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Acing It All - Michael Lippens
08/30/2011 - By Christine Burke Eskwitt
Photo: McKay Imaging (mckayimaging.com)
Heading Towards Center CourtWest Long Branchís 18 year old Michael Lippens capped his extraordinary Shore Regional High School tennis career with an impressive overall record of 100 wins, 4 losses. ďThroughout each year I have improved as a player and as a person,Ē says Lippens. ďI thought I did really well this year, thanks to the help of my coach, friends and family.Ē Even with the success of his high school career, Michael is still looking to improve his game as he heads to the University of Louisville to play tennis in the fall. Michaelís parents Luc and Susan have carefully guided him through his career, providing coaching and support that have produced an exceptional athlete and a thoughtful, bright young man.
LIM: Are youa tennis phenom?
ML: Iím not really sure what that is. Oh, like a prodigy? Well, I know Iíve done really well in tennis but thereís still so much more that I want to accomplish. I have won a good amount of tournaments but thereís still a lot ahead of me that I hope to achieve. During the next four years of college, I hope to be able to reach a new level of tennis and past that just keep going.
LIM: Do you come from a tennis family?
ML: My Dad has been my main coach my whole life. Heís my coach and my dad. My dad played professional tennis in the 1970s. He started me playing tennis the same time as my brother and sister. I was 9, my sister Nicole was 11 and my brother Stephen was 13. He insisted on teaching us correct stroke technique right from the start and we all picked it up pretty quickly. I loved the game right away and spent hours practicing every day and I became pretty good very quickly. My sister Nicole plays number one singles at Monmouth University right now. Sheís on a full scholarship. Sheís had some big accomplishments and she helped me along the way. My brother graduated from George Washington University and lives in Washington DC now. He was more focused on school so he didnít play as long but he was a huge help to me with my fitness program. My mom plays a little but mostly she supports what Iím doing, helps me get ready for my trips and I just know sheís there for me.
LIM: Can you share a little more about what it has been like to have your dad for a coach?
ML: My dad is a great coach and I know now how hard it is to combine being a coach with being a dad. My dad used to tell me, that as a coach, he would need to tell me things at times that may be hard for me to take coming from my dad and that I should remember to try not to take it personally. He did the best he could combining both roles and I remember him always picking his words very carefully. One time, after I had won four rounds and lost in the semi-finals of a big national, he told me that as my dad he was very proud of me and that it was such a great accomplishment to have made it so far. He reminded me that I was playing much older, more experienced kids and that I have to look at it as a journey and try to enjoy myself during the process. He then added that as my coach, he needed to point out that once you reach the later rounds of a big tournament and everyone else has gone home, itís time to pick it up a notch and find a way to get through the goal posts.
My dad thought it would be good for me to get some exposure to other coaches with different points of view. We traveled to several academies including Saddlebrook and ITA and also visited some private coaches my dad knew from his past. I had the chance to work with Rick Macci, Nick Saviano, Johan Kreik and Alan Ma. They were all good coaches but what helped me the most was the fact that the players at those academies were all very good with some already playing professional tennis. At ITA I had a chance to hit with Venus Williams and at Saddlebrook I played alongside Martin Verkerk, who was a finalist in the 2003 French Open.
I moved out of the 16ís once I broke top 50 and moved onto the 18ís and started to play International ITF tournaments. I played many ITFís here in the US but also played many in Canada and some in Belgium and the Netherlands. It was difficult to juggle USTA tournaments along with ITF and because of the cost of travel, I abandoned International competition although I reached a world junior ranking of 104. I continued to play USTA tournaments and focused on doing what was necessary to improve as a tennis player and working toward college and a professional tennis career.
LIM: Would you agree that you became a very good player at a very young age?
ML: I started out playing local USTA tournaments and moved on to National competition. By the time I was 11, I was ranked in the National top 50 for boys 12 and under division. Rather than stay in the 12ís division, my dad thought it would be best for my development as a tennis player to move on to the 14ís and under division. I did well and was soon ranked top 10 in the Eastern Section and top 100 in the country. I continued to play the 14ís until I broke into the top 50 and then moved on to the 16ís division. The 16ís was a bit tougher because I had just turned 14 and most of my opponents were much older, bigger and stronger than me. At that point I had devoted myself to tennis and was spending as much as 20 hours per week on the court and another 10 hours per week in the gym. My strokes were well developed and we started to focus much more on fitness, speed, balance and agility. My brother Stephen was a huge help with my speed and strength training. He would put together training programs and had me focus first on getting my form correct. He would split up my training days into upper body, lower body, chest and back, flexibility and agility, etc. I also do yoga and I think nutrition is pretty important. My fitness improved tremendously and it made a huge difference on the court. I soon broke into the top 100 National ranking in the 16ís division and started to divide my tournaments between 16ís and 18ís.
