Martin is the type of person you would like to invite to any kind of stressful event that you might have but don’t want to attend. Like your ex’ wedding or, the dentist, or extensive surgery, or a first date with your crush. Alright, maybe not the last one. I met Martin in Stuttgart, Germany as our new team coach for the team I have been playing with for couple of years now. During the two seasons that he coached me, Martin and I have had several fantastic conversations about tennis players, the tour and life in general. We sat during our last final match near Mannheim and chatted again. This time we spoke about him. The former number 42 on the ATP speaks about his career, life after and shares his thoughts regarding his retirement.
First, Martin Sinner reminds me of Dennis Quaid in his prime. But only physically, because mentally he is the most calm and soothing person you will ever meet. Born in Germany, he is now 48 but surely does not look like it. I think it has something to do with his persona and him always being at ease. Once I told him about the ‘fake it till you make it” motto and since then it became our mantra. And sometimes I did fake it, but did not make it and I lost my match pretty badly. He patted my shoulder, said that it looked good and that somehow made it enough for me to not feel embarrassed about my performance. He never made me feel guilty, nor miserable. Quite unimaginable for an elite tennis coach.
“I found it a bit lame to just hang out at the tennis club not be able to do anything so I decided to grab a racket and hit some balls against the wall.”
His tennis chronicle started when he was about 3 or 4 years old and was just following his family on the tennis courts. “I was the youngest one. Also my brother and sister started to play tennis at a very early age. I found it a bit lame to just hang out at the tennis club not be able to do anything so I decided to grab a racket and hit some balls against the wall.” Martin maintained his relationship with a hitting wall for approximately first two years. The reason was that at that time back in the 70’s there was nobody else with his age to play with and the tennis programs for kids his age was very limited. “I started to play from time to time when I was 5 years old. Tennis just started booming at that time so there was also limited time on the court.” Martin was 7 when he started to play kids tournaments. Between the age of 9 and 11 it became something more. Hitting the balls became a passion, a process of training, a competition against others and also against himself.
All of a sudden he was dedicating his summer holiday to tennis. Martin still went to school and the original plan was to get his high school diploma but when he was 16 years old he received an offer from a first division tennis club in Stuttgart. “I made the decision to take a year off from school and play twice a day like a professional.” The following year Martin and his family had to make another decision whether go back to school or continue to play.
This is a very difficult choice to make, especially when a player is still in his teenage years. What was his choice? “I first went back to school, because at that time I had a coach who told me that I might be not good enough and there was a sort of agreement that I would be able to play a sufficient amount of hours. That had never happened and at that point I really felt that I wanted to play. I have always had that passion for sports and becoming a professional. I loved tennis so finally on my 18th birthday I looked in the mirror and asked myself ‘What am I doing, going to school, but also playing tennis fifty-fifty?’ It wasn’t the right thing for me and I really wanted to become a professional. “
After having an immediate talk with his supportive father, Martin and his family decided to go for it. For the first couple of years he was traveling around going to the smaller tournaments and then after recovering from an injury he was playing the strongest tournaments for 4 consecutive years. His best rankings were #42 in singles and #82 in doubles on the ATP ranking. What did that mean for him, to be 42nd best tennis player in the world? “I was proud, satisfied and of course I was thinking about taking it even further, but to be honest when I was top 50 I also felt some pressure. I felt the pressure because I wanted more and at the same time it was getting tougher. You have to realize, you always have to play top 50 players out there when you are top 50 yourself. Looking back I was not able to relax and feel comfortable with my position.”
“I felt the pressure because I wanted more and at the same time it was getting tougher. You have to realize, you always have to play top 50 players out there when you are top 50 yourself. Looking back I was not able to relax and feel comfortable with my position.”
But sadly as it goes for any athlete, Martin had to stop at some point. After having a lengthy hiatus of knee injuries he was at the point where he again had to decide what to do next:” I was thinking about trying to come back fully, but I knew it was going to be very tough physically. I knew it was going to take me two years to get back to the same level as I was when I left. Tennis was progressing and I was out for almost a year. Those were the times that tennis really changed. I gave myself a chance but at the same time I knew that if I push myself physically even more after having a few injuries already I would not be able to have a good life after my career. I was not even thinking about money, business or what I’m going to do.”
