Long, hard road to the top in tennis
January 14, 2006
While the top-ranked players live in opulence, for others on the way up life is darkened by cheap hotels, tortuous bus rides and cheap air fares. World No. 144 Peter Luczak tells what it takes to make it to the professional tennis circuit.
NO. 144 is not a stratospheric world ranking, but it does mean that Peter Luczak qualifies for more comfortable digs when he dances around a tennis court. It was not always so.
The life of a tennis journeyman is one darkened by cheap hotels, tortuous bus rides and — if he hits the jackpot — a cheap air fare as he takes his first, tentative steps on the pro circuit. Luczak remembers his first six months on the satellite tennis circuit during a break from college in the United States — where he had a tennis scholarship.
Small towns were a speciality and there was a bonus if you got a billet with a local family. Redding, California; Joplin, Missouri; Waco, Texas. "Yes, they have a tournament there," he says. "I think it was quite well run.
"You'd get a little bit scared when you'd come in at night to those towns, though. The Greyhound bus stations always used to be in the ghetto area. I remember one place called the Nash Hotel. It was a nightmare, pretty much everyone in there was a drug addict."
Scoring a bed for the night could turn out to be as competitive as playing a tennis match. "About five or six guys usually shared a room. At night we'd do the rock, paper scissors to see who would get a bed.
"The rules were, if you won (the tennis) that day you qualified to play. If you lost that day, you were automatically sleeping on the floor — you could not even qualify for the rock, paper, scissors game."
Five years on, Luczak, who has a wildcard to play in the Australian Open next week, is in more salubrious quarters. It's not five-star, but he is renting a comfortable apartment in Richmond with his friend, Stephen Huss, the doubles specialist who won an unlikely Wimbledon title last year.
At 26, Luczak has yet to win any titles. He achieved his best result in February last year, reaching the semi-final in an Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tour event in Brazil. For that he achieved a lofty ranking of 110.
"That was great — I was on top of the world," Luczak says. "Every year, I've slowly got better. At the end of 2003, I was 170. Then in 2004, I was about 150. At the start I made bigger leaps. Now, I'm slightly improving my rankings … My goal is to be in the top 100 this year."
Twenty-six. For many people, that's the age you are getting started. Finished university, first serious job. More than a few of your peers are probably still living at home — you are part of a famously postponed generation.
At 26 on the tennis circuit, you are entering the mature phase of your career. Almost an old man of tennis: make or break time. World No. 1 Roger Federer is 25. Australian Lleyton Hewitt is 24. American Andy Roddick is 23. "I am a late bloomer," says Luczak, who started out hitting nets down the street in suburban Mulgrave, where he grew up.
Luczak's route was the familiar Aussie one: McDonald's Cup, the state junior squad in his early teens … Then he flunked out. Dropped from the state team before his mid-teens after a slump.
He was sustained, however, by supportive parents — the opposite of the pushy, tennis-parent kind, he says. His parents, Eva and Kris, left Warsaw in 1980 when he was nine months old. They were determined to give their children every opportunity, even if that meant his mother had to work for a time as cleaner in a city hotel and his father, an engineer, took a job as a courier driver. "Dad was always driving me to tournaments and encouraging me, but if I didn't want to play he was fine. Both my parents were pretty sporty. My older sister and I were pretty competitive with each other, and we'd go and play tennis after school."
An inner calm, perhaps modelled on his childhood tennis hero Mats Wilander, also helped shape Luczak's attitudes to life and sport. Early failure was not a setback. "I just loved the way Wilander played. He was always very calm on the court. I just liked his attitude."
His Swedish partner, Katarina, is expecting their first child and he is feeling buoyant as he approaches another Open campaign. It will be his sixth go. In the last two attempts he did not get past the first round. In 2003, he went as far as the third — a career highlight.
Last year, despite, his best-ever ranking, he did not progress much in the US or French opens either. As a clay court specialist, he did not qualify for Wimbledon. Grass remains anathema — but despite the tennis nay-sayers, his age is not a problem.
