SEBASTIAN KORDA COULDN'T believe what he was seeing.
It was the first day of his two-week preseason training block in Las Vegas and across the net was his father, Petr, the 1998 Australian Open champion who reached the world No. 2 ranking. Next to him was Steffi Graf, the 22-time major champion and former world No. 1.
The 20-year-old turned to his side to see Andre Agassi, the eight-time Grand Slam winner, also a former No. 1-ranked player.
"I was just like, 'What is happening?'" Korda said. "To have that many Grand Slams on a court at once is pretty crazy."
Korda, who had a breakthrough 2020 that saw him reach the fourth round of the French Open, had been invited by Agassi to train in preparation for the new season.
Korda and his father, who had partnered with Agassi during his lone doubles title at the 1993 Cincinnati Open, jumped at the chance. The young player soaked in everything he could from the legend on and off the court, and said he was mostly intimidated by Graf, who is married to Agassi, and her blistering crosscourt forehand.
Inspired by Agassi's passion and positivity, a re-energized Korda rode the preseason momentum all the way into the final at the 2021 Delray Beach Open during the first tournament of the year. And he has continued to impress since, making his first quarterfinals at an ATP Masters 1000 event in Miami and winning his first ATP title on Saturday at the Emilia-Romagna Open.
Now with Agassi as a mentor, Korda returns to Roland Garros looking to make another deep run and secure his spot as one of the ATP's brightest rising stars and most promising Americans, something the men's game has been sorely lacking in recent years. Entering the tournament with a projected new career-high ranking of No. 50, Korda believes the Parisian clay could be the site of his latest triumph in a season full of firsts.
"I always knew that I could play some really good tennis, but it was kind of just putting a couple pieces together here and there," Korda, who plays Pedro Martinez on Monday morning, told ESPN by phone recently. "It's been a fun ride. I have definitely a little bit more confidence in myself, and when I'm out on court, I'm a lot more comfortable in my skin."
BEING AROUND HIGH-PROFILE tennis players isn't new for Korda. In addition to his father, his mother, Regina Rajchrtova, also was a professional tennis player who reached the WTA's top 30. Both represented their native Czech Republic in various international competitions before moving to Bradenton, Florida before the birth of their first child in 1993.
Despite their prowess in the sport, the parents encouraged their three children to try everything and find their own passions, rather than feel beholden to the family legacy.
"I never wanted my kids to play tennis because the goals were already preset -- are you going to be better than Mom, better than Dad?" Petr Korda said. "We've always said that to our kids, 'Chase your own dreams and your own goals. Don't chase our stuff.'"
Korda's first love, however, was ice hockey, which he started playing as a 3-year-old. Soon he was practicing five days a week and playing on an elite junior-level squad. He dreamed of playing in the NHL -- that is, until 9, when he went with his dad to the US Open. He loved everything about it -- the energy, the atmosphere, the intensity -- and he knew he wanted to play. He almost immediately swapped his skates for a racket and focused on the family business, much to Petr's chagrin.
"It's most important that he followed his dream and as a parent, you want to help the kids to chase their dream so I was happy [if this is what he wanted to do]," Petr said. "We told him that it's not going to be easy, but he wanted to do it."
Petr was often traveling with Jessica on the golf circuit, so Regina spent the most time with their son on the court in the early days. Despite his relatively late start in tennis compared to many tour-level players, Korda quickly made up for lost time and started playing in junior events as a 14-year-old in 2015. He had some success in 2017 -- reaching the Wimbledon doubles semifinals and the singles final at the Easter Bowl -- but made a name for himself the next year when he won the Australian Open junior title. It was 20 years after his father hoisted the senior trophy and he celebrated by recreating Petr's famed scissor kick with the trophy on the court. (Jessica and Nelly did the same when they both won golf's Australian Open.)
He turned professional soon after.
EXPECTATIONS ARE NATURALLY always high for junior Slam champions. Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep, Ashleigh Barty and Iga Swiatek achieved the pinnacle of success at the junior level, and all have since won at least one major title. Combine that with Korda's pedigree, and his parents knew there would be extra attention on him. They encouraged him to take baby steps.
"My dad used to say, 'If you fall from a height of 10 feet and you fall on your butt, you're going to be sore and you might break a bone,'" Petr said. "'But if you fall from two or three feet, it won't hurt as badly and it will be easier to get right back up and try again.'"
The young player knew he was still growing -- both physically and mentally -- and he understood he was far from his peak. He didn't expect much for his first few years on tour, and instead set small ranking goals for himself, and took a one-match-at-a-time approach.
Korda played mostly ITF level events and failed to get through qualifying at the Slams. But after the restart following the sport's five-month suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, Korda -- who was ranked No. 224 coming out of the break -- was granted a wild card into the 2020 US Open for his first major main draw appearance. He lost in the first round.
With just weeks separating the US Open and the rescheduled French Open, Korda had to play his qualifying matches in Paris having no time for any other events on clay. He still advanced to the main draw and won his next three matches -- knocking off No. 21 seed and former Wimbledon semifinalist John Isner along the way. He was the last American man standing and became the youngest countryman to make it to the fourth round since 1991.
He had known who would be waiting in the Round of 16, if he were able to get there, and it was a matchup he had been dreaming of since he first started playing tennis: Rafael Nadal, the "King of Clay," then-12-time French Open champion and the namesake inspiration for Korda's 10-year-old cat Rafa.
