When main-draw competition commences next week at the US Open, the leading players will have their last chance of the season to win one of the sport’s premier prizes. But for others in the trade, the fortnight in New York will provide a different kind of opportunity. Ernesto Escobedo is not necessarily envisioning a career altering tournament, but simply wants to make the most of it, and set himself up for the next phase of his career.
Escobedo, who earned a wild-card entry into this year’s event—he was awarded one once before in 2016, and won a round—will be making his third appearance in the Open's main draw. But the way he looks at it, he stands in an entirely different psychological space this time around. After some arduous struggles with an injury in 2017 and 2018, he is back at the top of his physical game.
“This wildcard is a lot different than the last one because I have been through so much in the past years," he says. "It just shows me that a lot of hard work pays off.
"I feel way more mature now. It is very exciting for me to be back at the US Open and I feel like I belong now. I am grateful to have this opportunity in front of me.”
He earned it. Having reached a career high No. 67 during the summer of 2017, Escobedo tried to play through pain for a long stretch. His ranking dropped precipitously. Until this summer, he spent most of the year stationed between 270th and 290th, but then he was victorious at the Challenger tournament in Granby, Canada the last week in July. He followed up with a semifinal showing at the Aptos Challenger in California. The stellar work Escobedo did in both tournaments enabled him to seal his wild card into the US Open, and did wonders for his self-esteem.
ATP Challenger Tour
By his side during that uplifting stretch was Jan-Michael Gambill, a formidable American player who peaked at No. 14 in 2001. Escobedo believes his tennis life did not really begin until Gambill took over as his coach, back in April.
“Working with Jan has been the biggest thing for me for sure,” he says. “In the tennis world there are not that many good coaches who are not taken up already, but I was fortunate that Jan stopped working with Jared Donaldson last year when Jared was injured. So I just contacted him and we lined up.
"I feel we have clicked from day one. It was a big step for me to invest in a private coach. He just knows how to talk to me and how to coach me. He is very humble and likes to keep things simple. I feel like I didn’t find my tennis purpose until I met Jan.”
Gambill shares the 23-year-old’s view of their coach-player alliance.
“Ernesto came to me with not a lot of confidence but a hell of a lot of raw talent. It is all there for him, but it just needed to be refined. I immediately knew I could make an impact on his game, but we had to start from square one, which is why I took him out of tournaments for about six weeks so we could work on fundamentals and on simplifying a few things in his game, especially on the backhand side which was more of a liability but is now a weapon. We also have been working on his shot choices. He has been a joy to work with and is one of the most coachable people I have ever encountered. If I told him to run through a brick wall he would try. He is that kind of a kid.”
ATP Challenger Tour
The decision to stick to a strict practice regimen and stay away from tournaments for a stretch was well-founded. Escobedo played reasonably well at the start of his return but won only four matches in three Challenger tournaments. Thereafter, he found the gold in his game, winning Granby and making it to the semifinals in Aptos.
Gambill was thoroughly impressed with that commanding run.
“When we started,” he says, “the guy was 290th in the world. I wanted to get things moving in a positive direction. My goal for him was for Ernesto to play the qualies at the Open and earn it, and not ask for a wild card. But he took it one step further and won the Wild-Card Challenge, which was amazing.
"I don’t care what [level of] tournaments you are playing—winning ten matches in a row is really something. I am proud of the work he has done and the fortitude he has shown.”
Examining what he did over the summer at those Challenger events, Escobedo says, “The biggest thing for me was fitness. Six months ago it was tough for me to play back to back matches. I felt like every week I played this summer I was getting better, and then in Granby I took it to a new level.”
In Granby, the young Californian reeled off six victories, taking three of those contests in three sets. In the semifinals against Borna Gojo, he rallied to win, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (3), 6-2. Buoyed by that victory, Escobedo toppled 165th-ranked Yasutaka Uchiyama, 7-6 (5), 6-4.
The pivotal match for Escobedo in Aptos was his fourth-round win over fellow American Bjorn Fratangelo. They waged a spirited war from the baseline and pushed each other to the hilt with the scales almost evenly balanced throughout. Escobedo eventually prevailed, 7-6 (2), 6-7 (5), 7-6 (12).
“I saved two match points, “he recalls. “I just told myself to go for it. I just felt, ‘If I miss, who cares?’ So I went for my shots and I made them. That clinched the wild card when I beat Bjorn. Then it was awesome to follow up with another good win over Damir Dzumhur.”
Escobedo lost to Dominik Koepfer in the semifinals, but that could not diminish what he had done. Now he has his mind fully focused on the US Open, knowing full well that he could make a significant leap in the ATP Rankings if he can win a few matches in New York.
“The goal for me at the Open is to go there and play my game. I can’t control winning or losing, but I can control my attitude and how much I try, so I will try to do that. If I can do that, I can put myself in a position to win matches because I am playing great right now.
"I know I am still around 200 in the world right now [206 to be precise] but at the same time I feel I am a better player than that. I can be really dangerous at the Open. I just have to stay patient and play my game. I know I am a better player now than the last time I played the Open. I am taking more ownership with me and my life and making choices myself. I am trusting myself and surrounding myself with the right people.”
Gambill is in accord that Escobedo is playing top-flight tennis and optimistic that his charge can make some significant progress in the weeks ahead.
“This kid has all the tools,” he says. “He has probably one of the biggest forehands in the game and huge groundstrokes all around. He just needs a little belief but we have done a lot of work together off the court to get him a lot faster in his movement and we improved his serve by changing his motion a bit.”
Another priority for Gambill with Escobedo is his on-court demeanor. and the way he carries himself in the competitive arena. He wants young American to develop a larger sense of self out there and present himself more aggressively.
“Ernesto in his heart is one of the nicest people I have ever met," says Gambill. "But as a professional tennis player you are out there by yourself in a match against a guy who wants to wipe you off the court. You better get a little bit of an edge. I think the world of Roger Federer, but if you tell me he doesn’t have an edge you are crazy. The guy is out there to win tennis matches. He may be a gentleman on and off the court, but he has cultivated that thing that makes it work.
“So I have told Ernesto to be himself but look at guys like Roger that he admires, see that they have that edge and figure out how he can have something like that. We have slowly worked that into his makeup. It is starting to shine through. He is learning to be a little tougher and meaner on the court. It is starting to happen. I can see it in his eyes.”
Escobedo is indeed looking to toughen himself steadily as a competitor, with a goal to finish this year inside the Top 100. Gambill sees his charge climbing even higher than that in the future—the Top 50, and perhaps higher.
“And if he can get on a good roll," says Gambill, "who knows what he could accomplish at the Open. I would like him to have a decent draw. But we will play that tournament and not look too far ahead. Then we will put his schedule together for the fall. I just want to see Ernesto keep improving.
"He is starting to realize what he can do in this game. I am excited about where he is going.”