Editor’s Note: Filip Polasek and partner Ivan Dodig are into the 2021 Australian Open final. This story was originally published on 24 August 2019.
Did this guy have too much whiskey?
That’s what I was thinking when I got a call one Thursday evening at around 10 pm last May. I was home in Slovakia, where I was set to play some club matches to practise for some other club matches in Germany. It had been more than four years since I’d retired from pro tennis at 28 due to injury.
“We have a great player for your Monday club match. It’s Bryan,” the head coach of the club told me. I was laughing and I was like, “Which Bryan?”
He didn’t know. I figured the guy was going crazy and I dropped the phone. The next day I asked a manager at the club what the guy was talking about. She thought he was drunk, too.
But the next day I was at the club they said, “Are you ready to hit with Bryan?” I told them I’m always ready for anything, but I was still confused. I played my club match, and then I was shocked. Mike Bryan showed up. The Mike Bryan, the doubles legend. It was really funny. The guy wasn’t drunk after all.
Mike was in town because his girlfriend is Slovakian, so we hit the ball around a bit. I didn’t feel that great. But he was like, ‘You hit well!’ I wasn’t so sure.
He stayed for a week and we hit another two or three times. We even played a doubles match with a couple of other guys. That was like putting a kid in water without knowing how to swim and letting him swim because there were a lot of things going on. Those club matches were the first time I was really playing tennis since I retired.
It took years after I hung up my racquets to be able to do any physical activity without pain. But my body was alright that week. It wasn’t responding like it had been since I retired. I didn’t need to hold my leg down to keep it from throbbing uncontrollably. I was hitting with one of the best players in the world. I didn’t play amazing, but that week was the first time I realised, “Okay, I can still play.”
But if you told me that 15 months later I’d be sitting here as an ATP Masters 1000 champion, I would have told you that you’re crazy. I would never ever bet even a dollar on it. It’s been an incredible journey. But after everything I’ve been through, this is just the beginning.
* * * * *
In 2013, I retired from professional tennis at 28. I’d won 11 doubles titles on the ATP Tour and made 13 more finals. But physically, I couldn’t continue.
I had a nerve issue in my back, and I had loose discs in my spine. My leg would jump after matches. I’d get to the locker room and I simply couldn’t control the nerves in my left leg. If I didn’t physically hold it still with my hands, it would jump sometimes for as long as 15 minutes. To say it was bad is an understatement. I knew my career was over.
But even without playing tennis, the pain wasn’t going away.
I started coaching an Aussie player who was competing at the Futures level and I had to stop after nine or 10 months because the pain was almost the same as when I was playing. I said, “This is useless.”
I think part of it was that I was a bit tired of travelling — the long flights were not good for my body. About a year and a half after I retired, I still didn’t feel right.
So I took a job as head coach of a small club with six outdoor courts and two indoor courts in Piestany, Slovakia. But there was a problem: I couldn’t even hit with the older teenagers. I started working with younger kids, from eight to 14. The pain was getting a bit better, but it still wasn’t great. I had some nice, easy hits with other coaches for only 40 minutes just for the sake of striking the ball, but when I’d get home at night my leg would cramp from my toes through my calves.
Just to try some sort of physical activity, I started playing on a floorball team with other tennis players. The matches were serious, but they were also for fun and for me it was a chance to get sweaty and keep in shape, maybe even so I could have a beer after and it would taste better. After doing that three of four times, I couldn’t do it anymore because it was more painful than enjoyable.
That’s when I decided I couldn’t do anything anymore. It was between two and three years after I retired, and I knew my body still wasn’t holding up. The only thing I was doing was ski touring, which wasn’t strenuous. I’d go with my girlfriend and other friends in the Slovakian mountains for a weekend, moving from one chalet to another.
At that point, I was happy. I wasn’t missing life as a professional tennis player. In November 2017, I became a father, too. I was living a completely different life.
But as the kids I was coaching got older, things began to change. One guy who turned 16 started playing better tennis and he enjoyed baseline games with me. When I’d compete with him, I felt okay. But he was still only 16. For two and a half years, I wasn’t testing my body at all.
