37 year old Matwé Middelkoop has been on tour since he was 16 years old. He is from the Netherlands and has travelled to over 80 countries. He is currently ranked 46 in the world in doubles and has a career high of 30. Although he is now a world class doubles player, his path on the ATP tour has not been so easy. He won his first ATP point in 2002 and chose the professional route right after high school. I had the opportunity to interview this ATP veteran and learn about his story. From the interview I could tell he was a funny, genuine guy. You can support him here on Instagram. If you are interested in following his ranking and tournament schedule you can see all of that here.
1. When did you start playing tennis? At what age did you fall in love with it?
Matwé: When I was 5 my mom gave me a tennis racquet and told me to try hitting balls with it. I was hitting against the garage wall and even set up targets. I started to get good and enjoyed it. I was beating my neighbor at it, so I asked my mom if I could take lessons. I liked to win, like any tennis player does and when I was 10 my mom gave me a poster of Edburg and that’s when I knew I was going to be a tennis player. At age 12, I left my family and went to a tennis academy. From 12-18 I practiced at an academy every day.
2. What was it like going to an academy far from home?
Matwé: I went to the academy because it made me disciplined and stronger, and at that moment my mind was set to be a top player and to work towards that. My first year was very hard, I had to adjust to the culture of South Holland. North and South are quite different. The host parents that I lived with disciplined me alot and it was tough for me to handle that. However, looking back it was good for me. I had the schedule of a college tennis player at the age of 12, so I was exposed to an intense training schedule early on.
3. Did you ever think about going to the U.S to play college tennis?
Matwé: I had a few full scholarships, but there were 2 choices. Go to America and get an education, nice facilities, and team building, or go pro. I chose to be pro right away because I thought I was good enough to go pro right away. It was a tough choice, but I decided to go pro when I was 16 or 17 years old and I got my first ATP point in 2002.
4. What was it like travelling and playing futures tournaments so young?
Matwé: The hardest times of my career were when I was 16 or 17 traveling for futures. My mom went with me for some tournaments. When I was 16 I began to get federation and sponsorship help. Then I was able to bring my coach along, but I still felt like I was in a swamp. It was so hard, and there was no prize money, and lots of travelling. I went through the futures system quickly so I am grateful for that. Some guys stick with futures till they’re 28 or 29 and then stop playing and then retire.
5. When did you decide to stop playing singles?
Matwé: In doubles you get accepted by singles ranking, which is ridiculous. Doubles ranking=doubles acceptance. I was 30/31 and I decided I have to stop playing singles. At that point I would only play doubles for extra money. I remember when it was 2014 playing $10k futures, losing, and I was devastated. I didn’t have much money at that point. My survival instincts kicked in and I decided to play doubles only, starting January 2015. I spoke with Wesley Koolhoff at the end of 2014 and we decided to just play doubles only together in January 2015. We started ranked in the 300’s, and a year later we were top 50 in the world. It is up to you whether you specialize in singles or doubles, but the way the tour is set up, you cannot do that.
6. What have been some of your toughest challenges on tour?
Matwé: The toughest challenge has been my mental state. I was very hard on myself mentally from 16 to my 30’s. I felt when I stepped on court I was always in war with myself. The moment I felt tired or could not get my head together was when I lost a lot of singles matches. I could not be relaxed in my head. I could win against good opponents and then lose against my grandma. Until my 30’s, I was my biggest opponent. Second, When I started playing doubles I could not volley. If you saw my matches when I started playing doubles I would back up every ball my opponents hit, hoping that they would hit it to my teammate. I had no skill at the net. I had to overcome that. I was a singles player playing doubles. In singles, I would just go to the net to shake my opponents hand. It was tough, but I can volley now. I feel comfortable now. Third, travelling is tough, because it is a love-hate relationship. You are away 40 weeks a year and do not get to see family and friends. You have to give up a lot of your life for a big uncertainty. But at the same time I love travelling too, because we see the nicest places in the world.
7. Have you had any scary travel stories?
Matwé: All I am going to say is I hate flying. One of my flights got stuck by lightning so we had to turn around right after we left. It was crazy, we were in the air for 15 minutes after the plane got struck and everyone on the plane was scared.
