We arrived in Heraklion, Greece, with some players who train in my academy, to play several Future Tournaments. The idea behind this experience was to make first contact with real tennis: engagement, order, patterns of play, intensity, focus and consistency, but particularly with the essence of competition. The insistent and permanent message is that a competition is to give one’s all with the risk of ending up hurt, almost dead, but having earned self-respect and the respect of others and that a competition includes considering all possibilities, even the most impossible possibility.
It was in Heraklion where, due to destiny, I coincided with an Argentinian player, Alan Kohen, who had been more or less 750 ATP in about 2015, until a time when personal problems prevented him from traveling. He was 24 years old when he decided to try again and it was during that new attempt that we met for a couple of weeks, sharing trainings, meals, talks and especially tennis matches.
One’s first impression is that something does not quite fit: height 1.81 metres (5’ 11”), weight 70 to 72 kilos (154 to 158), he plays with a Head Prestige racquet, strings pattern 18/20 and 70 centimetres (27 inches), which is to say a racquet more suitable for breaking stones than playing tennis. Well, for strange particularities, tennis players are unbeatable.
Perhaps because I had already shared talks and training sessions with my players, I decided to see one of Alan’s Pre Qualy matches, or in colloquial Argentine language to “stand firmly” or show support. My attention was immediately called to his attitude. He was running for every ball, even for those balls for which nobody runs, and I saw him recover 3 or 4 points which could only be reached by a few, and that in a Pre Qualy. If nothing strange would happen, he surely had to win. When he finished playing he sat next to me, took of his socks and had blisters on almost almost all his toes, and his only comment was “They bother me”.
The following day, another match, so I watched him with more attention, knowing how painful blisters are, especially on a fast court. It was a much tougher match than the previous one and Alan was like a Greyhound, running for every ball, every point life or death. He was talking to himself and looked like Spartacus fighting for his life, demanding a little more: “this point is yours”, “you have to win this point”, “fight, fight, fight”!!! Every point the same, all points were important, all were the last one. Difficult to explain, but it was like a child playing only for the experience , not for the prize. And in my mind I could not stop imagining how those blisters were. The match is over, he has won, he takes his socks off and, of course, his blisters are raw meat and again the simple comment: “You don’t know how much they hurt”.
Perhaps I am a romantic who still believes that there are players who play with passion and not only to figure in the ranking, but after seeing him compete in this match, immediately a video came into my head, which is on YouTube and can be found under the title of “Messi es un Perro” (Messi is a dog), the text of which was written by Hernan Casciari.
In many talks this video about Leo Messi is mentioned in an attempt to explain the transcendent sense of sport. The video compares Messi to a dog obsessively chasing a yellow sponge. It is a perfect description of what it means to feel and practice a sport with passion, to enjoy it with all it’s consequences, the good and the not so good, despite the results.
Having watched two or three of Alan Kohen’s matches, I had no doubts that I had found the tennis version of “hombre perro” (dog man), the player connected to the essence. Alan Kohen was the dog man, more specifically a “Greyhound” running and recovering the impossible. In two weeks he lifted a 1/5 and a 0/5 in order to win, recovering 6 or an average of 6 lost points per match, driving his opponents crazy. Of course! How could they not become unhinged? They did not understand; they had entered unknown territory, where the ball that never comes back... comes back and comes back. Opponents with expressions and tears of impotence, glances to trainers looking for answers outside the court, the universal gesture of raised shoulders depicting “I don’t know!” Shouts, rackets flying, heads full of questions or doubts and defeat knocking at the door. And Alan’s feet continued as raw wounds, like the brains of his rivals: burned out.
It is impossible to attain the narrative perfection of Hernan Casciari in order to explain the feeling of witnessing sport in it’s pure state of honesty, passion, competitiveness, engagement and something which, from my point of view, is a rarity almost extinct in sport: absence of excuses: “He played well”, “What can one do if the opponent is good?”, “He has surpassed me with that backhand stroke”, or when a stroke fails and one says: “It was that ball”, or “I played it properly, what a pity!” No tough self-criticism, only some words of adjustment before the energy volcano may again control one’s human condition and focus oneself to send the ball to the other side. A very complete manual on how to compete in one page: to give one’s all without excuses. It looks easy, but it is not so.
I do not know how far he will reach in the Ranking, although he deserves to reach high, very high. As a selfish lover of sport, it is irrelevant to me where one arrives. This is very far from the bright lights and benefits of the superstars; this is related to the very essence of sport, in the greatness of the simple, in the transcendence. This is about a person who loves what he does and what he does is done with absolute honesty and coherence between what he is, what he feels, what he thinks and what he does. Perhaps a little tired of the present reality, where the majority of players are playing tennis in order to get results at any cost, instead of paying the cost in order to learn and play tennis and then have good results. To compete is not a question of level, but to give one’s all. The same applies to the ranking, whether it is a club tournament, or the final of a Grand Slam. To compete is to admit what one is and to accept the opponent as an indispensable ally.
In the end, tennis is an excuse, a good excuse, if "good " excuses really exist, to look at our souls in the mirror. Forehand, backhand and serve are easy, but it is difficult to control the Ego and to be able to listen to the Great Master: The Tennis, which with methodical insistence says, repeats and demonstrates our limits, cruelly reflects the difference between what we want to be and what we are, and even shows our complexes and more hidden facets. Everything comes to light in a tennis match and although we may try, it is not possible to hide what we are.
I am writing this at the Athens airport, waiting for my flight to Barcelona. We are going back with bags full of experiences; all of us have learnt, played hours of tennis and shared good times. But the most important thing is the breath of fresh air, the satisfaction of having found a great player who reflects what I want to transmit to every one of those players who are attending my academy: that good results are a consequence of performance, that to compete is an attitude, a decision so that at the end of a match one does not owe oneself anything.
A good example is worth more than a thousand words. In the end the only thing I said to my players was this: “Do you want to play tennis? Disguise yourselves as Alan Kohen”. Far beyond my words, at last I could actually see and show what it means to be a “dog man”.