Match point opportunity number five. A slight breeze rolls inside centre court at the Balewadi Tennis Stadium in Pune. The ball wobbles as Jiri Vesely tosses it up to serve. He rates his serve as his favourite shot – no doubt, for he’d been raining down serves at an average well beyond 200 kmph. But now the nerves were kicking in. Tossed, and launched at least a foot under the net cord. A terrible serve, and his confidence is draining.
On the other side of the net, Belarusian youngster Ilya Ivashka takes a step forward. He had saved four match points so far in the third set tiebreaker and the scores read 12-11 to Vesely. He needed this next point.
Vesely, though nervous, had a bit more experience in tough match situations. He put in more side-spin on this second serve, and the ball kicked up more than Ivashka anticipated – the backhand return was weak and crashed into the net. After two and a half hours of play, Vesely won 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (11), to become the first player into the semi-finals of the Tata Open Maharashtra this year.
And the nerves were but natural, for there was a lot riding on this match for him.
“After all the things that have happened in the last two years, I injured my groin in 2018 and I did have a good result at Wimbledon but then I got injured and suddenly dropped in the rankings. To comeback is not really easy,” says the former world no 35 who is now placed at 107. “You have to go to the Challengers and beat the guys around 100. It’s not easy. Everybody wants to gets into the Slams. So I know what I have gone though in the last 12 months. The way back is really tough. Now when I have the opportunity to earn the points to be safe for (the French Open) and Wimbledon, it made me nervous.”
Cracking Top 100
Making it to the semi-finals in Pune will possibly take his rank to 98 or higher – the first time he’ll be back in the top 100 since May last year. For Vesely, that’s a position he wants to be in, a position he’s been feeling pressure from back home to be in. Last year, former world no 4 Tomas Berdych, the Czech Republic’s biggest player of this generation retired from the game, pushing the focus onto the next best men’s singles player, the 26-year-old from Pribram.
“Tennis is a very popular sport in Czech Republic, especially in the last decade, since we had amazing results in the Davis Cup (2013), and Tomas has been an amazing top 10 player for so many years. It’s not easy to step up to the same level. I do feel that kind of pressure that people want to have a new player that is really good,” he says. “The girls doing amazing (Karolina Pliskova is the world no 3 in women’s singles, two-time Grand Slam champion is 11th, and Marketa Vondrousova, 17, reached the French Open final last year). So all these things put a lot of pressure for the boys now because we don’t have anyone in the top 100, and just two in the top 200. The time right now is not very good. “I know I’ve been on tour for a while but maybe I didn’t do what I or people around me expected, but I’m still young. I hope that I can make the progress.”
Since the groin injury, he’s suffered a freak toe-dislocation midway through a Davis Cup match, and has fallen down the ladder. What followed was the decision to drop down to the Challenger level to try and build from the bottom – including the call to skip the Australian Open.
“It was a tough decision. There were (four) players with protected rankings in the main draw, so these things didn’t help me to get in,” he says. “I choose to play Challengers (in Thailand) instead of the qualifiers because I had a hope that if I do well, I can get into the main draw of the Indian Wells Masters in March.”
Before the journey to the United States though, he opted for the stopover in India. And now he’s made it to the first semi-final of an ATP event since he lost at this stage at the Antalya Open in 2018. He has won just a solitary title, back in Auckland 2015. But after his tight win against Ivashka, he feels his time is coming soon. “Now, I want to go forward and make it to the final. I have a good opportunity and I’m confident. I can play free and make it through.”
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