Game, set, match

Jack Draper and Richard Riakphore in conversation: two athletes ready to reach the top
By Alex James Taylor | Sport | 26 July 2022
Photographer Fabien Kruszelnicki
Stylist Steve Morriss.

Qualifying for Wimbledon 2021 as a wildcard, British tennis player Jack Draper was drawn the ultimate baptism of fire: battling Djokovic – currently ranked number one in the world – on the iconic centre court for his first-ever Grand Slam match. Holding his own, Draper’s ability to trade shots with Djokovic saw him receive a standing ovation from the home crowd and cemented his place as one of Britain’s most exciting young talents. Fuelling his determination, this year, Draper pushed on, becoming the first player to win four challenger crowns in the first quarter of a season and leaping into the World Top 150. His next goal: qualifying for the main draw of Wimbledon on ranking this summer with unfinished business.

Boxer Richard Riakporhe is another British sporting talent pulling no punches: boasting an imitable record of fourteen fights, fourteen wins, 10 by KO and on course for a world title shot. Both at the vanguard of a new generation, Draper and Riakphore will keep swinging until they reach the pinnacle of their professions. 

belt and jeans JACK’S own; necklace, worn throughout, stylist’s own

Richard Riakporhe: Hey, Jack.
Jack Draper: Hey, how’re you doing?

RR: Yeah good, just finished doing a run.
JD: Nice, whereabouts are you based?

RR: I’m at the Boxing Centre of Excellence [at Loughborough University] which is spearheaded by my head coach Angel Fernandez. I was one of the first fighters to join and it’s going great. I train with AJ [Anthony Joshua], he has the same coach as me, plus another guy called Frazer Clarke who won bronze at the Olympics.
JD: That’s amazing. How long has that been going on?

RR: About two years now. It’s good energy, everybody’s hungry, we see AJ in the gym and we want to get to where he is and he sees the hunger in us, so everybody’s radiating good energy and benefiting from it. Where are you based?
JD: Currently, I’m in Roehampton at the National Tennis Centre. You’ve got top players like [Andy] Murray and [Cameron] Norrie – I guess it’s a similar concept of getting people together and improving each other. In individual sports everyone’s at it alone but if you can create a team environment, that definitely helps. You come from London, right?

knitwear by DSQUARED2 SS22; ring, worn throughout, JACK’S own

RR: Yeah, I come from London originally.
JD: How often do you go back?

RR: The way it works is I only go down if I have to see my family or I need to do some commercial or media work. London is lovely but it’s full of distractions, especially for me, all my mates are there and they’ll call me to say, “What’s happening? This is going on today.” Even though we work hard and train hard, the rest is just as important and sometimes people neglect that. I need to be away so I can focus more and reach my full potential – I think that’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.
JD: Do you feel like you can focus a lot better there?

RR: 100 percent. I’m a city boy and here it’s the countryside. I just went running alongside highland cows and lamas – I’ve never seen them before in my life! [laughs] A lot of my friends don’t even know what these animals are called, so it’s a big change and when it hits around eight o’clock in the evening, it’s quiet as hell. You can hear a pin drop outside and nobody is doing anything, it’s a small town. How about you?
JD: In tennis we do a lot of travelling, so we’re away a lot and the training is obviously very tiring. We train from around eight until six. When I go home I don’t have much energy to be going out or doing other things, so I guess it’s the same, it’s that sacrifice – not getting distracted. A lot of people probably don’t achieve their potential because they don’t make that sacrifice.

RR: Absolutely.
JD: It’s a very unique sport. I feel like people don’t understand tennis that well, they see Wimbledon, the pinnacle, and think, “Wow, that’s amazing,” but they don’t see all the hard yards and everything day-to-day.

t-shirt, shorts, socks and shoes all JACK’S own

“The most valuable days and the most important are the ones where you’re not feeling up to it. When you don’t want to do it and you don’t want to push, those are the days where maybe other people slack off a bit.”

hat, t-shirt, shorts, socks and shoes all JACK’S own

RR: I can imagine, my nutritionist is the head of a tennis group sponsored by the LTA [Lawn Tennis Association]. And he was telling us how the youth players would fly to around 23 countries a year just to compete. So I’m guessing you’ve done all of that before?
JD: Yeah, with tennis you don’t have a lot of time at home. I turned pro when I was sixteen and since then I’ve been travelling all over the place. At lower levels you’re often going to some tough places… You have to get used to being away from home a lot, a bit like yourself. I feel it’s a bit different with tennis because you can compete every week, so it would be like you having a fight every week. How often do you fight per year?

