Austrian Teen Claims Challenger Comeback, Upset Of The Year
No expectations, no pressure. That was Jurij Rodionov's mindset entering the week at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Ningbo, China.
It was just the second Challenger main draw appearance for the 18-year-old Austrian and one he will never forget. Rodionov crashed onto the scene in Ningbo with an arsenal of seismic serves and groundstrokes. He would register one of the biggest comebacks and upsets of the year, sending shockwaves throughout the ATP Challenger Tour.
Trailing 3-6, 1-5 against World No. 76 Jordan Thompson in Friday's quarter-finals, Rodionov, a qualifier at No. 691 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, refused to go down without a fight.
"First of all, it was my first match against a Top 100 guy," Rodionov told ATPWorldTour.com. "I've never even practised before against a Top 100 player. Even in the first set I felt I was in it. I was feeling the ball well and even broke him in the first game. I showed that I have this level, the top level. It's motivating me even more to keep going.
"I was just trying to enjoy the moment, I'm not going to play in a big stadium every day. When I was down, everything just started to work. He was missing a few shots and then minutes later it was 5-all and I was back in the match. It was just working. I don't know how I did it. I'm just happy that I won somehow."
Having grown up idolising countryman Jurgen Melzer, it's no wonder that Rodionov prides himself on being mentally strong with his back against the wall. He would break Thompson twice in a row when the Aussie served for the match at both 5-2 and 5-4 in the second set. After clinching the second set in a tie-break, he broke once again in the third game of the decider and that would be all he needed to cross the finish line. Rodionov prevailed 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-4 after two hours and 31 minutes.
The teenager, who is planning to focus on his professional career following next week's ITF Junior Masters, will catapult nearly 200 spots in the Emirates ATP Rankings to a career-high No. 498.
"I just enjoy playing tennis. I don't care if I lose or win, I know that I have to improve my game. I know what I want to achieve in tennis. I want to be one of the top guys. It will only work if I give 100 per cent in every situation. It doesn't matter if I'm up 5-0 or down 0-5."
His semi-final result in Ningbo is becoming a trend for juniors looking to make the transition to the ATP Challenger Tour. Rodionov reached the last four in just his second main draw on the circuit, while Miomir Kecmanovic, Nicola Kuhn and Wu Yibing also enjoyed initial success. Kecmanovic advanced to the semis in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, in also just his second Challenger entered, while Kuhn and Wu lifted the trophies in Braunschweig and Shanghai in only their second and fifth main draw appearances, respectively.
"Before the tournament, I had no expectations," Rodionov added. "If I lost in the first round of qualies, I'd have been ok. If somebody told me before that I'd be in the semi-finals, I'd think they're crazy."
Born in Nuremberg, Germany, to Belarusian parents, Rodionov decided to play under the Austrian flag in 2015 after his father moved the family there for work. He admits that football was his first love, but wasn't allowed to play until age six, so he decided to pick up a racquet.
"I started playing tournaments and realised I was pretty good at it."
Despite his rapid rise and immediate success, Rodionov understands that there is still a lot of work to do.
"Now, I've been working on my forehand, because a few years ago it was my biggest weakness. We are working every day on it. It's improved the most. I need to improve on the other things, like stamina, stretching and flexibility."