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ATP Most Improved Player 2011: Alex Bogomolov

Is there more to Bogomomomomolov than there appears?


January 11, 2012 | 09:50 PM

You sound a bit like a turkey when you say Bogomolov aloud (unless you pronounce it correctly, I guess:

Bog-a-MOLE-off... ychh), and if you're the height of half the guys on the tour these days, he'd been beneath your radar at 5'10" with a ranking somewhere way south of 100. But last year at the advanced age of 28 he suddenly started knocking off some pretty big men (Murray, Tsonga) and put together a winning record (36-24) in ATP Tour level matches. Mardy Fish was an interesting case study because of the long stretch between his first and his second good years. Alex is interesting because - against all odds now and before - he seems headed toward the top 20 after a career deep in the doldrums.

This a but a quick look at the long saga of the man known as Bogie, Alex Bogomolov, the ATP's Most Improved Player of 2011.

Alex ended 2011 - a year that he started ranked #166 - at 34th in the world. It took 6 years for Mardy Fish to harvest his potential after reaching the top 20; before the Arab Spring, Alex spent 8 years bouncing between 131 and 400 before he began to develop his potential. That's a long time in the desert... Only at age 20 had he previously showed even a glimmer of his potential when for 3 weeks (in November of '03) he made it to #97.

Fully 80% of his 549 career matches have been played far afield from the ATP:

- in 11 years he's played only 110 matches at the ATP Tour level

- he's played 367 matches in 151 Challenger level tournaments

- he's played 72 matches at the ITF Futures level (the baseball equivalent of Double A)

For perspective, Jeff Sackmann noted on Heavytopspin.com that among the current top 100, the only man who has played more Challengers is 98th ranked Michael Russell (a 33 year old American journeyman who's been ranked as high as #60).

Financially, was it worth his time and effort to toil so long in the trenches to gain a year like 2011?

YES, if taken at face value. Here's why.

Last year he earned $450,000 from the 26 ATP Tour level events (36% of his $1,279,249 career earnings). He earned an additional $30,000 from another 7 Challenger level events. Very few, if any, 28 year old tennis teaching professionals have career earnings of over $1,000,000 (even if Alex had a degree in finance instead of - maybe - a high school diploma, the $800,000 he'd earned through 2010 would look good to him). This doesn't mean he was happy about being asked to re-pay $75,000 to the USTA after he decided to become a Russian citizen and play for Russia (he had signed an agreement and received support from the association on the way up).

WHY did it take him so long, and HOW did he do it?

To the first question, persistence through hardship was certainly at the heart of his journey, as you'd expect. Bogie had his share of bad breaks, including a wrist injury which almost ended his career and a suspension for taking a banned substance. His father, a former touring pro and his main coach, stood behind him throughout and claims to have put all the family's money into Alex's tennis (if he really did, then the economics of his earnings might not be so hot). Over the years, Alex Senior had been blamed for holding his son's tennis back by refusing to let another serve as his coach. Alex Junior also underwent a difficult divorce, which might have cost him in many ways, and has fathered a child with a partner (those career earnings will soon be gobbled up, so assume he will remain motivated to have more years like 2011 before he retires).

To the question of how has he been winning after years of losing, it's probably as simple as continuing to put himself in a position where he might break through with a stunning, confidence-building win, as he did in Miami when he upset a desultory Andy Murray in the 2nd round of the ATP 1000. The Scot still seemed to be brooding over his second straight final loss in Australian Open, and was perhaps distracted by envy of his rival Joker's streak. After Miami where he lost in the 3rd round to Isner, Bogie played Challengers during the clay season and reached two finals before qualifying for Paris and then Wimbledon, where he won 2 rounds. In the USA, now ranked in the 60's, he was able to get straight into everything in July before most of the top players returned to action. After qualifying in Montreal and winning a round, his ranking hit 50 and he got straight into Cincinnati. It was there that he received his next huge jolt of confidence, upsetting Tsonga and reaching the round of 16. A 3rd round in the US Open won him 90 more points and moved him into the top 40, where he stayed the rest of the year.

What he has improved or changed, if anything, about his game, I don't know. I saw him play the Bryans in doubles at Wimbledon (it was comical seeing him partnered with the tallest man on tour as his partner, 6'10" Ivo Karlovic), and I watched him come back from two sets down in his first round at the US Open against the #1 NCAA player, Steve Johnson. Steve struggled with cramps in the 4th set and couldn't finish Alex in the tie-breaker, but Alex earned the win playing gritty baseline tennis against a big server and attacker. Perhaps he's a cross between Leyton Hewitt and Brad Gilbert, a consistent server and returner who's not scared to go for big shots or try something new, and willing to trade groundies until he can move forward and take an opportunity to be aggressive.

A look at his RICOH ATP Match Facts in 2011 suggests he was a tough guy to put away:

- 71% 1st serving helped him win 78% of his service games, aided by winning 50% of his 2nd serve points

(perhaps his 120 aces helped him save 64% of the break points he faced)

- solid returning helped him win 39% of return points and 24% of return games, as did converting 37% of

break chances and winning 51% of 2nd serve points)

Comparing these stats to the only other year he played even 25% as many matches at the ATP Tour level (2003) provides a little insight: he did improve his 1st serve percentage by 5%, and along with that, won a higher percentage of service games. But this seems a small improvement for a seemingly quantum leap.

So, it's better to leave his rise to the intangibles like confidence, determination, persistence and hard work. Low expectations may have helped, as well; in returning to the tour in 2009 after 6 months off with a wrist injury, he got in to the main draw of only one ATP Tour level tournament in the next 20 months (San Jose, where he lost in the 1st round to Taylor Dent). During one break, he was teaching tennis on the north shore of Long Island; a glimpse of that life may have been enough to help him appreciate the life and opportunity for success he'd had on the tour.

It sounds like everyday stuff in the sports world, but I doubt there's been a longer history behind the Most Improved Player before.

Rick

ATP, 1.11.12


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