By Damian Kust
I vaguely remember watching some tennis on TV back in 2010/2011, but the first match that truly got me glued to the silver screen was the 2012 Australian Open final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Almost six hours of incredibly intense baseline rallies, you really couldn’t stop following it once you started. Watching a tennis match from beginning to end wasn’t natural for me at the time, but these two made it happen.
My first favorite player was Roger Federer. Boring, I know. But it was his London Olympics semifinal against Juan Martin Del Potro which was perhaps an even more important experience for me than the aforementioned Australian Open final. The way he played the sport was something I found ridiculously entertaining and appealing visually. The match was held on grass too, which allowed the competitors to make use of all-court tactics quite frequently, something that’s certainly a soft spot of mine.
The thrill of watching that 19-17 deciding set, this time with a clear favorite in my head, was just something else. From then onwards, I was perhaps more a Federer fan than a tennis admirer. As I got into the sport “professionally” and got to understand it better, I became a lot more toned down, objective if you may. That’s not to say the Swiss legend isn’t my idol anymore, that hasn’t changed. The emotions I feel during his matches and his wins or loses just aren’t the same anymore. I sometimes miss that side of following tennis, but I think I’ve just changed for good. An absolute peak of my Federer maniac period was the 2017 Australian Open final.
My first experience watching tennis live was at the 2013 Davis Cup World Group Play-Offs between Poland and Australia. My father and I traveled to Warsaw for the first two days of the tie, mostly wanting to see Jerzy Janowicz and the Australian stars. The former didn’t pan out as we hoped as the Pole withdrew and was just there to support his teammates. However, the latter came out better than we could have known at the time. Lleyton Hewitt and Bernard Tomic were both really impressive, despite our federation’s choice of forcing them to play on indoor clay.
Doubles was expected to be an easy point for us, but the excellent pairing of Marcin Matkowski and Mariusz Fyrstenberg struggled for five sets against Chris Guccione and this big-serving Australian teen, whom we had never heard of before. Seeing that prodigy dispatch Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon next year was a real treat, a first sort of “I saw it coming moment”.
It would then take me almost five years to show up at another live tennis event, but this one would change me even more. In terms of men’s tournaments in Poland, we haven’t had a tour-level one since 2008, so to have it convenient it had to be a Challenger. This time on my own, I decided to go to Gdynia three years ago. Not following the lower circuits too much before, there were a lot of players I have very little knowledge of. I mostly recognized the veterans like Tommy Robredo, Paolo Lorenzi, or Daniel Gimeno-Traver. The latter two would later contest a brilliant final, which lasted almost three hours and had me completely hooked.
But it wasn’t about the quality of that match. The great surprise was how good every single player was in the field. Seeing that tennis at Challengers has so little drop-off in quality compared to what I was used to was just shocking. Lots of the players I saw in Gdynia that year have gone on to achieve a lot more in this sport – Casper Ruud (!), Hugo Dellien, Oscar Otte, Zdenek Kolar…the list goes on. While it wasn’t until the first Challenger I entered as a member of the media (Szczecin 2019) that I would start following that circuit on a daily basis, this was certainly an eye-opening experience. Over the next couple of years, I decided to try to keep promoting that favorite tour of mine and make it more approachable to the public.
So, why tennis and not any other sport? Truth be told, I don’t really know. I certainly enjoy individual sports far more than team ones and the fact that I love playing it (albeit at a very recreational level) definitely helps. It was a set of random experiences (coincidences?) that got me to start watching it in the first place, but once I did, there was no going back. For better or for worse. There’s just nothing else in the world that excites me more than a young talented prospect, a great underdog story, or just a well-crafted point capped off with a perfect volley.