Saturday, November 22, 2014

Aussie Millman bounces back from despair

John Millman follows through on a forehand during his
second-round win over Dimitar Kutrovsky in the recent
Sacramento Challenger. Photos by Paul Bauman
   Eventually, every struggling professional tennis player -- i.e. the vast majority of them -- asks himself or herself a profound question.
   Is it worth it?
   Is it worth traipsing around the world for precious ranking points, sleeping on airport floors and in railway stations because you can't afford to stay at a hotel?
   Is it worth fighting your heart out in blistering heat in some remote outpost only to lose on a bad line call with a handful of people in the stands?
   Is it worth suffering a serious injury and making no money for months or even a year while your friends back home have comfortable jobs and guaranteed income?
   For Australian John Millman, that moment came in the spring of 2013.
   Millman, one of the true nice guys in sports, recently had reached a career-high No. 126 in the world and had received a coveted wild card into the French Open.
   It would have been the second main-draw appearance in a Grand Slam tournament for Millman, then 23. He had lost to Tatsuma Ito of Japan, 7-5 in the fifth set, in the first round of the Australian Open that January.
   But while Millman was serving in practice during a French Open tuneup tournament in Munich, the 6-foot (1.83-meter) right-hander hurt his shoulder.
   After much deliberation, Millman made the gut-wrenching decision to give up the wild card -- and a guaranteed $27,500, representing 12.2 percent of his career prize money at the time. It soon became apparent that he would need surgery for a torn labrum (cartilage).
   On top of that, Millman had broken up with his girlfriend.
   "You're at a crossroads in your life," the 25-year-old Millman mused during last month's $100,000 Sacramento Pro Circuit Challenger at the Natomas Racquet Club, where he reached the semifinals before losing to top seed and eventual champion Sam Querrey. "You ask yourself what you're doing and whether it was a waste of time. Anyone, when they work so hard for something for it to just come crashing down ... that's sport, though. You can get seriously injured, and all of a sudden, that can be it.
   "And in tennis, you're not on a contract with a team and you're not getting paid during that time. You have to do it all yourself, and that's what's sometimes great about tennis, the fact that it's an individual sport. That's why I love singles. It's all on you, and there are no excuses. On the flip side, when you're out injured, it can be even harder because you've got to find a way yourself. That's when I had to rely on my family, close friends and support team."
   It wasn't Millman's first operation on his right shoulder. In 2007, he hurt it while warming up for a first-round qualifying match in a $15,000 Futures tournament at the Natomas Racquet Club. Millman underwent arthroscopic surgery in Australia to remove a small piece of bone causing friction with a tendon and missed eight months.
   "It's a genetic thing," Millman, who rebounded to win the $50,000 Sacramento Challenger in 2010 at the same club, said of his shoulder injuries. "It wasn't that major, and because it happened so early in my career, it was probably easier to come back from. I was just starting out on the tour and didn't have a high ranking.
   "This last one was a lot more severe. It's similar to what baseball pitchers get. I had come from different conditions, altitude in Mexico, to heavy clay in Munich. It was a freak of nature. My shoulder got tight and snapped."   
   Dr. James Fardoulys performed the surgery in Millman's hometown of Brisbane in July 2013. With the help of strength and conditioning coaches Dirk Spits and Alex Hynes, physiotherapist Sean Fyfe and massage therapist Bruno Rizzo, Millman returned to competition in a Futures tournament in China this past April.
   "I can't say how appreciative I am of those guys," said Millman, who also credits support by Tennis Australia and the national academy in Brisbane. "Without them, there's no doubt I wouldn't be here talking to you because it's such a serious thing to come back from. I think we've really got it right. With them, you can't be anything but confident."
   Millman has been tearing up the Challenger circuit lately, winning Traralgon (Australia) and Yokohoma (Japan) in the past two weeks without losing a set. On the three-week Northern California swing in September and October, he improved from the quarterfinals in Napa to the semifinals in Sacramento to the final in Tiburon.
