An interview with Peter Makk and Patrick Zahraj for SS '23
We went to Los Angeles (and Joshua Tree specifically) for our SS23 photoshoot, which featured standout players Peter Makk and Patrick Zahraj from another great college tennis rivalry – USC and UCLA.
The two schools have 37 national championships between them, the most you’ll find in any one NCAA matchup, and continue to jockey for positions atop the national rankings year in and year out. The cross-town rivalry comes backed with anticipation, expectation and stakes that are felt throughout college tennis.
Both players grew up outside the US and moved here for school. Peter is a sophomore from Hungary who has been playing number 2 singles for #10 ranked USC (and is #39 individually in the ITA rankings) and Patrick is a senior from Germany who’s been primarily at number 1 singles for the #35 ranked UCLA. Each has professional aspirations and already has pro tour experience – a level and standard of tennis which is not unusual for players at these two notoriously prestigious tennis schools.
We had a great time interviewing and shooting both just before their third meeting of the year (USC ended up winning all three) and despite being at different times in their college careers, they couldn’t pass on a little bit of cross-town joking and trash talk. Read the interview below for more on the rivalry, their tennis, lives, goals and of course, taste in clothing.
Peter Makk (USC)
Tell us about yourself, your tennis journey, and background up to this point?
I was born in Hungary, family is from Hungary. Started playing tennis at 9 years old. Was playing soccer before I transitioned, and by nine years old I was playing tennis. I was planning to go pro but then covid hit, so I was thinking, okay, let’s go for plan B because I was not able to travel as much. I had many scholarship opportunities, so I took the one from USC. So now I’m here, it’s my second year, sophomore, two more years left, and after that I’ll try to go pro. Play some future tournaments first, and then hopefully try some harder tournaments after, Challenger and ATP, and see how capable I am of going pro.
What did your tennis training schedule look like growing up?
At first I was training at this club that was very close to me. They were helping me out a lot because – in Hungary tennis is not that big of a sport. Once I was good enough to transition to a better club, I did that, and it was in a very nice area on the nicer side of Budapest. Spent 4 years there and had an incredible coach who taught me basically everything, and is a huge part of who I am, I can thank him for that. He stopped coaching, so I moved into the federation’s training. And trained for another 4 years under the tennis federation. I was playing a lot of junior tournaments at first, played all the grand slam junior tournaments, I think 22 (in the ITF Junior World Rankings) was my highest junior ranking. And then I played a couple of pro Futures Tour tournaments. But I wasn’t that successful and then covid hit … so definitely the goal is to play more of those after college.
Coming from overseas, how did colleges like USC find you?
Actually mostly through social media, Instagram, Facebook, even through email. Which, I don’t know how they found my email … but mostly through Instagram and Facebook DM. Once I replied it became more official … Thankfully my junior level was high enough that I didn’t have to go through any of the agencies and I was able to find a pretty good deal on my own.
Can you tell us what a normal day in USC tennis looks like for you? A normal week?
A normal week … we’re in season now (January to May). For example, today, was a 7:00 am weight session. Only an hour, but it’s really not easy to wake up during the season when you’re traveling a lot. Then I had to go to class at 9:00 am, and it’s a long class, 3 and a half hours, but I managed to stay awake. Then right after class, it’s tennis practice. Which is another two hours. Most of the time we do drills, then play some, either sets, or other kinds of point play. And then I have my lunch pretty late, around 3:00 pm. So I don’t get to eat too much between breakfast and then, I just don’t have time. So it’s a pretty full schedule. And then I have class at 4pm for an hour. Go home, do some homework – getting to the end of the semester as well, so school is picking up. It’s usually something like that: Practice, school, practice, school, homework.
A typical week, in a season, is about 2 matches, a week, sometimes 1 match. This week is two matches. Friday and Saturday. We usually have a team dinner before the match, so Thursday, and then hang around with the players, my teammates, and then first thing tomorrow is wake up, get to the match and warmup. We focus on recovery a lot, because it’s pretty easy for the body to fall apart during the season. So there’s a lot of that after the matches. This week matches are Friday and Saturday. Sometimes it’s Friday and Sunday. It differs a little but it’s always the weekend.
How have you liked the team environment of college tennis compared to the individual tennis of juniors and the pro circuit?
Yeah, it’s different. I was fortunate enough to play the Junior Davis Cup two times, so I was able to get a bit of the team atmosphere. But it’s different. You’re playing for something bigger, for a college, for other guys, so it’s always a motivation. I really like that part of college tennis. And that’s something that I won’t have when I play on tour. I’m sure it will feel lonely. That’s the part of this – that you have teammates, players that push each other – that I really enjoy.
