For Jiri Lehecka, sporting success runs in the family. His father was a swimmer and his mother was a track and field star. While the Czech has long enjoyed skiing, swimming and running, tennis was always his first passion. Lehecka struck his first shots at three years old with his grandmother, who competed in tennis at a national level, before he turned professional in 2020.
Now the 20-year-old is No. 74 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings and is ready to make his mark in the game after enjoying a breakthrough season on the ATP Tour that started in Rotterdam in February.
“For me, [Rotterdam] was an unbelievable week because I started the year pretty fine,” Lehecka told ATPTour.com. “I qualified in Australia. I lost in the first round in four sets, so the season was starting pretty well for me. Then I had two or three weeks where I didn’t play good tennis. I played bad and didn’t feel good on court. Then my coach joined me at Rotterdam. We did some improvements and hard work and in Rotterdam it was an unbelievable week. A little surprising, but I was enjoying every moment there.”
In a confidence-boosting week, Lehecka came through qualifying at the ATP 500 event before he earned his maiden tour-level win against Denis Shapovalov in the first round. He then defeated Botic van de Zandschulp and Lorenzo Musetti before Stefanos Tsitsipas halted his run in the semi-finals.
“In qualifying I beat two good players. If you are playing qualifying at ATP Tour event it is not easy,” Lehecka said. “I beat Corentin Moutet in the final qualifying round. For me, the win against Lorenzo Musetti was the best. It was the win that got me into the Top 100. So all the matches were unbelievable for me and great experiences, but this match for me would be the top one. After I won I did not know I was in the Top 100, but the guy on the post-match interview said to me, ‘Congrats, this match you achieved Top 100’ and I was like ‘Wow, when? Unbelievable’.”
Having earned his place in the Top 100, Lehecka gained entry opportunities into more tour-level events. However, the 20-year-old, who also enjoys playing video games and hiking in the mountains, struggled to achieve his desired results in the weeks following Rotterdam.
Lehecka believes that was to be expected, though, as he adjusted to the increased demands the ATP Tour put on him.
“I am 20 years old so when I got into the Top 100 it had been an unbelievable thing,” said Lehecka. “I didn’t play my best tennis post-Rotterdam. I need to say that honestly, but it was mostly the experience for me. I was enjoying big tournaments for the first time in my life. I played qualifying in Monte Carlo, I won. I got into the main draw. A lot of these were first-time experiences and I was trying to get used to the level. I was trying to get used to all the stuff of being in the Top 100 and then I was trying to feel my game better and better.
“The guys on the ATP Tour, most are crazy experienced and they are so clever on the court. They are so consistent. They don’t give you many chances to build on, so it is very tough to play against them not with the tennis part but the mental part.”
It did not take long for Lehecka to regain his best level, though, with the Czech capturing an ATP Challenger Tour title on home soil in Liberec in August. Having grown up just 30 minutes from the town, the victory meant a lot to him.
“Liberec was a city I was playing when I was younger. I enjoyed it a lot there because there are a lot of people I know there,” Lehecka said. “It is 30 minutes away from my home in the car, so it is very convenient to play there. The fans were just unbelievable. The way they supported me the whole tournament and especially the semi-final and final was something unbelievable and I am so glad I got this experience to play there in front of my home crowd.
“I am so happy that in the Czech Republic we have five or six tournaments on the Challenger Tour and we are able to play there if we want some matches or if we want a home crowd. The Challenger Tour is very important part of everyone’s journey. I won my first Challenger last year in Finland. Winning my first Challenger title was one of the most important moments of my life. It is very important part of tennis.”
Having had his eyes set on competing at the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals since the start of the season, Lehecka arrives in Milan determined to finish his breakthrough year strongly after missing out on qualifying in 2021.
“Last year I ended as the first alternate for the Next Gen Finals, so I chose to play another tournament instead of being an alternate, so that was a little bit unlucky,” Lehecka said. “When you have the chance to play the Next Gen Finals it means you had a good year, you gained some points which got you there. When I started my season in Australia this was for sure one of my big plans and dreams to qualify for this tournament.”
Lehecka has fond memories of watching the event, having seen Stefanos Tsitsipas, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz soar to the title in Milan. The 20-year-old is hoping to follow in their footsteps and continue his journey to the top.
“I saw [the event] many times. I watched it from the beginning. Watching how the young guns are doing and playing,” Lehecka said. “For me, it is one of the greatest tournaments and it looks very nice. I am looking forward to it. Of course I will do everything I can to have my best results over there.
“For me to have a chance to be in this kind of position, Top 60, play Next Gen Finals is a big motivation for me. It shows me where I can be when I am 20, 21 years old. It gives me big motivation for the future. I am saying to myself, ‘Here I am now’ and I am really happy and curious to see where I will be when I am 25 or 26.”