   Since the start of Napa, Millman has gone 20-4. Two of the losses came to Querrey, a 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) ATP World Tour veteran playing down in the Challengers, and one was 7-6 in the third set to promising countryman Benjamin Mitchell.
   Ranked No. 1,193 in June, Millman has soared to No. 159 (10th in Australia).
   "The fact he was knocking on the door of the top 100 and having to restart from scratch is amazing, and how quickly he did it was a great effort by him," Matt Reid, Millman's Australian rival and friend, wrote in an e-mail. "There's also the financial pressure being from Australia and being away from home, so as a friend of John's, I was very happy for him and hope he can continue and cement a spot in the top 100 (and I'm sure he believes he can go a lot higher)."  
   Millman practices his serve less these days to protect his shoulder.
   "He used to go out and do 200, 300 serves after a match," his coach, David Moore, said in Sacramento. "I don't think you can really do that. It could be a reason the shoulder gave way.
   "He wanted to improve his serve. A lot of players want to make sure they've got a weapon, and the serve seems to be the way to go. It's always nice to have a serve that can get you some cheap points. He probably did a little too much, but now he's very smart with the way he trains. He's very efficient. He's looking after that shoulder so he can have a good 2015 and career."
* * *
Millman celebrates after winning a point
during his victory over Bjorn Fratangelo
in the Sacramento quarterfinals.
   Only four months before the Munich debacle, Millman experienced what he considers the high point of his career. It says something about his character that it was a loss. Specifically, even though Millman's livelihood depends on winning, there are more important things to him, such as relationships and challenges.
   Millman fell to Andy Murray, the reigning U.S. Open champion at the time and the 2012 Olympic gold medalist, 6-1, 5-7, 6-3 in 2 hours, 6 minutes in the second round at Brisbane on the ATP World Tour.
   "It's really special when you're playing a night match in front of 5,500 people, you're looking around the stadium, and you can point out the majority of them that you know," said Millman, who had won three qualifying matches to reach the main draw and then beaten Ito. "To test myself against Andy Murray -- and I thought I really took it to him -- in front of all the people who have helped you out to date, that was easily the most special time of my career."
   No one, of course, has helped Millman more than his parents, Ron and Shona. Both are physical education teachers in primary (elementary) school who represented their state of Queensland in sports, Ron in cricket and soccer and Shona in track and field.
   "We firmly believed in children being active and the importance of sport in education and the life lessons it can teach," Shona wrote in a detailed e-mail.
   John, the second-youngest of five children and only boy, grew up on three acres of heavily wooded property on the outskirts of Brisbane on the east coast of Australia. Brisbane, with a metropolitan-area population of 2.3 million, is the nation's third-largest city behind Sydney (4.8 million) and Melbourne (4.4 million), the home of the Australian Open.
   The only level piece of land on the Millmans' property, Shona wrote, was a tennis court. John's three older sisters became strong tennis players whom he was determined to beat.
   "Tennis was not a sport that we had expertise in," Shona continued, "but we found a wonderful coach (Ken Laffey) who shared our philosophy of making sport interesting and fun while developing good skills. From a very early age, John was extremely competitive and a very poor loser. He soon learned what was acceptable."
   Added Shona: "Training was a treat, and John enjoyed it. He has never lost his enjoyment of training."
   More importantly, Millman attended the Anglican Church Grammar School.
   "School and education were the number one priority for our children," Shona wrote. "Our greatest achievement as parents was by working extremely hard and many jobs, we were able to give our children private education (sending them to the top schools in Queensland, which is quite expensive in Australia)."
   Millman's parents also stressed courtesy.
   "Coming from a Christian family, John was taught to show respect to all people," Shona added. " ... To me, the way John treats people is more important than winning a tennis match."
* * *
Millman serves during his loss to top seed and
eventual champion Sam Querrey in the
Sacramento semifinals.
