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With the French Open fast approaching, all-important match play and clay court repetitions are at the top of the list for the world's best.
With two Masters 1000 events coming up back to back entry lists and cut-offs will be tight. But two ATP 250 events this past week gave players an opportunity to ply their trade who may not make the draw at the upcoming Masters events.
First on the agenda was Estoril. Top seed coming in was young Canadian sensation Felix Auger-Aliassime. As I have mentioned previously, he's one player who is yet to figure out the clay court conundrum and who much prefers the hardcourt setting.
Marin Cilic was also in the draw looking for wins and former top 10 player Fernando Verdasco was down in the bottom half in the draw as a lucky loser with the potential to cause serious damage. Dominic Thiem took a wildcard to take his place and there was also an American contingent present with Tommy Paul, Frances Tiafoe and the smooth Sebastian Korda.
Australian Jordan Thompson was a first round casualty going down to the Spaniard Albert Ramos-Vinolas. Tough draw for the Sydneysider. When Dominic Thiem crashed out in the opening round the murmurs continued on whether he can get back to where he was before his significant layoff.
After a bye in round one, former US Open Champion Cilic was stunned by Argentinian youngster Sebastian Baez in three sets. Don’t be fooled by the young Baez, especially with his size and stature.
He put together one of the all-time seasons in 2021 at Challenger level and the clay courts are pay dirt for him. Top seed Auger-Aliassime struggled but got through in three sets and there were also wins for Richard Gasquet, Korda, Tiafoe and Monte Carlo finalist Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
When Davidovich Fokina was bundled out by the talented Tiafoe one of the favourites was gone. A three hour match showed that Tiafoe has the physical desire to compete hard and defeat the very best on the clay surface. A huge confidence boost for him.
When Korda destroyed Auger-Aliassime 6-2, 6-2 it showed again that the Canadian remains vulnerable on the surface as he failed to convert any of his chances while Korda cashed in with calm confidence.
When Gasquet went out to the Argentinian upstart in Baez it became unavoidable to pay attention to the kid. He played with toughness and fight beyond his years and showed that his performance curve trending upwards is no joke.
As the semi-final matchups were set there was a real opportunity for all four members.
Tiafoe and Korda were set to go while Baez and Ramos-Vinolas would tell us even more about the rising Argentinian star.
After two hours and 55 minutes, the all-American semi-final came down to resilience and toughness. Two traits needed for clay court success.
Korda earned opportunity after opportunity on the slow red dirt but it was Tiafoe that held firm. The boy from the Maryland/DC area Stateside saved 9/14 break points against him. Korda had twice as many break point opportunities to close out the match but it was Tiafoe that was left standing and it’s another gut punch for the talented Korda who again had problems with the close.
The second semi was sheer dominance from young Baez. Don’t be fooled by the scoreline but look closely at the numbers.
Ramos-Vinolas hung tough for over two hours but the 6-0 score to Baez to win in three showed he was far too good. Baez only faced three break points and saved them all while he created 16 chances of his own. Ramos-Vinolas stole the second set in a tiebreaker but it was Baez who put the jets on to power through.
The final was all one way traffic for Baez once again. The American Tiafoe was totally outmatched on the clay court in the final.
In ATP Tour finals no matter what surface you are playing a good serving day is needed. Tiafoe was 18/46 at a 39% clip on his first serves meaning one thing; no free points for the American.
Everything had to be earnt. Once Baez was able to lock in on the Tiafoe second serve it was lights out. Tiafoe only won 11/28 second serve points at 39%. The American was completely bombarded and overwhelmed while Baez had high percentages across the board and defended his own second serves with ease. 14/23 for the Argentinian at 61%. Superb numbers for his first ATP Tour final with a performance ahead of his years.
So as Estoril was wrapped up with a tidy bow one thing is evident. Sebastian Baez is a player not only on the rise but one that seems destined for the Top 20. He is a player that plays smart controlled tennis and looks like he will be one of the toughest players on clay for the next decade.
He comes from great pedigree as a former No. 1 junior in the world and the transition to the main ATP Tour is complete. Sebastian Baez is definitely for real and look for him to possibly make the latter stages in Madrid and Rome as well as the second week at the French Open.
Yes yes indeed. The kid is that good.