Though the match wasn't close -- Nadal routed Korda, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in less than two hours -- for Korda, it was still "the best moment" of his life. He even had Nadal sign a shirt for him after, which is now framed on the wall of his bedroom at his parents' house. His run at the tournament even made an impression on Nadal.
"He's playing great, he's young, he has energy," Nadal said. "He has a lot of ingredients to become a big star of this sport."
Korda jumped to No. 131 in the rankings, then notched his first professional title at a Challenger event in Germany to end the year.
Having spoken to Agassi by phone nearly every day since the summer after Petr initially connected the two, Korda was thrilled when Agassi asked if he wanted to spend part of the preseason training with him in Las Vegas. Petr wouldn't comment on whether Agassi is paid for his work with his son, but it's clear the family appreciates his help.
"[Agassi and Graf] welcomed me into their family, and they're really special people to me," Korda said. "I was just hanging out a lot with Andre and kind of building a relationship, and just [us] kind of getting used to each other. He had never seen me on a court, so it was a big thing for him to kind of get a feel for me and what I'm thinking in certain situations. And he's an incredible human, and he has so much positivity and so much love for what he did and kind of just passing that on to me."
Agassi has a reputation for mentoring rising players.
"The interesting thing about Andre is that if any player in the world picked up the phone and said, 'Hey, Andre, can I come out? Can you just take a look at my game?' He would say yes, 100% of the time," said Darren Cahill, Agassi's former coach and a current ESPN analyst. "It doesn't matter who it is. He's willing to help anyone. So it's just whether or not someone wants to pick up the phone and do it.
"We had [Caroline] Wozniacki stay, Grigor [Dimitrov], [Sorana] Cirstea. [Fernando] Verdasco spent a lot of time out here, actually worked with him for a couple of years out here, also with Gil Reyes [Agassi's old fitness coach]. Ash Barty was out here as a youngster as well, she spent a bit of time -- and she's spoken about her time hitting with Stef."
But his work with Korda was special in its own way.
"It's no surprise that [Agassi] is on the court helping Seb. That came through the relationship with Petr," Cahill said. "I know that Andre thinks the world of Seb as a kid and also a player."
After their time together in Las Vegas was over, Korda made cracking the top 100 his latest goal. It took him just two tournaments. His final appearance in Delray Beach and another Challenger title less than three weeks later launched Korda to No. 88. At the Miami Open in March -- just his second ATP Masters 1000 event -- Korda recorded his first career top-10 win over Diego Schwartzman and made it to the quarterfinals. Many began to speculate if Korda could be the one to reverse the fortunes of the long-struggling state of American men's tennis.
"I'll say it in no uncertain terms -- this is our best American prospect in a long, long time," Andy Roddick, the last American man to win a major in 2003, said on Tennis Channel during the tournament. "I am bullish on Seb Korda."
Things haven't exactly gone as planned -- he lost his opening-round matches in Serbia and Munich, fell in qualifying at Madrid and was defeated in the second round in Lyon. But he more than turned it around in Parma. A dominant Korda didn't drop a set as he rolled into the final -- upsetting the event's top-ranked seed Lorenzo Sonego in the Round of 16 -- and needed just 75 minutes to take the trophy over Marco Cecchinato, 6-2, 6-4.
He became the first American man to win a title on European clay since Sam Querrey in 2010, and he and Petr are the third father-son duo to win tour-level singles titles in the history of the Open era.
Entering Roland Garros, he's second in the standings for the ATP's year-end Next Gen ATP Finals, which features the top eight players who are 21 and under, and is expected to be the No. 4-ranked American on tour. He's hoping that will score him an invite to the country's Davis Cup squad -- something he has wanted to be a part of since he started playing.
With the pandemic still very much affecting life on tour and preventing players from leaving their hotel rooms when they aren't on the court, Korda has relied heavily on his team. Currently traveling with coach Theodor Devoty and a physio, and joined by USTA coach Dean Goldfine for earlier parts of the season, the group has been playing games like Sorry, Uno and Battleship on an iPad. He tunes into his sisters' tournaments as much as he can, even though watching them play makes him nervous, and the three have an ongoing text chain encouraging one another and engaging in the occasional trash talk.
"After Jessica won [at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in January], she texted and was like, 'Well, I won a tournament, now it's your turn,'" Korda said. "So I was like, 'OK' and then I won a tournament. Then it was like, 'So now Nelly has to win a tournament,' and then she did it the week after. It was a pretty good month stretch for us."
Petr is trying to take a step back and ease more into a dad-first role, like he's able to do with his daughters, and only joined his son following his loss in Madrid after spending the first several months of the season at home in Florida.
"He's ahead of my expectations, definitely, and I'm very proud," Petr said. "But I told him earlier this year, you still need and have time to learn about the game of tennis, from A to Z. It's a learning process. Milk it. Enjoy it."
Korda jokingly told reporters at Roland Garros in 2020 he would like to win two major titles. "So I have one more than [Petr] has." But first he hopes to continue making the slow and steady progress his parents have always preached.
"I'd definitely just love to break the top 50 and kind of just keep going, see where my game can take me this year," Korda said before presumably reaching the milestone with his victory in Parma. "I have a really great team around me ... They all believe in me so it's easy to kind of just keep believing in yourself and keep doing the right things."
Heading into the French Open, with Agassi going over match tactics with him, he said he feels a sense of calm.
"I'd like to do really well at the big one in Paris but I don't see this as any pressure," Korda said. "Just like a lot of people think that there's pressure with having my dad as a former player and how good he was, but I don't see it that way. I'm just doing what I love."
Simons Cambers contributed to reporting.