By Martyn Herman
PARIS (Reuters) – Cristian Garin claimed his first ever Grand Slam match win on Monday shortly before Rafael Nadal bagged his 254th but the Chilean has a couple of things over the claycourt king.
Firstly, unlike the Spaniard he is a former Roland Garros junior champion, and secondly, and of more significance, his victory over giant American Reilly Opelka was his 19th on clay this season, compared to Nadal’s 15.
Only Argentina’s Guido Pella has more than that with 21, but what makes Garin’s season, in which he has won two titles already, so stunning is that before this year he had not won a main draw ATP match since 2013 when he was 16.
It has been a hard graft since then, but Garin is finally delivering on the promise he showed when beating Alexander Zverev to win the junior title in Paris six years ago, emulating the feat of one of Chile’s favorite sons Marcelo Rios.
“It’s been an amazing season for me,” the 22-year-old whose titles in Houston and Munich have seen him rocket up to 37th in the world and become a dark horse in the French Open draw, told a small group of reporters on Monday.
“I think after winning at Houston it made a mental change for me. It made me feel that I could win titles. Then Munich was unreal, I won really good matches.”
A few years ago Garin trained extensively at Nadal’s academy in Mallorca and while he is bashful when reminded that he has won more matches on clay this season than the Spanish great, and more titles, some of the magic and, the famed fighting spirit, seems to have rubbed off on him.
Until a loss to Taro Daniel in Geneva, Garin had won all eight final-set deciders he had played this season and seven times had won matches from match points down.
“Of course Rafa is my idol, he was really important for my career in the beginning,” Garin, who will face 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka in the second round, said.
“Yeah he never won the juniors here but he won 11 times! I think I would like to have one.”
While Zverev’s career went into a steep climb after losing that junior final in Paris, all the way to a career-high third in the world, Garin has toiled to make a breakthrough.
“Lots of time has passed since I won here six years ago, it was tough, lots of (second-tier) Challengers and (third-tier) Futures events and it was hard to go higher,” he said.
He played 19 Challenger tournaments last year — earning three titles and reaching three other finals. It gave Garin the winning habit that he has taken into this season.
“That gave me the top 100 ranking that I needed to play ATP tournaments, but also gave me the confidence to play with the best…my goal was to be top 50 by the end of the year.”
Garin, coached by Andres Schneiter and Paul Capdeville and also given plenty of positive input from Chile’s Davis Cup captain Nicolas Massu, has ticked that box.
Now he wants to continue the momentum against Wawrinka. “This is type of match I love playing,” he said.
“He is an amazing player but I like how I’m playing now and will give 100 percent.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)