As this week began on the ATP World Tour, the two oldest men among the Top 100 in the world were polar opposites in many ways. Ivo Karlovic—all 6’11” of him—will be 39 at the end of the month. Karlovic currently stands at No. 90 in the world, and remains menacing for anyone who confronts him on the circuit.
On the other side of the spectrum, a 37-year-old from the Dominican Republic is the second oldest member of that elite Top 100. Victor Estrella Burgos, who is only 5’7” but has a gigantic heart of gold, found himself stationed at No. 86 in the world. And yet, as he chased a fourth singles title in a row at the Ecuador Open in Quito, Estrella Burgos had the unenviable task of trying to protect 250 ranking points. Not that Estrella Burgos was preoccupied with his ranking status.
“I can not worry too much about the ranking," he told me during a 25-minute interview last week over the phone. "I knew when I came to Quito to try to defend my title again that if I lost in the first round I am going to move outside the top 100. But I am not thinking about that. I am just thinking about playing very good tennis. The only thing to do is take it match by match, and every match is different.”
What makes the Estrella Burgos story so extraordinary is how his stellar record in Quito has been the bedrock of his success over the years. Heading into the tournament this year, he was 15-0 in Quito, winning his trio of titles in three-set final-round clashes. But his numbers elsewhere have not been anywhere near as lofty. In fact, if you take Quito out of the equation, Estrella Burgos had a career match record of 29-59 (.330) in ATP and Grand Slam tournament matches.
To further illustrate the point, without the 250 ranking points he garnered each of the last three years in Quito, his year-end rankings would have plummeted. Rather than finish 2017 at No. 83, he would have been at No. 142. In 2016, he concluded the year at No. 102, but his ranking would have dropped 68 spots. And in 2015, when he ended the season at No. 56, Estrella Burgos would have been ranked No. 108.
No other player in men’s tennis has experienced anything quite like what Estrella Burgos has done at his favorite tournament. He is the only player to have won three or more titles at one particular event, yet none anywhere else on the ATP tour. That disparity is something he has no real explanation for. He simply says that his level of comfort and confidence in Quito gives him a much larger sense of security.
Last night, he opened his campaign for a fourth consecutive crown with a come-from-behind triumph over the explosively talented Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci, lifting his head-to-head record over the left-hander to 4-0. Bellucci put on a shot-making clinic for a long stretch in this skirmish. Bellucci took the first set, which featured five service breaks. He prevailed 6-4. The second set went to 4-4. Estrella Burgos was two games away from a first-round setback that would have stung severely. But he took eight of the next 10 games to complete an impressive 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory.
“Quito is for me a special tournament,” says Estrella Burgos. “I just feel very good there and I come early every year to prepare. There are times I feel I almost can’t lose, but I know I have to stay very focused every time I play and give 100% of what I have to win. I have three titles in Quito and I came here this year to win No. 4."
One of the chief reasons Estrella Burgos showed up in Quito with deep determination and considerable inner belief this year was a boost he received from a fellow named Rafael Nadal after they met in the first round of the Australian Open. Burgos was appreciative of the opportunity he had to compete against the Spaniard on one of the sport’s premier stages.
“That was my dream, to play against Rafa in best of five sets at one of the Grand Slam tournaments," he explains. "At that moment he was No. 1 and I was playing him in the first round of the Australian Open. He is a big competitor. I lost the match but I won also by the feeling I had playing against him. It was amazing for me. I thought I played very good tennis, but he is unbelievable. He did not give me anything free. I lost 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, and every point and every game I won, I had to earn.”
Estrella Burgos also earned Nadal’s admiration for how he plays and what he stands for. As they shook hands afterwards at the net in Melbourne, Estrella Burgos turned to Nadal and said, “Hey, Rafa, thank God I played against you. This was one of my dreams, so now maybe I can retire since I got to play you here.”
Nadal laughed freely, and replied, “No, no, no, Victor, you must go to Quito and win it again. You have to keep playing!”
