With the light fading in Paris on Sunday night, a one-time prodigy of Australian tennis enjoyed arguably the finest moment of a career that has been sadly restricted by injury. Well over a decade after matching the junior deeds of 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, Jason Kubler finally broke through for his first ever win at Roland Garros.
After making it through qualifying in his fourth visit to Paris as a senior, Kubler was able to hold his nerve at critical times when defeating American Denis Kudla 7-6 (5), 7-6 (2), 7-6 (3). He closed out the triumph with the shot that once seemed destined to carry him a long way in tennis when crunching a brilliant backhand down the line for a winner.
It is a good thing he did, for the post-Ash Barty era in grand slams would have started on a very bleak note otherwise given the other four Australians in action on day one exited early. Afterwards, the fans who stuck around after dark on Court 13 clamoured for selfies with the 29-year-old, adults and kids among them. Kubler was happy to oblige every one of them.
“It is still weird thinking someone wants your autograph. It is just me. It is not like I am anyone super famous,” he said. “I don’t know if I saved the day [for Australia] but I am personally happy that I won through. It is only the second time that I have won a main draw match, so in itself it is pretty exciting.”
When it comes to the Special Ks of Australian tennis, Kubler has been very much the third billing behind Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis throughout a testing senior career. He is older than the Australian Open doubles champions, who have also endured more than their fair share of injury and motivation issues, but he too was once considered a likely star.
The Brisbane resident was the world’s top-ranked junior at the age of 16. He swept the junior Davis Cup, something only the legendary Nadal had managed previously. A baseliner by trade, he was blessed with a beautiful double-handed backhand and his serve and forehand packed a punch as well. But then chronic knee pain cruelled his rise.
His grand slam timeline tells the story. As a 17-year-old, he debuted in the Australian Open. Eight years passed until his next appearance in a major, again in Melbourne, in 2018. There have been 49 grand slam tournaments played since his major debut and he has only been fit enough to compete in 15 of them. Six have resulted in main draw appearances.
Even making it through qualifying was a bonus. “Even looking back at quallies, some of the matches I should not have even won,” he said.
Comebacks can be hard at the best of times, as US Open champion and dual-French Open finalist Dominic Thiem is finding after posting his seventh straight loss since returning earlier in the day.
Kubler could not say afterwards how many times he has attempted to return to the court. As other Australians chased glory on the hard courts in North America, Kubler was plying his trade in lowly clay courts through South America in what was a lonely experience at times.
The shifting surface offered some solace for his aching knee joints. But it meant his career was largely restricted to the secondary tours where matches are played for a pittance. At one stage he had just 12 cents left in his bank account and was back coaching kids in Brisbane for some pocket money. He entered a local hard court event, in desperation more than anything, and left pleasantly surprised.
The shock was not that he won the tournament but more that his knee withstood the rigours of playing on what is effectively trumped-up concrete. In 2018 he was able to play three majors and managed a win at the US Open. In a good position in his second round against Taylor Fritz, now the top-ranked American, he wrecked an ankle.
Walk under a ladder? Cross a black cat? You name it, because Kubler must surely have done it, such has his injury luck been.
Since resuming after the pandemic, he has played primarily on the Challenger Tour. Only a year ago he was knocking the ball around in a cash tournament on the Gold Coast. Earlier this year, in order to get some confidence, the right-hander dipped back to ITF Tournaments, which offer $25,000 in prize money.
He won about $8,000 for claiming two titles in Canberra. On Sunday he pocketed $92,000. Little wonder he was happy to sign an autograph or two. He now awaits the winner of a clash between 10th seed Cameron Norrie and French wildcard Manuel Guinard.
In his first Roland Garros appearance since 2017, Kokkinakis fell to Albert Ramos-Vinolas 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5). Alexei Popyrin was beaten 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 by Fabio Fognini, while Chris O’Connell was beaten in four sets by Aljaz Bedene 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-1. Astra Sharma served for the match when beaten 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 by Varvara Gracheva.