Kudla Hitting His Stride
One year ago, Denis Kudla was lying in bed at home and barely able to move.
Closing in on a return to the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings following his first Grand Slam match win at Wimbledon and a title run at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Winnetka, his burgeoning season was abruptly derailed. The culprit? A diagnosis of mononucleosis.
Kudla was faced with a daunting test.
“Mono was like death for me,” Kudla told ATPWorldTour.com. “It was the worst experience of my life. It takes absolutely everything from you. What it does is it destroys you. I struggled with it, with how draining it was. It was brutal. I couldn’t do anything for a few months. I was a couch potato.”
Physically torched and emotionally drained, he was left at a crossroads after three months on the sidelines. Eager to return to the circuit, Kudla was forced to find the right balance between a speedy return to action, but an efficient one that wouldn’t trigger a relapse.
“Getting back to training was not easy. I’m in Florida, so it’s not like you’re going to a mild place. You’re training in the heat right away. It can be dangerous.
“I was trying to regroup and feel healthy enough to play again for a four-month period. It took a while to get back playing some decent tennis…I was extremely dedicated. I wanted to get back there as soon as I could without rushing it. I was training my butt off to finish off the year as strong as possible. I regrouped and kick-started this year as best as I possibly could.”
Flash forward nearly 11 months since he made his comeback debut in late September and Kudla is rounding into top form, just weeks removed from the best results of his career. Up to a career-high No. 78 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, the Arlington, Virginia native, who just celebrated his 23rd birthday on Monday, is putting the ATP World Tour on notice following a Round of 16 finish at Wimbledon and semi-final run at the BB&T Atlanta Open.
“Nothing was bigger than Wimbledon. That was my best result. Having that result right away in Atlanta and not letting Wimbledon get to my head, saying ‘I made it, I’m relaxed,’ I came back home and let everything unwind and settle. I got back to the grind, back to work. I approached it as if you do well, more guys are coming for you and more guys want to beat you. That forces you to compete harder. I proved that in Atlanta.”
Kudla credits that mature and patient attitude to a new appreciation for the game following his time away from the courts and a strong relationship with new coach Billy Heiser. After posting a 9-5 record on the Challenger circuit upon his return in late 2014, Kudla would qualify for a pair of ATP World Tour 250 events in Brisbane and Memphis as his 2015 campaign got underway. But, at No. 150 in the Emirates ATP Rankings entering the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters in mid-April, he understood a change was necessary.
Back on track, but in need of a mental edge to vault his game to the next level, Kudla turned to someone who is quite familiar with providing a jolt.
“I don’t deserve any credit by any means,” said a modest Heiser. “They’re the ones playing and executing and putting in all the work. Things can go the other way very quickly, but we’ve spent a long time analysing and assessing his game and deciding what’s important to prioritise. We’ve eliminated the things that are out of his control and really focusing on evaluating it every day. If he’s doing those things to the best of his ability, then he’s having a successful day. If he can consistently do that, then we feel he can do even better and win more matches. If not, then it’s a matter of patience and waiting for it to happen.”
Heiser’s hire paid immediate dividends for Kudla, claiming his fifth ATP Challenger Tour title at the inaugural grass-court event in Ilkley (England) in June, followed by his breakthrough successes at Wimbledon and in Atlanta.
“I didn’t feel like I could find my stride until Wimbledon this year,” Kudla added. “It’s been a rollercoaster past year and right now I’m on the right path again after all the ups and downs…I was at a bad point mentally a couple months ago and tried to regroup with Billy’s help and had a whole new mentality.”
The American coach is no stranger to guiding his charges to ATP World Tour success, having most recently led Tim Smyczek to a career-high World No. 68 in early April. While his direction between the lines is undeniable, it is his influence off the court that should not go unnoticed.
“After Wimbledon, he joked around and thought he should buy himself a nice business class ticket home,” Heiser said. “‘You know what, you’re going to go middle row and grind in economy. Stay humble.’ He goes, ‘Let me have an aisle at least.’ So I said, ‘Ok, you can have an aisle.’ We play these little jokes. He’s always been with the USTA and he’s never had to pay anyone. How can you write a coach a cheque and slack off? You’re wasting money. That wasn’t even an option.
“He’s young and wants to have nice things like everyone does. Reach the Top 50 and you can go buy something. He knows this stuff. When he didn’t have someone holding him accountable with decisions like that, what 22 year old who just had a result like that isn’t going to get something nice? He gets that. It’s not that his other coaches weren’t invested, but it’s a different dynamic when my livelihood depends on him doing well. I don’t have the luxury of Denis not doing well and not winning matches.”
Heiser also admits that Kudla and Smyczek’s success on the ATP World Tour have even made him a better coach, in increasing his exposure to top-level tennis.
“I’m learning more from being around this higher level. I’m very fortunate to be coaching players who are around this level. One of the best resources in the entire world is sitting in the lunchroom and just learning. Ben Mathias is sitting over there and he coached Sam Groth and James Duckworth. Similar paths to Tim and Denis. Both guys were Challenger level players and both guys are Top 100 right now. It’s nice to sit down with Ben and talk. They’re certainly willing to help if you’re having a certain situation or dilemma to deal with. It goes both ways.”
Coming off his sixth successful qualifying campaign of the year - and third at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 level - in Cincinnati, Kudla is poised to make some noise at the US Open in two weeks.
“It’s huge for me to have Billy in my game,” said Kudla. “I feel like I’ve found a perfect match. It’s really nothing magical. He’s delivering the message I’ve heard my whole life but maybe my mind is processing it in a different way and allowing me to be very clear-minded on the court, which with my game style and personality is very important. He’s allowed me to free up and play my best tennis.”