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“Djokovic will sustain excellence longer than Nadal” – an in depth interview with Todd Martin

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Retirement leads some elite tennis players to become coaches. Others turn into media commentators. Todd Martin chose the entrepreneurial path, although he had a brief run as a coach on Novak Djokovic’s team.

His biggest impression working with the Serbian? “I was shocked by the athleticism. And he learned quickly. No matter what you told him, he could understand fast. But also, at the time, he was unable to apply himself as much as he needed to in order to unleash that greatness within”.

“Novak said something very telling in my first week coaching him. A young player who didn’t have success was complaining that it was other people’s fault, and Novak said very simply: ‘The champions come from within’. What we have seen with Novak in his more mature years, is that the champion within him is out of this world”, the former tennis player said in this interview with CLAY.

Martin, former world number four and finalist in the Australian Open and US Open in the nineties, led the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 2014. Until last year he was the CEO of the Newport-based institution, before moving to Beemok Capital, the firm that acquired the Masters 1000 of Cincinnatti.

– Do you think Djokovic can break Margaret Court’s Grand Slam record?

– I don’t care. These are amazing numbers. 20, 22… It’s just unbelievable. The Big Three have done so much. I do think Novak will sustain excellence in tennis longer than Rafa, because of the conditions his body is in, and also the way he moves. He is very light, and he is younger. Rafa moves in a heavy way, carrying a lot of weight with him, with much more force. Novak does not carry much weight physically. He is gentler on himself, so I don’t think there’s an element that will not allow him to continue further on, if he keeps his focus. He might finish with 27 and Rafa with 26 and that wouldn’t matter.

– One thing is tennis and numbers. The other one is the popularity. Does he cares much the fact that he is the “less” popular among the Big Three?

– Anyone could understand that’s in part because Roger and Rafa were excellent before him. He is the third person to enter into a stratosphere where the firsts two are admirable in every way in their lives. I think he’s done a really good job with being the person that he wants to be, and he values those who support him passionately. To me stands to reason and I think Novak have peace with it. He’s got his slice of the pie, and they have theirs. With his maturity he appears undistracted by what fans says.

– The last time he faced Nadal, in Roland Garros 2022, he showed a little bothered by the support of the people towards the Spanish…

– There’s a difference between being bothered in the momento…I was always very forgiven by linespeople and officials. When I got a bad call, it bothered me but it didn’t bother me away from the tennis. From that moment I just didn’t like it. So, I think there’s a difference between loosing and not being happy about the crowd support during a match, and making that actually impact your career.

– At this stage, Djokovic is still unable to play tournaments due refusing getting vaccinated. Isn’t that a huge mistake for his career?

I’d rather not even bothered answering the question. Sadly, that’s just become too political or a fan issue for me to speak about it.

– In the past two decades of male tennis, the Australian Open has been dominated by Novak Djokovic; Nadal has absolutely ruled the French Open; Wimbledon has only be won by four men. Why the US Open has been the most unpredictable Grand Slam?

– There are two reasons I think at first. One is the court surface, generally, a little bit faster that the rest of the tour. That gives the greatest amount of different types of players the opportunity to do well. Also, injuries and fatigue are more common as we are eight full months into a calendar. I’ll give you a third reason: there’s something about New York. There’s something about the energy that exists in the city and comes to the court. Players responds differently to that. Some players increase their performance. I think that’s real and felt very natural for me: my energy raised up to the top at Flushing Meadows. Often it was my best major.

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– Djokovic has “only” won it three times.

– “Only” three, yeah. That’s a good way to put it.

todd martin
Todd Martin during his professional years // UPI

– What are your impressions on Carlos Alcaraz?

– If someone could move me to 2035 and I see he has won 10 slams, I wouldn’t be surprised. But at the same time he’s still so young. Will he be the best of this generation? There’s a lot that has to be done right in order for that to happen 12 years from now. He does have a great person in Juan Carlos (Ferrero) to guide him. Greatness takes a long time and is just not about talent, energy and skills. It is about persistence. Am I willing to get up every day and think about this one thing? That’s what Rafa, Roger and Novak have done so well over the years. What Jim (Courier), Andre (Agassi) and Pete (Sampras) did well too.

– How important for male tennis is to find a new solid rivalry? After what was seen in New York, Sinner-Alcaraz seems to be the one.

