I recently caught up with Albert Portas during Prague Open, the site of an ATP Challenger and an ITF 60K events for women.
He is now a coach and the co-founder of the Ad-In Portas-Puentes Tennis Academy in Barcelona. We chatted at length about his title run in Hamburg and his touring days.
For reasons that will become clear in the second part of my piece, we could not have picked a better location than the site of the tournaments in Prague to have this conversation.
Albert is modest individual (which is not only what I had heard from a couple of other people who know him, but also very much my own observation), so it did not come as a surprise to learn that he hadn’t talked much since his playing days about his endeavors during the two periods in question in this two-part piece.
I am certainly grateful to him for taking his time to share so many riveting anecdotes.
If you find his run to the title in Hamburg fascinating like I do (I vividly remember watching his semifinal vs Hewitt and the final live on TV back in 2001 when I was in Switzerland), you should enjoy his recount of that week which we delve into in part 1. And if you find that interesting, wait until you read his recollection of another portion of his playing career from a few years earlier in part 2.
Part 1: Remembering the title run in Hamburg Masters Series title run in 2001
Prior to Rafael Nadal arriving to the scene and transforming each spring season into yearly events where he continues to showcase his clay-court dexterity, there was a distinct period from the mid-to-late 1990s to early 2000s, on the footsteps of Sergi Bruguera who won Roland Garros in 1993 and 94, known as the years of the Spanish Armada. A large number of Spaniards invaded the ATP rankings during this time dominated the tour on clay courts.
Apart from Major-tournament winners such as Bruguera, Carlos Moya, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Albert Costa, you could also count Alex Corretja, Felix Mantilla, a young Tommy Robredo, and Alberto Berasategui just to mention a few as significant members of that armada.
You could add a dozen or so players (including the early years of David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, and Albert Montanes) who hovered within the top 50 or 100, names that top-seeded players feared to see next to theirs when the draws came out in clay-court events.
Somewhere in this potent ensemble, probably just slightly behind the second group, was a man named Albert Portas, who etched himself into tennis history largely thanks to an astonishing run to the title at the 2001 Hamburg Masters Series tournament as a qualifier. He was the second player to ever accomplish the feat after Roberto Carretero, a fellow Spaniard, who beat him to it five years earlier in the same tournament.
The two remain the only two players to have that distinction (and Hamburg is their only title), but unlike Carretero, who never reached top 50 in the ATP, Albert enjoyed a more accomplished career.
He reached the finals of three other ATP events and stayed in the top 100 (barring a few weeks in between) from the summer of 1997 to that of 2004, and again briefly in 2006. He entered the top 40 several times during that period, reaching a career-high ranking of 19 in October of 2001.
Let’s return to his title run in Hamburg, the focal point of part 1 in this two-part series.
It was an outstanding week for Albert, that began with two wins in the qualifying rounds over Christian Vinck and Mariano Zabaleta.
He distinctly remembers that he and his coach at the time, Marcos Gorriz, ended up never moving from the qualifying hotel to the one that hosted the main draw players. I asked him why: “Because you felt lucky there? Do you believe in that sort of thing?”
“No, not specifically,” he brushed it off.
“I remember when I qualified, then we were thinking or preparing to move. But one hotel was not close to the other one, and I was thinking, ‘Tomorrow I have to play early, ah come on [waves his hand dismissively and chuckles]! We wait one more day. If I win tomorrow, we will move. And then, the day after, we had the same conversation. Again, we said, if I win, we move tomorrow.’ And we stayed again. We repeated this again and again, never moving.”
Regardless of whether staying in the same hotel had anything to do with his success or not, Portas went on to have his career week, defeating Vladimir Voltchkov, Magnus Norman, Sebastien Grosjean, Alberto Martin, and Lleyton Hewitt to reach the final, where he faced Juan Carlos Ferrero.
That is certainly not what one would consider a lucky draw by any means. Albert had to earn his way to the finals the old-fashioned way, a daily grind on the red dirt against strong opposition.
“I remember some of those matches,” said Albert.
“I remember, for example, that my match against Norman was extremely difficult, 7-6 7-6. I think I saved a set point in the second-set tiebreaker (9-7) and it was raining a bit, so if I lost that set, the third set would have been postponed for sure. With Grosjean, we played on a small court outdoors and it went to a final set (6-3 4-6 6-2). The next day, I played Alberto Martin [Albert refers to him as “Beto”] with the roof covered on the center court (6-3 6-2). Then, I had to make a difficult comeback against Hewitt in the semifinal.”
Hewitt won the first set 6-3, and Albert squandered the break lead twice in the second set before he broke Hewitt’s serve a third time at 5-5 for the decisive lead to level the match at one set all. Feeling liberated (he said he began the match a little bit nervous), Portas played an excellent final set to win 3-6 7-5 6-2. It was a close match filled with grueling baseline rallies but as far as Albert was concerned, it also helped prepare him better for the final:
“When I walked to the center court on Sunday for the final, I didn’t feel nervous because I played the semifinal the day before against Hewitt on the same court, in the same atmosphere.”
Albert’s opponent in the finals, Juan-Carlos Ferrero, had a much smoother ride to the finals, winning his last three matches in straight sets, including a stellar 6-2 6-1 defeat of Albert Costa in the semis after which Ferrero said, “I didn’t play well today. I played unbelievably.”
