For Jurgen Melzer, this week will bring inner peace. As he arrives for the Erste Bank Open 500, at the back of a concert hall with its grey-slab walls, the Austrian will walk down the steps and into the players’ lounge, the hub of the action and onto a lift, where, via a maze of corridors, you hit practice courts, locker rooms, a gym and the media centre. Running in a horse-shoe shape around the arena is a fan area and further practice courts, where spectators can catch a glimpse of ATP World Tour stars through a frosted bubble. It is a familiar scene.
Hall D of the Wiener Stadthalle is largely unchanged. The trip will evoke special memories for Melzer, who first came here as a teenaged tennis wannabe, a hopeful fan with dreams of competing on Center Court, which seats more than 16,000. Today, as he strides out to play Canada’s Milos Raonic, the 37-year-old will step into singles retirement at the very tournament where he hoped to end his career. Memories will flood back of his first ATP World Tour win in 1999 (d. Burgsmuller), of his back-to-back triumphs in 2009 and 2010, and also some tough losses in 16 visits.
“I’ve always felt comfortable in Vienna,” Melzer told ATPWorldTour.com. “I won it twice in 2009 (d. Cilic) and 2010. The 2010 tournament was where I dealt with the most pressure. I had reached the Roland Garros semi-finals; I was close to the Top 10 and beat Rafa [Nadal] in Shanghai two weeks earlier. I came into the tournament with a target, with people thinking I should win. In the end I did [beating fellow Austrian Andreas Haider-Maurer 6-7(10), 7-6(4), 6-4]. It has always been my dream and wish to play my last singles match in Vienna.”
Watch Uncovered Flashback: Melzer Reflects On 2010 Season
Ever since he won junior Wimbledon in 1999, with victory over Kristian Pless, Melzer was hailed as the successor to former World No. 1 Thomas Muster. A target was on his chest and the pressure mounted. For years, Melzer believed he was the dedicated competitor that left no stone unturned. Yet he took a long time to realise it’s one thing to sign on a dotted line, turn professional and accept prize money; it’s another to be truly professional. It wasn’t until that the Austrian, with a fluent backhand and superb first volley, tuned 26 that he realised he needed to adjust his outlook.
Melzer wishes he “could take back those years”, but it’s his memories of ranking in the Top 10 as a singles and doubles competitor, winning three Grand Slam championship titles — 2010 Wimbledon and 2011 US Open (men’s doubles), and 2011 Wimbledon (mixed doubles) — in addition to advancing to the 2010 Roland Garros semi-finals that he’ll forever treasure.
Melzer told ATPWorldTour.com, “I’m really proud of it, because I was ranked in the Top 10 of both singles and doubles at the same time – being No. 8 [in singles in 2011] and No. 6 [in doubles in 2010]. It hadn’t been done for a while. I always enjoyed playing with somebody, celebrating as a team, doing it with a close friend. That’s why I played so much. There are times when I played too much doubles, to the detriment of my singles, but I got to No. 6 and won two Grand Slam men’s doubles titles. So I wouldn’t change it.”
In signing with a smaller management agency, Melzer received few wild cards after his junior Wimbledon triumph, so he earned his stripes the hard way and moved up the professional ladder to break into the Top 100 on 8 July 2002. “I really had to work for it,” said Melzer. “I can be proud of it. I didn’t get everything on a silver plate. You’d go week by week, working away like a squirrel trying to gain points. Everything is short-term.”
By the time he reached his first ATP World Tour final on the grass of Newport in the summer of 2003, the weight of expectation proved too great and he went down 6-1 in the third set to Robby Ginepri. For the next three years, the memory festered. “The pressure got to me and I didn’t deal well with it. It really affected me as I played two other finals after that [2005 St. Polten and 2006 Houston] and didn’t win.”
Melzer got the monkey off his back In September 2016 at Bucharest. It was a massive relief. “Going into the Bucharest final, I went alone,” said Melzer. “My coach back then, Karl-Heinz Wetter, was at home. I was only there with Julian Knowle and we lost in the semi-finals of the doubles. My coach tried to fly in for the final and something happened with his flight, so he had to stay at home. It was kind of a weird feeling, but I knew I had to rely on myself.” The jigsaw puzzle was complete once he beat Filippo Volandri 6-1, 7-5 in the final.
By 2010, Melzer’s career came to fruition and he played a total of 130 singles and doubles matches. In winning a personal best 51 singles matches, the Austrian finished in the year-end Top 20 for the first time and broke his streak of never having advanced beyond the third round at a Grand Slam championship. “After a while of losing prior to the third round, it got in my head,” explained Melzer. “I lost two third-round matches after being two sets up – once against Guillermo Coria at Wimbledon and once against Andy Murray at the US Open. There were other matches when I was the favourite going into the match, but I didn’t perform on the day. It took me a while to realise what it takes.
“At Roland Garros [in 2010], I passed the third round and reached the semi-finals. So it was really sweet. The tournament was my biggest success as a singles player, aside from winning two Vienna singles titles. The quarter-final against Novak [Djokovic] was the most memorable match of my career. Coming back from two sets down against Novak at a Grand Slam, hadn’t been done before or since my win. So every time Novak is two sets up and somebody wins the third set, that stat and my name will be thrown up in the future.
“It was a great tournament for me. I was playing great tennis coming in and I probably played my best match in the third round, beating David Ferrer and hitting him off the court. The semi-finals against Rafa, the greatest clay-courter of all time, was an experience I will never forget. It was a close third set, had set points, having been outplayed for the first two sets.”
Only two weeks ago, Melzer came through the latest start of his career at the Santo Domingo Open, an ATP Challenger Tour event. Stepping out onto court at 1 a.m. local time, after persistent, torrential rain from the outer bands of Hurricane Michael led to scheduling chaos, he beat Hugo Dellien in 90 minutes in the first round. It was another memorable day in a 20-season pro career, which includes 349 tour-level match wins and five ATP World Tour singles crowns from 13 finals. As the curtain falls on his singles career, the left-hander will now focus on the team game with renewed vigour.
Having enjoyed success with Julian Knowle and lifted major doubles titles at 2010 Wimbledon (d. Lindstedt/Tecau) and 2011 US Open (d. Fyrstenberg/Matkowski), in addition to the 2010 Rolex Shanghai Masters with Philipp Petzschner, Melzer is hoping to re-establish himself as one of the sport’s leading exponents and improve upon his 13-17 record in finals. “It worked well from the beginning,” said Melzer, of his partnership with Petzschner. “But the injuries we both had, independently, kept our team from becoming a greater partnership. I really felt that if we could play full seasons together we could have made [the Nitto ATP Finals in] London more times than twice [in 2010 and 2011].”
He will also continue to mentor his brother, Gerald Melzer, who continues to ply his trade after two injury ravaged seasons. “It’s something very special and very few people can live it,” said Melzer. “We won our first Challenger title together in 2008, when he was 18 years old. I tried to be the best influence on him possible. My heart is different when he plays. I want him to win so badly, play well and even put his success over my own.”
And it is working with players that Jurgen Melzer will look to expand upon when the time comes to quit for good. “I would like to stay in tennis and share my experience with young players or coach. It would be a waste to not use the experience I’ve accrued.”
Editor’s Note: Melzer upset Raonic Monday to clinch his 350th tour-level match win.