Now, however, Millman has reached the high point of his career. In 2015, he moved among the top 100 in the world for the first time, finishing the season at No. 92 in the world. The successes he celebrated in that campaign set the stage for an outstanding start for Millman in 2016. He made it to the third round of the Australian Open in only his fifth main draw appearance at a major. He currently stands at a career high No. 61 in the world, and the feeling grows that Millman will make his presence known increasingly and more persuasively this year than ever before.
After he had lost to Benjamin Becker in the round of 16 at Memphis, he flew down to Florida for the Delray Beach Open, where he would lose in a final set tie-break against Stevie Johnson in the opening round. Millman came off the practice court as he prepared for that event, and touched base with me over the telephone. The first subject on the table of discussion was the long layoff Millman experienced in 2013 and 2014 that included shoulder surgery. That was a terribly disruptive and discouraging time for this customarily upbeat individual. I wanted to know if he believed at any stage then that his career might be over. Did that ever cross his mind?
” For sure it did,” replies Millman. “Just prior to getting injured I was ranked about 120 in the world. At that moment it was a career high for me. The year before I played Club Tennis in Germany and Switzerland just trying to get the money to play again on the ATP Tour. I got a wildcard into the  French Open qualies but the day before the draw for that I found out I had torn my labrum so I rescinded the wild card and that was when Nick Kyrgios got his start. I think he beat Stepanek in the first round. My misfortune was his fortune. After that came the rehabilitation process for me and I decided to get surgery in July. So for that period of time it was really tough for me and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to play again. I was working at a finance place and those were tough times when I wasn’t sure if I would get back.”
Millman is asked what stopped him from giving up? He answers, “It was such a long time away in 2013 and 2014. Before I felt like I was fully back it was 12 or 13 months. I tried to come back a little earlier but I had two instability episodes where my shoulder wasn’t strong enough and it almost popped out of its socket before popping back in. I started to get very frustrated. I actually played some $10,000 Futures tournaments in Korea, two of them. That was when the 2014 U.S. Open qualies was on. I wasn’t sure how good my shoulder was. I won both of those tournaments, started to get more confidence and that helped me out on the American Challengers swing in California. I believe I made a quarter in Napa Valley, a semi in Sacramento and the final in Tiburon. That got things in motion. I knew I had not maximized my potential before so what inspired me every day was the belief that I could fulfill my potential. That really kept me going.”
After his consistency in Korea and the U.S., Millman captured back to back Challenger events in Australia and Japan. He lifted his ranking considerably, and ended 2014 at No.159 in the world. He was grateful that so many things broke in his favor. ” I am under no illusions, ” he asserts. ” I worked extremely hard to rise again in the rankings but you need a little bit of luck, too, and I was lucky to get the results I did because plenty of guys who try to come back from injuries can’t quite get those breakthrough results. It can take a fair bit longer to get back. I was lucky to get a couple of good results where my shoulder was fully fit after about 13 months when it was not.”
On we went in the interview to Millman’s impressive 2015 season and his successful quest to reside among that elite top 100. He credits his legion of friends and supporters for helping him to attain that goal. But perhaps a pivotal moment was at the start of that season when he went up a set and a break against Roger Federer in his hometown of Brisbane before losing a spirited encounter with the Swiss icon.
“We played in the second round,” recollects Millman. ” In that match with Roger I was better off because I had played Andy Murray in 2013 at the Brisbane International so I kind of had that experience to draw upon. But it isn’t every day that you play someone like Roger Federer. In my opinion he is one of the best ever to play the game. I have a lot of respect for him, but I approach every match the same way, mate. You start off at zero-zero and I am not interested in losing to someone before a point has been played. I didn’t want to lose to someone based on reputation. You are playing in front of your friends and family and a lot of people come and watch me there so the last thing you want to do—even against someone like Roger— is go out there and get whipped in front of those people. So there was plenty of pressure there for me. But there was plenty of belief even though I went down after being up a set and 3-1 or whatever. Even up to the last minute I felt I could turn it around and get the win, but it wasn’t to be.”