"Age is almost irrelevant," Luczak says. "It's how you are feeling, how you are enjoying it and how you are motivated. I know I am 26, but I still feel like I am new and young and eager to get out there.
"I have a baby on the way, and I am really motivated now. I am working extra hard in the gym and in the tennis court."
At 6-7, 7-6, 7-6 on Wednesday, it was universally acknowledged that Luczak had fluffed it. He seemed poised to claim a quarter-final berth in the Sydney International — indeed, there were two match points his way — but he was vanquished by Igor Andreev, ranked 26th in the world.
He lacks the killer instinct, some of his critics — and even friends — say. "A lot of guys say I'm too nice, 'you need to get a bit of aggro in you'."
Whether it's world rankings or scores at the end of hard-fought matches, Luczak always inhabits a numbers game. He picks a mix of satellite and more senior tournaments year-round to get the right calculus of earnings — to make a living — and ATP points — to advance in the tennis rankings.
"It's a strategic game, you need to mix up challengers (lesser matches) and ATP tournaments. In challengers there is less money but it's easier to win points to inch up the rankings," he says.
"Right now I've got about 300 ATP points. Lleyton probably has about 3000 or 4000 and Federer has got about 5000 points."
Although he is a regular practice partner for Hewitt and played the Davis Cup last year (another close loss), Luczak is a pragmatist. He does not cast himself as a giant killer on the tennis circuit. He knows the depth of the talent.
"You'd obviously love to be No. 1. Realistically, I don't see myself as No. 1.
"I'd say guys in the top 10 are in a class of their own — especially Roger Federer and Lleyton. But between the ranking of 10 and 150, there can be upsets."
With his wildcard, he will be looking for that upset now.
Back in January 2001, he was fighting for his tennis credentials at the Australian Open qualifying round — his debut at a Grand Slam. "I remember I started off well," recalls Luczak. "I won the first set, lost the second one and it was starting to get dark — it was 9pm or 9.30pm but it was a good atmosphere as I had a lot of friends and family there. I ended up losing 8-6 in the third set."
It was the first taste of a big tournament. This time, he was not staying in a cheap hotel but with his parents at the family home.
At the tennis, everything was a revelation, including the camaraderie of the locker room."You could get free deodorants and shampoos. You could get free drinks out of the fridge and you could get massages and there were cars picking you up, dropping you to and from the courts.
"My parents were driving me in. People were telling me 'why are you driving in, you can get a lift'. I don't think I found that out until after I lost. But I learnt quite quickly after that."
The next year, after deferring his studies in finance (there are still two semesters to go before he gets a degree), there was a summons to be a practice partner for the David Cup round played in Argentina.
"The first day I go there, we went to this expensive restaurant and Davis Cup captain John Fitzgerald said: 'Have whatever you want.' I was ordering the cheapest thing on the menu, though. I didn't realise at the end of the night they pay for it. After that, I was getting the steaks."
To date, Luczak's career earnings are $US250,000 ($A333,000). It's not enough to have the mansions and expensive sports cars his friend Lleyton commands, but it's enough for steak dinners, decent digs and the general expenses of life on the circuit. For the past two years, Luczak has also employed a personal coach, although that relationship recently ended amicably. He also has sponsors who help him out by providing tennis attire — he goes through a pair of shoes a week — and equipment.
While his family and friends will come to cheer him next week, there are no tennis groupies who will flock to his court. "Guys around my ranking wouldn't see too many groupies," laughs Luczak. "I think in Japan there was one lady who was a bit keen on me. When I was catching the bus to the airport, she was trying to give me a box of chocolates."
MILESTONES PETER LUCZAK
PARENTS migrated to Australia from Poland in 1980
EDUCATED Mazenod College, Mulgrave, and Fresno State University, California
OCCUPATION tennis player; turned professional in May 2001; current world ranking 144, reached 110 last March
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS include third round of the Australian Open in 2003 and 2006 and semi-finalist in an ATP tour event in Brazil 2005.
PARTNER Katarina Queckfeldt, events manager; expecting their first child in June
BASED in Australia and Sweden
Luczak is ranked 170 now.