   Millman learned his lessons well.
   On Tennis Australia's web site, he lists the retired Mario Ancic as his favorite player, not because the 6-foot-5 (1.96-meter) Croat ascended to No. 7 in the world in 2006 but because he earned a law degree during his injury-plagued career. 
   Millman's off-court interests, however, lie more in finance than law. While recovering from his latest shoulder operation, he worked part-time in Brisbane for Discovery Finance Group, which specializes in commercial and residential loans, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
   Millman is also a talented writer. The blogs on his web site, johnmillman.com, provide an introspective, behind-the-scenes look at life as a pro tennis player. It isn't always pretty.
   "People should know what it's like on tour because you don't come out smelling roses the whole time and it's not all what you see on TV playing in front of packed stadiums for great prize money," Millman said. "Some of it's pretty tough, and you've got to push on through and find a way."
   Millman's biggest complaint is that prize money on the developmental Challenger Tour "hasn't changed for four decades," he wrote in his March 2013 blog. "It may have been good money back then but now it’s chook (Australian slang for "chicken") feed when seeing how the expenses for a player (have) increased ten-fold."
   As such, players stay with host families at U.S. tournaments to cut expenses. Those who have put up Millman rave about him.
   "Not only is he an amazing athlete and tennis player, he is an exceptional person as well," Monica Biery, Millman's hostess in Sacramento last month, wrote in an e-mail. "So many of today's athletes behave like entitled punks. John is so refreshingly different. He is genuinely grateful and openly expresses his gratitude for the people who support him. ... "
   Biery has two sons, ages 14 and 12.
   "I am very happy that my boys were able to spend time with John and observe how he respectfully handled both his successes as well as failures on the court," Biery continued. "He is a great role model for them. I want to see my kids grow up with grace, optimism and most importantly gratitude -- all of which John so freely demonstrated daily.
   "His parents have done a beautiful job in raising him and can be very proud of the person they sent out into the world. His talent and attitude will take him far, and I cannot wait to watch him in the Grand Slams."
   Deedee Bilotta hosted Millman in Sacramento two years ago, when he lost to former Stanford star Bradley Klahn in the first round. Bilotta watched the match with her two sons, then 12 and 10.
   "He was gracious as always and came home two hours later," recalled Bilotta, who has stayed in touch with Millman on Facebook and attended his matches at the Natomas Racquet Club last month. "My boys felt bad for him and were a little nervous about what mood he would be in. He walked in the door, and the boys were in the back playing Xbox. He said, 'OK, boys, I need to play some basketball,' and they played for 45 minutes.
   "That spoke volumes to me. It was a good lesson for the boys: You can't always win, you can still have a smile on your face, life goes on."
   In a tribute to their admiration of Millman, his hosts in Napa, Sacramento and Tiburon this year attended the Tiburon final.
   The feeling is mutual.
   "People have often asked me what the best thing about (pro) tennis is," Millman noted. "I've gotten to travel the world and play and entertain people. But easily the best thing is the people that you meet. I'm staying with a great family this week. I've played a bit of club tennis in Germany, and I've got some great friends there and all over the world.
   "For me, it's the relationships and people that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet had I stayed in Brisbane and studied. That's priceless. I'll have friends for life through tennis and experiences that not many people could have." 
* * * 
Millman meets with his coach, David Moore, after defeating
Fratangelo in Sacramento.
   Moore has known his pupil since Millman was 14.
   "He's a special guy," observed Moore, who's also Australian. "If you just watch Johnny, you can see the passion for the game. He's just a good character on and off the court. He just seems to have this loyal fan base wherever he goes. People just seem to be drawn to him and want to support him. He makes an impact. ... "
   Millman, added Moore, "is a different character to any other player I've had. He's very respectful and listens well. At the end of the day, I just really enjoy working with him. ...
