Yes, it has been a while since there was an update but I hope it was worth the wait. Here is an extensive interview with Grega Žemlja the first Slovenian male to make the top 50 in the ATP Rankings and also to make the 3rd round of the US Open and Wimbledon.
Žemlja is on the comeback trail after being diagnosed with mononucleosis not long after his breakthrough year in 2012. We speak about this and many other subjects in this interview. For those who want to know more about Grega here is his site Grega Žemlja
Also, I'd like to thank Grega for taking his time to speak clearly with me and in his third language it is much appreciated.
How old were you when you started playing tennis and what were your earliest memories?
I started when I was 6 or 7. My parents built a tennis court on artificial grass in front of our house. This is actually how we started, my parents were big tennis enthusiasts.
My sister and I started to have some fun actually in the beginning. After that we got our first coach. Then I went to our club near our home and started playing there.
Slovenia is known for its winter sports especially ski jumping and skiing. What made you choose tennis over skiing?
Skiing was basically first my sport when I was 9 or 10. Afterwards my parents were the factor where I started playing more tennis and didn't do so much skiing.
I'll always like skiing, my father was a ski jumper. Of course Slovenia has plenty of mountains and we live in that part of the country where skiing is the major sport. I went for tennis and I don't regret it.
You were among the first generation of Slovenians to grow up in an independent country. Did your parents or grandparents ever speak about the old days in Yugoslavia?
No, not too much. I mean I'm aware of that it used to be one country and different times they were, I never got the comparisons or some story from Yugoslavia. Maybe, it's better not to talk about it.
Slovenia wasn’t known for producing players. Yet, Kavčič and yourself came through at the same time? Did the federation provide any financial assistance or help in any way?
In some way yes, let's say in a small way. Actually the club helped me where I practicsed and did everything. They gave me much bigger support than the federation.
I got the finances from Davis Cup and that's about it. Nowadays, I don't have a problem with the association or blame them for anything. We have good relations and I play every Davis Cup. My parents were the most supportive factor when I was young and before I came a pro. That was the biggest help that I got.
Žemlja and Kavčič
How important was it to have Kavčič there as a rival in those days?
Not really we started competing against each other when we were 15 or 16, then we played really a lot against each other. In tennis, you are always on your own, I don't see him a guy who pushed me forward or to a good ranking.
I see it more as development as I was playing good, then Luka Gregorc was playing good and Blaz was playing good. Still, there was a time when none of us were really good and then somebody came up. In the end it's up to an individual to do certain things properly.
Without a powerful federation and a big agency behind you. How difficult were the early days when trying to establish yourself on tour, for example in relation to getting sponsors?
As I said earlier my parents and the club in some way were the biggest helps financially. Those were difficult times in Slovenia before 2009 the best ranking was 195, so for every ATP point people were getting excited about.
Basically I won my first point winning a Futures title. It was a huge thing and everybody was getting excited. In those winning Futures, playing Futures and Challengers was amazing. Now, we don't see that like we used to, in that time we were really excited.
In regards to sponsors, I never got one. Yes, I had Babolat for stuff and clothes but for financial help I didn't get any.
When did you realise that you were able to make it as a professional player?
I wouldn't say there was a particular result that pushed me up or make me believe. There were a few times in my career where I beat a really good player. I wasn’t really thinking about it, I was just following the steps and not over exaggerating about things. I wasn’t really euphoric about my results and I wasn’t too down after a tough loss.
When I made top 100 that was an important moment in my career, that was actually when I didn’t fear anyone at this stage.
What have been your experiences of playing on the Futures & Challenger Tour? Do you have any funny stories to share?
When I started playing it was still the Satellites which became Futures. I started playing in the Croatian part of Istria near the Slovenian border. So many players there, but I played the same guy 3 times in a row and lost to him three times.
Then I played doubles with my coach and I was so pissed off from losing in singles, that I was tanking the doubles. The coach was really angry and we split up. Next tournament I won the tournament. Yes, now we can look back on it and laugh, I was being the problem guy throwing racquets but it ended ok.
You have made the 3rd round of Wimbledon and the US Open. How do you rate those achievements?
Yes, of course they were big results. For me it’s always fun to play at Grand Slams and I play my best tennis there. It just special when I came to the tournament it’s as big as it gets.
I had my biggest wins at Wimbledon and the US Open, so yes of course I’m proud of that result.
In 2012 you made your first ever ATP final in Vienna as a qualifier. What do you remember from that great week?
