Copil Didn't Like Tennis At First; Now He's One Of The Tour's Dangerous Players
Romanian Marius Copil began playing tennis when he was seven, mostly because his brother would practise daily in their hometown of Arad. But Copil didn’t enjoy the sport at a young age, preferring football.
“[Tennis] was a one-on-one sport. At the beginning that’s what I didn’t like, because my father was a rugby player and my mom was a handball player, so they both did a team sport,” Copil said. “Back when I went home finishing my homework and so on I was allowed to go on the streets to play with the kids and we were all playing soccer. That’s why I liked soccer more than tennis. It was much more fun.”
Copil was not the most willing participant on a tennis court. He didn’t even want to hit every shot. There were no bubbles in Arad, so kids had to go to schools during the winter and play on wooden courts meant for basketball and volleyball that had some lines thrown down for tennis. There were only two feet behind the ‘baselines’, so players had to stay inside the court to play.
“I told them, ‘Listen, if you want me to stay here I just want to smash and serve,’” recalls Copil, who later spent most of his teenage years in Germany. “So for two years I was just smashing and serving.”
That’s fitting, as Copil has become one of the most dangerous servers on the ATP Tour. The Romanian's 75 per cent success rate behind his first serve places him among the Top 50 since the statistic has been kept.
“What a nice serve he has,” said Roger Federer. “Nice, cool demeanor on the court as well.”
“He serves extremely well,” said Andy Murray.
That is the respect that Copil, who has climbed as high as World No. 56 and reached two ATP Tour finals, receives from his peers. But it hasn’t always been easy for him. Copil first cracked the ATP Rankings just more than 13 years ago, when he was only 15, and it would take more than a decade for him to make the Top 100.
“My father said, ‘Okay, we don’t play any juniors anymore, we go straight to ATP.’ I think that was a bad call because in the juniors you have these long matches. You have rivalries when you play good. You have the best kids from all the countries so you have good matches... Being at the Challenger level so young, it’s tough because the guys were much stronger than me, they knew the game better and I was losing matches, so it was tough to grow my game and get confidence,” Copil said. “At 22, [in 2013], I reached No. 124 and then I started thinking that I was already in the Top 100. I was thinking too far ahead and I said, ‘Okay, I already made it.’ I was not thinking well and I dropped. It was tough because then people started to judge me and I was listening a lot to everybody. My confidence went down and I wanted to stop at some point.”
Copil struggled with the pressure both he and others placed on himself, and it inhibited his progress. But the Romanian never gave up, and at the 2017 Mutua Madrid Open, he finally made his breakthrough into the Top 100, nearly 11 years after first cracking the ATP Rankings. He defeated Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez 7-6(6), 4-6, 7-6(9), overcoming a 0/3 deficit and saving two match points in the third-set tie-break.
“I looked at my coach and was like, ‘I cannot make it. I’m so close and I was close before to get to Top 100. I don’t know if I can make it.’ I was so tight. He told me just to relax and play, whatever happens happens,” Copil said. “I was a little bit lucky there with some great shots and then the net helped me on the match point. I just put the ball in and I was praying, ‘Please miss!’… I felt 20 kilograms lighter, all the pressure off my shoulders,” Copil said. “I don’t want to know what would’ve happened if I didn’t win that tie-break, so it’s good that I won it. I think us as players, we put too much pressure on ourselves with the Top 100. It’s a goal that you want to reach and then when you’re close, you start to overthink too much.”
Copil’s biggest breakthrough came last season, when he made his first two ATP Tour finals. At the ATP 250 in Sofia, he fell in a deciding set against first-time champion Mirza Basic. But even more impressively, he defeated two Top 10 opponents — Marin Cilic and Alexander Zverev — to make the Swiss Indoors Basel championship match as a qualifier.
Standing in the way was Federer, who at that point had already won eight titles at his hometown event. Copil acquitted himself well, leading the Swiss superstar by a break in each set, but ultimately losing in straight sets.
“He did very well. He came out and I think he played nice tennis,” Federer said. “He played great. That’s what I told him as well. He’s won more matches than I did this week, so he’s the champ really of this Basel week.”
Copil proved not just to the rest of the Tour, but to himself, that he is capable of competing against the best players in the world. And it’s that self-belief that the Romanian has been working on.
“I just said to myself I need to go on court, go to enjoy and play free. I didn’t play the result, I was just playing free and that was nice. If I could do that each tournament, it would be a dream. I’m working on it,” said Copil. “I don’t think about [what my game is capable of] too much, and that’s the problem… I have to start believing in myself much more. With my serve, I could do damage.”
Copil has been working with former Romanian star Andrei Pavel since Cincinnati last year, with the exception of a two-month hiatus after Rotterdam in February.
“I think he definitely has Top 20 game. He actually proved it at the end of the last year in Switzerland beating two Top 10 guys,” Pavel said. “I’m trying to help him with my experience and getting the confidence and experience to work hard and to trust in his game.”
Many times, a player’s personality is reflected in their game. But while Copil has a massive serve and uses aggressive tactics, he is mellow off the court, and admits to being shy.
“He’s a great person, that stands out for sure,” Pavel said of his charge.
But Copil is not shy of the spotlight on the court. He enjoys competing against the sport’s best on some of tennis’ biggest stages. In fact, Copil embraces that. And one year after his biggest run yet in Basel, he still dreams of glory.
“My dream is to win at least one ATP title,” Copil said, cracking a smile. “To win one would be nice.”