After James Duckworth won his fourth ATP Challenger title of 2019 with a backhand passing winner, he fell flat on the ground, kicked his legs in jubilation and then proceeded to sob with his face covered by a towel.
The 27-year-old Australian has been animated for most part of the KPIT-MSLTA Challenger in Pune. He had put his finger on his lips to silence the crowd after beating Sasikumar Mukund in a three-set quarter-final; he had vociferously protested an error not called which led Ramkumar Ramanathan to replay a point in their semi-final. He was visibly nervous before his final against Jay Clarke.
There was a good reason for the outburst of emotion, there was a lot riding on his final tournament of the season. A shot at breaking back in to the top 100 after 30 months, a direct entry into the Australian Open and a chance to earn some money in order to get a coach. All this after five surgeries cost him almost two years away of his relatively short career, forcing him to begin a lonely, self-sponsored road back to top-flight tennis.
The emotion almost got the better of him after he had sealed an early break. He was a set and a break down in the decider against a much younger player. But with the single-minded determination that motivated him to return to the sport, he battled back to win the Pune Challenger.
“I was extremely nervous today… This match was for the top 100. I was there in 2015 and in then 2017. But after five surgeries in the space of just over 12 months and going through all the rehab and physio and time in the gym, hours on the court just trying to get back, to actually playing and then being inside the top 100… It means everything to me and I’m just so happy,” Duckworth said after lifting the title.
“There were times when I thought maybe I might not play again. There were where my foot just wasn’t getting better despite trying different things for a long period of time and it was really tough on me mentally. My family was a huge support and at first, I was just happy to be back playing, but now having my ranking where I am is just an incredible feeling,” the former world No 82 added.
The climb has been anything but easy. At 27, he is not considered to be a prospect worth investing in anymore, despite a good junior career and breaking into the top 100 at 23. He has been without a sponsor – even for his racquet – and travelling without a coach. The wear and tear on his body notwithstanding, he has played more matches this year than ever before, with Pune being his eighth straight tournament. On the bright side, he has a solid, all-round game that has seen him reach six Challenger finals this year, winning four – Bangkok in February, Baotou in August, Playford and now Pune in November.
But the grind has brought him close to his goal – a ranking that guarantees him a Grand Slam entry and thereby enough prize money to actually make a living playing this sport.
“Once you’re in the top hundred is not too bad because you get direct entry into the Grand Slams. But the transition from 200 to 100 is tough, you have to make a lot of points, usually around 550 to 600. And it’s not easy winning these Challenger events, one is worth 80 points, which is nice, but you have to do that quite a few times and they’re good players the draw, former top 100 players which makes it very tough,” he explained.
Despite having made this transition early, a spate of injuries completely derailed his career and he had to start from scratch again. The trouble started at the Australian Open in 2017 and as he listed his various injuries, it sounded like a casualty list of a field hospital.
“I had my first operation when I had a stress fracture on the main bone in my foot, I’ve got two pins currently in my foot. Then a couple months later I had a shoulder surgery to get a bone out. In August that year, my foot wasn’t getting better and then I had what’s called a Morton’s neuroma, which is an inflamed nerve in my foot and had to cut out part of my nerve in my foot. At the start of 2018, I had some bones taken out of my elbow. And then, just a week later, I had some more bones taken out of my foot. So yeah, it was an 18 month period where I was really struggling,” he recounted.
The impact of this struggle was not just on his health, but his finances as well. But the Australian, who trains at the national academy Brisbane, is optimistic that the two Challenger titles in November will change this heading into 2020.
“I’m looking for a coach, I have been since US Open and I’ve been speaking to a few people. In the next two to three weeks I’m hopeful of having someone for the offseason.
But the first order of business is to write to his former racquet sponsors to inform them he is back in the top 100, as per their discussion. The second will be to go home and prepare for the Australian summer and not worry about whether he will get a wildcard for the first Grand Slam of the year.