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Exclusive interview with Sebastian Korda, the player whose gamble to skip the Australian Open paid off

Blessed with some special family genes, Sebastian Korda is already one of the best young players on the Tour. Inside the top 100 for the first time, the 20-year-old tells Simon Cambers why he wants to be around the top of the game for a long time.

Sebastian Korda, 2021 Sebastian Korda, 2021, © ZM / Panoramic

Having kicked off 2021 by reaching his first ATP Tour final in Delray Beach, Sebastian Korda followed it up by winning the Challenger Tour event in Quimper, France on Sunday, a victory that lifted the 20-year-old into the top 100 for the first time.

A few hours after his victory, he chatted about his breakthrough, his decision not to play the Australian Open, playing Rafael Nadal, practising with Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf and his uber-talented family.

Congratulations on another great week.
“Yeah, it was a tough week at the beginning. I saved match points in the first round (vs Tristan Lamasine) and played two opponents that played incredible in the first two rounds (Lamasine and Mathias Bourgue). Then I kind of got a little bit more comfortable and I started playing some really good tennis.”

You reached the final in Delray and won in Quimper, a great start to the year. So I guess the plan (not to play the Australian Open) has worked well?
“Definitely. Me and my whole team, we sat down and we looked at the schedule and said what would be the best option for my development. And we just thought I could get a lot of matches in Delray and then a lot of matches in a lot of these Challengers here in Europe. That was a great plan and super happy we stayed with it.”

Given how well you’re playing, was it difficult to not go to Australia?
“It was definitely tough. But I didn’t feel super comfortable with everything. And we just decided it was better for me to stay in the US and then head over to Europe, because there was I think there are six or seven Challengers here in a row, so it’s a lot of tournaments and a lot of opportunities for me to keep playing some good stuff.”

When you say you weren’t comfortable, do you mean with quarantine and with Covid-19?
“Yeah, especially with the travel. We just saw that especially if you get on a flight and somebody happened to test positive, it’d be a tough situation to put myself in, especially at the beginning of the year when we had a little bit longer of of a pre-season – we had three months instead of usually like around one. And in case something were to happen, doing 14 days in the hotel room, I’d pretty much have to start all over again. And I just wasn’t really comfortable doing that.”

You’re now in the top 100 (No 88). How big an achievement is that for you?
“Yeah. At the start of the year, I mean, I was super-close and then I had a really great week in Delray and I’m kind of just building off of that and trying to keep going. Definitely top 100 was a lifelong dream for me and I’m super happy to achieve it this week.

It’s very early in your career to achieve it.
“Well, I’ve definitely had a long journey coming here. I mean, two to three years ago, I was still playing Futures. So it’s been a long journey, but one I wouldn’t trade it for anything and to do it here in Quimper and then to take the title, it means a lot. It’s a super-special week and a super special place for me now.

Last weekend I watched your sister Jessica win a golf tournament on TV (his other sister, Nelly, was third). All of your family have now been top 100 in your chosen field – and a lot, lot higher. It must help having those family genes and support?
“My parents are incredibly supportive and and the way that they kind of developed us from kids, letting us play a lot of different sports and kind of just learning a lot of different things and learning some different skills. I mean, I grew up playing hockey, tennis and golf. And I was doing karate as well, so I was a very active kid. And it helped me develop into the tennis player I am today. Even with my sisters, they all were playing different sports. And that was one of the probably the biggest things for us.

Do you think some people focus on one sport too soon?
“Yeah, I know a lot of players, they started tennis when they were three or four years old and then that’s pretty much all you’re doing. I started tennis at 11 years old, pretty much, played my first tournament at 11. So I went on a different path to everybody else. I’m definitely not burned out, but hopefully I can stay in the sport a lot longer.”

I think everyone in tennis knows your father (Petr, the former Australian Open champion) but your mother (Regina Rajchrtova) was also a top player. How did they help you?
“When I started playing tennis, my older sister (Jessica) was on the professional golf tour. I think it was her first or second year and my dad was helping her out and caddying just so she wouldn’t be alone at tournaments, to be comfortable. So I was spending a lot of time on court with my mum because my dad would leave for a month, two months at a time. So it was a lot of time spent with my mum. And she kind of developed my game to where it is today and built my technique and strokes around how they saw my game going. So I think she’s probably one of the biggest, if not the biggest influences, on my game today.”

How much sibling rivalry was there when you were younger?
“I didn’t see my older sister (Jessica) as much as I saw my other sister, Nelly, because she’s [Nelly] two years older than me [Jessica is seven years older than Seb]. But we grew up as friends, all three of us, but (the rivalry was) mainly with my sister Nelly, because I was doing everything that she was doing – it was just me, my mum and Nelly. So we spent a lot of time growing up together and we were all playing board games and doing puzzles. So there was a lot of competitive stuff when we were kids together.”

