UPDATE: Garin won his first-round match over Reilly Opelka, typically a force in tiebreakers, 7-6 (0), 7-5, 7-6 (7).
After securing the French Open junior title six years ago on the red clay of Roland Garros, Chile’s Cristian Garin seemed certain to make a smooth transition into the men’s game. The stylish Chilean had upended both Borna Coric and Alexander Zverev to claim that prestigious crown. Taking one of the premier titles in junior tennis can serve as a passport toward success on the ATP Tour. Some seasoned observers believed Garin was going to make his presence known swiftly out there in the world of big time tennis.
But that is not what happened. From 2013-2017, he fell upon some hard times, finishing all of those years between No. 212 and No. 383 in the world. At long last, he made amends in 2018 and broke into the Top 100 for the first time, ending the season at No. 85. Having broken down that barrier, Garin has made astonishing progress this year, capturing ATP titles in Houston and Munich, surging into the world’s Top 40. Now stationed at No. 37, he is the only player outside the Top 10 to have won two tournaments this season, and the first Chilean to realize that feat since Fernando Gonzalez in 2008.
Garin is delighted to be making his first career appearance in the main draw at Roland Garros this year after falling in the qualifying thrice since his triumphant junior run in 2013. As he told me in a telephone interview this past week, “I have great memories from the French Open in 2013. I really enjoyed playing the juniors there and playing against Sascha and Coric there. They are great players. After that, it was tough for me to see them playing big events while I was down in the Futures. It was hard to explain for me. I was expecting more from myself and hoping to go higher and do it faster, but I couldn’t make it. There were a lot of ups and downs. I wasn’t very patient and that was my big mistake. I changed coaches a couple of times. I just didn’t have a solid team like I have now. That is the big difference.”
Reflecting on his three losses in opening round of the qualifying at the French Open in 2015, 2017 and 2018, he says, “I just didn’t believe in myself at the time. I had so many thoughts in my head. I wasn’t as positive competing like I am now. That is a big difference. Now I am positive all the time. I don’t have good memories of back then in the qualifying at Roland Garros.”
But he approaches this French Open in an entirely different frame of mind, knowing he has won 19 of 25 matches on the clay over the course of the 2019 season, realizing he has a chance to be a factor at the world’s preeminent event on the dirt, taking nothing for granted.
Garin affirms, “It is my first time in the main draw. I am excited about that. I want to do well, but it depends on many things. Roland Garros is my favorite tournament. I will give my one hundred percent. That is the only thing I know how to do. I don’t know if it will be this year or maybe next year that will be good for me in Paris, but I know I will fight hard.”
All year long, Garin has been battling steadfastly to attain his current status as a frontline player. He reached a career-high of No. 33 in the ATP Rankings on May 6. Had he been able to play in the Masters 1000 tournaments at Madrid and Rome, he might have moved into the Top 25 or 30. But, as he explains, “I asked for a wild card in both of those tournaments, but I didn’t get one. That is okay because I know it is tough to give a wild card to a player from another country. It was always in my plans to rest the week of Rome before coming to Geneva [where he lost first round to Taro Daniel]. I have not played any Masters 1000s this year, which of course I want to do.”
Garin has worked inordinately hard to be where he is today. As he relives his current campaign that has altered his career in a profound way, he says, “I have been happy and playing great. It started in Rio. I lost to Felix [Auger-Aliassime] in the round of 16, which was a little disappointing because I thought I could have a good tournament. Then the next week in São Paulo I played really well and made the finals. I lost to Pella, but had many chances. After the final I was a little sad because I didn’t know when I was going to play another final. But then about one month after São Paulo, I was playing in Houston and that was a big change for me to win this tournament.”
In the round of 16 of that tournament, Garin was on the brink of defeat against Frenchman Jeremy Chardy, but he somehow saved five match points and survived, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (7), against the wily 32-year-old veteran.
“That win was really important,” he recalls. “I think it was both my fighting and some luck that helped me to win. When you win a match like that you need both of those things. After that match I looked at the draw and I felt I had chances to win because I was playing great. I was very happy to get that title.”
Having accounted for Casper Ruud in a three-set final for his first career ATP title in Houston, Garin was buoyed by what transpired. Complacency was out of the question. He wanted more triumphs. He asserts, “After Houston I felt so much confidence in my game. I knew I was playing great tennis. I am just trying to play match by match and tournament by tournament without overthinking. I am just enjoying the tournaments and now when I am playing against the best players in the world I just enjoy that and give one hundred percent.”
After prevailing in Houston, Garin got to the round of 16 in Barcelona with a good win over Denis Shapovalov. He says, “Denis is a great player and I have been following his career for a few years. Every time I play someone, I try hard to win and hope I can do it. Denis was the best player in the rankings that I had beaten up until that time. I really wanted to win.”
Filled with conviction and on a nice roll, Garin went to Munich and upended the tenacious Diego Schwartzman to set up a quarterfinal meeting with Sascha Zverev. Garin served for the match at 5-4 in the second set and had three match points, but did not close the account. Later, he saved two match points against the defending champion and pulled off a 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 victory.
He recollects, “That was a great match and a tough one. I had those three match points at 5-4 in the second set and got a little tight. It was hard to win. I was trying to do whatever I could. It was such a great feeling to win in the end. Sascha is a great player. We had not played a match against each other since we played in the French Open Juniors.”
In the semifinals of that tournament, Garin stopped 2018 French Open semifinalist Marco Cecchinato in straights sets, and then in the final, he took a pendulum swinging encounter from Matteo Berrettini, 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (1), to collect the title. He recalls, “It was really cold and windy for the final and Matteo and I did not play our best. I had played aggressive tennis to beat Sascha. But I played really solid and high level tennis that whole week.”
Now Garin finds himself dealing with a newfound status as a higher ranked player. He concedes, “It is a great feeling to win two titles. I am proud of myself. Of course expectations are higher for me now. This is my first year playing ATPs and I want to do well in the Grand Slams. I want to keep going because the level is getting higher every time. I am looking forward to playing the Masters 1000s for the first time and also the Grand Slams. I had a target before to make the Top 100, and I did that last year. A big target is playing Davis Cup for Chile and qualifying for Madrid, which we have done. Now another target is to qualify for the ATP Cup in Australia next year.”
The immediate goal, of course, is to go as far as he can at Roland Garros. But Garin is encouraged about what he can achieve on all of the surfaces in the months and years ahead. As he puts it, “I have been playing on clay my whole life. For sure it is my favorite surface. But I also think I play good tennis on hard courts and I have twice made it through the qualies at Wimbledon. I play fast tennis and I like to return. If you play tennis like that, you can try to play well on all the surfaces.”
Garin is appreciative of his current standing in the game and is optimistically envisioning the future. He says, “To be honest, I would not be in the position I am in without my team and my coach Andres Schneiter. We are really close and he knows what he is doing. He is one of the reasons I have reached the Top 35 of the world. I am traveling full time with a physio and working with a good fitness coach. Now I am having the rewards of the work I have done. I feel I am a different player now. I don’t have a goal with the rankings at this time, but my goal is to play a lot of matches. I am doing good things and feel I deserve the wins I am having. I will play the best I can and just see where I go in the rankings, but I don’t have a number in mind. I will just always keep fighting hard to win.”