Jimmy Arias wasn't necessarily in the mood to hear it, but the first thing Brian Gottfried told him about his five-set, three-hour tie breaker loss to 16th-seeded Tomas Smid today in the U.S. Open was that it wasn't necessarily a loss.
Gottfried's point was this: When you're Jimmy Arias, have sunk to No. 25 in the world after being ranked No. 6 and can't make it past the third round after once winning four tournaments in one year, you should be grateful for what you can get.
Arias, 21, once the great young hope of American tennis, is climbing out of a two-year slump with the help of coach Gottfried. Today's 6-4, 6-1, 3-6, 3-6, 7-6 (7-4) loss to Czechoslovakia's Smid represented a giant leap for Arias, who has made it past the third round only three times in the last 15 tournaments.
"Today wasn't a loss," Gottfried said. "I don't look at it that way. He's made great strides the last couple of weeks."
There didn't seem to be much to celebrate -- Arias won the first two sets over Smid with ease and perhaps never should have let him back in the match. On the other hand, Arias, a clay court specialist with a looping forehand, showed signs of having found a new attacking game with Gottfried's help that includes a potentially dazzling volley and a serve that yielded 11 aces against Smid.
"I'm playing better than the year I made the semis here, and my game is a lot better than it was then," Arias said. "I've just got to get as mentally tough as I was then. As far as my game, I think I'm playing the best I've ever played in my life. My forehand is back. It was gone for a year and I'm hitting it well again. I'm volleying a lot better than I did in 1983 and I'm serving a lot better."
Arias made the semifinals here in 1983 with a thrilling five-set victory over Yannick Noah before losing to Ivan Lendl in the semifinals. He was ranked No. 6 in the world at the time and went on to win four titles that year, including the U.S. clay championship.
But Arias did not win a title and did not even make a final last year, slipping to No. 14. The slide continued this year as he dropped to No. 25. He was a first-round loser at the French Open and Wimbledon. His two best tournaments were in Las Vegas and Florence, where he was runner-up both times.
After Wimbledon, Arias sought out Gottfried, a serve-and-volley player in his day. It was Arias' first departure from coach Nick Bollettieri, who is known for turning out steady base-line players, including 16-year-old Aaron Krickstein. Arias had known Gottfried for years, as Gottfried had been a coach at Bollettieri's tennis academy.
Arias began to show sudden improvement last week in Montreal. He was a semifinalist with victories over Bill Scanlon, Mike Leach, Kevin Curren and Elliot Teltscher before losing to Lendl.
"Brian's changing my game around," Arias said. "I haven't worked as hard as I should have recently. I needed to round out my game and Brian was that kind of player when he was a pro."
According to Gottfried, a large part of Arias' problems lately has been poor practice habits. He had been merely going through the motions, allowing his game to stagnate out of boredom and perhaps laziness. Gottfried spends most of their practice sessions chasing him around the court.
"He's got to learn to discipline himself, in everything from being on the court to training to practicing," Gottfried said. "If you can't get yourself to practice, then it isn't going to work during a match. You don't just go out there and hit balls all afternoon. You have to work on something."
Part of Arias' new motivation may be the result of talk of late that the Europeans, particularly Boris Becker, will dominate international tennis in coming years, while the U.S. future looks blank beyond John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. The thought of being shoved aside perhaps is responsible for Arias' resurgence.
"I was playing so bad I was getting ignored," Arias said. "But now I'm playing well again. I think the Americans have as much potential as anybody and McEnroe is still No. 1 in the world. So I don't know what the hell everybody is worrying about."