Hubert Hurkacz was just one when Roger Federer turned pro in 1998, a swaddled toddler in his native Wrocław, along the banks of the Oder. The Pole had yet to dream his first tennis dream, yet his idol-to-be was already introducing himself to a sport he would one day come to dominate.
Outside of names like Wojciech Fibak and Jadwiga “Ja-Ja” Jędrzejowska, there wasn’t much of a deep-roots tennis tradition in Hurkacz’s homeland. So when his mother, Zocia, introduced him to the sport, it was only natural that he would gravitate toward Federer, who would win the first of five consecutive Wimbledon titles by the time Hurkacz was six.
Hurkacz, now 22, remembers swinging for the fences on the clay courts of his youth. But under Filip Kańczuła, he learned to rein it in. With solid groundstrokes, a concussive serve and a defensive mindset, he soon found himself playing for the boys’ doubles title at the Australian Open. By 2018, he had qualified for the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan.
Imagine Hurkacz’s delight when he got the opportunity to practice with his hero in Shanghai last year.
“Watching Roger play is something different,” he said. “He hits a ball that is really special. He’s inspiring.”
On Friday, it will get downright surreal for the 6-foot-5 upstart. After ousting seeds Kei Nishikori (his second win over the Japanese superstar this year) and Denis Shapovalov, he’s into the first ATP Masters 1000 quarterfinal of his career. His opponent? You guessed it: Mr. Federer.
“It’s really important for me that I’m gaining experience on this level,” said the shy baseliner, whose friends have nicknamed him “Hubi.” “My main goal is to improve my game all the time, to beat the top guys.”
Hurkacz enjoys grilled pierogis and kielbasa, reads Robert Ludlum novels in his spare time, and has a thing for Aston Martins. If the prize money keeps coming, he might even buy himself one someday. But in his first full year of playing tour events, he’s focused on producing results. Thus far, his alignment with American Craig Boynton, who’s worked with everyone from Jim Courier and Mardy Fish to John Isner and Steve Johnson, is reaping rewards. A strong performance against Federer at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden would do wonders for his confidence.
“That’s the greatest thing that can happen to a tennis player, playing in the big stadiums, big events against big players,” said Hurkacz, whose family accompanied him to the desert. “Roger’s an unbelievable player. He’s had amazing results, winning many Grand Slams. For sure, he’s special. It’s going to be fun to play against him.”
Federer, meanwhile, is seeking his record sixth BNP Paribas Open title, having advanced to the final in each of the last two years. The 37-year-old has looked sharp in wins over countryman Stan Wawrinka, in a rematch of the 2017 final, and Brit Kyle Edmund. A potential semifinal matchup with career-long rival Rafael Nadal sits on the horizon, but the Swiss isn’t getting ahead of himself.
“I hope I can get there, but I’m not going to underestimate Hubert,” he cautioned.
Facing first-time opponents all but half his age has become a regular routine for Federer, now two decades into his storied career. But it’s just these kinds of challenges that keep him going.
“I enjoy it,” said Federer. “He’s up and coming, so that’s fun. I have never played him before other than practice. It’s nice to see what they have in the matches and really get a sense how much more we will see of them. For me, at a top level, I like it that I’m not playing the same guys every single week.”