I read somewhere that you’ve never lost to your sisters at tennis, but you’ve beaten them at golf, is that right?
“Yeah, I’ve never played a (proper) tennis match (against them) – I don’t think they’d want to right now. But my only claim to fame against them was there was a birthday golf tournament and I won it. I’ve no idea how I won it. I was like seven, eight years old. So, yeah, I’ll never play them ever again.”

You went to see Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf in Las Vegas. How did that come about and what was it like?
“I started talking with Andre. My dad set it up. He thought it’d be a super cool thing. We were quarantining at home…and he just thought it’d be something different to learn and try to talk to someone else and to learn some things here and there. And we kind of built a really good relationship. And we’ve been talking ever since we had our first call. Then (Agassi) asked me and my dad if we would like to come down after the season. We spent two weeks with with him, Steffi, my dad and my fitness trainer Mark. I learned a lot and and spent a lot of time on court with them and a lot of time at dinners. It was a privilege and an honour to be to be welcomed into the family like they welcomed us. And I’m super grateful to have someone him in my team.”

Did Andre get on the court much or does he leave it to Steffi?
“No, he was on court every single day with me but I hit with Steffi twice and she’s an incredible athlete. It’s scary how good of a tennis player she is, you can still see that she has that fire in her when she steps on the court. It was cool to see and a big privilege to hit some balls with her.”

Were you nervous hitting with her?
“Yeah, I was intimidated. I mean, she stepped out and her footwork was just firing from the first ball and I was like, I’ve got to step it up now. I mean, she was playing unbelievable both the times we played together and it was a lot of fun having her on court.”

You had a great run at Roland-Garros last year and then had that moment with Rafael Nadal, getting his shirt after the match. It feels like you’ve already come a long way since then?
“I always said ever since I was a little kid, I always admired Nadal the most out of any other tennis player. And I always said that my dream match would be to play Rafa on (Court Philippe) Chatrier. To have it happen was an incredible moment and I didn’t want to lose an opportunity for asking for a shirt and for a signature and just to thank him for inspiring me and so many other little kids around the world to play the great game of tennis. I have the shirt hanging up in my room. It’s a moment I’ll cherish forever.”

Do you think you learned a lot from that match?
“Yeah, I talked with him after for like 10, 15 minutes. And he was a super nice guy and super supportive. And he told me that I had the game to become a super great player. And I’ve just learned a lot from each and every match that I’ve played and lost.”

So what’s your plan in terms of your schedule now for the next couple of months?
“I’m going to play a couple more Challengers, or if I get the opportunity to get into an ATP qualifying event for the main draw, I’ll try and play there. But after that, I think the next ATP event that I’ll play is Acapulco and then hopefully Miami if I get the opportunity.”

This is a big year, with the Olympics as well. What are your goals for the rest of the year?
“Just to keep doing what I’m doing. I mean, I’m still only 20 years old and I have another, hopefully 15, 15-plus years in the sport so I’m just kind of building my body and getting it ready for these bigger tournaments and for these bigger players so I can keep up with them. Just keep enjoying myself and and keep putting in the hard work.”

I guess that’s not easy to be patient because you are playing really well?
“I’m a pretty patient person. I mean, all of my peers, they were there, they were doing way better than I was a couple of years ago. I was still playing Futures. I played Futures when everybody was playing Challengers and I played Challengers when everybody was playing ATP tournaments. So I have a lot of it.”

Do you think in some ways that’s quite a good thing that you didn’t break through even earlier?
“Yeah, I wouldn’t trade my path for anything else. I know how hard it is to get into these positions and how hard you have to work to become a good player and with a higher ranking. So whenever I’m at a bigger tournament, I appreciate things a little bit more than I’d say, than most. And I always have a smile on my face because I know how hard it is to get into those big tournaments.”

Do you also feel lucky to be out there given the pandemic?
“Yeah, for sure. I mean, some people can’t leave their house. It’s super unfortunate what’s happening and I always say we should all be super grateful for being able to play anything. My dad did a great thing, he held four tournaments right next to our house with a couple of our close friends that we were with, just to keep that competitive edge. That was super big. I’m super grateful for that. But any chance we get at a tournament, we should all be super thankful. And I know I am.”

And does your dad still play?
“Yeah, whenever I’m home, I practise with my dad. He’s still got it. He can kick my butt. I mean, his ball striking is one of the best, if not the best. He’s an incredible athlete and I don’t think he’ll ever lose it.”

And how old were you when you first beat him?
“The last time I played him I lost 6-0. I don’t think he’ll ever play me again. But I’d like my chances now if we were to play… The last time we played, he kicked my butt, there was no mercy.”

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