For all the developments in coaching, equipment, and data science, sometimes less can be more for players striving to climb the sporting meritocracy as Sydney-sider Aleksander Vukic demonstrates.
Speaking to The First Serve ahead of his fourth Australian Open main draw campaign, Vukic spoke of his excitement at returning to the scene of one of his best wins to date.
“There’s always a different feel coming to Melbourne. It’s such a buzz” the University of Illinois graduate explained. “It’s so motivating and exciting that you actually need to try to be more relaxed than anything else.”
“The more you play these events the more your outlook changes on what’s achievable and what you can do.”
Currently Australia’s fifth-ranked male behind only Alex de Minaur, Alexei Popyrin, Max Purcell, and Jordan Thompson at 63 in the ATP standings, Vukic arrives at Melbourne Park with fond memories of his come-from-behind 2022 round 1 win over the 30th seed Lloyd Harris on a packed Show Court 3 being one of the Australian’s career highlights.
Born in Sydney to parents hailing from Montenegro, Vukic, who will open against fellow New South Welshman Jordan Thompson, enters the 2024 season in unfamiliar, albeit “nicer” territory as a direct entrant in the main draw having relied on qualifying success or a Tennis Australia gifted wildcard in previous years.
Ranked in tennis’ version of purgatory between 100 and 200 since early 2020, Vukic broke into the top 100 in the Autumn of 2023 on the back of a simplified game plan, mental clarity, and greater personal investment that ultimately led to a successful swing on the Challenger Tour where he reached three finals in four weeks.
Not done there, after a productive grass-court swing that included a debut at the All England Club, a run to the final at the ATP 250 in Atlanta posting three top 40 wins and falling only in a tight three-set loss to champion Taylor Fritz, and a trip to the round of 16 at the Toronto Masters, Vukic made his top 50 debut in August last year.
While his progression to the elite level may seem linear to the average punter, Vukic suggests his persistence dug him out of a hole he almost didn’t climb.
“It’s been a journey”, he reflected. “There’s been a few moments where I’d questioned [if I ever make it]. But I kept going and luckily I’m in this position.”
That said, while players are often defined by their ranking externally, Vukic makes every effort to focus solely on his own game and to maintain a healthy dose of perspective of the former 10-year-old version of himself who used to roam Melbourne Park hoping to one day play alongside the stars he was cheering.
“Next to my bed at home is a photo of myself as a 10-year-old standing next to the past champions [at Melbourne Park]” he revealed. “It’s actually one of my happiest memories being a kid here and imagining about being on this stage one day. I try to keep that perspective.”
“I don’t think it’s all about ranking. It’s about giving it your biggest crack and going out with no regrets. If I can do that then I think the 10-year-old version of myself would be happy.
“I’d been working a lot on my mental side and trying to quiet down my thoughts. I’m a firm believer that a lot of tennis is mental.
“We’re all aware of what’s going on [with ranking and prize money etc.]. For me what helps is just trying to play tennis and win this point. Then at the end of the year, I can look at my ranking and what I did well. For the 35 weeks a year that you play don’t want to focus on any of it.”
Ahead of his match against Thompson, who got the better of Vukic in Brisbane a fortnight ago in their first career meeting, Vukic will endeavour to “quiet down his thoughts” and “switch off” admitting his best results come when he’s “not overthinking things”.
For those familiar with Vukic’s game, one noticeable area of improvement is his two-handed backhand. Blessed with a thundering serve and forehand combination, Vukic confessed he once tried to overcomplicate the use of his less favoured backhand wing.
“I tried to do too much with it and I used to give away too many errors. We’ve worked on making it more solid and have relied upon other parts of my game and made it less of a liability. I think sometimes doing too much can be a problem.
“When I look at my game I’ve always had the serve and the forehand. Very few guys in the world have three weapons. I’ve accepted it for what it is and I’m confident that I can compete with these guys.”
Similarly, Vukic believes a change in his coaching setup in 2022 has also paid dividends in seeking two “different voices that are aligned" instead of the traditional full-time sole coach. After being without a coach for his first three years on the pro tour having benefitted from four years in the college system, Vukic resisted the urge to keep his, at the time admittedly limited, prize money to himself and elected to hire two coaches, American-based Australian Jay Gooding and Nuno Lencastre of Portugal, who share travel duties. The latter of whom Vukic credits for facilitating the connection with his Portuguese doubles partner at this year’s Australian Open, Nuno Borges who, like Vukic, is a graduate of the American college system.
“It got to the point where I wanted to invest more in myself” Vukic noted. “At that 200-150 ranking, if you bring in a coach you’re probably either breaking even or losing money so it’s a big decision”
Content with the differing personalities of his two coaches, Vukic revealed he is still getting used to taking on feedback and criticism again after being his own coach for so long which he believes is an “important part of being a player”.
In facing Thompson, Vukic will be out for revenge while also managing a shoulder complaint that ended his 2023 season and one he says was not up to scratch on his return to court in pre-season. Vukic however says he is raring to go and is optimistic his best tennis is right around the corner and hopes to find it in front of an adoring, although likely divided, Australian crowd.
The winner of the all Australian match up will face the winner of the blockbuster round 1 clash between former Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini and 2023 Australian Open runner up Stefanos Tsitsipas.