ON THE RISE... THOMAZ BELLUCCI
Thomaz Bellucci may not remember exactly where he was when Gustavo Kuerten won his first of three Roland Garros titles in 1997. But the event had a lasting impact on the fast-rising Brazilian.
Brazil has waited nine years for a Grand Slam champion to follow in the footsteps of former World No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten, and 22-year-oldThomaz Bellucci looks set to bear the brunt of the media pressure and expectation in the years to come.
Shy and quiet by nature, the family-orientated Bellucci is more at home cheering on his local football team, Palmeiras FC, than at a night club. While at home, he can be found spending time with his family, friends and his girlfriend. Tennis players do not attract the same attention as football stars in Brazil, he insists, and despite recent success, he has largely maintained his anonymity at home.
Whether or not he turns heads as he walks down the street just yet, though, Bellucci is his country’s lone representative in the Top 50 of the South African Airways 2010 ATP Rankings. His recent rise up to a career-high No. 26 has given Brazilian tennis fans and media reason to believe more Grand Slam glory could be on the horizon.
“You feel you have to achieve the same as Guga, you have to replace Guga, so it’s not easy”
“It’s going to be difficult [to emulate Kuerten’s success],” says Bellucci, who has known Kuerten for three years and played alongside him in the Brazilian Davis Cup team. “I think I can do some things, but to be able to do them all won’t be easy, [for example] getting to No. 1 in the world. Guga was the best and most important Brazilian tennis player ever, and I think he is a little far away. So I don’t know if I will be able to achieve what he has done in the coming years.
“It’s not easy because whenever someone starts to play better the media puts more pressure on them and you feel you have to achieve the same as Guga, you have to replace Guga, so it’s not easy,” explains Bellucci. “For me and the juniors who start playing well, it’s not easy needing to learn how to deal with it.”
Bellucci’s best friend on tour, Marcelo Melo, has every faith that his younger countryman can fulfill his potential, regardless of the pressures he faces. “I think he is doing a good job handling the pressure. In Brazil, when you are the number one at your sport, it is normal to have some more pressure.
“If he can keep doing good like he is right now, improving his game, maybe this year or next year he will do really well in a big tournament, like win an [ATP World Tour] Masters 1000 or go far in a Grand Slam. To make this happen he needs to keep doing what he does now, practising a lot and always believing he can do it.”
As a child, Bellucci was introduced to tennis by his parents, who played socially. Growing up, he also played football and did not shy away from his studies, attending school in the morning before tennis practice in the afternoons. However, it never occurred to Bellucci he might pursue any other path than tennis.
Success has not come easily for Bellucci, though. By his own admission, he “played well, but was not the best junior” – a trait he believes was good for his development. “My parents always supported me, even when losing matches, which happens, helping to learn how to deal with the losses, so that was really important for my career,” says the left-hander, who reached a career-high No. 15 in the world junior rankings in January 2005.
With Bellucci unable to penetrate the Top 80 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings by the closing stages of 2008, a change was needed for the 2009 season. Joao Zwetsch was invited on board and Bellucci’s fortunes have since changed.
Success came swiftly. Within four months of working with Zwetsch, Bellucci had reached his first ATP World Tour final on home soil at theBrasil Open in Costa do Sauipe, narrowly missing out to the then-No.19 ranked Tommy Robredo. However, more tough times were ahead as, four months later, Bellucci found himself down at No. 143 in the rankings.
“Last year I was playing well but it was a period when I wasn’t winning many matches so I was ranked outside the Top 140,” remembers Bellucci. “It was a very difficult phase for me because I had been No. 60 and dropped so I had to play Challengers again, the smaller tournaments, so it was not easy.”
“His greatest asset is his aggressiveness. He has many weapons that can hurt his opponents”
However, what has impressed Zwetsch most about Bellucci in their time together is his discipline and his willingness to do whatever it takes to succeed. Victory at an ATP Challenger Tour event in Rimini, Italy, was quickly followed by a dream week for Bellucci in Gstaad. Ranked at No. 119, he qualified into the main draw of the ATP World Tour 250 clay-court tournament and defeated two Top 30 players (No. 24 Stanislas Wawrinka, No. 27 Igor Andreev) en route to winning his first ATP World Tour title.
With his ranking firmly on the rise, Bellucci enjoyed more success at the close of the season, reaching the semi-finals in Stockholm and winning an ATP Challenger Tour title in his hometown of Sao Paulo, before improving yet further in 2010, capturing his second ATP World Tour title in Santiago.
While there have been clear improvements, both coach and pupil believe there is plenty more hard work to be done on Bellucci’s game before he maximises his potential. “I think my serve is my strongest feature,” says the young Brazilian. “There’s a lot that I need to improve: my physical conditioning, mental conditioning, my fast-court game. I know that I have a lot to work on and I will endeavour to do so as quickly as possible.”
“We have been able to improve his backhand that was good but inconsistent, his offensive game, his footwork and court coverage and the mental part,” added Zwetsch. “We still have a lot to work on in his game, such as his volleys (net game), returns of serve and his fitness in general. We are doing this progressively and I am happy how far we have come since we started.
“His greatest asset is his aggressiveness. He has many weapons that can hurt his opponents, which is the key to beating today’s players.”
What next then for Bellucci? Zwetsch certainly has high hopes for his pupil, and while the immediate goal may be to maintain his Top 30 position, Zwetsch believes he is destined for much higher: “I believe Thomaz could reach the Top 20 and if he keeps his feet on the ground and keeps working hard, staying humble and paying the price to improve his game, he could break into the Top 10.”
Bellucci’s immediate focus is on making strides in the bigger tournaments, but thinking long-term, the Brazilian is already dreaming of Olympic glory when the 2016 Olympic Games are held in Rio de Janeiro, a bid that Kuerten was instrumental in presenting for Brazil during the selection campaign.
“I think the most important thing in my career at the moment is playing in the bigger tournaments and having good results in Grand Slams and [ATP World Tour] Masters 1000s,” Bellucci said. “I think my objective is always to be amongst the best players and to reach the Top 10 would be a great achievement.
“Later on we will have the Olympic Games in Brazil as well. I hope I’ll still be playing then. I think it’s a dream for any player to play in the Olympic Games in their own country. In a few years I’m going to have that chance. I think it might be the most important tournament of my life.”
A gold medal for Bellucci in 2016 would surely emulate Kuerten’s success and live long in the memory of Brazilian tennis.