LIM: Do you often travel to play tennis?
ML: Iíve been all over. The whole East Coast, California and Arizona, Vermont, Texas, Kentucky, Michigan Ė almost everywhere in the U.S. Ė as well as Belgium, Netherlands, and Canada. Sometimes my dad comes with me but a lot of the times, I just travel by myself.
LIM: Do people assume you have no other life than tennis?
ML: Some of the people in high school thought that, I guess. My friends and my tennis team know better but I donít mind being known as that kid because I enjoy playing tennis so much. Iíd rather be known as someone who plays tennis all the time than something else. Itís not a bad thing, right? Other tennis players at the same level as me that play in the same tournaments, they would probably say no, thatís not all I do if someone asked them the same question. There are definitely times when I do tennis things over other things but I always enjoy what Iím doing and tennis isnít all I ever do.
LIM: Did you go to prom?
ML: I went to my junior and my senior proms. No, my date was not a tennis player. Sheís my girlfriend now. Her name is Jordan Nulty. We had a blast at prom but the next morning I had the first round of the state championships so prom ended around midnight and I had to get some sleep to be ready for the next dayís match, which I won.
LIM: What else do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
LM: I enjoy going to the gym. My dad has some other students that he coaches and I am going to major in exercise science in college so I like taking the students through their workouts. I like to work out, and I like to play soccer. Besides sports, especially in the summer, I like to hang out with my friends and get to the beach. I try to do different things whenever I can.
LIM: What are some of your favorite spots in Monmouth County?
ML: Iíve lived here all my life and I really love it. Places I like are Little Monmouth beach club, where some of my friends belong. I also like to go to Pier Village and the Promenade in Long Branch. Not surprisingly, some of my best times have been spent on the tennis courts at Shore Regional High School, Monmouth University, and Little Silver Tennis Club, where I practice with owners Jeff Miller and David Braka.
LIM: What do you look for when you are watching a tennis match? I look at what the players are wearing.
ML: [Laughing] Yeah. Well if Iím watching a match with my mom we sometimes talk about the playersí outfits too. I watch tennis footwork, how the players disguise their shots so it looks like they are going to take one shot and then they take another. When I watch a match with my dad he points things out and we talk about them.
LIM: Who are your tennis heroes?
ML: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal are two I like but I donít have any players that I really donít like.
LIM: Are there any tennis players you try to emulate?
ML: Definitely, there are a few. Not sure if youíve heard of him but Nikolay Davydenko, from Russia, is great. Iíll name another one Ė David Ferrer, from Spain. Heís been ranked in the top 10 or 15 for the longest time. The guy is so quick, all over the court, his footwork is so perfect. Some of the Spanish players are definitely great, especially Rafael Nadal. Heís super quick. He has super strong legs. Thereís such intensity behind every point. Iíd like to play like that, like itís the last point I might ever play in my life.
LIM: Do you think kids who are gifted like yourself have an obligation to give something back?
ML: Definitely, especially if youíve done well and made a lot of money. Look at Andre Agassi. Heís won eight Grand Slams, heís a multi-millionaire, an international celebrity, and he set up an educational foundation for kids. He just has that personality. Thatís the kind of thing he would do and he would take the time to do it. Iím sure itís something he enjoys doing. Itís something very nice to do. He can encourage more people to help just by doing that.
LIM: Have you done any community service?
ML: Just some things. My mom always encourages me. Through church, Iíve done some volunteering in a soup kitchen. Iíve also worked on a breast cancer fundraiser that was tied into tennis.
LIM: Your schedule is so full. How did you manage to get your school work done all through high school?
ML: I had a very busy tournament schedule just before I was about to enter high school and I was playing all over the country.We had to decide if I was going to go to public school or use an online or home school program. My mom and dad met with Mr. Schnappauf, the Shore Regional principal, and explained that most kids playing tennis at my level either went to academies or were home schooled. They wanted me to attend normal high school and went over my tournament and training schedule with Mr. Schnappauf to see if there was a way I could miss so many days of school but still get my work done and graduate. Mr. Schnappauf and the school were extremely helpful and they did everything they could to accommodate my schedule. I would get my assignments in advance as well as study materials so that I could work on planes and in hotel rooms while I was away. I was always in contact with my teachers through e-mail and I was allowed to make up all my tests and labs when I returned from tournaments.
LIM: Now thatís phenomenal! You are a very disciplined person. What were your favorite subjects?
ML: Math and science. Physics. Most of it came pretty easily to me. I understood it very quickly.
LIM: All through this you played high school tennis. Why bother when you were so busy training and playing tournaments?
