There is more. This past autumn, Rubin played a series of Challenger events linked to a points system that determined which American player would garner a wildcard into the upcoming Australian Open in January. He captured the tournament in Charlottesville after qualifying for that event, narrowly moving past compatriot Eric Quigley in the first round of the main draw, accounting for two more countrymen (Jared Donaldson and Stefan Kozlov) in the next two rounds, defeating Henri Laaksonen in the penultimate round, and eventually toppling another American, Tommy Paul, in a spectacular final round comeback by scores of 3-6, 7-6 (7), 6-3.
That remarkable run was the key to Rubin claiming the wildcard into the first major of 2016, but ultimately he was not fully in charge of his own destiny. His fellow American Taylor Fritz surged into the final in the last of those Challenger tournaments at Champaign, Illinois, against Laaksonen. A victory there would have enabled Fritz to travel past Rubin and thus secure the wildcard himself. Rubin found himself in the somewhat uncomfortable position of wanting his friend Fritz to lose as he followed that match over the internet.
As he recollected for me in a telephone interview, “I was with my girlfriend that day and I was trying not to focus on the score. I saw that Fritz had won the first set so I just tried to relax. An hour later I checked it again and it was 2-0 in the third for Laaksonen. My girlfriend was getting coffee while I stayed in the car and by then Fritz was behind 5-2 in the third. So I watched the final game on live stream, and it was like ace, ace, ace and it was over pretty quick. My emotions were mixed. It was tough and I didn’t know how to handle it properly. That is why I waited a few days to spread the news that I actually got the wildcard. I felt bad because it was another American who I want to do well in the future, but he had to lose in order for me to gain something. I have travelled with him before and I know him personally. It was not just some random kid.”
That, of course, is the essential nature of competition. Tennis is a sport designed for the individual, and all players must be selfish about their pursuits to a large degree. Rubin’s reaction to what he experienced as he waited anxiously to find out about the outcome of Fritz’s final round contest in Champaign was simply another step in his evolution. Another crucial evolving moment for him was clearly his triumph at the Wimbledon junior event 17 months ago.
Many of us in the international press corps watched him play for the first time when he took that title in July of 2014. How does he view that triumph—which included victories over Fritz, Stefan Kozlov and Frances Tiafoe—as he reflects on it now? “It meant a lot,” he responds. “I wasn’t supposed to go to Wimbledon in the first place. I had no junior ranking and I had to qualify. There were a lot of things in play so I just went there and did what I could. I didn’t even have a warmup tournament. It was an incredible experience and one I will have forever. No matter what, I will always still have that title. It wasn’t pros but it was a good lead-way, and hopefully it gave me some respect amongst the tennis community. Winning there has helped me throughout my career so far. I was playing in the finals in front of 9000 people. It was a tremendous experience altogether.”
His experience at Wake Forest was also gratifying and rewarding in a multitude of ways, although Rubin was understandably disappointed not to claim the NCAA Championships title. In the final of that prestigious event, he served for the match against Ryan Shane of the University of Virginia but was eventually toppled 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-1. Yet Rubin justifiably looks back on his 2014-2015 season with immense pride and deep satisfaction.
He says, “I don’t regret the year at all. It was tremendous. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Obviously the NCAAs was disappointing. I was playing well the whole year and I beat Shane at the ACC’s. He played some good tennis. Maybe I didn’t play as well as I needed to under those circumstances with that pressure. When you go through something like that, it is tough at the moment. I think I just laid off the gas a bit. A lot of pros lose on their own count. They go for their shots and do what it takes to win. They are almost fearless and that is what I have learned. After the match, there was a tornado warning and everybody had to be in one building with about a thousand people in there. It was devastating to be there right after the loss, standing inside in a corner.”
The learning process Rubin alluded to is ongoing and constant. Currently ranked No. 339 in the world, he plans on competing in both Futures and Challenger tournaments as he climbs up the ladder on the ATP World Tour. He explains, “It is really up in the air. I might play a couple of more Futures just to get more points. Especially in these 25s that are popping up, you get about 50 points which is good for almost every player outside the top 80. So I will definitely play some Futures but mix it with Challengers. I think I can compete against anybody, so it just depends on where my ranking is. My ranking should get up there pretty quick.”
We turn to the uplifting win recorded by Rubin in Charlottesville. He had met considerable frustration when he did not cross the finish line successfully against Shane in the NCAA final, and yet he rallied from the brink of defeat in his final round showdown with Tommy Paul in Charlottesville. In that skirmish, Rubin was down a set and 5-1 but he turned the tables on his rival and fought back for an extraordinary win.
“It happens way more than you think,” he says of that spirited comeback. “There has to be a mentality change. I got over a hump during that match of mental and physical fatigue because that was my eighth match in nine days starting with the qualifying. When I was down 4-1 in the second set against Paul I had a few break points and that was when I felt I was getting over a hump. In every tennis match, there is something you can get through. You can either come back and win or lose a match within seconds. You need the right mentality to get through it. It is not easy coming back from a set and 5-1 but it does happen more than you think. It is just that some people let go too easily.”
Will winning Charlottesville in that fashion from so far back have lasting implications for Rubin? He replies, “It basically changes the path of my career. Just to be down in Australia playing side by side with some of the best players in the world, and possibly playing against some of the best guys as well, really allows for anything. My whole career could skyrocket after that, or it could be just the same. But no matter what, this is a great opportunity to start 2016 well. I don’t see why I can’t win a round or two at the Australian Open, and then I could keep going and maybe use that momentum for the rest of the year.”