Slowly Martins focus shifted to doubles because he felt it was the right thing to do and he had a good doubles partner. However, after his teammate got injured it was hard to find a replacement, so he decided to start teaching tennis. “It was something totally new. But at the same time I always knew I wanted to teach tennis. I think I always knew because I was always interested in tennis. It was only a question of whether I would go back to traveling and coaching on a very high level or just teach tennis and have a normal life.”Martin chose to teach first. He was teaching all kinds of levels from kids to adults and from teams to groups of seniors. “That experience really was a good foundation for me as a touring coach. It’s important to know how people are and how people feel on the court. Going from coaching people who hit 2000 balls a day to someone who hits 200 balls a week gave me a lot perspective.”
It’s interesting how Martin has never had any sort of antagonistic thoughts about tennis.” There was nothing about tennis that I did not like. A social life was difficult, yes, but back then I was traveling with my girlfriend, later my wife, which felt comforting. It’s tough to travel with a family and the first few years on tour are extremely tough especially because you are traveling alone without a coach.” Martin’s social life during this period took place in a more or less tennis-exclusive environment. He’d hang out a lot with the older guys, who had of experience in tennis as he decidedly says: “I always had a great time being near tennis players, probably the best time of my life.” But he agrees that he missed the social aspect of his life during this time. “What a superficial world. It’s like a bubble, you always see the same faces, same places and you don’t really have time for a normal life. It’s nothing like a normal life too.”
But as Martin looks back he feels content about his career. “I know I have made some good decisions and some bad decisions. By looking back you always find something that you could have done better, but I love the sport.” Martin has a normal life now. A normal one, but a good one. He got divorced couple years ago, but it seems that he found a new sweetheart on his journey that makes him undoubtedly very happy. He is still around tennis and probably always will be as he declares. ”Monday to Friday I just teach tennis and then during the weekends I have a normal life. I appreciate that. I’m happy with what I have achieved and I am proud about it. Being able to pass on my experience to others, to pass my knowledge to others, that truly gives me a lot of passion.”
“Monday to Friday I just teach tennis and then during the weekends I have a normal life. I appreciate that. I’m happy with what I have achieved and I am proud about it. Being able to pass on my experience to others, to pass my knowledge to others, that truly gives me a lot of passion.”
When talking about the times right after his decision to stop, Martin agrees that it was certainly not all rainbows and unicorns all the time. “There were times when I doubted my decision to stop at the age of 32. I doubted that decision for quite a while, but I have stayed around tennis by playing the team matches for my team. Martin stopped competing at age of 36 completely. “I really lost motivation to play competitively at that time.” He concludes. A lot of former athletes miss the adrenaline from matches and competing. But it seems that Martin does not have to drive 250 KM/H on a highway or go bungee jumping to feel intact. But he recognizes these issues and sends a message to those who did not found themselves quite yet.
“My advice is that if you are struggling, try to get professional help. There are so many options now to go from tennis to other businesses. It’s global world now, take advantage of it. 20 or 25 years ago you did not have this many options. You could either become a tennis teacher or a tennis coach. If you haven’t finished your studies back then, then you did not really have a choice. Now I feel it’s completely different. Don’t be shy or feel ashamed. Do not feel shame at all. Find yourself a new challenge that fulfills you even though that’s not easy. Also it’s important to stay active, to be physically active because in my opinion if you are physically strong than you are mentally strong as well. I have seen many of my colleagues go down because they just stopped from one day to another and they were struggling physically and mentally as well. And once you feel like you cannot move anymore, then you also feel ashamed. By looking back at the times when you were a great athlete and you were running from one corner to another and then you look into the mirror and all of a sudden you are overweight. Overweight per se is not bad but it’s different if you were an athlete.”
“My advice is that if you are struggling, try to get professional help. Don’t be shy or feel ashamed. Do not feel shame at all and find yourself a new challenge.”
If Martin would have never been an elite tennis player he had an alternative dream. “I always wanted to be a rock star.” He laughs. Martin admits that he is not a creative mind nor he has ever played any musical instrument. What if Martin could have become the best world-smashing guitarist of all times if he would not play tennis? We can never know, but I think we could all be happy for Martin and him becoming one of the top 50 tennis players in the world.