ML: I was lucky to attend Shore Regional High School not only for their support of my schedule but also for the chance to play tennis there and meet my high school coach, Dago Pinol. Dago always supported me and helped me in many ways. He got to know me as a player and as a person and helped me mature and develop mental toughness on the court. Dago consulted with my dad on occasion but my dad never got involved in any of my high school matches. He told me early that Dago was a good man and that I should try to learn from him.
The nice thing about high school tennis is that coaching is allowed during the match and Dago always seemed to know what to say. A few simple words from Dago here and there got me through some tough matches. With Dagoís help and support I was able to reach the NJ State Championship finals three times. The first time was in my sophomore year when I played and lost to Michael Lampa in the finals. I had beaten Michael several times before, including a chance meeting in a USTA tournament, but my nerves got the best of me that year. Dago and I worked on my composure and how to handle pressure situations all through the next year and with that, I was able to win the Championship the next year, beating Nikola Kocovic in straight sets. I was undefeated in the regular season of my senior year and won the Monmouth County flight championships three years in a row. As a team, Shore Regional won the Division Conference twice, went to two sectional finals, and our four year team record was 52-22. Looking back at my high school career I can honestly say that it was an enjoyable experience that was made all that much better with the help, support and friendship of my coach, Dago.
LIM: Can you give me an example of what it is like to constantly play against equally talented players?
ML: Well, I went into the State Championships feeling confident but lost energy halfway through the tournament. I was recovering from a cold and had to play a couple of tough matches in 100 degree heat. I played a very good player in the semi finals and lost the first set but managed to come back and win the next two sets to advance to the finals. I met Jonathan Carcione in the finals, whom I know very well.We had played many times in USTA tournaments over the years and I had never lost a set to him but he was just better than me that day. He played extremely well and deserved to win that day.
LIM: How have you improved as a player this year?
ML: I would say Iím more composed on the court. Iíve also been working to improve my transition game to finish points at the net instead of at the baseline.
LIM: How do you bring your best to every game?
ML: Hey, some days youíre tired, sometimes your head is someplace else. For sure. We try to schedule my training so that I donít get burnt out. I get in a lot of playing but itís not overkill. My body might feel a little tired after playing but I try to make sure I know when to rest. Mental focus is definitely tough. There are times when my focus is right on and there are times when my focus is not really there. You have to learn how to push through it so you can improve your focus.
LIM: Where are you going to college?
ML: Iíll be going to the University of Louisville in Kentucky. In my junior year at Shore Regional I started to play some menís professional events and began to look at my college options.We visited and met with coaches from many of the top-ranked schools, including UVA, Duke, Illinois, Michigan, Pepperdine, Ohio State and others. It was at an ITF tournament here in New Jersey that I met Rex Ecarma, who had traveled from the University of Louisville to watch me play. I beat the number one seed in the tournament on that day and Rex and my mom struck up a conversation. Rex met me at another ITF tournament in Kentucky after I was finished with the tournament and we talked about his program and set up a visit to the campus. They have an extremely strong team with several players that already have high professional rankings and their athletic facilities are second to none. I accepted a generous scholarship and Iíll be playing for the Cardinals in the fall. I believe that Rex and the support structure at the University of Louisville will help me get to the next level and eventually, to the professional tennis circuit.
LIM: You must be really excited to be going to such a great school?
ML: A little bit excited and a little bit nervous. I wasnít sure what to expect when I visited Louisville and the campus. It looks like a really cool city Ė very compact but with a lot going on. Thereís so much to do. I can really see myself living there for the next four years.
LIM: Will you be living in a dorm? With other tennis players?
ML: Yes, but not just with other tennis players. We had that option but I chose to live on my own so I could have some quiet space and the comfort of my own place.Weíll see how it goesÖ
LIM: What do you expect to do when you graduate from college?
ML: If I do really well with my tennis and improve a lot I believe I have a chance to play pro tennis. This means that every week thereís a tournament Ė you go there, you check in, you play - itís always the same routine. You either win or lose. If you win it great; if you lose you go to the next one. Thereís only one winner. Just repeat it over and over and over again. For each round you win you get points and thatís how you move your ranking up. You also make money that way. Youíve got to enjoy the competition every time Ė to me that means that when youíre playing you have to be able to enjoy running around, fighting for every point. Even if youíre losing, youíre still competing. You donít just give up and leave. Youíve got to have a competitive spirit. Youíve got to like playing the sport, being a competitive person. I donít believe thatís a bad thing. I am pretty much only competitive in sports. Itís fun. Trying your best and just enjoying yourself. To me that seems like a really awesome life.
A little bit of everything
ďThe GiverĒ by Lois Lowry
Amateurs practice until they can get it right.
Pros practice until they canít get it wrong.
I havenít really had time to play video games
My girlfriend Jordan Nulty, Coach Dago, my brother Stephen and my sister Nicole. This group is absolutely my favorite group of people. They make me the happiest.
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