JOAO SOUSA: GENTLEMAN ON AND OFF COURT
Pack your bags at the age of fifteen, move to Barcelona and leave your friends and family to give your dream to become a professional tennis player a chance. This was the most difficult decision Joao Sousa ever made. Fortunately, this brave decision turned out well. The charming Portuguese has entered the top 50, won the ATP-tournament in Kuala Lumpur and is about to play his fifth ATP-final here in Umag. Modest, but far from shy, a gentleman and a hard worker, that is Sousa. With his attitude and progression we would not be surprised to hear a lot more from him in the future.
Beat those guys
While Sousa has just won his match and needs to go to the masseur, he takes a seat quite relax to first talk with TennisPhotoWorld about his career. A career throughout which the Portuguese steadily has been improving his ranking and his game. At the age of 23 he first entered the top 100, mostly due to good results at Challengers. In 2013 he entered the top 50 and became the first Portuguese ever to win an ATP title (Kuala Lumpur). In 2014 he reached two more ATP finals (Bastad and Metz). This year he became runner up once more at the ATP tournament in Geneva and he is now about to fight for his second ATP title here in the final of Umag. Sousa confirms that he is quite satisfied with his progression over the last few years. What has been most important to make such steps towards the world top? “My goal is always to get better and to become a better player. For years I have been working very hard to do this.” For the current number 51 of the world it is most important to play his best tennis against the top players. “I have played a lot of matches against them and I just won once of a top five player, David.” (By whom he of course means David Ferrer who was at that moment number four of the world). “It is one of my goals to beat these guys more often.” How he tries to realize this? “Well, just by working hard to improve my game and to climb further up in the ranking.” Of course, it is true that you can only beat the absolute top players by working very hard. But how is he going to beat those top ten guys? Isn’t the mental part of tennis very important to do this? “That is of course important. You really need to believe that you can beat those guys and for this you need a lot of self-confidence. Well, the last time I played Andy (Murray) at Roland Garros I won a set, so I’m getting closer.” How important confidence is on court is illustrated by the fact that the Portuguese won all his three matches in the Davis Cup tie against Finland last weekend and had now defeated Seppi (ATP-26), Fognini (ATP-33) and Bautista Agut (ATP-23) on his way to the final. “This gave me indeed a lot of confidence. I feel very good here and I’m happy with the way I’m playing.”
Work hard, play smart
That Sousa works hard is confirmed by his physical condition. While some players barely stand the heat here in Umag, the weather does not seem to influence the game and spirit of the Portuguese. “Yes I feel physically very good and fresh. This also helped me to defeat Bautista Agut in the semifinals. I don’t think he was as fresh as I was when playing under these tough conditions.” Still, working hard and being in shape won’t be enough to beat top players. What about his game plan before a match and tactics on court? “Before a match I always discuss my game plan with my coach. Of course the most important goal is to win. For this you also must be able to change your tactics if the match doesn’t go the way you had hoped or expected.” Though we noticed that his favorite game plan is to play aggressive with a good serve and dominant forehand, we see indeed some tactical variations in Sousa’s game. Often uses his forehand to put pressure on his opponent’s backhand. However on other moments he chooses to play aggressive by spreading the ball more and by moving forwards and coming in to the net. When his opponent puts more pressure on Sousa, he uses his rally skills and speed to win points, instead of continuing his aggressive shots that in that situation could easily lead to mistakes. “This is part of tennis. You have to be able to change your tactics to beat good players. I’m happy that I can do that.”
Master of languages
While some players might even find it difficult to speak English, the enthusiastic Sousa speaks Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, English, French and Italian. How did he managed to learn all these? “Well I just really like to speak with people. So when I go to a country I simply try to practice, even if I make mistakes. I try my best and if you speak often, you learn a lot”, he tells laughing. If he would be able to learn Croatian as well? “Well I don’t think so. I know a few words, but to really learn it you need lessons. May be some girls could help me with this”, he jokes.
Besides the fact that Sousa defines a game plan before every match and is alert to adjust his tactic if necessary, he seems to play on his intuition as well. Especially during the so called ‘big points’ of a match. When we ask him if he had a specific tactic in mind on these big points (for example on break points) during his tight match against Fognini he answers: “No, I just tried to play my best.” This is an attitude that characterizes the Portuguese player. With this attitude he learns to speak languages and more important it helps him to stay calm on court. And as all tennis players know, staying calm after a mistake at an important moment in a match is not the most easy thing to do. Actually, when we saw Sousa play at Umag last year against Gabashvili he was having troubles with this himself. However, this year, this negative and nervous attitude is completely gone. Even after he lost the first set in his match against Bautista Agut (who made the only breakpoint he got, while Sousa had had eight break points in different games, but made none) Sousa stayed calm and was able to turn the match around. How did he manage to do that? “Staying calm on those important moments is part of our work. I just really play my best and if my opponent wins an important point, I have to compliment him. Even though it is difficult to accept it, you have to do this as good as possible. It is part of tennis. It is important to think forward.”
Hello tennis racket, bye football
Sousa is also into soccer and as a child he played it as well. “I was playing pretty good actually. But at the age of fifteen, I decided to focus on my tennis career. This mostly because tennis is an individual sport and I would only depend on myself.” To give his dream to become a professional tennis player a chance, he decided to move to Barcelona. “I really wanted to try to become a professional, but it was the hardest decision I ever had to make of course. Leaving my parents and my friends at home in Portugal and being alone in Barcelona was really hard for me.”
Rather Estoril than Roland Garros
Luckily Sousa managed to get through this hard time at the age of fifteen and his dream has come true. What is the most beautiful victory of his career so far? “Kuala Lumpur for sure. Winning your first ATP title after being one match point down felt amazing!” And if he could choose to win one specific tournament in the future? “In that case I would choose to win the ATP 250 Millennium Estoril Open in my home country Portugal”, is the surprising answer of Sousa.
Tension is good
Here in Umag Sousa has already defeated Seppi, Fognini and Bautista Agut (most improved player of 2014) and he is now about to face Dominic Thiem (ATP-26). Does Sousa feel more tension when playing a final compared to other matches? “Before every match I feel tension. This tension and the competition are good things about the tennis sport. I think there has to be tension and for me this is actually the same before every match I play.” Now it is time for Sousa to leave and to get his massage to recover from his match. While some players are not so willing to talk to the press, the Portuguese even keeps the door open before leaving the room. This fits with the impression he makes: a gentleman on and off court with respect for his opponents and the people around him.