Australian Open 2017: Alex Bolt back on court after taste of 'real world'

    Story highlights

    • Bolt quit last year, tried construction
    • Didn't like it and returned to tennis
    • Qualified in Melbourne as world No. 632

    Melbourne (CNN)It's tough trying to become a successful tennis pro, but not -- as Alex Bolt discovered -- as difficult as grafting for a living in the "real world."

    Having given up the game for most of last year, the Australian is now back living his dream and hoping to make the most of his second chance.
      At 632 in the world, he is the lowest-ranked men's qualifier at the Australian Open in at least eight years, according to the ITF.
      "It was all getting too much and I just got to the point where, 'I have to change this and I don't like what I'm doing,'" Bolt, who had also suffered from elbow problems, told CNN of his decision to quit tennis last March.
      "So I decided to stop playing."
      During his absence from the tour, he returned to his hometown of Murray Bridge, close to Adelaide in south Australia, and dabbled in construction. More specifically, he put up fences.
      However, the 24-year-old was far from enamored working 10-hour days in, at times, hot weather.
      "I didn't like it at all," Bolt said. "Sort of got a taste of what the real world was like."
      Alex Bolt celebrates after winning a place in the main draw in Melbourne.

      Another underdog celebrity?

      Bolt will be trying to emulate Marcus Willis, the English pro who hit the headlines at Wimbledon last year when -- at No. 772 -- he became the lowest-ranked qualifier to win a match at a major since 1988.
      Willis -- nicknamed "Cartman" after the pudgy animated character on "South Park" -- was something of a minor celebrity after setting up a second-round clash with tennis legend Roger Federer.
      Bolt, too, could win a round in the main draw given he avoided the big names at the first hurdle in Melbourne, drawing world No. 99 Yoshihito Nishioka instead.
      The Japanese player has only once reached the second round of a grand slam in six attempts, but nonetheless he probably won't be overly disappointed about the prospect of facing the left-hander on Tuesday.
      Willis never quit tennis despite his tumble down the rankings following a promising junior career -- his girlfriend convinced him not to give up.
      But Bolt says he had to step away from the game, from last March to the end of 2016, being weighed down by the travel and missing family and friends.
      Rather than a gradual buildup of angst, Bolt -- who reached a high of 93rd in doubles in 2014, several months after making the quarterfinals at the Australian Open alongside Andrew Whittington -- said the metamorphosis took place in a hurry.
      "It happened within three or four weeks. I was like, 'I can't do this.'"

      Motivation returns

      Bolt is not the first tennis pro to try such a career change and return to the game.
      A young David Ferrer also found the construction business wasn't the right fit for him, and the Spaniard -- known as one of the most tenacious players in the men's game -- went on to reach a grand slam final. Now 34, he was a regular in the top 10 for several seasons until dropping out last year.
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      It took Bolt "two or three months" for his motivation to return.
      "I had a feeling of, 'I am starting to miss tennis,'" he said. "But I didn't want to react on those feelings just because it was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing.
      "I waited a little bit longer and a bit longer. The feelings were still around and they were getting bigger and stronger and I was like, 'I have to come back now.'"
      He did and began 2017 with an encouraging result, making the second round at a second-tier tournament as a qualifier.
      It was enough for Tennis Australia to hand him a wildcard into Australian Open qualifying. It became available when a ranking shuffle moved the original recipient into the main draw directly -- a stroke of good luck that Bolt capitalized on.
      Bolt lost his first set to Marius Copil but then claimed six in a row, defeating former top-30 Frenchman Julien Benneteau on Saturday to clinch a berth in the 128-strong men's field.
      He had failed in seven previous attempts to qualify for a grand slam singles berth, but this time his nearest and dearest were there to share the moment on Court 7 -- where he will play again against Nishioka.
      "The last round, I had a surprise -- my brother flew in from Murray Bridge and surprised me," Bolt said. "Had my parents here and heaps and heaps of friends come around and watch me."

      Lifting spirits

      Bolt's performance -- and first-round victories for Bernard Tomic and 17-year-old Alex De Minaur -- have lifted Australian spirits in the aftermath of top prospect Thanasi Kokkinakis' ongoing health woes.
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      Wally Masur, the former Australian Davis Cup captain now working as the managing director of performance at Tennis Australia, compared Bolt's plight to Sam Groth.
      Groth, beaten by Belgium's Steve Darcis on Monday, left the sport early in 2011 due to a shoulder injury and personal issues.
      He returned in the fall of 2011, then the next season registered the fastest serve recorded -- 163.4 mph -- and three years later was named Australia's top tennis player.
      "Alex did the same (as Groth), took some time out, got his elbow and his body right, and of course we kept in touch with him, kept him in the fold," Masur said in an email sent to CNN. "Bolty is a talented player, a good athlete and a great kid."
      Masur took Bolt to the Czech Republic as a hitting partner for the Davis Cup side in 2015 and said he'd never had a better experience with anyone filling that role.
      "He's always been around, a player of great ability, but sometimes a player needs some time away to get their body right, their head right, and that's what he's done," Masur said. "I'm really pleased he's qualified."
      Bolt is assured of $37,500 even if he loses to Nishioka -- enough, he says, to pay for his travel and accommodation for a whole year. But he wants more.
      "I've just been given an unbelievable opportunity and I want to milk it for all it's worth."