8. What are the biggest differences from ITFS, Challengers, ATPs, and Grand Slams?
Matwé: The biggest difference is the people that you are surrounded by. You are in a select group made up of the best of the best. The atmosphere at the futures level is not great. When you get to challenger level tournaments you get more accommodations and then you can invest your saved money, so you can now travel with a coach. That will enhance your performance. Every step up has its perks. When you play futures and lose the first round you feel terrible when you receive $100. I just lost the second round of Paris and I received $11,000. It feels like you made it and you have more financial comfortability. Some tournaments are so nice, and you get treated so well. However, It is not the reason you go there though, the reason is to play the sport you love and get better.Matwé: The biggest difference is the people that you are surrounded by. You are in a select group made up of the best of the best. The atmosphere at the futures level is not great. When you get to challenger level tournaments you get more accommodations and then you can invest your saved money, so you can now travel with a coach. That will enhance your performance. Every step up has its perks. When you play futures and lose the first round you feel terrible when you receive $100. I just lost the second round of Paris and I received $11,000. It feels like you made it and you have more financial comfortability. Some tournaments are so nice, and you get treated so well. However, It is not the reason you go there though, the reason is to play the sport you love and get better.
9. How is covid-19 going to affect the tour?
Matwé: Covid is a tough one for mid to low level players on both the ATP and WTA tour. This limited amount of tournaments we have now due to covid are going to be full with top players itching to play. The richest people get richer, they get protected by the system. I am very lucky because I am in the top 50 and will be protected. Hopefully we can fix the system.
10. Over your long career have what been some positive changes you have seen on tour?
Matwé: The increase in prize money has been amazing. It has been a topic of conversation the last 3-4 years. Doubles players only get 7% of the prize money from grand slams. Also, the facilities and scheduling has also gotten better due to the player council.
11. Are there any negative changes over the years?
Matwé: Covid-19 has occurred and now they are not listening to the players. They have cut our prize money a lot, and have not been communicating with us. There is an uproar now due to the lack of communication and prize money. The tournaments said we have less ticket sales, but that’s just a small part of their revenue. So we feel a little bit robbed there. When we are in the bubble, everyone we take with us has to be in the bubble. But if we take a coach the coach has to be in the same hotel, and he has to pay the price for his room because he cannot stay in mine. The hotel rooms have doubled because the players get their room for “free”. We should get protected by that. There should be a fixed amount per hotel room. We cannot decide where our coach stays, so we cannot be wise with our money. They assume everyone can pay that price. We are trying to save money too.
12. What has been your favorite tournament to play at?
Matwé: St. Petersburg Open. I have performed well there and I am half Russian. My family is from there, so I have a good connection with the city. It is very organized too. As far as grand slams go, the Australian open has been my favorite. The facilities are very nice there.
13. Do you see yourself retiring any time soon?
Matwé: No, I am healthy and playing good tennis. I am not close to retiring any time soon. I have a young body and mind. I am still learning the game and new tricks as well. I still do not understand everything about doubles and tennis so I still want to play and get better. I am at a good spot, there is no reason to stop playing.
14. Have you had any injuries?
Matwé: I have had 1 operation on my meniscus, and a little problem with my shoulder and wrist. I have been blessed to not have to stop playing for months at a time. I do my fair share of injury prevention, which is especially important as you get older. I am happy that injuries have not been a big part of my career.
15. What are your goals for 2021?
Matwé: My goals for 2021 are to beat my career high ranking and to stay healthy.
16. If you could give one piece of advice to a player starting out on tour what would you tell them?
Matwé: In Dutch we have a saying, “the one who never gives up, achieves”. Throughout my career, I always had moments where I could stop playing tennis. My mom always told me the one who “stays longer in the game has a better chance of finally breaking through”. I had 10 good reasons to stop, but I never did, and that is why I am where I am today. I was 31 when I started to play doubles, I never gave up. I had difficult moments, but I refused to give up. So the advice is that yes, you are going to have difficult times, and there will be setbacks, but if you survive those setbacks, you’re the one who will make it on top.
17. Could you describe how tennis has influenced you in 3 words?
Matwé: Personality, discipline, and mentality (you can do anything you put your mind to).