The Greatest Thing? For Hurkacz, Facing Idol Federer On Big Stage
Watching Roger Federer is Hubert Hurkacz’s first memory of professional tennis.
“He’s just playing different,” he says. “The way he plays, hits the ball. That’s very special. For sure he’s inspiring to me.”
On Friday at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, when the 22-year-old Pole steps on one of the biggest stages in tennis for his first ATP Masters 1000 quarter-final, he will face off against his idol, Federer. This time, the Swiss won’t be on television, but across the net.
“[It] was my dream since I was a child,” says Hurkacz. “That's the greatest thing that can happen to a tennis player, playing on the big stadiums, big events against big players…. Especially here in the quarter-final is something special for me.”
Hurkacz has hit with Federer once before, in October at the Rolex Shanghai Masters, and called it an “unbelievable experience” in an Instagram post. The Swiss also looked back on that practice session with fondness.
“I remember in the warm-up he barely made a mistake, and every time he made a mistake, he apologised,” says Federer “He’s a really nice guy and he seems very sweet.”
'Sweet' may not be the first word that comes to mind when thinking of a 6’5” tennis player on the rise, but it’s a good way to describe Hurkacz, whose demeanor seems a stark contrast to the flashy cars and Robert Ludlum thrillers he enjoys.
In press conferences, Hurkacz might not give lengthy, philosophical responses like Federer — at least not yet. But on the court, his powerful game and swift movement provide a potent combination that should help him continue his climb on the ATP Tour.
“I’m trying to serve well, to set up a point after I serve. I can also play a little bit of defence because when I was younger, in Poland, we have a lot of clay courts,” Hurkacz says. “Throughout the whole year we played on clay courts. We didn’t have many hard court tournaments.”
Hurkacz’s mother used to play tennis, so when he tagged along, Hurkacz would try to hit balls against the fence. He then began to work with a coach and liked the sport, and the rest is history.
Would he beat his mom now?
“Maybe,” Hurkacz, with his usual smile, says after a pause to deliberate.
While he’s not positive about defeating Mom, Hurkacz’s on-court performance over the past year has shown he can compete with some of the best players on the ATP Tour. This time last year, he was No. 212 in the ATP Rankings, but he went on to qualify for the 2018 Next Gen ATP Finals and is now at a career-high No. 67.
“My main goal is to improve all the time and [be] able to beat the real top guys,” Hurkacz says.
It’s fitting that the Polish No. 1’s family is with him in the California desert this week, where he has been working with Craig Boynton — also Steve Johnson’s coach — for the first time at a tournament. Hurkacz’s efforts in Indian Wells have been the best of his career, defeating Australian Open semi-finalist Lucas Pouille, sixth seed Kei Nishikori and #NextGenATP Canadian Denis Shapovalov, all in three sets.
“I'm always expecting a battle. I know his potential,” Shapovalov says. “We have practised a bunch of times. I know how well he can play.”
Federer is aware, too. And while the five-time champion Swiss is playing a first-time Masters 1000 quarter-finalist, the 37-year-old is giving Hurkacz his full attention.
“I’m happy for him he’s playing so well now,” says Federer. “Beating Nishikori in Dubai and here, back to back, and also now Shapovalov, that’s some effort. That shows what he’s got and what we’ll see of him in the future, so I’m looking forward to the match.”
While Hurkacz is not a man of many words, he hopes to let his game do the talking against his idol on Friday.