The breath of fresh air that is Alexandr Dolgopolov
A backward glance gave plenty of clues to the arrival of the slight figure with the unconventional game
The young man from the Ukraine has enjoyed a variety of names. Oleksandr changed to Alexandr to differentiate from his father. Amongst family and friends he is Sascha. To fans and colleagues he is Dolgo or, simply, The Dog. But the name engraved last week on his first ATP trophy will say Dolgopolov.
The landmark win for the 22-year-old came at the Croatian Open in Umag where he beat defending champion, Juan Carlos Ferrero, in the semis and former top-10 Marin Cilic in the final. Judging by his previous four tournaments””which produced just a single win””it might have been seen as unexpected. But take that backward look.
At the beginning of 2010, Dolgopolov was ranked 131 in the world, itself a rise of almost 200 places during 2009. A string of good Challenger events””two finals in February alone””quickly signalled an imminent breakthrough, and he reached another Challenger final in March before qualifying for both the Monte Carlo and Madrid Masters.
By the time he played in his first Grand Slam main draw at Roland Garros, where victories over Arnaud Clement and Fernando Gonzalez took him to the third round, his unconventional look and shot-production were being noticed.
Next, he captivated British audiences as he transitioned his fresh style to the grass, reaching the semi-finals at Eastbourne. Then he played what he has since described as a breakthrough match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon.
From two sets down, he levelled his second-round match, 7-6, 7-5, before losing the fifth 8-10. David against this particular Goliath may have narrowly lost but he fired 29 aces past Tsonga during the four-hour trial of strength and rose to No40 for his pains.
Come the American hard courts and David did knock down some big names””Philipp Petzschner and Mikhail Youzhny””before losing to Tomas Berdych in three sets in Toronto. Later in the year, he got the better of Marcos Baghdatis and Nicolas Almagro, too, but failed to go deep in any more events.
However, the promise had been made, the hard hours played””30 events and 74 matches””and, with his 22nd birthday and the turn of the year, the Dog Star continued to rise.
Indeed Dolgopolov opened 2011 in remarkable form. In an attention-grabbing run at the Australian Open, he turned the tables on Tsonga in the third round in another five-setter. This time, he came back from a two-sets-to-one deficit with a storming 6-1, 6-1 finish. But what captured the headlines was his fourth-round defeat of a stunned Robin Soderling.
Then world No4, the Swede took the opening set 6-1, but as Dolgopolov got the measure of his opponent’s game, he began to weave the now familiar energetic spell, upping the tempo both between and during points, running Soderling ragged with unexpected drops, angles and spin.
The Ukrainian won the next two sets but Soderling levelled in the fourth and it looked as though Dolgopolov, with one five-setter already in his legs, may run out of steam. Not a bit of it. He regained his concentration and a befuddled Soderling, who thrives on a rhythmic power game, saw the set and the match whisked out of his control, 6-2.
Against Andy Murray in the quarters, things were more complicated: The Murray return of serve applied constant pressure to Dolgopolov, yielding 18 break points, but even so, the Ukrainian pulled out a third-set tie-breaker before Murray applied the killer blow in the fourth.
The Dolgopolov run took him to the top 30, and a return to clay during the South American “golden swing” brought still more success: a first ATP final in Brazil and a semi-final place in Acacpulco. On the hard courts, he again beat Tsonga in Miami, and back on clay in Nice, he reached the semis by taking out the formidable David Ferrer.
The early summer proved less successful, not helped by treatment for pancreatitis, but Dolgopolov, now fighting fit again, has taken that first title.
So there have been impressive advances in the Ukrainian man’s game, from the nether reaches of 370 in mid-2009 to 21 now. But a further backward look, beyond 2009, reveals a second strand to this story.
Two years earlier, at 18 and in his first year as a pro, Dolgopolov was already inside the 200 before a slide in 2008 back to 470. The young player was troubled by a series of health and fitness problems but he also had to resolve a less-than-perfect coaching relationship with his father.
Oleksandr Dolgopolov Sr had played tennis for the Soviet national team and went on to coach Andrei Medvedev. His wife was a European gold-medallist in gymnastics. With such genes and expertise behind him, it was little wonder that Dolgopolov Jr took to tennis so early.
However, as the son advanced through his teenage years, the highly disciplined coaching approach of his father began to conflict with young man’s less than conventional playing style.
By 2008, something had to give and that was when Dolgopolov Jr got his second helping of good fortune: Jack Reader. The Australian joined forces with Dolgopolov at the start of 2009 and straight away they fitted one another like hand and glove. As Robert Davis observed in Deuce magazine in February, “the two men clicked.”
Dolgopolov explained it thus to Davis: “He is someone who respects your point of view. He is very communicative but when we talk tennis he prefers to talk less and listen more.”
Reader was relaxed, a listener, a “reader” of his new charge. Rather than inhibit the young man’s unconventional approach to playing tennis, Reader worked with it, guiding Dolgopolov’s physical and mental development while allowing him the space to pursue his natural style.
He also started to scout opponents, feed back the information and let Dolgopolov play how he thought best. As he told Tom Perrotta in the Wall Street Journal: “My job is to tell Alex what they’re generally doing and what he can do to counteract it.”
Since the Umag win, Dolgopolov has spoken to the ATP about the relationship: “He helped me improve my head and made me play without injuries. That is very important. First of all we are good friends: It is not a mere coach-player relationship. So I’m happy with it!”
In fact words, when it comes to watching Sascha talk about his coach/friend, are superfluous: His face automatically breaks into a huge smile.
But mention of injuries is interesting. Dolgopolov’s first title may have come on clay but his biggest matches of the last 12 months have, arguably, come on hard courts, and his own website now says: “His aggressive tennis suits best hard courts.
In the past he preferred playing on clay, in order to prevent injuries to his knees. Now that he finished growing, the knees have become strong and stable and he is able to compete on hard courts for longer periods of time.”
With Montreal, Cincinnati and New York around the corner, and few points to defend, that could be highly significant for the rest of the Ukrainian’s year.
The success of the player/coach partnership has had another payoff: a renewed closeness between father and son. Dolgopolov’s ATP bio claims that his father is the most inspirational person in his life for helping him become the tennis player that he is. Meanwhile, his father told Davis: “I am so proud of my son. I don’t have enough words to express the joy of how I feel.”
So all seems right with the Dolgopolov’s world””and that can only be good news for fans of his uninhibited style and unconventional tennis. For this slight, 157lb breath of fresh air brings a different perspective to the tennis scene.
His game has something of Russian roulette about it. What shapes up to be a cross-court backhand may turn into a top-spin drive down the line or a drop shot with the kind of spin that turns the ball like a boomerang. He has a creativity and an unpredictability that inspire an audience and befuddle an opponent.
The deception does not always work, of course. His can rush at a set like a bull in a China shop, concede an opening advantage but then find a string of outright winners that turn game, then set and finally match on its head.
Such a style brings its frustrations, but it’s fun and it’s inspiring and it comes packaged in a personality who seems, for the moment at least, to combine the uninhibited zest of a teenager with the balanced head of a mature competitor.
It’s a delicate balance to achieve””to iron out the troughs without dampening the fireworks””and it’s a balance in which both father and coach have probably played a part.