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Jurgen's Journey


Melzer© Getty ImagesA career-defining moment: Jurgen Melzer fought back from a two-sets-to-love and 0-2 deficit to oust Novak Djokovic en route to the Roland Garros semi-finals.

Playing the best tennis of his life, thanks to his A-Team that toned down the flair for greater substance, Jurgen Melzer has his sights set on qualifying for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in singles and doubles.

Jurgen Melzer knows that it takes a lot more than talent to impress an Austrian. In a land that has produced the likes of Mozart, Schubert, Strauss and Muster, promise means nothing until you deliver. So, when he won the Wimbledon junior championships in 1999, eyebrows were raised and expectations set. But thanks to Austria's favourite son, Thomas Muster, Melzer soon discovered that the bar was placed very, very high.

"He is very down to earth. He is a very sure about what he has to do and is very confident about himself. But always in a nice way."

Fellow Austrian Alexander Peya was there from the beginning.

"I think Thomas Muster's success had a huge effect on our generation," claims Peya. "Growing up watching and following his career inspired a lot of us. And maybe Austria was a little spoiled with all the success of Thomas (Muster)."

At first glance, Jurgen Melzer could be the boy from next door. A shock of shoulder length sandy hair covered by a baseball cap worn backwards, and a stubble beard hiding a sly wolfish grin. Melzer was blessed with an Adonis-esque body of wide shoulders, V-shaped back and powerfully built legs that carry the mark of all great tennis players - bulging calf muscles. However, for all his physical strength, there is gentleness in Jurgen Melzer, something that suggests a desire to please those closest to him.

"He is a big family person," Peya comments. "And I would say he is very down to earth. He is a very sure about what he has to do and is very confident about himself. But always in a nice way."

Gilbert Schaller, captain of Austria’s Davis Cup team, did not know what to expect when he received a call from Melzer requesting a meeting late in 2008.

Melzer"I was a bit surprised at first," remembers Schaller. "He came to the club with this big piece of paper and he had taken a lot of time to write down what he thought were our team's strengths. And what we needed to improve. He really wanted to be a leader for the team and he led by example. I was so proud of him for taking that position. He was giving his best to the team. And to me as captain."

Nobody said tennis was fair, and a few months later in March 2009, Jurgen Melzer was about to be given a smack down by the Tennis Gods. At the Olympia Eissportzentrum, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Melzer was leading Philipp Kohlschreiber by two sets to love and up 4-1 in the third.

"I was playing the best tennis of my life," recalls Melzer. "Then I don't know what happened. I just could not finish it."

No, but Kohlschreiber did and the Austrian press took Melzer to the woodshed over what they perceived was a mental meltdown.

"The worst part is I felt like I let the team down," confessed Melzer. "It was a great opportunity for us. And as the number one player, I let everybody down. We should have beat Germany. And I accept responsibility."

"They went after me as a person, and none of them actually knew me at all. That was tough. And it hurt."

If Melzer thought things could not get worse, he was wrong. And six months later in Chile, Nicolas Massu whacked him in four sets setting the tone for another 3-2 defeat. Now, those in the tennis industry knew Melzer was going through the normal growing pains of all professional tennis players, but the Austrian press pulled no punches. They attacked him from every possible angle, cut him up real bad and tossed him out the door.

"It's not very easy to be always compared to a former World No. 1 and one of the best Davis Cup players of all time," believes Peya. "That didn't make it easy for the generation after him, especially for Jurgen."

"I could understand my tennis game being criticised," admits Melzer. "But they went after me as a person, and none of them actually knew me at all. That was tough. And it hurt."

MelzerNow, it would be up to Melzer to stop the bleeding. With Melzer, you don't want to make the mistake of confusing his kindness with weakness. And after taking a whipping from the press, Melzer smacked back. Up until Vienna, Jurgen Melzer was one and six in ATP World Tour finals. And with the results of the recent Davis Cup, the journalists claimed he could not finish the job. Now it was Meltzer's turn to make a statement. And he did it by showing that the racquet is mightier than the pen by winning the Bank Austria TennisTrophy in his backyard. Melzer lost only one set in five matches!

"Winning Vienna erased a lot of doubts," says Melzer. "I proved to myself and the critics that I could handle the pressure. It took a load off."

"The deciding step was to win Vienna," says Peya. "To win this big tournament and especially at home at the end of last year helped him a lot to realise how good he can play and that he can compete and even beat the best in tennis. The confidence that he took out of Vienna was huge I would say."

While Melzer is now getting the glory, he is quick to give all the credit to his team. A little more than two years ago, Melzer assembled a crack A-Team. Former Top 10 player, Joakim Nystrom, was hired as coach; Jan Velthuis, the respected Dutch trainer was in charge of keeping him fit, and Ronnie Leitgeb (former coach and manager of Muster and Gaudenzi) who holds a degree as a mental coach came on board and set up a 'mental plan'. Hell, Melzer did not stop there, even his girlfriend, Mirna Jukic, is a world class athlete. Jukic is a Beijing Olympic bronze medallist in the 100 metre breast stroke and a five-time European champion.

"Jurgen has the best possible team around him now."

"He has a great team around him," says Oliver Marach. "Karl Wetter did a very good job taking him from juniors to Top 50. But now Joakim is helping him technically and tactically to the next level. Ronnie (Leitgeb) has a great deal of experience and is helping him mentally, and he has a great trainer in Velthuis. Jurgen has always been a very hard worker, and this team is showing him how to work smartly."

"Jurgen has the best possible team around him now," claims Peya. "You could see over the last year already that his game got much more consistent and solid at a higher level. But his professional attitude towards tennis gave him the chance to step up his game to a much higher level now."

