João Sousa is the most recognized Portuguese face on the professional tennis circuit. At only 26 years old, Sousa is already regarded as Portugal’s greatest tennis player of all time.
Sousa grew up in Guimarães, in the far north of Portugal. His father, a judge and avid tennis player, introduced him to the sport as a child. He continued to play with his father and local friends, as well as participate in football and study medicine. By the age of 15, Sousa knew tennis was in his blood, so he made the decision to go to Barcelona to train and pursue a career in the racket sport.
While playing in the lower circuits, Sousa collected five singles Challenger titles and seven singles Future titles. Since that time, he has steadfastly amassed several Portuguese men’s tennis records, including: the first Portuguese to enter the ATP Top 50 rankings; the first Portuguese to play exclusively in the ATP World Tour in a single season; the first Portuguese to be seeded at a Grand Slam tournament (the 2014 U.S. Open); the most wins at a Grand Slam singles tournaments; and, the Portuguese with the largest career prize earnings.
In recent years, Sousa has reached the semi-finals at the 2013 St. Petersburg Open and the finals at the 2014 Swedish Open.
Perhaps his greatest achievement to date is becoming the first Portuguese player in history to win an ATP title. Sousa came from behind to beat French Julien Benneteau 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 and win the title at the 2013 Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur.
Sousa will soon compete at the upcoming Millennium Estoril Open. So, ahead of this event, we asked Portugal’s tennis superstar a few questions to get to know him a little better.
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What is your earliest memory of picking up a racket as a boy?
It is when I was seven years old and I would go to Clube de Ténis de Guimarães with my father to see him play, and to play with him and other kids.
What was the “tennis scene” like in Guimarães when you were first learning to play?
When I was first learning to play the “tennis scene” in Guimarães already had a large group of young players and fans who would practice at Clube de Ténis de Guimarães. This was, at the time, the only place to play tennis in Guimarães.
Who were your heroes?
My heroes were Juan Carlos Ferrero, Roger Federer and Cristiano Ronaldo.
You father was an avid tennis player. Did your father have any influence over your pursuit of the sport?
My father is indeed a great tennis fan, and he loves to play and watch tennis. He would take me to Clube de Ténis de Guimarães when I was six years old, and from then, I started to love the sport also. He has always supported me to follow my dream, which has always been to be a professional tennis player.
Barcelona has the best “tennis ecosystem” in Europe. The best players and coaches are there, so it is the place to be if you want to be a professional tennis player. You can always find great players to practice with. Also important is the fact that tennis academies allow for players to practice intensively and, at the same time, follow their academic studies. This is much more difficult in Portugal.
You’ve worked hard to pay your dues, winning numerous Future and Challenger titles, and sure, losing quite a few matches along the way. What is your key motivation in approaching match after match, and tournament after tournament?
I always want to be better than the previous day. I am always working hard to improve my game whether it be in the physical, technical, mental or emotional side. I want to be amongst the best tennis players in the world for a long time and be the best I can be.
What are your thoughts when you look at a draw and see top players like Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic standing in your way of the tournament trophy?
I see them with a lot of respect and admiration, because they are amazing athletes and tennis players, but I also see them as just one more opponent against whom I have to do my best in order to get as far as possible in the tournament. Every match is a unique battle and I always give my best to win it.
What was it like to be João Sousa on winning match point at the Malaysian Open in 2013?
It was quite an amazing feeling! First, because it was my first title on the ATP tour, and secondly, because I was the first Portuguese to do it. It was a sense of relief that I finally made it, and it also made me feel like anything was possible, that my tennis was good enough to be amongst the best.
What would you say is the key attribute needed to be a professional tennis player?
I would say mental strength. Without it you will never get far as a professional tennis player.
Spain has an abundance of top performing ATP players. The U.S., by comparison has very few in top ranks. How do you think Portugal fits into this realm, and what do you think can/should be done to encourage competitive tennis in the country?
Portugal is living its best in terms of tennis. We have the biggest number of players with ATP ranking, we have a lot of young players and we have good coaches. The problem in Portugal is one of facilities (especially in the North where you have very few indoor courts to practice in the Winter), support (there is not sufficient support from brands, government, schools or others that allow for young players to play tournaments all year round and all over the world), and critical mass (we still don’t have the sufficient number of top players that allow for anyone to come and find easily good partners to practice with).
In Spain you can find great facilities anywhere, lots of good players and coaches, lots of tournaments to play at (from Juniors to Futures, Challengers and ATPs), patronage laws that facilitate support from companies to young players (having fiscal advantages for it) and coordination between school and practices (allowing for players to study and practice at the same time, not having to quit any of it).
What is it that you look forward to doing when you have time to return to Portugal?
Whenever I return to Portugal what I love to do is to be with my family–my parents and my brother–as throughout the year I don’t have many opportunities to do it.
Is there anything you take with you on tour for good luck?
Actually, there is nothing that I take with me on tour, but I have some superstitions which I always do before a match!