WATCH—An update on the ATP race to London:
Brad Gilbert swiftly recollects the first time he saw Nikoloz Basilashvili play with a brand of power that seemed unfathomable. At 16, Basilashvili spent a training week at Gilbert’s California home and the world-renowned coach was impressed with the young Georgian’s politeness as a person and immense potential as a player.
What struck the former No. 4, above all else, was Basilashvili’s propensity to blast every ball as hard as he could, no matter the circumstances. One day at practice, Gilbert was stationed up at the net when the teenager unleashed a thundering shot which almost knocked him down.
"It was an incredibly big ball he hit," Gilbert said. "And I took a walk at the back of the court and was thinking ,'Hey, that ball almost hit me in the Adam’s apple like a million miles an hour!'"
That shot and Basilashvili’s potential left a big impression on Gilbert.
"Ever since, I have paid attention to him and followed his career," Gilbert said. "I remember telling my wife that not only was he a great kid but I told her I would be surprised if he did not make it to the Top 10 or 15 in the world. As I said when I called his match on ESPN against Rafael Nadal at this year’s Open, he now has one of the five best backhands in the game and he doesn’t try to kill every single ball. He has learned to vary his speeds and he goes down the line more. This is helping Niko play to his potential."
The 2018 season has been a breakthrough for Basilashvili. He won two ATP World Tour 500 events, in Hamburg and Beijing, and advanced to his first career Grand Slam round of 16 in New York. At 26, he has reached a career-high ranking of No. 23 in the world.
WATCH—Nikoloz Basilashvili upsets Juan Martin del Potro in the Beijing final:
Basilashvili attributes much of his success this season to the work he has done with coach Jan De Witt, with whom he started working shortly before Roland Garros.
"He has helped give me good direction," Basilashvili said in a phone interview. "He gives me good advice on how to play them and has helped me in many ways, not only with strategy but also mentally. I had been looking for a tennis coach for two years. He has made a big difference."
Basilashvili started 2018 at No. 59 and reached the third round of the 2018 Australian Open, but was beaten in a five-set heartbreaker by Kyle Edmund after leading two sets to one. That defeat led to a slump as he lost his next six matches.
"Losing to Kyle in Australia was one of the most disappointing and saddest matches I have ever played in my life," Basilashvili said. "I really wanted to win, but losing gave me great motivation to work harder."
Basilashvili was knocked out of the first round of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon by Gilles Simon, but at the end of July he won Hamburg for his first career title. He came through qualifying and then took out Philipp Kohlschreiber, Pablo Cuevas, Pablo Carreno Busta and Nicolas Jarry before beating Leonardo Mayer in the final.
"It was a great tournament for me," Basilashvili said. "Jurgen Melzer served for the match against me in the last round of qualies, but even if I lost that match I knew I would be all right the way I was playing. I had really good wins against very good clay court players.”
In the final, he dropped the second set without winning a game before turning it around, 6-4, 0-6, 7-5.
“I had lost in two finals at ATP 250 events, so I was very tight in the finals of Hamburg," he said. "I really wanted to win after losing those other finals. I knew I would have a 500 title if I won so it was hard mentally. That was a very big win for me. When I served for the match at 6-5, I was down break point but getting through that match and winning the tournament gave me unbelievable confidence.”
That confidence carried over into his run at US Open, but Basilashvili could easily have been gone in the first round in New York. Taking on Aljaz Bedene, he edged out a painful 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 win.
"I had full body cramps starting in the second set," Basilashvili said. "I played without legs and without anything. I don’t know how I won that match. The conditions were very tough on a hot day. It was a nightmare. When I shook hands with Bedene after the match, I could not open my palm."
Relieved and buoyed by that gritty victory, Basilashvili cut down No. 14 seed Jack Sock and Argentina’s Guido Pella. He pushed Nadal to four sets before bowing out.
"That was my first match on Arthur Ashe Stadium,” he said. “I was very tight and could not show my full tennis in the first two sets but I calmed down in the third and played better and better to win that set. He fought through the way he always does.”
Still, going that far at a major was a triumph, and testing Nadal was a remarkable feat in light of the fact that the Spaniard obliterated him, 6-0, 6-1, 6-0, in the third round of the 2017 French Open.
"After that match in Paris I was so depressed I could not focus for the next two to three months because of the way he played and how big the difference was between me and him," Basilashvili said. "I had never experienced anybody with this kind of fitness level.
"I worked a lot on my fitness between the two matches," he added. "I had a bad memory of playing him at Roland Garros, but at the US Open I was calmer. Also, the bounce is different and a bit higher on the Center Court at Roland Garros. But it was a bit easier for me playing him on hard courts."
Basilashvili built on his Grand Slam breakthrough with a second career title, this time in Beijing. After nearly losing his opener to Sock, Basilashvili never looked back, sweeping through the field without the loss of another set, including wins over Fernando Verdasco, Malek Jaziri, Edmund and Juan Martin del Potro.
“Winning in the final against Del Potro was very important for me,” Basilashvili said. “It showed me how good I was mentally because there is a big difference between winning and losing in finals. Beijing is a very prestigious tournament. When I see my name next to [Novak] Djokovic, [Roger] Federer and Nadal, it gives me a lot of confidence. I was very happy."
As well he should have been. Maintaining his contentedness will depend, however, not simply on the results he gets and the ranking progress he makes, but mostly on how he goes about his business. Looking ahead to 2019, Basilashvili doesn't have goals. Instead, he simply seeks to improve.
"When I started working with Jan, our goal was for me to be a better player. My goal is to use my full potential," he said. "I never had goals to be in the Top 20 or Top 10 or No. 1. My goal is to work hard and put in one hundred percent always. My main goal is to improve mentally, to be very fit and to improve my first serve placement and accuracy.
"But to reach the Top 10 or go even higher would be so good for sure."
And the Top 10 is an attainable place for Basilashvili.
"Everything he is doing doesn’t surprise me," Gilbert said. "For him to finish the year in the Top 20 potentially would be good. And then you start to think next year about cutting your ranking in half. He is playing much more consistently, point in and point out. He is completely headed in the right direction. I have always rooted for Niko to do well because of the person he is."
That affectionate feeling about Basilashvili is shared by his growing fanbase, particularly in his native Georgia, where he is widely revered as an inspirational figure.
"I am the only player from my country who is winning ATP tournaments," Basilashvili said. "When I am playing and I see my name with Georgia next to it, that makes me unbelievably proud. Tennis is getting much more popular in Georgia and a lot of people are starting to play. A lot of people have been watching and congratulating me. These are good moments for me. Tennis is getting much more popular in Georgia and a lot of people are starting to play.
"Future young players will come to tennis from Georgia and believe they can play good like I have. It all makes me happy."
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