Bogdanovic primed for tough transition

By John Roberts
Friday 03 January 2014 05:20

There was a scene in The Boys From the Blackstuff where the deranged Yosser Hughes sat on a park bench beside an itinerant who started talking to him about football. "I could have been a footballer," Yosser says, "but I had a paper round."

This came to mind this week after watching Peter Kay's spoof documentary on C4 featuring Leonard de Thomkinson, Britain's longest-serving paperboy, on the day before he receives a Bolton Community Award. Regrettably, Leonard did not deliver news of a putative Wayne Rooney at the Reebok or an embryonic Tim Henman at Bolton Arena.

As usual during the National Championships, the Lawn Tennis Association is rummaging through a collection of reasonably good players who are less likely to shake the earth than a Manchester quake.

The most promising of the group, Alex Bogdanovic, an 18-year-old left-hander from Kilburn via Belgrade, is in the process of making the difficult transition from the juniors to the senior level of the game, the Bermuda Triangle of British tennis. Surprisingly, Bogdanovic's first move was to part company with his coach, Tito Vasquez, an Argentinian employed by the LTA, who have also taken on board Carl Maes, of Belgium, and Zdenek Zofka, of the Czech Republic, as mentors at two of their academies.

We shall know soon enough whether Bogdanovic's decision to go it alone is a rare and splendid example of self-reliance or a piece of gross naïvety. "The LTA help with my schedule, but I just feel I need some time alone," he says. "It's time for me to start maturing by myself and to go travelling by myself to tournaments and to try coping with things by myself. I feel if I develop a bit of independence it will help me for the future."

Although Bogdanovic will be able to seek help and advice from Peter Fleming, best known as John McEnroe's former doubles partner, who has an LTA contract to coach for 20 weeks per year, independence has become the youngster's watchword. "Tito was my coach until now, and we had a squad going: Lee Childs, Alan Mackin and myself," he says. "Then Mackin decided to go away, and it wasn't really working out. So I sat down with Tito and we had a chat and I just wanted to do something different. Tito helped me a lot and I reached a certain level. Now I feel we need to take a break from each other. I got on very well with Tito, but I feel it is time to make my character a bit stronger. The best idea for me is to try doing things for myself. A coach is important, but when you are on court it's down to you."

Bogdanovic, a baseliner with an exquisite one-handed backhand, came to prominence last year, first by reaching the semi-finals of the United States Open junior singles event and then by advancing to the singles finals at the Nationals, defeating Martin Lee and Arvind Parmar before losing to Lee Childs, the defending champion. In February this year he won his first senior international title at a $15,000 (£9,500) tournament in Nottingham.

Today the fourth-seeded Bogdanovic is due to play Mark Hilton, of Cheshire, seeded No 5, in the quarter-finals of the Hastings Direct Nationals, having defeated Richard Irwin, a 17-year-old wild card from Bournemouth ranked No 1379 in the world, in the second round yesterday, 6-3, 6-2.

Roger Taylor, Britain's Davis Cup captain, was disappointed that Bogdanovic did not enter the boys' event at the US Open last month, the last junior tournament for which he was eligible, pointing out that Grand Slam junior events offer young players the best chance of soaking up the big-time atmosphere. Instead, Bogdanovic went to Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Florida.

"First of all, I wasn't playing too well, and I picked up a leg injury," Bogdanovic says. "I talked with Tito and we agreed that I should take two weeks off. I had played a lot of tennis and I was feeling a bit tight. The US Open was coming up and I felt that going into the tournament without being prepared wouldn't be such a wise idea, so I decided to take things easy and to go to Bollettieri's. Tito was on holiday at that time, as well, and so was Lee Childs, who I was working with. So I spoke to IMG, who manage me, and they told me I could go to Bollettieri's. The first week I took it pretty easy, because of the heat out there and because I didn't want to go full out after just recovering from the injury. I practised and played quite a few sets in the second week."

Martin Lee and Jamie Delgado, both of whom also advanced to the quarter-finals here yesterday, are examples of players who have struggled to make a successful graduation from the junior ranks. Bogdanovic hopes to avoid the pitfalls. "Some players," he says, "do well as juniors and perhaps feel like it's going to be pretty easy, so they don't want to work as hard and they think it's just going to come. Others are good juniors and people start talking about them as possible top 10 players, and there's a lot of pressure and expectation to deal with. You get ups and downs, and when some payers get down they start to panic. Mentally, they go pretty weak, and it's tough to recover from that. They're fighting for every point. You can improve your game technique, but it's a question of how mentally tough you are."

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