Andujar RBA Split V2b

ATP Tour veteran Pablo Andujar is the first to confess his place in the third round of this year’s Australian Open comes as a surprise. His smile brightens up my monitor after I start our chat by saying, “in your first 10 main draws at Melbourne Park, we couldn’t have shared this conversation.”

Today, one can appreciate that Andujar has achieved a healthy marriage with the tennis court. Reaching this state is a testament to his character and commitment, for years earlier, a bitter divorce would have been a conclusion anyone could empathize with after he underwent three separate right elbow surgeries between March 2016 and April 2017.

The love Andujar has given and seen returned by his sport since that tumultuous period has included celebrating an ATP trophy as a world No. 355, a long-awaited first trip to the second week of a major at the 2019 US Open, and wins in 2021 over Roger Federer (Geneva) and Dominic Thiem (Roland Garros) on the surface he cherishes most, clay.

This latest chapter is not as grandiose as outshining a Top 5 competitor in Paris, not now at least. But it’s certainly the most romantic of any trips he’s taken Down Under.

Andujar defeated lucky loser Damir Džumhur and Alex Molčan in his first two rounds.

Andujar defeated lucky loser Damir Džumhur and Alex Molčan in his first two rounds.

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Fifteen years ago, Andujar’s first experience at the Melbourne major ended hastily when he posted two games in a qualifying defeat. Just 3-10 in main draws before 2022, his struggles were an extension of a remarkably dry January for a competitor who’s been ranked as high as No. 32. Before this week, Andujar had never recorded multiple tour-level wins in the first month of any season, so the opportunity to face off against Alex de Minaur at the No. 32 seed’s home major is as golden as they get for the Spaniard.

“I didn't expect it, but I'm really happy and I have to enjoy it. Alex is of course the favorite. Nice center court, probably,” he says, a prediction later cemented with the two lined up to open Saturday’s night session in Rod Laver Arena. “So I will just try to enjoy. I worked a lot to get these two matches and I made it. So really excited about that.”

If there is a counterpoint in the draw to Andujar, it just may be compatriot Roberto Bautista Agut. While Andujar has struggled to come out swinging at the start of past years, Bautista Agut has been akin to a horse, off to the races when the bell sounds for the tennis calendar page to turn. In some ways, it makes all the sense when considering his deep connection to the intelligent species (he owns eight according to his ATP profile) and widespread acclaim for his workhorse mentality.

In his second-round match, Bautista Agut conceded just four games against Philipp Kohlschreiber.

In his second-round match, Bautista Agut conceded just four games against Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Of Bautista Agut’s nine career singles titles, four have come in the lead-up to the Australian Open: two in Auckland and one each in Chennai and Doha. Seven of his seventeen Top 10 victories have occurred in January, which includes recent wins against Hubert Hurkacz and Casper Ruud at the ATP Cup.

“It helps me a lot, I think, to refresh the energy, staying at home for a while and [using] a month, month and a half for practice before Australia to work well, to do a lot of practice sessions, to do a lot of physical stuff,” he shared with me Thursday ahead of his third-round showdown with Taylor Fritz. “I think for sure that helps me a lot and also the conditions.”

Part of this season’s refresh process includes the makeup of his team. On it, a pair of former Top 50 players in Tomas Carbonell and Daniel Gimeno-Traver, the latter bringing a parallel personality that Bautista Agut naturally connects with. His voice and facial expressions emanate euphoric qualities when discussing the effortless arrangement, one the 33-year-old already envisions lasting through the year, and it speaks to Bautista Agut continuing his march to the beat of the same drum.

“I'm working with the same happiness as when I was young. I think I'm doing almost the same things,” Bautista Agut says. “When I have time, I try to do also some mountain biking, some soccer with my friends. Enjoying that time, doing some physical stuff helps me a lot to put some more work on my body.”

Likewise, exhilaration is an emotion that fills up Andujar’s days. The work he’s putting in as a 35-year-old is a modified version of the exertion he produced at 25. Eating habits have been adapted, as have exercises geared towards injury prevention. Practices have been reduced in terms of quantity, but increased in quality and intensity.

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Just ahead of his journey across the globe, Andujar trained with an electrifying talent barely half his age after making the one-hour trip to Juan Carlos Ferrero's academy. He gushes when talking about Carlos Alcaraz and the unpretentious nature the teenager carries despite the future in front of him.

“I would have loved to be as good as he is when I was 18. Or when I am 36!” Andujar laughs. “I'm very proud of him. He has a very big respect with other players like me that have been on the tour for a long time. This is something that makes him even bigger. And I really appreciate that.

“To be so good and as great as he’s going to be, Carlos is so humble. I'm the same year as Rafa. And Rafa has had that as well. Of course he's going to be a champion.”

Andujar’s main source of happiness though, comes from the balance he’s embraced off the court. A husband and dad of three young boys, a shift in priorities has been a coveted blessing for the four-time ATP title holder. When Andujar is in tournament mode, tennis has his undivided attention. When he’s not, the job takes a back seat.

“Tennis was my life. Now tennis is not my life anymore,” he declares. “It's a very important part. But of course the family is first. And that's the way I approach it.

“If I [am] with the kids and one of them doesn't sleep, I will be the one to go and wake up. Sometimes for a tennis player [it] is better to be mentally good. And that gives me strength rather than to be very professional, but not happy in that other part.”

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At the end of 2019, Bautista Agut courageously returned to aid in Spain’s Davis Cup Finals title run a day after holding his father’s funeral, a tragic loss that came just 18 months after mother Ester passed away. Darker days parted in 2020 when Bautista Agut and wife Ana welcomed their first child, son Roberto, who they currently call Robert.

“I think it's the best thing that happened in my life, for sure,” he proclaims. “I like to talk with them in the morning here and in the night, every day. He's starting now to understand what a phone call [is] with his dad. I'm very happy to have the family I have with my wife and my kid, and I really love him.”

The current No. 18 can’t help but beam with pride after talking about how that life event has shaped him, matching Andujar’s illumination on my monitor. For a tournament that began with doom and gloom, their warm rays of sunshine are a welcomed upgrade in weather to an Australian Open that looked nothing like its Happy Slam identity when the fortnight began.