That was a good story. I started out as a qualifier, the number 1 seed in qualies. And was first out in Vienna, Moscow and Stockholm. In the end I decided to go to Vienna, I qualified and won 7-6 in the 3rd set of the 1st round.
In the second round I remember my shoes were completely done. In one part there was a complete hole. I hated new shoes, as it was so tough for me to play in new shoes. I got my shoes fixed and played every match in these shoes. These were my lucky shoes, I was playing good and moving unbelievable it’s a good story.
My family and friends came to watch me as Vienna is quite close. I t was an unbelievable week and definitely one of my favourites.
You were the first Slovenian to make the top 50 and what contributed to your breakthrough year?
Of course I’m proud it’s a big thing for a Slovenian to be top 50. Years ago, we never expected to make it this far but in the end I got sick with mono and there was a problem after that.
I wanted to build on that success and wasn’t allowed to because of that disease. Immediately as I got my highest ranking I had to stop.
You had a serious case of mono and how frustrating was it that you were unable to enjoy and build on your success?
It was frustrating as I wanted to play some tournaments I retired two or three times, then took a break for 2-3 months but I never fully recovered.
I had the wrong treatment because none of the doctors knew what was really going on. It became more of a mental thing, you’re playing, you’re not playing, you have problems, and you don’t have problems.
Some weeks it was fine, then other weeks it wasn’t. I played at 80% sometimes that was good enough and other times not. I wasn’t satisfied because at 80% because at the highest level it has to be 100%. Then I decided to stop for one year and fully recover.
How did you spend your extended time away from the game? Did it change your perspective in any way?
Yes, it did but mostly I had fun. I was enjoying things playing ice hockey, windsurfing and was finding different sports, things about that life which I had to put aside when I was playing and practicing hard.
It was a good moment in my career, well good in regarding that side I was enjoying life and once I recovered from the mono I was 100% ready to go back to tennis.
In a way I was richer for this experience which impacted on my tennis career.
The ITF haven’t raised the Futures prize money from 15k since the 80s. Challenger prize money at its worst has decreased 30% from 1995, now it has been increased slightly. What can be done to readdress some of the balance?
There are some steps in this direction, though I am not sure I heard by 2017 there’ll be no more 10K Futures and Challengers will have to have hospitality. There won’t be anything lower than 50 or 75K Challenger.
The problem I think is the top 20 and from players 100-200. There is a really big bridge between those players, they should do more there to ease the financial gap.
Do you believe that the current ATP Player Representatives doing enough to ensure that the players who earn the vast majority of money through prize money and not sponsorship are able to survive playing the sport?
Yes, they probably could do more but in a way it’s tough to be a smartarse now and say what they should do. We all need to take steps in that direction, there are so many territories where we should maximise this.
What do you remember of your first Challenger title?
It was a nice one in Cancun, Mexico on the green clay. It was the last tournament of the year and I was enjoying every moment. It’s a touristy place, lot of people there, the hotel was nice, and the courts were amazing. It was the perfect play, they don’t have this tournament in the calendar anymore for which I am sorry about.
I was winning all the matches very easy and in the final it was 6-2 6-1 over Martin Alund. I played unbelievable there and it was one of the great moments in my career. Winning a tournament is maybe even better than playing 3rd or 2nd round of a Grand Slam, because you beat everyone and know you could not have done better. It was a special moment for sure.
What are your favourite tournaments?
Grand Slams and Vienna.
Who are your best friends on tour?
I’m always hanging out with the Slovenians but I have many friends in the tennis world. I don’t cause trouble, carry grudges and think I behave ok on court. I get on with most people.
Biggest jerk on the tour?
What’s the worst place you have stayed in so far on tour?
I remember two places. One was in Saransk Russia, where I was playing a Challenger, that place was tough. The hotel was in the middle of being renovated, there were some floors that were disasters. We managed to get a better floor and room.
There was one bed for my coach and I it’s tough being in bed with someone both of us are pretty big and everyone needs his own space.
The other was in China, I can’t remember the place but it was hot and humid. There were problems with hygiene, few English speakers, the parts that weren’t associated with the club or hotels weren’t good. I had some bad memories in Russia and China
Name the best and worst matches you have played in your career so far?
Best: Where I beat Monaco in Roland Garros plus in Vienna against Tipsarevic and Haas.
Worst: I’ve had many bad ones. One was recently in Fairfield where I lost to Liam Broady that was bad.
