Alex Molcan: “The match against Novak Djokovic in Belgrade changed my vision of tennis”

Alex Molcan tells Tennis Majors about his debut on the ATP circuit, his collaboration with Marian Vajda, former coach of Novak Djokovic, and his final against the Serbian in Belgrade

Alex Molcan, Lyon 2022 Alex Molcan, Lyon 2022 – © Sandrine Thesillat / Panoramic

Alex Molcan has been a consistent member of the top 100 ever since he broke into the double digit ranks in November 2021 for the first time. The 25-year-old Slovak might not be the most recognised player in the world, yet he is making himself known to tennis fans and pundits. He climbed to 38th place in the ATP rankings in May 2022, a career high, and has already reached three finals on the ATP Tour (Belgrade, Lyon and Marrakech).

Molcan is through to the semi-finals this week in Banja Luka where he takes on Andrey Rublev today. Below is the interview we did with him at the end of the 2022 season.

You played your first season on the ATP Tour in 2022 after years on the Challenger Tour. What differences have you noticed between the two tours?

Alex Molcan: Being on the ATP Tour for the first time this year has led to a more complicated season compared to the previous Challenger seasons, there is a higher intensity, players play faster, are more physical but the biggest change is the travel. Travelling all over the world, it’s tiring when it’s the first year you’re doing it, it was the first year I travelled to Australia, America, always going to places far away from home, it was new for me and of course I enjoyed it, I was excited, extremely motivated and I still am.

Often when we talk to players, they say the opposite – that the difference in level between the players of the two circuits is minimal.

If you play ATP 250 or Grand Slams, you can play against players ranked 70, or 80, you can also play them in Challenger, it is not the big difference. It changes when you play top 10s, top 20s, you have to be better when you play them. When you are on the ATP tour or in Grand Slam, everybody wants to win, sometimes in Challenger, players can be a little bit less motivated, can let a match go, it’s not something that happens in every match or every tournament but it happens more than on the ATP tour.

Are you satisfied with your results in 2022?

It was a decent year, not perfect but pretty good so I would say I’m pretty happy with the way I played.

Another big change this year is the arrival in your staff of Marian Vajda, how is the collaboration with him?

With Marian, we started in May, the first tournament was Rome, to be honest, it was a complicated adaptation, I was so stressed, I was shaking, because of the expectations and all that. But now I’m not nervous at all with him, I’m used to working with him, he’s an incredible person and he changed the way I see tennis, he’s the greatest professional you can find. In terms of coaching, he’s probably the best, he’s the one who has accomplished the most, who has the most Grand Slams, I’m super happy to work with him.

Marian Vajda, coach of Novak Djokovic, in Monte-Carlo in 2018
Marian Vajda, © Chryslene Caillaud / Panoramic

You say he changed the way you see tennis, what do you mean by that exactly?

He has changed the way I look at tennis on a global level, it’s not a specific point. Every member of my team has become more professional because you know, you work with Marian, Djokovic’s former coach, he’s that kind of man, it’s his personality, he’s so helpful to me.

How did this collaboration between you two come about?

Funny story, last year I was looking for a new coach for 2022. I met him (Marian Vajda) in 2021 and I asked him for advice about a new coach. I didn’t ask him because he was with Djokovic, I didn’t know that they were going to split up. I just asked him some questions over coffee. I gave him a few names [I was considering] including Karol Beck and Marian described him as an excellent coach who had not yet shown his potential because he was working in an academy in Slovakia, so not with professional players. I said okay, I think I will try with him (Beck) because I was looking for a coach who was a former player, and he didn’t have much experience as a coach but I felt that he had in him what was needed. We started working with Karol and we had another meeting with Marian after they [he and Djokovic] announced their separation in February, I think. I called him when I came back to Slovakia after a tournament to see if he could follow me for a few weeks to give me some advice on my game, after that another meeting to ask him if he wanted to be part of my team. It happened quite easily and naturally in the end; he wanted to work with me, he told me that he saw potential in me, it was very nice words to hear from him and we started for real in May. In Slovakia, when Marian joined me, it was an explosion, a tidal wave of media, people were happy.

So you are doing your first off-season together, all three of you, what are the main things you are working on?

At the moment we are doing a lot of running, gym but also tennis, we wanted to work on everything at the same time. We are working on all parts of my game, we want to progress everywhere: of course some parts more than others but before we were only working in the gym during the pre-season, and I’m not saying it was not the right solution but this year we wanted to change, also work on tennis, outside of Slovakia and here (at the Mouratoglou Academy) it’s really incredible – you have everything you want at your disposal, you train with great players [he trained with Daniil Medvedev and Holger Rune, for example] and the facilities are great.

