Sebastian Korda forging path to success at 2020 French Open

Tennis

Petr Korda abruptly abandoned the topic of conversation Friday afternoon — his 20-year-old son, Sebastian, and his rousing sprint into the fourth round of the French Open. He murmured over his cell phone, switching to discuss his daughter.

“Right now, Jessica is putting for a birdie,” Petr said. “Just a moment, it’s a short putt. … Oh [expletive], she didn’t make it.”

It was a rare setback on a busy day for the Korda family. Petr, the 1998 Australian Open men’s singles champion, was in Bradenton, Florida, working the television remote. Daughters Jessica and Nelly, clutching their 9-irons and putters, were hard at work at the ShopRite LPGA Classic in New Jersey. Sebastian, the baby of the family, was occupied on this soggy, bone-chilling day in Paris becoming the youngest player to reach the fourth round of French Open in almost 30 years.

“I think [Sebastian] played very disciplined and smart,” Petr Korda said of his son’s 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 win over fellow qualifier Pedro Martinez. “Martinez started well and he even had break points to go up 5-2 in the first set. But Sebi played smart. I enjoyed how disciplined and focused he was. … ‘Yes! Birdy, Nelly!'”

Evidently, there’s very little time for the Korda kids to rest on their laurels.

After his win, Sebastian Korda said that like most aspiring pros, he has received a load of advice from a multitude of coaches during his developmental years. But one nugget, gleaned from Dean Goldfine, one of his coaches, continues to resonate with him.

“You have to be ready to weather the storm,” Korda said, quoting Goldfine. “That is all I just kept saying to myself. I couldn’t be prouder of myself, just staying in there and keeping a positive mindset.”

Neither Korda nor Goldfine could have anticipated how apt that bit of advice would be at this stormy, wet, cold, windy French Open. The tournament, postponed from its traditional late May start due to the coronavirus pandemic, began last Sunday. Soon, the pros were lobbing more complaints than tennis balls due to the challenging conditions.

Not Korda, though. Cheerful and grateful, it might have been balmy and bright, with birds twittering among the leaves, the way he navigated the difficult days.

“I’m super happy to be here playing on clay here in Paris,” Korda said after his second-round win over fellow American and No. 21 seed John Isner. “You don’t get to experience it (Paris) throughout the whole year. It’s tough not to be happy here, having a good mindset. I’m just looking forward to every single practice, every single match. It’s been a good trip so far.”

That trip became even better with his win over Martinez. Rookies often experience a letdown after crafting a notable upset — Isner has enjoyed a fair amount of success on the red clay of Roland Garros — but Korda, despite the slow start, suffered no such lapse. No longer the gangly, 6-foot-4, 165-pound youth who won the junior title in Australia, he has added an inch or two and bulk to his frame. It was part of a recent focus on strength and conditioning.

To that end, Korda went old school on the advice of Petr, who oversees his son’s development. Petr dipped into his own past to pluck out Marek Vseticek, a well-traveled Czech fitness trainer. Vseticek had helped Petr and other Czech luminaires, including Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova and Radek Stepanek, get into shape.

Although Vseticek was unable to travel to the U.S. from the Czech Republic during the lockdown due to the pandemic, he communicated frequently with the Kordas. Then Sebastian traveled to Vseticek after taking a first-round loss in the recent US Open. He worked on his clay-court game and fitness for more than two weeks.

“I’m super proud of myself,” Korda said Friday. “I was doing everything all by myself. The work is showing right now. I know that I won’t have to worry about my body giving up on me because I know I put in the hard work.”

“His body has settled,” Petr said.

Petr sees other elements in his son’s success. In June, Petr helped organize a series of small, COVID-conscious tournaments that the participants dubbed “The Battle of Bradenton.” The four events, featuring Sebastain along with seasoned pros Paolo Lorenzi and Michael Mmoh, offered modest prize money to ensure they would be competitive. Sebastian won two of them.

“If there was one thing I can tell you about his success now,” Petr said, “those events, and going to the Cincinnati (Western & Southern) and US Open, put Sebi around some good players. He had the opportunity to learn how to play the game the right way.”

