The U.S. Open Is Alex Molcan’s Proving Ground

Alex Molcan had usually played Andrey Rublev evenly when they competed in junior tournaments for players age 14 and under. Sometimes Rublev won, sometimes it was Molcan.

But as they got older, their paths began to diverge.

Rublev, now ranked No. 7 in men’s singles, began making big strides, winning tournaments and reaching the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 2017 at just age 19.

Molcan, meanwhile, was stagnating back in Bratislava, Slovakia, where he lived at the time. Molcan began to ask himself why.

“How is it possible that he’s there and I’m here?” Molcan said in an interview on Wednesday. “And then I realized that I screwed up.”

That realization several years ago may have saved Molcan’s tennis career, and although it took several years to make up for it, he is now moving in the right direction again. He started the year ranked No. 313 but is now at 138th and headed higher after he won three tough matches to qualify for the U.S. Open, and then pulled off a pair of upsets to advance to the third round in the main draw.

Playing in the main draw of a Grand Slam event for the first time at age 23, the left-handed Molcan will play No. 11 Diego Schwartzman of Argentina on Friday in a matchup that seemed unlikely when the draw was released.

“I believe in my game, now,” Molcan said. “Finally, I started to believe that what I’m doing is right.”

Until this week, the highlight of Molcan’s career was reaching the final of the Belgrade 2 tournament, where he faced top-ranked Novak Djokovic on May 29. Molcan, who had beaten Fernando Verdasco and No. 52 Federico Delbonis to reach the final, broke Djokovic’s serve in the first game with a forehand down the line, and said to himself, “I can play with these guys.”

No one was shocked when Djokovic came back to win in straight sets, but Molcan came away brimming with confidence, especially with the help of a mental strength coach he said has been instrumental to his recent success.

Originally from Presov, a town of about 90,000 in eastern in Slovakia, Molcan showed enough promise as a child that his mother, who was divorced from his father, took him and his little sister 250 miles west to Bratislava when Alex was 12. If he was going to make it as a pro, Bratislava was the place to train.

After a few years his mother, Andrea Jackova, moved back to Presov for work. Molcan stayed in Bratislava, living with a friend’s family. Molcan said the family traveled quite a bit and left the two boys, then 14 and 15, home alone, and not surprisingly, trouble ensued as the two adolescents began drinking and running around at will.

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“Two young guys in Bratislava, it wasn’t good, of course,” Molcan said. “We did stupid things and I wasted two years maybe. The other guys were out there working hard every day and I wasn’t. That kept me down.”

But even through his rebellious adolescent haze, Molcan knew deep down he had the ability to beat good players, like Rublev, if he could only rediscover it. He needed to get his focus back. He needed his mother.

Jackova, a former sprinter, Molcan said, finally moved back to Bratislava along with Molcan’s sister. She found work as an athletic trainer, but finances were still a challenge and Molcan remembers those difficult days as “crazy times.”

“She changed her life because of me,” he said. “It’s what maybe mothers do. Maybe not. But mine did, and to be honest, this is really overwhelming for me that someone can do this for her kids.

“To move the family with a little kid, my sister, who was 3 years old, it was the hardest decision in her life because she was trying to help me be a good tennis player, to stay humble and be the good person. It is really amazing.”

As a way to show his appreciation, Molcan inscribed his mother’s birthday on a tattoo when he turned 18. With Jackova’s support, Molcan rededicated himself to tennis. But he had lost two critical years of his tennis growth and it would take years to recover. Most of his professional life until this year was spent on the Challenger circuit — tennis’s minor leagues — battling other low-ranked players across Europe for scraps.

His ranking never rose above 250 until this year, when he won spots in his first ATP main tour events. He also earned a chance to qualify for Wimbledon, reaching the final stage of qualifying before losing to Antoine Hoang of France in a five-set match.

Molcan then arrived at the U.S. Open needing to win three matches to qualify for his first major tournament. The first two went smoothly, but against Gastao Elias of Portugal, Molcan needed to fight off a match point and then win a tiebreaker, 8-6, in the third and final set. On the final point he dropped his racket, fell onto his back with his arms and legs spread wide, in a brief moment of celebration.

His celebrations after his first two main draw wins over Cem Ilkel of Turkey and Brandon Nakashima of the United States were more muted, less emotional, in part because they were not as demanding. He beat Ilkel in four sets and came back from a two-sets-to-one deficit to oust Nakashima on Court 12, with a small crowd rooting hard for the American.

Although he had never played five-set matches before this year, Molcan says he has the physical capacity to handle them. He even considers it an asset.

“I am prepared,” he said. “I have no worries to play longer matches. That’s where I get the confidence.”

If he can somehow outlast Schwartzman, a two-time quarterfinalist at the U.S. Open, and then win two more matches, he could conceivably meet the fifth-seeded Rublev in a semifinal. Then he could really see if, after all these years, he has really caught back up.

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