Denis Kudla sat at a picnic table outside the main stadium of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. With 16,100 seats, the sprawling edifice in the California desert is the second-largest tennis stadium in the world (smaller only than Arthur Ashe Stadium of the US Open). It was there that the 19-year-old Arlingtonian paused and pondered the fact that the next afternoon he would step between the lines of that stadium to take on arguably the greatest player ever to raise a racket: Roger Federer.
“He’s my idol,” confessed Kudla, his blonde shoulder-length locks still damp with sweat from his practice session. “Not many people get to play their idol, but I don’t want to go out there as the guy who was just happy to be there–I want to go out and win.”
If this were a second-rate Hollywood screenplay, this would be the part where the teenager upsets the 16-time grand slam champion and establishes himself as a new contender in the upper-echelon of men’s tennis. But Hollywood is down the road about 120 miles.
Kudla lost to Federer 6-4, 6-1 in 57 minutes, his serve having been broken by the living legend five times in six opportunities. A week later, Federer won the tournament–the 73rd title of his storied career–while Kudla squeezed into a coach seat on a flight for Miami, where the next week he would attempt to qualify for the next stop on the sport’s never-ending road show.
Kudla was born in Kiev, Ukraine. Though the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had crumbled shortly before his birth in 1992, Kudla’s father, Vladimir, an architect, saw greater opportunity in the US and moved his family to Fairfax, Virginia, when Denis was one. Denis’s older brother, Nikita, was the one who initially showed interest in tennis. Denis would tag along as Nikita took informal lessons from their father in Fairfax’s Van Dyck Park. That’s where it became apparent the younger brother was the one with the talent.
By age ten, Denis had enrolled at the US Tennis Association’s prestigious regional training center at College Park, Maryland. There, he was able to practice and play alongside other rising young American stars and sponge off the expertise of some of the country’s finest coaches. However, it also meant sacrifice.
At age 13, the Kudlas moved to Arlington, where Denis was set to matriculate at Washington-Lee High School. But six hours of court time each day left no room for traditional high school, so Denis was home-schooled while he attended the College Park program, and he loved it. “It was a great environment to be there,” he says. “All my friends were close; I got to live at home and play at one of the best academies in the country.”
Kudla’s game is based on his tenacity. At 5-feet-11, he lacks the raw power possessed by many of the game’s top players, but he compensates with speed, physicality, and a relentless competitive spirit. Kudla calls his two-handed backhand his signature shot. When asked about his serve, he responds, “I’m working on it.”
Still, success came quickly for him. In 2008, he won the 16-and-under age bracket at the Orange Bowl, one of the world’s most prestigious junior tournaments. Then two years later, he made the final of the US Open junior competition, losing to Nebraska native Jack Sock in what was the first All-American grand slam junior final since Andy Roddick beat Robby Ginepri at Flushing Meadows a decade earlier.
But success in the junior ranks does not always foreshadow similar accomplishment in the pros. The sport is littered with stories of “can’t miss” prospects who never cracked an egg on the ATP World Tour. That said, Kudla’s climb has been steady, if not spectacular. As of last August, his world ranking stood at number 326. Seven months later it has risen 150 places to 176.
Notwithstanding his steady rise, at this point he is confined mostly to Challenger-level and Future-level tournaments–the rough equivalent of tennis’s minor leagues. Occasionally, however, a Tour-level tournament will offer a young player a wildcard to compete in its main draw. And wouldn’t you know, with DC’s Legg-Mason Tennis Classic operated by the same company whose agents represent Kudla, last summer the Arlington native got an invite to play in his hometown tournament. On a Sunday in August, with dozens of friends and family in the crowd at Rock Creek Park, Kudla took on Germany’s Tobias Kamke and, as he put it, “Nerves got the best of me.”
“It’s never easy playing at home. You see all your friends and family, and you put all this pressure on yourself because you want to impress them, and that’s kind of a rookie thing to do,” he says.
Kudla lost the DC match against Kamke in straight sets, but he got his payback last week. He once again drew Kamke in the first round at Indian Wells, and this time he notched the W, setting up the showdown with Federer.
Though he’s lived in America since just after his first birthday, there is still a slight hint of a Russian accent in Kudla’s voice. “People tell me that, but I don’t hear it,” he insists with a chuckle. “But my parents–you can definitely tell they’re not from here. I guess that’s where I get it from.”
But make no mistake, Kudla considers himself a full-blooded American, and he would dearly love to play one day with his adopted country’s flag on his shirt. He’s likely still a fair distance from being considered as a member of the US Davis Cup team, but he did get selected as a practice partner for Team USA’s trip to Belgrade in spring of 2010. The road tie against Novak Djokovic and the Serbians turned out to be a heady experience for the then-17-year-old. “It was unbelievable to be able to see those conditions they were facing. It was unbelievable to see Djokovic play live–that was the first time I’d ever seen him. Just to see how players at that level prepare was amazing,” he says.
When you ask athletes about their goals, they take one of two approaches: They either lowball expectations by setting benchmarks they know they can easily surpass, or they take the bolder route, declaring their lofty aspirations, thus leaving themselves open to both failure and assertions of presumptuous cockiness. Without question, Kudla falls into the latter category.
“The dream is to be number one,” he states matter-of-factly, without even the slightest acknowledgement of the high probability that said dream will never come true. “Obviously, I want to win multiple grand slams, and I would love to surpass what Federer is doing.”
When I asked Kudla before his match against Federer if he planned to share his brazen dream with the man himself as the two stood together at the net posing for the customary pre-match photo, Kudla chuckled and replied, “I’ll try–maybe try to use it as a little intimidation.”