a post from Adam:
Gil Reyes spoke tonight in the commentary booth of the Australian Open, and his words reminded me about the power of competition. Gil, a barrel chested man in his late fifties, has become a fitness guru in the tennis world. He is famous for exiling his athletes in the desert outside of Las Vegas, and breaking down their bodies through sprint after sprint, uphill. He is something of a mad scientist, and builds training contraptions himself because he does not consider traditional fitness machines specific enough to the movements of tennis. His basement is filled with twisted metal creations that will target one exact muscle group. Gil is also the trainer behind the resurrection of Andre Agassi’s career. Under Gil’s watchful eye, Andre transformed his spoiled, wasted carcass of talent into a disciplined, muscular machine aimed at one specific purpose: winning.
Tonight, ESPN invited Gil into the commentary to discuss his current pupil, the talented Spaniard Fernando Verdasco. Fernando has been marooned in ranking purgatory for the past few years. Although he has been a mainstay in the ATP Top Ten, he has been unable to break into the top 5, and has never achieved a consistent relevance on the grandest stage of tennis, the four slams. And so, this winter, while most of the ATP spent the short offseason resting their tired bodies, Verdasco enlisted himself into the command of Gil Reyes. He ran the same desert hills that had molded Andre Agassi into a Grand Slam champion, into a world #1. Here in the first slam of the year, the Australian Open, all of Verdasco’s effort seemed meaningless. Fernando was in danger of falling victim to an upset at the hands of a lower ranked Serbian, Janko Tipsarevic. Down two sets to love, Fernando rallied to take the third set, but fell into a hole by losing his serve in the first game of the fourth set.
Asked to comment on the performance of his protege, Reyes paused, and then responded with a calm, confident, and almost emotionless voice. “Well, all that we can ask of an athlete is that they would compete like an animal that has been let out of a cage. All we can expect is that he would bare his teeth, that he would show his fangs. There is no question that Fernando did not do that at the beginning of a match. And now, he has put himself in danger of losing. But, you know, fighter’s fight. We are beginning to see him do that. And if he is able to control himself mentally, if he is able to change the momentum and find a positive mental state, there is no question that he will be prepared physically to go the distance.”
Through much of the fourth set, Verdasco struggled, unable to take back the definitive break of serve. Tipsarevic served for the match at 5-4, and earned two match points at 40-15. Facing elimination, Verdasco stubbornly retrieved shot after shot, until the exhausted Serbian finally conceded his serve. At 5-5, Verdasco slipped again, allowing Tipsarevic to break back. And yet, Verdasco rallied once more, because a fighter will fight. He sent the fourth set into a tiebreaker, which he won without losing a single point. In the decisive fifth set, the dejected Tipsarevic caved in to the competitive will of the young Spaniard. Verdasco finished the match 6-0.
The match left me thinking about the defining moments in my own life. The moments that shaped my confidence under pressure, the moments that challenged my integrity, the moments that shattered my childhood dreams. So many of those moments have occurred within the symmetric lines of the tennis court. Of course, the symmetry is only meaningful because there is another man across the net, and he too is hungry for success. He too, is asking himself what he is willing to risk to achieve victory. And he too is reaching within himself for the strength to bare his teeth in the face of his fear, to show his fangs like an animal that has been let out of a cage.