KEN SKUPSKI is one of Britain’s best tennis players, a doubles specialist with 20 titles to his name whose breakthrough season was 2009, when he won twice at ATP events. Born in north-west England, he studied at Louisiana State University. His abiding passion away from the court is supporting Liverpool. Here in his debut column for sportingintelligence, Ken introduces himself and explains why he always felt destined to make it as a player
17 May 2010
From a very early age I wanted to be the best doubles players in the world. I was in love with tennis. I played more than anyone. Six or seven hours on court every summer’s day was the norm. I wouldn’t take no for an answer until someone gave me the chance to show off the skills I was taught the day before. I was addicted and everyone knew it.
I was fortunate to have a club – Palmerston tennis club – right behind my house; it was a kid’s dream, and my place of work.
My dad was keen for me to be the best. My parents took me all over the country to play matches against the best. I competed in singles against the best, but deep down I had a feeling I wasn’t going to cut it.
On the other hand, I felt my doubles skills were progressing. I began playing club doubles at age eight. I started in the lowest division but it didn’t take long for people to recognise my doubles ability.
The Liverpool tennis leagues were booming at the time and this was where I felt at home. This was where I was learning my trade. I didn’t turn up each Tuesday night for a social game of tennis. It was war and I wasn’t willing to come off court until I had taken down two older, wiser pairs.
Most opponents expected me to hit a few nice shots but end up making too many mistakes. No me. I was embracing the situation. It was great to see their faces when a kid over half their age doing things they could never imagine doing themselves.
I was honest with myself that singles was never my forte. I wasn’t quick enough. I didn’t have a singles brain: singles and doubles require very different skills. Everyone imagines two brilliant singles guys will make a good doubles pair. That’s definitely not the case.
I’ve had many good singles players at my side but not all have impressed me. Doubles is about teamwork, craft, quick hands, agility and massive energy during and after points. You don’t need impeccable technique or a 145mph serve. Todd Woodbridge and Johnny Mac never had massive serves but their ability coming forward made them champions on all surfaces.
I ended up with no national singles titles in my junior career but three national doubles titles. This was a sign of things to come. I decided that I wasn’t good enough or financially stable enough to begin life on the tour. I chose instead to attend university in America – Louisiana State was my next destination. It was my home for five years. It was a unique and very enjoyable time in my life. College tennis was right up my street. Competing as a team was ideal. It involved singles and doubles matches but playing as a team suited me just fine.
My father, Ken Snr, was a semi-professional footballer before he became a police officer. He put me through my paces as a young footballer but it didn’t last too long, as it was apparent from very early on that I didn’t just have one left foot, I had two. My footballing dreams were quickly put to bed. Playing team sports appealed to me but once the footballing dream faded fast I just focused my attention on tennis.
I enjoyed success in the States and was proud of three particular achievements: being an NCAA national doubles finalist, being ranked No1 in the national doubles rankings, and graduating.
For those not familiar with the NCCA, it’s the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and NCCA sport – college sport – is a massive deal in America.
I went to college to win the NCAA championships and I did everything in my power to achieve this. I eventually came up short, just, but it was against John Isner (currently at a career-high ranking inside the world’s top 20 singles players) and his partner. He dominated college tennis during my time there, so I can’t complain. My younger brother Neal attends LSU now. He is trying his best to break all the records I set and he is doing a fine job of it.
From university I made my decision to turn professional. I had an idea that my singles would go okay but I still aimed at being the best on the doubles court. I played singles for a year and I surprised myself: an ATP ranking of 527. This was as far as I would go.
I didn’t feel like I was able to focus on anything specific while I was playing both disciplines. I made the decision that would change everything. I focused solely on doubles. I didn’t mind as long as I was successful.
Quitting singles was the end of years of hard work but it took all of three minutes to come to terms with the decision. My life became a lot more purposeful from that day on and it was to my advantage.
In the fall of 2008 I came across a revived Colin Fleming. He was a Scot who had quit professional tennis at an early age to concentrate on his education. After a few months in the real world he returned to the court and I had the chance to team up with him. I was ranked around No290 at the time and he was ranked outside the top 1000. This was a big risk but I felt it was a decision that could change my life.
