Rafa threatener; new champion: Guido Pella is making his mark on clay

Rafa threatener; new champion: Guido Pella is making his mark on clay

The Argentine's breakthrough season has taken him to a personal best in the rankings.

Nearly overshadowed by Rafael Nadal’s surprising loss to eventual champion Fabio Fognini in the Monte Carlo semifinals was the fact that the Spaniard was almost out of the tournament a round earlier—at the hands of a player whom he had little trouble with in the past.

Guido Pella, playing in the first Masters 1000 quarterfinal of his career, broke Nadal’s serve multiple times in the first set before eventually losing it in a tiebreak. The Argentine ended up dropping the second 6-3, but the overall result marked a significant improvement from their most recent encounter at last year’s French Open, when Nadal lost only four games over three sets to his second-round opponent.

This whole year, particularly on the clay, has been about growth for Pella, with that quarterfinal finish bringing him to a new career high in the ATP standings, with a ranking to match his age: 28.

Given that he’s actually been the most consistent performer on clay so far in 2019, that ranking milestone could soon be surpassed, starting at this week’s 500-level event in Barcelona. Of the seven tournaments that have been held on the surface this year, Pella and the young Chilean Christian Garin are the only players to have reached two finals. 

In the last tournament of this year’s “Golden Swing,” the stretch of clay-court events through Latin American in the first quarter of the season, Pella topped Garin in the final of the Brasil Open in Sao Paulo for his first career title. That closed a surprising run of events where four different players claimed victory: Aside from Pella making his first trip to the winner’s circle, his countryman Juan Ignacio Londero and Serbia’s Laslo Djere also broke through. In fact, it was Londero who denied Pella his first title in his fourth career final at the Cordoba Open.

After his win in Brazil, Pella took to the hard court Masters tournaments in the U.S., winning a round in Indian Wells after a first-round bye. John Isner stopped him in the desert and his compatriot Leonardo Mayer beat him in the second round in Miami.

Returning to action after a few weeks off in Monte Carlo, Pella beat Djere in the opening round then world No. 11 Marin Cilic in the second. Marco Cecchinato—the fourth Golden Swing title winner—fell to Pella in the round of 16, before Nadal rallied for the win in the quarters.

Over the past several years, Pella has been a consistent top-100 performer and from 2016 to 2018, he reached a singles final in each of those campaigns. Last year, he won his most matches at the ATP Tour level, 25, against 22 losses. In both 2016 and 2017, he managed 16 wins on the main tour each year.

Not even at the halfway mark of the 2019 season and he’s already matched the mark of those two years with a 16-8 tally. With weeks to go before the start of the French Open, Pella could shatter that personal best of last year, continuing the progress he’s made during his breakthrough campaign.