For years, I didn’t feel like I belonged in the second week of Grand Slam tournaments. I just wasn’t good enough. But when the 2016 U.S. Open rolled around, I knew, for whatever reason, I was going to make a splash.
As the highly ranked American in the tournament, I was playing some of the best tennis of my life. Not only am I playing in the second week of a Slam, but I’m facing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Louis Armstrong Stadium. At one point, I look up and see a couple of guys walking down the aisle of the grandstand to sit in the second row, right across from the chair I sat in during changeovers.
I’m pretty sure that’s Odell Beckham Jr., I thought.
I see him sitting there and that gave me a little extra spark, hoping that he was cheering for the American. I hit a winner, and I remember looking over at him and mimicking his famous catch as a celebration. He was laughing and smiling and that fired me up even more. Then I hit this crazy facing-forward tweener and I remember him standing up and clapping. I didn’t get the result I wanted (I lost in four sets), but I had some opportunities against Jo, and I felt good about the whole situation.
After the match I get on my phone and see that Odell had tweeted at me. I DM him to thank him for coming out, and he invites me over to hang out at his house. So I stay an extra night in New York and go over to OBJ’s the next day — we spend the day chilling and playing FIFA, and that night we end up going to the Kanye West concert at Madison Square Garden.
That was the moment where I sat back and was like, Whoa, I’m this kid from Lincoln, Nebraska, and I’m hanging out with OBJ. This is pretty cool.
And that was just one scene from my surreal 2016, a year in which I made some of the biggest strides of my professional career.
Usually after the last tournament of the year I take a few weeks off to rest and don’t get back into training until around Thanksgiving. But this year I wanted to do things a little differently. I had put in a lot of good work on and off the court throughout the year and built up a pretty good base physically, and I didn’t want to lose that progress.
In previous years, I struggled with my conditioning. In the second round of the U.S. Open in 2015, I was up two sets to none against the unseeded Belgian Ruben Bemelmans. I was a set away from the third round of the tournament, and a few favorable matchups away from the quarterfinals.
You may know the rest. It was hot that day, and I started to cramp up.
I collapsed early in the fourth set and was forced to retire up two sets to one.
It sucked. I had worked really hard to get there, but my body just wasn’t able to hold up.
Fast-forward a year.
Through hard work, I had gotten stronger and faster, which was something you could see in my third-round victory over Marin Čilić in the U.S. Open. I took a lot good steps forward last year, and I matured a lot on and off the court — I even eased up on the line judges. I also used experiences like my withdrawal from the 2015 Open as fuel to get better. My results became more consistent. I was putting myself into position to compete in tournaments, and I want to take that into this year and win a few singles titles.
Though I grew a lot off the court at the same time that I was hard at work on it, there was one scary situation that reframed my perspective on my professional career — and my own life.
I’ll give you a little bit of the backstory first. My brother, Eric, and I had a pretty unconventional route to competitive tennis. We grew up in Lincoln with my mom and dad. We got into tennis when I was eight and Eric was 10. We played it at a local clinic and both fell in love with the sport instantly. As you might guess, Lincoln ain’t exactly a hotbed of tennis, but there were lessons and clinics for kids our age. One weekend, around the time I first started competing, my brother and I went to Kansas City to play in a Missouri Valley tennis association junior tournament.
Eric and I played well in Kansas City. While we were there, a coach named Mike Wolf approached my parents and said, “I think you guys should come down and try out my tennis academy. Your kids have some talent and I think we could help them.”
So, just like that, even though we still lived in Lincoln, we enrolled in the Mike Wolf Tennis Academy, which is in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kansas.
When I was in the fourth grade and my brother was in the sixth grade, we drove down with our mom every weekend of the year for clinics at Mike’s academy. We would leave Lincoln Saturday morning early enough to participate in the three-hour clinic that afternoon. We’d stay at a Drury Inn that night. Then we’d wake up go to practice on Sunday for three hours before driving back to Lincoln in time for school on Monday. We did that for a whole year.
