WATCH—Daily Serve from Day 3 in Cincinnati:
He captured the NCAA Championships as a Stanford University sophomore eight years ago, graduated two years later, went out onto the ATP World Tour, and reached a career high of No. 63 in the world on March 17, 2014. This formidable fellow was on course to establish himself as a top-flight player. His career was on a decidedly upward path. His dreams were large.
Thereafter, Bradley Klahn met more than his share of misfortune. Beset by one back surgery after another, fighting for his professional life and uncertain if he would ever play the game for a living again, Klahn was away from the sport from February of 2015 to November of 2016, gone for about 21 months. But this unwavering individual refused to give up. He fought his way back into relevance, rising from No. 857 in the world at the end of 2016 to No. 214 upon the conclusion of 2017.
Now, Klahn resides at No. 102 and he will move back within the Top 100 next week for the first time since August 4, 2014, when he was No. 92. Not insignificantly, he has garnered a main draw spot in the last major of 2018, winning the US Open Wild Card Challenge. Klahn is exhilarated about returning to the Open, where he has not played since 2014.
As he told me during a telephone interview done a day after he had taken his first-round match in Cincinnati over Maximilian Marterer, “As an American, the US Open has always been the Slam that I have enjoyed most. Playing a home Slam is really special. I have a lot of great memories there. The 2012 US Open was the first Slam that I qualified for and it is where I won my first five-setter [over world No. 36 Jurgen Melzer]. I love that first hit in practice when I get on the grounds. I can’t wait to get back there.”
The key to Klahn’s securement of the Open wild card was winning a Challenger event in Gatineau, Canada last month, and then he sealed it by toppling David Ferrer in the first round of the Toronto Masters 1000 event last week. But he was never preoccupied with the pursuit of that goal.
As Klahn explains, “I chose that Canada Challenger over the Newport [ATP World Tour 250 event] because I wasn’t going to be in the main draw of Newport. I felt after Wimbledon [where he defeated world No. 69 Yuichi Sugita in the first round before bowing against Kyle Edmund] that it was important for me to get on the hard courts to give myself the best chance to get prepared for the summer hard-court series. My focus and tournament selection wasn’t in regards to wild cards or going for that. It was more about playing the best tennis I could throughout the whole summer, and knowing if I did the results would take care of themselves.”
Asked about his expectations going into the Canadian Challenger and whether or not the wild card was on his mind that week, he replies, “It really wasn’t. I wasn’t thinking much about the wild card. I just felt going into that tournament I would have a good chance of winning it as long as I took it match by match. I had a good Wimbledon and I wanted to keep that momentum going and getting through each day with a win.”
When he returned to Canada to play in Toronto, Klahn took on Ferrer in the opening round, and toppled the Spaniard on the hard courts there to seal the wild card. Did he know what was at stake when he walked on court for that contest?
“A little bit, yes,” responds Klahn. “I knew I was in a good position having won that Challenger in Canada, but that wasn’t my focus. It was more about continuing to play good tennis and building on the wins I had accumulated over the summer. I knew if I beat Ferrer I would win the wild card outright but I was trying my best not to think about that. It is a big accomplishment just to know that my results earned myself a wild card into the US Open. It has been a long road back for me and it is nice to see my game come together, and all the hard work and patience paying off.”
It took more than patience for Klahn to reinvent himself after being forced out of tennis by his back ailments in 2015 and 2016. What thoughts were wandering through his mind? Did he think his career might be over? How did he get through it all?
Klahn answers, “There were a lot of doubts running through my head. There was probably a span of four to six months where every week I thought that might be it. I wasn’t going to keep going on with the rehab, especially when I had not been hitting balls for the better part of six months. I started having a lot of doubts that my back would ever be able to hold up on tour again. So I started thinking about what I wanted to do after tennis, and started to meet with people in finance to gauge my interest in that. I was lucky enough that Paul Goldstein and Brandon Coupe let me be a volunteer assistant coach at Stanford for three months in 2016. So I was able to stay around tennis and keep my mind engaged in the tennis.”
I wanted to know when he started seeing some light at the end of the tunnel as he contemplated a return to the game.
