In 1985, Larry Stefanki became the only wildcard to ever win the BNP Paribas Open, but he almost didn’t get the chance to play.
Stefanki recently talked with BNP Paribas Open about his road to victory and how to take advantage of your opportunities.
BNP Paribas Open: You come into La Quinta as a wild card in 1985, what is your mindset heading into the tournament?
Larry Stefanki: I had been on the tour for a while, and had gone through enough on the tour to feel comfortable. However, leading up to the event was a roller coaster. Charlie Pasarell offered me the wildcard early in the week, but he took it back after getting a call that Stefan Edberg wanted to play. For two days, I wasn’t in the best of moods. On Friday afternoon, I found out that Stefan wasn’t coming, and then Charlie gave it back. After the tournament, Charlie told me that he almost made the biggest mistake of his life. And to this day, I’m the only wildcard to ever win the tournament.
BNPPO: After a first-round win against countryman Kelvin Belcher, you find yourself matched-up against Juan Aguilera. You win the first set 7-6, but he takes the second 6-2. Heading into the final set, do you remember your strategy going in?
Stefanki: After losing the second set, my mindset was to bring out the bugle and charge. In the first set, I came in on every short ball. In the second, I tried to take him from the baseline and it didn’t work. So I started to come in on the third set, which was more my style.
BNPPO: After defeating Aguilera, you earn back-to-back straight-set wins in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals, including a defeat of another top-25 foe in Scott Davis. From a confidence standpoint, how were you feeling?
Stefanki: I felt like I had a chance at this point. You start to believe in yourself and ask, “Why not me?” Every match is a new experience, and the crowd gets more involved. I just tried to feed off of that. However, I can remember a gentleman in the stands suffering a heart attack during the Scott Davis match and watching doctors try to assist. It was mass chaos in the stands. I can just remember trying to regain my composure after the match being delayed.
BNPPO: Now you find yourself in the semifinals against Greg Holmes, and he’s playing phenomenal tennis. He just defeated Jimmy Connors 6-0, 6-3 in the quarterfinal, and had yet to drop a set in the tournament. Were you looking for a way to slow him down, or just content on playing your game?
Stefanki: Holmes put on such a display against Connors that I couldn’t watch the entire match. But I had practiced against him before and was familiar with his game. He had a very good backhand, and I felt that Connors played into his strength. So I went into the match knowing I needed to serve into his forehand, make points short and put pressure on him. If I got into the backcourt, I didn’t feel like I had a chance. But, the game is all about matchups and I felt I should win. When you believe your game matches up, you get good results.
BNPPO: You take care of Holmes, and now you’re in the final against David Pate. Leading up to the match, are you trying to follow your same routine? Are you feeling any nerves going into the match?
Stefanki: I remember waking up very early. I wanted to get a real good warm-up, and did so for an hour, which was unusual for me. I wanted to settle myself down. I was starting to get tired and the final was best-of-five. I had never lost to David and felt like this was a great opportunity to take advantage. The stadium was packed and had a great environment. The stage can get a bit overwhelming, but I felt I had a great chance to win even before hitting the first ball.
BNPPO: You take the first two sets against Pate, and now you’re one away from claiming the title. However, he fights back and wins the third set. Did you ever find it difficult to not look ahead and just try to focus on each point?
Stefanki: It’s was over 100 degrees outside and the only thing I’m thinking is, “Why can’t this match be two-out-of-three.” I felt if I lost the fourth set, then I’m in a world of hurt.
BNPPO: You go on to win the fourth set and claim the title. What do you remember most about the moment?
Stefanki: I had so many great memories. This tournament has always been a huge draw for fans and celebrities, and the awards ceremony was amazing. I remember Frank and Barbara Sinatra being involved with the ceremony. I also remember all the great past champs on the court, which was amazing.
BNPPO: As players look to earn wildcard berths into the BNP Paribas Open this week and try to advance in the tournament, do you have any advice?
Stefanki: They should consider themselves lucky. There is no entitlement for wildcards. Consider this an opportunity and use it. It’s a vehicle to improve your status and show that you belong, so believing in yourself is very important. I only had one my entire career and made the most of it. If you get the opportunity, your mindset should be to shock everyone.