An hour before playing against each other in the quarterfinals, Toshihide Matsui and Ratiwatana brothers and their children play together in the lounge.

Veteran tennis writer Robert Davis will be following the ATP Challenger Tour circuit this year and will write a series of reports. This week, he is at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Toyota, Japan.

Danai Udomchoke  gives match advise to Gong Mao-Xin and Hsien Yin PengThere are times when tennis can seem downright unfair. A man will spend his weeks off from the tour practising under the sun sweating through shirts and socks till his coach says stop. He nails his nutrition, improves his fitness, reads self-help books, studies video, trains his mind and goes to bed early. He truly believes that this is the year that he is going to make the jump. Then he loses. At first, the long talks over dinner and the motivational YouTube videos get him through the sleepless nights and long flights. Then the losses start to pile up. Slowly at first, then real quick. One week he might play well and lose in the third, after being up a break. The next week, he might get broken early and never get in the race.

At the ATP Challenger Tour Finals in Sao Paulo, there are eight men who have been consistent, persistent and worked long and hard at their craft. Men like Maximo Gonzalez, Victor Estrella, Blaz Rola, and Simon Bolelli. I have had the opportunity to watch these guys play and hear their stories. Each man has had to take a road less travelled to get to where he is today.

This week I am in Toyota, Japan. We are indoors on a lightening quick court that makes for big shots and plenty of momentum shifts. There are only four match courts, as it is a combined event with the ITF women. Whenever men and women have to share the courts there is a strain on court time. Fortunately, we have a veteran ATP Supervisor in Carl Baldwin on-site. Baldwin has been here before and knows that the men will get on with it, while the women’s matches might drag on. Wisely, he lets the men play first.

Each week on the ATP World Tour friends play each other. Just this week here in Toyota, less than an hour before their quarter-final match, Sonchat Ratiwatana and Toshihide Matsui were laughing as their kids wrestled on the floor.

“Of course it is tough to get fired up playing your friends,” admits Matsui. “Especially when the match means so much to both of us. Our kids eat, nap and play with each other. Our wives go shopping and do other lady things together.” Said Ratiwatana, “Well, nobody wants to lose. But I try not to think about it. If you do, you lose. If a ball pops up, Toshi (Matsui) better get out of the way or he will get hit.”

Dust ups on the tennis court and in the locker room are normal heat of the moment man stuff. Players might have words and butt heads, but it is never as bad as the press makes it out.

Andre Agassi described the loneliness of a tennis match to being on an island. Agassi got it right. It never gets more alone for a player than when he feels the match slipping away. It is a bit like those nightmares when you want to run but your legs do not obey. The player starts hearing voices. His body goes quiet and his mind gets loud. Ghosts from past losses begin to haunt him. From outside the court, the coach can see the signs; shallow breathing, slow racquet head speed and dodgy shot selection.

Quite a few coaches are talking about ‘The Gold Mine Effect’ by Rasmus Ankersen. In the book, Ankersen mentions Andy Murray, and a Swedish study that includes Mats Wilander, Joachim Nystrom and Peter Lundgren. The book discusses the subject of talent. Specifically, ‘talent that screams versus talent that whispers.’

Talent is a sensitive subject out here on the tour. Agents dangle money and wild cards at kids with long limbs and big serves while overlooking the young man running sprints on the back court. You can measure the speed of a serve, but how can you measure a player’s heart?

image (2)One young man who has shown plenty of heart is Brisbane’s John Millman. Millman says please and thank you when talking with tournament staff, calls the umpire ‘mate’, and even applauds good shots. Proving that nice guys can kick butt, he just won the ATP Challenger Tour events in Taralgon and Yokohama. Millman not only went to school, he finished. Millman chose to play tennis. Soon after, he had his first shoulder surgery. He was 18 years old at the time. Fast forward a couple of years later. Millman is making waves and Tennis Australia chooses him to for the reciprocal wild card to Roland Garros. There was just one problem, Millman’s shoulder. Days before clay-court major, Millman rescinds the wild card.

“It was a tough decision but Roland Garros is a special place,” says Millman. “I needed the money and the [Emirates ATP Rankings] points, but I knew that I was not fit. My shoulder was dodgy and I could not serve or smash. I grew up watching Lleyton [Hewitt] and to be an Aussie at a Grand Slam and not give it your all was not an option for me.”

Mark Draper, Australia national coach is here in Toyota with Millman. “It is his [Millman] character that stands out,” says Draper. “A lot like Peter Luczak. Their talent is working hard, not giving up, not making excuses and determined to get better every day. John has had a few setbacks along the way but he keeps bouncing back.”

Whether it is on the tennis court, the hotel room, or the long flight home the tennis player is forced to answer questions like: Is this as good as I am going to get? Is it time to stop? Why can’t I break through? They say, tough times never last but tough tennis players do. A study of the men playing in the ATP Challenger Tour Finals in Sao Paolo is proof positive of that.