The 'Doubles Dossier' takes you inside the game to get to know the stars of the WTA's Doubles Circuit. Nicole Melichar is sitting at a career-high ranking at No.11 and a 2018 Wimbledon mixed doubles title under her belt. The Czech-American's dream of playing professional tennis began early and never wavered, even in the face of the financial challenges that can snuff out so many young careers.
WTA Insider: How did you start to play tennis?
Melichar: I actually have a picture of me on a tennis court already walking when I was 11 months old.
My sister was five years older than me, and she was playing from a young age. I was just always on a tennis court around her. When my mom was pregnant with me, my mom was playing tennis. So ever since I could walk, I was on a tennis court and at least around it. I don't know when I first picked up a racquet and first hit a ball, probably a couple of years old.
I was super competitive with my older sister. I want to be better than her. And then when I was 11 and she was 16, we ended up playing in the finals of a tournament and I beat her. And that's kind of when she sort of put the racquet aside and I kind of kept going (laughs).
So now I'm a professional tennis player and she's a nurse practitioner. It all worked out.
WTA Insider: At what point did you begin to think tennis was more than just a hobby for you?
Melichar: I had a friend growing up who was homeschooled at a young age. And when I saw that she was homeschooling and playing more tournaments, I wanted to do it, too. So I started homeschooling when I was 11. From then is when I thought this is something I'd like to do.
It was a bit of a fight to try and get my parents to agree to it. But once they agreed that were always really supportive.
WTA Insider: What do your parents do?
Melichar: My parents are Czech and they sell real estate. Back in Czechoslovakia, my dad was studying to be a doctor, but when they escaped communism he never finished. So he sort of has that medical background. But they've done real estate since they've been in the States.
They went through Austria to Germany and then lived in Germany for a few years. That's where they got married and where my sister was born. They came to the States in 1989.
WTA Insider: At what point did you start to think you could make a career in tennis?
Melichar: I went to a tennis academy in Texas, at John Newcombe's Academy from age 13 to 15 and then I started working with a private coach when I was 16 in Arizona. His name is Nick Blackwood.
I think when I started working with him, he was very supportive of me trying to go pro and not going to college, whereas a lot of people had different opinions. So I think that 16, 17, 18-year-old range is when I really felt I wanted to be on the pro tour and I didn't want to go to college. That's basically when I made my decision.
It wasn't easy. I struggled on the ITF grind for many years. It was tough to travel without a coach because I didn't have money. I remember sharing the room with three other girls and not eating on site. We would just go to the grocery store and buy a big loaf of bread and lunch meat and then make our own sandwiches just to save any dollar that we could. It was a grind.
But yeah, from 16, 17, 18 is when I decided to skip college and go pro. I do college online with the WTA's IU East program to kind of make up for not going. I'm studying communications and I am almost finished.
WTA Insider: How did you ultimately decide to go pro?
Melichar: I felt if I went to college, I personally would maybe get distracted with the whole college scene because school is your main priority. It isn't tennis. But also you're trying to balance a social life and the tennis and everything. I don't know if I would maybe get distracted.
So I wanted to give myself the best chance at tennis and for me, that was to turn pro and give that my all. That was the deciding factor. And some people need to need to go to college and maybe develop their tennis game, but I felt like, OK, maybe even if I'm grinding a bit on tour, I'll develop it more while I'm on tour.
I felt if I went to college and I graduated, I might not play pro after, whereas if I went pro right away, then I knew I would give myself the best chance.
WTA Insider: What was the toughest part of making that transition from playing juniors, to ITFs, to the WTA Tour?
Melichar: Definitely money, because you don't have a lot. You don't have a lot of sponsors and stuff. I couldn't always travel with a coach so that was tough. When you're young and you're at a tournament most of the time without a coach trying to figure out how to win or how to practice and doing different things, it's not easy.
WTA Insider: What do you love about doubles?
Melichar: The thing is, doubles is a different skill set. I was talking to Bencic yesterday and Kveta [Peschke] and I had gone to watch her and Kenin's match against Barty and Schuurs. She was like, I saw you two watching and I got all nervous, two double specialists watching me and I'm just smacking it from the baseline. And I was just like, Belinda, you hit the ball so well from the baseline. A lot of us doubles players can't do that. But then again, us doubles players are moving all over the net, we have good touch. We know what positions to be in and stuff. But that's maybe something you don't necessarily know how to do. It's just a different skill set.
Just because someone is better at one thing than the other doesn't mean you can't be a good doubles player. Belinda's a fantastic doubles player, but from more of like a singles game-style because she serves well, she returns well, she's unbelievable from the baseline. If I try and do that, she's gonna beat me every time. But I use my serve and my brain and try and mix it up and make her think, oh, where is the net person going?
