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ATP CHALLENGER TOUR DISPATCH: AIX-EN-PROVENCE
Veteran tennis writer Robert Davis provides an inside look at the ATP Challenger Tour through his series of dispatches. This week, he is at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Aix-en-Provence.
Last year’s champion, Diego Schwartzman, is not here this year, but his image along with finalist, Andreas Beck, adorns the posters and placards of the Open du Pays d’Aix. Seems that Schwartzman is quite popular among the locals.
“Schwartzman got his break here in Provence,” says Cedric Mourier, ATP Supervisor of the Open du Pays d’Aix. “He was very friendly to the fans and I have heard more than a few of them comment that they have followed his progress to the ATP World Tour. Some even watched his match against Roger (Federer) in the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour event in Istanbul. Just goes to show you how important Challengers are for both players and local fans.”
This week we are in Aix-en-Provence, a town made famous by the artist Paul Cezanne who is called a post-impressionist painter. I do not know what that means except that whatever he painted must have impressed a whole lot of people because his work sells for millions of euros and his house is now a national museum.
They say that France is the land of talented tennis players, and that here prodigies are bred, not born. When you look down the list of French tennis greats, it is hard to disagree. However, one young French player stood out from the rest at an early age: Paul-Henri Mathieu. Mathieu is here this week and his journey has been full of challenges.
It is not easy to impress a French national coach. However, Mathieu did just that. For more than 20 years, former ATP player and French Federation head coach, Jerome Potier has been developing and guiding France’s best players.
“Paul-Henri was and is very special,” claims Potier. “I believe that he is the best player I have ever had. Other than his natural ability, he demonstrated that he could work hard and endure pain for a very long time without complaining.”
It is those last two character traits that Mathieu would depend on the most if he were going to play professional tennis. It might have been an omen when as a teenager he had two surgeries on both knees. Still Mathieu recovered and in 2002, Mathieu first cracked the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings. And in 2008, he rose to a career-high World No. 12.
“For sure I over-trained at times early in my career,” says Mathieu. “But at the time I felt that I needed to do that to be competitive. It probably helped me and hurt me at the same time. When I got to No. 12 in the (Emirates) ATP Rankings, honestly, with the way I was playing I thought for sure I would be there for a few years.”
It was not long after that the injuries started hampering Mathieu again. Mathieu would miss entire seasons of the tour and then, eventually, his body finally said enough and broke down in 2011. That was when the doctor ordered major knee surgery and Mathieu would be out for 18 months.
“So much is going on in your head when you are out for that long,” Mathieu continues. “You never know if you will play again and secondly, if you can recover your best level. I tried to focus on the first step. This was just to walk again without pain. But the longest step was just to be able to play tennis again and to be able to compete.”
Then in 2012 and fully rehabilitated, a No. 261-ranked Mathieu stunned John Isner at Roland-Garros, 18-16 in the fifth set. For those in his circle, it was much more than a special moment. And as 2012 came to a close, Mathieu had climbed all the way back up the Emirates ATP Rankings to No. 64. Mathieu could be forgiven for thinking that the worst was over and his professional career ready to resume. Little did Mathieu knew that life was about to throw him another challenge. His wife, Quiterie, and mother of six-month-old son, Gabriel, was diagnosed with cancer.
“She wanted me to travel and play,” Mathieu recalls. “It was hard. She was going through chemo and I just could not concentrate. This was harder than dealing with my injuries. For the first time in my life, I wanted to stop tennis. It was the toughest time for me in my life up till this moment. She wanted me to play so I would play but I could not focus. As a tennis player and competitor you always want more and more. But then things in life happen and you quickly realise that there is more than winning and losing. Your perspective changes.”
When Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi arrived at the Marseille Provence Airport after midnight this past Sunday transport was not there for him. Qureshi’s flight had been delayed more than an hour due to weather. Who did he call? In France, who else but Angelique Winogradsky.
“I felt bad to wake her up,” says Qureshi. “She took it well, apologised and immediately arranged another car for me.”
It is countless little stories like this which has endeared Angelique Winogradsky to players and coaches alike. For more than 15 years, she has been behind the scenes, making life on the tour easier for players and coaches coming to France to participate in ATP World Tour and Challenger events in Nice, Bercy, Lyon, Toulouse, Aix-en-Provence and Roland-Garros. This is Angelique’s last event, for she is retiring. Players will certainly miss Angelique Winogradsky’s radiant smile, kindness and good temper. Especially so, since in France those traits are often in short supply.
The French call the life of a professional tennis player, ‘la belle vie’, the good life. This week I have observed more than a few of the French players dining with the fans at the outdoor café near the center court. The tables are loaded with baskets of heavy peasant bread, plates of pate, roast chicken, potatoes au gratin and bottles of chilled wine. The men like to wear wool sweaters draped over their backs, coloured scarves looped around their necks and the Provencal straw hat. Meanwhile the women smoke fancy cigarettes, discuss politics and sex as casual as the weather, and show just a little more décolletage than in other countries. No wonder many tennis experts feel that in France how you look while you play is often just as important as the result.
Speaking of the good life on the tennis tour, consider that of Frank Moser. At 6’5” and 200 pounds, ‘Frankey’ is a big man with an even bigger smile and a whole lot of blond hair. Moser lives in the famous spa haven of Baden-Baden, Germany and his backyard is the Black Forest. In 2011, he partnered with Ivo Karlovic to defeat the Bryan brothers at the US Open. In 2013, he teamed up with Xavier Malisse to win the ATP World Tour event in San Jose.
One of the most common questions players ask each other on the ATP World Tour is, ‘Where you have been lately?’ followed by, ‘How did you do?’ I asked Moser where he has been. Here is how he replied:
“Before Houston (ATP World Tour), I was in Drummondsville, Canada (ATP Challenger), then I flew down to the Cayman Islands for a money tournament, then to Sarasota for the ATP Challenger, then I got into Munich (ATP World Tour) with (Florian) Mayer, then I had club tennis in Orleans, and then I took the train here to Provence.”
In the singles draw, Andrey Golubev and Aleksandr Nedovyesov are scheduled to play each other in the first round. The two are not only close friends but Davis Cup teammates from Kazakhstan. The day before they played each other I watched them practising. It is not often that you see two guys who are about to be opponents feeding each other balls out of a box while helping the other with forehand drills.
On the professional tennis tour it is often like that; as friends you travel together, eat together, sometimes coach each other and then you have to go out and try to beat each other. What did the two friends do after Golubev won the match? They got in Golubev’s Peugeot and drove into town and had dinner together.