Steve Flink: Like Father, Like Son - Sebastian Korda Is Ready to Make a Splash

Twenty years ago, a Czech left-hander of deep intensity and high ambitions capped his career by taking the Australian Open men’s title on the hard courts of Melbourne, obliterating fellow southpaw Marcelo Rios of Chile in straight sets. Petr Korda claimed that crown with breathtaking shot-making and a smart game plan. Last month, a 17-year-old American named Sebastian Korda of Florida stepped onto the stage Down Under and celebrated the 20th anniversary of his father’s triumph with a hard-earned victory in the Australian Open junior boy’s singles division.

Longtime observers of the tennis scene could not help but find themselves exclaiming, “Like father, like son!”

Petr Korda and his wife—Regina Rajchrtova, former No. 26 on the WTA Tour—have raised Sebastian and their two daughters, Jessica and Nelly, in the United States. The girls have shined brightly in another sport, establishing themselves significantly on the LPGA Tour. Jessica, 24, and Nelly, 19, have done exceedingly well on the pro golf tour; both finished among the Top 50 in prize money for 2017.

But these days, Sebastian Korda is overshadowing his father and his sisters in the world of sports. He established himself in Melbourne as the first American to win the Australian Open junior boys title since Donald Young 13 years ago. When we spoke last week over the phone about that win, Korda’s pride in his performance was strikingly evident.

“That was an awesome experience,“ he says. “It was incredible. Every tournament I go to, especially in the juniors, I always think I could win it. I just try to give myself the best shot I can. I was nervous in the early rounds but after that it was all fine. I felt I played some very good tennis. Winning in Australia will definitely give me a boost going forward.”

For Petr Korda, observing his son capture the junior title in Melbourne was heartwarming. He turned 50 during the tournament. He was watching the entire tournament on ESPN3 over Apple Television, and, understandably, his emotions were periodically tied up in knots.

Sebastian Korda saved two set points against Tseng Chun Hsin but rallied for a 7-6 (6), 6-4 win. Petr Korda told me that he felt some apprehension as the match unfolded while watching from his home.

He said, “I was very nervous. I would stand up a few times and walked around the kitchen. Any coach, any parent would be nervous. He didn’t start well. Of all the matches Sebi played, that was his worst performance of the week but what was most important was how well he played the big points. He went after them and was not afraid to make mistakes. He survived the tiebreaker and went on to win. At the end of the day, no one remembers what shot you hit on a big point. They remember who is the one lifting the trophy up. He deserved it.”

Sebastian believes his game resembles his Dad’s—at least to a degree, although he is right-handed with a two-handed backhand.

“My Dad pretty much played the same way I do,” he asserts. “We both try to outsmart opponents. He took the ball really early and I take it pretty early. We both are more or less flat ball players. I definitely tried to model my game after his.”

Although Petr Korda has overseen his son’s tennis, he did not seek to produce a mirror image of himself.

He says, “I am not trying to compare ourselves. I will never do that. His game is built for what is best for him. There is probably for some people a lot of similarity between us, but I always trying to put myself on the left and Sebi on the right.”

Fair enough. Petr Korda has long been absolutely clear in his convictions. As a father and a guiding force for Sebastian, as his coach, he wants his son to test the waters in men’s tennis and find out what is possible in that pool of talent. Sebastian received a wild card this week into the New York Open, and faced Frances Tiafoe in an eagerly anticipated all-American first round duel.

Korda commenced that match with understandable anxiety. He was broken a couple of times early, and did not look comfortable as he fell behind 4-2 in the opening set. But he swept four games in a row and won 16 of 22 points to take that set away from a chagrinned Tiafoe. Korda was swinging freely, keeping Tiafoe at bay, and returning with authority.

But the 20-year-old Tiafoe is a seasoned competitor who has been playing majors since 2015. He reached a career best No. 60 in the world last summer. Although Korda fought off four break points in the first game of the second set, Tiafoe was smothering him now with accelerated pace off the forehand and higher velocity serving. He broke Korda in the fifth game, and rallied from 15-40 down at 4-3 for a strong hold. He won 18 of 19 first serve points in that set, which he took 6-4.

Korda kept his composure, holding from 0-40 for a 1-0 lead in the third set. But he won only one more game as Tiafoe set the tempo almost entirely. Tiafoe prevailed convincingly 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. Tiafoe lost only five points on serve in the third set. He was too good. But this was Korda’s first ATP tour match, and the top-ranked junior in the world saved 12 of 17 break points over the course of the match. In his big league debut, it was a job well done in defeat.

As Petr Korda looked at Sebastian’s plight days before the New York Open, he pointed out, “It is important for Sebi to get the experience right now with the men’s tournaments. It is fortunate for him to play in New York and see what men’s tennis is all about, to get the experience. Without living that moment, it will be difficult for the challenges which will come for him. So these next two to three months he will play as many men’s events as possible. I never look at the results. Everything is about the experience.”

