It was apparent the moment they won the Loughborough Trophy that Frederik Nielsen and Joe Salisbury could win the 2018 Wimbledon men’s doubles title.
The Danish and British duo demolished Scott Clayton and Luke Johnson – two decent doubles players – in their first round match at the new Challenger event back in May. So in tune was their movement, and so dominant their combined efforts, that anyone would have thought they had competed as a pair for years.
This was their first match as a team.
“We know each other well, we know each other’s games,” 26-year-old Salisbury shared after that particular victory. “And we didn’t think there would be too much adjusting to do.”
The ensuing weeks proved this to be true. In winning the Nature Valley Open in Nottingham three weeks later, the duo extended their lifetime unbeaten run as a pair. And by the time they lost in the quarter-finals in Ilkley – to their victims of the Nottingham final – they had already done enough to secure a Wimbledon wild card.
For Nielsen, this was already looking like something of a deja vu. Six years ago, the Dane partnered Britain’s Jonathan Marray to claim a completely unexpected Wimbledon men’s doubles trophy, the pair having entered the tournament as a wild card entry. Neither man was ranked inside the top 75, with Nielsen even hovering outside the top 100. But they had experienced success on the Challenger circuit during their short partnership: reaching the final in Nottingham, among other results.
Just as Nielsen and Salisbury are contesting their fourth tournament together at Wimbledon, so Nielsen and Marray did in 2012.
Their good form prior to SW19 is something that Nielsen – now 34, ranked 139 in doubles and 533 in singles – recalls.
“We were thinking that if we played the same level [as Nottingham] we might be able to win a few rounds,” he said of his and Marray’s approach to their first Grand Slam. “But other than that, we didn’t think much of it. We just wanted to have a good experience and play well. And obviously we did that, and then some.”
The shock triumph for the duo received much attention due to Marray’s status as a home player, and the team’s as complete underdogs.
“Going into it I was just hoping not to muck it up, because we were in on a wild card and my partner was British,” Nielsen confessed. “And I didn’t want to be an embarrassment to him, since he played with a non-British guy. I wanted to make sure that at least I could hold out my own side of the deal.”
At this stage, soon-to-be US Open champion Andy Murray was yet to win Wimbledon. He would fall to Roger Federer in the final showdown in 2012, shedding some famous tears in the aftermath. Because of the extreme focus on the highs and lows of British campaigns, Marray was more in the spotlight than Nielsen after their surprise triumph.
But if his career as a whole is anything to go by, that is not something that bothers the Dane.
With a career-high ranking of 17 in doubles achieved in 2013, Nielsen is now far from his best status – and has been for some time. His singles career peaked at world no. 190 in 2011, with his lone Grand Slam main draw appearance coming the following year, and he now languishes at world no. 533 in that discipline: investing more of his time in doubles. But even then, the right-hander spends much of his year competing at ATP Challenger events – and sometimes even on the ITF circuit, the lowest level of professional tennis.
From prize money to travelling to accommodation to long injuries, every tennis struggle is amplified on the lower echelons of the tour. For many, it is a ladder that must be climbed en route to the realms of the top 100, where more cash and exposure are on offer. It is rare to see men in their mid-thirties – especially men that have experienced the heights of tennis success – willing to slug it out long term on lesser ground. And it is especially rare within doubles.
Nevertheless, this is precisely what makes Nielsen stand out. That despite his current status, he still has the desire to carry on.
“It’s to live out my childhood dream,” he said of his motivation. “It’s pretty simple. You know, when you ask a five-year-old kid what he wants to do, that’s what I want to be able do. And I appreciate every single second of it. It doesn’t matter what level.”
He added: “There’s also the motivation of the personal journey – to try and compete and get better, and better myself, and learn how to handle different situations. That journey is amazing, so it’s basically the privilege of being able to live life the way I want to. I know not many people in the world get that, so I have to really make the most of it and enjoy it.”