For a good portion of his early youth, it was uncertain whether Sebastian would learn to play the game in any way at all. Petr and his wife, former WTA pro Regina (ne Rajchrtova) encouraged their children to experiment with multiple sports, so they would find what best suited them, and to understand the different skills required by each of them. The kids dutifully tried skiing, skating, tae kwon do, hockey and ballet.

“Except Seb,” Petr Korda said. “He didn’t do ballet.”

Jessica, now 27 and the eldest child, decided she wanted to pursue golf (“She didn’t like sweating,” Sebastian said Friday). Nelly, now 22, followed in her sister’s footsteps. From age 3 on, Sebastian was a rink rat, skating five days a week, an integral member of a team that was ranked second in its age division in North American junior hockey for the 2000s.

But at 9, an utterly unexpected thing happened. Sebastian accompanied his father, who was then coaching Radek Stepanek, to the 2009 US Open. Sebastian grew enthralled watching Stepanek lose an entertaining night match to Novak Djokovic. According to Petr, upon returning home to Bradenton, Sebastian declared, “Dad, mom, I don’t want to play hockey anymore. I want to play tennis.”

“I kind of listened to my heart,” Sebastian told ESPN shortly after he won the Australian Open junior singles title, on the 20th anniversary of Petr’s win in the adult division. “I fell in love with tennis, with the atmosphere and excitement at that match, and I saw myself doing that for the rest of my life.”

The precocity of the Korda girls soon presented obstacles. As Jessica blossomed into a golfer with pro potential, Petr was obliged to spend more and more time with her. He accompanied her to tournaments and served as her caddie. He was unable to pay more attention to Sebastian, whose future was in doubt because he was such a late bloomer. That’s where having two accomplished tennis pros for parents became an asset.

Regina Kordova — her legal name — was a quiet, shy pro who was once ranked as high as No. 26. Petr Korda was a finalist at the French Open in 1992, but few remember that Regina was a finalist in a September clay-court tournament held just across the road from Roland Garros on the site of the Racing Club de France. An omen?

Sebastian inherited his height and much of his fluid game from Regina.

“My dad was traveling with her (Jessica). I was playing tennis with my mom,” Sebastian said. “The way my strokes are and everything is because she’s the one that kind of tuned it that way. We spent a lot of time on court together when I was a kid. Probably more than with my dad.”

The three Korda children are close. Sebastian told ESPN two years ago that Jessica was a “mother figure” to him because of their seven-year difference in age. He has since revised that to “best friend.” Nelly has been a close friend all along. They have done a lot more together, and have friends in common.

Although both women are competing in the golf tournament, they told the ATP website Thursday that they’ve been getting up as early as 5 a.m. to watch their brother’s matches. Including qualifying, Sebastian has played six matches, one fewer than it takes to win a Grand Slam title for someone with direct acceptance into the draw.

“We changed our practice round time I think on Wednesday so we could play later because he was playing at 5 in the morning here,” Jessica Korda said in her post-round press conference at the golf tournament. “So yeah, we’ve been adjusting to it, and then a couple of naps here and there in the afternoon. But we’re so excited and just proud to watch him and support him. We’ve been there every step of the way.”

The golfing Kordas said they were texting back and forth with Sebastian during the hour-long rain delay in the third set of Friday’s match.

“It’s really cool actually,” Nelly said. “He finished his match when we were driving over, and my heart rate was definitely too elevated going to the golf course. It should not be that elevated. But it was really fun.”

Sebastian Korda will face his toughest test yet when he meets Rafael Nadal in the next round, but instead of worrying that his number is up, he’s acting like he just won the lottery.

Korda was so enamored of Nadal’s style and game that as a youth he went as far as naming a pet cat Rafa. “I’m praying that he (Nadal) wins,” Korda said of Nadal’s third-round match. Nadal did win against Stefano Travaglia to set up the match against Korda.

“He’s my biggest idol,” Korda said. “He’s one of the reasons I play tennis. Whenever I’m on court, I try to be like him.”

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