My second tournament back I played a Turkish Futures where I got a wildcard and lost to a guy ranked 600 lost 6-2 6-0 that was even worse.
Apart from skiing and ice hockey. What other sports do you like outside of tennis?
Windsurfing, I enjoy it so much now.
Which football team do you support?
I watch a lot of Premier League and follow Manchester United. Before it wasn’t so much but in the last couple of years I’ve followed it more closely.
Should Man Utd keep Van Gaal?
Nooo, I don’t think so.
Who would be the ideal replacement?
Pep Guardiola, but I think he’s going to Man City. Everyone’s talking about Mourinho. I don’t think he’s the ideal one but definitely better than van Gaal who is destroying the club with this football. Even if it’s successful it’s not the type that I enjoy watching.
What do you think about the length of season?
It’s too long.
What solutions would you propose for the calendar to reduce or maybe not reduce the amount of tournaments?
For sure they could squeeze it and there should be more than two months break. Now the season finishes in November and they could reduce it by a month.
Two and a half to three months off makes sense because if you want to do a proper pre season and improve which every player wants, which leads to better quality tennis. You need those three months to have a proper pre season and be fully prepared. Now with all the tournaments it’s tough to do that and leading to more injuries.
The ATP is meant to be a joint union between players and tournament directors but it doesn’t to favour tournament directors more so. Are there ways to improve the organisation to have a better representation and reputation among the players?
I’ve lost touch with that since I didn’t follow all the meetings that took place lately, since I was away. In the past I knew there were problems with that and there are still are.
In the end tournament directors have the last word, because of the sponsors they have the last say and big influence. It’s tough to join the parts.
Willy Cañas said “The ATP practices discrimination from an economic standpoint, like any multinational corporation. It’s just another of millions that there are in the world. Point being that I accept it, but I'm not buying into it that it is a group of players that decide (players union) because it isn't like that”. Do you believe that Willy is correct on this particular issue?
Yes, he’s right in that we are a part of it, but we don’t like it as it is. From the time he said it to where we are now, there have been some changes.
As it is I haven’t following the financials and the economics lately because I didn’t care about it. I’ll pay more attention to it now
How widespread do you believe doping is on tour?
Yes, I think it does when I look at some players and how they perform. How they do these tests, but behind the scenes there is a lot to it. It’s always tough to guess, you need to have some facts.
Have you ever been tested out-of-season/at an unreasonable or ridiculous hour?
I was tested five times in a row at tournaments. It’s right they do it, but it needs to be better. I never been tested at a strange hour nor needed to give them the schedule.
Since the Tennis Integrity Unit has existed do you believe match fixing has been on the decrease or are they smarter about it?
A good question, for sure they got smarter. I think there is less than before but betting is so popular and it’s tough to eliminate the problem.
What’s your opinion about the Davis Cup?
I like it and always found of these weeks to represent my country and will continue to do it. Players think they’ll lose 2 or 3 weeks of the year but it won’t destroy their careers. In a way it should be an obligation to play for your country.
Do you think offering ranking points for Davis Cup participation is a good idea?
Yes, it should be more spread and not just to the World Group.
Do you think Slovenia can make World Group?
We can, but we all have to play. If we play with one player or maybe two then that’s not enough. We need a full squad and then we’re a chance.
There are makings of a good team but luck never seems to be there in relation to having all the players fit at the same time?
That’s true we played Israel. I had mono, Kavcic was injured and Rola was the only one fit enough to play. One year without these issues then we have chances.
What are the positives of playing league events during the year?
The French league was good, I was playing well, having fun with the team and it was good preparation for the Australian Open.
What are your hopes and goals for 2016?
To comeback where I was before suffering mono.
Word association to finish of course.
Grasscourt tennis - Fast tennis, low bounce, serve volley.
Slovenia being confused as Slovakia - I hate that, lack of intelligence.
Olimpija Ljubljana - Basketball.
Blaz Kavčič - Lot of ego.
Melbourne - Nicest Grand Slam.
Poker - Tough, unpredictable but unbelievable fun game to play.
Jota - Traditional food, but I don’t like it.
Zlatko Zahovic - One of the biggest Slovenian sportspeople.
Anže Kopitar - Really nice guy, love to watch him, respect for everything and all the best to him.
I'd like to thank Grega once again for giving up his time with this interview. If anyone wants to translate or use this interview. Please ask me and credit the author don't pass it off as your own work.