By claiming his first singles crown on the ATP tour with a remarkable triumph on the hard courts at the Delray Beach Open in Florida last weekend, Radu Albot of Moldova climbed deservedly from his location at No. 82 in the ATP rankings up to No. 52. His triumph has set the 29-year-old up for potentially the most productive campaign of his career.
This strikingly mature young man was immensely gratified by his breakthrough victory.
When we spoke by phone the day after he took the title, and the night before he flew to California for a Challenger at Indian Wells, he said, “I had never won a tournament in my career, and this was just my third semifinal ever, so of course it gives you a confidence boost. I hope it can give me even more confidence for the rest of the year. For sure, I will play bigger tournaments now, Masters 1000s. I can get straight into Monte Carlo I hope, and that would be something new. I have played Indian Wells and Miami, but I had to enter the qualifying. Now I will have direct acceptance and I will be playing one of the biggest tournaments on the tour. This is why you practice. This is what you live for—moments like this to compete against the best players in the world.”
Albot had to face a cluster of formidable players in Delray Beach, toppling Ivo Karlovic, Nick Kyrgios, Steve Johnson, Mackenzie McDonald and Dan Evans to take that tournament. He had defeated the towering Karlovic the week before at the New York Open, and was concerned about a rematch against the 6’11” Croatian.
As he explains, “I was worried because he is a great server. I played John Isner last year at the New York Open and won, and then had to play him in Delray right after that. I lost to him there. I didn’t want that to happen the same way this year, so I was more focused. Everybody knows that Karlovic has one of the best serves on the tour. I broke him once in Delray and won the match [7-6 (2), 6-4]. That was the only time in five sets that I did that. But he broke me zero times in five sets.”
Next on the agenda was the mercurial Kyrgios, and Albot stopped the Australian 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.
He says, “The most important thing is you need to hold your serve against him, and I did that well. If you lose your serve, you are done. In the third set, I broke him when he double faulted on break point, so that was a bit of a gift.”
Against Johnson, Albot prevailed, 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), after initially being thoroughly outplayed.
As he explains, “He was playing unbelievable tennis with his serve, return, groundstrokes and everything. I made a slow start. He was ahead 6-1, 3-1, but I won five games in a row. I just kept working and trying, but there were no breaks in the third set. He was serving at 5-6 in the tiebreaker. We had a rally and he hit a great, low backhand down-the-line slice. I hit a forehand cross, and he wanted to go for a winner on his forehand, but he missed it wide. I was really happy to get through that one.”
Now he collided with McDonald, who established a 5-1 first-set lead.
As Albot says, “He was smacking the ball and everything was going in the court.”
Albot captured the next two games and rallied from 40-0 down to deuce in the ninth game before dropping the set, 6-3.
As he says, “Even though I was losing I felt I was back in the game.”
Remarkably, Albot never lost another game, winning 3-6, 6-0, 6-0. Does he attribute that to an elevation in his game, or a decline in McDonald’s play?
Albot answers, “His level dropped a bit. I have to admit that. I am not saying I started to play unbelievable tennis. He dropped his level and felt he couldn’t come back. He was playing at a lower level and that’s it.”
Having reached the final, Albot was determined to make the most of it against Evans. He led 2-1, 40-15 in the first set but lost his serve. Evans took over from there and salvaged that set. But Albot battled back in the second and went up a break in the third before a rain delay.
“I felt if the rain is not there, I was on top. But then we had to leave the court so you try to calm down and settle your emotions. When we came back I felt he was pumped and showing he wanted to win, but so did I. I played a good game for 3-1 and then I was up 4-2 with a break point for 5-2 but I missed a forehand. He came from behind. It was a little up and down.”
They went to a final-set tie-break. Evans had three match points, with Albot saving the first on his serve at 4-6. On the second, with Evans serving, the British competitor hit a deep forehand that was called long, but he successfully challenged the call. When the point was replayed, he hit an inside out forehand side, challenged that call, and lost. Then Evans had his last match point at 7-6.
As Albot recalls, “It was a great second serve from me and I came to the net and played a volley to his backhand corner. He stayed there like one meter from the baseline but he missed long.”
When Albot reached match point at 8-7, Evans double faulted, sending the second serve wide down the T. Albot won 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7). He had been on the brink of defeat, but did not buckle. Now he has climbed to an all-time career high in the rankings, stationed just outside the Top 50 after finishing 2016 to 2018 between 87 and 99 in the world. How does he feel about confronting the players who stand above him?