RR: I would say I’m probably the most active cruiserweight in the world at the minute, my next fight will make it four fights in nine months.
JD: Wow.

RR: That’s impressive, people don’t fight that often. Normally you get fighters to fight about twice a year, maybe three if they’re really pushing, but you never hear of four of five. The old school fighters used to fight every three or four weeks, championship fights of ten rounds, twelve rounds, fifteen rounds – I’m trying to take it old school.
JD: Is that because they want to build up the fight and commercialise it nowadays? Is that why fighters fight less because they try and make a big deal out of the fight? In tennis, we could potentially play 100 matches in a year.

RR: Wow. I think it’s a mixture of that and a lot of other things. There is a business side to it, certain broadcasters don’t have the means to facilitate all the fights or they may want to focus on a certain individual and get them the fights they need, but then there are injuries you have to consider, there’s how hard it is. For instance, if you go into a fight and it’s really hard, it takes a lot out of you. You could break your hand, you could absorb a lot of damage, so you need time to rest. There are a few reasons why people aren’t that active but I believe if you’ve got the right team around you, the right broadcasters, and they have the same vision as you, then you can make it happen, because in a sport you need activity. Just like you playing tennis every week, I don’t know how you would be able to face people like [Novak] Djokovic if you didn’t play that often.
JD: Exactly. In tennis if you get injured or don’t play or don’t practice for just two or three days, you can start to decondition, you can start to slow down and your reactions aren’t as good. It’s a weird one when I think of boxing, if you’re not fighting that often how are you supposed to be in the best shape? In tennis we call it ‘match tightness’, basically meaning you might not compete as well because you’ve had such a long time away from playing matches. With boxing, I don’t know whether it’s the same, maybe you struggle in competition a little bit more because you’ve been out of it for so long? I find that interesting.

vest and shorts stylist’s own

RR: That’s exactly how it is. Let’s just say you could be really ‘fight fit’ and then you take two weeks off, you start to lose a lot of fitness and conditioning just from those few weeks, you’d feel like you were starting again. Imagine if you take two or three months off and then you come back to the gym trying to get fit and you need to prepare for a fight. That’s where doubt creeps in and you’re like, “Can I perform like I did last time around? Am I capable of winning this fight when the other person has been active?” That’s when doubt will affect everything, your body language, your mind.
JD: As a boxer what are the most important things to be able to deal with mentally?

RR: There are so many things you have to consider. I would say boxing is about 80–90 percent mental. If you don’t believe that you can win a fight, it’ll show in your body language, it’ll show to the point where you’re negative, you lose rounds and you end up losing a fight. You could even get knocked out because of fear. When you believe in yourself and train, you could be an average fighter but you can compete with the very best because it shows through your performance. Also, it’s like you’re imposing your will on an opponent, saying, “No, I’m going to win this, I’m not going to let you beat me, I’m taking this opportunity.” How is it in tennis?
JD: I feel like when you’re younger, until you turn pro, you don’t have an understanding of the demands on your body and brain it takes to be at the top. When I went pro it was a tough learning curve because all of a sudden I had to travel loads, every day you have to show up, put your body through a lot, make sure you’re on every ball. You can’t put a sloppy day in otherwise it will affect you as you go forward, you’ve got to try and be professional and cut out all of the other stuff. You maybe have to work through being very fatigued at times when you’re playing in competitions, you might play five matches in the week and every day you wake up a little bit differently, a bit tired and mentally you might be thinking, “I don’t want to go today, I don’t want to do this.” But you have to find that thing within that says, “No, that’s just my mind playing tricks on me, this is what I want to do and I need to push through it.” I feel like that’s the same with every sport at a high level. If you don’t, you’re not going to be the best, because other people are working harder than you, they’re doing things better than you. Also, I suppose one difference between tennis and boxing is sometimes we play five-set matches in grand slams and sometimes it’s three-set matches, and those matches can be very long. In boxing, you make one mistake or you show a bit of bad body language and you’re probably going to get knocked out, so you can’t dwell on any mistakes you make. In tennis a lot of it is mental and people tend to dwell on their mistakes for too long – I’d say tennis is probably 30 percent physicality and 70 percent mentality.

“I feel like I’m just at the start, but at the same time I’ve been playing for seventeen or eighteen years. I’ve been putting a lot into it from an early age.”

RR: That’s really interesting. I was going to ask you, when I’m going into a competition or when I’m training for my matches, I’m like, “I’m going to annihilate my opponent, I’m the best and nobody can beat me.” That’s the mindset and I’m ready for whatever. What’s your mindset when you’re going up against people like Djokovic? Obviously, you know what this guy has achieved and you’re going into the fire.
JD: I played a guy last week actually who was top ten in the world and quite a well-known player. A lot of people definitely build them up in their head as some sort of god, but at the end of the day, they’re just people with two arms and two legs. So whenever I go on court I always believe in my training and ability that I can win the match against whoever it is. I feel like so many people are beaten before they even go and play, I’m sure that’s the same in boxing.

