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'After the practice, we made a deal. Djokovic said...': McCabe recalls special chat with Novak in 2022 Australia Open

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James McCabe talks about his run in the two Challenger events in India, the unforgettable experience of practicing with Djokovic and the deal he made with him.



James McCabe with Novak Djokovic




In 2013, in front of a packed Rod Laver Arena, an elated 10-year-old James McCabe was taken to the centre of the court for the coin toss before the semi-final tie between Novak Djokovic and David Ferrer. Nine years later, on a sunny Melbourne afternoon, a rather disappointed McCabe, having lost his first-round qualifiers match at the Australian Open, received an unexpected phone call. What followed was 'the quickest shower of his life' and when he reached the same iconic Rod Laver Arena, on the opposite end stood Djokovic. McCabe was called as a sparring partner for the 22-time Grand Slam winner, on two consecutive days (the other on Margaret Court Arena), which he still hails as the 'highlight of my tennis career'.

McCabe, who was ranked 1211 in singles back then, has come a long way. Last week, battling through the qualifiers in the Bengaluru Open, the young Aussie made his maiden semi-final appearance at a Challenger event before losing to compatriot and eventual runner-up James Duckworth, and now stands on the brink of breaking into the top-300.

In an exclusive interview with Hindustan Times Digital, McCabe talked about his run in the two Challenger events in India, the unforgettable experience of practicing with Djokovic and the deal he made with him. His father, Patrick, meanwhile talked about his son's interest in tennis and music while also revealing how he coached McCabe junior by simply watching YouTube videos. Here are excerpts...

Is this your first visit to India? What was the experience like? Rising through the qualifiers you made the last 16 in the Chennai Open and then to the semis in Bengaluru...

James: Yes, it was my first time in India and it's absolutely marvellous. Chennai was great, but Bengaluru was even better. Every day is sunny, every day is perfect temperature for tennis. Everything is absolutely perfect here, can't get better than this.


James McCabe

This was your best show in the Challenger circuit. Previously you reached a couple of finals in the Futures circuit. Thoughts on that?

James: Yes, it is my first semis and it has been run to remember. I was just unfortunate to not have won that match. Looking back at it, this was my best week on tour so far. I just have to keep going and going in the Challenger circuit now and give it my best to improve my ranking because I want to reach the top-100.

There were a couple of Australians on this Challenger tour, a total three reached (others being James Duckworth and eventual champion, Max Purcell) the semis in Bengaluru. What has been your equation with these senior players or ones back at home like Nick Kyrgios, who is the biggest name in present Aussie tennis now?

James: We are typically all from Sydney - Kyrgios, Duckworth, Purcell...all. We know how each other plays, we practice a lot together. Yes he (Duckworth) got the better of me today but overall it has been a great experience.

There is a step by step process through which tennis players tend to make progress in the early stages of their career. ITF and Challengers...what is the difference like in terms of the challenge it possesses and the level of tennis?

James: Humongous difference. It changes everything. One is the number balls that are changed. In Challenger, you get 7-9 balls while in ITF it is just 3. The play is a lot faster. Also the number of umpires...you basically got one for the whole tournament in Futures and a lot many in Challengers. In terms of level of tennis, in Challenger it is almost at the top level, just a miniscule of difference and you have to be more mentally strong.

There is little or no information yet on the internet about you. So if you could talk about how tennis happened to you?

James' father: James started playing tennis when he was two and a half years old in Sydney. We had sort of a complex with two hardcourt tennis courts. So I took him there and he hit some forehands, and then backhands and it surprised me, to be honest. I mean he was just a baby then. But after that I took him to the court every day for 3-4 hours. So yes, that is how he started.

When he was 10, he won state tennis juniors and won the nationals when he was 16. He later joined the National Tennis Academy in Australia.

James McCabe with his father Patrick(Special arrangement)

Any background of sports in the family?

Father: No. And James is only just a tennis player; he was also a national champion in swimming when he was in school. He is also musically talented. He plays the flute, piano and guitar.

If I'm not wrong, you were his first coach and you taught him tennis by watching YouTube videos?

Father: Yes, that's right and it started within a week after I saw him hit that forehand from the baseline when he was two and half years old. I was a labourer and my wife was a caregiver and we did not have enough money for coaching. So I went to YouTube and saw that there was no two and half or three year old who could hit the ball like that. So I was kind of excited. I knew that this boy was special. So I started searching and learning about serving and returning and patterns of play.

I did not want to get in trouble with all the tactics. It's not rocket science. You just have to hit the ball over the net and try to keep the ball in. Yes there are a couple of patterns of play, get deep with serve and get deep with returns.

If you could talk about that picture with Djokovic that went viral last year…

James: I lost the first round in qualifying at the Australian Open. Next day I slept in and was in my bed, basically sulking. Then I got a phone call at 12. Someone asked, ‘Do you want to hit with Djokovic at Rod Laver Arena in about 30 minutes?’ Next thing I know, I had the quickest shower in my life and then quickly reached. It was absolutely amazing. Next day he asked me to hit the Margaret Court Arena. And then the next day I hit with Kyrgios in John Cain Arena.

Did Djokovic remember you? Did you receive any advice from him?

James: Yes he did remember. I showed him the photo as well. He remembered that I didn't choose him. He laughed and giggled. But yes that training has been the highlight of my tennis career. He is an absolute role model.

He just told me to keep going. He said, 'you have a really big serve and there is no reason why you can't make it to the top.' Then we made a deal where he said, 'you tossed the coin in 2013 at Rod Laver Arena, you hit with me at Rod Laver Arena and so the next is playing at Rod Laver Arena in the Australian Open. Hope you can make it happen.'

I saw a post of you with the guitar - Presley's song. Your father mentioned your interest in music as well. Is music something you lean towards to calm yourself down before matches?

James: Yes absolutely. It keeps me in the moment. And yes I have my own playlist. I listen to Frank Sinatra, Beethoven, Chopin...mostly classical music.

Lastly, you plan for 2023?

James: I will just keep hitting the Challengers and go up in the ranking and if all goes well, I might jump from 300 to 200 and end the year as a top-100 player.

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