Good Things Are Happening To Aussie Vukic

Aleksandar Vukic (photo: David Mariuz / Tennis Australia)

ADELAIDE/WASHINGTON, January 13, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Everything seems to be falling in place at the right place and the right time for Australian Aleksandar Vukic. He’s playing in his home country, on his favorite surface, and winning points with his forehand stroke – which happens to be his favorite shot.

Now, with less than a week to go before his favorite tournament, the Australian Open, Vukic is earning notice as one of Australia’s up-and-coming players, who received a wild card into this week’s ATP 250 Adelaide International 2, arrived ranked 160th after recently achieving a career-best ranking of No. 156 in November. Earlier this week, Vukic recorded his first Top-50 win of his career when he beat World No. 35 Alexander Bublik, 7-6 (5), 6-2. It came a week after losing a tough three-setter, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, to 85th-ranked American Steve Johnson in the Adelaide International 1 event.

After losing to Johnson last week, Vukic said it was important not to be too down on himself “because I have done that in the past. If I play at a decent level, like I did that day, and like I did [against Bublik], good things can happen.”

This week, in addition to beating the charismatic Bublik, he gained a bit of revenge against Tour veteran Johnson, winning 6-4, 7-5 in back of 16 service aces and while not facing any break points. The victory advanced Vukic to Thursday’s quarterfinal round – his first ATP Tour quarterfinal – against fellow Australian wild card Thanasi Kokkinakis, where he battled for two hours and 16 minutes, striking 10 aces and saving 12 of 15 break points he faced, before losing, 6-7 (5), 6-3,  6-2.

After beating Bublik, Vukic was asked in his press conference what he’s been most pleased with during his two-week stint in Adelaide. He replied: “I’ve been able to focus, refocus, on a lot of points when I do lose focus. So, I feel like I’ve been present a lot of the time, a lot of the points. Kind of making it difficult for people to get into my service games. I do think I’m hitting my second serve better. That’s one thing I did focus on last week.”

The 25-year-old Vukic, who was born in Sydney after his parents and older brother fled Montenegro during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and emigrated to Australia, is fluent in both English and Serbo-Croatian. He took up tennis at age 6, then went abroad to study finance at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill., where he played collegiate tennis. While at Illinois, Vukic was named an All-American in three straight seasons and earned 2017 Big Ten Athlete of the Year honors.

Last season, Vukic put together a respectable 34-26 win-loss record in all competitions, splitting his time between playing Challengers throughout Europe, then finishing up in the United States on the USTA Pro Circuit. Plus, he earned a wild card into last year’s Australian Open, where he lost a memorable first-round battle against then-No. 20 Karen Khachanov of Russia, 6-3, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-4. During his homecoming in Champaign last November, the fourth-seeded Vukic reached the final of a $50K indoor hardcourt event before losing to No. 8 seed Stefan Kozlov of the United States, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4.

“I’ve been out of college for three years now,” Vukic said. “Two of those have been during COVID. It’s definitely been tough adjusting. But, again, I’m learning a lot. I’m learning every year. I’m trying to learn from every week.”

When Vukic isn’t engaged on the tennis court, he also enjoys playing football, basketball and video games. His favorite football team is Arsenal FC of the English Premier League and his favorite basketball player is Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James. If he weren’t a pro tennis player, he says his dream job would be manager of a Premier League football club.

According to Vukic’s ATP biography, he says his motivation is “the aspect of competing and being so good at your craft. It’s the one-versus-one part of tennis that you don’t get anywhere else.

“It’s insane what you feel on court. You’re in your own world when you’re out there. As long as I can feel that, then I’m happy.”

Lately, it seems, Vukic has been in a good, happy space. Win or lose the rest of way in Adelaide, he has next week’s Australian Open, the first major of the year, to look forward to in Melbourne and has a wild card into the main draw.

“I can’t think of a better preparation, to be honest,” Vukic said. “I’m grateful getting the wild cards in these events. It’s giving me the opportunity to play these events, try to make the most of it.

“I’m going to try and focus on every match here, see where I can go from here.”

Vukic is optimistic about the 2022 season – and, looking ahead, just knowing that travel for Australian players this year should be a little bit easier than before means a lot to him. “Knowing you can come back and kind of plan a few months at a time, it’s just nice. It’s just nice knowing,” he said.

“I think last year a lot of us left – I left at the end of February, and you just didn’t know when you’d come back. It was kind of like I could come back in July, but I could also come back in December, which I ended up doing. Now, it’s just nice knowing.

“It’s nice to be playing back here.”

Cap on Australian Open crowds set

On Thursday, Tennis Australia announced that the Australian Open will run at half its capacity under new restrictions as there continues to be a surge in Omicron cases in Victoria, the state of Australia where the Australian Open is held in Melbourne.

The Australian Open is set to be “paused” at 50 percent capacity, but all tickets previously sold will remain valid.

When Martina Navratilova speaks, it worth a good listen

Hall of Fame Great Martina Navratilova spoke on Australian TV’s “Sunrise” show Thursday morning (Australia time) to discuss all things Novak Djokovic. Her thoughts on the greater good and leadership, and what Novak should do were illuminating, mature and made sense.

What they’re tweeting

From David Law, BBC5 radio tennis commentator and co-host of “The Tennis Podcast”

What they’re writing

• In “Novak Djokovic is a profile in selfishness, and sports leaders are failing us all,” ESPN Senior Writer Howard Bryant shares his thoughts on the World No. 1 and a sports industry that has failed the public.

• In “Djokovic’s Strange Australian Odyssey,” The New Yorker’s Gerry Marzorati writes that Novak Djokovic’s attempt to secure a COVID-vaccine exemption to play in this year’s Australian Open was, from the beginning, a cynic’s ploy.

By the numbers

American teen phenom Coco Gauff is only 17 years-old and yet she’s already appeared in 10 WTA quarterfinals in her brief pro career. The latest is this week at the Adelaide International 2, where she is the highest seed remaining at No. 3 following earlier losses by No. 1 seed Aryna Sabalenka and No. 2 seed Elina Svitolina. On Thursday afternoon, the 19th-ranked Gauff defeated No. 65 Ana Konjuh of Croatia, 6-3, 6-4 to advance into the semifinal round.

As Gauff eyes her third career title, it’s worth noting that no one in the current WTA Top 10 reached the same milestone as she has until they were in their 20s.

“Quotable …”

“I think there’s going to be numerous countries, if Novak chooses – or any player chooses – to be unvaccinated … I’m not sure how he’s going to get into the [United] States to potentially play Indian Wells and Miami. How’s he going to get into Canada?”

– ESPN tennis analyst Brad Gilbert, as told to “Tennis Now,” during an ESPN Zoom call with the media Wednesday to promote the U.S. network’s upcoming exclusive Australian Open coverage.