3 January 2021 | Vivienne Christie

Asked to summarise his experiences of 2020 in a single word, Aleksandar Vukic pauses to think carefully.

“I guess ‘positive’?” he reasons, the hint of apology acknowledging a period that was so dramatically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s tough. Overall, the year itself was challenging for many people.” Vukic adds. “But the tennis itself was positive.”

It was in fact more than positive for the 24-year-old from Sydney, who could reasonably claim a breakthrough season after a series of career-best performances.

Peaking at world No.196 after a runner-up performance at the Monterrey Challenger in March, Vukic also enjoyed his Grand Slam debut in September after progressing through Roland Garros qualifying.

“That was a real highlight,” says Vukic, who saved two match points against Carlos Alcaraz in his opening match in Paris.

“It’s a lot of people’s dreams just to play in a Grand Slam so to be able to qualify for a Grand Slam on my own merit and on clay, where I honestly wasn’t expecting to do that well, I was pretty happy.”

Having earlier claimed back-to-back UTR Pro Tennis Series titles in Sydney, the hardworking Vukic had positioned himself superbly for a return to international tournaments in August.

After qualifying for a Challenger event in Prostejov, Czech Republic, he went on to stun world No.67 Jiri Vesely – who was competing in his hometown – to reach the quarterfinals.

“I definitely didn’t have the crowd behind me,” Vukic relates with a laugh. “It was good, but it was one of those (situations) where I’d had a few tough matches before that.

“The level was really close, so every game I was trying to hold serve. But it did give me the confidence going into the French that if I show up, anything is possible – it helped me give my best.”

Vukic, who gained a finance degree while developing his game at the University of Illinois, explains that many important lessons were reinforced in the confidence-boosting season.

“I think it’s mostly understanding how I play,” he relates. “And understanding that I can’t do everything. I can play to my strengths and try to really have those strengths be a huge part of my game and try to improve those things that are my weaknesses.”

The most important realisation for Vukic is that he can impose his big game – built around a powerful serve and forehand – on anybody. At Roland Garros, he defeated three higher-ranked opponents to qualify.

“If I do that, I can make a lot of people uncomfortable and if I can hold serve, especially in today’s game, then I give myself a great opportunity,” he says.

“I think I stuck to my strengths and kind of played pretty free. I wasn’t really thinking about winning or losing, it was more just trying to progress in each match and be glad that I can play tennis through these times.”

The “times” that Vukic is referencing is of course the unprecedented pandemic, which incorporated some silver livings for the improving Sydneysider who rose to a career-high ranking of No.183 in October.

Allowing more time to spend with computer engineer parents Rad and Ljiljana, as well as his older brother, Vlad, the disrupted season also provided Vukic with a deeper gratitude for his opportunities as a professional player.

“It made me just appreciate that I love being out there playing tennis, I love competing. I wasn’t just playing it for a job, it was (a case of) I genuinely love the sport,” he says.

“I was very glad to be doing this and to be playing a sport that is socially distancing.”

While acknowledging that travelling was significantly more complicated on the tour resumption, Vukic easily maintained his positive outlook.

“Honestly as tennis players, we’re quite used to travelling to hotels and tennis courts, so nothing really changes in terms of that,” he explains. “We just were forced to stay inside or were voluntarily choosing to stay inside.”

A camaraderie with fellow Australian players helped overcome any challenges, as did the awareness that “there’ll be opportunities next year”.

The new season is already promising new highs for Vukic, who’ll make his Australian Open main draw debut as one of five male Australian wildcards recipients.

A winner of nine of his 14 matches on the tour resumption in August, the No.10 Australian man has made considerable gains since exiting in the final round of qualifying at AO 2020.

With a top-100 breakthrough on the tennis ‘to-do’ list, Vukic is also maintaining a level-headed approach to his overall development.

“For every player, it’s the ultimate goal,” he points out. “I’ll do my best and if it happens it happens.

“Whether I get it or whatever I don’t, the goal is really just trying to get better with each match I play and see where it takes me.”