Tennis Prose



Todd Talks

Note: this Todd Martin interview was conducted in Boston in 2009. It is republished here because of Martin’s interesting observations on what makes John McEnroe a brilliant player, the key to Rafael Nadal’s 2009 Australian Open run and the creativity of Andy Murray.

Clad in his all-white attire and unleashing strokes so immaculate it wouldn’t be surprising to learn he cleans his strings with spic and span, Todd Martin’s classic style of play can look so old-school you find yourself wondering if Aristotle was his first tennis teacher.

But the devoted father of three children and two-time winner of the ATP’s Edberg Sportsmanship Award whose integrity was so widely respected on tour opponents would often defer to him on disputed calls has added a new wrinkle to his game these days — trash talk.

Moments after Martin defeated 1986 French Open finalist Mikael Pernfors, 6-4, 6-2, in Friday night’s quarterfinal of the $150,000 Champions Cup Boston at Agganis Arena on the campus of Boston University to set up a semifinal with Pete Sampras, the affable two-time Grand Slam finalist was asked in his on-court interview to name his favorite NBA and NFL teams.

“Detroit Pistons and in football it’s the New York Giants,” Martin said drawing some good-natured jeers from the overwhelmingly pro Boston Celtics crowd. Pausing to absorb the crowd response for a split second, Martin jokingly shot back, “You guys have a problem with that?”

Even in those rare moments when Martin is in a mock-confrontational mood there’s a twinkle in the eye of the man who posted a 411-234 career record with eight singles titles to his credit. Martin topped the Outback Champions Series Stanford Champion year-end rankings in 2007 and is currently third behind Boston champion Sampras and runner-up John McEnroe after the first event of the 2009 season.

Martin and wife Amy welcomed their third child, daughter Gwen, into the world last August. She joins brothers Jack, 5, and Cash, 2, in the family’s busy Florida home. Teaching his son to ride a bike can be an educational experience for Martin, who has influenced the current generation of Americans as a former coach to Mardy Fish and a doubles partner and mentor to James Blake.

Though his on-court appearances are limited largely to OCS events, Martin has become a faithful fan of women’s tennis thanks to son Jack.

“My son won’t let me discriminate between the two (Tours). If tennis is on, he’s like ‘Come on! Safina’s playing!’ ” Martin says. “His favorite player is Dinara Safina. So I watched a fair bit of women’s tennis too.”

One of the most down to earth and least pretentious former top 10 players you’ll meet, Martin has a self-deprecating sense of humor and at the age of 38 seems to be enjoying tennis as much as he did during the days he was part of the esteemed class of American players that featured Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Sampras, Michael Chang and Mal Washington.

Responding to the long layoff between tournaments, Martin walked off the court in Boston contemplating two post-match options — “Whirlpool or ice bath?” — but before he could unfold his 6-foot-6 frame into such reviving waters, Martin sat down with us for this interview.

Richard Pagliaro: How does it feel to be back out there for your first match in a few months?

Todd Martin: In the last week I’ve hit with a 57-year-old on clay, a 27-year-old on hard court and now I’ve played an indoor hard court (match). A lot of it is just the timing and the height of the bounce. Even though we recognize the height of the bounce there’s just so much anticipation and projection of where they ball is going to be. It’s just not as easy as it used to be and having been out of competition and not having logged a lot of time in preparation for this there’s so much decision-making that goes into point playing and shot making and that can breed a tremendous lack of confidence.

It looked like as the match progressed you found the timing, especially hitting your backhand down the line. Did you feel that way?

Todd Martin: There’s a real fine line between a ball that is definitely hittable — and when I say hittable I mean sort of directionally I can go either way — and a ball where I have to be a little bit more conservative with my target. I was positioning myself better and moving better and gauging where the ball was going to be better. So those balls that looked like I wasn’t hitting in the first set, they were hittable all of a sudden. I hit a couple of great ones and I found out I better take swings at my backhand when I had the chance.

RIP: How has John McEnroe, at age 50 giving up 10 years or more to opponents, still managed to be so competitive on the senior circuit?

