Dear 16-year-old Pete,
You’re about to go pro, and you’re pretty excited. Deep in your heart you know you’re eventually going to succeed. But believe me, it’s coming a lot sooner than you think. You’ll have your early ups and downs, but in just a couple of years, you’re gonna fight your way into the Top 5 in the world rankings, and you’ll win the U.S. Open, beating the likes of Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi in the process. At 19, you’ll be the youngest player to ever win the U.S. Open.
That’s when everything will change.
You’ll be an up-and-coming American with no exposure one day; then, when you wake up the morning after winning the Open, you’ll be on talk show after talk show. All eyes will be on you, and the attention will take some getting used to — it won’t mesh well with your reserved personality.
There’s more to being a pro than just playing tennis. The more successful you are, the more people will want out of you. It won’t always be something you’ll want to do, and it won’t always be fun. The pressure will be as exhausting as anything you’ll ever do on the tennis court. But as a tennis champion, you have that responsibility. You play tennis because you love the game, not because you love the limelight, so get ready. Think about getting some media training. It’ll go a long way. Luckily, you’ll be out of the game before these things called Twitter and Facebook come around. Be thankful for that. One day you’ll understand what I mean.
Oh, and put the newspaper down. Don’t read what people are saying about you. No good can come of it. And if you do hear or read something negative about yourself, don’t sweat it. Let your racket do the talking.
Now, let’s talk about your game a little. During your career, they’ll develop a new kind of string that will help you gain a little more spin and speed. You’ll see a guy like Gustavo Kuerten use it on clay and have success, and even though coaches and other players will tell you to use that new string — along with a bigger head to give you that little extra margin for error you need to win on clay — you’ll resist. You’re a little neurotic about your equipment — like most tennis players — but if you want to win that French Open and complete the career Grand Slam, you’ll need to try something different. Be open to new technology.
On top of that, don’t forget to take care of your most important weapon: your body. Be aware of what you’re eating. There will be times when you wake up in the middle of the night before a match craving crazy things like hamburgers and pizza. It’s because your body is missing something. If you ignore those cravings and don’t figure out what your body needs (and it’s definitely not burgers or pizza), you’ll get on the court the next day and fall flat.
This will never be more apparent than at the 1996 U.S. Open. You’ll face Alex Corretja in the quarterfinals, and in the fourth set, you’ll run out of gas because you didn’t eat properly before the match. You’ll need a boost, and you’ll reach for a can of Coca-Cola. That’s not the answer. All that’s gonna do is make you throw up on the court during the fifth-set tiebreaker. You’ll go on to win the match, but believe me, it won’t be fun (although everyone else will love the drama).
One day, everyone will be a nutrition freak. Be ahead of that curve.
Also, be aware of the pills you take. If you take sleeping pills to overcome jet lag, before you know it, you’ll be taking them every night. When your arm is sore and you’re given medication for it, throw that bottle away. Those pills will give you a painful, persistent ulcer. Be aware of what you put in your body.
You’ll get to play against your heroes, like Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors — the guys you grew up watching. You’ll even get to play with John McEnroe in doubles, which will turn out to be an oddly perfect combination. You, the calm, collected right-hander, and McEnroe, the emotional, energetic lefty. When he gets crazy, you’ll be the calming influence. When you’re in a lull, he’ll energize you. You’ll balance each other out perfectly. You’ll win the Davis Cup together, and it’ll be some of the most fun you have in your career playing with probably the greatest doubles player of all time.
But when you leave the court for good, there is one opponent whose name will be mentioned alongside yours forever. Andre Agassi.
I know you can’t see it now, but you will have a fierce, special rivalry with Andre Agassi. He’ll be the best player you play against during your career, and he will bring out the best in you. You’ll rise to be the best in the world together, and it’s always gonna be a heavyweight match when you play. There will always be huge buzz.
You’ll be fortunate enough to play against him in five Grand Slam finals, and you’ll win four of them. But if you want to win all five, hear me out.
In the 1995 Australian Open Final, you’ll be be tied at one set apiece. You’ll be up 6-4 in a tiebreaker, serving for the set, which would put you up two sets to one and in pretty good shape. Don’t serve out wide. Go up the middle. If you go out wide, he’ll pass you on the forehand, and he’ll go on to win the set, the tiebreaker and the match. It’ll be the only Grand Slam final he beats you in. This adjustment won’t guarantee you the win but it will put you in a much better position.
You’re gonna win your first and last Grand Slams against Andre, and somewhere in between, you’ll start to understand how important that rivalry is to American tennis and how special it is to both of you as individuals. This rivalry will be bigger than either of you could ever dream. Your games are so different, as are your personalities. Keeping it professional and always maintaining a mutual respect for one another is what will make the rivalry one of the best the game will ever see.
It’s not just Andre and that rivalry you should stop to appreciate, either. There will be many people who will have an enormous impact on your tennis game and on your life — none more important than your future coach, mentor and friend, Tim Gullikson.
During that same ’95 Aussie Open where you’ll lose to Andre in the finals (unless you take my advice), Tim will mysteriously collapse and will be forced to miss the tournament. Seeing him in the hospital and seeing his brother in tears will be more than you can handle alone.
Talk about it. I know, you’re introverted and reserved. But this one’s too big for you to take on alone. If you don’t talk about it, it’ll build up inside and come boiling over in one big rush of emotion during the quarterfinals against Jim Courier, and you’ll break down and cry right there on the court.
Tim will eventually succumb to the brain cancer that caused him to collapse, and that will hit you even harder. Don’t go at it alone. Appreciate him while you have him, and talk about it when he’s gone. You’ll thank me later.
It’s the people in your life — people like Tim — that will shape you. Appreciate them.
Appreciate your friend John Black. When he gives you the number of that pretty girl named Bridgette you see on the movie screen, thank him, and call her. I know, it’s not like you to put yourself out there like that. It’s bizarre. But do it — call her. And later on, when she becomes your wife, appreciate her. Every day — appreciate her.
Appreciate your sisters, Stella and Marion, and your brother Gus. Listen to them. They have good advice. And know that they will always support you no matter what.
Appreciate your parents. They give you the coaching you need. They always support you. They let you be your own man. And now that you’re ready to go pro, appreciate that they’ve given you as much of a normal childhood as possible. They never have and never will put too much pressure on you. Those are things you can’t see as a 16-year-old — the sacrifices your parents make.
Pay attention to all your parents do and take notes. It’ll come in handy one day when you have a couple of boys of your own.
You’re 16 years old and your life is just beginning, but don’t get sucked into always looking ahead. It’s tough because after every tournament — even when you win — your focus immediately shifts to the next one. Take time to appreciate your major wins and share them with your family and friends. Take advantage of your youth and enjoy it. The journey truly is the reward.
Play hard, do it on your own terms and stay true to yourself. Do that, and you can’t go wrong.
Photographs by AP Images