So you have a rivalry match with UCLA coming up. How would you describe that rivalry? What’s the atmosphere around that match?
It’s definitely something we look forward to. That’s the biggest crosstown rivalry or whatever you want to call it. We’ve played them twice already this year, and won both times, so I feel like this year we are stronger, but that is the past. They might come out ready this time, so we’ll have to be prepared. But yeah, I look forward to that because we get the biggest crowd and that’s always something fun.
You said your plan is to go pro after college? How will that look training wise? Will you go back home?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s a long way away. But I think it might be nice to stay in the US. But at first, most likely, I will go back but if I find a partner, have some relationships here, then maybe I will stay here. If my results aren’t good, then we’ll see. I do love the US. And it’s a place I could see myself living later in life.
To wrap up, we’ll ask a couple questions about your clothing choices – Are you a fashion guy?
Oh yeah, big time.
What are your favorite brands? Tennis and non-tennis?
Well USC is Nike, so right now that’s my answer. Non-tennis – I really like different types of clothes. I like to go to the thrift store a lot of the time, choose something that’s not too ordinary, brands that are not widely known. For example, right now I’ve been doing the style with the hoodies that are a little bit shorter, and the T-shirt is a little longer underneath, so the T-shirt is a little bit visible underneath. And been doing pants that are a little wider, rests on top of the shoe a little bit, sort of baggy, but not baggy at the same time. A little hard to explain.
A couple quick, specific clothing questions for you …
Liner shorts or no-liner?
Sleeves or Sleeveless?
I wouldn’t mind the sleeveless, the Nadal look, but I don’t have any of those at the moment. So I guess I have to say sleeves.
White or color?
I feel like it depends on the rest of the outfit, and the shoes. But if the shoe is white or black and I can match the socks with it, then I like color. But if it’s something else, then I go with the white.
Patrick Zahraj (UCLA)
Tell us about yourself, your tennis journey, and background up to this point?
That’s always fun diving back in. Well my dad played professionally, he played majors, he grew up in the Czech Republic and escaped communism in what is a very hilarious story, that I can’t go into, but is a story for itself. So he ended up in Germany, where I was born and raised. In Frankfurt. Mostly taught by him. I started playing almost before I could walk. As you can imagine from tennis parents. My mom was also a player at the regional level. I encountered a tough struggle when I got type 1 diabetes when I was nine. This has been accompanying me, with sometimes more challenges than you would like as a tennis player, all through juniors and up to now. Still, I had some great wins early on, won the German championships multiple times when I was younger. Tennis Europe under 14 got to the top ranking in my age group. Played Tsitsipas, couple other guys who are now breaking through on tour.
I had a tough setback when I was 15. I got Mono (Mononucleosis). And had a more severe version of it. So it was a multiyear fight, I was in the hospital, didn’t know what was going to happen, whether I had to quit, there was a lot of up and down. All in all it was basically 3 years that I was out of tennis. From age 15 to 18 I only played a handful of tournaments.
The first tournament I played where I was really on the way back was Eddie Herr. I got to the finals of it and that got me the attention of college coaches – but not UCLA. And at this point was still struggling to stay healthy. In the hospital for multiple months, figuring out if my body would make it. When I was 18, I finally had some relief, got better. And at this point hadn’t played ITF or anything where I could jump up to the pro tour, so I had to skip that and college tennis became the number 1 priority. I felt I was short on skills that I probably should have acquired during that time. And then also the social side of it, I had missed out on a lot of that, so for those reasons college was number one.
I went on 4 out of my 5 visits. Places like Texas, TCU, Michigan, Ole Miss, who are all doing great right now. But didn’t commit to any of them. Then when I really started coming back my senior year in high school, I beat a guy who got to the semifinals of the US Open Juniors, beat him in a Futures Tour qualifying event. And then finally UCLA picked up and reached out via email. And I was like it’s funny, I reached out a few months ago and you guys weren’t around. But I took my last visit and fell in love. And ever since I’ve been here, still progressing. Still kind of getting out of the last bits of Mono my first few years. And now having a great last few years. Last summer, I got to the finals of a couple 25K (Futures Tournaments), and another semis and quarters. I was up to around 900-something (ATP world ranking) in singles, 400s in doubles, so I was like okay, give it a shot to turn pro after you graduate. So now I am where I am, finishing up my last semester at UCLA, playing 1 for them and looking forward to what’s ahead.
What was your training schedule like growing up?
I was in a general school at first, in Germany. The school schedule was rough. I got one tennis session from 6:30 to 7:30 in the morning. School started at 8. And then the afternoon, a couple hours at 3. And that was it growing up until I moved to Frankfurt.