RR: Absolutely, that’s exactly how it is in boxing. There are a lot of fighters who have lost the fight in the lead-up to it, you can see their body language in the press conference. You can see the things they say, you can tell when someone says, “I’m going to win this fight,” and when they say, “I’m going to give it the best I’ve got.” That doesn’t sound too confident, that’s when it goes back to how you’ve been preparing for the fight, the work you’ve put in. If you’ve put in a lot of work then you’d have more confidence and maybe you would say things with more passion and meaning.
JD: I feel like that confidence and belief can only come if you’ve been working and grinding hard, doing all the right things in order to get to the point where you think you’re going to be good enough to win. If you’re taking short cuts then it becomes more false.

RR: How long have you been playing tennis? How did you get into it?
JD: I started when I was very young. My mum coached so I got into playing when I was three or four, just picking up a racket. I played recreationally for a while and then I started playing a few competitions and stuff, it just developed from there. I’m actually right-handed in everything apart from tennis which is a bit weird, I even throw with my right hand, so I’ve obviously just picked up the racket in the left and started playing. People say, “You’ve got the rest of your career ahead of you,” and I feel like I’m just at the start, but at the same time I’ve been playing for seventeen or eighteen years. I’ve been putting a lot into it from an early age. What about yourself, when did you first find that passion for boxing?

hat, t-shirt, shorts, socks and shoes all JACK’S own

RR: It all started when I was on a train journey with a friend of mine and he just randomly said, “I’ve been going boxing training,” and I was like, “Really?! Show me something!” He showed me how to throw the double jab right hand and he was just gliding, moving on his feet, and I thought, “Damn this guy looks dangerous, if I had a fight with him he would hurt me.” So then I thought, “I want to learn how to fight.” Just to defend myself growing up on a South East London estate, I thought, “Why not?” He took me down to the gym and I literally got hooked on it. I was going to twice a week, beginners classes, then they invited me to the intermediate three times a week, then I started to compete after a year. I had a fight, then another fight, then I went into the championships and I did decent. Then I went to another championship and I did really well. I remember going to a championship where I had six fights and I knocked out five of them. I knew then I had some type of skill, I had power and it needed to be nurtured. So I started taking it seriously but then I decided to study, and with the studying, I couldn’t compete, it was very difficult to organise myself but after I graduated that’s when I went pro. In total, I’ve been boxing for about twelve or thirteen years.
JD: What was your first fight like? Actually getting into the ring for the first time against someone who wants to annihilate you and you’ve got to impose yourself, what was that like?

RR: The first fight I remember, back in those days I used to play a lot of Fight Night, it’s a boxing game and you can hear people roaring in the background and all that. When I got into the ring on that day, it was exactly like the game, that’s all I thought in my head. You can’t make out exactly what people are saying, but there’s a lot of shouting, a lot of noise, a big crowd. This guy was quite big, he was tall like me and I was just moving on my feet because I didn’t want to get hit – I wanted to do the hitting. I hit him with a clean shot and he was kind of out on his feet but I kept on moving and jabbing him. When I went back into the corner, my coaches yelled at me, “You hurt this guy, you let him off the lead, do us a favour and take this guy out so I can go home and have tea.” I went in the next round and I just started to go for him and won the fight. I had a lot of my friends from around the area I grew up come to support me as well. When you go for a fight back in those days it’s like you need the confidence to invite them because everybody wants you to win and it’s kind of embarrassing if you invite a lot of people and you don’t. [laughs] So I put extra pressure on myself for my first fight and it was a good experience.
JD: Did you feel almost nervous to properly hurt the guy?

t-shirt, shorts, socks and shoes all JACK’S own

“Whenever I go on court I always believe in my training and ability that I can win the match against whoever it is.”

t-shirt, shorts, socks and shoes all JACK’S own

RR: I was nervous for the whole event, I remember everybody on the card won and I was light heavyweight back then and the second to last fight. They said to me, “Everybody has won, Richard, so no pressure,” and I thought, “How can you even say that?!” I went in the ring and I got the job done, which was good but it was very nerve-wracking, especially him saying that. I’ve never forgotten what he said. [laughs] What’s been the most memorable game for you?
JD: I’ve had a couple of wins or moments that have stood out, it’s quite a long journey and there are so many matches I’ve played. I remember when I played the junior Wimbledon because they have junior events and grand slams. I was in the semi-finals and I played a guy, I think it was 7-6 6-7 and then 19-17 in the third set, it was about four hours and 40 minutes and I won that. I remember that was pretty mad then obviously I was there three years later playing Novak on Centre Court and that was memorable. It’s tough to pinpoint a particular match or moment because it’s like any sport, it’s such a long journey and there are so many ups and downs you go through. What do you do when you’ve trained and you’ve built it all up then you have a fight? For instance, after your next fight if you do take time off to recover, what do you do with your time away from boxing?

