In Europe they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but we sure did.
In the fall of 2005, Chris Drake and I returned home from a successful summer of Futures-level tournaments. Wins in Caracas and Tijuana, two places we didn’t plan to return, had taken our rankings up to around 300 in the world. We were officially on the Challenger tour. While it's often regarded as the minor leagues of tennis, we were thrilled to be out of no-frills life of Futures events and into the mid-minors. It meant free hotels, the occasional free meal, and a new can of practice balls each day...in other words, a relative paradise.
There was a Challenger event in Chris’ hometown of Boston that allowed us to get a good training week in to prepare for that before heading off to Europe. We played well, but lost a tough three-set match to Bobby Renyolds and Scoville Jenkins. With spirits still high, we headed to Eckental, Germany, where we lost again in the first round. Our third week took us up to Helsinki, Finland, where we lost yet again. A word of caution: if you are thinking of traveling to Helsinki, don’t do it in November, as they get about five hours of sunlight (let’s call it “gray-light”) per day. Not exactly what you need when you’ve lost in the first round, three weeks in a row! I’ve heard they have one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and Chris and I weren’t so far from helping their statistic.
Early losses are demoralizing on so many levels. On court, our confidence was being tested as we started to question our ability to play at this level. Names like Baghdatis, Kohlshreiber, and Nieminen weren’t in our Futures draws. Off court, our complimentary hotel expired the day we lost. Meals needed to be purchased and those practice balls, you ask? Used. A Monday loss meant four days of hanging around, paying for lodging, trying to find practice courts, and dodging those "Hey, what are those guys doing here? They lost three days ago...” looks. A string of first-round losses was not the most confidence-building experience, actual on-court failure aside.
For the fourth week, Chris had the logical idea that we sign in for the weakest Challenger, a $25K event in northern England. At this point, we needed to get in the win column for obvious reasons. I was less (or more!) rational, and suggested instead that we try to enter a $150K event in Luxembourg, which was double the size of the biggest tournament we’d ever played. Another opening-round loss would allow us to collect a $500 prize-money check and a flight back in time for Thanksgiving dinner. That "American positivity," as my international friends call it, had evaporated.
We went to Luxembourg with low expectations and picked up our first win of the trip. In the second round, we drew two established doubles players, Ashley Fisher and Tripp Phillips. After a flawless first set, I looked over to the other bench and saw Ashley downing a Red Bull and Tripp drinking what looked like an iced Starbucks double-shot. They came out firing to win the second set, but luckily they ran out of Red Bull and we edged them in the third. Speaking to them after the match, we learned that they had just won several consecutive events and were running on fumes. Chris and I didn’t have that problem.
Another problem we didn't have was trying to find flights home for Thanksgiving dinner. With a few wins under our belts, we were thankful for having a reason to remain in Luxembourg. That said, that night we struggled to find any dinner at all, let alone one that resembled turkey and stuffing. Eventually we found a stand selling meat pies and purchased our Thanksgiving dinner there. Due to the picked-over selection and our poor command of Luxembourgish (yes, that’s actually the language they speak), we both ended up with some sort of creamy seafood pie. Neither of us like seafood. That would have to suffice for our semifinal pre-match meal. After all, we weren’t in the majors just yet.
In the semis, we played a team from the Czech Republic, Pala and Vizner. Luckily, we didn’t Wikipedia them beforehand, because after winning 6-3, 6-3, we learned that they were regulars in the top 20 and former French Open finalists!
Shocked and elated to be in the final, we drew the team of Lindstedt and Wassen. They were both ranked around 50 in the world, some two hundred places above me and Chris. All of our hard work and resilience over the previous month was finally paying off. We dropped the opening set, but after the month that we had, that wasn’t going to faze us. We went on to a three-set victory.
In that one tournament, we brought home as many ATP points (150) and as much money ($5,000 apiece), as we had made over the entire year beforehand. We missed the turkey dinner, but we sure were thankful for the experience—and hungry for an off-season of training.
People think that ATP players win a lot. In reality, we lose every week unless we win the tournament. Many successful players will have a losing record at the end of a season. Building resilience is as important as building confidence. Breakthroughs, like this one, often come when you least expect them—maybe because you don’t expect them—and sometimes, after a lot of time banging your head against the wall.