Estrella Burgos was touched by what he heard. Reflecting on Nadal’s sentiments now, he says “He is a very nice guy. He motivated me to keep playing when he said that. It was very nice.”
Nadal realized how productive Estrella Burgos had been in Quito as the man from the Dominican Republic approached the 2018 event unbeaten in that tournament. As for Estrella Burgos himself, he reflects gratefully on what he has done in the high altitude of more than 9,000 feet that seems to have helped him to elevate his game in so many matches, particularly in 2017. Last year, he saved three match points in the round of 16 against the top-seeded Karlovic, and one more in the final against Paolo Lorenzi. It was surely the highlight of his career.
“Last year was very special for me,” he muses. “The match against Karlovic was very tough. He had those three match points and then when I have match point myself, he is serving. But I won that point and the match [6-7(7), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (8).] It felt unbelievable. Winning that match in the final against Lorenzi was very important. He had that match point but it was on my serve and I hit a forehand cross, and then a forehand inside-out. I went to the net behind that shot, and he missed. I was very happy to win that match [6-7 (2), 7-5, 7-6 (6)].”
It must be emphasized that Estrella Burgos’s distinguished career might have been unfathomable at one time. Tennis in the Dominican Republic was not a popular sport. In fact, it was off the radar screen of most aspiring athletes. He played baseball as a kid as well as tennis.
“I was a second baseman,” he says. “Every boy in the Dominican played baseball, so I did, too. I hit the ball good, and I could run fast. But at a very early age, when I was 14, I stopped playing baseball and just played tennis. Tennis got into my heart. People wanted me to play baseball, but I chose tennis. If when I was young I had continued to work hard, I think I could have played baseball as a professional. I had good eyes and good speed, so why not? But tennis was my dream the whole time. Always.”
But his tennis aspirations were not easy to realize because he was so financially challenged. As Estrella Burgos asserts, “I started late because I did not have any example to follow in the Dominican Republic. I had to open the gate for professional tennis players in the Dominican. I did not have any money. The money was the main problem for me. I didn’t have anything so I just started playing some Futures. When I was 18 until I was 26, I played about six tournaments a year. That is why I did not get any good rankings, because I did not have a calendar to follow or a coach or a physical trainer. I did not have a team.”
He earned his first ranking point when he was 22, and made his ATP debut at the advanced age of 27. He was 31 when he made it into the Top 200 for the first time. His first ATP match win was when he was 32, and he did not reach the Top 100 until he was 33. But Estrella Burgos persevered, and eventually he found his way into the Top 50.
“Because I started so late” he explains, “to be five years in the Top 100 is a big thing for me. It is a big deal. When I got to the Top 100 for the first time, people were thinking how long was I going to be there? I made it to No. 43 in 2015 and then I saw that nothing is impossible for me.”
What makes Estrella Burgos’s journey through his thirties all the more remarkable is that he is a mere 5’7”, and he joins Diego Schwartzman as the two shortest players in the Top 100.
“I know Diego pretty well,” he says. “We practice together sometimes and I played him two times in Challenger tournaments in 2013 and 2014. He is a very short guy like me but he fights, and he is a big sportsman, too. He can be an example for everybody. I beat him both times we played but I knew he would get much better and now he is in the Top 25. He has a very good forehand and an unbelievable backhand. I was sure he would be in the top level.”
Estrella Burgos is determined to maintain a lofty level of play for as long as possible. That is his primary goal. And he would love to perform productively for a few more years. There is no reason to doubt that he can do that.
“I can tell you that I hope to play at this level for three or four more years," he says. "I want to finish this year in the Top 100 again. I am going to be 38 this year [on August 2], but I feel I am in very good physical shape. I feel unbelievable, better every year. For me, everything is possible. I have already made all of my goals before, but my next one is to play at least until I am 40. If I can stay in the Top 100 until I am 40, I will be very happy.”