‘The most messed-up sport ever’: Jordan Thompson cracks a tennis ton

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Key points

  • Australian Jordan Thompson has broken back into the world’s top 50 ahead of the US Open, which starts this week.
  • He is one of eight Aussies in the top 100 playing at Flushing Meadow, half of them inside the top 50, while Rinky Hijikata (ranked 111) has also made the singles draw.
  • After years of tough slog on the tour, Thompson recently clocked his 100th singles win, and has put up encouraging performances against Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz.

Everything is relative on the mean streets of the professional tennis tour.

Jordan Thompson – one of four Australian men inside the top 50 in last week’s ATP rankings – celebrated his 100th career tour-level victory this month in Washington, over wily French veteran Adrian Mannarino.

Australian Jordan Thompson on the stretch against Carlos Alcaraz at the Western and Southern Open in Ohio earlier this month.Credit: Getty

Novak Djokovic, for (an unfair) comparison’s sake, claimed win No.1069 when he beat Carlos Alcaraz in an almost-four-hour final to claim this month’s Cincinnati Masters 1000 title.

But not even the great Roger Federer’s resume measures up with Djokovic.

“I reckon maybe only 30 of the guys in the top 100 right now would have won over 100 matches, so that was a pretty good milestone,” Thompson told this masthead from his Florida base, ahead of this week’s US Open.

“It’s easy to take it for granted. I think I’m actually pretty good at being in the moment, but it’s pretty special.”

Thompson, 29, is a success story, although possibly underappreciated in Australia’s crowded sporting landscape. Even as a top-20 junior more than a decade ago, he doubted his ability to make it on the ultra-competitive men’s tour because he was barely 170 centimetres tall and super skinny.

He has since grown to 183cm and a more-robust 82 kilograms, and those doubts have long since evaporated – with good reason.

Thompson broke into the men’s top 100 in early 2016, and has spent most of the seven years since with a double-digit ranking, scaling as high as No.43 in mid-2019. That number is tennis’ limbo bar; keep yourself below it, and you’re almost guaranteed entry into the four grand slams.

To do so, Thompson first had to negotiate the barbarity of the sport’s lower tiers, including dodgy accommodation – at one stop in Romania, he stayed somewhere without a shower head – no spectators and token prizemoney.

Jordan Thompson faced tennis legend Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon.Credit: Getty Images

Being an Australian player also means spending roughly 10 months of the year overseas, which is why he bought a home in Florida as soon as success afforded him the privilege.

“It [life on the tennis fringe] sucks. When you first leave; that’s probably the hardest thing – but then, I guess, you get used to it,” Thompson said. “I leave pretty much from the Australian Open until the end of October. I don’t think people get [what you have to do]. They think it’s glamorous, but it’s certainly not glamorous, especially when you get flight delays, lose your bags, and you’re staying in a s—hole.”

As much as anything else, Thompson needed to come to terms with the realities of tour life. Translation: be prepared to lose more than you win, even as one of the best 50-odd players on the planet.

The Sydneysider’s career ATP Tour record, which excludes results on the lesser Challenger and Futures circuits, entering the boisterous New York slam is 102 wins versus 129 defeats, including a 16:17 record this season.

Who the Australian men play in round one of the US Open this week

  • Jordan Thompson (ranked 50) v Boticvan De Zandschulp (55), of the Netherlands.
  • Jason Kubler (86) v Matteo Arnaldi (62), of Italy.
  • Thanasi Kokkinakis (77) v Yu Hsiou Hsu (237), of Chinese Taipei (Taiwan).
  • Aleksandar Vukic (51) v  Alexander Zverev (12), of Germany.
  • Max Purcell (47) v Christopher O’Connell (68).
  • Alex de Minaur (13) v Timofey Skatov (128), of Kazakhstan.
  • Rinky Hijikata (111) v Pavel Kotov (97), born in Russia.
  • Alexei Popyrin (40) v Dominic Stricker (127), of Switzerland.

“It’s brutal,” he said. “I read a stat before, where only the top 30 or 40 guys have winning percentages, like points-wise, in the year, so even when you’re winning matches, you’re losing more points [within those matches]. It’s the most messed-up sport ever.”

Thompson is part of an Australian uprising this year. Even without the injured Nick Kyrgios, he will be one of eight Australians starting the US Open in the top 100. Alex de Minaur, Alexei Popyrin, Max Purcell, Aleks Vukic, Chris O’Connell, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Jason Kubler are the others.

Rinky Hijikata and James Duckworth are barely outside, while Kyrgios has a protected ranking of No.21.

Thompson was outside the top 50 for about 30 months before returning there last week as reward for qualifying then making the round of 32 at Cincinnati, where he pinched a set off world No.1 Alcaraz.

Thompson also won a set off top-20 star Cameron Norrie in June, but will forever remember this year for his Wimbledon centre court stoush with Djokovic. Last year, he locked horns with the “King of Clay”, Rafael Nadal, at the French Open.

Thompson knew what he was getting into against Djokovic.

“It could be a dream, or could be a nightmare. I’ve seen a few guys have nightmares out there against him,” he said.

He and his coach, the zany but highly regarded Marinko Matosevic, got straight to the point while concocting their strategy.

Jordan Thompson serves to Carlos Alcaraz in Ohio.Credit: Getty

“We both knew that if I played my normal game; I was going to get killed,” Thompson said. “We went through all the stats, and it was pretty clear that I had to try and change drastically to try and win. I mean, my best chance that day was in tiebreakers. I wasn’t that far away from getting two of them.”

Thompson walked off the court in defeat, but in many ways, it was one of his finest hours. Seven-time Wimbledon champion Djokovic had to fight hard to eventually triumph, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5, with Thompson transforming into a serve-volleyer for the occasion.

“Losing three, six and five to the greatest ever – I took a lot of confidence from that, especially playing a style that I wouldn’t generally go about my tennis [with],” he said.

Djokovic even admitted afterwards he struggled at times to read Thompson’s searing serve. It was a nod to the extensive work the Australian did as a child with his dad, former professional tennis player Steve, who runs the Mills Park Tennis Centre in Asquith, north-west of Sydney.

“It’s a unique club, [located] at the end of a cul-de-sac, and there’s a long driveway,” Thompson said.

“It goes straight through the centre of the cul-de-sac, then there’s just bush. You go to the right, and there are 10 tennis courts. If you hit a ball over the fence; it’s with either a wallaby, koala or snake.”

Thompson, at his dad’s instruction, developed a “fast arm”, which started with trying to hit accurate serves as hard as possible with spin, sometimes using rope. Those early lessons helped pay plenty of bills for him in the years that followed.

Matosevic and Thompson senior were both in Florida for Thompson’s final preparations before heading to Flushing Meadows for the US Open, where he reached the final 16 in a career-best grand slam result in 2020.

His form in the second half of this year, in particular, has buoyed expectations he can do some damage.

“I’ve played some good matches at the US Open, and a lot of five-setters, so I’ve just got to put it all together in a slam,” Thompson said.

“Obviously, I had a tough draw at Wimbledon [Djokovic], and I’m hoping for a better one at the US Open. I’m top 50 at the moment, but I’m trying to get to that top 32, so I can get seeded at the slams. That’s the next goal.”

Watch all the action from US Open with every match streaming live & ad-free and centre court matches in 4K UHD on the home of grand slam tennis, Stan Sport.

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