American Denis Kudla experiencing career rebirth after deep Wimbledon run
Denis Kudla is a different man today than he was a few weeks ago, when he lost in the finals of the Surbiton Challenger after having numerous match points. The loss cost Kudla a Wild Card into the main draw of Wimbledon.
But, weeks later, Kudla finds himself a more confident man.
Well, not 36 hours after Kudla dropped the Surbiton final, he filed away the bad memories and took the court for the Ilkley Challenger, where he would go on to win four matches before meeting Australia’s Matthew Ebden in the finals — for the second straight week.
The 22-year-old American learned the error of his ways and knocked off Ebden in straight sets, earning entry into the Wimbledon main draw in the process.
"For him to have to go through that disappointment only to turn it around and beat a guy in the Top-100 and the guy he lost to the previous week, it was a huge competitive moment for him — when he can overcome things and focus on controlling things only he can control, he’s a really good player," Kudla’s coach, Billy Heiser told FOX Sports.
Kudla entered Wimbledon week with zero fanfare, zero expectation, ranked No. 105 in the world. And now, fresh off a run to the Round of 16 — that started off by winning a first-round match after being down two sets and ended in a four-set loss to No. 9 seed Marin Cilic — Kudla is in position to take his career to the next level.
Sometimes it only takes one good win, or one good tournament to make an athlete’s switch flip.
Kudla isn’t wired like your everyday 22 year old. He turned pro at the age of 16, when most of his friends were still learning to drive. He’s toured the world on a few occasions, sometimes by himself, playing tournament after tournament, without parental supervision. The Virginia native became a man on the tennis court, playing a game that taught him everything he knows.
"I needed a month like this, especially after having a rough year," Kudla told FOX Sports. "Now I just want to move forward, take it into the summer, not get satisfied and stay hungry. Obviously, we don’t want this to be a one-hit wonder."
Now, you might be saying to yourself, "I’m sorry. But who is this Denis Kudla of whom you speak?"
If you are one of those people, know you’re not alone. Walk onto any public tennis court these days and mention Kudla’s name to young tennis players. Heck, mention Pete Sampras’ name and you’ll likely receive a similar response.
Gone are the days when the names Sampras and Agassi actually meant something in the American sports landscape. Do you remember the days when Americans dominated men’s tennis? When guys like Sampras, Agassi, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Jim Courier and Michael Chang were household names.
American junior tennis players are more likely to know McEnroe and Courier because of their work as announcers of the game. Little does the younger generation realize McEnroe and Courier have 11 grand slam titles between them. Back then, when describing American men’s tennis, one might have said, "youth gone wild." Now one might simply say "youth gone," and leave it there.
Not since 2012 have two American men advanced to the second week of a major. We almost saw it happen this week at Wimbledon, before former University of Georgia standout John Isner bowed out to Cilic in the third round, 12-10 in the fifth set.
Kudla was the last American man standing at Wimbledon 2015. This is what Kudla had been hoping for his entire career, only he hoped to be the last man standing, entirely.
But it wasn’t to be, not this year, at least. Next year? Who knows.
"There are so many adjustments made through a match. If someone makes the first adjustment and is successful with it, you need to say to yourself, ‘what’s the next adjustment I need to make’," Heiser says of his approach with Kudla. "I always thought with the right mindset and the right physical toughness, he could be a really strong force out there."
Since leaving the tutelage of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) in May to link up with Heiser, Kudla sports a 12-2 record. He simply looks like a different player under Heiser’s care.
The game certainly has become more cerebral for Kudla, focusing more on the mental and tactical approaches to the game. And his results in the last month back it up.
"I’ve always known who I am as a tennis player, but I was having a lot of inconsistent results," Kudla said. "I would have a big breakthrough, but I couldn’t back it up. I would have ups and downs through the year. With Billy (Heiser), the first week, he delivered a message to my brain, one I might have heard before. It just kind of clicked. It completely re-wired my head. I was able to clear my mind and free up my game."
Heiser, like Kudla, grew up in the USTA system, and understands why the system works for some but not for others. Kudla took everything he could from the USTA before realizing a change was needed.
"I needed to move on to re-motivate myself, to have something to lose out there. Before, with the USTA, if you lose a first round of a challenger, you can still make money, break even. I got comfortable in the challengers. So I decided to give myself a kick in the butt."
Those words sound like they were uttered by someone who no longer is afraid to fail, someone who is ready to take ownership of his career. Kudla knows the future will bring more results like Monday’s loss to Cilic, but he says "there’s always something to take from losing. There’s always a way to get better."
It only took Kudla six years to get to this point and, despite the exit from Wimbledon, his career looks to be in the midst of a rebirth, so to speak. Young tennis players need to see someone like Kudla find success on the big stage — someone young, someone confident and someone who wants to put in the work.
"You can make whatever you want out of tennis, depending on how hard you want to work," Kudla says of young up-and-coming tennis players. "The older you get, you think still think there is a secret. But there really isn’t. It’s just hard work. It’s that simple."
You hear that, kids? All it takes is hard work … and maybe a tennis racket.