From his sofa in Masku, Finland, Jarkko Nieminen dreamed big; in his bedroom, with posters of his idol Pete Sampras on the wall, he conceived the idea of playing professionally. Veli Paloheimo, who briefly crept into the Top 50 of the Emirates ATP Rankings in 1990, had been the standard bearer for Finnish tennis, but by virtue of hard graft, Nieminen became world-class for a place in his nation’s sporting history, alongside the likes of Janne Ahonen, Mika Häkkinen and Sami Hyypiä.
As Nieminen sat courtside, under a towel Tuesday night in Stockholm, his career flashed before him. He’d never cried after a loss in 16 seasons as a professional, but, after a forehand down the line was punched away by Nicolas Almagro at the net, Nieminen was afforded the luxury of time. “My emotions were on the surface, but when the audience applauded… I felt empty.” Today, in tandem with his great friend, Johan Brunstrom, came his final match at the age of 34.
The Kungliga tennishallen, venue of the If Stockholm Open, was a home-from-home in every year of his career. Although he never held the trophy aloft, his memories remain vivid of becoming the first Finn to reach an ATP World Tour final since Leo Palin (at 1981 Sofia) in 2001, when he lost a five-setter to Sjeng Schalken; in the 2006 final to James Blake or in 2011, when he fell to Gael Monfils. “Swedes have supported me since the beginning, even when they have had some great players,” said Nieminen, who also reached the 2010 doubles final (w/Brunstrom). “They have treated me very well.” It was fitting to call it quits in the Swedish capital.
Roger Federer, who was a junior rival to Nieminen, the 1999 US Open boys’ singles champion, paid tribute by saying, “I think Jarkko is a wonderful guy. I’ve known him for 20 years so we go way back. We had some great matches, finals [2006 Munich and 2007 Basel] as well, on all surfaces. It’s been a pleasure playing against him. What I enjoyed the most about him was his fair play, his spirit on the court and off the court. He’s a real gentleman.”
Tomas Berdych said, “I only have positive words about him. I remember him from when we used to play some club tennis in the Czech Republic. He is a very nice guy. He has achieved a lot. He was always a very difficult opponent. He would never give you a single point for free. He was very solid from the baseline and would play really fast using his left hand.”
Nieminen, renowned for his speed, was a dangerous foe capable of battling against the very best on every surface, as evidenced by victories over current or former World No. 1s, including Andre Agassi, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Carlos Moya, Marat Safin, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Novak Djokovic. He recorded 405 singles match wins and ranked in the year-end Top 100 since 2001. “I always had faith in myself, but I kept my feet on the ground,” said Nieminen, who was also a member of the ATP Player Council from June 2010 to June 2014.