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Sebastian Korda may have the genes—and the dynamic—to be a special pro
His father, Petr, won the Australian Open, but parental success hasn't often been passed to the next generation.
Published Oct 05, 2020
At the halfway mark of this strange edition of Roland Garros, new names are being thrust in front of tennis fans as they watch on their screens around the world. Hugo Gaston, Iga Swiatek, Martina Trevisan, Leylah Fernandez and Norda Podonska have all offered promise for the future. And, in a particular way, so has Sebastian Korda.
I say particular because if the 20-year-old Korda gets anywhere near to fulfilling his obvious potential, the American with Czech heritage will have the chance of achieving something no other male tennis player has managed in the entire history of the sport: emulating the achievements of a Grand Slam-winning father.
It is far, far too early to suggest young Sebastian can win a major singles title, as father, Petr, did at the 1998 Australian Open, but no one who has observed his progress through qualifying and into the fourth round in Paris would bet too heavily against him reaching the Top 10. That, in itself, would be a stunning achievement, because history has shown, time and again, that having a champion for a parent presents a huge barrier—in tennis as well, I suspect, in that other great individual sport, golf.
Before trying to explain why this is so, let’s offer some examples. Just in the post-World War II years, Pancho Gonzalez, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Tony Trabert, Alex Olmedo, Rod Laver, Manolo Santana, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle and John Newcombe had at least one son, almost all of whom played the game to a certain level. Jack Kramer, in fact, had five. Anthony Emerson and Sandon Stolle turned out to be excellent doubles players—Stolle winning the US Open in 1998 with the Czech, Cyril Suk. But singles? The mountain was always too high.
As Dr. Allen Fox, a former U.S. Davis Cup player, explained in a book I helped him write back in the 1970s—IfI’m the Better Player, Why Can’t I win?—that there is a psychological reason why this is so. To keep it simple, it lies in the fact that the boy is always trying to emulate the father and compete with him. But the specter of a champion father’s success is always too large.
It is not about a father being a very good player. Luis Bruguera played on the tour for years and coached his son Sergi to two French Open titles. But Luis was never close to being a Grand Slam champion. It is the size of the shadow a father casts that seems to be significant.
The Czechs, co-incidentally, provide an example of how a mother-daughter relationship seems to be different. Vera Sukova was a Wimbledon finalist in 1962 and her daughter Helena was even better, twice reaching the final of the US Open as well as the Australian Open.
So can young Sebastian make the breakthrough? Ivan Lendl, who moved from Prague to America a little ahead of the Korda family, has been impressed so far.
“I hit some balls with him a couple of years ago over at the IMG Academy in Bradenton and saw plenty of promise,” Lendl said. “More so now because, having watched him these past few days in Paris, he has overcome a couple of weaknesses I had noticed. He is obviously much stronger, which does not surprise me as he has been working with Radek Stepanek’s physio Marek Vseticek, who is as good as Jez Green [Alexander Zverev’s trainer] in that department.”
Lendl made another salient point.
“It’s about taking opportunities. Sebastian has done that. Having qualified, he got a reasonably easy draw apart from John Isner in the second round and made the most if it. Having a chance and taking it are very different things.”
This or That—Sebastian Korda:
Attitude counts for much, too, and the young Korda seems to have been blessed with an open, optimistic view of life that allows him to face challenges in the right way. He was badly beaten by Rafael Nadal in the fourth round on Saturday (join the club) and accepted it as a lesson.
“I learned a lot and asked Rafa to sign my racquet afterwards,” he said with a flashing smile.
There may have been another factor which has helped Sebastian. For much of the time he was growing up—having switched sports from ice hockey to tennis at the age of nine—his father was off on the golf tour, mentoring Sebastian’s two sisters, Jessica and Nelly, who have both become professionals. During that time his mother, Regina—a WTA tour player herself, reaching No. 26 in the world—took charge of much of his tennis tutoring.
This buffer between father and son was just as I discovered with the Krishnan family, when I visited Ramanathan Krishnan, the former Indian No. 1 who had twice reached the Wimbledon semifinals, at their home in Madras (now called Chennai). Ramesh, the son, was already established as a fine player on the ATP tour. We chatted on the court, which was situated right outside the sitting room.
“So this is where you taught Ramesh,” I said.
Ramanathan quickly shook his head.
“No, no, it was Ramesh’s grandfather who taught him his tennis, not me.”
So the message seems to be clear for the Federers. Let Mirka look after the twin boys, and Roger can handle the twin girls!