overcoming injury and returning to the game with thai-son kwiatkowski
The oldest and for many, claimed to be the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, Wimbledon has been bringing together some of the games top names since it began in 1877. From John McEnroe’s epic duels with Bjorn Borg to the Williams sisters being named Queens of the grass courts after winning a combined 8 finals to the showcasing of one’s best tennis whites, the tournament is one dreamed about by every professional tennis player.
In celebration of the inaugural tournament, now nearing the quarter final rounds, we sat down with Rhone Ambassador and professional tennis player, Thai-Son Kwiatkowski to learn more about his tennis career, overcoming injuries and his journey to playing in Wimbledon this year.
How did you first get started in tennis?
I started tennis around 5 years old. My grandma would pick me up from school because both my parents were still at work, and she would take me to the tennis club with her because she played most afternoons with her friends in a women’s league. After she would finish she would toss me a couple balls and I fell in love with the game right away.
Were you always an athlete? Did you play any other sports growing up?
I also played baseball until I was 13 but I left my hometown to go to a high school dedicated to tennis. It was a fine decision looking back but I can't say I didn't miss playing baseball.
Can you tell us a bit about your college tennis career?
Both of my parents were UVA (University of Virginia) grads so going there was always the dream growing up. Luckily, they also have an amazing tennis program.They won the championship the year before I arrived so there was a lot of pressure coming into that program to keep the culture going. After some growing pains, our team was able to win 3 national championships in a row: 2015, 2016 and 2017. My senior year in 2017 I also won the singles individual championship that gave me a Wild Card to the US Open that same year (that definitely gave me a nice jump start into professional tennis.) There was a lot more to my college career but I won't go into more depth here. I wrote an in depth article a few years back on my college experience if you want to read more about it.
Let’s dive into your career so far. You graduated from college and how did your career begin?
Technically I have been a pro since summer 2017 but tennis is silly in the sense that anyone can essentially call themselves a professional. In reality, you don't start making money until you're in the top 250 in the world, which I didn’t reach until mid 2019. Once you are in that range you can start playing the Grand Slams and bigger events which to me, is where the sport and the travel becomes enjoyable.
You’ve recently dealt with and overcome some injuries. Can you talk about what that experience has been like for you? How you mentally “stay in the game” when you get pushed back because of injury? Any big takeaways?
Unfortunately, right around that same time in 2019 that I officially went pro, I started having some pain in my wrist. After two more years of on and off pain and several cortisone shots, the doctors told me it's time to really fix it with surgery. I had the operation done to fix a tendon in January and have been rehabbing my way back. It’s been a mixed bag for sure: on one hand it has been really nice to be in one place for awhile and spend time with loved ones but on the other, it’s been tough to be away from the game I love and the job that pays the bills. I certainly have a new appreciation for my career and am very excited to get back out there and compete.
I watched a lot of tennis and film during the time away from the court. I also am big into meditation and visualization so I take some time a few days a week to visualize playing tennis. I believe it has helped me feel less rusty the last month or so getting back to physically playing.
You’re playing at Wimbledon this year–congratulations! Have you played in this tournament before?
I played in it last year (2021) and it was an interesting experience. Given the pandemic was still raging, we were in an extremely strict bubble where we could only go from the hotel to the courts and that was it. Additionally, the qualifying which I was in had no fans so the atmosphere was non-existent. I am pumped for both those things to be different this year. Wimbledon and the Masters in golf are the only two places I have been sports wise that have really taken my breath away with how historic the grounds feel when you are there in person.
What is your favorite tournament you've played so far and why?
As an American, the US Open is the most important thing you can play–I have yet to be able to play my best tennis there. The excitement of NYC has always gotten the best of me, but hopefully that will change this year. The Australian Open is known as the “Happy Slam” because the atmosphere there is amazing, so that one is definitely up there for me as well.
Can you offer any tips for anyone looking to get into tennis?
The best advice to get started is to find a friend(s) to get into it with you! Having others to get started with is way more fun and affordable if you decide to buy better equipment or share some tennis lessons with a professional.
Favorite Rhone gear for your time on the court?
My go-tos for match day are always the Mako Short ‘7 and a Swift Short Sleeve. I have a ton of colors of both so I can pick whatever is the vibe for that match day! I also have the Spar Full Zip Jacket and Spar Joggers to wear to and from the courts. The basics too are important–the Essentials Active Boxer Brief and Essential Mid Calf Socks are also an irreplaceable part of the kit.
What has been both your biggest setback and biggest accomplishment in tennis?
This injury that’s been lingering for a few years has been the biggest setback for sure but I still feel like I have a lot left in the tank in my career. I’m certainly not young and up and coming but the flip side of that is hopefully I am older and wiser than some of the younger competition. I still love to compete and will continue to until I no longer enjoy it or my body can’t take it anymore.
My biggest accomplishment was being a part of the UVA tennis dynasty that won 4 championships in 5 years. I doubt anything I could do as a pro would replicate that feeling. I’ve played all the Grand Slams in tennis and while those were special, the memories from winning as a team in college were more special.
Last but not least, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far as a professional tennis player?
One of the biggest differences in college and professional tennis is that when you win as a pro, the satisfaction is quite different–it's just you and maybe your coach. In college, it’s your teammates, coaches and your entire University. The lesson from that is an accomplishment feels much greater when you can share it with others that have been on the journey with you.
The last big lesson I’ll mention is in sports and in life, the only thing you have control over is yourself. For me in my career, I have no say in what my opponent does, the weather, the umpire, etc etc. For me to spend any energy on worrying or trying to change that is a futile endeavor.