Tennis: Top mover looks for Open launch

By Michael Burgess

Dutchman Thiemo de Bakker could be the latest young tennis ace for whom the Heineken Open acts as a conduit to global giant status.

Every season, players arrive who have promise written all over them, enjoy a successful week and go on to bigger and better things.

Think of then world No 32 John Isner last year, saving a match point to win his first ATP title in Auckland, before a stellar 2010 - making three other finals, reaching the top 20 for the first time and enduring that marathon at Wimbledon.

Juan Martin Del Potro, though at No 9 when he claimed the Heineken crown in 2009, finished the year in the top five as he claimed the US Open and made the semifinals at Roland Garros.

David Ferrer was world No 14 when he came to Auckland in 2007. He claimed his first hardcourt title, then reached the last four at the US Open, the Shanghai masters final and ended the year at No 5.

Rafael Nadal was a relatively unknown world No 47 when he reached the final in 2004 but, by the end of the year, the 17-year-old had his first title, had beaten Roger Federer for the first time and helped Spain win the Davis Cup.

De Bakker could be the latest to launch - and former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek is a fan.He calls the 22-year-old "by far the biggest talent we have ever had in Dutch tennis".

De Bakker was one of the biggest movers last year, climbing from No 96 to No 43. He was rated as one of the five newcomers of the year by the ATP tour.

A dream run to the semifinals in Barcelona, where he beat Juan Carlos Ferrero and Jo Wilfried Tsonga, took him into the top 50. His 1.93m frame sent down 482 aces (16th best on the ATP; Isner was top with 1048, Andy Roddick 815, Federer 658).

"It was about being more consistent with everything I did," reflects De Bakker.

"I improved my fitness, discipline, training regime, and it paid off with the results. Now I just have to stay there."

While not exactly a late bloomer, he did take some time to blossom. De Bakker was the No 1 junior in the world after winning Wimbledon in 2006 but the transition to senior ranks was steady rather than spectacular.

By the end of 2007, he was ranked 407, climbing to 250 over the next year.

He "sat around in the 200s" before deciding it was now or never.

"I used to work hard for a week or so but if I didn't get the rewards, I would stop again. I had a lot of ups and downs in that period," admits de Bakker. "I knew I had the qualities but it was whether I was going to go for it. One day, I decided to go for it. I did it for a year without any results and then they came really fast."

De Bakker put his name on the tennis map in late 2009, when he had a month of hot August nights that would have left Neil Diamond speechless.

He won four Challenger tournaments in Finland, Spain and Romania, victorious in 20 of 21 matches. His ranking leapt from 256 to 122 and he has never looked back.

While this week he wants to avoid third-seed Isner, he was happy to face the giant from North Carolina at Wimbledon. De Bakker had beaten fellow Heineken Open contender Santiago Giraldo 6-7(4) 6-4 6-3 5-7 16-14 in a gruelling four hour battle, only then to watch and wait for Isner as the American played out his 11-hour epic with Nicolas Mahut.

"He was pretty dead. I was pretty tired as well but he played a few more games than me," jokes de Bakker. "I felt a bit sorry for him because he fought so hard in the first round but I wanted to go through so I had to beat him. He deserved more though."

De Bakker will always be an interesting pub trivia question; who knocked out Isner after his epic win?

On his first visit to New Zealand, De Bakker has enjoyed some respite from non-stop rain in Brisbane since his arrival on Friday.

He had heard it was a "good, friendly tournament" and encouragement from his Kiwi physio seemed to seal the deal. His goal for 2011 is to make the top 30, perhaps top 25.

"I'll need to improve the total package," says De Bakker. "Physically, mentally, you have to lift everything to compete. After a while, you get used to playing the top guys, which definitely helps. At first, when you see Nadal or Roddick on the other side of the net, it is a bit of a shock."

Along with a big serve, the candid De Bakker is one of those rare beasts who lists his backhand wing as his strongest side (only Stefan Edberg, Gaston Gaudio and Justine Henin immediately spring to mind in that category).

"It is nice to have, sure, but it doesn't help that my forehand is s**t sometimes," he laughs.

THIEMO DE BAKKER

* Born: The Hague, Netherlands

* Birthdate: September 19, 1988

* Turned pro: 2006

* World ranking: 43

* Career prizemoney: $966,930

- Herald on Sunday

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