Talking To I Dani Caverzaschi
3 feet deep, consisting of four layers of different stone, topped off by a layer of limestone and 3 millimetres of red sand. According to Wikipedia, there isn’t even a speck of clay in the world famous clay courts of Roland Garros, home to the French Tennis Open. On 8th – 10th June the carefully constructed playing surface will play host the elite of Wheelchair Tennis, with the top 8 ranked male, female and doubles players gracing the courts of the historic Grand Slam venue.
One man who is fixated on joining them is Dani Caverzaschi, Spanish Number 1 and World Number 14. Currently ranked outside of the top 8 standing needed to enter the draw, Caverzaschi is impatient to break into the vanguard of the Wheelchair Tennis world “Sure Tokyo is my long term goal” referring to the next Paralympic Games in 2020, “but breaking into the top 8 and getting to the Grand Slams is the next big step”. This fixation can also be seen in his daily routine.
In a car fizzing through the streets of Madrid, between tunnel black spots and the odd car horn, I get a snapshot into the life of an elite sportsman, juggling life, work and top-end sport. A car journey sandwiched in between his day job at Liberty Insurance and a four hour court session was the only time we could match schedules, for a man who seems to be on the move 23 and half hours a day.
I put it to Dani that his daily schedule is probably close to what most people manage to get through in a week, “I love the intensity, I’m an intense guy” I believe him. Born in Madrid, he spent time in the US and England along the way, but this fast moving, faster talking 23 year old is best suited to the hectic atmosphere of the Spanish capital.
Tennis is going well for Dani, second place in the singles, coupled with a doubles victory at the Czech Open in May, but he remains focused on ensuring his name is amongst those in the main draw for the four Grand Slams, namely, the Australian Open, the French Open, the Wimbledon Championships and the US Open.
Only allowing the top 8 ranked players to compete in showpiece events of world tennis alongside names like Murray, Nadal, Williams and Kerber sounds like a logical system to showcase the best talent in the sport to the largest audience. The catch comes when you realise that points earned at Grand Slams dwarf those earned at other major events. In fact you get more points - 375 to be precise - for winning just one game at a Grand Slam than you do for reaching the semi-final of a Super Series (one of the ITF five top-ranked major tournaments).
“There’s a lots of players who aren’t totally happy with the situation, but until something changes I’ll just focus on getting into the top 8 and the Grand Slams”. That goal looks like a real possibility, considering that Caverzaschi has made consistent progress though the national and international rankings, as well as each of his Paralympic Games appearances.
At the age of just 19, Dani made his first Paralympic appearance at London 2012. In a world of experienced competitors he was one of the youngest entrants, or as he puts it “I was a little baby, I didn’t have any beard at all”. Caverzaschi surprised, making the final 32 before being beaten by the number 4 ranked Dutchman Ronald Vink.
The Rio Paralympics in 2016 were billed as Caverzachi’s time to come of age. With huge interest surrounding him in his native Spain – Marca described him as the ‘Paralympic Nadal’ – Dani admits to feeling the intensity of the focus on him “Sure, I felt the pressure. Tennis is different to most other Paralympic sports, there aren’t so many categories, so there aren’t so many chances to medal.
In fact Caverzaschi’s strong progress through the early rounds was only halted by Stephane Houdet, one of the game’s all-time greats and at that time World Number One, and the eventual silver medallist. “I achieved what I went there to do, and I’m happy with me performance. It’s motivating to play against the top players in the world, you learn a lot and it’ll make me a better player.”
After Rio, Caverzaschi experienced what many athletes go through, a Paralympic hangover. Sponsorships came to an end, “October and November were tough” referring to his need to tie down new finances to stay involved in the sport “most players in the top 30 have 80% of their costs covered by a national institution, I’ve been lucky enough to get private sponsorship, but it’s hard work, tennis is expensive man!”
With the finances in place to compete, Caverzaschi found what he describes as the missing piece in the puzzle, his new coach Ana Salas Lozano. He joined up with the current Women’s Senior Champion after the Rio Paralympics and is keen to point out the role that she has played in his good form since “She’s been great, really great, I’m lucky to have such a good team in place, including the physios and sponsors I have around me”.
His success in the Czech Open meant a good start to an intense summer. With so many tournaments during the summer period offering vital points needed for the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Rankings Caverzaschi will squeeze 9 tournaments into just 11 weeks. His focus on becoming a top ranked player is evident.
So on Thursday, when the first wheel breaks the red sand at Roland Garros, Dani Caverzaschi probably won’t be watching, he probably won’t be feeling jealous as the first ball is tossed into the air. He’ll probably be in the middle of a double session.
Interview by Ben O'Rourke for Parasports World.
Photo credits: Dani Caverzaschi