May 25, 2019

Going from a ‘Dog to a pro

Fresno State senior Jakub Cech is one of several Bulldogs with the potential to play tennis professionally on the ATP Tour. Like the others, Cech has put education ahead of professional success on the court.Juan Villa / The Collegian

Nearly all of the members of the Fresno State men’s tennis team pinpoint a career on the ATP tour as the ideal place to be following their Bulldogs career.

Oddly enough, with the help of some college-level seasoning, the dream of reaching the ATP tour is a realistic goal, given the talents each player possesses.

In fact, it has already been done. Former Bulldogs tennis player Peter Luczak — the all-time leader in singles victories at Fresno State — went on to have a pro career that saw him earn a No. 110 ranking on the tour. It’s the Luczaks of the world that give the current athletes hope.

It is up to Fresno State head coach Jay Udwadia to mold his players into the best they can be.

“Our team is filled with highly ranked juniors in the world,” Udwadia said. “Players that have maybe a professional ranking, some ATP points. These players, if you can develop them, some of them will get through and have a chance to play pro. So what you’re seeing is semi-pro tennis.”

Fresno State fans can observe this “semi-pro” tennis for free, giving them a chance to watch talented tennis players from all around the country and world compete while working toward their degree.

And according to Udwadia, it’s up to him and his peers to successfully develop players on the court and in the classroom, to the extent where the degree is taken care of, but the opportunity to play professionally is a possibility as well. For those players who hail from out of the country, it is one of the few alternatives to going pro out of high school and failing, without the possibility of returning to school.

It could be called the play-it-safe route. Fresno State senior Jakub Cech, who finished his career with a No. 81 ranking, is hopeful his tennis career takes off. But if it doesn’t, a degree in international business will come in handy.

“I think it’s probably the number one priority still,” Cech said of playing pro. “That’s why I wanted to get the education, because I didn’t want to end up as a player who tried to play tennis and never made it, and then not have an education.”

If Cech should ever need advice on the matter, he wouldn’t have to look any further than his own coaching staff, where former Bulldogs player and current assistant coach Bryan Juinio is.

Like Cech, Juinio decided to attend college instead of make the jump to the professional ranks.

“Actually, I didn’t even think about going pro,” Juinio said. “In America, we’re pretty isolated, so it’s like the big thing is college. I was a top 20 junior and I knew I was going to come to college, just because I had a sense of how tough it is.”

Following his career at Fresno State — in which he climbed the singles leaderboard with 105 career wins — Juinio made the jump to pro ranks, where he had a brief but successful stay. For Juinio, it was a matter of guaranteed money — or lack of it — that led him to the decision to get into coaching at the collegiate level. Even then, Juinio still had his psychology degree to fall back on if needed.

That’s why Cech prefers to have that education to fall back on, although many tennis pros don’t. What they have instead, are the intangible characteristics many college players search for, and many times can’t find.

“It’s mostly about the mental stuff, because most of the guys have about the same strokes,” Cech said. “I’ll practice with a guy who is top 100 [on the ATP tour]; I can play with him. Once you get in that match, he has a different mentality. He’s more confident; he hits better strokes. Physically, there’s not a big difference.”

Udwadia echoed Cech’s beliefs, but also said pro players generally have additional weapons in their games.

“I think the physical is there,” Udwadia said. “Mentally you have to be really strong for every match to be the same and be in it every match. Some of that plays a role. Each player has their weapons, but the top players have one huge weapon, like a huge forehand or a huge serve that keeps them in the match. Again they’re making their living playing tennis, so they have to have something special in their game.”

Still, the odds of a mid-level collegiate player making the jump to the ATP tour remain very improbable, especially when it comes to obtaining an elite status.

Even with years of success under his belt — he is tied for 13th on Fresno State’s all-time singles wins list — Cech tempers his expectations back to a realistic level.

“Honestly, it’s not likely that I’m gonna be the champion, but I believe that I can make a good living playing tennis,” Cech said. “After one or two years, I would like to be in the top 500. If I made that, then there would be a chance I would get better. Top 200 would maybe be achievable.”

It’s players in the mold of Cech who have created a long-standing tradition of success, both on the collegiate level and on into the professional ranks.

“Actually Fresno State has great tradition,” Udwadia said.

That tradition has developed behind the performance of the Fresno State talent of the past, including Luczak, who according to the ATP Web site, turned pro in 2000.

Luczak holds the career singles wins list record of 109 wins. Luczak is currently playing on the ATP Tour now and has a No. 160 ranking to accompany his 2007 singles record of 2-2 and over $44,000 in earnings. For his career, Luczak has made more than $500,000.

In the midst of his third year as coach, Udwadia just wants to do his best to recruit his players, develop them as players, and then maintain relationships with them as they strive for success in the real world, whether it’s in tennis or not.

“You never know when someone is going to bloom and blossom as a player,” Udwadia said. “It could be after their sophomore year, junior year or maybe after they graduate. So what we try to do is maximize their potential so hopefully they have a chance, if they want to pursue that goal [of playing professionally], while they’re getting an education.”

As it stands, Cech currently has the best chance of making that improbable leap to the ATP tour. All he wants is a chance.

“I think I really like tennis and I know a bunch of guys playing on tour and they are on that level,” Cech said. “I believe that if I just put a little more work in it after I’m done with college and play these [professional] tournaments, maybe I can be there as well.”

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