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Chasing Pole Position

Australian Open 2009

Fyrstenberg and Matkowski© Getty ImagesThe Poles are aiming for a permanent place in the Top 5 of the 2009 ATP Doubles Team Rankings.

They are the fire-and-ice doubles combination of the ATP World Tour: combustible strongman Marcin Matkowski and ‘ice man’ Mariusz Fyrstenberg. But the Polish countrymen make the eclectic mix work and are poised to become an entrenched Top 5 team and genuine contender to become 2009 ATP World Tour Doubles Champions.

Mariusz Fyrstenberg didn’t much care for Marcin Matkowski’s manners when the pair first met. Waiting along with 40 other juniors for physical tests at the national tennis training centre in Poznan in the early 1990s, Mariusz made the mistake of taking a seat vacated just seconds earlier by the boy who would one day become his partner.

“There was one bench for 40 kids and I got the seat,” Mariusz says. “Marcin had been sitting there before me but had got up. He came back a few seconds later and told me, ‘Get the *@!# out. That’s my seat.’ He was a big guy, so I didn’t say anything.”

“I don’t remember that story, and Mariusz only made me aware of it a few years ago, but I guess part of it is true,” says Marcin, playing defence. “But for sure I wouldn’t have used those words.” Mariusz replies: “A lot of it is true. But after all the time we spent playing juniors we started to like each other a little more. He grew on me.”

Relations steadily thawed and after spending many hours together at junior tournaments, the Poles joined forces as a doubles team. In their fifth professional outing – and first at Challenger level – they won the title in Szczecin, Marcin’s hometown, in August, 2001. “That’s the way it started,” Marcin recalls. “I was playing college tennis at UCLA, so we could only play during the summer for three years.”

“He doesn’t look it, but he’s a deep thinker,” Mariusz says of his partner, who majored in economics. “Whether it’s finance or politics, he always seems to know what’s going on.”

Apart from a four-month separation in 2005, the Poles have been a mainstay of the ATP World Tour, sticking together while many other partnerships have come and gone. Their differences have proven to be their strength. Mariusz says: “He’s a strong personality on the court and off the court. He has ups and downs. He shows his emotions and he may get into a fight with the umpire or our opponents, but then he’ll come back and focus on the match. And I’m the calm one, so we fit well together.”

“He’s like my wife – that’s a compliment,” Marcin says. “As he says, when I am having fights on the court he’s there to calm me down, because sometimes I forget I’m losing the big picture.”

Ask any of the top doubles teams and they’ll tell you that the Poles are one of the most dangerous teams on the planet, capable of taking out any team. (They defeated 2008 ATP World Tour Doubles Champions Nestor & Zimonjic twice last season, and the Bryan brothers once.) But the team has also been plagued by inconsistency, a flaw that has prevented the combination from achieving the same success attained by Nestor & Zimonjic and the Bryans.

After a mixed season in 2008 that included the Warsaw crown, the ATP Masters 1000 title in Madrid and three runners-up finishes, the challenge for the Poles in 2009 is to become a more consistent team, and one that holds down a permanent place in the Top 5 of the 2009 ATP Doubles Team Rankings. In 2008 they had eight first round losses, including at Wimbledon and the US Open. In contrast, the Bryan brothers had one first round loss, ironically to the Poles at the ATP Masters 1000 tennis tournament in Paris.

“We feel we deserve to be Top 5 this year, and we’re capable of that,” Mariusz says. “We just need more consistency and to show better results at the Grand Slams. That’s what we want, especially after what we did at the end of last season, winning the Madrid title and reaching the semi-finals of the Tennis Masters Cup (which in 2009 moves to London as the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals).”

Marcin adds: “We rely heavily on our serves and when we are serving well we know we can beat any team in the world. Teams don’t like playing us because they never know what to expect. We can come out firing or we can be slow. Our volleys used to be our worst stroke but we worked on them and they have improved a lot.”

The Poles have also worked on and improved their blogging (which unfortunately is available only in Polish). It began during the Beijing Olympics and was an instant hit with fans and media back home. Marcin says the Olympic posts generated 200,000 page views.

Mariusz says: “People who are not involved in tennis don’t really know what goes on in real life on the tour – what happens in the locker room, the trash talking, relationships between players. We try to give them the information and tell them about funny situations. A lot of the media is taking information from the blog.”

An example from last year’s Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai:

At the opening ceremony [Former ATP Chairman] Etienne de Villiers was introducing the players. When Federer’s name was announced, he stood up. When it was time for Roddick, Roddick said ‘I’m going to get up and hug Etienne.’ He stood up and gave him a big hug for about five seconds. Etienne didn’t know what was going on.”

One imagines how the Poles would have blogged back in their junior days, when Mariusz says practice facilities were primitive. “Training conditions are okay now, but 15 years ago they were an absolute disaster. I would practise on something at my school that wasn’t even a court. It had different lines for different sports – volleyball or something. We had a net, but we had to imagine where the tennis lines were as we hit the ball. And there were holes in the court. It was a nasty place. When we finally started to travel to Europe we saw a different world. Thankfully things in Poland are much better now.”

And so is the combination of Fyrstenberg and Matkowski.

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