Todd Martin: John is still blessed with tremendous motivation and I think that motivation is combined with a tremendous amount of pride. And that’s pride wanting to win, but that’s also pride wanting to impress people and prove that he can still do this at 50 years old. Also, from a very young age, John was a stupendous athlete. Athleticism, if you don’t let it go away, doesn’t go away. The 57-year-old I hit with the other day was Brian Gottfried and Brian Gottfried plays great — and he’s fit too because he’s been dogged about staying after it. He has a love of the game, love of exercise and a real passion for it. Plus, even during the time since John retired (from the ATP Tour) a little bit of that Jimmy Connors had the Nuveen Tour and a little bit of that Jim (Courier) has had this (Outback Champions Series) Tour and a lot of those other times there was no real circuit for him to latch onto and play, but being John McEnroe he had plenty of opportunities to play. And with a lot of the other guys if we didn’t have the Outback Champions Series — if we still had a competitive bone in our body — we would go and play the national opens and the 35-and-overs which is a lot harder to go about that after having played in sort of the arena that we have. I think John is blessed with a few things: athleticism in our sport that is almost unmatched by anyone other than Pete and the top 10 players now and I think determination and that pride is really a big part of it.

RIP: I ran into you last summer in Newport while you were on your way to practice with Mardy Fish and John Isner. I know you’re not working with Mardy now, but do you want to coach someone again?

Todd Martin: I would love to coach again. I would love to be involved in coaching. I’m not certain that being one player’s coach is ever going to do it for me. I absolutely loved working with Mardy. On top of being a good person, a fun person to be around, Mardy was adventurous with what he tried to do when we were together and that was great especially with regard to how he played the game. But in order for me to improve as a coach I need exposure to more issues, more personality types, more what have you. I always shared a coach and it was because I didn’t need a coach 12 hours a day all the time. In fact, the time I spent with Dean, my coach for seven years, when he didn’t have other work and we were one-on-one, it hurt me because our relationship wasn’t as good. We were too close. I think also he probably didn’t have other players to bounce things off so from that standpoint — and other standpoints such as the amount of travel and so forth — I think coaching one person is a real struggle for me to embrace. But I would love to work with young players and help navigate this world of tennis and also hopefully have an effect on someone’s life.

RIP: How does the pressure of playing the ATP Tour compare with the pressure of playing the Outback Champions Series?

Todd Martin: In some ways there’s just as much pressure. Every time we do play there’s always the travel, the time spent away from your family and it is risk of more substantial injury and unfortunately that’s tangible you walk out on the court and say ‘Geez, yesterday my left heel didn’t feel great, today my right knee is bothering me.’ There’s something every day and then but competitively the big pressure is we all have the potential to play poorly and it’s not much fun to play poorly in public. Toward the end of my career, that’s what I struggled with most on the ATP Tour, which was ‘Gosh every single person knows if I had a good day or bad day at the office.’ And the fact of the matter is they don’t know. Because sometimes I lost and I felt like I had a pretty good day at the office and I lost to a pretty good player where I played well and felt like I did everything I could. It would be a situation where I wasn’t happy but I wasn’t down in the dumps and people would look at you and you could read their minds ‘Geez, that’s three straight weeks he’s lost in the first round.’ I had enough fun throwing my own pity party, I don’t need anyone else to join in on the fun.

RIP: Along those lines, when you look at the Nadal-Federer final how do you assess it? After Wimbledon, Federer could walk off the court and say he did everything he could do and Nadal was just that little bit better. Could he say that walking off the court in Melbourne? Is the disparity between them tactical or technical or mental now? I mean does he get a little bit uptight now knowing the challenges Nadal presents?