How will Rubin make certain that he is fully prepared for the trip “Down Under” so that he can feel confident about his chances of performing at a high level? He answers, “My training is going to be vigorous. With my trainer Rich Mensing I am starting full out. I will play three-and-a-half to four hours a day and I will have a physio stretching me. I also will be going to Florida and I may be training at the USTA with those guys for a few days in Boca Raton. I will get my nutrition in order, and compete in a Challenger before the Australian Open so I can get matches to be ready for this.”
Meanwhile, as Rubin competes everywhere and looks to elevate his status in the game, he seems to keep crossing paths with a nemesis of sorts who has been beating him regularly over the last few years. The 31-year-old Canadian Frank Dancevic ousted Rubin three times alone in 2015. What is it about Dancevic that has perplexed Rubin time and again? Is Dancevic inside his head?
“I wish I could tell you,” he replies. “I have spoken to the top guys and they say that there is always one guy that you either feel uncomfortable against or you can’t beat. It has nothing to do with anything. It is just how it goes. For some reason in my case it is Dancevic in particular. I can’t think of any other guy like that for me, but he does something that changes the way I think and play. I don’t even know what it is. He is a strong guy and he takes a lot of my balls and angles them off the court, but it is less about that and more of a mentality that goes through my head while playing him. He is a good player and has done well for himself, getting to the top 60 or 70 in the world. But he has lost to guys that I have beaten before.”
If Rubin managed to survive a hard fought clash with Dancevic and wins 7-6 in the final set the next time they meet, would that alter things decidedly and get him past the sustained difficulties he has encountered in that rivalry? “It could be,” he says. “I am pretty good about not getting fixated on something like that. I have had set points against him numerous times but it is just one of those things where I would rather play Djokovic. A lot of players have numerous people they play where this happens. I am lucky right now that it is just one guy.”
Rubin is borderline diminutive by today’s standards in the world of tennis. He is officially listed by the ATP as 5’10” and 155 pounds. But, he admits, “I would probably even say I am 5’9”. The sport is heavily populated by players who stand between 6’1” and 6’4”, with many even taller than that, but Rubin must proceed with the realization that he will not be one of the taller competitors, and therefore must compensate in other ways. Some of my friends compare his build and his game with David Ferrer, but he also resembles another “Little Big Man” named Lleyton Hewitt.
As Rubin says of Ferrer and Hewitt, “I have definitely admired those guys for what they have done. Obviously I have modelled some of my game after them and some of my physical-ness as well. I love Hewitt’s backhand and enjoy hitting my backhand because it is one of the most solid parts of my game. But hopefully I am getting to a point where I am evolving also. Once I improve as I get older, I will be getting more pop on my ball then let’s say Ferrer does. I am trying to put guys on defense more. But at the same time I want to use my speed as a defensive and offense weapon. I feel it is one of the strongest assets in my game and it makes up for my lack of height. Look at Ferrer; he is like a machine. I believe I already have more pop on my ball than Ferrer or Hewitt have. Ferrer knows how to move on the court and there is a lot I can learn from him but I am trying for a happy medium between grinding and using my speed and also attacking and putting opponents on the defensive.”
Is his serve sufficiently big and productive? How important will that be in Rubin’s rise as a player? “I feel like my serve is definitely improving and I am more confident with it. I feel the percentage of my best serving has to improve a bit but there is definitely room for improvement with every part of my game. My serve can improve but my best serve speed wise has some good pop on it. I could get up to 130 MPH. It was measured at 127 MPH at Wimby the year before I won the junior title.”
How does Rubin feel about the number of fellow Americans who are making their presence known along with him these days? He replies. “There have been numerous guys who have jumped in the last three months just tennis game wise, and not only in the rankings. You see there are five teen Americans inside the top 350 and more just outside, so it is nice to have that team effort as we come up together. All of those Americans came up together in the Sampras era, and Roddick and Blake and all those guys had each other so we can bounce encouragement off each other. It is so good for motivation.”
Asked if he has been given any advice from the likes of Roddick and Blake, Rubin says, “I have hit with Roddick a couple of times. I was a Davis Cup hitting partner and I spent a week with the Bryan brothers. So I know them. And Querrey and Isner I have also gotten to know a bit. They are all great guys. I get basically the same advice from them all: it is a day in, day out job and you have to be willing to do it. But when I see them I try not to bother them.”
As I was closing this piece and sending it out into the public domain, Rubin was still weighing his options about when to turn professional. “There are still things being talked about, “he told me. “It is not fully resolved.”
That issue will surely find a resolution soon. Be that as it may, I asked Rubin to define from his own point of view what a successful pro career would be? He says, “I have dreams of being top ten [in the world] but anything less than that in my eyes would be unsuccessful. In my head I am determined to be No. 1 in the world and I am training for that. But also it is just the ability to live this life. It gives me opportunities I would never have in any other field. Getting this life experience is priceless. I could be close to 100 or 150 in the rankings six to eight months from now. I could see that in a second with the way I feel about my game, mentality and everything else. There is no reason why it shouldn’t happen, but if it doesn’t happen right away, the longevity of the sport shows that I can do it for another 10 to 15 years.”
As we concluded an enjoyable conversation, I asked Rubin what he believes will be the single most important factor in determining his long range success. He answered, “It is a mixture between letting losses go and learning from them, and also just working hard day in and day out. On the days when you wake up and don’t want to do anything, you have to make sure it is the hardest working day of the week. That is what really matters.”