“Denis has told us that players are as sensitive as animals,” Vladmir explained before the first-round match. “They can see, out of the side of their head, how their team, their family and their friends are acting.”
That’s why whatever concern his parents felt was imperceptible as Kudla was pummeled by 20 aces en route to a 7-6 (7-2), 6-2 defeat at the hands of Samuel Groth, a 6-foot-4 Australian qualifier credited with the fastest serve ever clocked, at 163 mph.
“You keep smiling,” Vladimir Kudla said. “Whatever moves you make, make them so he knows we are still confident and we adore him no matter what happens.”
The role of tennis parent is among the more difficult in the sport. While fully invested in the outcome, emotionally and financially, tennis parents are powerless to help. And at the top ranks of the game, the role is often performed badly.
Arlington’s Kudla, 20, is among the lucky ones.
He started playing tennis at 7 mainly because his elder brother, Nikita, played. But his parents recognized his natural gift and found him proper coaching — first in Burke and then, as he progressed, at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park.
“We don’t have a clue how to play tennis,” said Vladimir, an architect. “Thank God I didn’t start to teach him!”
At every stage, Denis was the one demanding more.
His mother got permission to pick him up from elementary school one hour early so they could race from Fairfax to College Park, where she’d wait through his two-hour practices, drive him home while he slept, then wake him for dinner and homework.
In ninth grade Denis started home-schooling, commuting on his own to practice in College Park via Metro, lugging two racket bags bigger than he was and changing trains twice during rush hour.
“The schedule he had was ridiculous,” said Nikita, 25. “But he loved every minute. The only time he got nervous was when our father told him that if he didn’t keep doing well in school, he’d had to give up tennis.”
Southern Cal was among the schools eyeing him, but Kudla chose to turn pro at 16 with his parents’ blessing.
Lucy Kudla explains that she dreamed, as a child, of being a ballet dancer. She started lessons in her native Ukraine at 5. Her coaches said she had promise, but her mother wouldn’t hear of it.
“Still it’s a passion,” Lucy said. “As soon as I hear music, I’m dancing in my mind.”
It was her way of explaining how she felt about Denis’s decision to turn pro while his friends prepared for college.
“I could see that Denis had a dream since he was little,” Lucy said. “So for me — it’s me. It’s like I’m dancing.”