He responds, “My whole life I was ranked around 80 or 90, so I was competing with the guys who were ranked higher than me. I beat them sometimes and, of course, lost to them as well. But I had a lot of good wins. I can beat everybody. In tennis, the ranking doesn’t matter so much. Every match is different, every tournament is different. You just have to get used to the new facility, the balls and the courts. Anything can happen. I will give you an example. Last year in November. I was playing in a Challenger in India [at Bangalore] and I lost to a guy [Youssef Hossam, No. 483] ranked below No. 400 in the world. I was disappointed but I knew this was not going to happen every week. I knew I was better than this. And look what is happening now, four months later: I am winning a title. There are only 51 guys ranked above me now and I can’t wait to play them and maybe prove that I can play with them.”
Although he has a lot of reverence for the towering trio of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, he does not exclude them from his vision of testing himself against everyone in tennis.
As Albot asserts, “I was always saying for many years that I would play these guys. They are legends. This is why our sport exists because of Roger, Rafa and Novak. It is something unbelievable what they have done for the sport. Of course I would like to play them, to compete and see what I can do against players like that. Where is my level compared to them? Of course, when you play in a Grand Slam you don’t want to play them first round because it is likely the result is going to be in their way, but every match is different and everybody is beatable so I would like to play against them. I am not afraid. I am sure I would enjoy it.”
Albot realizes he must constantly elevate his game to maintain his status and move to the next level.
He says, “Everything in my game has to improve little by little. If you look at my serve, I would like to have more free points, more aces and more accuracy. My serve can always get better. I am not like a big guy who can pound the serve all the time and is going to be great. I need the accuracy and to hit it sometimes slower and sometimes harder. I need variation in my game. And I still need to make my volley better, which I am doing with my coach already. There is room for improvement with everything in my game.”
Does he feel that being 5’9” in this era of the big man in tennis is a disadvantage?
Albot replies, “Every player has their strengths and weaknesses. If you are a big guy, that means you are moving slower and if you are not so big it means you are moving faster and maybe serving slower. For me I have a game style that is going to work every day. I am going to go there every day on the court and play every point and fight all the time. Look at my two matches with Karlovic in the last two tournaments. I am telling you, it is almost impossible to return his serve, but you can manage to beat him in other ways. It is a very simple game—you play over the net and inside the lines. You wait for the moment in a tiebreaker, for example, to try to win one point on his serve and lose zero points on yours. Sometimes it works and sometimes not. You hope for the best.”
As Albot rises up the rankings and raises his profile in the world of tennis, the people back home in Moldova—an Eastern European country near Romania—will be paying attention. Even the Prime Minister has been known to acknowledge Albot’s achievements on Facebook.
As Albot said on Monday, “After this big win in Delray, I didn’t hear anything from the Prime Minister because there were elections in my country yesterday. But he did post a message after I made the semifinals of the US Open doubles last year. I would say tennis is not a really big sport in Moldova because I am the only one playing on tour. The media for sure has already put a lot of information out there about my title in Delray. Nobody from my country ever achieved the results that I have. I am very happy for this. I hope there will be somebody in the future from my country who can play better than me and have a higher ranking and better results.”
But his aspirations remain large. Albot may just be starting to approach his peak at 29.
He says, “Look at Roger. He is 37, right? And he is still killing it on the tour. Tennis has changed with more older players than before. You cannot be a Grand Slam champion now like Boris Becker and Michael Chang when they did that at 17 in the 1980’s. I am telling you: now, this is impossible. I am healthy. I will play as long as my body allows it and I am enjoying it. Playing good, being healthy and enjoying what you are doing is the main key.”
One of the other keys for Albot these days is his relationship with his girlfriend, Doina Dhiorescu.
He says, “She is like a full-time team member that is much more than a girlfriend. She is working remotely and luckily her boss allows that. She helps me to prepare before the matches. She is always with me supporting me whatever happens, and giving me advice on important decisions. It is great to have her around me supporting me always.”
Albot is delighted to be on the cusp of the Top 50, but not stunned.
As he says, “I cannot say it is a surprise to be so close to the Top 50. This was a goal for me the last couple of years. You want to keep playing in a good level, keep going and the results will come. I was always believing anything is possible, and I still feel that way.”
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