career, as I am older, I prefer to have more communication with my coach. My technique is already formed, but psychologically it is important for me that he joins me during all the ups and downs of being an athlete. I have had 'Nacho' all my life. I care about my team very much."
The current season began with a first-round loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber at the Australian Open. However, now Monaco knew how to handle the tough times. He would not let the loss affect him.
"Juan had a great pre-season training," claims Marcaccio. "He worked very hard. Even with the loss at the Australian Open we knew that good things were going to come eventually, because he was very focused on the mission."
Good things did come. In Monaco’s next tournament, Vina del Mar, where he won the title.
"On the long flight back from Melbourne to Buenos Aires, we kept emphasising to Juan how well he had prepared himself for this year and how confident the team is in him," says Marcaccio.
When asked at Wimbledon, after reaching the third round, how his game is now compared to 2007, Monaco takes a minute to reflect.
"2007 and 2012 are two completely different stages of my career," begins Monaco. "Then, I was not conscious of what I was doing, my decisions were more automatic. However, as the years passed and I got more experience, I become more aware of things and I started planning my tactics differently; I knew my rivals more and I had a strategy beforehand. It is difficult because when I was younger I had more illusions. Now, as I am older, I feel like I am thinking better which plays to run and shots to hit.
"Four times I came here to Wimbledon and never won a match," continues Monaco. "Thanks to my team I have a strong sense of self-belief now that I can do better and achieve more."
"Juan is very disciplined with his routines and training," says Marcaccio. "You don’t have to order him. He does everything properly for a professional athlete. He makes it very easy for us to help because he does a great job of taking care of himself. Juan wants to achieve many things still. We try to make sure that we take care of all the little details that can make a difference."
Whether it is taking care of the details or giving Monaco more self-belief, the pay-off came this year at Hamburg, where Monaco won the tournament and entered that magical Top 10 club for the first time.
"When he entered the Top 10 during Hamburg and shared this great sporting milestone with his family and team, it was very emotional," says physical trainer Menchon. "We are very close and united and he saw this and it was such a special moment."
The US Open is one of Monaco’s favourite events and, as the ATP World Tour marches into the final months of the year, this is where Monaco’s incredible state of fitness kicks in. Look for Juan Monaco to provide some more special moments for his team and fans alike in the remainder of 2012.