By Sally Milano, USTA.com
In just a three-week span last summer, Dennis Novikov went from the pinnacle of junior tennis to the biggest stage in pro tennis. And now the 19-year-old from San Jose, Calif., is making waves at the college level as one of the top players on the third-ranked UCLA men’s team.
Novikov was born in Moscow and moved to the United States with his family before he was a year old, settling in the Bay Area in Northern California. Just over a year later, he picked up a racquet for the first time. He hasn’t looked back since.
"I was about 2 years old [when I started to play]," Novikov said. "My older brother played tennis, so I pretty much picked it up right away because I was always on the court. I didn’t have a choice a little bit there, but I ended up liking it."
Novikov also played hockey, swam and did gymnastics growing up, but he gravitated to tennis and focused solely on the sport starting at age 11.
It turned out to be a good move. Novikov had success at every level of the juniors, ascending to No. 30 in the world in the ITF junior rankings and advancing to the boys’ singles quarterfinals at the 2010 US Open. But while many of the world’s top juniors decide to go pro, Novikov chose to attend college first and joined the Bruins in March 2012.
"My plan was actually to go pro straight from juniors, but the way it worked out, I felt like I needed a little bit more time to mentally and physically mature," he said. "I definitely jumped in right away (joining the team mid-season). It was a fast pace. I had to adjust really quickly. I struggled at first, but I got my feet under me and played a lot better after that."
UCLA coach Billy Martin has been playing Novikov primarily at the No. 1 and 2 singles positions. He said the 6-foot-3 right-hander has added to the Bruins’ depth and strengthened its lineup since joining the team last year.
"He’s a very dangerous player in that he’s powerful – has a huge serve, is big off the ground and really can penetrate, even at the pro level," Martin said. "He really has some firepower, which you don’t see a lot in college tennis. He’s also a very good doubles player. With him playing top singles and doubles, it really adds to our chances to hopefully be right in there as one of the teams fighting for a national championship."
Now a sophomore, Novikov is achieving what he hoped when he signed on to play at UCLA. Physically, he is stronger, and mentally, he is older, wiser and smarter.
"I feel like [college] is helping prepare me for the pros," he said. "I wasn’t [in school] for [the whole] year last year – I was just here for a quarter – but I definitely think that helped me with my results at Kalamazoo and the US Open."
It was at those two tournaments that Novikov really made his mark. He swept the singles and doubles titles at the USTA Boys’ 18s National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich., and by winning both titles, earned wild cards to compete in the men’s singles and doubles draws at the US Open.
In his Grand Slam debut in New York, Novikov topped Poland's Jerzy Janowicz in his opening-round singles match and teamed with Michael Redlicki of Duke University to beat Bobby Reynolds and Michael Russell in the doubles first round. In doing so, Novikov became just the second USTA Boys’ 18s champion to win a round at the US Open since Justin Gimelstob in 1995, and he nearly added a second victory, pushing No. 31 seed Julien Benneteau in a tight four-setter in the second round.
Understandably, Novikov considers his wins at Kalamazoo and the US Open as the biggest moments of his career – at least so far.
"The highlight so far has definitely been winning a match at the Open," Novikov said. "That was just a great experience. I went on ESPN after, and I talked on there, so that was a lot of fun. Winning Kalamazoo, also. They’re actually kind of even because not many people have won both singles and doubles in the same year there."
Just after the US Open, Novikov had a minor setback. While competing at the USTA Futures event in Irvine, Calif., he rolled his ankle during a match and suffered a bad ankle sprain. The injury kept him out a couple months, but he is close to being in top form again and expects to be fully recovered soon.
In the meantime, Novikov is enjoying life at UCLA and all it has to offer.
"I enjoy being here in college," he said. "Just doing everything – learning, playing tennis, socializing with other people. I was homeschooled and never had the actual high school experience, so socializing with everyone is a lot of fun for me and being in the classroom again and just learning. Just being around on campus, it’s energetic."
Novikov is energized on the court, too, and while he has his sights set on turning pro and being "top in the world" in the future, he has other goals in mind first.
"Right now, my goals for the school year are to win NCAA [titles] with my team and in singles and doubles. It’s not an easy feat, but it’s definitely possible if I work hard and continue to do what I do."