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HUBERT HURKACZ - NO MORE MR NICE GUY



Did you hear the one about a player turning up to a press conference with no press? Sounds like a joke, but for Hubert Hurkacz, it became a reality in Monte Carlo two years ago. Just a month after winning The Miami Masters event, not a solitary journalist posed a question to him. Embarrassing for Hubert, and embarrassing for tennis.


But perhaps that sums him up. ‘Hubi’ is not one to garner considerable attention. He’s quietly spoken, polite, far from controversial, and almost completely anonymous to anyone without a strong connection to tennis. According to Polish journalist, Damian Kust, Hubert could “probably walk the streets of his home country, and barely be recognized at all”.


That seems absurd when you consider he’s been the highest ranked Polish man in history, climbing as high as 9 in 2021, off the back of that surprise title in Miami, at a time he was ranked just 37. In that famous week, he dismantled Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Jannik Sinner, Milos Raonic, and Denis Shapovalov. But if he’s the invisible man away from the court, he’s almost the forgotten, or ‘what if?’ man on the court this year.


Since the start of 2022, he has hovered between 10 and 20 in the world, which is great. But it’s not ‘greatness’.


A Season of Mixed Results


The 2023 season has been a mixed bag for Hurkacz. With 32 wins and 19 losses, he is currently ranked 17 as we head into the final major of the year.


His record this season however, belies his ability, and doesn’t tell the full story. In 17 events, he has one title (Marseille in February), 2 semi-finals, and 1 quarter final to his name. In the 3 majors so far, he has reached the 4th round in Australia and Wimbledon, the 3rd round at Roland Garros, and recently bowed out in just the second round of the US Open. Decent? Yes. Outstanding? Far from it.


However, it’s also a year of what ifs?


Recently in Toronto, Hubert pushed world number 1, Carlos Alcaraz to 3 sets, with Carlos requiring 2 tie-breaks to get over the Pole. Just a week later, he reprised his role of ‘challenger’, but not quite a ‘genuine threat’, as Alcaraz again got the better of him in 3 sets.


At Wimbledon, it took over 3 hours, and 4 extremely tight sets, including 2 tie-breaks, before arguably the greatest of all time, Novak Djokovic, found a way to defeat Hubert. Following this encounter, Novak Djokovic said, “He was serving incredibly well. I do not recall being so helpless on the return games to be honest. I knew that he is a big server, and he is a fantastic player on the grass particularly, but I did not expect him to serve this well, and this accurately. Credit to him”.


At the Australian Open, Sebastian Korda sent him on his way, after a 5th set match tie-break.

If he was able to flip any one of those results, Hurkacz might have seen his season narrative change dramatically.


As good as those performances are - despite falling just short - there have also been too many losses to players ranked significantly below him. Losses which the great players just find a way to win.


Defeats to players like Tallon Griekspoor, Juan Pablo Varillas, JJ Wolf, Bernabe Zapata Miralles, and Jack Draper at Flushing Meadows this week, are losses which start to add up towards the end of the year, and must go in the column as opportunities missed.


Hubert the ‘serve-bot’?


But look deeper into his matches, and it’s clear Hubert makes his on-court life, far harder than it needs to be.


There are a few stats that really stand out during this season.


Hurkacz doesn’t just lead the ace count with 538, he dominates it, finding himself almost 80 clear of Taylor Fritz, in second place.


Over 17% of his serves are aces, which places him behind only traditional big servers, John Isner, Milos Raonic, and Lloyd Harris. This has translated to an almost 80% first serve win percentage across the season, putting him in the top 5 of that statistic.


As a consequence, we find him winning over 88% of all his service games for the year…again, top 5. Elite.


Return Woes.


However, we all know serving is only half the battle if you’re going to challenge at the pointy end of majors.


If we switch those stats to percentage of return games won, Hurkacz is coming in at just under 33.5% - which places him all the way down in 122nd position. For context, Carlos Alcaraz sits at 42.3%. That’s almost 10% more breaks of serve. In a sport where margins are often miniscule, and matches regularly come down to one or two crucial points, this is a discrepancy gap you could drive a truck through.


What does any of that all mean? Put simply, if you’re elite at holding serve, but sub-par when it comes to breaking serve, you’d better get used to playing a lot of long sets. And plenty of tie-breaks. How many tie-breaks you ask?


When we look at the total number of tie-breaks played across the season (pre-US Open), who is the stand-out leader….? You guessed it. Hurkacz has played 49 sets going the distance this year (over a third of all his sets). Stefanos Tsitsipas is in second place, a distant 14 behind, with 35.


Tie-breaks are often described as a lottery. In the case of Hubert, that’s exactly what it seems to be. He is only winning 51% of these deciders. Again, for context, the best in the world, Novak Djokovic, wins over 82% (including 2 at Wimbledon against Hubert remember…). Of the 18 matches he’s lost this year, 12 of them have seen him losing at least one set in a tie-break.


We’ve seen Hubert go toe to toe with the best in the world. Yet he appears to lack the killer instinct which could elevate him into the top echelon of players. Perhaps it’s just his laid-back, quiet personality holding him back, which is perfectly fine for a life off the court. Damian Kust also suggested that perhaps Hubi is ‘too nice, and too humble to be a superstar’. He’s probably spot on.


But to become a great of the sport (and by greatness, it has to include winning majors), Hubert needs to stop being so damn nice. He’s now 26 years old, and should feel as though it’s his time. It’s his time to become more ruthless. It’s his time to be more aggressive in return games. When you have serving stats as good as he does, he practically has a free swing on his opponents serve. So swing away Hubi!


I’d love to see him attack his opponents return games with the ferocity of a Medvedev or Alcaraz. Take a few more risks, and break sets open early. Not only could he break the scoreboard open, but he would give himself the opportunity to break his opponent down mentally. A more aggressive mind-set, has the potential to not only avoid the lottery of a tie-break, it can dramatically reduce his on-court time (Across Melbourne and Wimbledon, he played 6 five-set matches out of 7). You only have to look at his round 1 match at the US Open, against Marc-Andea Huesler, ranked 97 in the world. It’s a match someone with the talent of Hurkacz, should win comfortably. However, again, he dragged it out to 5 sets, and over 3 hours on court.


The obvious knock-on effect to becoming more aggressive is, he would be fresher for the following rounds, he’d win more matches, go deeper into tournaments, and start challenging for more silverware. And maybe, just maybe, he’d attract a few more questions in his press conferences….

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