"Jurgen has always had a flair for the game," says former player and coach Daren Cahill. "But now he is playing with flair at all the right times. He is not panicking in the points. And using the drop shots at the appropriate times. Overall package is that he is a far more solid player. Whatever message Joakim (Nystrom) is delivering, Melzer is receiving." 

In the past, the temptation for Melzer to go spinal chord and shoot from the hip has long been his natural born instinct. Yes, he could thrill the crowd, but more often than not he gave them headaches with his daredevil style that would crash and burn without warning. Joakim Nystrom wanted him to develop a Plan B to fall back on when things got tight and tough. Consistency was the keyword.

Melzer"We put in so much work, so many hours and hours of hitting the ball cross court, trying to get a consistency with the technique. The same stroke over and over and over. Especially on the forehand where he would often hit three or four different styles. But at the end of the day, an Austrian cannot be a Swede, and a Swede cannot be an Austrian. What we are trying to do is get the best from both sides. And that he is on his own out there during the match. When he wins, it is 95 per cent him and maybe five per cent me. But when he loses it is still 95 per cent him and five per cent me."

Melzer adds, "Joecke (Nystrom) showed me that nobody can help you on the court. When we started, we had a terrible start. For the first time in my career, I had to rely on myself."

The forehand got most of Nystrom's attention, but it is the Melzer backhand that steals the show. When fired, it is not so much of a bunker buster, as much as a stun gun. Melzer can back you to the bushes with topspin, rip up the long line with the flat ball or cut you to pieces with the slice. And if he is in a particular nasty mood that day, you can expect a healthy dose of his favourite stroke - the drop shot, just to kick you when you are down. If after all that you are still standing, then the coup de grace will be a topspin lob delivered on your doorstep with all the precision of a smart bomb. Watching it in action, you half expect to find it advertised at the local Gun & Ammo store - The Melzer Backhand: Ultimate Assault Weapon.

It is standing room only at Court Suzanne Lenglen in Stade Roland Garros and after several hours of play the crowd is primed for an upset. Novak Djokovic has fought bitterly, but it is Melzer who is in control. Now the clapping begins before coming to a full-stop just as Melzer steps up to the baseline ready to serve a match point. It was only a couple of hours ago that Melzer looked like he was headed for home. Down two sets to love, some might have thought that he had lost his appetite after reaching his first quarter-final at a Grand Slam in fourteen attempts. Melzer's belly was not full; just it took him a while to digest it.

"Jurgen is very special to me as a person, and we have invested a lot of work in the dream."

His serve in play, the two rally until Melzer takes charge and attacks the net. Suddenly, the crowd erupts in a collective gasp of disbelief and Melzer glares at the mark his errant forehand volley has just made. Umpire Carlos Bernaderes calls out "deuce"; Novak Djokovic glances up at his team with a gleam of hope in his eyes; and Meltzer's coach Joakim Nystrom has to sit back down from a premature celebration. Melzer shifts the racquet to his right hand, releasing the tension in his left and the court becomes deathly quiet for him. Except for the sound of Djokovic's footsteps. Melzer exhales deeply a few times, beats the clay out of his shoes with a couple of whacks of his racquet, and lines up to serve. Hurling in a first serve to the Djokovic forehand the return sails out, and Melzer stands stock still with both arms raised in victory. Now his team can finally cheer and they give him a standing ovation. Nystrom feels a lump growing in his throat. 

"Maybe as I get older I am getting more emotional," says Nystrom with a smile. "Jurgen is very special to me as a person, and we have invested a lot of work in the dream."

At the All England Lawn Tennis Club now, and Melzer has just survived a second-round five-set scare from Victor Troicki.

"I was really proud," Melzer would admit later, recalling both his five sets win at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. "Because coming back from two sets down against Djokovic was big for me as I was the underdog and not sure I could do it. And then against Troicki at Wimbledon, I did it again (second round) but there I was probably the favourite. In the fifth set of both matches, I was fit and I can say thanks to Jan Velthuis for my fitness and my team for all the long hours of practice that they put in for these moments. I was so happy for the team because Paris was not a Cinderella story."

MelzerFor Jurgen Melzer, 'Big Ben' was nowhere near midnight and his London adventure was about to get better. He and best friend and doubles partner, Philipp Petzschner, would march through the doubles draw chopping down seeds and newcomers alike with ease until they lifted the champion’s trophy.

"I was so proud of them both," says Velthuis, who is also Petzschner tennis coach. "I cannot describe the happiness."

"It was a great moment for both of us after the victory," says Nystrom. "I was happier and emotional now compared to when Mats (Wilander) and I won it in 1986. I think when we won; both Mats and I were so focused on our singles career that doubles was not so important. I realised after my retirement how big it is to win Wimbledon. That is why I was so happy for both Jurgen and Philipp!"

"We were singing in the shower like little boys, shouting over and over..."

"It was the first time in 20 years that Austrian TV had a market share of 30 per cent on a live tennis match," states Ronnie Leitgeb. "And now, Jurgen is the new featured athlete almost every day in Austria."

"We got back to the locker room quickly," says Melzer, "and we were singing in the shower like little boys, shouting over and over, like a hundred times, 'we are Wimbledon champions. We are Wimbledon champions'."

"When Muster won the French Open," remembers Melzer. "I was at the 14 and under championships in Austria crowded around the television with the other kids. It was such a great feeling for us. We were all so proud of what Muster was doing for Austria. This year, I really want to make my country proud by qualifying for the [Barclays ATP World Tour] Finals in singles and doubles. Though it is a big points gap that I have to fill, this is a goal that drives me. I want to make my country proud of me."

If Jurgen Melzer can turn that trick at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London, then he will not be the only one singing tennis praises in the shower. Austria will finally have a reason to stand up and cheer again.  

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