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Steve Flink: Klizan moving swiftly up the ladder

10/2/2012 2:00:00 PM

Each and every year, the chemistry of international tennis is altered considerably by the presence of players emerging unexpectedly, by competitors who surge toward the game’s upper levels with little or no warning. The sport benefits immeasurably from the infusion of new blood. It gives fans something additional to shout about. A healthy blend of the old and the new is not only important but absolutely essential for the annual advancement of professional tennis.

Across the 2012 season, we have witnessed brilliance among the established “ Big Four” of men’s tennis, with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray all securing Grand Slam tournament titles. Those four players have largely carried the game on their collective shoulders. But many others have come upon us surprisingly and commendably to reach a status they never had attained before. No one in the men’s game made more impressive progress in 2012, however, than a 23-year-old left-hander from the Slovak Republic named Martin KIizan.

Klizan was the French Open junior champion in 2006, but a serious wrist injury when he was 18 threw his game and his psyche into disrepair. The injury kept him away from the game for eight months and stalled his development almost completely. He finished 2008 stationed at No. 632 on the ATP World Tour computer rankings, concluded 2009 at No. 234, went to No. 155 at the end of 2010 and ended 2011 at No. 117. It was apparent to all who recollected his junior days that Klizan had not lived up anywhere near to his potential.

But everything changed decidedly in 2012 as Klizan played the finest sustained tennis of his career. Included among his exploits was a run to the round of 16 at the U.S. Open, where he upended none other than No. 5 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga along the way. He then became the first “first time” winner on the ATP World Tour in 2012 when he was victorious at the St. Petersburg Open a few weeks ago. Klizan surged to a career best No. 33 in the world and currently resides at No. 34. That is indeed progress of a high order for an unusual individual who speaks six languages.

He downplays that multi-lingual capability, saying, “So many of the languages are similar. Russian is very similar to Croatian and Polish, and Czech is similar to other languages.  If you are speaking to a Croatian guy and you speak your language of Slovakian, he can speak Croatian and you can understand each other easily. So I can speak Russian and Ukraine and Polish, but even if I am not speaking exactly Croatian they can understand me. My English is not as good as I want, but I am trying.”

When I spoke with him by telephone last week, Klizan came across as a young man who is highly motivated, confident and appreciative of where he is. He also knows where he wants to go. Yet he is entirely realistic about what it will take for him to keep moving forward and cashing in on his capabilities. When I asked him what is the chief reason why he has done so well in 2012 after living far from his potential for so long, he replied, “I would say the most important reason for me is I started working with Karol Kucera [who reached a career high of No. 6 in the world in 1998] at the end of 2010. I am very happy he is my coach. He is very different from me and he teaches me different things than what I used to do. I have learned more than I ever knew before. It is perfect.”

Asked to clarify that comment, he elaborated, “Karol has helped me with everything. His game was different from mine and my personality is different from his. I am quite nervous and emotional but he has taught me to think more on the court and showed me how to be ready to change tactics. This year we were working a lot of the time on my volleys and on better movement from the baseline to the net. We practiced that a lot and it has helped. I feel more confident on my volleys. I couldn’t play volleys well before because I did not have that confidence. I have started to play more aggressive tennis and I am coming to the net more.”

Meanwhile, Kucera, a masterfully inventive player with extraordinary feel, ball control and versatility, has brought improvement to the technique of Klizan. “Especially on my backhand volley,” explains Klizan, “Karol has helped because my confidence was zero. I played that volley double-handed but now I do it with one hand, which is similar to the slice backhand. I have drilled on that technique a lot and it is better for me.”

And yet, along with the pieces of the technical puzzle that Klizan put together in 2012, he also learned how to compete against the top players in a way he never had before. Before he stunned Tsonga in New York at the Open, he came exceedingly close to toppling John Isner at Winston Salem, North Carolina. Klizan recollects his clash with Isner as a moment when he discovered he could compete with the leading players and not necessarily be found wanting.

“It was a perfect match for me,” he says of his 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 defeat against Isner. “I was just two points away from winning the match but I lost it. In many ways it was a good match for me and for John also. I think he started to feel I was a good player on the court and maybe John was a better player than me but I start to feel then that I can play with the top players. We played a close match.”