RR: After I fight it’s funny because you know you get a lot of fighters who will just go on holiday and disappear from the gym for about a month, spend a bit of their proceeds and just live life. But what I’ve realised is when we come back to training, when we get another fight, it’s so hard to get back into where you were. I was even chatting with AJ when we went to the spa and he was saying the same thing, we have to make sure we’re not going away from the gym for too long, we get back and start working. So for the last three fights I’ve been coming back into the gym within a week and started training again. Nothing intense, just ticking over, getting the blood pumping around the body, being familiar with everything – that’s been helping me a lot.
JD: In tennis it’s funny, sometimes when you’re doing a lot of training you’re thinking, “I’d love a few days off, I just want to do nothing.” But it’s weird because tennis gives me a big purpose and because I’m surrounded by my friends and people who care about me in my team, when I do go home and have that time off to do nothing, I find it tough because I feel like I want to be back.

RR: Me too, it feels weird. One minute we’re training and the next minute they’re like, “You can have a week off now,” and you look around and you just feel like you want to improve. That’s how I feel. I feel like I want to get back and improve, I don’t want to lose too much fitness. I don’t want to have too much fun because it takes away from what you’re trying to achieve. What keeps you motivated?
JD: Just getting to the top is important, I think it’s important to have good influences around you. For you it’s someone like AJ, for me, I’ve been lucky to grow up watching top players like Murray, so I’m definitely starting to see what I can do in tennis if I work hard. What motivates me is doing the best I can in this sport, winning as many titles as I can, and hopefully, doing well in grand slams and big events. The money is great and all the rest of it, but for me, it’s more the pride of enjoying competing and doing well on a global scale. What about yourself?

shirt by PRADA SS22; shorts stylist’s own

RR: The motivation for me is just understanding and fulfilling potential. That’s what really keeps me coming back. People always tell me, “Richard, if you just do this you will be a beast, you’ll run through everybody, there is nobody that would be able to compete with you,” and I just always think, “What do I need to do to get to that point?” Also, the world titles – I want to be a world champion. I want to be one of the greatest champions that ever lived, so my name lives on in the boxing world. These things make me think about everything I do on a day-to-day basis. I always ask myself, “Is this the standard of where you’re aspiring to be? Are you in-line with your goal?” I’m always honest with myself and I will say, “I need to level it up, I need to step it up.” So it’s what I have to do to separate myself from the rest to achieve what I want to achieve. That’s what keeps me motivated and makes me conscious about everything I do.
JD: The most valuable days and the most important are the ones where you’re not feeling up to it. When you don’t want to do it and you don’t want to push, those are the days where maybe other people slack off a bit. I think that’s where the big improvements are made because they’re more mental than anything else.

RR: Absolutely, in boxing they talk about the championship rounds from around nine to twelve, when it gets into those rounds that’s when people can tell if you’ve been living the lifestyle of an athlete. When it gets to those rounds, that’s when you can tell whether it’s been lifestyle or whether it’s just been flashy – you can’t hide in the ring. It’s those days where you push yourself in the gym and you’re motivated, that’s when you can access everything you’ve deposited in the bank, so to speak.
JD: I’m sure it would be the same with any sport, even though they all have different attributes, the mentality if you want to reach the top is the same. What’s your diet like? I’m twenty, I feel like I’m pretty professional but I have one or two days a week where I just let it slip, which is fine because I burn a ridiculous amount of calories a day so it doesn’t affect me as much.

RR: Let me show you what I’m eating right now. This is a salad with salmon and peppers, that’s a little snack, and then I’ll have something else for dinner and that’s me done.
JD: You don’t get that ripped unless you have a good diet.

RR: Don’t get it twisted though, we’re not completely strict. I’ll have a bit of pizza at the beginning of camp but that changes as time goes on.
JD: It’s a balance.

RR: Balance is the key to life, you know it.

Interview originally published in the HERO Summer Zine 6. 

grooming MAARIT NIEMELA at BRYANT ARTISTS using AMIKA and BOY DE CHANEL; grooming assistant GORDON CHAPPLES

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