The population of Melbourne, Australia comes in at around five million people. The population of Moldova, where tennis player Radu Albot hails from, is about two thirds of the Australian Open host city.

At this week’s Happy Slam, Albot upstaged No. 13 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, always a tough-out, in four sets to win his opening round. There’s nothing easy about taking out a Top 15 opponent to kick off a Grand Slam event, but as many instances have shown before, it often proves more difficult to consolidate the upset. That’s not the case this time for Albot, who after enduring a painful season until the end of last year, has rediscovered himself—and his game.

Two years ago, Albot put together one of the ATP’s most underrated 2019 seasons. From 2014 through 2018, Albot won 27 matches at the tour level and never reached higher than No. 81 on the rankings. In 2019, he produced 31 match wins and rose to No. 39. His crowning moment came in Delray Beach, where he saved three championship points against Dan Evans to become the first player from his country to bring home an ATP singles trophy.

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The year 2020 was an entirely different story, and for reasons well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Albot’s right shoulder began to give out at the ATP Cup in his three straight-set defeats. A withdrawal from the Australian Open soon followed. His Delray Beach dream mutated into a nightmare, when Albot lost his title defense opener from match point up against a struggling Jack Sock. He fell to No. 220-ranked Mitchell Krueger at the Indian Wells Challenger despite bageling the American in the first set, before the tour shutdown for five months.

Albot doesn’t wish his shoulder pain, or a second injury he wishes to keep under wraps, on anyone. But he’s the first to tell you that his inability to win a match, which carried well into September and amounted to 10 consecutive defeats overall, was a seed planted much deeper in the soil of his struggles.

“At one moment you just think it's so difficult, it's almost impossible to make it again. I had an unbelievable 2019, did my best ranking, won an ATP title, everything was going good,” he tells TENNIS.com in an interview from Melbourne. “Then I got the two injuries. That stopped me from moving forward. But actually, I just lost my game. I was playing the matches and it was not me anymore. I was losing first round which didn't really happen at all in 2019. And it was challenging time. It was not easy.”

A victory over Jordan Thompson at Roland Garros was the first positive step in finishing out 2020 with an encouraging mindset. He qualified into the Paris Masters, taking out a rising Hubert Hurkacz, and ended his season by surprising world No. 12 Denis Shapovalov in Sofia to equal his best-career win. During the off-season, Albot trained in Dubai with Alexander Bublik, Mikhail Kukushkin and Miomir Kecmanovic. He and his coach worked on serves and backhands, though the true work was regaining his identity on the court.

“You can say that it took me almost a year, which is not easy to compete and to feel that you're not there. Your game is still to be searched and found somewhere,” Albot says. “It was a difficult time, difficult pre-season. A lot of work in the gym. We worked [on] everything, trying to find understand how the game works.”

Albot began 2021 with a pair of losses in Antalya and Melbourne 2, but after missing it last year, the Australian Open was where he was eager to peak. And judging by his first two matches, Albot looks to be doing exactly that.

After losing his game in 2020, Radu Albot is finding "me" again

After losing his game in 2020, Radu Albot is finding "me" again

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In ousting Bautista Agut, Albot impressed off the ground with 51 winners to 40 unforced errors. He was completely satisfied in that performance, one where he did “everything well”, though was even more forthcoming about his follow-up act, one that saw him defeat wild card Chris O’Connell, 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (7).

“You don't manage to win a lot of matches against the seeded player in the beginning of the tournament. And it's really important to back it up, because every match is different. Every opponent is difficult,” he says. “A player who is like ranked 120, he's playing at home, he beat Struff first round in straight sets. And that says a lot. I lost to Struff so many times that I can't remember.”

Albot was pushed at the end, as the Australian hopeful built a 6-3 lead in the tie-break. The 31-year-old saved four set points before closing the door shut, and he’s the first to rattle off that by doing so, it marked just the second time he won a major match in straight sets. He’s quick on his feet, much like he is on the court.

The average height of the ATP’s current Top 40, the place Albot summited in May 2019, is 6’ 2’’. Albot, whose steadiness on the baseline led to his nickname, "The Machine", stands at 5’ 9’’. When a ball is asked to be struck with an approach shot, Albot will almost always oblige. In his two singles matches thus far, he’s averaged 30 trips to the net, a place he has plenty of comfort with as a former US Open doubles semifinalist.

“I did a little bit more serving and volleying because [O’Connell] had a different game style, let's say. And that's why I was a little bit more to the net against my first round against Bautista Agut. I managed to come also a lot of times forward on the short balls,” he explains. “I'm not afraid, I come to the net a lot. It’s not my favorite, but I like to be there.”

After losing his game in 2020, Radu Albot is finding "me" again

After losing his game in 2020, Radu Albot is finding "me" again

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Albot now has an opportunity to get himself into the second week of a major singles event for the first time when he faces No. 24 seed Casper Ruud Saturday. He’s been in the third round of a Grand Slam twice before, most recently at 2018 Wimbledon. Breaking new ground is nothing new for Albot: he's done it his entire career, and the Chisinau native bluntly downplays it serving as a driver to his success.

“I really don't care about records. These things for my country doesn't really affect me so much,” he says. “Every match you need to be focused and you need to have a great game plan or a tactic, or maybe some were fortunate to win those games or some important points and this and that.

“I don't really think about being the best in my country or breaking an unbreakable records forever for Moldova. No, I just think about next match. If I can win it, I'll be in the fourth round. Very good. Unbelievable. And I think I will do everything possible with my team, with my coach to get there.”

Whether it’s seeking new heights for himself and Moldova, battling on the baseline, or addressing personal struggles, Albot has shown us one commendable machine-like quality. For he automatically pushes forward—no matter the situation, no matter the opponent.

Nestled between January's summer swing of tournaments in Australia, and March's Sunshine Double in the U.S., February can be overlooked in tennis. But not in 2021, with the Australian Open's temporary move to the second and shortest month of the calendar. Beyond that, February is Black History Month, and also a pivotal time for the sport in its rebound from the pandemic.

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After losing his game in 2020, Radu Albot is finding "me" again

After losing his game in 2020, Radu Albot is finding "me" again

To commemorate this convergence of events, we're spotlighting one important story per day, all month long, in The 2/21. Set your clock to it: it will drop each afternoon, at 2:21 Eastern Standard Time (U.S.).