Tumult in the time of Koellerer

5/6/2009 - Tennis
Adversity and acrimony typically accompany Daniel Koellerer on the court. Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

Scheduling an interview with a player on the fringe of the top 100 usually isn't anything to be nervous about, but there definitely was a little apprehension before this one. Daniel Koellerer is no ordinary journeyman, after all, but according to ATP lore, he is the scourge of the challenger circuit, the maniac of the minor leagues.

It seems Koellerer is a little apprehensive, too. What does she want to talk about? he quizzes the ATP official. Later, he'll deny this, but so indignantly, it's probably true.

The setting is March's BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, and Koellerer has just played -- and won -- his first match at a Masters-level tournament. In conversation, at least, he turns out to be frank and frequently engaging, though restless and occasionally combative. "Dull" certainly isn't in his vocabulary.

It's obvious what the main topic of discussion will be. Stories about "Crazy Dani" have become legend on tour and on the Internet -- tales of taunting opponents, insulting chair umpires, bullying ball kids. The most dramatic is the account of a locker room punch-up with the late Federico Luzzi, prompted by Koellerer's spitting into his palm before shaking hands after their match.

For his part, Koellerer maintains that his reputation is greatly exaggerated. "You know, it's like one says, 'He got a code violation,'" he says, beginning a lengthy explanation. "The next one says, 'He got a code violation because he threw the ball.' The next says, 'He got a code violation because he threw the ball out and told the chair umpire he's an a------.' The next one says, 'OK, he got a code violation because he threw the ball out, told the chair umpire he's an a------ and told his opponent he's a stupid idiot.'

"Everybody puts a little bit inside, and finally it's almost a war."

Dual personality

So why did he get the code violation in the first place? Koellerer is reluctant to discuss specifics. Press him to describe some of his misdeeds, and the Austrian prefers to confess to speeding at 210 kilometers per hour on a national highway rather than admit doing anything during a match. "I'm not talking about on the court," he said. "I'm not interested in this."

His fellow pros are equally averse to discussing him -- all who were approached for interviews for this story turned down the request point-blank. The ATP Tour declined to make any umpires available for comment, saying it was against officiating rules to talk about individual players.

Type "Koellerer" into the ATP World Tour Web site, and the following message comes up: "The name which you have entered matches more than one player." But on the list below, there is only one entry: Koellerer, Daniel. Even the official database seems to think the 25-year-old has a bit of a dual personality.

Still, the general consensus is that Koellerer has improved from the wild days of yore. A few years ago, there was so much friction that players on the South American challenger circuit took the unprecedented step of circulating a petition to have him thrown off the tour. It garnered several dozen signatures, but no official action was taken.

"I saw which guys are on my side and which are not because out of 80 players, 75 signed," Koellerer said. "There are too many guys coming and saying, 'Hey, how are you?' this and that, 'Good job last week,' and when you turn, they are on your back with a knife in the hand."

Although he is less combustible these days, the mutual distrust continues -- the Austrian tends to keep his own company at tournaments and is said to have trouble finding hitting partners. He insists his standing among his colleagues doesn't bother him. "I don't care because I know I already changed a lot and I will not change for any tennis player," he said flatly. "If I change, I change for myself, because I want it, and not because they want it."

Koellerer is still a long way from winning any sportsmanship awards. A day after this interview, he played Andy Roddick in a televised night match without much incident. But he was just a little too demonstrative, just used a little gamesmanship, such as calling the trainer during a strategic stage of the second set. And combined with Koellerer's reputation, it was enough to get under Roddick's skin.

"I had heard some stuff going into the match, but I hadn't really seen him play at all before," Roddick said after winning that encounter. "He certainly tries hard. He never quit, you know. I'm not really sure that all that other stuff is super necessary. It'll probably lose you as many matches as it wins."

Roots of conflict

Koellerer is more forthcoming when asked about the source of his behavior rather than the behavior itself. "I have so much energy inside me, like 'boom' -- totally confusing myself," he said. "Since I was a kid."

He describes his confrontational habits as the product of a childhood coach who saw winning ugly as not just acceptable but necessary. "What I do sometimes now on the tennis court is because I got taught it from my first [serious] tennis coach -- to provoke, to show opponent the first, to make s--- on the court," Koellerer said. "When I didn't do it, then he was pissed. I had to practice more; I had to go to the gym on the bicycle; I had to run one hour more."

In his early teens, when he was big for his age, he was teased by other students at the tennis club in Linz, Austria.

"The colleagues I practiced with, they were making jokes about me because I was a little bit bigger; I had a little bit more weight than they had, but I beat them in tennis. And [the coach] was always making fun as well," Koellerer said. "Normally, it should be if there are two players against me, he should be at least in the middle and not also on their side."

There came a day when Koellerer reached his boiling point. "I punched one of the guys, and then I said, 'OK, now it's finished.' … I changed coach."

The emotional baggage left over from this period might explain why Koellerer has been something of a late bloomer. "Mentally, it made me tough," he said. "But it also took me down, because I had this s--- all the time in my head.

"Now I'm in the best age. I don't think about it, because I'm happy how it's working out now. If I would say, 'Maybe it would be, if this and that' -- then I get crazy."

Triumph and tragedy

The past year has been by far the best of his career. Two weeks ago, Koellerer fulfilled his long-held goal of breaking into the top 100 and immediately followed up by winning a small challenger event in Rome six days later, lifting himself even further to No. 85.

Sadly, the moment turned agonizingly bittersweet when his mother succumbed to her ongoing struggle against cancer while Koellerer was in the middle of his title run in Rome.

Serving for the match against Andreas Vinciguerra in the final, he received a warning from the umpire. For once, it was not for acting up, but a time violation because he had become too overcome with emotion to continue. Afterward, he dedicated the victory to his mother.

His mind may be far away from tennis at the moment, but it seems inevitable that the tragedy -- and its timing -- will have some professional impact: the biggest milestone of his career and the biggest loss of his 25-year-old life, all in the space of a week.

At Indian Wells, Koellerer had cited his parents as a source of unconditional support in a frequently hostile world. "They would never push me, you know," he said of their influence on his early tennis career. "They always supported me and said, 'OK, as long as you are happy, we are happy, too.'"

He also has been eagerly anticipating his rise into the top 100. "Mentally, it changes something, yeah," he said. "You know you're going to be in the main draw at the French Open and not play few rounds of qualies -- you save much more energy in your life as a tennis pro because there are not so many qualies anymore."

Apart from continuing to work on his serve and forehand, he declared himself "pretty happy" with his game and aimed to end the year ranked No. 70. He identified the key reason for his recent rise as mental -- an improvement in concentration alluding to the improvement in behavior.

"I am working by myself very hard mentally. I put some bad things in my mind, what happened, and then I replay it again how to make it better -- how you react if the guy is lucky in an important point, if you're unlucky at important points, how you act if there is a bad call," he said.

Then he added ruefully, "The thing with the bad call, I'm not so good at the moment."

He continued, turning philosophical. "Mental things, they will never finish in your life. Today I make 10 mistakes, and tomorrow I will make not even one mistake which I made today, but I will make 10 other ones, you know? And it's like this because nobody's perfect. But for me, it's tough to handle them because I want to be perfect, or close, and if it's not working out, I'm getting nuts."

After the roller coaster of the past fortnight, that challenge takes on an even greater poignancy.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.