In 2017, an amateur I gave lessons to was a very good friend of the president of a German tennis club. They asked me to play club matches there. I figured, “Why not?”, and they were so excited, so we arranged that I would play a few matches. At the same time, the club where I used to play before I retired asked me to play some Slovak club matches for them, which was a week before the German ones started. I thought it was a great opportunity to prepare for the German matches, so I said yes.
Then by coincidence, I got that late night phone call from the guy who I thought drank too much whiskey. I hit with Mike Bryan that week and I had a decision to make. This was just more than a year ago.
I was still waiting for the pain to come back. I knew it would. I had to drive seven hours by car to some German club matches. I would play singles, doubles, sit down in the car without stretching, go back home and I knew that it would definitely get worse the next day. But somehow when I got home I told my girlfriend there wasn’t pain. Weird, right?
After the third or fourth match, it still wasn’t coming. At that point I started thinking about giving pro tennis another shot. I hadn’t had a break from coaching at the academy for three years, so I said I’ll take a month off to go play some tournaments. They were fine with it, telling me I could come back any time. I had no fitness preparation or anything, I just went and played. I threw my body to the water because I knew my body wasn’t ready for it.
But somehow, it was. I started playing some local Futures and then Challengers and I was doing pretty well. I was surprised with how well my body held up. I had some trouble, but it was different. My muscles were sore and they were not that flexible, but that was it. It wasn’t anything close to what it was before. After a little more than a month, I decided to keep pushing. And by the end of the September, I was inside the Top 200. That was just four months after I started competing again.
It only got better this year, winning six of my first 11 Challenger events. After lifting the trophy in Ostrava, Rome and Lisbon, I felt a bit destroyed. But since then it’s been getting better and better. I’m really staying healthy.
I played with Ivan Dodig for the first time in Antalya and then Wimbledon came. There was a lot of tennis for the doubles guys, playing best of five. After battling through our first match in five sets, we really got in a groove, winning three in a row in straight sets to reach the semi-finals. But still, each of those matches took around two and a half hours. And there was a lot more going on.
Between fitness and practice, the time added up. Thirty minutes of warm-up before the warm-up, then another 30 minutes before the match, and then taking care of my body after the match. Surprisingly, my body held up. I’d made one quarter-final in 23 Grand Slams before I originally retired and somehow, I was into the semi-finals.
That was an incredible feeling, but it also helped me realise that I had a good level. We lost a tough match against two of the best doubles players out there, but it made me hungry. If I could make the semis, what else I could do?
Then in Cincinnati, a dream came true. Before the tournament, I had never made the quarter-finals of an ATP Masters 1000 event in 18 tries. But we beat the top two seeds as well as Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan en route to the trophy. The feeling was amazing. It’s just an unbelievable story, and I’m enjoying it as much as I can.
I decided to go for one more shot in the middle of last year. I was wearing one shirt, starting at Futures events. This is almost unreal.
* * * * *
A lot of people thought it would be impossible to come back to this level after my injuries and being away from competing for so long, but I love doing impossible things.
What’s even crazier is that my game is completely different. I have a different body and a different body weight. I play with different racquets and different string. The only thing that’s the same is my name.
I lost the freedom that players have when you’re 23 and you think you’re the best in the world by far and you play without thinking. Now I’m thinking too much sometimes. But before I was playing too fast and now I see the game much clearer as I play and as I practise. I’m still improving my technique and it’s helping me. I’m hitting much better from the baseline than I was before. I can see and feel the ball much better than before.
But to me, this hasn’t been a comeback. It’s a new career. I’ve built myself up from scratch.
I always dreamt big. I always dreamt about winning Masters 1000s, maybe even a Slam. Fifteen months ago, all of that seemed so incredibly far away. Yet here I am. I’ve learned to never give up on your dreams. I didn’t, and neither should you.
But I’m not overly excited about where I am. I’m really pleased with the way we’ve done the past couple of months. But I have no plans of slowing down. Now I believe I can push harder than ever, and I want to go as far as possible.
– as told to Andrew Eichenholz