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Talking tennis

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Tomas Plekanec caught the tennis bug long before making North America his hockey home.

He actually picked up the game as a youngster in the Czech Republic after watching some of his country’s tennis heroes make a name for themselves on the international stage.

Now 33, the Canadiens’ centerman has fond memories of time spent rallying with his friends for hours and hours on end on clay courts around the Kladno area.

“I started playing when I was nine or 10 years old. I played a lot. Sometimes, I’d spend mornings and afternoons out there playing and having fun. Back then, there weren’t any computers or any other distractions to keep you from playing sports outside. There were just plenty of courts to play on in my hometown all around the city. We also played when I was still in the Czech League as part of our training sessions,” recalled Plekanec, who enjoyed watching the likes of countrymen Petr Korda and Karel Novacek strut their stuff against some of the other top players in the world.

“Basically, I just watched tennis on TV and I liked it from the start. Guys like Korda and Novacek played so well back in the day. I never took lessons, so I tried to learn the game by myself. I’d watch matches, and then go out and try to play. I wasn’t really big on technique as a kid, but I can play. I’m not saying I do everything right, though,” added Plekanec with a laugh, who was a big fan of the Davis Cup event growing up, a title the Czechs have claimed on three occasions, most recently in 2013.

These days, Plekanec generally restricts his tennis playing to the summer months. He hits the hard court once or twice a week after his on and off-ice workouts at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard. It’s a routine the 11-year NHL veteran has stuck to for years during the offseason, noting that it has played an important part in keeping him sharp over the years.

“It helps, big time. Besides the cardio side of it, there’s a lot of hand-eye coordination involved, obviously. That’s so important in hockey. And, when you’re playing against someone who’s on the same level or better than you, you’re reacting to their moves and you really have to think out there and focus. You want to put the ball in the right spot on the return, or serve it to the right spot, so it forces you to play smart,” explained Plekanec, a firm believer that playing a variety of sports can ultimately benefit your play in the one you generally practice the most. “The skills involved in tennis can translate to the ice. It’s also fun and good competition. You want to get better and you want to win.”

Speaking of winning, Plekanec’s favorite player to watch, Roger Federer, knows a thing or two about that. But, it isn’t just the world No. 3’s 17 Grand Slam singles titles – and 88 overall singles crowns – that impresses him the most.

“I’m a huge Roger fan. It’s not just about the way he plays, though, it’s the way he handles himself as a person, how he presents himself. His interviews are really, really good, too,” praised Plekanec, who is also a supporter of current Czech ATP World Tour stars Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek. “I really like watching players who play a smart game, use drop shots and go to the net. I like them more than guys who just play baseline tennis and try to win off rallies alone. Roger uses his head to beat his opponents instead of just overpowering them.”

Three years ago, Plekanec travelled to the US Open in New York to see his first tournament in person. It was an eye-opening experience for the two-time Olympian, who was fortunate enough to be introduced to the beauty of live tennis at one of the finest tennis facilities in the world.

“I loved it so much. I didn’t know what to expect because it was my first time, my first experience. The atmosphere [at the USTA National Tennis Center] is incredible, with all of the people walking around in that huge place in Flushing Meadows, NY. It’s something I won’t forget,” said Plekanec, who hasn’t yet had the opportunity to attend the Rogers Cup in Montreal because it typically falls when he’s back in the Czech Republic with his family ahead of a new season. “Having been there, I’d say the US Open is my favorite tournament to watch. I watch it in a different way now. But, Wimbledon really is special, especially with it being played on grass.”

While Plekanec’s regular playing partner is his friend, Mauricio – who also provides him with some key pointers every now and again – he’s also gone up against the likes of former teammate Roman Hamrlik, now a Montreal resident, too.

“He beat me. He’s a good tennis player,” cracked Plekanec, who suited up alongside the now retired Czech rearguard between 2007 and 2011. “All of these old school Czech guys who are over 35 play tennis really well. It’s a very popular sport overseas. It doesn’t look like any of the guys in our locker room now are into it. They’re all into golf.”

Plekanec’s eldest son, four-year-old Matyas, has taken a liking to tennis, though. Admittedly, that caught the pivot by surprise – in a good way, of course.

“My son plays a lot. He really likes it. It’s nice to see him playing. I was actually surprised by how much he enjoys it,” concluded Plekanec, whose youngest child, Adam, is still far too young to be picking up a racket at one year of age. “He’s improving every day, playing with the kids. The most important thing is he’s having fun.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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