The reality is, “The Mousquito” has been playing that way since the 2001 clay-court season began. He had entered the tournament as the no.8 seed, but he was the unquestionable “king of clay” at the time.
Don’t take my word for it, there were banners in the stands saying so, and for good reasons. He carried a 16-match winning streak into that final, including title runs in Barcelona and Rome, defeating Carlos Moya and Gustavo Kuerten in the finals respectively, both in five sets (yes, Barcelona too, several non-Masters-Series tournaments had best-of-five-set finals even as late as 2001).
Needless to say, Portas was an underdog of giant proportions when the match began. But Portas was ready to battle: “I was just focused on what I had to do.”
The first set went according to plans, except for Albert, when Ferrero took it by the score of 6-4. I remember the commentators on TV (I was in Switzerland that week) discussing whether Portas could steal a set and make the match exciting. Portas did indeed turn it around with a convincing 6-2 second set. According to Albert, Ferrero got “a bit mad with the coach in the second, so he dropped the level a bit.”
Albert’s relief was short-lived, as a nightmarish stretch kicked off for him as the third set began. Ferrero put on display his baseline prowess and produced winners from all areas of the court, literally pushing Portas around the baseline. Before anybody could begin to comprehend what was happening, Ferrero won the third set 6-0 and went up 3-0 in the fourth set.
During those nine games, Albert could only win 13 points – nine in the third set. Spectators were probably beginning to think that the second set was a fluke, and it was already a distant memory in Portas’s mind. He had other priorities at that moment:
“I was saying to myself, ‘Okay, I am in the final, try not to go home with a double bagel, please.’ But then, I won one game, and everything changed again, but it was still very close.”
Yes, it was. Albert won a tight tiebreaker that ended 7-5 in his favor when Ferrero double faulted!
The fifth set was a rollercoaster ride, pretty much mirroring the rest of the match. Portas held serve to go up 4-3 after saving three break points, and he immediately broke Ferrero’s serve to suddenly find himself serving for the match.
Ferrero made one last push to equalize the score at 5-5, but Portas broke his serve one more time at 6-5 to close the match when Ferrero framed a backhand wide after three hours and 36 minutes.
He played a total of 10 matches (two doubles, eight singles) in 9 days. I asked him if he felt tired at all during the week, or in the five-setter on Sunday:
“Not really.” He said that with a slight chuckle. You see, he chuckled, because we had already had a few conversations throughout the week in Prague, and in London during the qualifying week, where one of his mottos that he lived by as a player, and does so as a coach now, kept coming up often:
“The body has no limits.”
Albert is a firm believer in the notion that as long as you are not injured, being tired is a mental state of acceptance that ultimately impacts how the body feels. While he does not deny that one can physically get tired, if the player focuses on the task at hand and not the condition of the body, he/she can sustain physical challenges, especially in terms of endurance.
So, when he replied, “not really,” he knew what was coming from me, a repetition back to him of his motto, to which he laughed and said, “yes.”
“In the final, of course I was tired in the fifth, but I saw that he was more tired than me [remember that Ferrero was trying to complete the elusive back-to-back Rome-Hamburg double]. Much more. And I thought I could continue playing well. With the good adrenaline and everything at that moment, you don’t feel tired, at least I didn’t. But of course, I was, but it’s not like I felt the need to keep the point short, because I cannot move. No, no, I was not. I think when you focus on another thing, if you are concentrating on another thing, of course, with the crowd and everything, you just think what to do.”
In short, what he was trying to confirm is that the body has no limits! And wait until the second part of this piece to see how far he was willing to go to bank with this concept in his career.
But first, let me finish this part with some ending notes from his sensational week in Hamburg:
– Portas made $400,000 just for winning the title, more money than he had made during the previous year. He was 27 years old.
— He was extremely clutch when it counted the most, especially in the fifth set. He served four aces in the match. Three of them came during the important 3-3 to 6-5 stretch in the fifth set, with the last one coming at 15-30 at 5-5 after Ferrero had come back from 3-5 down.
— For those who may not know, Portas was renowned for his outstanding drop shot and nicknamed the “Dropshot Dragon.” I remember that he and Mikael Tillstrom of Sweden, despite not being top players in the rankings, were famous for their drop shots among players. He used it 32 times against Ferrero, winning 18 of those points.
As a percentage, 56% may come across as moderate (although, not bad by any means), but playing against an opponent known for his deadly drop shots can cause havoc on a player’s mind that do not reflect in the stats.
— Albert’s doubles partner was German Puentes, who is now the other co-founder of the Ad-In Portas-Puentes Tennis Academy, Albert’s business and coaching partner in other words. They were ousted by the tandem of Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Wayne Ferreira in the last round of qualifying in Hamburg.
— Ferrero won the total number of points won by 163 to 159 in the final. In fact, almost every stat pointed to an even match. It was literally a few points here and there that made the difference.
— Albert had started working with Marcos Gorriz as coach about a month prior to Hamburg.
— His quote in the post-match speech, which he remembers to this day with a smile: “Hamburg will be forever in my heart.”
Coming Wednesday in Part 2: A key stretch in Albert’s career that will remind you of the Energizer Bunny that keeps going, and going, and going…