Todd Martin:
You can look at this game thoroughly and analyze all of its complexities or you can look at it real simply. The simplest I ever heard it summed up was when I talked to Jose Higueras who taught me for years. I was in Estoril, Portugal watching Felix Mantilla playing Albert Costa. I called Jose and was on the phone with him while I was watching the match and I said ‘Jose, nothing’s happening. It’s the same point over and over again.’ He said ‘Yeah, when those guys play against each other they do the same thing and whoever is stronger and fitter wins that day.’ So that’s pretty simple. With Roger and Rafa these guys play at such a high level and they do everything well. They both defend differently, but they both defend well — better than anyone else. They both attack differently, but they both attack better than everybody else. But I would say there’s two things that stand out: one, the fact that Roger struggles hurting Rafa with the backhand and two, the fact that Rafael plays every single point as hard as he can. I used to think Roger was infallible mentally because against everyone else he plays every point the same way and there’s no relent in him. But he does play loose points, he does play some shaky points against Rafael. And it’s not like, he shanks a shot, I don’t necessarily view that to be a loose point. But some shot selection issues, Rafael doesn’t make those mistakes right now. Five years down the road when the next guy is there he’s gonna play some of those (loose) points. But I think Roger’s best day with his backhand he still has a challenge because of the mental strain and if he doesn’t hit his backhand well then it can be a tough day. But that being said, Roger could still win two out of the next three Slams. I thought a great question at the beginning of this year was: is Federer going to win two Slams this year or not another one ever. Beginning of the year, I would have picked two this year and I might still pick two this year.

RIP: If not for Nadal being so strong you could argue he had a good shot to win the last three in a row.

Todd Martin: I thought the fact he finished last year winning the Open, right then I said if he has no injury over the offseason I pick him to win the Australian. Because I think overall and in terms of completeness, he’s the best player on a faster surface. But Rafael is obviously an awfully good and gives up nothing.

RIP: When you look at the guys outside of Rafa and Roger, the guys like Murray, Djokovic, Tsonga, Verdasco whose game really excites you? Who do you enjoy watching and why?

Todd Martin: Out of the guys you mention, Murray is an amazing guy. He’s got a great feel for the game and I will enjoy watching him play more and more as he gets better in an offensive manner. Because I think he still struggles a bit at that respect and I think as he gets older he’s going to need to shorten matches. Djokovic is great as well, but I like to see guys who can play a little bit more aggressively so I really enjoy watching Tsonga play. I like to watch Andy Roddick. I think partially because I see the wheels churning especially down in Australia because I thought he played real well and had a good mind set and I also think part of it is the intrigue because despite it being five years since he won the Open, I still think that he’s got the potential to do that. I think he’s got enough belief — at least in himself — to still push for it and that’s exciting. When I watch him, I get a feel for that. It doesn’t always work and it’s not meant to and I don’t think he’ll ever be as complete a player as those top four guys, but I still have an amazing amount of respect for what Andy can do with his serve and if he’s determined to I think he can make every single player out there as uncomfortable as anyone can. I still like the idea of a give and take and with Tsonga still being willing to serve and volley a bit, and he volleys pretty darned well, he’s crazy athletic and I don’t like watching him hit the ball so much but I like the way he plays the points. My son won’t let me discriminate between the two (Tours). If tennis is on, he’s like ‘Come on! Safina’s playing!’ His favorite player is Dinara Safina. So I watched a fair bit of women’s tennis too.

RIP: What are your thoughts on Jankovic reaching the year-end No. 1 ranking without having won a major?

Todd Martin: I don’t understand every dynamic of the women’s ranking system, but when your best players — and I would have to say Serena has to be deemed the best player though lots of her great results were years ago and they don’t get factored into her current ranking as far as who is the best player — don’t play a full schedule and don’t meet some of the minimum criteria to make the ranking all it can be then you’re gonna have that. I think it’s then the media’s responsibility to point it out and the experts in the field to explain it. Explain yes, she’s decided 14 tournaments is the right number for her, these are the consequences: one, she’s not ranked as high; two, she might be fined for not meeting the minimum requirements; three, she might not get ranking bonuses. But she wins the Australian Open. She’s proving regularly that she’s the best player in the world. So the way I look at it as long as there’s full commitment those 14 weeks and full preparation for those 14 tournaments, then I look at that as just good business management. (Serena) could be No. 1 and win one Grand Slam during the course of year or she could be No. 2 and win two Grand Slams. If it were up to me, I’d probably take the two. That being said there is a responsibility to support the game and I think that can be pointed out as one of the consequences. The WTA has some really impressive talent. Jankovic is exciting to watch. Safina has gone through a transformation that overshadows even what Lindsay (Davenport) went through as far as changing her physique and with it the mind is much stronger. Dementieva, Ivanovic are both strong and that’s all without mentioning Venus or Sharapova. I think you give them a little bit more time to separate themselves from the pack and I think it’s a great thing and then you have it. Tennis is great. The product is really impressive right now. The best thing going for it right now is Federer and Nadal play at the end of most of the big tournaments and they’ve done that for a handful of years now. Between Agassi and Sampras and Courier and Chang and those guys that I played most of my career with there ws a short period of time where they were dominant, especially Pete and Andre, but there was still a lot of parity: Ivanisievic, Rafter had a spurt, Henman was rough, Enqvist, lots of guys could ruin that match between Pete and Andre. I hated the fact people were upset when Agassi and Sampras weren’t playing that big match because I was one of those spoilers and at the time I didn’t see it. But then we went through a real patch where who was dominant? There was Guga, Lleyton had a hard push, Safin. So I think it’s outstanding to have two guys at the top. Federer did it when he was the one before Nadal sort of became his nemesis but now the fact Murray and Djokovic have legitimate shots is great. The purist in me loves the fact those four guys — as well as Roddick, Tsonga, Verdasco — I love the fact there at that top level there are many guys who play stupendous tennis. At one point in that Nadal-Verdasco match Dick Enberg said ‘That might be the best point of the championships…’ And I’m sitting there shaking my son yelling at my wife ‘That might be the best point I’ve ever seen!’ And it was three or four times like that in the match. It’s just an amazing game.