At that point, my parents decided to sacrifice living together for the sake of our tennis. My mom, my brother and I moved to Kansas City together while my dad stayed home to work in Lincoln as a financial advisor. Eric and I lived in an apartment with my mom and started going to the academy every day after school. I became a huge club rat.
Eric and I went on to have really successful high school careers in Kansas City at Blue Valley North High. I always wonder, first of all, How many players on the ATP Tour even went to high school? Second, If they did, how many of them played high school tennis? Not a lot. But Eric and I became a state champion doubles team, and I finished high school with an 80–0 singles record.
Eric went to Nebraska on a tennis scholarship, and I started playing in low-level USTA futures events. In 2010, I won the junior singles title at the U.S. Open as a wild card, which was kind of an awakening for me. Even though I had really bought into the idea of college tennis, I decided to explore the pro route.
My career progressed in fits and starts. I cracked the top 100 of the ATP world rankings in 2013, and won the doubles championship at Wimbledon with Vasek Pospisil a year later. But in 2015, Eric got really sick and it was like everything came to a halt.
It was a brutal time for my family. Nobody could figure out what was wrong, and things became serious really quickly. To make matters worse, I had just torn my pelvis and knew I had to get surgery. One night at home, he couldn’t breathe, so he was rushed to Menorah Medical Center. Right after Eric was admitted, I was set to have my procedure in Philadelphia.
The doubt was terrifying. But eventually he was diagnosed with Lemierre’s syndrome, an extremely rare bacterial infection that affects the kidney, lungs and liver. Most people who get Lemierre’s syndrome, even if they’re as young as Eric, do not survive.
I don’t think we really understood the severity of what he had until the doctors explained to us what was going on. A family friend, Dr. Michael Monaco, saved Eric’s life by identifying the disease so quickly. But it was still a tough recovery for Eric. When I wasn’t rehabbing, I was at the hospital with my parents and Eric. For a while, he couldn’t even breathe without help. But after weeks of treatment, he slowly began to recover.
The whole ordeal really put my career into perspective. When I was first starting out, I would let bad calls or lucky shots bother me to the point that they would affect my performance. Watching Eric struggle to recover from a life-threatening disease, I realized, You know what? My rehab is nothing compared to this. It made me appreciate my career that much more. I found myself able to go out on the court and let loose a little bit — and let go of the irritating things that come with playing competitive tennis.
I went to Rio with expectations for singles, but unfortunately, healthwise, I probably wasn’t where I needed to be. But to come away with a gold in mixed doubles and a bronze in men’s doubles — not only representing my country, but also Kansas City and where I’m from and all the people who have supported me — was the most special moment of my career. Being on the podium with my medals around my neck are moments I’ll never forget.
Meeting all the other international athletes in Rio was a trip — getting to see the Brazilian soccer guys and our NBA guys milling around the village, and meeting Michael Phelps, all of that was mind-blowing.
But the most mind-blowing introduction, for me?
Yep, the golfer.
I’m a massive golf fan. I love playing golf, but it’s so freaking hard. I got to meet Rickie Fowler and Kuchar at the Olympics, and I felt like a huge fanboy. Matt’s a big tennis fan and he asked to come out to the bronze medal men’s doubles match. My partner, Steve Johnson, and I were out there playing and we look over and see our team and our coaches and stuff, and then we see Kuchar sitting there … well, that’s why we won the match, I’m pretty sure.
My 2016 was special. But I want to keep building the base in 2017.
As I move into the new calendar year, and on to the Australian Open next week, I’m really letting these lessons and experiences sink in. I’m focusing on trying to compete to win singles events. I came close a few times last year and had some looks and chances. I want to win singles titles. The ranking will come with playing good tennis. I believe that — if I’m playing well and doing the right things — I’m a top 10 player. And I think I can get there sooner than later.
I tell Coach Wolf all the time: I would give a ton of money to go back for one day, one weekend, to the academy with the team. I wish I could go back for one road trip, maybe a trek to Springfield, Missouri, with a N64 rigged up in the back of a minivan, making the time fly by playing Mario Tennis and Super Smash Bros.
Instead I’m channeling that optimism and attitude into 2017, which will hopefully be my biggest year yet. I got my family by my side. What is there to lose?
Let’s get it.