LISTEN UP, KID: Pros Offer Advice to Their Younger Selves

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In his Hall of Fame induction speech, Pete Sampras said he was “just a tennis player – nothing less, nothing more.” Of course, Pistol Pete never was a word guy. He let his racket do his talking. But then last year, he surprised us by writing a lengthy reflection for the Players Tribune called “A Letter to Myself,’ in which he offered sage advice to his 16-year-old self.

He suggested that he not read about himself and to shake off criticism; to be more open to changes in racket technology and to take care of his body. Go easy on the burgers, pizza and the Coke, as well as the sleeping and pain pills which led him to get a persistent, painful ulcer. Become a “nutrition freak,” he wrote, and appreciate your parents, your family, your great wins, your greatest rival (Andre Agassi), and your coach (Tim Gullikson, who succumbed to cancer) and get more help dealing with your toughest times. With Pete’s wonderful letter in mind, Inside Tennis asked many figures in the game what advice they’d give their younger selves.

BILLIE JEAN KING: I would have gotten a forehand. I never did get one.

ANDRE AGASSI: If there was anything I could tell myself at 18…it’d probably be go get a haircut…because of how many hours I spent just worried about it, getting ready. For god’s sake, it took me longer than my girlfriends over the years to get ready. There’s something fundamentally wrong when you’re girlfriend’s waiting for you to get ready. It just shouldn’t be that way.

ANDY RODDICK: I should have enjoyed my hair when I had it.

MARK PHILIPPOUSSIS: I would’ve started surfing earlier.

JOHN McENROE: I would’ve acted more like Jimmy Connors…He’d lose it and freak out, but he’d always have his arm around someone, loving every minute of it, embracing it, laughing it off, not thinking that if he laughed or made a joke he’d lose [his] intensity…So just enjoying it more, which is easier said than done…I was brought up to be really intense, to not let down. If you let down, you lose it. God forbid, if you enjoyed it or had fun…[When Jimmy got the crowd going] it pissed me off, but I also respected it. I was like, “Wow, this guy is like a maestro out here”…It drove me crazy, but I wish I had done it more myself…There’s no one that I’ve ever seen that has controlled the crowd as well as Jimmy…I don’t think there’s ever going to be someone that lights it up [like him again]…Now the challenge system has changed the game. It’s better for the player. You feel like you’re going to get a second look. That’s comforting.

CHRIS EVERT: I would say to not be afraid, to be more fearless, to not be afraid to go for my shots a little more. I was pretty conservative. I’d say to take a few more chances, especially in easy matches, so I could develop more risk and power. Also to not be afraid to come into the net, because I was a little bit afraid to come in. I’d advise myself to practice coming in when I was winning easy matches, so I could do it in tougher matches.

RAFAEL NADAL: Well, it’s obvious, that’s for sure….I would change things, no? The people who say “I will not change nothing in my life,” I always consider these people so arrogant. That’s the real thing, no? I don’t consider myself these kind of people, no? Because something bad you sometimes do…For sure, I would change things…We practiced on clay, then hard courts, then clay, then hard – changing surfaces all the time, and that’s bad for the knees. We didn’t know that when we were kids. So later I had a lot of problems with the knees. For sure, I would change that. The drastic changes on surfaces are not good for the body, and I did almost every day…[Now] I want to go back home and play some holes of golf, so I’m not going to tell you all the other things I would’ve changed.

ROGER FEDERER: You’ve got to be patient. [You] can’t expect to win slams at 16, 17, 18… [or to] skyrocket through the rankings, unless you’re out of this world.

I made a lot of mistakes. I wish I could have maybe been tougher when I was younger in practice, but I guess that’s just how it needed to be. It needed to be genius or horrible. I needed to have that wide spectrum, to make mistakes to become the player I am today.

In a way I would do it again the same way, with just some minor adjustments…It’s okay to make mistakes…There [were] a bunch of times I walked away from a tournament thinking, “What the hell have I been doing? Why did I lose? Why did I behave that way? Why did I play so poorly?” …[Then] I thought what I need to change…It came in phases. Usually they always happen in the second part of the season. The first part of the season is to build momentum. Then…the season starts to unwind and you’re preparing for next season already…[and] in the juniors I thought, “Okay, what do I need to improve for the following season?”

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: The big things have small beginnings. That would be the biggest advice I’d give myself. Patience is a virtue…When you’re younger you’re very impatient. You want things to happen right away overnight, which is not possible.

If I could have had a little bit more patience it would’ve helped…Especially after winning a Grand Slam in 2008, two, three years after that was a tough period with a lot of self-doubts and moments where it was up and down, without much consistency…I was encountering a new…level of pressure that I never faced before…It took me time on and off the court to understand how to handle it.

