A New Old Life

by: Peter Bodo | August 30, 2014

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Victor Estrella Burgos became the first man from the Dominican Republic to win a match at the U.S. Open. (Photos by Anita Aguilar)

NEW YORK—Everyone loves a good story, and the saga of Victor Estrella Burgos is about as good as it gets in the persistently upscale world of tennis. It’s the tale of a poor boy from the Dominican Republic, which qualifies as one of the game’s backwaters, who worked tirelessly, overcame disadvantage both obvious and unseen, and has lately realized his ambition to become a top-class ATP pro at the age of 34—an age when most of his peers are contemplating a farewell to competition.

It’s easy to see why New Yorkers would take Estrella Burgos’ tale and run with it, as they have this week, and act as if they had discovered him. You know, the whole “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere” schtick. But while this U.S. Open has been Estrella Burgos’ breakout tournament, the reality is that he’s been in the Top 100 since he won the Salinas Challenger way back in the late winter. With a ranking of No. 80, he was a direct acceptance in the the U.S. Open.

I don’t divulge all this to take potshots at Gotham’s typical conceit (the song could also go, “If it didn’t happen here, it didn’t happen anywhere”) as much as to say: Forget about that story; this guy is a heck of a tennis player. We saw that again Saturday, even as Estrella Burgos bowed out of the U.S. Open, courtesy of a sometimes savage display of power serving by No. 5 seed Milos Raonic. The score was 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3), and it took Raonic two hours and 45 minutes to prevail.

“It was difficult,” Raonic admitted after the third-round match. “He's playing well. He's playing with a lot of aspiration.”

That was an interesting choice of words that gets right to the heart of what Estrella Burgos is about, and why he’s captured the hearts of so many fans and the respect of so many of his peers. At the net for the handshake, Raonic offered Estrella Burgos words of praise and encouragement, which isn’t typical on the tennis tour. And those words lacked any hint of condescension.

Estrella Burgos has earned himself a place in the same warrior society as guys like Michael Russell and all the other hard cases who let neither age nor fatigue, flawed games or even the lack of anything like orderly progress stop them (not that they don’t progress, but often it’s a two steps forward, three steps back type of locomotion). These are the guys who are all in. They’re lifers.

You can see how Estrella Burgos’ burning love for this game has played a role in sculpting him, even beyond his own suggestion that his recent success has probably been due mainly to fitness. “I think I add [the most] to my game is my physical. I think I working very hard to add this.”

Estrella Burgos seems made from three triangles, with the apex pointing south of the top two, his head and torso. His legs are disproportionately short but not, as with some players, thick as hams. They’re almost wiry, and imply that a lot of his power comes from somewhere between his broad shoulders and pinched waist. Estrella Burgos stands only 5’8”, but a stick of dynamite stood on end isn’t all that tall, either.

Estrella Burgos showed how explosive he is throughout this match. He was like an inflatable clown that keeps popping up no matter how often—or hard—you punch him. And if anyone can punch, it’s Raonic. Numerous times in this match, it looked as if Raonic was either going to bust it wide open, or that Estrella Burgos' go-for-broke style would degenerate into a hot smoking mess.

But neither happened. Raonic wisely counseled himself not to go for too much, or to try too hard to put away the underdog. It was a dodgy situation for the heavy favorite, and he handled it well. Meanwhile, Estrella Burgos tried successfully to stay within striking distance and keep his cool, despite the dispiriting way Raonic can slam doors just when they appear to be opening with that massive serve.

Surprisingly, though, Raonic was the first to give up break points—a pair of them in the third game. An errant lob by Estrella Burgos and a Raonic ace eliminated those. Estrella Burgos faced a minor crisis of his own when he faced a pair of break points just two games later. He went Raonic one better, wiping way both with aces. In fact, at 120 M.P.H., Raonic’s average first serve in the first set was just a single M.P.H. faster than Estrella Burgos’.

That statistic is deceptive, and clearly a tribute to Raonic’s skill at the notch. He mixed up his serves, firsts as well as seconds (Raonic’s fastest on the day was 141 M.P.H., Estrella Burgos’ 126), and that enabled him to keep his volatile opponent guessing. It also helped him keep control of the match, for it was one in which Estrella Burgos was always at Raonic’s hip, but never ahead. Among other things, making sure Burgos never made a run was a great technique for keeping the crowd relatively quiet and on the edge of its collective seat. Now and then, the spectators—pro-Estrella Burgos, but not necessarily anti-Raonic—took up the “Vic-tor, Vic-Tor!” chant, but enthusiasm for it quickly petered out.

