Marinko Matosevic had Wimbledon’s grass in mind when he planned his unique victory roll to celebrate the end of his long and enervating grand slam drought. Instead, lucky 13 came last month, in Paris. “I was like, ‘Oh God, gotta do it’,’’ said Matosevic. “There was clay in my hair, in my ears, but I don’t regret it.’’
Three years ago, Sam Groth did not have a tennis future in mind at all when he spent a cold Melbourne winter as a footballer, playing in the ruck for the Vermont Eagles reserves. He was recovering from shoulder surgery, and dealing with the sudden end to his marriage to Jarmila Gajdosova. He has now earned a third grand slam moment by qualifying for a Wimbledon debut.
Teenager Nick Kyrgios may be the exciting young face of the nation’s next tennis generation, and Bernard Tomic the highest-profile of the four Australian men playing on the opening day, but Matosevic, 28, and Groth, 26, are two journeymen-made-good, and determined to get better still.
Both have seeded opponents - 59th-ranked Matosevic faces No.18 Fernando Verdasco, and 125th-ranked Groth meets injury-suspect No. 21 Alex Dolgopolov. Both will be playing old-style Australian grass-court tennis: Matosevic at the urging of coach Mark Woodforde; big-serving Groth because he knows no other way.
Coached in his youth by Margaret Court’s nephew, Phil Shanahan, Groth grew up on grass courts by the Murray River in Corowa and then Albury. This is the grand slam the likeable Victorian has always wanted to contest and, now that he has got there, making up the numbers will not suffice.
“I'm here to do some damage in the main draw now … but I'm also not satisfied with just stopping there,’’ said Groth, a French Open doubles semi-finalist whose singles ranking is at a career high.
“I’ve got a few other goals this week and for me if I can win one or two other matches I'm very, very close to cracking the top 100 as well, so hopefully it's going to be a couple of weeks for me where I make a few milestones in my career.’’
And, yet, it was less than three years ago when Fairfax Media sat with Groth in the Vermont club rooms after Thursday night training, his life and career in an odd kind of limbo. He had not retired, but he had “stopped” playing tennis. Didn’t want to. Couldn’t bear it, actually.
“I just wasn’t in a place personally where I wanted to be near it,’’ he recalls. “I had a bunch of stuff happen … I wanted to get as far away as I could. I was still coaching, I still had some kind of attachment to tennis. The thing that brought me back was I missed the one-on-one competitive side … obviously with footy you're running around with a bunch of mates in a team but I definitely missed that one-on-one. I’m loving every minute of being back, don’t you worry about that.’’
With him has come a more professional approach, and greater application, as he jokes that days off spent “sitting at home in front of the TV eating junk food” are over. “It was: 'if I’m going to come back I’m going to do things properly. I’m not going to come back and half-arse it again’.
"And I feel like I’m doing things really well. I feel like people would have written me off and said that I'm never a chance to get inside the top 100 and now I’m probably one or two wins away from being there."
“It's a bit surreal really,’’ he admitted. “Who would have thought I’d be playing footy, then two-and-a-half years later playing main draw at a grand slam. and off my own back?’’
Matosevic got there via the direct acceptance route, and after some notable upsets at the Queen’s Club event that followed his great breakthrough - well, one round, but everything is relative - at Roland Garros, and then that famous roll in the dirt.
His maiden match win at a major has relieved him of a gorilla-like weight, and allowed Matosevic to think of something other than what had preoccupied and tormented him for more than three years.
The mere mention of a grand slam city, or one of his many - mostly seeded - conquerors, was enough to trigger the torment. “It was like almost a daily occurrence where something would remind me of it, and it was just an uneasy feeling,’’ he said.
“I felt I was better than that, obviously, and I am better than that, so I just feel free now, to play.’’
He likes grass and believes it suits his game, recalling successes in some long-ago Futures events on “potato fields” masquerading as lawn by playing the “old-school Australian aggressive tennis’’ he has revisited at Woodforde’s behest.
“He’s been talking about how the Australian tennis identity has been lost in the last decade,’’ said Matosevic, who has split his career meetings with 18th-seeded Verdasco, winning last year in Monte Carlo on the experienced Spaniard’s preferred clay.
“He’s definitely pushing me to come forward and finish points and play aggressive and play tennis on my terms, instead of just rallying like so many guys seem to be doing.’’
The story Late-blooming Australians Matosevic and Groth ready to roll first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.