Colin had been ranked as high as No180 with Jamie Murray before he took time out. I snapped him up and we clicked right away. This is crucial in a partnership. The first few tournaments usually give you a good indication if it has potential. We opened up with 16 straight victories – four tournaments in a row and that included a Challenger. We achieved instant success and this continued through 2009; people began to notice around the grass court season.
At the Aegon Championships we were given a wild card. Queen’s is one of the tournaments I used to watch as a kid. I liked imagining myself playing on Centre Court there; the grass is absolutely perfect, so perfect I’d happily get my putter out and practise my six-footers all day along the service line.
We knew what a good opportunity this was to show people what we were capable of. We dominated our first-round opponents and then it hit us. We were going to face my childhood heroes, the Bryan brothers: record-breaking, multi-Slam winning Titans of the doubles world.
This was nerve-wracking in itself but also the perfect moment to play the best match of your life. Colin and I took centre stage on that perfect lawn against the best doubles team, possibly of all time. Their intensity and energy was limitless. They’ve made a career out of their teamwork and high intensity. We expected a quick start from our opponents but you don’t realise how quick until you’re on the other side of the net.
My first service game took what seemed like two seconds, and within six minutes we trailed 3-0. We were being wiped. I sat down with Colin and we were silent, not knowing what to say or do. We needed to at least win a game and not make fools of ourselves. We hadn’t come this far to look like idiots, as other Brits has done on the same court in years past.
Incredibly, we went on to play faultless tennis. I consider the break of serve at 3-1 to get back into the match as one of the best returning games we have or ever will play, mainly because Colin smashed three return winners to knock Bob and Mike for six.
The momentum shifted and we were on a roll. We didn’t want to think. When you’re in the zone, thinking about what is happening can always harm you. Nerves then kick in and you’re back to playing average tennis. This didn’t happen. It wasn’t until we hugged after match point that we realized what we had achieved. It was a dream come true but also a realisation that beating the best pair in the world could mean the chance for more success at the highest level.
Colin and I lost in the next round having had three match points but it felt like a minor setback. We had made huge progress and the season was looking very optimistic.
‘Flemski’, as we’re known to friends and fans began playing with massive confidence. We gained entry into our first ATP event in Metz, France. Dreams were starting to become achievable. The impossible was now very much possible. Colin and I are most dangerous on a fast indoor court. We progressed in Metz and found ourselves up against the local favourites and top seeds in the final. Again we were nervous but excited about the chance to win our first ATP title.
Llodra and Clement were our opponents. We were outplayed for almost an hour but it doesn’t matter in doubles what happens at the start. It’s only important what happens at the end of a match and the new super tie-break rule was very much working to our advantage. A quick, decisive tie-break is a great way to decide the outcome.
The crowd are more engaged in the action and using their energy is a must. On this day we did just that and took home our first ATP title; we added a second in St Petersburg, Russia shortly afterwards. Our coach, Louis Cayer, was a major part in our success: he’s made it clear all along that we’ll hit tough patches but our goals for 2010 are ambitious and we know we can achieve anything with the support we have.
Tennis has always been a major part of my life, but there is more to me and my life than tennis. Anyone following me on Twitter will know I have a fiancée, Hayley; we’re getting married in April.
She understands tennis well enough now to respect my job and what it takes to be the best. It’s tough being away from home so much every year. On the other hand, it’s great to have her on tour with me from time to time. It’s nice to turn off and get away from the sport and she does well to keep me grounded.
My parents, always supportive, are still a major influence.They have a dream to see their sons play at Wimbledon together. I’d love that too but I have lots to achieve with Colin before we try to make that dream a reality.
My passions outside of tennis are Liverpool football club, golf and ‘24’.
I cannot really talk too positively about LFC right now. I wish the nightmare would sort itself out and we can get back to challenging for the title. I don’t see it happening any time soon but I have to be positive. Maybe in my next blog I’ll have a better indication of what’s happening behind the scenes at Anfield. Till then, YNWA!
Ken Skupski is part of Team AEGON, the elite squad of British tennis players.
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