August 31, 2018 10:42 am
Updated: August 31, 2018 10:43 am

Second Serve: Cracking the Top 300!

WATCH: Global's Mike Arsenault once again squares off against a top Canadian talent with NCAA experience in his latest OTA open-level tournament. His tennis game continues to improve and his national ranking is now in the top 300. Check out the latest installment of Second Serve.

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As I mentioned in the video above, this was the first year I’ve ever watched pro tennis live and it was my first appearance at the Rogers Cup (as a spectator).

(Okay, yes, I didn’t need to add the qualifier ‘as a spectator’ because I will never be attending as a player, but just let me have this delusion, please and thank you)

And it was awesome to see some of the best players in the world, guys I’ve only ever watched on TV, up close and personal on the practice court.

Here are my two main takeaways from watching Denis Shapovalov and Rafael Nadal during their practice sessions, in which I stood less than 20 feet away from both players:

  • Shapovalov is much bigger than he looks on TV. I had assumed he was a little undersized, but the Canadian is at least 6-feet tall and he’s solidly built, not nearly as wiry as you might think
  • Rafa’s intensity is unparalleled. Every shot of the practice session was hit with unwavering focus, commitment and a grunt of exertion. If you closed your eyes and just listened to Nadal play, you would have thought he was playing in a Grand Slam final against Roger Federer instead of warm-up session against a hitting partner on a practice court

Watching both guys made me realize a couple of things. First, I need to overhaul my backhand motion. Right now I hit it much too flat, it looks like my vestigial baseball swing. I need to shape it a little better, create more topspin and make it a more reliable shot. The process started in my Brampton tournament with some positive results.

SECOND SERVE: Winner winner chicken dinner

Story continues below

The second thing I realized is that my own focus and commitment needs some work. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I have a tendency to lose focus at times during a match, allow my mind to wander and my level to drop. If I really want to be a good tennis player, I need to maintain a killer instinct throughout an entire match, no matter my opponent or my mindset. If the number-one player in the world can treat a practice session like a Grand Slam final, I can do the same in my matches.

I was able to use my Global News media credential to attend two days of the Rogers Cup. The first day — where I watch Rafa and Denis practice — I filed a story for TV on the five Canadians who qualified for the main draw with a focus on our twin phenoms, the aforementioned Denis and 18-year-old Felix Auger Aliassime.

I went again to watch Shapo’s final match of the tournament and to collect the additional clips for the blog video. Based on the crowds I saw, interest in Canadian tennis is at an all-time high.

SECOND SERVE: All about that grass

Could I continue moving up in my own journey through Canadian tennis?

First I needed to improve my gear. I am embarrassed to admit that I have never worn tennis shoes before this month. To this point, I had always worn the cross-trainers I wear to the gym on the tennis court. I (foolishly) assumed that regular workout shoes would be just as good as tennis shoes.

But I finally bit the bullet and bought these beauties.

Do I think that wearing Nadal’s signature shoe, plus being left-handed, will somehow imbue me with a fraction of his tennis prowess? I certainly hope so.

What a difference actual tennis shoes make. My footwork and balance is so much better, plus I’ve gained some speed on the court as well. I can’t believe I didn’t wear these earlier.

And I was able to break them in before the tournament.

I tried to do some research on my opponent before my first-round match at the tournament in Brampton. But he was a ghost. He had no past results with the Ontario Tennis Association and he was unranked.

Would he even show up? At my first tournament back in December that’s what happened. My opponent had no information online, he never showed up, and I got a walkover into the next round.

I didn’t want to drive all the way to Brampton for a walkover. I’m doing this series to play tennis, not to earn hollow victories.

SECOND SERVE: Time for a montage

Luckily, my opponent, Sam Philp, did show up. I found out more about his game from the tournament organizer. He played four years of varsity tennis at Mercer University in Georgia and was ranked among the top 120 college players in the entire United States. Oh, and he also made it to the final of a tournament in London, Ontario the day before.

(Maybe a walkover wouldn’t have been such a bad idea)

We got on court and I could tell right away that Sam possesses a tennis pedigree that I just can’t match. He hit really hard and really accurate in the first set. Anytime I was able to get even a semblance of rally going, he would just whip a forehand on the line to either side of the court. I won a point or two in every game, and even won a service game, but he took the first set 6-1.

However, my game has improved by leaps and bounds since the start of this blog in January. This was the first match I’ve had when my serve was not only not terrible, but, in the second set, it was actually almost good.

I got free points off my serve for the first time in open level play, which, in turn, gave me more confidence in my groundstrokes and my ability to rally. My serve didn’t add stress to my game like it usually does, instead I was able to approach my service games with more confidence and try to go for a bit more on Sam’s serve.

SECOND SERVE: A tournament final (unofficially)

My groundstrokes were really solid as well. Not only was I able to engage Sam in some longer rallies, but I was able to dictate the pace and direction of more than a few points. If you squinted and watched us during the start of the second set, I’ll bet we almost looked like equals. In fact, we were on serve through the first four games, tied at two.

But then the clock struck midnight on my Cinderella set and I couldn’t maintain the level of play we had through the first four games. Plus, Sam found another gear and won four straight to take the set 6-2.

Here are some more positives:

  • I won three games against Sam in the round of 32. His opponents in the round of 16 and the quarterfinal won fewer games against him than I did.
  • In the London tournament, Sam played the same guy who I played in my first tournament way back in December. I only won two games off of that guy back then. And he only won two games off of Sam last week. By that (admittedly limited) metric, I have improved exponentially in eight months.
  • In every tournament except my first two, I have lost to the eventual tournament finalist (including this one. Congrats Sam!). So, the quality of my opponents and, therefore, the quality of my losses is very high.

Yes, that’s a Pyrrhic victory and I do need a little more draw luck to make a further climb up the leaderboard. However, I am happy to say that I have now cracked the top 300 in Canada!

The points accrued from the Brampton tournament weren’t enough to knock one of my other tournaments out of my top 3 that count for ranking points. But I did move up the leaderboard due to the 12-month ranking system (i.e. other players didn’t defend points last week that they achieved last year, so they may have dropped spots).

SECOND SERVE: A Visit to Tennis Canada

I’m not sure when my next open level tournament will be as my main focus right now is on my club championship in the back half of September. Last year, I lost in the second round. We have some high-quality players at the club, so my expectation is semifinal or bust. Maybe increase that to a finals appearance if my serve keeps improving on the same trajectory as the past couple of weeks.

I actually feel more pressure for the club championship because the expectation is for me to go deep in the competition. I’m just hopeful that my stronger, more consistent game will help alleviate any nerves.

Until next time!

mike.arsenault@globalnews.ca

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