Until two weeks ago, Eric Butorac was the one watching the screen.
A professional tennis player currently ranked No. 48 in the world in doubles, Butorac, who lives in Boston and is a volunteer coach for the Harvard men’s team, had flown to Australia in late December to prepare for the Australian Open.
His wife Maggie, a Marblehead native, had just given birth to their first child, Jack, on Dec. 13. Twice a day, Maggie would facetime Butorac, hold her phone to Jack’s crib, and Butorac would watch his son sleep or kick or simply stare back at his daddy.
But Saturday in Melbourne, and around the world on television and computers, fans were watching Butorac. He and his partner, Raven Klaasen of South Africa, walked out of the tunnel into Rod Laver Arena to play the finals of the Australian Open against 14th-seeded Lukasz Kubot of Poland and Robert Lindstedt of Sweden.
It’s a highly improbable story. The 32-year-old journeyman, who played Division 3 college tennis for Gustavus Adolphus, says he has played “in front of more big crowds this tournament than I normally do in a year.”
The draw didn’t look good for the unseeded Butorac and Klaasen. In the first round, he and Klaasen drew Australian legends Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt. Accustomed to the side courts, Butorac and Klaasen found themselves in Hisense Arena in front of 7,000 fans and a national Australian television audience.
Butorac has been as high as No. 17 in the world, and he even reached the Aussie Open semis in 2011, but he was a bit awestruck.
“Rafter has been an idol of mine since I was young,” he said. “I used to use his racket, and the apartment I’m renting for this week has a framed photo of him on the wall.”
But Butorac and Klaasen, who only teamed up in October, had won their first tournament together in Malaysia. And they had confidence. With the help of Butorac’s big lefthanded serve and surprisingly deft volleys, and with Klaasen’s quickness around the net, Butorac and Klaasen won, 6-4, 7-5.
During the on-court postmatch interview, Butorac’s voice wasn’t quite as firm as his play. He had never addressed 7,000 people. But when Butorac mentioned the Rafter photo, Aussie fans met his good humor and humility with applause.
Still, not many Americans were watching. The 18-hour time difference in Boston wasn’t helping. Besides, Butorac is hardly a household name. Although he has played World Team Tennis for the Boston Lobsters for the past four years, he’s never been approached in Boston for an autograph.
Bud Schultz, coach of the Lobsters and the only other Division 3 player to have made a mark on the pro tour, said of Butorac’s professional success, “Statistically, it’s so unlikely, there’s really not a number for it.”
Butorac and Klaasen’s run continued. They won their second-round match, and then came the Bryan brothers — the doubles equivalent of LeBron James. The Bryans are ranked No. 1 in the world, have won 15 Grand Slam titles (six of them at the Australian), and have made the Australian Open finals in nine of the past 10 years.
They are the winningest team in the Open era. They are also the Australian Open defending champions.
“I’ve played them probably 12 times and won once,” Butorac said. “I was planning on boarding the first plane the next morning. It doesn’t mean I didn’t believe we could win, but I’m a realist.”
The Bryans jumped to a 4-0 lead in the first-set tie-breaker. Klaasen hasn’t played as many big matches as Butorac, and Butorac said, “He was just naive enough to think that being down, 4-0, wasn’t that big of a deal.”
The unseeded team battled back, went down, 5-4, then dueled through a 19-shot rally. The Bryans fired forehands from well inside the baseline, demanding repeated reflex volleys from Butorac.
Butorac held his ground, and Klaasen ended the point with a backhand volley that landed deep in the court, just beyond the reach of the closing Bryans. Butorac and Klaasen took the tie-breaker, 11-9, and played more smart, tactical tennis in the second set, to pull off the upset, 7-6, 6-4.
“Now we were on everyone’s radar,” Butorac said. “I turned my phone on after the match and received 200 e-mails and texts in the first minute.”
Among those who congratulated Butorac were other players on tour. Known for being approachable, Butorac was elected to succeed Rafael Nadal as vice president of the ATP Players Council in 2012. Along with Roger Federer, the council president, Butorac fought for higher prize money at the Grand Slams, particularly for early-round losers. Both Butorac and Federer believe that for the sport to thrive, the lower-ranked players need to earn decent money.
But now it seemed Butorac himself wouldn’t be in need of those changes. The dream was still going. In the quarterfinals, Butorac and Klaasen faced the 12th-seeded Dominic Inglot and Treat Huey. Butorac served at 3-4 in the third, down, 0-40, but again managed to keep his composure. After that, Huey and Inglot folded. Butorac and Klaasen prevailed, 6-7 (3-7), 7-6 (8-6), 6-4.
In the semifinals, Butorac and Klaasen steamrolled the eighth-seeded team of Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic, 6-2, 6-4. They played so loose and free, they looked as though they were playing an exhibition.
And now people were watching. After the match, a Harvard player e-mailed Butorac a video of the Crimson team huddled around a computer in their hotel in Starkville, Miss., where the team had a road match.
“I got teary-eyed watching it,” Butorac said. “It meant the world to me to know they were watching and to see them jumping out of their seats.”
Harvard head coach Dave Fish said the appreciation is mutual.
“Eric plugs our guys into a longer chain of being,” said Fish. “He reinforces what we do here, and the guys see it working at the highest pro level.”
So early this morning in Boston (the match began around 5:30 a.m.), people were watching. Two of them, surely, was a new mother and her son.
“The best thing Maggie said to me,” Butorac wrote in an e-mail, “was, ‘Regardless of what happens in the final, I just want you to know that this whole experience has been amazing to be a part of, and not to forget that.’ ”
Someone else may have been watching, too. The evening after his semifinal match, Butorac received an e-mail from Stefan Edberg, Federer’s new coach, asking if Butorac would warm up Federer for his semifinal match again Rafael Nadal.
“Sometimes I just have to pinch myself,” Butorac said.