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Polish Power: Fyrstenberg and Matkowski

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Originally published on: 11/07/12 00:00

Words: Jamie Renton

Marcin Matkowski and Mariusz Fyrstenberg have played tennis together for so long they once equated their partnership to a marriage. High fliers on the ATP doubles circuit, the Polish pair haven’t gone as far as making a lifelong vow – that might not sit well with Fyrstenberg’s wife Marta – but where the majority of doubles teams quickly grow weary of their other halves the duo have found a novel way to make sure separation isn't an option. “We bet on a lot of things,” Matkowski reveals. “Stupid things. Anything that can keep us a little on edge so that we have something to talk about, argue about, so not to have a dull relationship. “We bet on everything,” continues the 31-year-old Pole. “Who will win this point or the next point, soccer results, whether Jose Mourinho will pick this player or that player, who will pick up more points in darts… you name it, we bet on it.” It’s an interesting approach to wiling away those long hours spent travelling, practising, resting and eating together on tour and, given that they have combined career earnings of over $4 million to date, begs the question – how much are they willing to throw at each other? “Only 5-10 euros,” insists Fyrstenberg. “With 10 euros it’s a lot of pressure! Money is not important but the fact that you might lose a bet to him,” he says, nodding in the direction of his partner, “or him to me – that’s the worst feeling.”

Matkowski and Fyrstenberg have hit the courts together for the best part of two decades and are fresh from a career-best season on the ATP Tour. Last year, they reached the finals of the US Open and the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals and each accumulated $175,000 for the two events in the process – proof, if you needed it, that professional doubles can be a very worthy pursuit even if meagre courtside attendances might sometimes suggest otherwise. 

Both men now live and practice in Warsaw, which makes it “much easier” to maintain a consistent level says Matkowski, who moved away from Szczecin, a port city by the German border in the north-west of the country, two years ago. Since then, the two have steadily climbed from outside the top 20 to No.7 in the world. Their longevity and mutual understanding has earned them comparisons to active doubles legends Bob and Mike Bryan, who, incidentally, are responsible for coining their nickname ‘Polish Power’. But where the perfectly synced American twins might be considered peas in a pod, Matkowski and Fyrstenberg are more yin and yang. Unlike Fyrstenberg, Matkowski doesn’t have the lean rangy physique expected of a top athlete. He’s an inch shorter than his 6’3” partner but his powerful serve is a needling reminder that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Fyrstenberg, the quieter, calmer and elder of the two by six months, is proficient at diffusing situations while Matkowski is more prone to firing them up. Their first ever encounter at junior level is evidence of that. “We first met on National Camp when we were nine or ten,” remembers Fyrstenberg. “There were a lot of kids around and just one bench to sit on and one seat free. I was going to take it, but Marcin was going for it as well. I was the first one to sit down and Marcin said ‘Get the f*** out of here! This is my seat, I was here before!’" Fyrstenberg clearly didn’t take too much offence. “Obviously our relationship has got better every year,” he grins. “We became good friends.”

From 2001, at the age of 20, Matkowski went to UCLA to pursue a degree in economics alongside his tennis. At college, he enjoyed considerable doubles success with fellow UCLA attendee and current ATP pro Jean Julien Roger but returned to Poland to compete with Fyrstenberg in Challenger events during his annual two-month summer break. With Matkowski in California, Fyrstenberg concentrated on singles. Early honours included a Challenger victory over eventual top-tenner Fernando Verdasco in Ukraine in 2002 and, a year later, he took a set off David Ferrer in Poland, but those displays turned out to be the highlight of his individual efforts and he peaked at a career high No.317 in the world. By contrast, he and Matkowski’s professional doubles career had a much firmer backbone. They got off to a flyer in August 2003 when they teamed up to win their maiden ATP event in the northern Polish city of Sopot, beating four top-60 ranked teams for the title. “It was a great start for us,” Matkowski reflects. “We had decided to give it a shot in doubles and try to qualify for the Olympics in Athens and then right away we won our first tour event. It showed we had potential.”

That promise has multiplied in the years since. They did indeed make the Olympics in 2004 and though Roger Federer and Yves Allegro swiftly crushed any dreams of a medal in the opening round, two years later they had reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open and come the next Olympics in Beijing, they made it to the quarter-finals. While they’ve struggled to perform well at Wimbledon in the past, the patriotic Poles might be considered stern challengers for a medal at the London Olympics, no small feat for two men raised in a country that has hardly been frothing with tennis talent over the years. “When we were growing up, we didn’t have anybody to follow,” Matkowski admits. “The only player was Wojtek Fibak (a Poznan-born player who peaked at world No.10 in 1977). We weren’t even born then!”

Europe’s ninth largest country has at least seen a small surge in its fortunes since, with the likes of WTA star Agnieszka Radwanska and top 100 player Lukasz Kubot keeping Fyrstenberg and Matkowski company on tour. “Every time we are all at the same tournament we go for dinner,” Matkowski says. “It’s only us and Lukasz [at the big events] on tour right now, so when Agnieszka is there too it’s nice to have somebody else to call on.”

Being two of just a handful of tennis role models for their nation must be a positive too, but Fyrstenberg doesn’t expect a flood of bright sparks to follow in their footsteps any time soon. “The culture is different in Poland. Your location is very important,” he identifies. “We don’t have a scholarship system like in the States where whoever plays tennis has a supporting education as well. We need to choose one or the other and that’s why not a lot of kids there play tennis still.” Those that do can take heart from seeing Fyrstenberg and Matkowski carve their paths in such different ways. As both will testify, it's not just the choice that is important but the manner in which it is followed through.

'Polish Power' featured in the May 2012 (Volume 3: Issue 2) issue of tennishead magazine. Why not subscribe here

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