His name is Denis Kudla, and I spoke with him by telephone last week. Kudla addressed a wide range of topics. Over the course of our discussion, he came across as a young man who keeps himself and his goals in perspective, as a fellow totally dedicated to his tasks, as an admirable professional fully realistic about the toughness of his trade. At the outset of the interview, I asked him what it will take to remain in the elite top 100 this time, and perhaps move higher after being unable to do so the last time around.
He replied, “Breaking the top 100 for the first time was a big thing for me. To be able to come back into the top 100 two or three years later is huge. I feel over the years I have learned to play the game a little differently and I try to control what I can control. It has been a huge turning point in my career with the new coaching change and having a clear mind on the court, not worrying so much about my game but more my mentality. I think that will allow me to stay in the top 100 and even push higher.”
The new coach is Billy Heiser, who had already been working with Kudla’s compatriot Tim Smyczek since August of 2012. Kudla had played under the auspices of the USTA and was thus a beneficiary of their Player Development program. He received expert coaching from the likes of Diego Moyano and Tom Gullikson over the years, but never had to pay for them out of his own pocket. Heiser came to terms with Kudla a few months ago. He will continue working with Smyczek, but Kudla has also been ably guided by Heiser since they joined forces following the French Open.
The results have been excellent. Kudla played a pair of Challenger events on the grass in Great Britain leading up to Wimbledon, losing a hard fought final in Surbiton to Mathew Ebden but then toppling Ebden in the final of Ilkley the following week. That led to a wildcard into Wimbledon and a remarkable run to the round of 16 at the world’s premier tournament, and then the determined and surging Kudla qualified for Atlanta and went all the way to the penultimate round of that event, losing a close contest to Isner. Although he fell last week in the first round of Washington in a final set tie-break against Blaz Rola, that could not diminish all the good things he has done across the last few months.
Heiser believes Kudla has taken on a new level of professionalism since they started working together, and it is his contention that having to pay for coaching has altered the thinking of his charge. As Heiser puts it, “Having to pay for a coach for the first time has had an influence on Denis. He feels a little more responsibility. His practices have been more meaningful. The mental approach he has had in every practice, every match he plays and every conversation we have has been very important to him. At the end of the day he is paying for that. It is not that he took his coaching or his commitment to the game lightly before, but if he knows he is paying me and I am standing there and he is not fully engaged, he is essentially wasting money. So I think that helps his approach.”
Is Kudla in accord with Heiser on that point? “One hundred percent,” he answers. “I was with the USTA for four years and I got a lot of financial help and never paid for a coach. I never took that for granted and felt I always worked really hard, but I needed to make a change. The USTA did nothing wrong but I felt maybe if I started paying for a coach something would kind of rewire in my brain. I just took a risk. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Writing my first check really made me focus even more than I did before. I was very conscious of what was happening and what was needed for me to be a top player because I didn’t want to go out there and be writing checks and still be in the same situation as a player. I wanted to write these checks so I could get to a higher level and make more money, to have a more successful career. It has really helped me and it was an incredible decision that I am really happy I made.”
Kudla reaped the rewards of his choice to work with Heiser swiftly and surely in those pre-Wimbledon Challenger events, but had to confront some difficulties along the way. He was serving for the match against Ebden in the final of Surbiton, leading 5-3, 40-15 in the third set, up double match point. But that match eluded his grasp and he was beaten in a final set tie-break. “In the back of my mind,” he recollects, “I realized I could potentially have had a wildcard into Wimbledon right there if I had won that match. That could have put me into the main draw. But Billy talked to me a lot about how to approach a new week and give myself another chance. I listened to him and then had a couple of challenges in the quarters and semis, matches that I almost let slip away. But I was able to regroup and then played Ebden again in the final. I just stayed positive. I didn’t think about the wildcard or think about the fact that it was a final. All I thought about was that this was a match against Matt Ebden on grass and to win it I needed as clear a mind as possible. I ended up playing a great, great match and I got the Wimbledon wildcard right after that, which was a huge relief for me. I was really proud of myself.”
On he went to the All England Club. He opened his campaign by rallying dynamically from two sets to love down, ousting world No. 23 Pablo Cuevas in five sets. In the second round he overcame the gifted Alexander Zrerev in four hard sets and then Kudla made another spirited comeback from two sets to one down against Santiago Giraldo to record another five set triumph. To be sure, Kudla was fortunate that No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori had to default against Giraldo. Be that as it may, he thoroughly earned his place in the fourth round. Once there, he acquitted himself honorably against U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, losing in four sets.
Speaking of that stellar experience on the lawns, Kudla says, “It was a great accomplishment for me. Beating Cuevas after being down two sets to love—the first time I had done that—was huge for my confidence. When you do that early in a tournament you get this sense of belief that you can win any match in any situation.”
Asked to elaborate, Kudla went on, “I am very confident in my physical abilities and knowing that I can last out there for a long time, so that was the least of my worries against Cuevas. I served for the first set and then got down an early break in the second. I wasn’t able to get it back. I just tried not to look at the big picture that I needed to win three sets. I focused on one game at a time and ended up playing really well to win that match.”
After his subsequent triumph over Zverev, Kudla fought back fiercely to stop Giraldo. He recalls, “I started off great to win the first set and then let it slip in the second set, losing in a tie-break. I went downhill really fast in the third set. I knew I wasn’t playing well and was looking for a way to get a little bit of my anger out that I had inside me. I knew in the back of my mind that these fines for breaking rackets and all this stuff that can happen in a Slam can be big. But I needed to get some of the rage out. I ended up finding a way to do that. I guess I had an audible obscenity, something I said more in humor in the corner of the court that was kind of a joke. A linesman happened to hear it and ran to the umpire to tell him. I used the incident as a way to get that anger out but I did it the right way. I wasn’t too aggressive but it got my mind going, my energy completely changed and everything switched my way. Figuring out what to do became more clear to me. I was able to play an unbelievable fourth set. The fifth set in a Slam is always a battle but I broke early and I got the win over Giraldo [6-2, 6-7 (3), 2-6, 6-1, 6-3]. That was great for me.”