I mean, there are so many more scenarios you can create in a doubles court because also you have four players. Honestly, I feel if they took all the points from a tournament and created a highlight reel, I think 80 percent of them would be from doubles points, not from singles.
WTA Insider: There are so many variables in the doubles game.
Melichar: Doubles is definitely about problem solving. And what is life? Life is problem solving.
They're hitting the return at Mach One and making it every time. How do we figure out how to make her miss one or how to hit it to me so that I can get it? There's just there's a lot more thinking and tactics involved. You can play two up, you to play two back, one up, one back. You can serve and volley. You can do so many different things. If you don't want to hit a forehand, you can make yourself go on the backhand side.
Jamie Murray, if you look at his forehand - no offense, Jamie - it's not exactly pretty. But he's been No.1 in the World, One and he's won how many Grand Slams? Because in doubles you can hide your weaknesses and really play to your strengths. And he's done it beautifully.
WTA Insider: What is the key to being a good doubles player?
Melichar: Understanding the game, understanding what you can and cannot do, knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and knowing how to apply them on the court. I think 80 percent of it is actually court positioning. If you hit the ball there, there's a likely chance that they're going to hit the ball there. If you understand it then you got a lot of the court covered.
WTA Insider: What is the challenge of playing against teams comprised of some of the top singles players?
Melichar: Well, if you play against singles players, they're most likely going to serve well, return well, and hit well from the back. Those are the three things. So you need to find your way around that and figure out how can your game matchup against theirs and how can you apply your strengths to their weaknesses.
So if the singles players don't volley well, then you have to challenge them at the net. Or if they say love hitting from the back, you to figure out, OK, if I can't hit with them from the back, I need to get into the net or I need to get them into the net more. There are just so many different ways in which you can try and work your way around it.
But again, I'm going to mention the guys again. Rajeev Ram and Joe Salisbury played Djokovic and Cilic in the first round of Dubai and beat them 2 and 2. A lot of people that don't follow tennis that much, they've probably heard of Djokovic because he's one of the GOATs, but they haven't heard of Rajeev and Joe, even though they just won the Australian Open. The qualities that they have in doubles, it shows.
It's not easy to play against singles players, but if you have a good understanding, then you can pick their games apart.
WTA Insider: You mentioned earlier that the toughest part of transitioning to the tour was the financial struggle. Can you give an example to give fans an idea of what it's really like in those early stages?
Melichar: I can probably write a book (laughs).
I've slept on the floor of I don't know how many airports because I had maybe overnight connections and couldn't afford a hotel and it was maybe only six or eight hours. So you just kind of stay there, you try and find carpet. Not tile, because it's always cold (laughs).
We shared a room with several girls. Once I was at a tournament in Dallas and there were two queen size beds and there were four of us in the room, two of us on one bed and then one girl, the mattress was too soft. So she wanted to sleep on the box spring. So we put the mattress on the floor. So I slept on the mattress on the floor while she slept on the box spring. But four of us sharing one bathroom, that was kind of rough. Four of us having matches at all different times. So someone wakes up early and not, someone has a 10 o'clock match and another doesn't play till 2:00 in the afternoon. The alarms are going off. People are wanting to talk to their boyfriends at different times. It's not easy.
And then going to the store and buying food so you could make sandwiches every day. If you buy a loaf of bread, meat, and cheese and you make sandwiches for five days as opposed to paying an $8 lunch every day for five days. If you do the math, it adds up.
Flying the absolute cheapest airlines and then your bag is overweight, so then you have to put on three of your hoodies just to get the luggage weight out. And you might have to throw out your two shampoo bottles.
WTA Insider: In your experience, at what point can you feel financially secure as a doubles player on the tour?
Melichar: If you're traveling alone and not paying your coach and you can make it into the Top 50 in doubles, you're covering your expenses and you probably have a bit extra. And if you want to do it right and have a coach and maybe even a fitness coach or a physio in doubles, you need to be at least Top 20. Or you need to maybe share a coach with your partner, other players and then maybe get a bit smarter like this. I mean, you have rent to pay at home, or mortgage, or a car payment stuff. If you live with your parents or not, then you can maybe save more money.
But to do well in doubles, you need to be top 20.
WTA Insider: What are you proudest of in your career so far?
Melichar: I'm proud of my 2018 Wimbledon. I won the mixed and made the finals in doubles. I'm proud of staying in the Top 20 for the last couple of years. I think that's a good achievement. Obviously, I want to break the Top 10. That's my next goal.
I'm proud that every year I feel like I've improved and I'm getting a better understanding of doubles and the game. And I think even my mindset, I've matured. So I think that's what I'm most proud of.