Impossible No More: Kubler Makes Hard-Court Breakthrough
Jason Kubler was sitting in his hotel room at the City of Playford Tennis International, a $75,000 event on the ATP Challenger Tour, when the phone rang.
"I didn't expect it at all, but Lleyton called me and there were so many emotions. Six months ago I would have never guessed that I'd be in this situation."
Lleyton Hewitt was on the other end, awarding his 24-year-old countryman with a main draw wild card into the Australian Open. As Kubler admits, the call was not expected, but, having finally found consistent success after years of physical struggles, it was more than well-deserved.
"I didn't have Lleyton's number saved on my phone, so I said 'ok, I'll just answer this one'. It was right before my semi-final match. It was Lleyton and he told me I had gotten a wild card. It was pretty crazy for the next few hours. I had to refocus for the semi."
With the 2018 season just one week old, the ATP Challenger Tour already has its feel-good, compelling narrative. Kubler, a former junior No. 1 whose career was derailed due to chronic knee issues, was forced to compete exclusively on clay for many years. But improved conditioning and extensive rehab have allowed him to make the transition to hard courts. And the results have been nothing short of incredible.
Kubler claimed his second title on the surface in 10 weeks, having previously never stepped foot on an ATP Challenger Tour hard court. His astounding run has included a pair of titles on home soil, in Traralgon in October and in Playford on Sunday, and just one loss in between. Even more impressively, both triumphs came as a qualifier, moving his win-loss mark to 17-1 to open his hard-court career.
In addition, Kubler did not drop a set en route to the title in Playford, becoming the first qualifier to do so since 2009.
"It's just one of those things where I've been pretty lucky at the moment," Kubler added, referring to his health. "Things are going right. I can't really say that I've done one particular thing that's made it much better. Now I'm playing on hard courts and there's no swelling anymore and no pain. It just feels normal.
"My shoulder was actually a little sore before this, but the knees are holding up pretty well. I played 12 matches this week (including doubles) and I didn't feel it at all. My knees have been pretty good. It makes me think that I should have played on hard even sooner."
Having saved one match point to defeat Alex Bolt in the Traralgon final, the title match in Playford was much more straightforward. He would upend Canada's Brayden Schnur 6-4, 6-2, seeing his position in the ATP Rankings soar 99 spots to No. 242. Three years removed from attaining a career-high of No. 136, he is looking to surpass that in 2018.
"I was just going into the tournament looking for matches. It exceeded my expectations. Hopefully I don't have to qualify every time I win a Challenger. But I couldn't have started the year any better than this. I played pretty well."
A hereditary knee condition that results in weakened meniscus around the joints led Kubler to undergo multiple surgeries in his early teens. And the fragility of the muscle surrounding the knee forced him to adapt his game and make a critical decision: play exclusively on clay or don’t play at all. Fearing any structural damage and further setbacks from hitting the hard courts, Kubler decided that the risks were too glaring to ignore. For more than six years, he adhered to a strict clay-court diet in pursuit of his dreams.
Now, playing the best tennis of his career, Hollywood couldn't even have scripted a plotline like this for the Brisbane native. Inspired by fellow Aussies Thanasi Kokkinakis and John Millman, both of whom have made successful returns to the pro circuit following lengthy injury absences, Kubler has made an immediate impact in his comeback. And it is set to continue with a dream appearance at next week's Australian Open - his first tour-level event since 2014.
"I took inspiration from what Thanasi went through," Kubler continued. "To come back and then get re-injured with a different one is tough. Same with John as well. He was about my age when he first got hurt. Hopefully I can keep going, so it will be the three of us on the way up. We'll see how it goes.
"It was quite tough to keep the motivation up to be honest. You're doing rehab every day and not hitting balls and going out on the tennis court. It was really tough. But my girlfriend kept me on track and I got through it. I'm just enjoying being on court now. As long as I'm trying my best, I'm happy."
Kubler will make his second appearance at his home Grand Slam, having fallen to former World No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic on debut in 2010. It was his lone previous tour-level hard-court match. Eight years later, he is back in Melbourne Park.