Facing a major champion like Cilic in the round of 16, Kudla was undaunted. He explains, “Honestly, at that point I was in the fourth round and playing really good tennis. I believe I had won 12 of my last 13 matches in the last couple of weeks so I honestly felt I could play with anybody. I wasn’t intimidated at all and that helped me a lot. All of the sets against Cilic were close and I gave myself a chance to win. I had a chance in the first set. We were on serve and I played a bad game to get broken and lost that set. I won the second and had the momentum my way. He won the third set pretty convincingly but in the fourth set he was up a break, yet I broke back. I had a chance to go up a break and he came up with some really big points. But I was happy with my performance. I made him work to win that match and did not roll over and give it to him. If I was going to lose that match I needed to make him beat me and not give it away. I thought I did that really well and it allowed me to compete at a high level for a long period of time.”
Coming off that respectable four set loss to Cilic at Wimbledon, knowing he had lasted longer than any other American man at the All England Club, Kudla realized that his opponents would be coming after him forcefully when he went to Atlanta to open up his summer hard court campaign. Given those set of circumstances, his semifinal showing was very impressive across the board, featuring wins over Ryan Harrison (in a final set tie-break), Jack Sock and Dudi Sela. Isner edged Kudla 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
“I knew guys would be gunning for me,” Kudla says. “I wanted to come into these hard court tournaments with the best possible mentality so I did really well in the qualies and felt good about my physical ability since it was very hot there. The match with Harrison came down to the last couple of points and was played at a high level. It was almost the same deal with Sock. We had a really tight first set breaker that I won and that was a big turning point in allowing me to win the match [7-6(6), 6-3]. If I had lost that breaker he might have won 6 and 3 instead of me. But I was very comfortable on the big points. I came out really hot against Sela and won [7-5, 6-0]. And against Isner, that was my first semifinal at a Tour event and my confidence was high. I had practiced with John and he has a tricky game and gives you no rhythm. At the end, I made a couple of errors but I took many positives away from that match and that week. It will help me in the long run, especially going into the U.S. Open.”
Asked to describe the camaraderie and connectedness of the leading Americans, Kudla replies, “It is amazing. We are all really close. We get along well and push each other. I feel like we have all heard about [people wondering what has happened] to U.S. tennis and that has definitely brought us closer. As countryman we are kind of trying to raise a flag at these tournaments. Everyone is on the same page and I am happy we are all doing well at the same time. A lot of us are still pretty young and we grew up with each other. It’s great to see. We can learn from each other. And when you have that opportunity with your close friends, the sky is the limit. As long as everyone works hard, it can only get better for us.”
The evidence is abundant in the case of Kudla that he is on his way to playing the best tennis of his career, perhaps headed into the top 50, maybe destined to do some extraordinary things over the next couple of years. But he has endured his share of rough setbacks and hard luck experiences since turning pro at such a young age. In retrospect, was it the right decision to move into the professional ranks when he did?
“I went pro very young,” he says. “I turned pro at 16-and-a-half after winning the Orange Bowl. It was a tough decision in the beginning. The first couple of years were tough for me. I had my regrets. I had my doubts. I got to around 130 or 140 in the world when I was about 18 but it was tough. I did have my support team around telling me to keep working hard and not to give up. When I broke into the top 100 I knew I could make it in this sport. Then I had another two years where I was around 105 to 120 or 130 in the rankings. That takes its toll. But, after all that, I am right now at 79 in the world at 22 and I find myself in a really good position. Looking back, maybe I could have waited a bit longer to turn pro. Guys now can look at the option of college for a year or so, but the college atmosphere would not have been the perfect situation for me. So, as I look at it now, I have no regrets. I have fallen in love with the sport even more and am really happy playing tennis is my job.”
Another trying experience for Kudla earlier in his career was warming up top players for their matches. Far too frequently the players he hit with went on to lose matches. He began to think of himself as a jinx. Kudla reflects with some amusement now, “It was crazy. I think the first ten pros I warmed up with all lost. Isner lost a couple of matches I warmed him up for and that happened with others. The big one was obviously Nadal. I warmed him up for his match with Soderling at the 2009 French Open. I was watching that match and everyone was kind of on alert when Nadal went down two sets to one. I was watching and I thought, ‘No way. This has never happened.’ When he actually did lose, I was in disbelief. I started running away from the court. I did feel like a jinx, but then it broke when I warmed up Isner on the third day of his epic with Mahut at Wimbledon [in 2010]. Once Isner won that I thought, “‘Okay, I am not a jinx.’”
Kudla has been emboldened and reshaped by his many victories and defeats as a professional tennis player, and is now poised to release tennis of a sustained caliber he has never matched before over any stretch in his career. Here he is, a player of rising fortunes who is just about to turn 23, a competitor with many miles behind him, a prideful and purposeful American, and a man who senses that the next three years could well be the most productive of his life.
As Kudla sums it all up, “I have been out here a long time and have gained a lot of experience. It has been tremendous. What I am learning now in these last couple of months has really given me a clear pathway to feel like I can get somewhere with the right mentality and the right work ethic. I feel I am making progress every single day. I am constantly trying to get better. I want to get my ranking as high as possible but I have never felt like a ranking goal was good for me. If you don’t reach that goal, it would be such a disappointment. I think in terms of trying to reach my full potential and having no regrets, rather than trying to hit a certain number. I know that is what is best for me.”