Reborn Luczak heads for Brissie and the top 50 after beating injury
The Australian No.2 is on a roll after a tough 2008, writes Linda Pearce.
FURTH is a 1000-year-old town in Germany but matters to Australian Peter Luczak only in the sense that it has helped to shape his future. While the tennis elite were contesting the French Open in early June, Luczak was in historic northern Bavaria, where his son Sebastian's third birthday did not end up being the family's only cause for celebration.
Even so, the week did not start well. His ranking having ballooned beyond 200 after an unusual pelvic injury and the break that followed his daughter Millie's birth in March, Luczak had been forced back to the qualifying rounds of a mid-level Challenger event.
''It was a bit grim,'' the 30-year-old recalls. ''When you're in 'qualies' they don't pay for the hotel, and sometimes at some tournaments they don't treat qualifiers like, I don't know … like tennis players, almost.''
But his options were few. Luczak had missed four months of last year with a stress fracture more commonly found in car crash or other high-impact accident victims, and which doctors thought might end his career. The claycourter failed to qualify for any Australian circuit events last January, and nor did he figure among the wildcard recipients. Physically, he was pain-free at last, but if things did not improve by the end of the year, well, that would probably be that.
Then came Furth. Luczak played eight matches, more than his aggregate for the previous month - three in qualifying, five in the main draw. He claimed the title, 85 ranking points and just over €6000 ($9825), but also much more. ''I just got on a roll, got my confidence up, and that was it,'' he says. ''I was away.''
So much so that Sweden-based Luczak reached a career-high No.64 in October, and will finish the year as the clear No.2 nationally behind his good friend Lleyton Hewitt. He is being spruiked as a local attraction at the Brisbane International, and will join Hewitt as the only two local men to earn direct acceptance into the Australian Open a fortnight later. The world No.78 can dare to dream of the top 50, yet as recently as May the top 150 would have seemed like a good year-end result. Fortunately, when things did start to happen, they came with a rush. And from Furth until he qualified for the US Open in late August, Luczak enjoyed a career-reviving 35-9 singles run. ''I was just winning match after match, and the ranking kept climbing,'' he says. ''And I wasn't defending anything, because I'd been off for those four months last year so even just with small results like a second or third round, my ranking would go up every week. Normally, when I know I'm not going up, I stay away from the computer, but it was nice to have a look at the ranking every single week, because it just kept going up and up.''
If the nation did not exactly celebrate the efforts of one of sport's honest toilers, then Polish-born Luczak is one of the solid citizens of Australian tennis, a popular and determined fitness fanatic, a baseline grinder who was never much of a junior, took the US college route to the pro tour and was not even a regular at Challenger level until his mid-20s. But he has persevered, appreciating where he is and what tennis has given him.
''It's different for every individual, and maybe some guys reach their peak at 24, 25, but I really believe I've got better tennis ahead of me, and I hope so. As long as the body stays fit and I'm healthy and I'm happy, I can't see why I can't keep climbing the rankings a little bit higher.''
In a broader sense, Luczak is already putting back in, joining the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic as an ATP player council member for the past two years. The nine-man group tries to meet monthly, and Luczak has been impressed by Nadal's passion for the sport as well as Federer's selfless commitment to tennis at all levels.
''I wouldn't have thought Federer would know a player like me, but before I was even on the council he'd always say hello,'' says Luczak, admiringly. ''And he's always checking people's results, he even knows results from Futures and Challengers. It's really impressive. He must get on the computer and check out everyone's results every week.''
That might include Federer's Nike stablemate Bernard Tomic, and if Luczak habitually takes the high road - he is still thankful for the support of battling players he once idolised and has long since surpassed - then he offers slightly qualified praise for the Queenslander who famously sledged his older teammate after a practice session at a Davis Cup tie in Chile last year.
''Bernie's a good striker of the ball, he can hit the ball as well as anyone,'' Luczak says. ''But I think he needs to work a little bit on his speed, his movement. I know he's still young, but compared to some of the older guys who are playing full-time on the tour, he's definitely a step slower than those guys.''
And the Hewitt-Tomic stoush? Will Lleyton be prepared to play on the same team as the youngster he has accused of lacking respect? ''I know in the past if someone burns Lleyton he's not too forgiving, and it could be a tough one,'' Luczak says. ''But with time everything heals, so maybe during this summer they can have a few hits or start getting in each other's good books. If Bernard becomes the player everyone's saying he will be, it would be nice to have them both in the team.''
Luczak, of course, is ready to play whenever captain John Fitzgerald wants him, and on recent results he would seem a certainty for a March recall. But first there is January, which will bring guaranteed starts in Brisbane and Melbourne, at least. In his 31st year, one of Australian sport's more admirable characters can go, um, Furth, and prosper for a while longer yet.