At 27, Marcos Giron has much to be grateful for this week after Thanksgiving. Despite the pandemic and the time away from the ATP tour from March until August, he celebrated his best year yet as a professional tennis player, moving from No. 102 in the rankings at the end of 2019 to a 2020 season-ending status at No. 73. Aside from Tommy Paul, no American in the Top 100 made more progress in the 2020 ATP Rankings, and that was a testament to an unflagging dedication to his craft and growing self-belief. He was particularly impressive in the latter stages of a stellar campaign.
I spoke with Giron about how and why he improved so markedly in 2020, and what he hopes to accomplish in the year ahead. But, logically, our conversation started with the Californian talking about the uncertainty surrounding the 2021 Australian Open dates and the difficulty that poses for players like him.
“I am looking at this a little bit like the first hiatus on the tour from March until Cincinnati and the US Open,” he says. “Leading into that, I had no idea if it was really going to happen. So right now I am looking at my game and seeing what I can do to improve. It kind of sucks to not really know exactly when we are going to leave for Australia, but I am enjoying my time back home in California. I don’t take that for granted. Normally we travel 25 to 30 weeks a year so I am enjoying being at home. What we are going through right now is not going to last forever.”
Asked how he is dealing with so many variables and how that plays out in terms of his normal routines, Giron says, “I want to be ready for the Aussie whenever we play but in some ways this is nice. I took a little bit longer break than usual, spent a little time in Zion and went to a couple of national parks—plus I rested a bit. Now I have longer to build. We won’t really know what is going to happen with the Australian Open until a bit later in December but I think I will be able to ramp up physically and get ready for best of five. It is important to stay balanced and not hold my breath waiting for the news. I just take it a day at a time.”
I had last spoke with Giron after he had secured a wild card for the 2020 Australian Open by winning a Challenger tournament in Houston with a spectacular comeback in the final against Ivo Karlovic. That set the stage for his rise to another level of the game, and he happily spoke about what he did this past season.
“It has been a hell of a year,” he says. “The year before, I went from 300 in the world to right near 100 and had a good run at Indian Wells, which was awesome. I qualified for Wimbledon that year. But a lot of the work was at the Challenger level. This year was different as I moved up to 72 in the world and ended the year at 73. Especially since the quarantine began I played all ATP [tour] events, so being able to win on a consistent basis really gave me a lot of confidence. With COVID hitting, it was a huge bummer not to play at Indian Wells again since it is so close to home. But once the restrictions were lifted, it was a great time for me.”
The pivotal moment for Giron was when he came to New York for the Western & Southern Open and the US Open. In the former tournament, he qualified, won a round in the main draw, and then lost a hard-fought battle, 6-4, 6-4, to Daniil Medvedev. Did that showing reinforce for Giron that he was on the right path?
“Absolutely. Coming back to the tour, I don’t think anyone knew where we would be with our tennis. Getting those wins in the Western & Southern Open were huge and playing Medvedev was a great experience. He has been unbelievable. I lost that match and he was a better player than me that day, but it was great to see that I was able to compete with him. I was right there with my level.”
Giron hit other milestones in 2020. He qualified into four ATP tournaments, made the second round at both the US Open and Roland Garros, and finished the year with a flourish. After qualifying in Antwerp, he cut down world No. 14 David Goffin to reach the quarterfinals. Then, he closed his campaign by qualifying for the Masters 1000 tournament in Paris, where he upended world No. 10 Matteo Berrettini, 7-6 (3), 6-7 (0), 7-5, to make it to the third round.
As Giron reflects, “The whole European trip was probably the longest I have ever been away from home. But fortunately I was there with two of my really good friends, Maxime Tabatruong and Ahmed Hammady. They have great energy. Being in these bubbles in Europe can get old. You are just going from the hotel to the courts and back, so having Max and Ahmed there was huge for my overall wellbeing. Max was a hell of a player who actually played Berrettini in the past and lost to him a couple of years ago, 6-4, in the third. I practiced with him a lot.”
Giron not only worked hard but had good fortune as well this year. In Cologne, he was a lucky loser and lost to Marin Cilic in a close opening-round match. But making the 2014 US Open champion work hard was not insignificant in Giron’s mind.
“Having this really close match with a guy who has won a Grand Slam gave me a ton of confidence,” says Giron. “I was right there with Cilic. And then in Antwerp I was able to get some momentum in the qualifying. I knew Goffin was coming off a couple of weeks of quarantining after getting COVID, but I also knew he was a former Top-10 player. He is phenomenal. But after playing well against Medvedev earlier in the year, I had the belief against Goffin.”
But an even better victory for Giron was his gritty effort against Berrettini in that Paris Masters 1000 tournament. And yet, it nearly got away from him. Giron learned some valuable lessons from that encounter.
“I was up a set and a break, serving at 4-3, 40-15 in the second set,” he recalls. “But I got a little nervous. I thought, ‘I am one service game away’ and then I let him back in. In my first two service games of the final set I faced break points, but I played them really well and survived. I only had one chance to break Berrettini in the third set and that was when he served at 5-6. When I saw my forehand passing shot go in on match point, I was pumped.”
Giron had good reason to be exhilarated. He fulfilled one of his chief goals for 2020 by finishing among the Top 75 in the world. He has made only “small, incremental changes” in his game and “some minor court positioning adjustments” over the last few years, but explains that the chief reason for his markedly improved results is mental.
“The big part of it is believing I can beat these players. In the past I told myself I had the game to beat them, but to then go out and do it is something else altogether. Now I really feel I belong at this level, while maybe in years past I might have looked up to the higher ranked players a little bit too much. They are amazing, but now I am here to compete and to beat them and I am playing the big points more clearly with more authority. It gives me a lot of confidence and joy.”
Part of that joy is the freedom he is feeling these days to perform largely without pain. He can put his best tennis on display and not worry about his body breaking down. That was one of the benefits of the time off for the pandemic. After winning the prestigious 2014 NCAA Championships, he had surgery on his right hip in December 2015 and another one on his left hip in February of 2016. The passage of time has healed Giron in multitude of ways.
As he explains, “The time off this year gave me a chance to get my body prepared and I felt healthy the whole time. I couldn’t be happier with my hips and my overall body feels great. I am as fit as ever.”
The fitness along with his state of mind make Giron optimistic about what he might accomplish in 2021. He says, “The Top 50 is my next goal. I kind of set myself up this year by making the Top 75. I would also love to be playing the second weeks of Slams and contending for ATP titles. That is what I am looking to try to do next year.”
Giron is looking forward to the Australian Open, no matter when it begins. He is straight into the main draw and hoping to do some damage. But he realizes these are complicated times in the world when nothing is certain and everyone is vulnerable to a planet in peril.
Giron says, “All of the Americans I have been training with here in California like Taylor Fritz, Bradley Klahn, Brandon Holt and Ernesto Escobedo. We know we can’t control what is going to happen. We have to make the most of every day and we have certain windows of time to compete. We don’t want to be losing it to COVID. But there are so many people in worse situations than us. We are happy to be able to compete and looking forward to next year. I feel fortunate to live the life that I do and to be able to compete during a pandemic. Hopefully it is over sooner than later.”