When Charlottean Thai Kwiatkowski entered Virginia in 2013, he was known as a hot-head.
Four years later, he finished as the hottest player in college tennis.
Kwiatkowski won the NCAA men’s singles title in May, beating his nemesis, North Carolina’s William Blumberg, in the final. Gratifying as winning that championship was, the perk that accompanies it might be even bigger:
Kwiatkowski, 22, receives direct entry into the singles field at next week’s U.S. Open at Flushing Meadow, N.Y. Being included in the field of 128 is a huge opportunity for a rookie pro, ranked 690th in the world.
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Kwiatkowski learns his opponent Friday, when the draws are announced. Doesn’t matter who he plays or whether it’s at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the grandstand or the most isolated field court. This is a Grand Slam tournament and his country’s national championship. Can’t get bigger.
“This was my childhood dream. For any kid to hit a ball at Flushing Meadow? In New York City? Wow,” Kwiatkowski said in a phone interview Sunday.
“Every (court) there has its own feel. Particularly if you’re an American, it’s incredible. New York has a ton of energy. It’s a massive event. It’s not just tennis, it’s so many things.”
Kwiatkowski grew up in Charlotte. His father is a physician here, his mother a software engineer. If you were in Charlotte 10 or 12 years ago, you might have seen him hitting on a court at Colonial Neighborhood Park on Providence Road near uptown. He seemed to be out there constantly.
Kwiatkowski’s potential became apparent at age 8, when he won a national age-group tournament in Texas. At 13, he started living at a U.S. Tennis Association facility in Boca Raton, Fla., to focus more on training and receive top coaching.
He always had a big forehand. Unfortunately, that was matched by a big temper. He would sometimes explode after missing shots, hurling his racquet.
“The anger – that’s the monster in Thai’s closet,” his mom, Wendy Le, told Observer colleague Scott Fowler in 2010. “His coaches are trying to bolt that closet door and pile some furniture in front of it, too.”
Kwiatkowski says the outbursts worked against him in college recruiting.
“I definitely had a hot temper in high school,” he said. “I still do a lot.”
Virginia offered a scholarship. It was a natural fit, with both of Kwiatkowski’s parents alumni. He spent a lot of fall weekends growing up at Virginia football games.
It worked out spectacularly: The Cavaliers won three team national championships in Kwiatkowski’s time there.
Blumberg, college tennis’s top freshman, beat Kwiatkowski twice last season, physically overpowering the 6-foot-2, 165-pound senior. Normally a counterpuncher, Kwiatkowski shook it up in the NCAA final, attacking more aggressively and shifting his service targets. It worked, beating Blumberg 6-4, 7-6.
Kwiatkowski’s weapons are the forehand and above-average movement. He knows he must get stronger to compete on the ATP Tour.
Kwiatkowski had to take time off after the NCAA tournament to treat a sore knee. He played a couple of Challenger tournaments (minor-league pro tennis) in Canada, looking to improve his ranking.
He received a wild card (direct entry to the main draw) at the ATP grass-court tournament in Newport, R.I., losing in the first round. He requested a wild card for this week’s Winston-Salem Open, but was turned down.
“That was a real bummer for me. I’ve been going to that tournament since I was a kid,” Kwiatkowski said. “I consider that my ATP home tournament. I really hope to play there next year.”
Win a round or two at Flushing Meadow, and Winston-Salem should place him on speed dial for 2018.