Wimbledon wasn’t on Denis Kudla’s mind when he helped set the stage for a showdown between Wimbledon champions Roger Federer and Pete Sampras at Madison Square Garden. Kudla was preoccupied with more pressing concerns back then: Calming his churning stomach before playing in front of the largest crowd of his life, and summoning the nerve to collect an autograph from his tennis hero.
On a March night in Manhattan five years ago, Kudla and fellow 15-year-old Junior Ore were the opening act for the nationally-televised Federer vs. Sampras exhibition. The match marked the return of tennis to MSG, and Kudla’s brief appearance on the iconic sports stage strengthened his commitment to the cause.
This week, the kid who grew up looking up to Federer joins the reigning champion in the Wimbledon field. Born in Kiev, Ukraine and raised in Arlington, Virginia, Kudla qualified for the grass-court Grand Slam for the first time last week.
“To be able to qualify for Wimbledon for the first time is a huge achievement for me,” Kudla told TENNIS.com in a telephone interview. “I’m glad I was able to play three really good matches in qualifying and I really feel like I belong. It’s a great feeling.”
Losing in the final round of Grand Slam qualifying can create the kind of gnawing craving that comes from losing your seat at an exclusive restaurant just as the main course arrives. Kudla felt those hunger pains before. He managed just three games in three sets against Jerzy Janowicz in the final round of Wimbledon qualifying last year, but bounced back to qualify for Roland Garros and SW19 this season, and has now qualified for three of the four Grand Slam tournaments.
The 20-year-old has been chasing the tennis dream since he was seven, following his father and older brother onto a public park court where “my dad realized I had kind of a talent.” American fans gained a glimpse of the next generation when Kudla reached the 2010 U.S. Open junior final, where he fell to Jack Sock in the first all-American U.S. Open boys’ final since Andy Roddick defeated Robby Ginepri a decade earlier.
While Sock’s game is built around his hellacious kick serve and hammering forehand, Kudla’s skill set is more subtle. At 5’11”, Kudla plays primarily a counter-punching style, but he’s working with coach Diego Moyano (Ginepri’s former coach) on strengthening his serve, sharpening his baseline aggression, and picking his spots to attack.
“The strengths of my game are my fitness and also probably my backhand,” Kudla says. “I try to use both to my advantage. I’m trying to really work on my serve and develop more weapons as well.”
Sampras called Wimbledon’s Centre Court a “tennis cathedral,” and Kudla has been a grass-court convert since making his ATP breakthrough on the historic lawns of Newport in July 2011. The then-394th-ranked wild card defeated Ivo Karlovic and Grigor Dimitrov in succession to reach the quarterfinals in his second tour-level main draw appearance.
“Denis has always had the unique ability to play well under pressure situations,” former French Open doubles champion and television analyst Luke Jensen says. “I believe effective grass-court players return well. The perception is that big servers have the advantage, but it is the key break point conversions that make all the difference in shoot out grass-court matches.”
Kudla’s quick feet, return game, and flat strokes—most notably a jolting a two-handed backhand he can crack into the corners—all play well on grass. Kudla broke serve 11 times and held his serve 25 consecutive games to reach his second career ATP quarterfinal at Queen’s Club last week before bowing out to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. That result helped propel him to a career-high ranking of No. 105; winning a round at Wimbledon would likely push him into the Top 100 for the first time.
“It would mean a lot to me; being in the Top 100 is something I always wanted to achieve and always worked for,” Kudla says. “Hopefully I can do it at Wimbledon, but I’m not really putting a ranking goal on myself. My goal is to try to win an ATP title and try to make a quarterfinal at a Grand Slam.”
Launching a pro career isn’t always a steady ascent. In recent years, Kudla has beaten other young Americans—Ryan Harrison, Bradley Klahn, and Sock—and lost to veteran compatriots Andy Roddick, James Blake, Michael Russell, as well former junior No. 1 Donald Young. Kudla’s consistency, court sense, and commitment have taken him to the fringe of the Top 100, but his success in adding some more sting to his serve and understanding when to strike first will help determine how high he rises.
“Denis will continue to move up the rankings the more he understands how and when to use his weapons,” Jensen says. “Big time pro tennis is about deploying your weapon before your opponent does. Junior and college tennis players fail to make that move and often fall short in the pros because of this tough tactical transition.
“I really like all our young American talent and its potential. This crew is gifted and the difference will be about hunger. Out of this crew, which player wants to pay the price from day to day to be the best? Anything less is just not good enough.”
Once playing on the undercard to Wimbledon champions, Kudla has fought into the main event at SW19 and sounds buzzed by the thrill of the battles.
“The biggest joy for me in tennis is really the competing,” Kudla says. “It’s battling it out in those close matches. When you fight hard and you’re able to come out on top, that’s the most satisfying thing about tennis to me.”