2020 has been the most extraordinary and the most extraordinarily disrupted year in living memory, in tennis as in every other area of life. But Ugo Humbert is finishing it very much in the manner that he started it, playing superb tennis and scoring some memorable wins over higher-ranked opponents.
A year ago, Humbert was rather overshadowed whilst competing at the ATP NextGen Finals in Milan as one of the eight-highest ranked men under the age of 21, where he failed to advance to the semifinals. But he did claim a notable scalp in the round robin by beating eventual champion Jannik Sinner, a victory given added lustre by the Italian’s breakout 2020, which includes a run to the French Open earlier this month.
And Humbert was not slow to recover from his disappointing showing in Milan. At the ASB Classic in Auckland, one of the traditional warm-up tournaments for the Australian Open, the Frenchman put together a spectacular week, beating the second seed Denis Shapovalov and the fourth seed John Isner in back-to-back matches to reach the final. There he delivered what was perhaps his most impressive performance of the tournament to beat his compatriot Benoit Paire in three hard-fought sets, 7-6(2) 3-6 7-6(5).
Unfortunately, despite Humbert’s victory over Paire being seen by some as signalling a changing of the guard in French men’s tennis, he was afforded little opportunity to make use of that early momentum. In Melbourne, having had little time to recover from his exploits across the Tasman Sea, Humbert lost in the first round to John Millman in four sets. Then, just as he was rebuilding, reaching the quarterfinals at the New York Open and the semifinals in Delray Beach, the coronavirus pandemic brought the professional tennis season, and just about everything else besides, to a grinding halt.
Upon the resumption of the season in August, Humbert did not immediately recapture the excellent form that he had shown in New Zealand at the start of the year. He lost in the first round at the relocated Cincinnati Masters and, although he improved on his showing Melbourne by reaching the second round at the US Open, beating the veteran Yuichi Sugita before losing in straight-sets to Matteo Berrettini, it was nonetheless a disappointing showing for a player of his considerable talent.
But the Frenchman showed signs of life during the abbreviated European clay-court swing. At the German Open in Hamburg, Humbert stunned top seed Daniil Medvedev in straight-sets in the first round and went on to reach the quarterfinals. But Humbert was again unable to maintain his form on the biggest stage of all, losing in the first round at Roland Garros to the unheralded Australian Marc Polmans, who was playing in the main draw in Paris as a lucky loser.
But at the European Open this week, Humbert appears to have finally recaptured the form that took him to his first tour-level title earlier this season in New Zealand. He opened his campaign in Antwerp with a routine win over the Belgian journeyman Kimmer Coppejans, before beating Pablo Carreno Busta 5-7 6-3 6-4 in the second round. Any win over the indefatigable Carreno Busta, who has been in excellent form of late, would have been a fine achievement, but the manner of Humbert’s win was quite remarkable.
In the first set, he broke the Spaniard early, only to lose his focus when serving for the set, with that mental lapse serving as a reminder of his youth and relative inexperience. Carreno Busta was not slow to capitalise, stealing the opener with a late break. But where most would surely have allowed the frustration of that missed opportunity to get the better of them, Humbert kept his composure, rallying to win the next two sets and claim his place in the quarterfinals.
All of Humbert’s considerable attributes were on display in his victory over Carreno Busta, which is surely amongst the best of his career so far. Humbert went toe-to-toe with the Spaniard in long baseline rallies and was able to outlast him. That is something few players have managed in recent weeks, with even the dogged Roberto Bautista Agut, one of the fittest in the men’s game, worn down by Carreno Busta at this year’s French Open.
But there was more to Humbert’s win than just tireless running. He also brought his forceful forehand into play to superb effect. It proved to be a bigger weapon than anything that Carreno Busta had in his arsenal, with Humbert striking numerous winners from that wing as he muscled his way to victory. He then demonstrated his powers of recovery to beat another promising young player in South Africa’s Lloyd Harris in straight sets to reach the semifinals.
There he will face British #1 Dan Evans and, such has been the level of his tennis, that he will surely fancy his chances of not only beating Evans, but going all the way to win the tournament. If he does so, Humbert may well end up as one of the very few people who remembers this most troubled of years fondly.
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