Perhaps the realization that he had nearly beaten Isner enabled Klizan to confront Tsonga in the second round of the U.S. Open with a sense that he might be able to get the job done. “Before the match,” he recalls, “I said, ‘Okay, let’s play normal. Try to play your game and it doesn’t matter if there is a guy on the other side of the net who is No. 200 in the rankings or a top ten player.’ I was trying to play well from the beginning to the end of that match with Tsonga, just trying to play my game. I won the first set 6-4 and was pretty shocked but I said, ‘Okay, this is best of five so there is enough time for him to come back.’ He killed me in the second set 6-1. I was much better than he was in the third set and then I had 4-0 in the fourth set. I knew it would be tough even though I needed two more games. He made a comeback and it was 4-3 but I was trying to stay cool and telling myself not to be nervous. Tsonga is the kind of player who could win the tournament if he comes back against me. I just tried to win every point whether I was serving or returning. I was able to win [6-4, 1-6, 6-1, 6-3] and I was very happy about that.”

Watching Klizan over the last two sets of that match, I was struck most by the quality of his returns. Tsonga has one of the game’s greatest serves, but Klizan broke the Frenchman no fewer than seven times, and that was the key component in his remarkable triumph. How did he manage to achieve so many breaks against a server of Tsonga’s caliber?

“I practice the return of serve a lot with Kucera,” Klizan answers. “Kucera was one of the best returning guys ever and he has taught me a lot about how to return. Now I am returning much, much better than I did two years ago. My technique is maybe a little bit different for the return of serve. Maybe I am shorter [closer] to the baseline than I was before. I used to be behind the baseline for my returns and hit them with spin and now I am trying to play more flat returns deep from closer to the baseline. For me it was a great match against Tsonga on the return. I was feeling the ball well in that match and I started to read his serve. I knew exactly where he was going to serve at some times in that match. Reading his serve so well was why I was able to return like that.”

I wanted to know what happened from Klizan’s perspective after his stellar junior days. What does he remember about that period in his life? “I remember those years well. The year before I won the French Open juniors I won the singles and doubles at the European Junior Championships. Then when I won Roland Garros in the juniors it was very exciting. I thought I am the world champion, or something like this. I had a lot of confidence, maybe more than I needed. Then when I was 18 I got injured. Everybody was expecting for me after the Roland Garros juniors that I was going to be top 100 in the world soon but things happen and for eight months after I got injured I didn’t play tennis. After I played Futures for one or two years and I also play Challengers for one or two years. I changed the most mentally after the injury.”

Klizan suffered through a good many difficult years, through times when he was not productive as a player, across a span when nothing much was happening for him. How hard was that to endure so many setbacks?

“I wasn’t thinking about how tough it was,” he says now. “When I was on the tour I was playing good tennis. I just needed more time. Everybody has different ways to get to the top 100. Some get there at 18 and other people go there for the first time at 27. I needed time. Something in my head was telling me I can do it if I keep working hard and thinking all day about tennis. I felt I could get better and better.”

One thing he always had going for him was the fundamental and inescapable fact that he is a left-hander. Klizan says, “It is much better to be left-handed instead of right-handed. I don’t know how many players there are on the tour but there are many more right-handers than left-handers. When I play matches, 95 percent of them are against right-handers. So for us left-handed players this is better. It is an advantage for us.”

Having said that, Klizan realizes that he needs to improve his serve over the next few years if he wants to move to the next level of the game. He explains, “My serve is not the best one out there but I am trying to work on it. I cannot work on the volley and the slice and the serve all in one year so this year I was concentrating on getting to the net. Next year I am going to work more on my serve which I hope will improve. It is okay but I need to win more [free] points with it. To reach the top twenty I need to serve better.”

I wanted to know how highly Klizan regarded the game’s “Big Four” of Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and Murray, icons that Klizan has never played against in an official tournament. He said, “They are much better than the other guys and I admire them, but none of them is my idol because I can play against them and I want to win against them. For that reason they can’t be my idol. You would see in the first and second round of the U.S. Open Djokovic lost maybe three or four games in three sets. Some players maybe need more confidence to play against the top players. You can’t think that because Djokovic is No. 1 or No. 2 in the world you have lost the match before you play it. For me it makes no sense because you would like to win against them. The most important thing is to have more confidence against those guys even if they are great players.”

Can Klizan envision himself climbing higher and moving closer in the rankings to the elite of his game? Asked to describe his goals, Klizan says, “Last year I had the goal for the season to be in top 100 and to get into all of the Grand Slams and into the main draw of many tournaments. For me what I did was a bonus. I am now 33 in the world and the guys who are ahead of me are dropping a lot of points so I think I am 99 percent sure to be seeded for the Australian Open. This was an amazing year, a perfect one for me. Kucera says I can get to the top 20 but I don’t like to say a number for myself. You never know because every match is difficult and it doesn’t matter if you are playing No. 200 or a top ten player. I will do my best and see what number I can get. I am looking forward to 2013.”
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.