Houston quarterfinalist Jordan Thompson moving forward step by step

Houston quarterfinalist Jordan Thompson moving forward step by step

“Playing all of those Challenger matches in 2018 gave me a lot of confidence. Then towards the end of the year I made a final in Calgary and I won two tournaments in a row."

Jordan Thompson has arrived at a fascinating juncture in his career. The Australian will turn 25 on Saturday. He is ranked No. 67 in the world, having attained a career best status at No. 60 earlier this year. He is playing some of the finest sustained tennis of his career, putting consistent results on the board almost every tournament, seldom letting his guard down, taking each and every match with seriousness. Thompson is soberly approaching a crucial phase in his career. He recognizes that climbing from his current location in the ATP Rankings will not be easy, but knows that with hard work, learning from his losses and winning as regularly as he has done all year, he can make it into more elite territory.

We spoke by phone last week when Thompson was in Houston playing at the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship, where he reached the quarterfinals. He addressed his desire to reach the top 50 in the world, saying,  “Definitely that is a goal and it is where I want to be. Playing at this [ATP Tour] level week in and week out will help me to do that. The key is to throw in a few Challengers here and there, to make sure I get plenty of matches and points. Winning matches there and at the Tour level can get me to the top 50. That will definitely do the job.”

Thompson is in familiar territory at the moment. He concluded 2016 at No.79, dropped to No. 92 in 2017 and finished 2018 back up at No. 72. Those numbers reveal that he is a player who could make inroads by applying himself across the board in the coming weeks.

Across the first three months and beyond in 2019, Thompson has won 13 of 22 matches in nine productive tournaments, reaching three quarterfinals, securing a place in the round of 16 at the Masters 1000 event in Miami, and only once failing to move past the first round in all of his appearances. The only time he did fall in the first round was when he ran up against a highly charged Frances Tiafoe in Acapulco, losing narrowly, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, to the world No. 34.

Asked to explain why he has been so reliable this season, Thompson replies, “I am not really sure what that is due to. Sometimes it is luck of the draw. You never plan on losing first round. The only time I did, it was a tight three setter with Tiafoe. I am competing with these guys every week and just playing at this level so often has given me more confidence. First or second round, win or lose, I just feel better about my game. I lost to Dominic Thiem in the second round of Indian Wells and I actually think that was the best match I have played so far this year.”

Elaborating on that performance, Thompson points out, “Two days before I played Thiem, I won 7-6 in the third [over Federico Delbonis] and it was probably three hours and twenty minutes. I didn’t play my best tennis in that match. I was up a set and ahead 5-3 in the second set and I had a match point, but I ended up going to the third set tie-break. I walked off the court that day and I wanted to be more aggressive and take it to my opponents more. When I played Thiem at nighttime, my ball striking was much better. I was coming forward to the net. My first serve percentage got higher. And I was dictating more points even though I lost the match. I just felt better within myself about how I played and drew confidence from that loss.”

By his side at Indian Wells as a part of his coaching team was Lleyton Hewitt, the two-time Grand Slam singles victor, former world No. 1 and current Davis Cup captain for Australia.

“Lleyton was there with me and he thought that was one of my better matches. He felt that I ran into an incredibly tough opponent and I definitely did. Thiem won the tournament, but when I played him I felt like I served the way I needed to and I tried to be more aggressive. If you are not taking the game to an opponent like that, it could be a quick day at the office.”

Speaking of Hewitt’s role in his tennis universe, Thompson is unabashedly filled with words of praise. He says, “Lleyton is our Australian Davis Cup captain and has done a few weeks with me this year. He was in New York with me for the New York Open and he did Indian Wells and he is playing doubles with me here in Houston [they lost in the first round]. He is an important part of my team. I have Tennis Australia and feel we are all trying to move forward. Lleyton is trying to help everybody and not just me. It is an unbelievable privilege having him around. Anytime he was on television I would be watching his matches and I loved the way he played. I feel very honored and grateful to have Lleyton helping me. If there is one word that describes what Lleyton has done for me, it is belief.”

And yet, Thompson is also contributing to his own cause by being so devoted to his craft. In 2018, he played no fewer than 69 matches at the Challenger level, reaching eight finals, taking three titles. At the ATP Tour level, he struggled inordinately with a 1-11 match record. He has irrefutably reversed that trend in 2019 with his current 13-9 record.

He puts that fully into perspective, explaining, “Playing all of those Challenger matches in 2018 gave me a lot of confidence. Then towards the end of the year I made a final in Calgary and I won two tournaments in a row. So I played 15 matches and won 14 in that period. Winning those two tournaments on the trot at the end of last year led to my working really hard and getting very fit in the off season and gave me more confidence. I hit the ground running this year. That is what it came down to—plenty of match fitness and a good training block.”

No matter how fit he may be or how hard he has trained, it is up to Thompson to get out into the competitive arena and make his presence known. He alludes to the fact that tennis has a deep pool of talent and only the thinnest line separates the victors from the vanquished in many cases.

He says, “Tennis, especially men’s tennis, has a lot of depth.  I don’t think there is that much of a difference between guys from say 150 in the world down to 60 or 70. Anyone can beat anyone on any given day. It is the guys in the top 50 who I would say are more consistent with their results. Everyone is different. You could play a guy like Diego Schwartzman who is probably the smallest player on tour and then you could play a giant like Reilly Opelka. You have different plans for everyone in trying to beat them.”

Thompson did a particularly good job of adjusting his game to topple a diversity of players when he won three rounds in Miami. He defeated Cameron Norrie, Karen Khachanov and Grigor Dimitrov before losing, 7-5, 7-5, to Kevin Anderson. That was no mean feat.

“I had lost to Cameron Norrie every time I had played him and I was down a set and a break before sneaking through that one in three sets. Then I played really well against Khachanov who was ranked 12 in the world. I beat him 6-2, 6-3. I was really solid in that one and executed my game plan very well. In the next match I beat Dimitov 7-5, 7-5. It was pretty much the same thing there, executing my game plan well, coming forward and using all of my skills to win. Against Kevin Anderson I was up a break in the first set and it was pretty close. I lost 7-5, 7-5. I just ran into a better opponent.”

As Thompson looks to build on his early season successes, he is working on all aspects of his game, and leaving no stone unturned.

“In tennis, “he says, “I always got told that you need to be good at everything, whether it be strength, fitness, forehand, backhand, serve, volley, movement. I work on all of it. I’m not a very big guy so I rely on a lot of variety in my game. One day I go on the court and practice my serve and the next day I could be working on the forehand. I think I need to improve everything to get better as a tennis player.”

Thompson is an emotional individual who is known to vent during his matches. That can be both an asset and a liability. He is aware of that.

“It is no secret that I have got a little bit of fire in my belly. I need to work on being a little more mature on the court. Usually I am good at coming back after something frustrating happens and playing the next point, but I still think that over time it might be better for me to keep more of a level head. I am always trying to work on that. If you ask me, a bit of fire in the belly means you are showing passion, but you have to be careful how much of that passion you show and I know that.”

He is reflective about turning 25, and encouraged that his most shining brand of tennis should be ahead of him. As Thompson puts it, “I hope my best tennis is still in front of me. I was always told that my best tennis would come in my late twenties and I hope that is true. Longevity is a big thing now and a lot of guys are playing well into their thirties so if I look after my body hopefully I can have a long career.”