Klahn replied, “It was really right around the start of July in 2016. I had gone home for the fourth of July to see my family and I was talking to my parents and my longtime coach Lee Merry. We were kind of at a crossroads and we agreed that I would stop because I wasn’t making any progress. Things weren’t going well. But the decision didn’t sit well with me so I just decided I had to change my mindset. I had gone through a lot of fear with my back and that feat of getting injured again was crippling. But my fiancé was the driving force behind me getting back on tour. She definitely kept pushing me to play. She was one of the only ones to do that for a long time. She really stuck by me. She helped me overcome my fears.”
Asked to describe his evolution since his reemergence in late 2016, Klahn asserts, “My first tournament back in 2016 I could not have scripted it better. It was a Challenger in Champaign, Illinois and I qualified and won five matches there and made it to the quarters of the main draw. I felt my game picked up right where it left off. But after that it was tough managing expectations. Those first eight or nine months of 2017 were pretty challenging for me. I didn’t fully have the confidence in my body. I was playing a couple of matches here and there. I was having to start and stop and never felt like I got in a rhythm.”
Despite that discouraging period, Klahn moved on purposefully and started finding progress.
As he says, “I went over to Asia after the US Open last year. At the time I was ranked around 450, but I was able to get over there and clear my head. I put in some good training during the tournaments. After that trip I relaxed and stopped putting emphasis on my ranking. I was determined to let things just fall where they may. Coming back from that trip to Asia I was a little concerned about my protected ranking that was going to run out. Without some big results I wasn’t going to get into the Slam qualies to start this year, so I turned my focus onto my game and was able to make back-to-back finals last fall in Monterey and Fairfield [both Challengers in California]. That gave me the extra push to finish the year strong and start this year in the Slam qualies. I carried that momentum forward and had a good week in Newport Beach, California, at the start of this year, where I made the finals.”
And yet, Klahn then hit another rough patch.
He says, “I went just a little stagnant with my game. I felt like I was putting too much pressure on myself. But things really started clicking in Europe in the spring. I started embracing the clay, changed my mindset a bit, and then on the grass I also changed my mindset. It may sound like a cliché when I say that everyone talks about process over outcome, but I started believing in that more this year.”
But he never ceased to believe in his game, and, despite his difficulties recovering from the surgeries a few years ago, he remains essentially the same player with identical priorities.
“I have not had to reshape anything. Coming back from the surgeries I have put even more focus on my fitness, spending a lot more time in the gym, putting more emphasis on the gym than on the court. Tilting the scales that way has worked well for me. I am also traveling with a physio, Scott Clark, and he has really helped me to gain confidence in my body and to give me the confidence to go deep week in and week out.”
That self-conviction has been crucial for Klahn as he has climbed back up the ladder to the Top 100. How did he deal with the darker days in his life so steadfastly?
He responds, “I got up to the Top 100 and all the way to No. 63 within a year-and-a-half of getting out of Stanford. I decided to stay at Stanford for four years because I enjoyed the college experience and I wanted to get my degree. My family always placed big importance on education and having a Stanford degree to keep in my back pocket was something I really cherished. I thought pro tennis would still be there when I graduated at 21. I thought I would have plenty of time to embark on a pro career. Then having it derailed by an injury didn’t sit well with me. I thought there had to be a way for me to get my body back in shape. I wanted to prove to myself that I could overcome the injuries and enjoy the tennis again.”
What also helped Klahn to stay upbeat while he was gone from the game was his connection to other players with whom he had shared so much for so long both on and off the court.
As he puts it, “It was very tough being away for the better part of two years, just being in L.A. at home, not being out on the road and never seeing any of the guys. I grew up playing juniors with Stevie Johnson and we have known each other for 15 or 16 years. It is nice to see him doing so well. I have been close with Denis Kudla, Bjorn Fratangelo and Mitchell Krueger. I did my best to stay in touch with as many of the guys as I could while I was out, just to keep myself involved.”
Nowadays, however, Bradley Klahn, who turns 28 on August 20, is not looking back. His thoughts are almost entirely on the present and the near future. His outlook is strikingly bright. Where does he envision himself a year or two from now. How would he define his goals? What is he expecting from himself?
“My main goal is to keep doing what got me to this point, focusing on daily improvement. I will reassess my goals as I keep achieving new heights. But ultimately for me it is about enjoying being out there. It was snatched from me pretty quickly with my back problems, so I have a newfound appreciation for the travel and just being at these tournaments. I haven’t set any long-term goals. I am hoping I can keep raising my level and I would like to see if I can surpass my career high ranking of No. 63. I want to be around for years to come in tennis.”
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