Adding another layer to that comment, Millman says, “I have a lot of pride and I am proud of the fact that I am a big fighter. When I walk on the court, people have to win against me. I m not going to give up an inch, regardless of who I play. I am big on not losing a match before I go out and play. I give it absolutely everything I have so when I walked off court after losing to Roger I was very disappointed. It doesn’t matter who you play. When you lose it really hurts. Only a little later after playing Roger could I look back and be proud that I really took it to one of the better players in the world on that day.”
That performance seemed to set a certain tone for Millman as he moved into the heart of the 2015 campaign. Some “niggling” injuries burdened him for a while, but by the middle of the year Millman was driven by an overriding goal. As he explains, “Playing Wimbledon was a dream of mine. I had played qualies a few times but never the main draw. I managed to get through the qualies in 2015 and it was probably the best and most gratifying feeling I have ever had in tennis. It was incredible. I got my accreditation and walked through the main gates of Wimbledon for the first time. I then won my first round match over Tommy Robredo, who had made it to the round of 16 at Wimbledon the year before. He can play on every surface. I played very well and won in straight sets. After the tournament when the new rankings came out I saw I was in the top 100. It was funny because I had put a lot of pressure on myself to get there and that had been a negative for me at the start of the year. But at Wimbledon you think only about the tournament and not about rankings so that takes the pressure off. It was a great feeling to achieve that goal. But all of a sudden, once you get there, just being top 100 is not good enough in your own mind. I wanted to establish myself even more on the ATP World Tour.”
Millman got his bearings all through 2015 on the ATP World Tour, winning five matches at the tour level, improving decidedly as a player. It carried him into 2016 with higher expectations. At the Australian Open, Millman was fortunate in the first round, overcoming the tenacious Diego Schwartzman after dropping the first two sets. Millman took the third set in a tie-break and went up 5-0 in the fourth set. At that juncture, a debilitated Schwartzman had to retire. As Millman recalls, ” I was up against the ropes and probably shouldn’t have won. I played a good tie-break at the end of the third set but the conditions got the better of him. In the second round I was up against Gilles Muller. We had played in Stockholm at the end of last year. He has got a great lefty swinging serve. Gilles is a classy opponent and a really top guy. He won the first set and was up a break in the second and was definitely playing the better tennis, but the beauty of a best of five set match is that it takes longer to finish someone off. The crowd got very vocal and some people drifted over from the Heineken tent and really got behind me. It was a great atmosphere and I used the energy of the crowd to turn things around. I won 7-5 in the fifth set. That was a breakthrough win for me against someone of Gilles’s quality and class and the first win for me in the fifth and deciding set, so it was a really special moment and it set up the opportunity to play on Rod Laver Arena against Australia’s No. 1 player, Bernie Tomic.”
How does Millman feel about his performance against Tomic? Despite losing in straight sets, how well did he play that evening?
” It was not a bad match at all. The first two sets were pretty close and I thought they could have gone either way. It was good tennis out there and Bernie probably served a little better that night than I did. That proved to be the difference. I was disappointed not to win. I want to win every match but it was a good stepping stone. At the end of last year I evaluated some goals that I wanted to reach at the Grand Slams and I wanted to make at least the third round of a Slam. And to do that in the very first one of the year at the Australian Open was really special. But now is not time for me to rest on my laurels. You have got to keep pushing forward and striving to do better each time and I am hopeful about having the opportunity of playing in the main draw of more Slams this year and trying to continue to do better than my performance at the Aussie Open.”
Millman is surrounded by a number of highly ranked Australians at the moment. In 2015, he was the No. 5 ranked player from his nation behind Tomic, Kyrgios, Sam Groth, and Thanasi Kokkinakis. All five were proud members of the top 100. Millman is optimistic about the state of Australian tennis.
