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TennisOne Lessons

Dog Day Afternoon

Michael McDowell

If you get the opportunity to watch Alexandr Dolgopolov play tennis, you are in for a real treat; if you have to play against him, not so much. You never know what shot he will hit next; and, in fact, he claims that he doesn’t know either. We are taught that players fit into neat little packages – they are aggressive baseliners or counterpunchers or all court players, etc. But Dolgopolov defies categorization. He is more like an improvisational jazz musician who finds his way through a piece instead of simply playing it. It is clear that he has a deep intuitive understanding of the game as well as amazing shot making skills; and from this solid foundation, it truly appears as though he is just making it up as he goes along. Whether he is frenetically dashing from side to side and then forward to the net or jerking his opponent around the court, this kid is show time and thoroughly entertaining.

Click photo: Dolgopolov defies categorization. He is more like an improvisational jazz musician who finds his way through a piece instead of simply playing it.

When asked about his nickname, the dog, Alexandr relates a story about his friends singing the song “Who Let the Dogs Out” only it became who let the Dolgs out. From there it just kind of took off and started appearing in print. In the same unflappable style we see on the court, he tells you that he doesn’t mind, and .you believe him. Furthermore, the easy smile seems to say that not much bothers this kid.

It is hardly surprising that Dolgopolov looks so at home on the tennis court. If he makes it look like he has been there before, it’s because he has. Playing since the age of three, he literally grew up around the greats of the game as he traveled the ATP circuit with his father who coached former Ukrainian great Andrei Medvedev. It is little wonder that he now seems so comfortable on the big stage. For him, it simply is and always has been his world.

Dolgopolov was initially coached by his father Oleksandr (Dolgopolov Jr. changed the spelling of his first name) an extremely knowledgeable and disciplined coach who undoubtedly deserves credit for the mastery his son displays over a tennis ball. When the two split (you know, creative differences), Alexandr didn’t immediately find a coach who fit his game and personality. Then in 2009, when he began working with Australian Jack Reader, Dolgopolov had found a mentor/coach whose personality fit well with the player’s spontaneous and free flowing game.

Michael McDowell with Alexandr Dolgopolov

In many respects, Jack Reader, appears to be cut from the same cloth as former Aussie greats such as Newcombe, Emerson, et al. While Jack never reached the playing heights attained by these tennis legends, by all accounts he is equally comfortable telling a good story at the pub after a match as he is counseling players on court. Clearly, their collaboration is working as the young player has made amazing strides, moving from a position somewhere in the 300’s to number 23 coming into the 2011 BNP Paribas Open.

By his own admission, during his first match of the tournament, Alexandr wasn’t playing his best tennis. However, the remarkable spins that came off his racquet and his incredible movement around the court had fans oohing and aahing. He fed Hanescu a steady diet of low skidding slices that forced the 6’6” Romanian to hit the ball in a strike zone that was roughly even with the top of his socks. Then Sasha, as his fans called him, would drive the ball at his opponent pushing him well behind the baseline before offering up a drop shot with so much backspin that it would settle softly in the front of the service box and then bounce a foot back towards the net.

When you ask him about his playing style, the one thing you get over and over is that he tries to make his opponent uncomfortable. Well I’m thinking that Hanescu would agree that getting comfortable against Dolgopolov is a bit like trying to take a nap on broken glass. He is impossibly unpredictable. After quickly going up a break in the first set, Dolgopolov gives it back; then calmly walks to the other side of the net and breaks again. In the second set, Hanescu holds and then gets a breakpoint on the next game. So, naturally (not), Dolgopolov executes a textbook serve and volley to bring the game back to deuce. Later serving up 2-1 but down 0-30, Alexandr hits a slice serve halfway up the service box that lands six inches wide. So what now...a safe kick to the backhand? No way, on the second serve he hits exactly the same shot a foot to the right and Hanescu doesn’t even move.

Click photo: Dolopolov gave Hanescu fits with his low
skidding slices.

As a coach, I’m always looking to see what can be learned from a given match or player. With Dolgopolov there is a wealth of insight. First and foremost, the average player should take notice of the importance variety has in your game. Furthermore, remember that sometimes this importance lies not in what you can do, but in what your opponent hates for you to do. So resolve today to stop complaining about those “pushers;” and remember they do it because you hate it. Now from the moment you walk on the court (and even before if you are scouting your opponent), start asking yourself what does this player want to do. By making your opponents play shots they don’t want to hit, you don’t let them get comfortable. How often have you heard a player say that he or she is “just going to go out and play my game?” If you let them do so, then shame on you. You deserve all you get, and you probably won’t like it all that much. Let the lesson we learn from the dog be that sometimes you can play your game (and have a heck of a lot of fun) by refusing to let your opponent play theirs.

Whenever Dolgopolov would hit an amazing shot, the young fan sitting beside me would explode with: “Alright Dolgo!” Or “Let’s go Sasha!” But unlike so many players today, there was no in your face exclamations when Dolgopolov hits a great shot – of which there were more than a few. He reminds you of the football player who takes the opening kickoff, returns it a hundred yards for a touchdown and then calmly tosses the ball to the referee and trots back to the sideline. At times, Alexandr almost gives the appearance of being bored; or, when things go badly, he may bounce his racquet off the court and mutter a few words but then he goes quickly back to work (errrr play, errrr creation). See this guy play, it will make you smile.

Next on the agenda for Dolgopolov is Juan Martin Del Potro. Well known for his ability to absorb and use his opponent’s pace, it will be interesting to see how Del Potro fares against the diverse fare he sees from Dolgopolov.

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