Vlaski takes pro ranks by storm this summer

Sept. 11, 2004

by Mike Bruscas

While the eyes of the tennis world are watching the conclusion of the U.S. Open in New York, hundreds of professionals and amateurs alike are traveling the globe trying to rack up points wherever they can in hopes of one day earning themselves a spot in the world's most prestigious tournaments. Husky senior Alex Vlaski, a two-time All-American and owner of one of college tennis' three major titles, has spent the summer on a whirlwind tennis tour that has taken him to three different continents and seen his ATP world ranking jump from the 600s to his current rank of 405 as of August 30. Now between tournaments, Vlaski is back in Seattle to rest up and work on his game before hitting the circuit once again. While he won't return to the college game until the start of 2005 and therefore will not defend his ITA All-American championship, Vlaski is looking ahead to the future of where his game can take him.

'As soon as school was done I knew that I had the summer and the fall to get as many points as I can and I just wanted to find the best tournaments, it didn't matter where I had to go,' Vlaski says. 'It's kind of funny because I went around the whole globe within two months. I went from San Francisco to China, China to San Francisco, San Francisco to Europe, Europe to Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan to Seattle, so I went around the whole world.' He is now a veteran world-traveler all on the power of his racket strings. 'This is the first time I've been to China and Asian countries, but like right now I've been to all of the continents, which is pretty cool. Tennis is a great sport and it allows me to do that. I went to see the Great Wall of China, I got two shirts there. These are things you hear about and now you get a chance to see it.'

The tournaments Vlaski is currently working his way through are comparable to the minor leagues of professional baseball. The better you play, the more points you earn and thus gain entry to more prestigious tournaments with higher point values and tougher opponents. 'In tennis, there are satellites, futures, challengers, and ATP tournaments. That's the order,' explains Vlaski. 'During the summer I jumped over satellites and futures and now I can play low-level challengers. And by the end of the summer I'm hoping to be able to play all the challengers in the main draw and some of the ATP tournaments. And that's a very good goal. And if I can accomplish that I'll be doing well. I'm not far away, a little work, a little luck and I can do that.'

'There are two reasons why I'm playing these tournaments,' says Vlaski. 'I'm trying to get as high as I can so after my senior year I can start off playing main draws and playing the big tournaments so I don't have to start from the bottom. I can start from higher up. And the second reason that I'm playing right now is because I want to get as much experience as I can from playing against these type of players, then come back here and work on the stuff I need to work on and then be ready to dominate after I'm done,' he says with a laugh.

Most top professional tennis players skip college altogether if they have the ability to win at young ages. Pete Sampras was 19 when he won his first grand slam title and Michael Chang was a mere 17 year-old when he captured the French Open. But according to Vlaski, the level of play from college to the professional ranks is not that far apart, and he expects more collegiate players to be making the leap and finding success at the highest levels. 'I would say that the level of tennis in challengers is maybe a little higher than in college, but the atmosphere and the pressure that you feel in college lifts up the quality of tennis so it's about the same as challengers.' Vlaski also owns certain advantages of youth over older pros who might be on the downside of their careers. I found that when I was playing against players who were out there for years, they don't really fight that hard anymore. They don't have that fire. And that's my advantage because I'm willing to almost die for every point.'

'People think that there are not that many professional tennis players that went to college but I think if that's true it's going to change really quick,' Vlaski says. 'But I don't think it's true because there are so many players who came from college. And they get both sides of it, an education and to play tennis at a high level.'

One such example of college players making successful leaps is Amer Delic, who defeated Vlaski in the semifinals of the 2002 NCAA Championships, on his way to winning the title. Vlaski calls Delic the toughest opponent he has ever faced. This summer, he got a second crack at Delic when he drew the former Illinois star in the first round of a tournament in Los Angeles. Delic prevailed in a hard-fought 7-5, 6-3 match then went on to win the tournament. Recently, Delic made the U.S. Open field where he lost in the second round, providing further motivation that Vlaski is not too far away.

With ten tournaments still on tap for the fall in the U.S., Vlaski would already call his summer a success, with several strong tournament runs and even a pair of championships on the far side of the world in the Chinese Satellite. 'China was kind of a big decision, `should I go, should I not?' because it's kind of risky. It's far away, it's expensive but at the same time I can get a great reward. And I played really well. I won the first tournament, then made the quarterfinals in the second, and then I won the last Masters, the biggest tournament,' Vlaski says. 'After that I practiced for a week and I played in Uzbekistan, which was my first challenger and I qualified and reached the quarters and that was a big tournament and that was a big sign for me that I can go higher.'

The cost of traveling, equipment and coaching are still a major concern for Vlaski and any collegiate player trying to battle the pros, since he cannot accept any of the money he wins if he wants to maintain his amateur status. 'Most of the time I'm on my own (at the tournaments) because it's just expensive to have a coach right now. I'm playing professional tournaments but I'm still an amateur so I'm not allowed to take any money. Sometimes my dad comes with me because the coaches are busy here and my dad is working with me during the summers when I'm not here. He's my first coach and a mentor and a manager as far as what I'm doing and all that,' says Vlaski.

Even if he gets lonesome on his own in a foreign land, Vlaski sticks to a rule he set for himself: that he would not talk to anybody for the duration of the tournament. 'Except for my girlfriend,' he laughs.

A native of Yugoslavia, Vlaski got the chance to return home for a week and see his family this summer, a rare gift he never takes for granted. 'My whole family is there and my sister and my parents. It was very nice seeing them. But when tennis is part of your life it's really hard, you know, because in two years I've seen my family maybe ten days and it's hard for them, it's hard for me, and I have to sacrifice that for the future and I'm just traveling all the time.'

Although Vlaski's trip to Bukhara, Uzbekistan resulted in one of his best finishes, the celebration was interrupted when the trip home reminded Vlaski just how dangerous the world outside the tennis court can be. 'We had to travel on the plane traveling back. We went through the local airlines from Bukhara to the capital of Tashkent and as we were taking off like 20 feet up in the air the whole cabin was full of smoke. Completely full, you couldn't see anything. People started screaming, I started cracking up,' says Vlaski. 'They told us like after ten minutes, it's no problem, it's just smoke from the engine.' So does Vlaski always laugh in the face of danger? 'I was very scared, but those moments you don't know what to do, I don't know for some reason I started laughing. But that was right after what happened in Moscow and it was pretty close to there so it was scary.'

Back in America with solid ground under his feet, Vlaski is enjoying the familiar. 'It's so nice to be back in the States, in a normal country,' he jokes. 'Having food and everything normal, you don't have to worry about getting sick and stuff. It's just very nice to be working with coaches and enjoying the nice weather.'

A typical regimen for Vlaski consists of two hours of practice in the morning and another two-hour stretch in the afternoon. Without the challenge of the classroom, Vlaski--an outstanding scholar athlete--has to get out his pent up energy for learning on the court. 'It's kind of boring when you don't have school so the only thing you can do is practice so I try to do that as much as I can,' says Vlaski.

'This summer I'm working on my backhand. Because my biggest weapon is my forehand, then my serve, and returns now are becoming important. But my backhand was always, I don't want to say a weak side, but it was weaker than the other and that's why I'm working on that. So I think once I get that I'll be a complete, all-around player.' If Vlaski achieves that goal, he will be a force to be reckoned with on any continent.

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