The Dog Unleashed

As a child, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Andrei Medvedev were his play mates. So for Alexandr Dolgopolov Jr., it was always going to be a natural progression to the ATP World Tour.

There is something about Alexandr Dolgopolov Jr. Maybe it is the way his blond pony tail flops as he bounces around the court like the Energizer Bunny. Or could it be his balls? He can hit them early or late, big and hard, fast with spin or off-pace with slice. Dolgopolov plays with a sly, cheeky smile that seems to say ‘catch me if you can’. And the way he jerks his opponents about the court is almost like he is giving them the middle finger.

„Sascha was always travelling with his father and Andrei. So, he was used to being around the top players all the time.“

Without a doubt, Dolgopolov’s style is not for the tennis purist. This 22 year old from the Ukraine is definitely new school. His look and game could have very well been created by an Xbox engineer; serve powered by a hard drive add-on and groundstrokes fired by two analog triggers. All said, he is fast-paced and fun to watch. Plus, the players have given him a great nickname, the ‚Dog‘. Whether he is called that because his family name is hard to pronounce, or because he plays like a dog, nobody knows for sure. One thing that is certain, this kid has star power.

Dolgopolov in Melbourne, 2010Some players are easy to define; baseliners, all-court, serve and volley. Not the ‚Dog‘. His tennis would fall under a different category, something like Slash and Burn. Or on an off day, Crash and Burn. If Dolgopolov’s tennis could talk, it might say to an opposing player, “what have you done lately?” And there is that little matter of his shot selection. At first glance it seems insane.

“Normally it depends how comfortable I am feeling in the match,” explains Dolgopolov. “I try to play unpredictable, and make my opponents uncomfortable.”

Even Andy Roddick commented on it after their match in Brisbane.

„I knew that he was aggressive to the point of psychosis,“ Roddick said to much laughter in a post match press conference.

Dolgopolov rarely gets excited about his great shots. He does not beat his chest, pump his fist, or scream out loud. At best you might catch him toss a wink up at his coach. Or acknowledge the applause of the crowd with a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin. The „Dog“ is cool. The James Bond type of cool.

We should have seen him coming. The signs were there all last year. Three set losses to Radek Stepanek, Richard Gasquet and Tomas Berdych. And a five-set thriller which he lost 10-8 to Tsonga at Wimbledon. Then there were wins over Mardy Fish, Fernando Gonzalez, Mikhail Youzhny and Nicolas Almagro. But it was a straight sets loss to Rafael Nadal in Madrid that made the boys in the locker room sit-up straight and pay attention. Dolgopolov did not just play Nadal, but he appeared to tease him. Playing up on the baseline, he went toe-to-toe with Rafa whacking the ‚Raging Bull‘ with inside-out forehands and taunting him with countless drop shots and lobs. For a couple of hours, it looked like Rafa was being controlled by a joystick and not by a 21 year old who’s highest ranking to date was World No. 62.

Dog, MedvedevYou could say that Alexandr Jr. was born to play tennis. His father, Oleksandr Dolgopolov Sr. was an excellent player himself on the Soviet national team and then went on to coach Andrei Medvedev to stardom. His mother, Elena, was a medal winning gymnast. Alexandr Jr., called Sascha by his family and close friends, spent more time on the court than in the cradle. At the age of three, the player’s lounge on the ATP World Tour was his living room.

“I spent almost one year training under his (Alexandr’s) father,” says Max Mirnyi. “His father was a very strict coach, extremely disciplined. And he made sure to teach all the strokes and shots of tennis. Sascha was always on the courts dragging the racquet behind him running after balls. He began to develop at a very young age.”

„If Dolgopolov’s father is a clean cut … then coach Jack Reader is a love-life bohemian.“

“Sascha was always travelling with his father and Andrei (Medvedev),” says Orest Tereshchuk, Ukraine’s Davis Cup captain. “So, he was used to being around the top players all the time. And I don’t think he is or has ever been shy of them. He is very comfortable at the top of the game.”

If father wanted son to follow the rules and regulations of a strict training regime, he was in for a spot of trouble. Not only did Alexandr Jr. not want to think inside of the box, but he wanted to be nowhere near it.

“My father is the type of coach that knows very much about tennis,” says Dolgopolov. “He can see how every player should play to get to his maximum potential. He likes results, not effort or anything else. And he does everything he can so results are positive. And he is very disciplined.”

‚The Dog‘ did not want any part of that leash, so he broke free and went it alone. And then along came Jack.

Dog, ReaderIf Dolgopolov’s father is a clean cut, shirt tucked in, strict disciplinarian carrying a stopwatch and a jump rope, then coach Jack Reader is a love-life bohemian with waves of unruly brown hair travelling with a carton of cigarettes and a case of beer. Upon meeting Jack you could almost hear Olexsandr Sr. shout, “Oh my God!”

Talk about chalk and cheese.

It seems everybody loves Reader. Check out his Facebook page after Dolgopolov’s great run at the Australian Open and there are well wishes and congratulations in Italian, German, Russian, English and Australian. On the ATP World Tour, Reader can be found after work at the pub nearest the official hotel where you can bet that he is already on a friendly first name basis with everyone from the janitor to the bar maid to the bum on the street.

