INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—Two groups of players have been making headlines this week at the BNP Paribas Open: the Canadians and the Bruins. They clashed when Milos Raonic took on Marcos Giron in the third round on Monday, with Giron letting a 4-1 lead in the third set slip away to lose, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.
"Even though he's the big favorite, it still hurts to lose," Giron said. "Being up a break in the third, it kind of really gives me confidence and belief in my game."
The world No. 12-ranked Raonic leads a crew of Canadian teens including Bianca Andreescu, Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, while Giron is chasing fellow former UCLA standouts Jennifer Brady and Mackenzie McDonald to the Top 100. At 25, it's taken Giron a little longer to feel that he belongs at this level.
"The Bruin family is always a great one," Giron said. "When I went to school there was so many terrific players on our team. My last year we had an amazing team. It was Clay Thompson, myself—McDonald was playing No. 3, and he's Top 100 in the world."
The UCLA campus is a breeding ground for success with a whopping 117 NCAA titles in school history. The men's tennis program has won 16 national team titles, while the women have captured three. Men's head coach Billy Martin had an impressive pro career, peaking at No. 32, while the women are coached by Pete Sampras' sister Stella. It's normal for student-athletes under Martin and Sampras' tutelage to play pro events during the school year or even take a semester off to compete even more.
It also helps that the competition at UCLA is unparalleled, regularly seeing multiple high-ranked juniors climb the college ranks quickly before setting out for the pro tour. Bruins on tour include world No. 62-ranked McDonald, No. 83-ranked Brady, world No. 217-ranked Giron, No. 230-ranked Robin Anderson, No. 557-ranked Ena Shibahara, No. 389-ranked Martin Redlicki and current senior No. 310-ranked Maxime Cressy.
"At the school I think it's just very competitive," Giron said. "All the players there were very good and very competitive and kept pushing each other. And plus with the coaching staff being really understanding, Billy was a Top 40 in the world player himself. So I think he really understands how to brew success."
As a qualifier playing in his first ATP Masters 1000 main draw, Giron surprised himself this week with wins over Jeremy Chardy and Alex De Minaur. Up against 2016 Indian Wells finalist Raonic, a routine loss was expected. Instead, Giron took it to the Canadian, even going so far as to lead by a break in the third set.
"He came up with the goods and definitely pushed me sort of to the brink there where I was getting a little bit frustrated. I just kept trying to plug away," Raonic said. "There were just things that I wish I had done better, but I just kept with the understanding of he hasn't been in this scenario before and just tried to make him play in a few more of the situations."
Raonic relied on his far superior experience to break back after going down 4-1 and that momentum was all he needed to reel off five games in a row, ending Giron's dream run.
"Looking back, it's still a terrific week, and especially the support that came out today for the match, it was amazing," Giron said. "Everybody is cheering when I'm walking out. It kind of makes me enjoy what I do, and I appreciate it."
As the underdog, Giron felt plenty of crowd support boosted by his connection to the nearby UCLA campus, where he enjoyed a stellar career capped off by winning the 2014 NCAA singles title before turning pro one year shy of graduation. He struggled with injuries that saw him need back-to-back hip surgeries starting at the end of 2015. During the nearly year-long hiatus, he returned to UCLA to be a volunteer coach.
"It was a good learning experience for me," Giron said. "I think you kind of realize how hard-headed players are and look at it from a different view. And I got to really appreciate what the coaching side of it is, and it also made me appreciate tennis a lot more, being healthy and being able to compete."
Back on tour, Giron won three ITF Futures titles but didn't secure an ATP win until Los Cabos in 2018. The BNP Paribas Open was Giron's first ATP event of 2019, having played solely on the ATP Challenger tour (he won a title in Orlando). Monday will mark his first time inside the Top 200.
"I would like to sneak into more ATP events, but I think I'm still going to have to play Challengers to get the ranking up," Giron said. "It secures me into the Grand Slam qualies. That's nice."
In the round of 16, Raonic will take on Jan-Lennard Struff, who stunned No. 3 seed Alexander Zverev, 6-3, 6-1.