Commentary

Ginepri's offseason boot camp paying dividends

Robby Ginepri's slump has been so grave, he failed to make the player biography section in the ATP media guide. But with a coach who's willing to push him out of his comfort zone, Ginepri is steadfast in maximizing the next few years and returning to the upper echelon.

Originally Published: February 28, 2008
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Robby GinepriAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezHis wheels have been spinning since 2005, but Robby Ginepri hopes coaching savant Jose Higueras will set him on track once again.
It's a time-worn classified ad: Talented, slumping athlete seeks no-nonsense coach to rejuvenate his career. Sometimes the guy is right for the job, and sometimes the chemistry experiment blows up.

Jose Higueras, the former top-10 player from Spain who runs a training center in Palm Springs, Calif., has a reputation for making players rise to his high standards and hunker down to his regimen of hard labor. He doesn't care to travel much and tries to mold independent players who know how to apply what he teaches them rather than glance at him in a courtside box between shots. He's not willing to take on every project. If you want to work with him, you come to him, not the other way around.

"At my age, I'm a little more picky," said Higueras, who turns 55 Friday and whose former pupils include Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Todd Martin, and more recently, Israeli star Shahar Peer.

His latest work in progress is Robby Ginepri, who pronounced himself reborn after dispatching his buddy James Blake 6-2, 6-2 in a crisp 51-minute quarterfinal at the SAP Open in San Jose, Calif. last week -- his first win over a top-10 player in more than a year.

"I think I'm better overall than in '05," Ginepri told reporters, referring to the stellar season that has been his yardstick ever since. "I attacked that whole match. When you're feeling like that, it's easier to take risks."

Ginepri's agent, Octagon's Tom Ross, connected the dots that led to last week's mini-break. Ross and others in Ginepri's camp thought that after a string of solid-citizen coaches like Francisco Montana, Steve DeVries and Diego Ayala, the 25-year-old Ginepri was at a juncture where he needed a taskmaster who would push him out of his comfort zone.

After Ginepri lost in the first round at Wimbledon last summer, Ross placed the call. Higueras did some homework. No one he talked to questioned Ginepri's athleticism and ability. What they wondered about was his drive.

Ginepri's MO was pretty obvious -- slow starts followed by better second-half results, beefed up by his favorite stretch, the U.S. summer hard-court season, where he relies on punishing ground strokes. In 2005, at age 22, he had a breakout stretch that culminated in a scintillating U.S. Open semifinal against Andre Agassi. Ginepri rose to No. 15 and looked poised to challenge his pals Andy Roddick and James Blake for U.S. supremacy.

A season and a half of wheel-spinning followed and Ginepri, an Atlanta-area native who made headlines when he became the first man to bare his biceps on court at Wimbledon in 2003, found himself in danger of being remembered chiefly as a fashion footnote.

"Robby needed focus and discipline," Courier said. "He's a very gifted athlete, but he was, self-admittedly, floating and wondering how he was going to resurrect himself. Robby's an unfinished product, and Jose is one of the best at finishing players."

Ginepri's coast-and-accelerate pattern was familiar to Higueras, who initially agreed to work with him only on a trial basis. "I needed to see where he was in terms of desire," the coach said. Higueras also admits that Ginepri's laid-back exterior makes it easy to assume he's not hungry enough -- a perception that since has been altered.

The two bonded during a grueling six weeks of offseason boot camp at Higueras' desert operations base.

"I had my doubts that he was going to go through with it," Higueras said. "But he's a good competitor. He doesn't like to lose. There's no reason he can't get back [to the top 20] unless there's a lack of doing the things on a daily basis that I think professional tennis players should do."

Those things involve hours of conditioning and hours of instruction, habits a lot of players in their mid-20s have lost. Higueras emphasized movement and had Ginepri do more running. He tinkered with Ginepri's serve. "It goes on and off too much for my taste, and his second serve has to improve. He needs more [speed], more depth and bite," Higueras said.

[+] EnlargeRobby Ginepri
AP Photo/Jon WayAt 25, Robby Ginepri is at the juncture of his career where he'll either fight his way back or fade into the ATP's vortex of struggling veterans.
Ginepri isn't a natural net player, but "he should be able to use his court position and good ground strokes and rally pretty confidently," the coach said. "I want him going to net more, not to intercept but with an advantage."

When Ginepri agreed to enlist as an extra player for the U.S. Davis Cup team at the championships against Russia in December, the gang there was unflaggingly supportive. But as Ginepri, wearing a champagne-and-beer-soaked T-shirt, joined in the general hilarity at a post-victory press conference, it was hard not to wonder whether he would ever rejoin Roddick and Blake in the ATP's top echelon.

U.S. captain Patrick McEnroe spotted the seeds of a new commitment from Ginepri in Portland.

"He was working his tail off," McEnroe said. "He was grinding away with the boys and when he wasn't doing that, he was off at the gym or doing extra drills with my assistant, Jay Berger. He was obviously in great shape, and there's no doubt that Jose has gotten his work ethic back going.

"Robby's in that mid-age range where you realize you've been around for four or five years, you've had a couple good years and a couple of terrible ones, and you think, what am I going to do to maximize these next few years? Jose was the perfect guy for him."

Ginepri, who played a couple of Davis Cup matches in early 2004, said the trip was important for him. "Sitting there on the sidelines watching the matches and being intense with them every single point is definitely a feeling that kind of brought me back to life a little bit more," he said in San Jose last week.

Before any newfound fitness, technique or confidence could be put into play, however, there was another setback. Illness and a neck injury knocked Ginepri out of qualifying for two Australian Open lead-up tournaments and short-circuited his plans to start the year strongly Down Under. His ranking plummeted to a five-year low of No. 171. "It was definitely disheartening," he said.

Higueras encouraged him not to think about what number happened to be next to his name. "Your season begins now," he told Ginepri before the Delray Beach, Fla. tournament early this month, a statement that proved clairvoyant.

Ginepri beat Mardy Fish in the quarterfinals before losing to Blake in the semifinal, his best showing in a tournament since mid-2006. Footage of a lashing cross-court forehand in that encounter made the ATP's Web site as "play of the week," a welcome nod for a player who hasn't landed on many highlight reels lately.

Then everything jelled one evening in San Jose.

"The more matches I get, the more confidence I'm going to build, and obviously when you have confidence, it's a lot easier to play and take care of matches, take care of points and do the right things on the court that you've trained to do," Ginepri said before beating Blake.

Although Ginepri lost the SAP Open semifinal to Radek Stepanek, those back-to-back strong outings in Florida and California moved him within striking distance of Grand Slam main draw territory again (No. 108) and earned him a wild-card invitation to Las Vegas next week. McEnroe said he expects good things from Ginepri at the upcoming Masters Series events in Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami -- provided he gets the wild cards he needs to compete there.

"When he's playing his best, Robby plays a style similar to Agassi -- taking the ball early off both wings, returning very well, constantly putting pressure on his opponent with aggressive, high-percentage tennis from the baseline," McEnroe said.

Ginepri is training with Higueras again this week, and the coach said things are going well. "In San Jose, he tasted that feeling of winning again," he said. "That doesn't come for free. I hope he understands that he wouldn't have gotten there without what he's been going through the last few months."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.