I trained with my dad until he passed me to one of his former coaches, who coached him when he was on tour - Mark Schneider. And they’re about the same age. So, he took me on and it was pretty similar. I switched to an athletic school where school didn’t start until 10 twice a week, so we had a longer morning session twice a week. And that was big, that extra morning time. And then of course, conditioning and fitness both through the federation, and through the club I was playing at. So it was busy.
So now, transitioning to UCLA, what is a typical schedule for you?
Not that much different. Except that you don’t have to schedule things yourself. Everything is scheduled for you. It’s more about getting from class to practice, to your fueling station in between, and then after that you’re getting treatment, physical therapy wise. There’s a lot better care you receive. Where you can have pre-practice care, post practice. That’s definitely one of the huge differences. We have a lot of resources to help take care of your body. But overall, not that much different. It’s more so you have the schedule in front of you. And you have to move from A to B. Which is nice.
How has the team environment of college tennis compared to junior tennis? Or the individual tennis you experience on the pro tour?
So in Europe you’re used to playing team matches. We play for our clubs. So in juniors we had like three different teams for different age groups and sizes. Plus I’d been playing in different countries. So I always loved the team environment. And that’s what I was also looking forward to about college. Travel with the team, which definitely makes it more pleasant, and sharing the success and the feats at the same time with other people. The feats mean more and the success … and the other side, the losses are maybe harder. The amplitude of the spectrum is probably greater both ways.
If you ask any of the former college tennis greats who still play – there was a great article a couple years ago – asking players what was your most memorable moment in your whole tennis career. And it was a clinching match at Georgia for Isner and a clinching match for Kevin Anderson at Illinois in a rivalry match. And they said that was the moment that would stay with them forever. I was lucky enough to have the same fortune, in my freshman year, I was able to clinch the rivalry match against USC and I feel like that energy and that memory will definitely stay forever and I’ll cherish that for the rest of my life. That’s definitely something I’ll miss at the individual level. It’s great to share success.
Even Francis (Tiafoe), he came out here, and came out with the team, and he was like hey, I just played Rafa in the quarters of the Australian Open, and I would still exchange it in a heartbeat for the win you guys experienced today. It’s just different playing for something bigger than yourself. That’s what college tennis is all about.
So that’s a good transition – you said you played USC – tell us about that rivalry. Where does that rank for you among the biggest matches of the year?
Oh yeah. We lost to them six, seven times in a row now. Actually the last time we beat them was that time my freshman year. So I’m waiting for another magical moment to happen. We were a little unlucky this year with injuries, etcetera, so we’ll see how that will play out. But anything can happen. And I can’t finish college losing seven, eight times in a row. Although Peter might not like to hear that. But definitely looking forward to it one last time. Throwing everything we have at it.
You said after your senior year you’re going to go on tour? Any idea how that will look for you? Stay here? Go home? Have you started making plans?
Definitely planning how to make it work, financially, professionally. We’re already working hard on that. With my dad, with my family. Once I graduate, I’ll be ready to go with all the professionalism there is. Where I’ll be based is a different story. 35 out of 52 weeks you’re traveling. Depending on what season it is. Hard court, clay court, where there’s a string of tournaments. So it will be between Frankfurt, Prague, here (LA), which obviously I know, for training blocks. And the rest will be wherever the tournament schedule takes me. A lot of the great alumni come back and practice with the team in LA. If I’m here, I’ll definitely try to stay a part of the Bruin family. Always good to be around the team whenever I can.
Last couple questions on the clothing front? Are you a fashion guy?
Yes. And I’m very curious to see what your plan is in the coming look. With a lot of the styles coming back, the 80s style, more vintage looks, I’m curious where it will get in the next few years. But I’m pretty sure what Nike did at the Australian Open, those interesting color combinations, might be out of fashion … but it’s been interesting to see where trends have gone. A little bit farther back, more classy styles. So I’m curious to see where it will go. And I’ll be following it.
How would you describe your own style?
Funny, I never really had the option to choose. I was with Adidas before, and now in college, so … it’s definitely a little colorful for sure. I love the classic, elegant stuff, if you look at Federer, that’s a perfect fit for him. And every tennis personality can express themselves in what they’re wearing. Federer did it in the best way he could, Rafa in the best way he could, so in order to describe what my style is, you’ll need to ask me again in a few years. But I think classic elements with some touches of a little color. Definitely minimalist for sure.
A couple quick, specific clothing questions for you …
Liner shorts or no liner?
Sleeves or Sleeveless?
White or Color?