In any player's life, there are defining moments. These moments can take place while playing a match, while watching someone else play, or simply by having a conversation. When looking back at my 42 years in this game as a player and a coach, I can single out a few events that had a lasting effect on me and shaped me to be the person, player and coach that I am today.
1. Serving as a ball boy for a Bjorn Borg and Vitas Gerulaitis exhibition match
The match was just an exhibition, but Bjorn Borg and Vitas Gerulaitis were the number one and number three-ranked players in the world in 1980, and it was a huge deal with the match taking place in Israel. I was one of the top juniors in the country and they let me, among others, be a ball boy during the match. More importantly, they allowed me to be a ball boy during their practice session, and I got to watch them train which was an eye-opening experience.
I still remember the crisp sound of the ball coming off their wooden rackets, I was amazed at how clean their strokes were, as they both hit the ball perfectly in the sweet spot every single time. I particularly remember how Borg kept his eye on the hitting point long after the ball left his racket and that there was so much spin on the ball. In fact, there was not one ball that was hit flat, it was either hit with top spin or a slice. Between the intensity of the practice and the attention the two paid to each shot, it was a great lesson I use to this day.
They didn't say a word the entire session, but once they loosened up, they talked to us for a few minutes, especially Vitas.
During the match itself (which Vitas won in four sets), I made the mistake of choosing to be the ball boy at the net—big mistake! I was unemployed for most of the match because those guys just didn't miss in the net. I must have touched the ball three times during match. I remember thinking to myself, “Great players don't miss in the net.” It's a pretty simple concept that stuck with me for life. It was something that made me want to become a pro when I grew up. As it turned out, I actually played against Borg on the pro tour in 1993 when he made his comeback after a 10-year hiatus.
2. Meeting Jimmy Connors in 1981
The next year, Jimmy Connors came to Israel to play in an event with Shlomo Glickstein, Tim Gulickson and Elliot Telcher. They were all good players, but Connors was the big name, and we got to meet him when he came to The Israel Tennis Center, the facility that I grew up in.
When I asked Connors how many hours he trained each day, he said, "One hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon.”
When I told him that I played four hours a day, he smiled and said, "Yes, but my one hour is equivalent to your four hours because I don't miss and I run down every ball while moving my feet perfectly for the entire hour without rest. If you play like that, you don't need more than an hour at a time.”
A few years later, I turned pro and got to experience training with Connors (and wound up playing each other three times on the pro tour) and it was just like he described it. We didn't miss or sit down during the hit. Connors would even make you run to pick up balls between points during the set to keep your heart rate up and get a better workout. High intensity in practice is something that I adopted from Jimmy Connors and have tried to implement it both as a player and a coach. In my opinion, it is the most important aspect of being a high-level tennis player.
3. Meeting Dick Savitt in 1978
Dick Savitt is a New York legend who won Wimbledon and the Australian Open title in 1951. He was the "Godfather" of Israeli tennis in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and took a special interest in helping me as a young player, mentoring me throughout my career.
When I met him in 1978 at the Vanderbilt Club in Grand Central Station, it was a life-altering experience. Within a year of meeting him, I was playing in the finals of the Orange Bowl.
Dick opened my eyes to the importance of technique, teaching me proper footwork and how to pay attention to the slightest of details. He was very knowledgeable about the game and provided the insight of a true champion. It was an incredible privilege to receive instruction from such a sharp tennis mind.
The tips that he provided have helped throughout my career, and to this day, I still talk to Dick regularly. He is in his 90s and still has the same sharp tennis mind that he always had.
4. Watching Guillermo Vilas train
I was traveling to South Africa as a junior and they took us to watch an ATP event that took place in Ellis Park. My main goal was to watch my childhood idol, Guillermo Vilas. He wasn’t playing that particular day, but we got to see him practice. I was looking forward to checking out his famous groundstrokes, but instead, I watched him practice his backhand overhead for an entire hour with his coach at the time, Ion Tiriac.
Although I was disappointed not to watch him hit from the baseline, I was quite impressed by the professionalism and the dedication to work on one particular shot for such a long time. It taught me how important it is to work on every aspect of your game. Vilas didn’t come to the net that much in matches, but still practiced that shot for an entire hour!
When I turned pro, Vilas was at the very end of his long career, but we still got to train together a few times. One of these instances was at an indoor event where the only time slot to train was before 8:00 a.m., Vilas and I were there at 6:30 a.m. every morning. The guy loved to train and work on his game constantly, even though, at that time, he was past his prime and didn’t have to prove anything. During that week, he told me that he once played 19 sets in one day when he was training with Borg before the season.
5. Playing Brad Gilbert in the Tel Aviv Quarterfinals in 1986
By 1986, I had already turned pro, but was still a rookie on the tour. I was playing in the match of my life in front of my hometown crowd against Brad Gilbert, who was ranked sixth in the world. I won two rounds to make it to the quarterfinals at a tour level event for the first time in my life, and was playing in, by far, the biggest match of my life.
After losing the first set, I got in the zone and won the second set, and got to within two points of victory as I served for the match at 5-4 in the final set. But all of a sudden, he came up with a running passing shot that got it to 30-30 and completely changed his game. He started coming into the net, winning the next 10 points to beat me.
Gilbert would go on to win the tournament, and I was left with a lot of compliments. The lesson I learned from Gilbert that day: Tennis is all about the big points and about putting pressure on your opponent. When Gilbert noticed that I was getting a bit tight, he took control of the match. I, on the other hand, played safe and was too passive when the big points came instead of playing the gutsy tennis that brought me to a winning situation against the sixth-ranked player in the world. That match taught me a lot about myself and how to handle big point situations.
6. Playing Jimmy Connors in 1989 in the finals at Tel Aviv
I reached my first ATP Tour final and it was in my hometown against Connors, my childhood hero. I was on my way to a fairy tale week as I won the first set 6-2 and went up a break 1-0 in the second set. At that time, I was looking at the full stadium, at the scoreboard and started preparing my winning speech and calculating how many ranking points I would get, and even about what restaurant I was going to celebrate in.
But Connors had a different plan. The next thing I remember was me standing in the ceremony holding the runner-up trophy as Connors won the final title of his career. After losing the first set and down a break, Connors changed his game completely and started attacking my serve relentlessly, even coming to the net on my first serves! This was not his usual game, but it surprised me and changed the match completely. He simply raised his level of play. That match taught me not to celebrate too soon or think about anything during the match other than the next point. It also taught me about changing your game when you are losing and having the flexibility of mind to surprise your opponent when things aren’t going well in a match.
Gilad Bloom, former Israeli Davis Cup player and two-time Olympian, played on the ATP Tour 1983-1995, reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open in 1990, reached a highest ranking of 61 in singles, was Israel Singles Champion three times. Bloom has been running his own tennis program since 2000 and also was director of tennis at John McEnroe Tennis Academy for two years. He can be reached by e-mail at Bloom.Gilad@Gmail.com.