Taro Daniel made an unexpected run to the semifinals at the Serbia Open as a “lucky loser,” pushing eventual champion Matteo Berrettini to a third set before succumbing to the big-hitting Italian.
But perhaps this run wasn’t as surprising as it looks on paper, where the 28-year-old Daniel beat three higher-ranked players, two of whom (Sousa and Delbonis) have titles on clay. Daniel himself is no slouch on the surface: his family moved to Spain when he was 14 years old and that’s where he won his first three professional titles at ITF Futures events in 2012. Flash forward a few years and Daniel also won his first two Challenger titles on clay—albeit in Italy and Germany, not Spain—and qualified for the main draw at Roland Garros. In May 2018, he won an ATP title on clay in Istanbul, beating then-#102 Matteo Berrettini in the first round.
I caught up with Daniel—virtually, of course—after his last match in Belgrade to find out how the Japanese player felt about his two weeks in Serbia’s capital, where he also competed in a Challenger tournament at the Novak Tennis Center.
“It’s a great feeling, to be honest, even though I lost. I was, energy-wise and physically, pretty drained today. But even then I found probably some of the best tennis I ever played for a little period at the end of the second set there. And, you know, I’ve been working really hard off the court with my coach. Also, I had my mental coach and my trainer with me; so, [it was] a very intense couple weeks here. But some stuff is paying off on court. So, I’m really happy with that and I can see the potential I can have in possibly improving a lot more.”
Since I’d noticed that Daniel had quite a few people cheering from his box during the semifinal, I wondered how things were going with coach Sven Groeneveld and the rest of his team.
“Yeah, it was just a coincidence that this time I had such a big team, because usually, especially with COVID, I’ve only been traveling with my coach. But it just happened that the mental coach was able to come this week and also my trainer. I wanted him to come at the beginning of the clay season to [help] adapt to the movements on clay, so it just happened to be.”
Regarding his mental coach, Jackie Reardon, Daniel said they’d been working together since shortly after the tennis tour resumed last August.
“You know, I’ve kind of struggled the last couple of years with enjoying the tour. I’ve worked so hard—and that’s kind of been my default setting, too. So, I’ve always kind of felt that if I suffer, then I should get a reward. That worked really well until I got to this level: I mean, [top] 100 in the world or 80 in the world, 110. But then I felt like something’s missing in order for me to take the next step. I think, obviously, there’s some stuff in the game of tennis; but then I think I’m playing well enough to be able to be [ranked] 50 or 60, as long as I have the right mind-set. I need to start believing in myself more and being happier with what I’m doing with tennis and bringing more joy into the game. But those things need to be trained, you know. And that’s actually one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because I need to get into really, really uncomfortable situations to bring that out. So, it’s been a really intense but amazing process.”
At risk of faulty post-hoc reasoning, I’d suggest that process has already paid off, even before last week’s success in Belgrade, as Daniel won a Challenger title in Hamburg last October.
I also asked Daniel about his prospects for Tokyo, as well as his thoughts about the Olympic Games going forward while the pandemic is ongoing. Recent polls show that a majority of the country isn’t enthusiastic about the Olympics taking place. For one thing, Japan is hardly leading the pack with regard to vaccinating its population.
And, just last week, the government announced a state of emergency in an attempt to get case numbers under control in its biggest cities which, according to the Associated Press, are “home to about a quarter of Japan’s population of 126 million.” In mid-May, after the state of emergency has been lifted, IOC President Thomas Bach will visit Japan to get a progress report on preparations.
Currently, Daniel is ranked #112: fifth among Japanese ATP players, just behind Yasutaka Uchiyama (#108) and Yuichi Sugita (#109). With only 56 players gaining direct entry, and the rankings cutoff set for June 14 to include results from the postponed French Open, the competition is stiff. Daniel said that while he’d like to play in Tokyo, it isn’t his top priority for the year.
“We’re so close now with the two guys in front of me, we’re kind of in a really tight race. I’m obviously trying to make the Olympic cuts and I know that the [limit is] like four per county; so, it’s pretty important to try and make it. But, at the same time, it’s not my main focus. My main focus is to really keep investing in my mental strength and my tennis, and then… I’ll just let things be. But, obviously, that’s one of my goals, to make it there.”
“And then, with all the uncertainties with the Olympics, it’s so difficult to say. Because even if I’m from there and I know people that are working directly for the Olympics, they know exactly the same amount that I do, almost. I feel like everybody is really lost. And that’s the message that’s kind of being transmitted to the public, as well, [which] I think is normal because it’s such a complicated situation. And I think it’s also normal that the people are pretty afraid to have such a big event, you know, because can you really concentrate on the quality of the sport being played while there are so many concerns around all the other stuff? [But] I think once it happens, it’ll be okay. You know, I’m sure the Japanese are really good at organizing; so, when the athletes are in the village, it won’t be like a super-spreader thing in there. I mean, I don’t know what kind of protocols they’ll have for the public—for spectators. So, we’ll see. I don’t know anything, really, if it will go ahead or not, but I hope it will.”
When I asked whether he, like his coach, took the opportunity presented by the local surplus to get vaccinated in Serbia, Daniel reminded me that he’ll be playing the qualifying rounds for Roland Garros the week of the second Belgrade event. So, unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out for him to return for a second shot.
Turning to Groeneveld, the high-profile coach had positive reviews for the Serbian Open, which has been granted a second life after an initial run from 2009-2012. Though he and Reardon had already shared some of their impressions of the organization on Twitter, the Dutchman also followed up with me by text after the tournament: “The facility, staff, and all of the services—for food, transport, laundry, stringing, and hotel—were run perfectly. We never had to wait for anything, as if they have been running this event for years and years.”
Despite the nine-year break between ATP tournaments in Belgrade, members of the Djoković family have had more recent practice in event management: Novak’s uncle Goran is the director at the Sofia Open in neighboring Bulgaria and his youngest brother Djordje was in charge of last summer’s well-intentioned but ill-fated Adria Tour. One of the ways in which the Serbia Open echoed its controversial predecessor was in having a lower-tier competition the week prior to the main event, with three-quarters of the participants in the former, like Daniel, playing in the qualification rounds of the latter.
Groeneveld was particularly grateful for the tournament’s efforts in facilitating vaccination for competitors and team members. “The vaccination was organized by the ATP tour manager, Denis Živković, who was collaborating with the local officials. We went to a facility where the vaccine was administered and all of the people there knew we were invited and took care of us, making sure we kept our distance during the procedure. Official tournament transport was taking us back and forth. Very smooth!” Serbia, unlike most countries in continental Europe, has a vaccine surplus—hence, the government’s willingness to provide shots for foreign guests. (As I discussed in a recent Twitter thread, there’s also a problem with vaccine hesitancy in the country; but the reality is that Serbia has about twice as many vaccines as needed for its population of roughly 7 million.)
Groeneveld confirmed, “I will be heading back to Belgrade around 21-22 of May to get my second shot of the Pfizer vaccine, which is during the start of the ATP event.” The Belgrade Open, a one-time special proposed to fill the calendar gap resulting from pushing back Roland Garros, runs May 22-29.
As for his Japanese charge, Groeneveld observed, “Taro really took advantage of his ‘lucky loser’ spot and showed he is making progress in all areas. Nine matches in two weeks is great prep for the remainder of the clay court season.”