Editor's note: "From Fan to Final" originally appeared on Universal Tennis as the third part of a series of accounts shared by Eric Butorac, ATP Player Council president and an accomplished doubles specialist.
I’m pretty sure that I’m the only pro player currently on tour who attended the Australian Open as a fan…in their Unier20s! Never once did I think that I would be competing in that same tournament five years later.
That first time, I was a college junior, playing on the tennis team at Gustavus Adolphus College, a small liberal arts college in St. Peter, Minnesota. This was a special January program on sports ethics that brought students to Australia. A number of older tennis players had taken the trip before and had told me that it was an experience they would never forget. I’d never left the U.S. and although I needed a bank loan to pay for it, I decided it was exactly the type of experience I couldn’t miss.
A portion of the trip involved visiting Melbourne and getting to see a few days of tennis at the Australian Open. Unsurprisingly, going to the event and getting to watch pro tennis live was the highlight of my trip. At the top of my agenda was getting to see the best doubles team in the world, the Bryan Brothers, play a match. I was sitting in the front row of court 21 when Kali Ofstahague, another student on the trip who knew I played at the top of our Gustavus lineup, turned to me and said, “Someday that could be you out there.” I remember saying something to the effect of, “It doesn’t really work like that.” She persisted, “but you are the number one player at Gustavus…and isn’t Gustavus one of the best teams in all of Division III?” While I appreciated her naiveté, I spent the next five minutes explaining to her that people don’t play Division III tennis and then go on to play in Grand Slams.
Fast forward twelve years to 2014, and I was walking into another Bryan Brothers match. The difference was that this time, I was seeing them from across the net. I think my record against them was about 1-10 going into that match, including two previous losses to them in Melbourne. After so many defeats, even the most confident player would start to lose some belief…and I am only moderately confident at my best. Given that I had one victory over them and that they had won the Australian Open like four of the last five years, I had taken one look at my draw and purchased a non-refundable ticket home for the following day. After all, my wife was home with our newborn son, born four weeks before the start of the tournament.
We were in the match from the beginning. We even had an early lead. However, like the Bryans often do, they broke us to get back on serve and took a lead early in the first set tie-breaker. As I was resigning to another defeat, I looked towards my partner who had other ideas. He had never played the Bryans and was innocent enough to believe we could still win.
Just like that I was staring at a match point. Mike served wide to my backhand and I hit the return cross court. I was waiting for him to pick up a half volley and force me to come up with another good shot from baseline. Somehow, the ball slid by him. I guess I’d hit it even better than I’d originally thought. It took me a good second to realize…that that was it. We had beaten the greatest team in history at a Grand Slam for a place in the quarterfinals.
We went on to make the finals that year. We didn’t win it all, and the final wasn’t even all that close, but that didn’t matter. My Australian Open journey had come full circle. Sure, a slam title would be nice to have on my resume, and I don’t have that today. But looking back at my conversation from fourteen years ago, I realize I would answer Kali differently now. Yes, someday that could—and would—be me.