RIP: Watching Nadal fight through that five-hour match against Verdasco then come back and beat Federer in five sets played over four hours, I’m sitting there thinking “How the hell does the guy do that?” even after seeing him do that in the past?

Todd Martin: I am utterly unimpressed with that (the length of time on court). Rafael has trained himself to be able to do that. What I’m amazed at is the fact in that setting he outplays the other player with his head for those four sets in the final. In the fifth set Roger didn’t play nearly as well. But you look at the way Federer backed up his match with Berdych and barely lost a game in the next round against a good player (Juan Martin del Potro). The best guys, especially those were both night matches Nadal played against Verdasco and Federer, just train that way to be in that kind of condition. That’s the way they are. Sampras didn’t lose Grand Slams because of fitness, Courier didn’t lose Grand Slams because of fitness. Agassi is the only one that might have because he hadn’t yet figured out that was key to it. What is most impressive to me is the level of play Nadal sustained for 10 straight sets with his mind. Nadal’s mind — his mental strength — is just amazing. It’s crazy.

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  • Scoop Malinowski · November 16, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    What a fantastic read! Todd Martin is one of the best interviews in tennis.

  • Dan Markowitz · November 18, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    Martin is a cerebral guy. Never took to him as a player, though. He had a a smooth game for a guy that big, but he played a very stock game, not a lot of shots in the arsenal.

  • Dobey · November 20, 2010 at 3:41 am

    RP, Really interesting interview with Todd Martin. It’s nice to read an interview where a guy who was a top player openly talks about the strengths and weaknesses of the top pros. Regarding McEnroe, Todd Martin mentions what an extraordinary athlete McEnroe has always been. Some years ago, I was on a side court at the US Open watching a match between two up and comers and there was a famous coach from California there watching one of his youngsters. I can’t recall the guy’s name but he was famous for coaching alot of the great players from California when they were young. I was sitting near him and I asked him about what had made John McEnroe so exceptional. The guy mentioned that McEnroe was blessed with extraordinary timing and an ability to hit the ball at exactly the right time and to do things with his racquet that other players can not do, even if they practice for hours. He mentioned McEnroe’s incredible hands at the net. No other player before or ever could ever do the stuff McEnroe could do at the net.
    Great as John was, I’m guessing that had John played Nadal when both were in their primes, Nadal would win 8 out of ten matches. I doubt tennis has ever seen a guy like Rafa who can whack the crap out of every ball and also have otherworldly defensive skills as well. It takes a monster like DelPotro playing in a zone to make an even match against Rafa. Curious what you think of a McEnroe/Nadal matchup. I wish I could remember the coach’s name who was sitting near me at the US Open that day.

  • Dan Markowitz · November 21, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Robert Lansdorp? Coached Tracy Austin and Pete Sampras. I think Mac would give Nadal a lot of trouble, especially if they both played with 1970’s equipment.

  • Dobey · November 21, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Dan, I am pretty sure that was the guy. He had a European accent and kind of a big stomach. People at the match with US Open badges all seemed to know him.



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