Lucky to be alive after a sleepwalking incident a decade ago, Peter Polansky got lucky — in tennis terms — at the Australian Open.
Losing in the final round of qualifying Saturday, the Canadian thought his tournament was over before the real show began.
It wouldn’t have been a new sensation for the 28-year-old, given he has contested grand slam qualifying 28 times and reached the main draw on just five occasions.
But among four contenders for a “lucky loser” berth based on his ranking, Polansky won the lottery in a random draw.
With prize money at the year’s first major at its highest ever level, he is guaranteed of his biggest payday in 11 years as a pro even if he loses to 30th-seeded Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta in the first round Tuesday.
For a journeyman such as the 132nd-ranked Polansky — his average prize money per year entering 2017 was a shade under $70,000 — pocketing $37,500 gives him breathing room in the next few months, if not longer.
“I’ve never really had to think in my career, ‘OK, if I don’t win this match, I can’t play,'” Polansky told CNN.
“It’s never been that bad but it’s always a bonus when you have these weeks and get a big paycheck and you have some comforts for a few months.
“At least you feel like you’ve earned something as a professional tennis player and as a pro athlete whereas I feel if my ranking was between 200 and 250 the rest of my career, things would be a bit different. Like, ‘I’ve been grinding out here for 10 years, what have I really earned?'”
Luck of the draw
The number of lucky losers varies from week to week on the almost never-ending tennis tour. Beneficiaries take advantage when players withdraw, mostly due to injury.
Last week at a women’s warmup in Hobart, seven found themselves in a small field of 32. Tournaments the week before majors — where prize money and points are heftier — habitually feature withdrawals although seven was an unusually high tally.
At the previous three grand slams among the men, two lucky losers appeared at the US Open, none at Wimbledon and four at the French Open.
Polansky is the lone lucky loser so far in Melbourne, filling the slot vacated by the unfortunate Thanasi Kokkinakis. Polansky recalled that he was selected as the lucky loser at the 2014 US Open but that year no one pulled out in New York.
Kokkinakis, whose promising career is looking less certain following a serious shoulder injury, said the thought never crossed his mind of taking to the court simply to pick up a tidy check.
“I’m not about that,” the 20-year-old, out of his home slam because of an abdominal strain, not the shoulder, told CNN. “Peter deserves it. He’s been unlucky in the past.”
Perhaps he was referring to 2006, when the Toronto native fell three floors from his hotel room in Mexico City while on Davis Cup duty.
Polansky told the Globe and Mail a “combination of a nightmare and sleepwalking” led to the potentially fatal ordeal. Polansky badly injured his leg but it could have been worse and he was back playing in four months.
Kokkinakis withdrew prior to the conclusion of qualifying, meaning those slugging it out in the qualifying knew at least one lucky loser berth would materialize.
The four highest-ranked losers in the final round of qualifying enter the lucky loser draw at grand slams. Polansky was left biting his nails, unsure if he would make the cut.
American Denis Kudla and Russian Evgeny Donskoy lost and were ranked higher than Polansky. After Polansky exited to young, temperamental Russian Andrey Rublev in three sets, he found himself glued to the tussles of Americans Rajeev Ram and Ernesto Escobedo.
If both lost, Donskoy, Kudla, Ram and Escobedo — separated by six places in the rankings, from 125th to 131st — would have comprised the quartet.
Ram lost to former top-10 Austrian Jurgen Melzer but Escobedo downed India’s Yuki Bhambri 6-7 (2-7) 6-2 6-4.
‘Come on, keep fighting’
“Ram got crushed in the first set and I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” said Polansky. “Escobedo was up 4-1 in the first set and lost the first set 7-6. I couldn’t believe it. I’m like, ‘Come on.’ They both went three sets.
“I was kind of cheering so hard. Then Ram lost. Escobedo went up a break in the third and I was like, ‘Come on, come on man, keep fighting, I need you right now! And then he won.
“I was so pumped. It was a 25% chance after that. I was actually surprised I got drawn first but super pumped.”
More so when glancing the Australian Open prize money, which overall rose to $50 million Australian ($37.5 million).
The sum allocated to first-round losers exceeds what Polansky earned the lone time he won a main draw match at a grand slam at the US Open seven years ago.
With his expenses on the Australian trip tallying about $5,000, he’ll make a neat profit.
Twelve months ago his ranking hovered around 600th as he continued to recover from a wrist complaint that necessitated surgery.
Had Polansky been a lucky loser at an ATP event this year, he probably wouldn’t have been as fortunate, though.
A rule change — implemented on a trial basis in 2017 — means that if the player withdrawing is on site, the lucky loser takes his place as usual but in most cases isn’t guaranteed first-round prize money if he loses.
The tweak was implemented to “encourage players who are not completely fit to withdraw rather than go on court just because they are there,” said the ATP.
Monday at the Australian Open, Nicolas Almagro retired after four games against Jeremy Chardy, likely irking Kudla, Ram and Donskoy.
Polansky had to ask a tournament official if he would receive the first-round prize money in Melbourne — he wasn’t quite sure — and was relieved when told yes.
Soaking it up
Advancing deep into the draw in Melbourne would pad his wallet further and, positively for Polansky, lucky losers have found themselves as far as the fourth round before at majors, including David Goffin — now a top-15 regular — in 2012 at Roland Garros.
Six men’s players have won ATP titles as lucky losers, including Ram in Newport, Rhode Island in 2009 and one on the WTA tour, Andrea Jaeger, in 1980.
For now Polansky intends on soaking up the atmosphere on a stage he has rarely graced.
“I just take these moments and they’ll stay with me for a lifetime,” he said. “These main-draw opportunities don’t come along very often.”