How love lifted Bogomolov Jr.'s game

The tennis tour can mimic high school. With success comes acceptance and attention. Alex Bogomolov Jr. discovered that last week at the Rogers Cup in Montreal.

Arriving early in the atmospheric Quebec city, Bogomolov Jr. was asked to hit with none other than Rafael Nadal. After scurrying to get his new Prince rackets strung just in time, it was off to center court to exchange strokes with the 10-time Grand Slam champion.

"I had my head down when I walked on court, but as soon as I stepped out there, there was a big roar from the crowd and the announcer even said my name and gave my whole bio -- and it was only a practice session," Bogomolov Jr. recounted in a telephone interview. "Even Rafa was laughing and smiling. I'll take those any day I can get. When I left, there was a big roar again, something that doesn't happen on a daily basis."

Nadal prevailed 6-4 in their practice set, with Bogomolov Jr. quick to point out the lone break resulted at 4-4. But he surpassed Nadal in one respect in Montreal, winning a match in the main draw.

He's been winning more than ever, cracking the elusive top 50 for the first time this week at the advanced tennis age of 28. Bogomolov Jr. ousted Andy Murray at Miami in the spring, reached the third round at Wimbledon, quarterfinals in Newport, semifinals in Los Angeles and qualified for Montreal and this week's Masters stop in Cincinnati. He won't need to qualify for the U.S. Open.

Nadal isn't the only one taking note.

"Now it's incredible to get the feedback from the trainers, coaches, players," said Bogomolov Jr., an American with Russian roots. "It's good. Everyone has shown me love for the effort I've been giving, especially at this time and with my age. I think everyone knows I worked really hard my whole career. Before, I didn't have the results."

This time a year ago, Bogomolov Jr. hovered around 250th, unsure of whether he'd ever play to his potential.

Bogomolov Jr. toppled Andy Roddick in their junior days, signaling his promise before a lengthy dark spell. Bogomolov Jr. went through a painful and public divorce with women's pro turned Playboy model Ashley Harkleroad. He never thought he'd be able to strike his backhand the same way following left wrist surgery at the end of 2008. In 2005, he drew a suspension for taking the banned substance salbutamol. Bogomolov Jr. claimed he took the drug to treat asthma, not enhance performance, and the ITF essentially agreed, handing him a truncated 1½-month ban.

A content person off court leads to better productivity on it, or so the thinking goes, and Bogomolov Jr. appears to be a fine example. He found his "soul mate" in fiancée Luana Goncalves three years ago and has no apprehension about eventually walking down the aisle again. For both, it was love at first sight when they locked eyes at a party in Bogomolov Jr.'s hometown of Miami.

"The only thing I'm mad about is that she had to sort of experience being the second one," Bogomolov Jr. said. "For her I wouldn't want that because she's the most special one. For her to see Playboy pictures of my ex-wife, and me being mentioned, it's just embarrassing."

Learning that Goncalves, an American with Brazilian ties, was pregnant inexplicably helped hone his game. At the time, Bogomolov Jr. was supplementing his income by working at the Gotham Tennis Academy in New York while living with Goncalves at her parents' home in New Jersey.

"Luana told me she was pregnant, and I couldn't explain to you how, but the next day I had a coach feed me forehands and backhands and I was going full out, no pain," Bogomolov Jr. said. "I wish it made some kind of sense."

It did for Goncalves.

"What really may have happened was that he was scared to go out and give 100 percent on the backhand because he might reinjure the wrist," Goncalves said in a telephone interview from Boca Raton, Fla., where the couple recently bought a house. "It was kind of what he needed to realize, 'I got to go out there and give it a try.' It's now or never. It was definitely overnight."

But the hardship didn't instantly dissipate.

Shortly after his son, Maddox, now 20 months old, was born, Bogomolov Jr. needed to pay off his American Express bill of about $40,000. Despite the hefty debt, he decided to hire a coach, Yoav Schab.

"You don't really make enough money for a family, to pay rent and cover expenses, on the Challenger circuit, so we just kept on swiping the AmEx," Bogomolov Jr. said. "We had some cash set aside for tennis, and so we took a big step and big risk and I hired Schabby. It was a very tough decision for Luana and I. Imagine, we have a kid, and now I'm telling Luana I need a coach."

It worked out. Bogomolov Jr. pocketed, yes, $40,000 at the Kennedy Funding Invitational Tennis Tournament in New York in July 2010 by downing fellow U.S. veteran Michael Russell, escaping from a 4-1 deficit in the third set of the final. The bill was history and Bogomolov Jr.'s ascent could truly begin.

"The fact that he was able to win that exact amount -- everything seemed to fall in place," said Goncalves, who has gone from knowing little about tennis to becoming an aficionado. "It was really emotional. To see my family and his family and friends all being there to watch that, it was a great start for the team."

Schab, one of the youngest coaches in the sport at 26, got to know Bogomolov Jr. during his tenure on tour with Dudi Sela. Under Schab's guidance, the overachieving Sela rose to inside the top 30.
Once he convinced Bogomolov Jr. to steer clear of clay courts, Schab sought to turn his new pupil into more of an offensive threat rather than stick to defense. Bogomolov Jr. padded his repertoire by developing a slice as he rehabbed the wrist, and though the backhand remains the steadier wing, his forehand now does most of the damage. He's thinking on court, too, and Bogomolov Jr. credits Schab for scouting opponents and devising solid game plans.

Everything has come together.

On Monday in Cincinnati, Bogomolov Jr. beat a player he grew up with, Robby Ginepri, to move into the second round. Ginepri is another American on the comeback trail, albeit at a much earlier juncture.

"With his fiancée and his child, Alex is very calm mentally and very relaxed," Schab said in a telephone interview. "After everything that [has happened], he can try to focus on tennis. Then we put in very hard work, doing a lot of the drills on the baseline, going forwards and backwards. Of course, the first thing that was important was I needed him to get a streak of winning to get some confidence back, because when you're losing, you start defending and move back."

If Bogomolov Jr. sticks between 40th and 80th in the rankings the next five years, it's job done, according to Schab. For all the hardships he has endured along the way, any headway he makes at this point in his career should be well received.

"For someone who's never met me, I just want them to respect me for the work I've put in," Bogomolov Jr. said. "Basically if they gave me a handshake, that's all I need."

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.