Denis Kudla’s Steady Rise

Slow and steady wins the race.

Shortly after winning the prestigious junior Boys 16’s Orange Bowl title in 2009, 16-year-old Denis Kudla decided he was ready for the pro game. In the three years that followed, Kudla, who is currently at a career high world No. 203, has slowly but steadily risen in the rankings. The now 19-year-old has struggled to make an impact on the ATP Tour but is improving with each year and appears ready for a breakout season.

My introduction to Kudla was at the 2009 Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C. The then 17-year-old Kudla had just taken a set off French journeyman Sebastien De Chaunac in the first round of qualifiers on center court and fans began to gather to observe this latest American hopeful.

As the much older and more experienced De Chaunac argued after close calls and expressed frustration throughout the match, Kudla remained poised and displayed maturity beyond what his age, Lleyton Hewitt style backwards-hat and long hair image would signify. Despite eventually losing 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, the crowd left with a sense that the future was bright for the kid.

Denis Kudla serving to Sebastien De Chaunac at the 2009 Legg Mason Tennis Classic.

Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Kudla moved to Virginia with his family at a young age and began playing tennis at seven-years-old. He would become a member of the renowned Junior Tennis Champions Center located at the USTA Regional certified training facility at College Park, MD. Kudla led a contingent of highly talented young players there and experienced a stellar junior career that culiminated in a 2010 U.S. Open Boys runner-up trophy, losing to fellow American up-and-comer Jack Sock – the first all-American boys’ final at Flushing Meadows since Andy Roddick defeated Robby Ginepri in 2000.

While young American players such as 19-year-olds Ryan Harrison and Sock grab headlines and are touted as the nation’s future, Kudla has quietly amassed a respectable resume, with consecutive wins over hard-serving Ivo Karlovic and the precocious Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov at the 2011 Campbell’s Hall of Fame Championships. Kudla mainly plays on the Challenger Tour, fighting for those precious ATP points, and has only played in one Grand Slam main draw match – losing to veteran Tommy Haas in the first round of this year’s Australian Open, but if the early months of 2012 are any indication, this can be his year in the spotlight.

This week Kudla qualified for the SAP Open in San Jose, CA and defeated Sock to set up a second round marquee matchup against Andy Roddick on Wednesday night.

“I learned that I can do anything if I believe, and if I put my mind to it a lot can be done with hard work and strong mentality towards a goal,” Kudla told Tennis Grandstand. “This is where I thought I would be [in my career] and my goals are to break top 100 and hopefully top 50.”

The reserved, yet highly driven Kudla is out to make a name for himself and has a chance to make it happen against the 17th-ranked Roddick. As Kudla’s confidence continues to rise, so will his rankings, just as it has ever since he turned pro.

This race is just getting started.