King of the court
At 27, and trying to shed a reputation as an unruly player, the new No.1 can't believe his luck, writes Linda Pearce.
THE new Australian No.1 is searching for the p-word he wants to use to describe his 20-year-old predecessor Bernard Tomic. Prodigy? Yes, that's the one. So how would 27-year-old Marinko Matosevic categorise himself? ''I guess late bloomer's the word,'' he says, after a moment. ''I don't know. I guess that's it.''
There have been others, of course, not all of them flattering. Undisciplined. Erratic. Wild. Crazy, even. But also dedicated, a talented ball-striker with a fine return of serve and, in a lengthy interview this week, admirably candid, even contrite. The player who has tested the patience of Pat Rafter to Davis Cup dumping point has joined the dual US Open winner and two-slam warrior Lleyton Hewitt in reaching the nation's top rank.
''It's a little scary hearing all the names before me, cos I'm only [No.49], and all the guys you mentioned were No.1s in the world,'' Matosevic says. ''I don't think I'll get to No.1, but I'm happy I achieved it, as opposed to last year, where I had a chance if Bernard had lost early at Wimbledon. I was so happy that I didn't achieve it then, when I was ranked 120. I feel like I kind of deserve it now. I'm top 50, so I feel like I'm worthy.''
With one caveat. ''As long as Lleyton's playing, I feel like he's the real No.1, and I'm sure everyone else does,'' concedes Matosevic, a Bosnian-born resident of Florida and Dandenong North. ''He's carried the torch for over a decade. So, I know on the rankings I'm No.1 but I still feel like he's the go-to guy in Australian tennis.''
Matosevic, in contrast, was nearly the go-home guy, or the give-it-away bloke, as recently as this year. He had dropped back outside the top 200, then suffered four consecutive first round losses in Australia to start the season. Around that time, when he admits he was thinking ''the worst things - I was just like 'oh god, not again''' - he sat down with coach Josh Eagle and sports psychologist Anthony Klarica and discussed his ambitions for the year ahead.
''Josh's goal for me was to be ranked between 100 and 150, and he wrote it on a piece of paper,'' Matosevic recalls. ''Once he left, I ripped up the piece of paper and threw it away, and me and Anthony both said that if I'm not top 100 at least, I'm gonna quit. I would have had to. I know some guys keep battling forever, but I didn't want to do that.''
With continued Tennis Australia support conditional on a top-125 ranking, something had to change. And, within weeks, it did. After winning the Caloundra Challenger in February, Matosevic qualified for the ATP event in Delray Beach, Florida, and beat four top-80 players en route to his debut tour-level final against Kevin Anderson. The 14th win in his career-best streak came after a three-hour slog against fellow journeyman Dudi Sela, before Matosevic threw his 195-centimetre frame onto the ground, rising to scream with delight and blow kisses to the tiny crowd.
Before February, Matosevic had won just three of his 18 ATP-level matches - he is still without a grand slam success in seven attempts - and endured a nightmare Davis Cup initiation against China six months earlier. Until 2010, he had been snubbed by Tennis Australia, known more for his hot temper and unmanageable ways than his powerful game. A final. At last. A loss. It scarcely mattered.
''That's the happiest I've been, once I won that semi-final,'' he says, beaming at the memory. ''I just fell to the floor, I couldn't believe it. Everything that I'd worked for, it came true a little bit that week.''
It was also the springboard for a season that delivered a top-50 breakthrough, and No.1 Australian status, with results across all surfaces. In January, for the first time, there will be no need for a wildcard into the main draw at Melbourne Park. The downside: his extended string of grand slam failures (including from two sets and break point up against 12th seed Marin Cilic at the US Open), and the ongoing disciplinary issues that led to an angry exchange with captain Rafter after the Davis Cup tie against South Korea in Brisbane at Easter.
Matosevic was dropped for the world group play-off against Germany in September. Rafter said his then No.2 ''didn't deal with things too well in the last tie'', and ''he needs to learn to step up in the big matches''.
Guilty, your honour. ''In Brisbane I didn't have my best tie behaviourally - not that I didn't work hard, but you've got to rise to the occasion,'' Matosevic says. ''I hit a ball out of the stadium and I guess I wasn't up for playing the dead rubber, whereas when you're playing for your country, you've got to be motivated all the time - whether it was 4-0 or the first match on, like I was in China last year - and ready to play for Australia, and I've learnt that lesson now.''
Certainly, there is some goodwill to recover, yet Matosevic believes that, temperamentally, much ground has been made. Fourteen months ago, Rafter referred him to Klarica. ''I still have my bad moments, but [Klarica's] helped a great deal. It's just basically simplifying everything, a few exercises and routines to deal with the situations. Nothing too complicated, where I overload my brain.''
Eagle, too, has helped reinforce the right messages and stopped the mad deviations from the game plan. ''The positives are that you'll be hard-pressed to find someone who is more self-motivated, more willing to work hard,'' says Eagle, who travelled with Matosevic for 30 weeks this year. ''This guy will do anything. I can call him at 10.30 at night when we're at a tournament and he goes 'Oh, I'm just in the gym doing some sit ups'. That's got him the results.
''This year, he's stopped being a clown and that's the negative: he was always looking to make an excuse when the going got tough. But this year, he's handled that a lot better and had a good hard look at himself in the mirror. He was always very quick to blame other people in previous years and never take ownership of his own career.''
But is it, still, mostly a mind game he's losing? ''It's attitude, attitude, attitude,'' says Matosevic's previous coach and former top 20 singles player and doubles champion Mark Woodforde. Adds Eagle: ''His biggest issue is mental. If he wants to go higher, he needs to embrace the mental side of it, he needs to understand he can't hit the perfect shot every day, every match, he's got to learn to deal with the occasion. If not, he'll fall back to 75 or outside the top 100, I feel.''
Financially, the pressure has been eased by earnings of more than $400,000 this year, although - with some club tennis in France factored in - Matosevic has been self-sufficient for the past four or five years.
He says his wild man image is slightly over-stated in these, slightly mellower, days. Indeed, his only code violations for on-court misdemeanours have come in the Challengers, where the fines are smaller, but he adds: ''The lower levels of tennis can do that to you, and I wouldn't be the first player that lost their mind on the lower circuit.''
He practises regularly with Hewitt, who is said to see in Matosevic a little bit of his younger, stick-it-up-'em self. ''I don't know about that,'' Matosevic smiles. ''I think he's got a lot more control over his actions, sometimes, than me, but I remember his attitude when he was first coming out, it was Rocky Balboa against the world, and I definitely liked that. I mean, I watched him all my life, so I'm sure subconsciously he's had an influence on me and how I behave. Who knows?''
Australia, meanwhile, will need to get to know Matosevic, whose family migrated from the former Yugoslavia to Melbourne's outer south-east at the end of the Balkan wars. His story should give hope to others still trying, hoping. ''I guess your normal person who doesn't know much about tennis wouldn't really know me,'' says the player who this season was named the ATP's most improved.
''I kept on growing until 21, so I felt I could have made it a few years ago if I had the right people around me.''
''It wasn't to be. But as they say, better late than never.''