„Never a dull moment with those two.“

So just how did Jack hook up with the ‚Dog‘? In a strange twist of irony, it began before Dolgopolov was even borne. Twenty-five years ago, Reader left Australia and moved to Europe where he played the pro circuit and club tennis in Germany and Italy. Those that knew Jack back then said he played his tennis matches with one hand on his racquet and the other hand on the ladies. But Reader’s time in Italy gave him more than just the dolce vita, he also formed a relationship with Corrado Tschabuschnig, who would go on to form Top2 Management Company and would many years later become Dolgopolov’s agent.

“In 2005, Jack tells me about this kid with amazing talent,” says Tschabuschnig. “It was a junior named Dolgopolov. It was not long until we signed him. Then in 2009, Dolgopolov split with his father and needed someone. Immediately, I thought of Jack.”

Dog tennisIf you thought that Reader is all fun and games, you would be mistaken, super social and self-deprecating yes, careless no. Like a horse whisperer who is trying to soothe a wild mustang, Reader found that in order to get his young charge on track he needed to listen first.

“Jack is very smart as a coach,” claims Dolgopolov. “He is someone who respects your point of view, even though he has his own. He is very communicative, but when we talk tennis he prefers to talk less and listen more. But when he says something it is the right stuff.”

While many coaches attempt to stamp their influence on players right away, Reader took his time and used a ‘players don’t care what you know, unless that they know that you care’ approach. Instantly the two men clicked. The ATP World Tour was about to become “Jack and Sascha’s Excellent Adventure”.

At l’Aéroport Nice Côte d’Azur, France, Jack and Sascha are at the check-in counter waiting for their boarding passes for the flight to Paris. The airline agent stares at Jack and then at Dolgopolov, and back again. Then after consulting with a colleague, he asks them if they have proof that they are a couple. Jack flashes a big sheepish smile, Dolgopolov cringes. The story goes that in an effort to save money on airfare, Reader found a special two-for-one promotional fare on the internet. Just one catch, it was for gay couples only.

“Never a dull moment with those two,” laughs Mirnyi, who witnessed the entire scene.

Jack and Dolgopolov have become much more than just coach and player. They even continue to share a room on the tour.

„He can do practically everything with the ball. His game is very rich. He has many ways to win the point and he is not afraid to go for it.“

“There are often a few minutes here and there when we can talk about his matches, or such,” says Reader. “We don’t have big sit down long talks, but rather we communicate bit-by-bit throughout the day. I like being with Sascha. He is a good kid. A real good kid.”

It is the middle of nowhere between Kiev and Moscow and Jack and Alexandr are lost. Instead of flying to Moscow they decided to drive. It should’ve only taken somewhere between twelve to fifteen hours to get there.

“We thought it would be a good chance to slow down a bit,” says Reader. “Talk about things; you know, things about life and not just tennis. And see the country side.”

Well, they certainly got what they wished for. While Dolgopolov has tricked out his Subaru SUV with the latest toys, with Reader sharing the driving a GPS might have been a good idea. Eventually, they made it in time for the President’s Cup.

Dog TrainingAs last year was ending and this year about to begin, Reader invited Dolgopolov to where else? The beach. In order to get acclimatized to the intense heat of Australia, Dolgopolov cut his holidays in the Ukraine short and travelled to Brisbane. There was plenty of fishing, swimming and surfing, and oh yes, some tennis. As Jack continued to put Alexandr the person first, and the tennis player second, there was a method to his supposed madness. Get Dolgopolov healthy and happy.

“He battled injuries for much of the last two years,” says Reader. “Not big ones, mind you, but little niggles that were constantly interrupting him. And when Sascha is happy and excited to go out and play, then he can do some amazing things on the court.”

„I am so proud of my son. I don’t have enough words to express the joy of how I feel.“

Robin Soderling would soon find out in the round of sixteen at the Australian Open. In a match that looked more like a drive-by shooting than a game played by gentlemen, Dolgopolov frustrated the World No. 4 with a barrage of quick strike serves and ballistic forehands. But it was that other stroke that irritated Soderling the most. Technically it is called a slice backhand, but it looks more like something a Sensei would teach in a martial arts class. Aesthetically pleasing no, incredibly effective, yes.

“He can do practically everything with the ball,” says Claudio Pistolesi, Soderling’s coach. “His game is very rich. He has many ways to win the point and he is not afraid to go for it. He has amazing acceleration. He plays very fast and it can be uncomfortable to play against him. Jack (Reader) brought so much to his game, taught him how to mix it up more. But also Jack provided stability. That is easy to say, but tough to do. He (Reader) showed a lot of patience with him.”

“I am not surprised by his performance at the Australian Open,” claims Tereshchuk. “Having seen him play so much over the years, I know what he is capable of doing on a tennis court. He is a very special player.”

Dog ParisIt has been nearly 20 years since Olexsandr Sr. looked on proudly as his little Sascha played with the world’s best players while entertaining everyone who passed by. Now it is happening all over again.

“I am so proud of my son,” says Olexsandr Sr. overcome with emotion over the telephone from Kiev. “I don’t have enough words to express the joy of how I feel.”

Of all the things that Dolgopolov’s father gave his son over the years, maybe it was the freedom to let Alexandr Jr. go out on his own that was the greatest gift of all. For he can rest assured that Reader will watch his son’s back, and that all those lessons that he tried to instill in his son were not in vain nor forgotten.