Pressure, Signing Autographs and Mac

As summer arrives – everywhere but Boston – it’s time to dust off the racket and tune up the chip and charge. Harbus spoke to Gog Boonswang (NA), an ex-tennis pro, about life on the tour, McEnroe, Connors and the battle of the sexes.

Harbus: What’s it like to be a pro-tennis player?
Gog Boonswang: The life of a professional tennis player is unbelievable. The training was grueling, but satisfying. Every day I would wake up, have some breakfast then hit the courts for 3-4 hours.

After the morning session, I would eat some lunch, relax, and then play a practice match.

After that, I would do off court sprinting and conditioning for about 2 hours. All in all it was about 6-7 hours of training daily. I actually loved the feeling of blood in my lungs, sweat under the sun, and cramping thighs. I ate pretty much whatever I wanted because I burned so many calories. A few days before a tournament, I would taper down the training and focus more on playing points. Every week I would be on a plane traveling to another city or country. I would travel with new buddies from different countries every week – it was very exciting because every foreign player seemed to be able to speak four languages and every city was prettier than the last. The tournament would take over the city for the week and the players were somewhat mini-celebrities. I mean, you would sign a few autographs for some young girls after your matches and you would feel pretty cool. That said, after a few months on tour, the honeymoon was over. I lost more matches than I won and that really gets to you. The competition was so tight that 4 hour matches were decided by a few “loose” points. Also, it was mentally challenging because the reward for winning a 4 hour match against a 16-year old Spaniard in 100 degree heat on clay was to look at the draw and realize you have to win 2 more matches just like that on the same day just to make it to the main draw. Tennis is particularly tough because when you are not playing well, there is nowhere to hide and no-one to pass the ball to. Every day, every match you put yourself, your ego on the line. It was high risk and high reward and it was good for the body and soul. The problem (and beauty) with the life of a professional athlete is there is no middle class – you are either top dog or nobody.

Harbus: How did you deal with the pressure?
GB: No matter how hard you train, how many times you repeat your strokes – down the line, cross court – how confident you think you are, you always feel pressure and it feels good. It is like the day you did not read the entire case during the first week of classes and you get that cranberry cold call in TOM. The only difference is if you nail it, you win and feel like a god and if you don’t you go home with your tail between your legs and run sprints as your penance. My trick to deal with pressure was to try to relax, sing the refrain of an inspirational song in my head and go for the shot more aggressively – you have to learn to love the sensation.

Harbus: What was your best win?
GB: In doubles I beat a guy named Gaston Gaudio from Argentina who is top 30 in the world right now. He is one of the best players on clay, but not known for his doubles prowess.

Harbus: What’s it like in the locker-room before a match?
GB: It really depends on the situation and who you are playing.

Sometimes you warm up and make jokes with the guy you are about to step on the court with and other times you don’t say anything and do your best ice-man routine. It really depends. Tennis players are characters and the personalities run the game.

Harbus: Do players talk trash between changes? What was your worst experience?
GB: Talking trash happens, but it is rare on tour. If there is a particularly bad call or something like that, things could get really heated verbally. My worst experience was when I was playing in Croatia at midnight against a local player and it was 3 all in the third set. The dude told me if I won, I would not make it to my hotel alive. I told him to f***off and in the end I won (told him to go home to mommy) and I was escorted by tournament officials back to my hotel.

Harbus: Do tennis-parents push their children too hard? How tough is it for someone like Capriarti to grow up in the public spotlight?
GB: Tennis parents are notorious for being too intense and too pushy, especially in the women’s game, which is probably because women tend to get better at an earlier age and can play at the professional level at 13 or 14. The money is so big that parents have incentive to mortgage their home for their child’s career. It is hard to spend your formative years under the spot light – but it’s just like any sporting phenom like Lebron James in basketball; the kid just basically has to grow up a lot quicker.

Harbus: Connors or McEnroe?
GB: McEnroe was a pure genius and Connors was the ultimate competitor / grinder. I have unbelievable respect for both of them as players and showmen. If they both played their best, Mac would win on hard and grass courts, but Connors would take him out on clay. Their era was a great time for tennis.

Harbus: McEnroe has suggested some changes to the game – wooden rackets, no let cords, moving service line 6 inches forward – to make it more exciting. Would those changes help?
GB: No, I don’t agree with Mac. All sports evolve and in my opinion get more exciting. Look at the size of Shaq and Yau; does that mean they should raise the rim? I think the sport needs some stronger personalities to re-kindle some of the excitement. It is the obligation of the top athletes to promote the sport in every way possible. I think if we had an exciting player who could relate to the masses and who won the US Open, it would be a catalyst for the sport. Tennis needs a Tiger Woods-like player – some phenom with an edge. I mean if James Blake won the open and started dating Cameron Diaz that would be great for the visibility of the sport. Also, rivalries have shown to help the sport – but we haven’t had a good one since Connors vs Mac. Agassi -Sampras doesn’t really do it because Sampras is so frickin boring and whenever it is a big match, Pete beats Andre. A true rivalry has to be more equitable and the personalities have to be bigger. Even Andre, other than his long hair and denim shorts when he was younger, is not an entertainer or ‘bad boy’ in the way Mac and Connors were. Mac hobnobbed with all of Hollywood and played guitar in a band. Connors married a Playboy Playmate for crying out loud. On the court Mac and Connors were just pure entertainment, at no expense to their level of play. Mac was the only guy who actually played better mad.

Harbus: He also said that, even at 44, he would still beat Venus or Serena…
GB: Yeah, he would and Venus and Serena wouldn’t say otherwise. That said, Venus and Serena have changed the women’s game of tennis the same way Tiger has changed the game of golf – they just upped the level by at least a generation.

Harbus: Do you miss the tour?
GB: For sure. I miss the training, competition, traveling and the foreign women, but I try to evolve and enjoy every stage of life. I have no complaints here at HBS. In my career in private wealth management, I hope to manage money for a lot of athletes (stay in the loop and live a bit vicariously through them.)

Harbus: Can you give us a prediction for Roland Garros (the French) and Wimbledon?
GB: For Roland Garros, Gaston Gaudio from Argentina. It’s a long shot, but I would love to say I beat a Rolland Garros champ. Wimbledon, Roger Federer. This guy is so talented and due for a grand slam win.

Harbus: You’re the most competitive guy I have ever come across, be it tennis, basketball, or pizza-eating. Is your competitive drive normal in tennis or was it part of your edge? It’s hard to imagine Wilander or Borg getting so pumped.
GB: I think most successful tennis players hav
e a burning competitiveness in them. Some, like Pete Sampras or Bjorn Borg, keep it inside and appear reserved and others, like Goran Ivanisevic or John McEnroe, wear their emotions and competitiveness on their sleeve – I tend to be the latter type. All good athletes are in general very competitive people. You read about Michael Jordan wagering $200,000 a hole in golf, betting his teammates who can get Janet Jackson on their cell phone the quickest, and basically competing in everything he does; it is just the nature of athletes. Tennis players, in particular, are extremely competitive – I mean what defines you as a person (sick, but true for most tennis players) is on the line every match and you get used to defending it and this attitude becomes part of you. That said, I am learning to selectively turn it on and off (just ask my section mates about who was voted to care LEAST about becoming a Baker Scholar) – but in general, I just enjoy living life with a healthy dose of competition.

Athletes are very simple creatures. If their ego is on the line, they will compete like a lion…and yes, I am a Leo.