Talk about experience, Dean Goldfine has it in abundance. Among the players he has coached over the decades are Todd Martin and Andy Roddick. Goldfine is aligned now with the USTA for a certain number of weeks, working with young players. He was in Australia for over a month to work with Korda, and will be out on the tour helping Sebastian and others during the 2018 season.

Goldfine is impressed with the way Korda carries himself on the court.

He says, “Sebastian believes in himself. He did before, but even more so since Australia. At the IMG Academy [in Bradenton, Florida] he practices sometimes with Kei Nishikori so he is not going to be intimidated playing some tournaments at the top level and continuing at the Challenger level, as he has done. He is about 6’5” so he is taller than his Dad. He is kind of like Goran Ivanisevic the way he can move.”

Sebastian was raised on the courts very ably by his parents, and Petr remains the chief architect of his tennis. But Sebastian places high value on what Goldfine is doing for him these days.

“I started with Dean last year at Roland Garros,” he says. “We have had a good relationship. He is so professional with everything that he does, like the pre-match talks. He takes notes during my matches on all of the key stuff, and we go through that afterwards. He is the first real professional coach that I have had.”

Petr Korda is not territorial when it comes to the coaching of his son, realizing he is the ultimate authority.

“I have a certain strategy and a certain idea that we are trying to follow,” he explains. “I don’t have any problems letting him go and work with Dean. That is not a problem at all. I always listen to Dean when he has something to say. But at the end of the day, I am the one who is going to make the decisions. Over the years there were people telling me what I did with my girls [and their development as golfers] was taking them in the wrong direction. I believe in my own direction and in our recipe, and that is what I will follow. Our kids are the leading part in our family.”

The recipe has inarguably been successful. And one of the chief reasons why the Korda family has thrived in the sports marketplace is that the parents have allowed the kids the space they need to perform without unnecessary pressure. Sebastian took up hockey in his younger years and was unabashedly devoted to that sport until about seven years ago.

But a few visits to the US Open with his father altered Sebastian’s outlook sweepingly. He caught the tennis bug, and his hockey playing days receded into his past abruptly and completely.

“I made friends through playing hockey,” he recollects, “and I really loved the sport. Even now I watch a lot of hockey. But once I went to the US Open a couple of times I decided to switch. I never really looked back. I loved tennis more than hockey and that was what I wanted to do.”

As Petr Korda remembers it, “Sebastian was very passionate about hockey since he was three years old. He loved playing here in Bradenton. But seven years ago, when he was 10, he went to the US Open and we came back home and said he didn’t want to play hockey anymore, that he wanted to play tennis. So my wife and I gave him one week to think about it. He has not skated since. He said he wanted to follow his passion for tennis, and that is what happened.”

It took a while for Korda to gel, but now, at 17, he seems to be growing into his game and finding his range.

“I just want to have fun with it,” he says. “Winning the Australian Open juniors will definitely give me a big boost going forward. I will have some opportunities to play some bigger tournaments now and I am looking forward to it. I don’t know exactly what tournaments I will play this year, but I will definitely try to play a couple more of the junior Grand Slams and then play in the Youth Olympics later this year. That is one of my goals.”

Goldfine believes that Sebastian has the tools to become an esteemed member of his trade.

He asserts, “Sebastian has got a great backhand. That shot is money. His forehand is getting better. Petr has changed it a bit here and there, shortening the backswing a bit. He sometimes is too open with the forehand so we are trying to get him to close it out a bit, and to go after that shot. His serve is very good and he can really pop it. It reminds me of Todd Martin’s because he places it so well and hits his spots. And one of the things we are tapping into is trying to build Sebastian’s confidence in getting to the net to make life a little easier. He has great hands.”

The way Petr Korda looks at it, the making of a great player must be done deliberately.

As he said before flying up from Florida to join his son at the New York Open, “To be honest, I don’t plan ahead. We will see how it plays out, and which direction we will go. I want to see Sebi with my own eyes in New York and at other tournaments in the men’s game. After that we will sit together and figure it out. I don’t want to do anything that is rushed and planning a long time ahead. It is a step by step process.”

Goldfine is in accord. He wants to find out what the upcoming tournaments will yield for Sebastian Korda, to give his pupil a chance to figure out how well he can fare against tough opposition in arduous circumstances.

Goldfine is convinced that Korda has extraordinary long term potential.

“The sky is the limit,” says Goldfine. “If he stays healthy and continues to progress like he has, if he can get the confidence in moving forward in the court and looking to take balls a bit earlier, I really think he can be a Top 10 player. Without a doubt he can get there.”

Read more articles by Steve Flink


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