   "Especially for this Challenger level, what makes him unique is he'll go off and do his rehab and he'll go into the steam room or the gym, (whereas) a lot of players will just sit around after a match and maybe not do their stretching and all the little bits and pieces that can take you to the next level. He does that stuff."
   Millman even works on his game during matches. Frequently after points, he taps his head while looking at Moore. With other players, that's usually a reaction to having made a mental error. But with Millman, it means he executed a shot that he and Moore have worked on in practice. It might be a service winner, punishing first groundstroke, strong return of serve or putaway volley.
   "They're little box ticks," Moore explained. "He's always trying to improve on areas. It's a bit of a confidence builder, if anything. If he can box-tick that one thing, he can do it again and again. That's the idea behind it."
   Moore didn't hesitate when asked to name Millman's greatest strength.
   "Mental toughness, without a doubt," Moore declared. "I think any player would say John is one of the tougher players to play on the tour. You know you're in for a battle. It's a bit like a Lleyton Hewitt in the sense that he's never going to give away cheap points. His concentration is very good throughout the course of a match. I've never seen him give up through the juniors and into his pro career. That's a pretty good trait to have as a tennis player.
   "It makes it easy to coach, as well, when you don't have to tell them to try hard today. You know it's going to come; the battle is going to be there."
   Millman's mental toughness was on full display in the 2010 Sacramento Challenger. In a semifinal matchup of unseeded players, he saved five match points in a 2-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (1) victory over Alex Bogomolov Jr. that lasted 3 hours, 3 minutes.
   "He loves those situations," Moore asserted. "It doesn't matter if we're playing tennis or basketball or tennis-soccer. He loves the clutch situations. He lives for those moments."
   There was no such drama in the subsequent final as Millman dominated fifth-seeded Robert Kendrick, a native of nearby Fresno, 6-3, 6-2. Millman seemingly didn't miss a shot.
   "That's always been his strength, I guess," Moore observed. "Over the last year or so, we've really been working on stepping up inside the court and flattening out his balls, trying to get a few cheap points as much as relying on grinding and being tough. He's got that covered."
   Reid, 24, is 1-3 against Millman but within a third-set tiebreaker of being 2-2. In the players' last meeting, Millman dominated Reid 6-1, 6-2 in the first round at Napa in late September.
   "What makes John so tough to play is that he is so fit and very competitive," Reid wrote. "I would pick one individual shot, but he likes to wear down his opponent. As he is so fit, he can do it a lot longer than you can, and by halfway through the set, the court (on his side) feels smaller, and you start trying to go closer to the lines, and eventually you overplay and miss. But he has also developed a more aggressive and attacking game."
   It's no wonder that Millman's nicknames are "the Milkman" and "the Mailman" because he always delivers. 
* * *
Millman chats with James McGee of Ireland during last month's
Tiburon Challenger. Millman reached the final before falling
to Querrey.
   So, is it worth it?
   Millman chuckled at the question before turning serious. 
   "If I listed the pros and cons, I definitely think the pros would outweigh the cons," Millman said after dismissing American Bjorn Fratangelo 6-1, 6-2 in the quarterfinals of the recent Sacramento Challenger. "That's easy to say when you've come off a win. If you come off a loss, you might feel differently.
   "It's an emotional game, tennis, and it can be a lonely game. I guess I won't be able to answer that question until my career is done and dusted."
   In the meantime, Millman takes comfort in a conversation he had with a friend while recovering from his major surgery.
   "I was complaining -- probably like (in) some of the blogs I've written -- to him and just being an idiot," Millman said. "He just got his degree and a full-time job in finance. He said, 'John, if I had the talent that you have, I would have done that in a heartbeat.'
   "At the end of the day, I do have to realize that regardless of how tough it is -- and sometimes you can be roughing it pretty bad or down in a bit of a ditch -- some people would give their eye-teeth to have the opportunities that I've had.
   "I like to keep remembering that."

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