By John Delong
It was a match made in tennis heaven.
Defending Winston-Salem Open champion Jurgen Melzer was merely looking for a mixed doubles partner when he asked Iveta Benesova to team with him at Wimbledon in 2011.
Melzer had no hopes other than perhaps a couple matches to keep him sharp for singles and men’s doubles. And he definitely had no idea of what was about to unfold.
The pair would wind up winning the Wimbledon mixed title, totally surprising themselves in the process. Shortly thereafter they started dating, and a romance developed.
They wound up getting married in the fall of 2012.
The 33-year-old Austrian marvels at the chance series of events.
“It’s something probably if you were making a movie, this would be in it,” Melzer said. “That’s basically where everything started. We just had an amazing two weeks. We played really well, and everything pointed in our favor.
“The thing is, nobody expected anything from me or from her. And then in the end you’re lifting the trophy. And a year and a half later, you’re married. It was perfect.”
Melzer can now look back and say that fate prevailed from the start.
He didn’t always play mixed doubles at Wimbledon. He was looking for an extra match or two only because his doubles partner at the time, Philipp Petzschner, was dealing with an injury and was not certain to compete.
It just so happened that Benesova, a Czech Republic native who has reached as high as No. 25 in the WTA singles rankings, was similarly without a mixed doubles partner.
“It was very funny,” Melzer said. “I thought I might need some extra matches and I asked her if she had signed in with somebody and she said, ‘No, actually I didn’t. So let’s give it a try. We’ll enter, and if you pull out, it’s no big deal.’ And then one and a half weeks later, you lift the trophy. We started dating probably a week later. So it was meant to be.”
This is only part of the incredible journey that has seen Melzer win five career ATP World Tour singles titles, 12 ATP World Tour doubles titles, and reach the Top 10 in the rankings in both singles and doubles over a 14-year career. He has two Grand Slam doubles titles to his credit, Wimbledon in 2010 and the US Open in 2011, both with Petzschner.
He’s the only player in the last 25 years to be ranked in the Top 10 in singles and doubles at the same time, reaching as high as No. 8 in singles in April of 2011 and No. 6 in doubles. And he’s currently on a streak of six straight years finishing in the Top 35 or better.
As the 6-0, 178-pound lefthander showed last summer in beating Thiemo de Bakker, Benoit Paire, Dmitry Tursunov, Sam Querrey and Gael Monfils en route to the WSO title, he’s a solidly consistent all-court player who’s comfortable from the baseline or at the net.
“I have known Jurgen since our junior years,” said Jarkko Nieminen, who shared the same coach (Joakim Nystrom) with Melzer for a stretch. “He’s always been such a great talent. He plays well on any court. He can do everything well. When he’s on, he’s a very dangerous player. And he’s also such a great guy. I know him well, and he’s a great guy.”
Great guy indeed. Melzer has had to deal with pressures and the expectations of an entire nation throughout his career, and he has handled it all with class.
He won the Wimbledon junior singles title in 1999, and when he turned professional at the end of that year the Austrian media and the tennis public envisioned an immediate rise to the top of the ATP rankings.
The hope was that he would follow in the footsteps of Thomas Muster, the face of Austrian tennis for years who won 44 tournaments including the 1995 French Open. Muster was ranked No. 1 in the world for part of 1996.
It wound up taking Melzer three years to crack the Top 100 though, and even as he was rising up the rankings the criticism escalated. He won his first tournament at Bucharest in 2006, on his fifth trip to a final, and then won in his hometown of Vienna in back to back years in 2009 and 2010.
Melzer’s back-to-back wins in Vienna should have made his countrymen proud and silenced the critics. Muster never won there, failing in three trips to the final, and only one other Austrian player, Horst Skoff in 1988, had won it.
But Melzer says that’s when the expectations became the greatest.
“The comparisons started when I cracked the Top 50,” Melzer said. “It was tough being measured by a player who was No. 1 and won a Grand Slam. They made me feel like being a top 30 player was not enough for them. It hurts when you get criticized for ‘only’ being 25 in the world. They were saying you don’t live up to your potential, which frankly probably at times I didn’t, but, you know, I was always trying to play my best. I was always trying my heart out. So it hurt to be criticized. But that’s the way it is, and the older you get the more you learn to deal with it”
Melzer’s agent, Ronnie Leitgeb, was Muster’s coach for 16 years and saw everything that Melzer had to endure.
“I only started to realize how difficult it must have been for Jurgen in the early state of his career always being measured by Thomas when I became his manager,” Leitgeb said. “Nowadays having had a great career on his own, I think that Jurgen did a great job not having been (destroyed) by all the expectations and pressure. He proved to be completely different than Thomas and is therefore respected.”
Melzer’s other ATP singles title came in Memphis in 2012, so he came into 2014 with titles in each of the last two years. He has been a runner-up in singles eight times in his career, and has reached 14 other doubles finals to go with his 12 doubles titles.
His doubles titles have come with five different partners, including five with Petzschner and four with Julian Knowle.
That success – and his longevity and consistency on the tour – speaks for itself.
“Obviously it all started for me winning Wimbledon juniors in 1999,” Melzer said. “And then making it first to the top 100 and then the top 50 and winning tournaments, winning Grand Slam tournaments in doubles, making the year-end Masters two times, French Open semifinals in singles. There have been a lot of great moments in my career, and I’m only going to look back to the good ones. I think I have done pretty well by reaching top 10 in singles and doubles. That’s something that hasn’t been done lately, so that’s pretty special because it shows that you have an all-court game and you know what to do on the court. So I have no regrets.”
And for sure, there are no regrets about entering the Wimbledon mixed doubles on a whim back in 2011.
Talk about a life-changing event.
“It was amazing,” he said. “It was the springboard to our marriage. It’s something I love to look back to.”