The fact that he and Salisbury are into the Wimbledon semifinals in just their fourth tournament together is proof that toiling away simply for love of the game can still reap rewards. Nielsen has not seen the heights of the world’s top 20 in doubles since early 2013, and has spent large portions of the past four years ranked outside the top 100. Yet here he is in 2018, back in a Wimbledon semifinal.
“Playing Wimbledon was a dream for me. That [with Marray] was the first time I got to play Wimbledon, so it was a great experience,” Nielsen said. “I feel comfortable here, and I think Scandinavians usually feel comfortable in England. We’re quite closely connected mentality-wise… weather-wise, too! The conditions usually suit me here – not too many clay-courts, [usually] fast and low-bouncing. I like it, I feel comfortable here and it’s always important to feel comfortable where you play.”
At Wimbledon, the Dane – whose grandfather, Kurt Nielsen, reached the singles final in 1953 and 1955 – also feels comfortable with the format. Doubles is often a sideshow to singles, with players using the team events to sharpen their solo game. Partners are often changing, and many singles competitors turn up for doubles at a Grand Slam simply to contest another main draw. As a result of this, doubles is continually treated as a lesser discipline – and has come a cropper in the quest to package tennis for a modern audience.
This fortnight at SW19, men’s doubles matches have featured of the age-long format of best-of-five sets with no final set tiebreak. But the world’s most prestigious Grand Slam remains the lone tournament to still do things this way. On most stages, doubles players must contest sudden death deuce points instead of advantages, and a third set is replaced by a ten point tiebreak.
“I see the point of that,” Nielsen stated. “It’s quicker, it’s easier to watch. People stick around for doubles [as a result.] But I think [the popularity of doubles] depends on how you market it.”
The ATP alone, aside from the wider media, has done a fantastic job of promoting their singles players: from the top 100 to the Challenger tour. They have also raised the profile of their young talent substantially with the “NextGen” movement. But as far as recognition of doubles and its players goes, many do not link a lack of interest to a lack of effort from those who have the power to create it.
“In all aspects of life, if you believe in something then it’s easier to have other people believe it,” Nielsen shared. “If you don’t believe it, then people sense that. If they have the feeling that tennis itself doesn’t believe in the doubles product, and they have to change it a lot, then I think other people will have the same feelings.”
He continued: “I’m a traditionalist, so I like the traditional format. I’m not a big fan of the massive changes. It’s a huge hit at the World Tour Finals, because you can schedule doubles and it won’t interfere with the singles because of the scoring system. But to be honest, I really appreciate doubles more in the Grand Slams and the Davis Cup, when it’s back to the regular scoring system.
“To me, that’s how I define tennis. It’s the fact that you have to win two points in a row to win a game [off deuce], you have to win one point on each side [of the court] to win a game. You can’t just win four points on the same side and then you have a game. The sudden death points is a bit of a paradox for me in tennis, so I’m personally not a big fan of it. I can see the benefits, so I’m going with it, but it is what it is.”
Whether or not Nielsen and Salisbury repeat Nielsen’s staggering 2012 feat in their first best-of-five event together, it has been a highly successful run. They have taken down three straight seeded teams en route to the last four, just days after contesting their latest Challenger event.
“We’ve known each other very well off the court for a long time, and we get along well,” Nielsen reflected. “Sometimes it goes like this. You’re looking for a partner, you talk about it and fit it into both your schedules. It was Joe’s initiative because he’s the higher ranked of us, but I was definitely keen if he wanted to play.
“Sometimes you also try and predict if you can do well together, and it was a good match from the beginning. We aren’t similar people off the court, but we have a similar approach to our games. It’s been steady progress, so we are able to win our matches even when we don’t play as well as we did in Loughborough.”
The past few weeks have proven that just because a tournament victory comes on a lower level of competition, it does not make it meaningless on a more high-profile stage. In an age where the game is harder-fought and fielding more depth than ever, there is a bigger mental deficit than a physical one between the world’s elite, and the players that run behind them.
Given the opportunity and the right moment, those with talent can pull off something brilliant. Which is why Frederik Nielsen, ranked world no. 139, deserves total respect he gets for continuing to give himself chances.