If you search Amazon for a DVD with the ambiguous title 50,000 Balls, you’ll find an award-winning tennis documentary by Tom Pura that traces the journey of four 12-year-olds as they pursue a dream of becoming national champions at the USTA National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich.
On the DVD’s jacket is a picture of four smiling, bright-eyed youngsters, brought together from different corners of the country and from diverse backgrounds. They became friends on and off the court while sharing the mental stresses and physical challenges of become elite junior tennis players.
One of those youngsters was a mop-topped Texan from Aledo who continues to chase that dream.
Almost a decade after 50,000 Balls was filmed, Mitchell Krueger’s journey has taken him to the far corners of the globe in an effort to hone his craft, from solo train trips through Southeast Asia to remote Tasmania. On Tuesday, the 21-year-old’s journey takes him to the red clay of Roland Garros in Paris.
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Krueger hasn’t played his way into the French Open just yet, but he at least has earned a spot in qualifying, putting him just three wins away from a berth in one of the sport’s Grand Slam events — where he would share a locker room with players named Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
Just earning a chance to qualify for the French Open is a major milestone in the career of a player who has never been labeled “The Next [fill in name here]” or tabbed for instant stardom, like fellow Americans Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock.
Krueger’s journey has been a long, slow grind, learning from losses, taking victories where he could get them. That’s been the case for Krueger since his days as a youngster, hitting the “50,000 balls” it takes to reach the elite level of junior tennis, as one USTA coach put it in the documentary.
Krueger hasn’t taken any shortcuts. He’s paid his dues at each level and moved to the next.
But in many respects, tennis is a game Krueger was born into. His first memories are of playing with tennis balls on a court while his mother, Marla, a former college player at Louisiana Tech, gave tennis lessons. She’s now an instructor at T Bar M Racquet Club in Dallas where Krueger trained while attending Spring Creek Academy. His father, Myron, an engineer at Lockheed Martin, played tennis at Texas A&M and is a respected tennis referee in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association.
Krueger’s parents continue to fret over the “hitch” in his forehand, and take pride in his improving serve. But for the most part, they’ve left his instruction to coaches such as Dave Licker, who guided Krueger through his junior years, and the USTA’s Stanford Boster as a pro.
Licker helped Krueger as he began traveling the country to the most prestigious junior tournaments and later to Europe and Australia, climbing the international rankings.
In 2012, as an 18-year-old playing his final year in the juniors, Krueger was No. 5 in the world and reached the semifinals at the French Open and Wimbledon junior events. He also won the singles title at the International Spring Championships in Carson, Calif., and added the doubles title the next week at the prestigious Easter Bowl in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
After returning to the states that summer, Krueger gave up a chance to play at Texas A&M and turned pro. He moved to the USTA training facility in Boca Raton, Fla., and began another long, slow climb, this time up the ATP Tour rankings.
“Everyone, all the coaches, knew I might not end up going [to A&M],” Krueger said. “Having the junior career I had and to be top five in the world, I felt like I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, with sponsors and the USTA helping me out, being able to train [in Boca Raton] and having all the coaching, that was hugely important.”
The pace of Krueger’s rise has seemed glacial at times, but it has been steady.
“It was tough going from winning a lot of matches as a junior and going deep into tournaments to suddenly playing guys that are much older and much more physically mature and mentally mature,” Krueger said. “It just takes time. For anyone making that transition, you’ve got to understand that losing is a part of it. It’s going to happen a lot.”
He won his first professional singles title at a clay-court Futures event in the Netherlands in 2013. But despite reaching the finals at six Futures events last year and bouncing back and forth between Futures and Challenger qualifying, his next title didn’t come until early this year, when he won the USC Futures title in Los Angeles in January on the eve of his 21st birthday.
“I had a feeling that if I just kept going at it, I’d eventually get some good results,” Krueger said. “Last year wasn’t a bad year by any means. I made six finals, but lost all six. If I win even half of those, my ranking would be 50 spots higher right now, at least. To be able to win that first tournament this year and get over that hump was big for my confidence and my ranking.”
The victory in Los Angeles pushed his ranking into the 200s, where he no longer has to play in the qualifying draw to earn a spot in the main draw at Challenger events. Without the added pressure of qualifying, Krueger’s climb has taken another jump. In the past two months, he’s reached the quarterfinals of Challenger events in Savannah, Ga., and Tallahassee, Fla.
With those results also came a career-high ranking of No. 279.
That success put him in the running for the USTA’s French Open wild card, but he was edged out by Frances Tiafoe. Krueger, however, was able to land the spot in qualifying at Roland Garros, beginning Tuesday. He joins a new wave of American men who are beginning to make their presence felt in the upper echelons of the game.
It’s a trend that has U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier feeling optimistic about the future of American men’s tennis.
“We have the established generation of players that we’ve been drawing on — [John] Isner, [Sam] Querrey and the Bryan brothers,” Courier said. “Now the next generation of players — Steven Johnson, Jack Sock and Donald Young — have established themselves, and we have guys like Tim Smyczek, and some others between 100 and 200 [in the rankings].
“Then we have a really strong group of younger players like Noah Rubin and Frances Tiafoe and some others, who are on the way up and will be top 100 in the next two years.
“I’m optimistic about American men’s tennis in a way that I haven’t been in the last four of five years. I think the dawn is with us right now. We’re seeing the sun start to rise, and it’s a good feeling.”
From his vantage point in Paris, Mitchell Krueger will see the sun rise over the red clay of Roland Garros this week. And the view doesn’t get much better than that.
Rusty Hall, 817-390-7816
Main draw: May 24-June 7
Roland Garros, Paris