By Donna Gee
FOUR YEARS ago, the legendary Boris Becker took a peek at a promising young tennis talent of German extraction and asserted that Nicola Kuhn was ‘a better player than I was at his age.’
Becker remains the only unseeded play to win the Wimbledon men’s singles – an astounding feat he accomplished at the age of 17. However, tennis has changed so much since 1985 that nobody realistically expects Herr Becker’s 1985 cruise to glory ever to be repeated.
Apart that is, from blond six-footer Kuhn, the Spanish-reared son of a German father and Russian mother, who last week achieved the next best thing by winning a major ATP Challenger title at the age of just 17 years and three months.
That’s four months younger than Becker was when he beat Kevin Curren in that memorable SW19 final 32 years ago.
And what’s more, the unseeded Kuhn was the youngest player in the €127,000 Sparkassen Open draw and had to battle through the qualifying tournament to join a first-round field that included eight of the world’s Top 100 players.
Few people expected the Torrevieja teenager to reach the first-round proper, let alone advance to the later stages. But last Saturday, an enraptured German crowd saluted the unlikely champion, who at number 501 in the world, was the lowest-ranked player in the tournament.
On his seven-match glory run, Kuhn even had the audacity to see off Slovakian star Jozef Kovalik, whose recent successes include a victory over Wimbledon finalist Marin Cilic at the Chennai ATP 250 tournament.
The only disappointment is that his moment of glory was dimmed by the retirement of opponent Viktor Galovic through injury in the final set. But Kuhn, after losing the first set 6-2, was already in a winning position at 4-2 in the decider when Galovic conceded defeat.
The 32-man line-up at Braunschweig traditionally includes several players who exited early from the Wimbledon main draw – and this year was no different, with Andy Murray’s second-round victim Dustin Brown among the more familiar names in the draw.
Kid Kuhn – playing in only his second Challenger tournament – found himself face to face with at least one player TWICE his age as he battled to tame experienced professionals seven and eight years his senior.
Kuhn’s hopes seemed to be over when he trailed 0-4 in the deciding set against Kovalik in the quarter-final. But remarkably, he managed to break back twice and squeeze out a nail-biting 8-6 win in the tie-break.
‘This has been the best week of my life, that’s for sure,’ insisted Nico, who won his first ITF Futures tournament in Hungary only last month.
‘I always wanted to play in an event like this at a young age but I certainly didn’t expect to come through the qualifiers and then win the entire tournament!
‘My original goal for this year was to make the ATP Top 200 but with that now in sight it would be great to have some success perhaps in an ATP 250 tournament.
‘My preparations for Braunschweig were really good particularly from the fitness side. I played some great tennis and was also mentally very tough throughout the tournament.’
Nico, started every round in Germany as underdog against experienced pros aged between 22 and 34, whose average ranking was more than 300 places above his own ATP status.
The 125 ranking points he receives for winning the tournament lifted him 259 places to number 242 in the world rankings this week. And he’ll no doubt savour that achievement just as much as he will enjoy spending his €18,290 winners’ cheque.
For the record, Kuhn’s astonishing week-long run to today’s (Saturday) final against 26-year-old Galovic went like this…
Qualifying 1st round – bye;
Qualifying 2nd round: Beat Julian Onken (Germany, ATP rank 791) 6-4 6-3
Qualifying 3rd round: Beat Michael Linzer (Austria, ATP 275) 6-3 6-3
First round: Beat Goncalo Oliveira (Portugal, ATP 277) 6-4 6-2
Second round: Beat Carlos Berlocq (Argentina, ATP 80) 6-4 7-5
Quarter-final: Beat Jozef Kovalik (Croatia, ATP 159) 7-6 5-7 7-6
Semi-final: Beat Marco Fucsovics (Hungary ATP 109) 7-5 4-6 6-4
Final: Beat Viktor Galovic (Croatia, ATP 491) 2-6, 7-5,4-2 RETIRED.
FINAL WORD on kid Kuhn from losing finalist Galovic: ‘Yeah, at his age I was at home playing PlayStation’.