Challenger Q&A: Krueger Claims Maiden Title In Dallas
Talk about a fairytale finish. It doesn’t get much better than this for Mitchell Krueger.
Krueger captured his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title on Sunday at his hometown RBC Tennis Championships of Dallas. In front of his family and friends, the nearby Fort Worth native produced a dramatic display to raise the trophy. He rallied from a set and a break down to outlast Mackenzie McDonald 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-1 after two hours and three minutes.
The victory carried added signficance, considering Krueger was born and raised in the Dallas area and trained at T Bar M Racquet Club since he was nearly 10 years old. Now, the tournament has its first home grown champion in its 21st edition.
McDonald entered the prestigious Challenger 110 event as the top seed and had reached the final in 2018 as well, but this was Krueger’s day. The 25-year-old has been plotting his ascent on the ATP Challenger Tour for more than four years and was finally rewarded with his first piece of silverware.
Hard work and perseverance have paid dividends for Krueger in the past year. In August, he qualified for his first Grand Slam at the US Open after saving three match points in his second-round match and rallying from a set and a break to punch his ticket. And then last month he earned a spot in the Australian Open main draw for the first time, before falling to Novak Djokovic on Rod Laver Arena.
The momentum would carry Krueger to new heights and he has been rewarded with a career-high ATP Ranking of No. 160. Up 49 spots thanks to his title in Dallas, he is making a significant surge at the age of 25. For some players, it simply takes time to put it all together. After many years fighting for Challenger glory, Krueger has his moment.
The American spoke to broadcaster Mike Cation following the final…
Congrats, Mitch. Your first Challenger title. Talk about what this means to you.
It’s incredible. I’ve been taking pictures with so many people that I’ve known from training here. I’m coming here since I was 10 years old. Like they said in the trophy presentation, I was a ball kid here for so many years and then moved on to playing qualies and then main draw. I’ve always had a soft spot for this tournament. You couldn’t have written it up any better than to win my first Challenger here.
You actually spent a couple years away from this tournament. You would extend your stay in Australia instead of coming home and playing in Dallas.
I struggled playing indoors for the longest time. This time of year is tricky when you’re ranked outside the Top 250. Do I want to play two tournaments in Australia outdoors or come home for one indoor event? I had decent results indoors, but not consistent. On faster surfaces I struggled a bit. I’ve always wanted to play the tournament, but there was a time when I thought it was better for me to stay in Australia. And in 2017 I made a final there.
But to be honest, I put a lot of work in the offseason this time. I changed my racquet to Yonex and completely changed the grip on my forehand. After the Australian Open, I went back to my childhood coach Dave Licker and his team at The Lakes, 20 minutes north of here. We worked on everything. This is validation for me, knowing I made the right decision for my career. I felt it was time to take some ownership and break from the USTA and go private. That is, take the financial burden and trust that I’ll do the right things and the results will come. I took the leap and this feeling right now is exactly what I was searching for.
In those pressure points and tight moments, you would always get attacked on that forehand wing. You just mentioned the change of grip. It held up pretty well today. How did you feel?
Outside of the first 20 minutes of the match, it felt pretty good. Mackie came out firing and was putting a lot of pressure on me. Once I got my teeth into the match a little bit, I definitely raised my level. I thought my forehand was as good as it’s ever been. In the past, guys would pick that side to break down and it didn’t like it used to. I’m at the point where I’m playing a lot more aggressive and offensive with it. If I can pair that weapon with my backhand and I’m serving well, I’d like to think it’s tough to beat me.
If you could see the pressure of the practises I was doing in Orlando in the offseason, you’d know. Literally doing hand feeds to my forehand for three hours a day for a week and a half. Not doing anything else. Just to feel the new grip. I slowly progressed to live balls and then baseline points. Going into the first week of the season, I wasn’t 100 per cent ready to play with the new racquet and grip, but I felt it was important to throw myself out there. I lost to Stefan Kozlov and it actually gave me confidence, because there were many good moments and I took it right to Australia. I had one of the biggest moments of my career there, playing Novak Djokovic. Every week it got progressively better and better.
It feels like you’re actually downplaying this. To think that you’re spending hours doing hand-feeding, that’s a massive change you’ve made in the span of a month.
We decided to make the change pretty much immediately into the offseason. I knew I had about three and a half weeks to get it down as best I could. I basically started from scratch with my forehand. I could tell that with the feeling of the ball coming off the racquet, it was much better. Then it was just about trusting it. My coaches told me to trust in the mindset of the forehand and that it will make a world of difference if I stick with it. This will open up a lot more doors. I’ve done a good job with that mentality in my entire career, just to keep going and going things will happen. It’s trending in the right direction now.
Your parents have great passion to see you succeed. That’s a double-edged sword sometimes, but what does it mean to have this moment with them? And your girlfriend Jeannie of course.
It means the world to me to have them all here. In front of both my parents, my sister, Jeannie, my grandpa, my sister’s husband had his family here. It was incredible. Pair with that, Dave and all the guys who are part of my team now. There’s no denying that this is the best scenario for winning my first Challenger.
This is often tough for a lot of players. They get their first Challenger title and then the next couple weeks, they get a bit lost and expect things to happen. How do you fight that off?
I think that I’m late to winning my first Challenger. I’m one of the few guys that people are thinking, ‘how has he not won a Challenger yet?’, so I’m excited for what’s next. I hope I get into Delray Beach qualies next and then obviously Indian Wells Challenger and the Masters 1000 event there. I’ve always done well in bigger tournaments against bigger players. I’m excited going into hopefully an ATP Tour event and then another big Challenger and another ATP event.
How do you celebrate?
That is a great question. I have not thought about it yet. I’m just super excited. I have a lot to look forward to in the coming months. Tonight, tomorrow, in the coming weeks.