– I was so interested in seeing that. The match was so spectacular, I knew it was going to be like that. The two most prominent young talents in the sport, face to face that far along in the tournament. Alcaraz and Sinner might be the bests tennis players ten years from now, but we will have to check on the coming generations. Is the sustained greatness what matters, not these little moments in the top of the mountain.

– Marcelo Rios, a man you know well. He reached the top of the mountain, but not for so long.

– He saw and felt the game better tan anybody. Marcelo was amazing without looking amazing. At that time, Andre was the only one who was great without having one shot that everybody feared. Let’s say, Sampras, great serve, forehand and volley; Ivanicevic amazing serve; Rafter out of this world at the net. With Marcelo wasn’t like: “I can’t hit it to his backhand”, “I can’t try his forehand”, or “I hope he doesn’t serve like the other day”… he just did everything so well. The best in that short period of time.

– You solved how to playa against him. The head to head was in your favor 2-0.

– My coach did a good job. Not many people found the way against him. He just tortured other players. He made the game really difficult for almost everybody, specially those who played more with forcé than with their head.

– What were the keys?

– He could work pace really well.  He was pleased with dominant power, so don’t give him power. I was a big attacking player, and againts Marcelo I didn’t give it any pattern: hit it soft, hit it hard, hit it high…never showed him the same thing two times. I still would eventually attack, but if you hit it 150 km per hour all the time out of him… no chance of winning! When I started lowing that to 80 km, he didn’t know what to do. He would have figured it out if I played him more.

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– Does Nick Kyrgios remind you of Rios in any way?

– Actually both backhands are similar. Kyrgios is even underrated with the backhand. He does both: he hits it when he needs to, he directs it to be more carefull some times. The similarities between Kyrgios and Ríos are here (points his heart) and here (points his head). Troubled, not necesarly secure enough to commit to the competition, not ready to be at their very best as they can be. Marcelo had that some of the same tenancies, was way more focused, way better that what Kyrgios has been. But also, remarkably, yeah, divising in this sport.

– Is Rios’ behavior a factor in why he is not a Hall of Famer?

– Main criteria is to have had a distinguished carreer in the competition in an international level. From there it gets very subjective. You may look to Jim Courier’s career and we might have different opinions. So when we send the names of the people elegibles to the comitee, there are differents opinions about what’s important. Are the Grand Slams the only data point that matters? What about ranking, what about other tournaments they won, how much were they ranked 1, top ten, win-lost percentage… So once all that data gets in front of the 175 people that makes decisions, players are looked so diferently.

– Has Rios being in this position?

– For sure, for sure. Most players who retire in an anual basis are not eligible, but Marcelo is.

– But he’s being ignored for further stages.

– The process goes like this: nomination, determination of eligibility given by the committee, then determination whether the player deserves consideration for induction, ballot. The process in the middle is very much an independent crew. Hall of Fame doesn’t have an opinion. For the institution, is a difficult place to be. The independence of the people who participates in the process, gives it integrity overall. It is not for the show.

– Do you personally consider Hall of Famer Guillermo Vilas as a legit number one?

– As a tennis player I was not interested in what my ranking was. I was interested, generally, how do I get as good as I can be; daily, how do I beat the person on the other side of the net; weekly, how do I win the tournament. Those things I felt marginable in control of. Not very much because I had to play Jim (Courier), Pete (Sampras), Marcelo and others. How important was for Guillermo the rankings? I look at the rankings as an indication of who is having the best momento, not who the best player is. I watched the documentary, and I don’t think we are anywhere near the facts, because the ATP didn’t agree to be interviewed. There is always a bigger and deeper story than what’s right in front of us.

– What would have happened if Vilas was French, British, or North American?

– I don’t think nationalities or skin color makes differences. It’s not an explanation of anything.

– Don’t you think those countries have way more power in the tennis world?

– I think the system was the way it was back then. Whether they did the rankings weekly, or monthly, by computer or humans…I’m not in the conspiracy business. I would have really enjoyed to have Guillermo’s success. At the end of the day, if I were Guillermo, the only thing that would have mattered to me, was to look myself in the mirror and know that I was the best.

– Was him the best at his time?

– When I hear statistics through the years of who was better…the numbers of matches he won in a row, is unbelievable. Is like…how is that happened? But I also look at Connors and I say wow. I haven’t go through it deeply.

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