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  • Eric Butorac

Training with Novak

I had just lost a tight match in the third round of the 2015 US Open to Rojer/Tecau. They would go on to be the number-one team in the world that year. I was in the back corner of the locker room. The TV in my area was tuned to the Grandstand court, so clearly someone had been following our match.

I get a tap on the shoulder…it’s Boris Becker. The conversation goes something like this:

BB: Eric, that was a great match…really high level.

Me (dejectedly): Yeah, thanks.

BB: No, really, I thought you guys played a great match.

Me (now officially out of the US Open): Yeah, it was OK.

BB: It really only came down to a couple of points.

Me (kind of tired of speaking about a match that he can’t possibly care that much about): Most do.

BB: Listen, I know you just lost, but Novak really needs to practice with a lefty today ‘cause he plays Feliciano Lopez tomorrow. Do you mind?

Me (it’s about 100 degrees and humid, my hip is killing me, and I’m soaked from my two-hour match): Yeah. Sure.

BB: Great! Practice court 1 in an hour!

Most of the attention at the US Open focuses on matches played on the show courts. However, the practice courts have their own strong fan support. (Photo: Barton Silverman/The New York Times)

After 10 minutes of “working Novak around” with my chip backhand, I must have started to fade because he asked me to hit him some serves instead.

Me: Sure. Where would you like them? (In my hits with other top players, they like to get a rhythm off the slice serve first, then maybe a few kick serves, etc.)

Novak: Doesn’t matter.

Me: You want me to hit some second serves to start, or start hitting first-serve speed?

Novak: Whatever.

Me: You don’t want me to tell you where it’s going at all?

Novak: Do you think Feliciano will tell me?

Novak went on to beat Feliciano and win the Open, his third Grand Slam of the year. Did my practice get him over the edge? Probably not. But it did give me a window into how and what the best player in the world does when he practices. I’ve always believed that I am organized and focused in practice, but he was on another level.

I found that mindless hitting down the middle is not a great use of time. I discovered that fans would much prefer to watch me hit with Novak than to watch me play a doubles match! I knew that practicing your return was really important, but not more important than the way in which you practiced it. And I learned that I should work on my chip backhand, in case Novak ever called again.

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