What is your main goal for 2023?

We (he and his team) have goals in terms of ranking but I don’t want to say it out loud. I know what I am capable of, I will do everything I can to reach that goal and we will see next year if I have done it or not. Our goals are high but I think our team is great, I believe in them, they believe in me, so anything is possible.

Marian Vajda's best ranking as a player was 34th, Karol Beck's 36th and yours 38th, do you have a goal to surpass them?

(Laughs) We talked about it in many tournaments, we laughed about it, I was very close to overtaking them three times! If I had won the final in Lyon, for example, I would have been 31st and I would have overtaken them but I didn’t do it. It’s a funny running gag between us but next year I’m going to pass them!

Alex Molcan, Lyon 2022 – © Frederic Chambert, Panoramic

You spent more time than other top 50 players on the Challenger circuit, was reaching the ATP circuit a goal and did you always believe you could achieve it?

It was pretty far away. I was always somewhere around 300, [but] I always believed that I could reach the ATP Tour, I saw guys of my generation like Rublev or Hurkacz and I knew that I was not much worse [than them], that I could be in the top 100. I was still far from it, at that time I had not won any Challengers yet, to make a semi-final was a great result, but I always believed in it. I didn’t know how because I felt like I was doing everything to get there and become better, now I think I wasn’t, but everything changed after the final in Belgrade.

How did you experience that crazy week in Belgrade (in 2021), your very first ATP tournament?

I remember I was playing pretty well before Belgrade, some quarter-finals and semi-finals in Challengers, I felt good on the court, I felt I was improving. Then in Belgrade, I don’t want to discredit the players but I had a good draw, I played two wild cards in a row, not bad players, but you can also play Djokovic in the second round, it makes a big difference. I won both matches, the second one 6-0, 6-0, I played amazing, then Verdasco, same thing 6-0, 6-2, I felt so confident. Then Delbonis, I was down a set and a break, again another break in the third but I won the match and then [faced] Djokovic in the final. After that tournament my confidence was so high, I don’t say it in an arrogant way but I felt I could play against anyone at that moment, an incredible feeling.

Playing Novak Djokovic in the first ATP final of your career, how did you feel about it?

I wasn’t nervous at all, it was weird. If you told me I was going to play Djokovic in my first big tour final before that, I would have thought I would be super nervous, but I wasn’t nervous at all, I was just happy to go out there. I was smiling, I had no pressure, I was playing the No 1 player in his hometown in front of thousands of people but I wasn’t nervous at all, I broke him straight away. I lost afterwards but it was a good score for me (6-4, 6-3). That match against Djokovic changed my vision of tennis, it was the crucial point of my career. It showed me the way tennis should be played, it’s not a power game, I learned that during that match. Before I thought I was playing too soft, not close enough to the net, that I had to hit more winners. Djokovic, he plays chess, he uses his brain, you need power but it’s not the most important thing. I understood from this match that I had to play longer, with more spin, more use of my head. This match changed my tennis, I started to have more confidence in my game, to be more proud of the way I played and to believe that I could beat anyone if I played well.

Novak Djokovic and Alex Molcan, Belgrade 2021 – © Imago / Panoramic

A few weeks later, you qualified for the US Open for your first Grand Slam tournament and reached the third round – what are your memories of this tournament?

The US Open was crazy, I had a match point against me in the third round of qualifying but I won and after that it was another pretty good draw against other qualifiers. They were not easy matches but I won against Ilkel and Nakashima in five sets, but against Schwartzman, even before the match I didn’t think I could win. I was confident at that time but before I played it I thought, ‘He is so good, he is top 12…’ It was the first match where I didn’t believe in my chances, I lost three sets to love, but in general it was a great tournament that helped me a lot.

You became the Slovak No 1 this year. What changes in your life did this new status bring?

I feel a little bit more support from the Slovak people, I am recognised a little bit more in the street, but I try not to think about it. My relatives are still the same towards me. Some people show me more respect but the change is not incredible.

Slovakia will face the Netherlands in February in the Davis Cup, is winning this tie one of the objectives of your season?

Playing the Davis Cup is a big goal, we want to qualify for the final phase. This year we played against Italy but I had the coronavirus the day before the match. My teammates were incredible and we lost 3-2 – 6-4 in the last set of the decisive match, so it was really close. When you see that they (the Italians) lost in the semi-finals afterwards, it leaves us with great hopes for next year.

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