“Australian tennis right now is in a pretty good way. Along with the guys you mentioned, we have got other guys who are really close to the top 100 like Matthew Ebden, James Duckworth, and ‘J.P’ [John-Patrick] Smith. Jordan Thompson is climbing up the ranks pretty quickly. Se we have got a fair few guys who are pushing each other along. I think there is a lot of success in the future for Australian tennis. We are playing the U.S. in Davis Cup soon. I was lucky enough last year to go to two of the ties even though I was not a member of the team. I got to see the Aussies in action and saw how much they cared about representing their country and that inspires me to keep working at it and one day give yourself the opportunity to be playing the deciding rubber for your country. That is what you play for.”
I enquired about the influence of current Davis Cup captain and past stalwart Cup competitor Lleyton Hewitt on Millman. He said, ” Lleyton’s influence has been more from afar. I got to know him a little bit more last year when I started to join those Davis Cup ties and it gave me the chance to see how Lleyton operates in this environment. He lives and breathes Davis Cup and it was pretty cool to watch. From here on in having him at the helm is going to be positive. I am looking forward to watching the tie against the States and just to see him operating on the side of the court is going to be awesome.”
While Hewitt has been a significant figure for Millman more from a distance, others have been enormously helpful to this player in a closer close and more personal way. He commends the terrific work done on his behalf by his coach Gary Stickler, saying ” ‘Stick” has been a massive influence on my career.” Stickler has guided Millman mainly back home, while Mark Draper has been by his side as often as possible on the road across the last 18 months. ” To be able to work with Mark has been incredibly positive for me.”
But the primary reason why Millman finds himself just outside the top 60 in the world is what he has done for himself. Is he surprised by his status? ” I wouldn’t say I am surprised where I am because I have worked extremely hard to get there and I have always had belief in myself. If you had asked me that question when I was six months into shoulder rehabilitation, I probably would have been surprised back then. Growing up and watching Lleyton’s fighting spirit inspired me. I am obviously a baseliner and I am tough to get through from the baseline. I move well and I feel I am very solid on the forehand and backhand sides. But there is plenty I can improve in my game. I can take my game to another level. I am constantly trying to win more free points on serve and even on the baseline and I am looking to get more comfortable at the net. The fun of it all is trying to get better.”
Meanwhile, Millman is a man who appreciates the steep climb he has made without losing sight of where he once played in relative obscurity. In other words, he has a sense of perspective, and recognizes how difficult it is for players to fight their way up from the fringes to the upper levels of the game. At the end of the interview, I asked him about the enormity of the challenges for players seeking to make a good living but struggling mightily to make it all work.
“It is a massive struggle,” he responds. “I mean, even now I still can’t afford a coach to come and travel with me full time without help. This game is extremely tough and extremely expensive. I kind of get the feeling that the goal for tennis organizations would be for more players to make a living out of tennis. I have a good idea of what it is like to really grind through the different stages in Futures and Challengers and then finally get to the ATP level. I have had to go through it a few times with the stop-start with my shoulder surgeries and what-not. I know how hard it is out there. I would love to see more players make a living out of tennis. If you are not getting yourself into some of these main draws of Slams and ATP Tour events, tennis is very tough. I had to play a lot of Club Tennis just to be able to play on the Futures Tour.
“Some people are sleeping on floors at train stations and airports. To some extent it is bare-minimum stuff. It is tough to do that and play high level tennis. It makes a difference when you are eating better and spending the night at a hotel near the airport. I have been on either end and it makes a massive difference. It is unfortunate that there has not been a whole lot or prize money increases at the Futures or Challenger level, although I know that is in the pipeline in the future to a small degree. I would just love to see more guys playing this great sport and making a good living off it. It is tempting for players to quit at some stage and do something else because it is not the greatest way to make a living doing it off the skin of your back. It is all well and good to see the best tournaments on television but the reality of it is that only a tiny percentage at the top have that. There are a lot of guys doing what they love but butting their heads against the wall because expenses have never been so high as they are now.”
The hope here is that John Millman progresses over the next couple of years and does indeed realize his full potential. He seems to look at his profession in a larger sense, thinking not only about his own pursuits but those of others, hoping that the tennis tent can get deeper and wider in the years ahead. Players of his ilk and outlook can make a big difference.