MARIA SHARAPOVA: [You will] have to wait for my book. I don’t know. That’s a loaded question…When you’re young, you’re always trying to go about your career and personal life without making mistakes…[But] I’ve grown so much from making errors… whether losing matches or other things. When you’re able to turn those somewhat negative moments into something meaningful, ultimately it becomes much more powerful.

VENUS WILLIAMS: You have to let fear go. [Before my Sjogren’s syndrome was diagnosed] I didn’t know I was sick. It was a weird time, it was a tough time, but it was still a good time – I was still enjoying my life. I just wasn’t able to play at a high level of tennis. It was a daily thing. Getting stronger every day…There’s a rhythm and then there’s feeling I have no life. It’s a balance…Another lesson is that you just have to believe in yourself. There’s no way around it…No matter how things are stacked against you, you just have to – every time…That’s the thing, you never stop or reach the perfect equation in sports, in tennis. [After all] there’s always a loss around the corner that you can learn from…You learn every single time.

VIKA AZARENKA: I’d always suggest for young players and myself to be open-minded and have fun. Always try new things and be involved in whatever is happening, because once you don’t control [things]…that’s when trouble comes…After the 2014 US Open I realized that there was something inside me – I didn’t feel good about myself. Someone asked me, “Are you depressed?” I said “No” because as an athlete you don’t allow weaknesses to show. But then I realized, yes, I am…[and that] started a process for me to adjust…It’s not easy.

It took me over a year to be able to control all that. I had a lot of changes and emotions…that I still didn’t know how to handle. I was trying to put them in places, but I wasn’t able to control most of that. But it’s been amazing. It changed my life…I started to be happy, organized and disciplined off the court…My friends and family…really pushed me. I called one of my best friends in Belarus and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” He said, “You’ve got to. You’re this close. You’ve got to push through.” I’m very lucky that I have such amazing friends and family.

BOB AND MIKE BRYAN: Going from college to the pros is night and day. When we were 20, I remember finishing a five-setter at the US Open and going back and just drinking water. The next day I felt like I got hit by a car…We could’ve taken care of our bodies better and have taken ice baths, done stretching and had massage. We’d play matches then jump in our cars and go off to Disneyland to sightsee. We’d eat junk food. But then you start figuring it out. You learn how to be professional. It’s 24 hours a day, getting the right sleep, waking up and doing the right things and knowing what all goes into it. Now we try to pick Novak’s brain. Back then we were skinny. We were only 65 pounds. It took us a while to develop…Now we’ve [got] gel packets of basically dates and coconut oil that we eat during matches. Dates are a magic feed for working out. They get right in your blood stream. Novak has like little ziplock bags of raw dates.

SAM QUERREY: Probably just [to] do a better job of committing to one style of play and going for it and being more aggressive on big points. Over the course of a career, I think you play 200,000 points, and I could have done a better job…[by] committing to that way no matter the score, from the day I turned pro to the day I was done…I wish I would’ve just gone and swung out instead of…holding back and missing. I think you’ll be happier with yourself if you commit to your shot and miss it rather than be passive.

EUGENIE BOUCHARD: It would be to not worry about what people say about you and [to] not listen to all the noise. Just listen to your immediate circle, your team. Focus on that and trust you’re on the right path.

CHRISTINA McHALE: Huh. I wasn’t expecting such a profound question. Maybe I could’ve done a better job of staying in the moment more, playing each point, point by point. Sometimes I’d get ahead of myself or start thinking of [how I] should have had that game.

JOHN ISNER: When I was a teen I didn’t even take tennis seriously, which might have been a good thing…I started taking it very seriously [when I was] in college. Certainly I could have worked harder in the juniors.

STAN WAWRINKA: Maybe to be a bit more confident, seeing that I’m doing the right thing, practicing well and that maybe [success] will come… It’s a [big] thing to think about what would’ve happened if I changed something.

NICK BOLLETTIERI: I would tell young Nick, “Nick, as you grow up, whatever somebody says about you, say thank you. And Nick, keep on doing things that people say can’t be done, like doing the first live-in tennis academy in the world.” But that’s not what I want to be remembered for. I want to be remembered for giving kids an opportunity to learn.

SERENA WILLIAMS: I would’ve stayed in gymnastics for a couple more years. Learned my aerials and back springs and all that other stuff. Just for a couple more years…[But] I never did the uneven bars. I always did floor and balance beam.

BRAD GILBERT: I wouldn’t have thought so much.