Denis Kudla knows the train ride from Arlington, Va., to College Park, Md., takes about an hour — if timed well. He traveled that route thousands of times to train at the Junior Tennis Champions Center. The one he’s less familiar with is the road to the second week of Wimbledon — a place he’s never visited but finds himself now.
“He looked like he knew where he was going, even as a little kid,” Vesa Ponkka, director of tennis at the J.T.C.C., told The Tennis Island in a phone interview yesterday.
Rising to the top of tennis takes talent, determination, and luck. Kudla’s chance came early.
“He was playing in a tournament here; he was 8 or 9,” Ponkka began. “I remember the main thing was how he walked. He had a very determined walk. I told the other coaches, ‘This boy is a little bit different.’”
Kudla became a full-time student at the J.T.C.C soon after Ponkka spotted him. Kudla, who was born in Ukraine and moved to northern Virginia as an infant, trained in College Park for the next ten years.
“Frank Salazar was the main coach and mentor to Denis,” Ponkka added. “He worked with him from 8 to 18.” Kudla turned pro at 16.
Kudla’s enrollment into the J.T.C.C. was a mix of love for tennis plus his parents’ desire to keep him out of trouble. He procured an independent character at a young age, according to an article published yesterday by the USTA.
“How bad can a 7-year-old really be?” Kudla told the USTA. “I tried running away from home a couple of times. But I wasn’t as bad as I could have been. Luckily, my dad saw that when I was young and guided me in the right direction.”
Kudla’s parents wanted their son to be independent, which wasn’t a stretch. They didn’t want to hover over him as many tennis parents do, which can bring on stress for the young player and every other person involved with their development.
“He was a pretty hyper kid and always very determined,” Ponkka said. “His parents didn’t drive him from Virginia to here. He took the Metro. He packed his own lunch. He was a little boy with blond hair, but he looked like he knew where he was going even then.”
Having the look of a champion and becoming a champion are extremes, but Kudla showed a propensity to win in a couple years.
“Frank and I thought he might become a very good player when he was 13,” Ponkka began. “He was entered into a national tournament here. He was the top seed. The morning of the tournament, as he made breakfast, he cut all four fingers on his left hand with a bread knife. He got something like 20-30 stitches.”
Doctors, his parents and coaches told Kudla not to play, but that didn’t stop him.
“He showed up to the match and only hit backhand slices,” Ponkka continued. “He won both singles and doubles. That showed he had something special, and determination.”
Kudla has moved up and down the ATP ranking system, maintaining around No. 100. He has been given many wild cards and has shown glimpses of greatness, but his big breakthrough on grass came at the Tennis Hall of Fame tournament in Newport, R.I., three years ago.
“He beat Ivo Karlovic,” Ponkka said. “He fell in love with the grass then.”
This spring, Kudla has put together his best record on grass — 11-1 over three tournaments. He won a challenger event in Ilkley, England, as well.
“I’ve had almost the perfect grass-court season,” he told The Washington Post. “I mean, even the one match I lost I had a match point, so I’ve given myself a chance to win every single match.”
His performance in the first three rounds of Wimbledon is a continuation of his season.
First he ousted the No. 27 seed, Pablo Cuevas, coming from two sets down to earn a spot in the second round. There he took out the highly-promoted 18-year-old, Alexander Zverev, in four sets. A little luck came Kudla’s way next. Kei Nishikori, the No. 5 seed, withdrew with a left calf injury, giving Santiago Giraldo a walkover to the third round. On the brink of elimination against the Colombian, Kudla turned the match around and won in five sets.
Kudla has never advanced beyond the second round at Wimbledon, nor any of the other four majors.
“I spoke with Frank [Friday],” Ponkka said. “He had a session with Denis. He’s in high spirits and ready to go.”
He better be ready to go because tomorrow he faces his biggest challenge: Marin Cilic, the reigning U.S. Open champion and No. 9 seed at Wimbledon.
“I think in the round of 16, he’s going to surprise everybody,” Ponkka said. “I think he’s going to take him out. Cilic had a tough match against Isner. And even though Cilic’s top 10 player and Grand Slam champion.”
Kudla’s friends and countrymen have been among his most vocal supporters. Frances Tiafoe, another graduate of the J.T.C.C. and youngest main draw wildcard at the French Open this year, showed his support for Kudla on social media:
The sentiment fills the center in College Park, on the eve of Kudla’s match.
“It’s really exciting,” Ponkka added. “He deserves it. He’s been working hard. I’m very glad and proud of him.”
Kudla hasn’t forgotten where he came from. He visits the academy when he comes to Arlington, Va., his home town.
“He trains with our players and Frank,” Ponkka began. “He talks to our kids and is a great role model for our young ones. They know he trained here. It keeps the belief for our young players. Denis is part of the family; he’s always a pleasure to have around.”
It takes every ounce of preparation and match play to win points, let alone matches at the top of the game. Perhaps the 22-year-old’s attention to those kids that train now at College Park will bestow an extra dollop of belief in himself. That he has earned his right of passage.
“Denis is ready,” Ponkka said confidently. “But, you never know. It’s zero-zero when the match starts. When you’re running high on confidence that’s good. He’s feeling good at the moment.”