There’s a certain tendency in tennis to write a player off if he or she is not already a world-beater by the age of 20. There’s a new crop of younger talent emerging and players can often get cast off to the side, the expectation being that they will never make it to the main tour.
Zdenek Kolar Career Path
Zdenek Kolar was quickly falling into that category. The Czech had been between World No. 200 and World No. 300 from June of 2016 until now. Kolar was consistently good enough to succeed in Futures events and play Challengers, yet not good enough to have that ATP Tour breakthrough.
In fact, Kolar’s only played one main draw match at the ATP Tour main draw level, losing in straight sets to David Ferrer in the 2018 version of Bastad.
Yet, despite his steady presence on the Challenger Tour, Kolar had only made one Challenger singles final. He lost in three sets to Constant Lestienne in final of the May 2016 clay-court Ostrava Challenger and, until last week, had not made one since.
And, at 24 years old, it felt like the clock was ticking on whether he was ever going to make his move in professional tennis. Would he ever breakthrough and be able to play on the ATP Tour regularly? That question is still unanswered, but there is certainly more hope than before.
Kolar’s game has never been about power. He has always emphasized consistency and playing with bigger margins. Yet, often throughout his career, opponents would overpower him from the baseline and he would be a bit too tentative.
However, last week during the Oeiras 1 Challenger, that all started to change. Suddenly, the tentativeness turned to confidence. The consistency that had always been a hallmark of his game was combined with improved depth and higher accuracy.
The field of the Oeiras 1 Challenger was not the strongest, but that doesn’t take away from what Kolar did there.
But, it seemed like Kolar would be hitting the showers early when he was down 2-6, 5-6 *30-40 in the first round to wild card Nuno Borges. Yet, the Czech didn’t panic and came back for a 2-6 7-6(6) 6-1 win. From there, Kolar didn’t drop a set for the rest of tournament. This included great wins over Marco Trungelliti in the semifinals and Gastao Elias in the final.
In that final against Elias, Kolar showed exactly why he would very soon become a deserved ATP Challenger champion. In addition to the consistency, depth, and precision previously mentioned. His return of serve was on-point, winning 46% of his return points, 65% of his second serve return points, and breaking Elias’ serve 5 times.
With the exception of the Borges match, he broke serve at least 5 times every match, won at least 63% of second serve return points, and at least 46% of return points. Yes, that means that the 46% of return points won was on the lower end of the spectrum for Kolar this week. Against Tiago Cacao in the quarterfinals, Kolar won a ridiculous 62% of his return points.
It’s worth noting at this time that, while Kolar didn’t see many notable singles Challengers results until recently, he was a very strong doubles player at the Challenger level. From 2016 to the present, Kolar has been in the final of 19 Challenger doubles events, winning ten of them.
Just this year, the Czech has been to two Challenger finals and won one. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Kolar was recently at a career doubles ranking of World No. 124 earlier this year and currently sits at World No. 129.
And the tips and tricks he’s learned from doubles has certainly helps complete his singles game. What was particularly impressive was the comfortability at the net he showcased during the 6-4 7-5 win over Elias. It was clear that Kolar was very comfortable at the net, as he moved forward in the court with the confidence of a seasoned doubles pro.
Combined with a high level of variety which left opponents guessing what spin and shot was coming coming next, and Kolar displayed a complete all-around game in Oeiras that left him as the last one standing.
And what was even more impressive was how, when Elias broke for *5-4 in the second, Kolar didn’t get down on himself or show negative body language. He put his head down and got back to work, winning 3 straight games to win the match.
This felt in stark contrast to even where Kolar was mentally during French Open qualifying last season. In that match against Benjamin Bonzi, when Kolar was serving for the match, he was broken after having five match points. He didn’t win another game.
This time, when adversity hit, the script flipped.
Following the match, Kolar stated, “This title will remain in my memory for my entire career and my whole life.”
And, while this clearly was a monumental moment for the Czech, the question now becomes, can he build off this success and finally break into the top 200 in the world? Or was this a one-hit wonder?
This week in the Split 1 Challenger, Kolar beat Akira Santillan 6-2 5-0 (ret.) to reach the second round. He won 81% of his service points and 53% of his return points, including 63% of his second serve points.
If Kolar can continue to return like he has and play with the controlled aggression and all-court game that he has shown this week, then he’s going to make his charge up the rankings.
Playing on clay certainly helps. Kolar has a 62% career winning percentage on clay, the highest out of any of the surfaces he’s played on. He’s comfortable on the dirt and it shows on the court. Becoming a bit more comfortable on hard court, where he only has a 55% winning percentage over the course of his career will be crucial to his future success.
Part of getting a little better on hard courts will come when he beefs up his serve. On slow red clay, a weaker serve can be covered up, but on faster surfaces, softer serves are much more easily punished. At 6 ft 1 in he’s not overly tall, but it still feels like he could put a bit more on his serve.
The other area to really keep up is the aggressive mindset. Kolar shouldn’t get complacent in baseline exchanges. Because the net play, variety, and depth/placement that really made his game pop this week are in there, but it’s easy to slip back into the mindset of waiting for opponents’ errors instead of going and taking points yourself. Let’s see if Kolar can keep this up.
At 24 years old, it would be easy to see Zdenek Kolar as a middling Challenger player who won’t ever see the light of the top 100 and regular ATP Tour appearances.
And, it may turn out that way. But, as his recent form exhibits, there’s more to him than that. And, it seems like he’s putting things together and finding the zone that recent first-time Challenger winners such as Daniel Masur and Dominic Stricker have also found.
Whether he can keep it up remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at least break through that top 200 barrier very soon.
We can’t count Zdenek Kolar out yet.
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