While the world looks at Australia in disbelief at the Novak Djokovic centred circus playing out before the Federal Court, Australia’s summer of tennis is already serving up some fantastic stories.
In Adelaide, the all-conquering Ash Barty has resumed regular programming as an apparent cheat code; serving and slicing her way through those that dare stand before her. Similarly, Thanasi Kokkinakis is once again reminding the world of his scary-good talent when his body allows him to showcase his best.
Over in Sydney, Alex de Minaur seems to have shaken off his post-COVID-19 induced slump that stymied his 2021 campaign and notched fierce wins over Matteo Berrettini and Ugo Humbert while donning his beloved green and gold.
Yet, notwithstanding the above (amid a long list of honourable mentions), perhaps one of the more remarkable stories of the summer is the continually improbable rise of French-American Maxime Cressy.
Cressy, 24, has begun his 2022 campaign in scintillating fashion. The 6 foot 6 serve and volleying giant – who provides flashbacks to an era nearly extinct in men’s tennis – progressed through qualifying in the ATP Melbourne Summer Set 250 before reaching the final and eventually going down to Spaniard Rafael Nadal 7-6, 6-3 on Sunday night.
Throughout the week Cressy scored wins over Reilly Opelka, Jaume Munar, and Grigor Dimitrov en route to his first career meeting against Nadal and first ATP level final.
Ranked 112 on the ATP Tour at the start of the week, Cressy will rise to 75 in the world.
Speaking after the match, Nadal said of Cressy “I think he has a good potential. He's going to be a very uncomfortable player for every opponent… he's coming from the university if I'm not wrong, so he's young on the tour, so he has room to improve. I mean, he went very fast up on the ranking.”
“Probably when somebody does his improvement [within a] very short period of time, it's because his level is much higher than what his ranking says today… if he's able to stay focused and do what he has to do, he's going to be much higher on the ranking at the end of the season without a doubt”.
Yet, unless you are an avid fan (or an American) you’d be forgiven for having not heard of Cressy before this week.
Born in France, Cressy had a comparatively slow start to his tennis career; which is not ordinarily how one finds themselves now entrenched in the top 100.
After initially enjoying the tutelage of the French Tennis Federation as a junior, Cressy left the program due to his reluctance to become a groundstroke player and ditch his preferred serve and volley tactics.
Then, after some success on the junior tours, Cressy flew to America and joined the UCLA Bruins college tennis team as an alternate path to life as a tennis player.
However, his trajectory stalled – or perhaps at least took some time to develop. In his freshman year, being the 2015/16 season, Cressy was unable to crack the Bruins singles line-up and was considered a doubles specialist.
Similarly, in Cressy’s sophomore year he played at number 6 for the Bruins, and in his junior year, number 5.
Remarkable, all things considered.
Equally, from 2016, Cressy would enter ITF level tournaments as an amateur and would regularly fail to progress beyond the early rounds succumbing to players the world either never got to know or since long forgotten
It wasn’t until his senior year that Cressy’s star began to shine, playing as the number 1 in the singles and doubles for the Bruins – even winning the National Championships with doubles partner Keegan Smith. Yet, Cressy still was not even in the top 10 collegiate players in the NCAA at the time.
Nonetheless, with Cressy growing into his game, the wheels began to turn; and quickly.
After the Bruins fell in the NCAA semifinals to Ohio State, Cressy entered a series of futures tournaments in North America during the second half of 2018. In that time, Cressy won eight doubles titles and, in his penultimate event of the year, his first professional singles title. His ATP ranking rose from unranked to No. 448 in singles and from No. 1136 to No. 260 in doubles by mid-December 2018.
Following a successful 6 months, Cressy then won his first challenger level event in Cleveland in February of 2019 rising further to just outside the world’s top 300.
And he hasn’t looked back.
In 2019, he made a further challenger final in Germany and won an ITF 25k in Tulsa. The following year the French-American made back-to-back challenger finals in Canada – winning one of two – and rose to 168 in singles before the commencement of the 2021 season.
Like his 2018 season, 2021 was a further break-out for Cressy. After winning through qualifying, Cressy made the second round of the Australian Open only to fall to German Alexander Zverev in three tight sets.
Similarly, after qualifying for the US Open, Cressy pulled off a stunning come from behind upset win over then 12th ranked Pablo Carreno Busta 5-7, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6(7) which included saving three consecutive match points from 3-6 down in the deciding set tiebreaker in the first round.
Riding his hot wave of form, Cressy made three finals at challenger level to round out his successful 2021 season.
To the naked eye, Cressy’s rise seems like yet another promising junior fulfilling their vast potential. Yet, this 24-year-old provides a much more complex picture when you stand back and view the artwork from afar.
When asked to reflect on the importance of his journey through college tennis following his first career ATP Final against Nadal, Cressy said “[t]he college experience has helped me so much to deal with a lot of stressful situations, and playing for a school, playing for my team at UCLA is definitely something very big, and it can get very stressful in handling these kinds of situations, especially playing in places like in Georgia, University of Georgia, where it was packed at night with a lot of drunk people. Playing these kinds of conditions helps so much.”
“I built some very strong bonds, and the coaching staff helped me a lot there. They helped me believe that I can get to the next level on the professional tour, especially being surrounded by players like Mackie McDonald and Billy Martin, who was a phenomenal player, as well.”
“It was phenomenal for me to experience UCLA, and it definitely helped me build a strong self-esteem for the tour.”
Watching him play, his confidence and determination appear tangible. However, these traits are not limited purely to his gladiatorial efforts on court.
“Max was probably one of the top five best students I’ve ever had at UCLA. If he wasn’t training, he was studying in the library. He would be doing his schoolwork”. Billy Martin, Cressy’s former UCLA coach, told the ATP website last year.
“When I was recruiting him, the French have a Baccalaureat, the tests they have to take to officially graduate high school. He didn’t have to take the hardest, most difficult level to be eligible to come to UCLA. But his brother had taken it, and he was determined to pass it as his brother did and get better scores. He is that much of a competitor in anything he does.”
In a long and seemingly unexpected journey, Maxime Cressy stands as a triumph for the talented but incomplete junior. His current status as a top 100 player defies the limitations put on him at a younger age – be that as a doubles specialist unable to break into a collegiate singles line up or a junior removed from the French Tennis Federation.
With more success to come, watch for Cressy at the Australian Open and beyond. He is sure to continue his rise as perhaps the most improved player ever.
If former coach Billy Martin is anything to go by, he may be a force on the doubles court soon enough too.
“I still think if Max ever decided to play doubles on the pro tour, there’s no doubt in my mind he would be Top 10 in the world in doubles,” Martin said. “In my almost 40 years here at UCLA, I have not had a better doubles player than Max.”