As Raonic said, “I have played a few situations in Davis Cup. I just sort of focused on the right things. I don't think necessarily that (feeling pressure from the crowd) was too much of a factor. I just tried to focus on, ‘Okay, what do I have to do, and how do I need to adjust throughout the match to what he's doing?’ Just try to keep things simple and not get caught up in things I can't control.”

At that, the pride of Thornhill, Ontario, was masterful—especially when as it was becoming clear that Estrella Burgos was just as capable of holding serve through the first set as Raonic. Getting to a tiebreaker was a nice accomplishment, and it might have been hard for Estrella Burgos to resist taking a measure of comfort from it. Doing so was all the more a miscalculation because that also was exactly the point where Raonic was entitled to feel that it was time to go in for the kill.

I had a mild epiphany during that first-set tiebreaker. I realized that the most significant question raised therein is, Who has the better chance to win two points in a row?

It seems elementary, but think about it this way: Winning two consecutive points in a game means next to nothing; you can still lose the game, or recover and win it. In a tiebreaker, though, it can mean everything. And nobody can dispute that a lethal server like Raonic stands the best chance of winning back-to-back points. This has little to do with the serve itself, except in the sense that the ability to crack an ace or a hit an unreturned serve greatly improves a player’s chances to win two consecutive points.

Raonic kicked off that first-set tiebreaker with an ace. Estrella Burgos then lost the second of his two points. An unreturned serve by Raonic followed, then a forehand volley winner enabled by a penetrating serve. It was 4-1 to Raonic, and the set was for all practical purposes over.

When Raonic broke Estrella Burgos in the first game of the second set and then held, it looked as if a rout was in the making. But the Dominican broke back for 2-all. He was unable to consolidate the break, though, and once Raonic held for 4-2, things looked grim for Estrella Burgos. Yet he managed a critical break when Raonic served for the set at 5-4, and ultimately pushed the set to a tiebreaker.

In that second tiebreaker, Raonic fired a pair of aces from 0-1, then forced a passing shot error to grab the mini-break at 3-1. A volley error handed back the advantage, but poor serving by Estrella Burgos allowed Raonic to jump ahead 6-4. He converted the second of the set points.

“I did it (came back from a break down) because I want to really try to won the match,” said Estrella Burgos. “I was break down in the second set. I get very focused for try to get back the game. I broke him. I got it, but I really—Milos, he's unbelievable. I think he played a lot of tiebreak. He have so much confidence when he played the tiebreak.”

Surely, Estrella Burgos was finished. It certainly looked to be the case when Raonic had a break point in the fourth game. But Estrella Burgos survived, and a few games later he broke Raonic. The momentum appeared to be shifting, but Raonic broke back, came up with a set-saving hold for 5-all, then brought all his heat and thunder to the day's third tiebreaker. He started with an ace, then won both of Estrella Burgos’ service points. Another unreturned serve put the tiebreaker out of reach at 4-0—plenty of insurance to cover the double fault that immediately followed.

When it was all over, after that brief tete-a-tete at the net, the loser was lauded by the emcee. Estrella Burgos stepped back onto the court, waved, and blew four kisses—one to each side of the court. As he went back to his chair, he briefly made a V of his left thumb and index finger and touched it to his eyes. I guess he had a speck of something or other in there.

“It's great that he's playing his best tennis at 34,” Raonic would say later, when asked why he spoke to Estrella Burgos at the net. “He's figuring a lot of it out. He's giving himself sort of a new life about his tennis, because I saw him when I was playing through the Challenger circuit. You'd see him playing qualies or getting in as one of the last guys in the main draw.

“So you see him at that point. Now to see him getting into Grand Slams, directly into quite a few tournaments as well, it's nice to see. I remember his first match (here). I believe I was practicing or warming up for my first round against Daniel (Taro).

“You could hear a great atmosphere in the back because he was practicing behind, playing behind those P (practice) courts. You could see he was enjoying that aspect of it. And not just everything he was doing, but everything that came in around it. You could see it was emotional for him after the match, as well. It's great for him to have this kind of a moment and to really enjoy it.”

It was also great to hear Raonic express such emphatic, kind feelings. But I still wouldn’t want to stand across the net from him, waiting to receive that serve.

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