Sport

Late-bloomer Sam Groth on his best year in tennis yet. By Richard Cooke.
Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Aces high: Sam Groth, 28, tennis player

My journey has been a little bit different from most guys. I haven’t been your, you know, hot-shot teenager who’s come through. And in 2011, I’d been battling on tour for a few years, and the highest ranking I ever got to was 210. I was sort of beating my head against the wall a little bit. And then at the time I was going through some personal problems of my own… It’s life. I had some shoulder surgery, felt like I didn’t really want to do it anymore.

I put the racquets down. It ended up being just a break, but at the time I had no intention of coming back. I went and started coaching, just at my local club, and then I started playing a bit of suburban Australian rules football in Melbourne.

I actually applied to become a firefighter. Here in Melbourne. I had every intention of stepping away. But after eight months on the sideline, I played a little bit of club tennis and really enjoyed it. I decided I was going to come back, and in 2012 I think I played about 15 tournaments and sort of got my ranking back to the point where I was getting close to grand slam qualifiers.

In 2013 Tennis Australia put a group of players together. There was myself, John Millman, J.  P. Smith and Matt Reid. And that’s when I started working with Ben Mathias. He’s been my coach now for three years. And for some reason, we just really hit it off.

First I pushed my way inside the top 200. Then in 2014 I finally broke through – when I made the semis in Newport in the ATP event – to the top 100 for the first time. I was very close to cracking my goal of top 50 before I got another injury. 

I had the chance to be a part of some pretty amazing things. Davis Cup, going deeper into slams – I’ve been to a couple of third rounds – and I feel like I’ve really established myself as a player who belongs at that level now. Being awarded the Newcombe Medal [last month] is a great honour.

What changed? I just really applied myself. I started doing everything possible to be the best I could be.

I had a little bit of fear beforehand. I thought, “What if I did the work and I wasn’t quite good enough?” And I think I let that go. I also understood myself as a person. Everyone matures differently. Ben as a coach found a way to get me to do things that maybe other coaches hadn’t been able to do, and we developed a great relationship. All the work we do, we do as a team.

It’s very lonely and it’s a very selfish sort of individualised sport. When you’re out on court you’re by yourself, that’s it. But for me it makes a big difference, having someone like him there with me, on that journey.

Now guys don’t feel like they can just beat me by hitting the ball on the court. I’ve tightened up a lot of loose areas in my game, and I’m not making as many unforced errors. And I think if guys know I’m going to be aggressive and I’m going to take it to them, psychologically that can play with them.

I wouldn’t recommend leaving it until later. But in saying that, the fact that I am a little bit older means I really appreciate where I’m at now. I get to travel the world playing sport for a living.

Last year I played Roger Federer at Arthur Ashe in the second round of the US Open. When I walked out on court, the crowd went crazy when he was introduced. But for me, I now think, “I’m there because of my ranking”, “I’m there because I’ve done the work.” And of course he’s a great player and at the end of the match I’ll shake his hand and I’ll say that when he’s beaten me. But now when I walk out on court I belong. My ranking says I should be there; I’ve won matches to be there.

Tennis players know every single week that if there’s 32 guys in the draw, 31 will lose. We get very good at adjusting to losing matches. A lot of guys can go their whole career and never have a week where they don’t lose. It’s something I guess we learn how to deal with, and you’re back up the next week.

There have been a few mistakes made by the young guys. But hopefully they’re sort of doing what they need to do to get things sorted. I spend a lot of time around those guys in a Davis Cup environment and they’re not bad guys.

I’m not doing anything different. I’m just letting my tennis speak for itself, and doing all the right things that you should do as a normal person.

 

Holiday highlights…

• Basketball: NBL – New Zealand Breakers v Illawarra Hawks 

Sunday, 3pm (AEDT), Vector Arena, Auckland, New Zealand

• Cricket: BBL – Perth Scorchers v Adelaide Strikers

Monday, 4.10pm (AWST), WACA Ground, Perth

• Soccer: A-League – Western Sydney Wanderers v Newcastle Jets 

Thursday, 7pm (AEDT), Parramatta Stadium, Sydney

• Cricket: Australia v West Indies, 2nd Test

Starts Boxing Day, 10.30am (AEDT), Melbourne Cricket Ground

• Sailing: Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race 

Starts Boxing Day, 1pm (AEDT), Sydney Harbour

• Tennis: Australian Open

January 18-31, 2016, Melbourne Park

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "Aces high". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a journalist and writer for television. He is The Saturday Paper's sports editor.