Hugo Gaston: A Man Without Limits

Hugo Gaston in action at the French Open

Remember the name Hugo Gaston.

First win in the main draw at a Major? Check. First win against top 50 opposition? Check. Fourth round at his home Slam? Check. It was some week at the French Open for world #239 Gaston. Aged just 20, the wildcard had never won a match at tour-level, nevermind at a Major, before he was handed a wildcard into the main draw in Paris, which was itself a rather surprising decision as he had lost four matches in a row, all at Challenger-level, heading into the third Grand Slam of the season.

But he snapped that losing streak by beating fellow wildcard Maxime Janvier in straight-sets in the first round. He backed that up beating world #52 Yoshihito Nishioka in four, a fine win even if the Japanese is not at his best on the clay. But the best was still to come from Gaston. Squaring off against three-time Major champion Stan Wawrinka in the third round, Gaston delivered an inspired display, playing with  panache and precision to knock out the 2015 champion, 2-6 6-3 6-3 4-6 6-0.

It was unquestionably the win of Gaston’s career and saw him become the first player ranked outside the top 200 (an achievement matched later that day by world #213 Sebastian Korda) to reach the last 16 at Roland Garros since Arnaud Di Pasquale in 2002. It also meant that he was the only Frenchman to reach the second week in Paris, despite the fact that five of his countryman are ranked inside the top 50 and that there were 18 Frenchmen in the main draw ahead of the first round.

All but Gaston lost in either the first or second round, with Gaston the last man flying the tricolour when play began on Friday, tying the record for the least number of Frenchmen to reach the third round since 1925. Few had expected Gaston’s French Open to last much longer, with Wawrinka appearing to have adapted perfectly to the autumnal conditions in Paris and the change of ball supplier from Babolat to Wilson, with players describing the new balls as almost like rocks.

That was not entirely surprising, with the slow conditions giving Wawrinka the time he needs to open his shoulders and really hit through the ball. And when Wawrinka hits through the ball, it doesn’t much matter whether it is Babolat, Wilson or an actual boulder, it will stay hit. So it proved in the first set, as the 16th seed conjured a storm of winners to take it 6-2, with Gaston appearing entirely outclassed by his illustrious opponent.

But the wildcard, who was playing in only the fifth tour-level match of his career, fought back. Although at 5’8” he is amongst the smallest players in the men’s game, he does not lack in physical intensity. He harried Wawrinka, taking everything that Wawrinka could throw at him and hurling it back with some force of his own. His court coverage was also supreme, with Wawrinka left gasping for air at times after protracted baseline exchanges.

Indeed, in the end it was the Swiss who cracked first, with Gaston storming through the deciding set to complete a famous victory. Gaston, who was awarded a wildcard having twice failed to qualify for Roland Garros, has now more than repaid the faith of the French tennis Federation. Understandably, he was thrilled with his victory and during his post-match interview, the excitement in his voice was palpable.

“It’s amazing for me, it’s a dream,” Gaston said. “I tried to take pleasure in every minute and every moment, and today I won. I started (to play tennis) because my Dad was president of a tennis club. After, I loved to play, I loved the game and so I continued,” the 20-year-old said, explaining how his journey started.

His journey will continue when he steps on to court to face newly crowned US Open champion Dominic Thiem in the fourth round, this time not on the fringes, but instead the very centre of attention. After all, he will be carrying his nation’s hopes with him. It does seem like a daunting challenge, with the Austrian having booked his place in the second week by crushing the in-form Casper Ruud. But Gaston is clearly a man who does not know his limits. Who could say what he might yet achieve?

Remember the name Hugo Gaston.

First win in the main draw at a Major? Check. First win against top 50 opposition? Check. Fourth round at his home Slam? Check. It was some week at the French Open for world #239 Gaston. Aged just 20, the wildcard had never won a match at tour-level, nevermind at a Major, before he was handed a wildcard into the main draw in Paris, which was itself a rather surprising decision as he had lost four matches in a row, all at Challenger-level, heading into the third Grand Slam of the season.

But he snapped that losing streak by beating fellow wildcard Maxime Janvier in straight-sets in the first round. He backed that up beating world #52 Yoshihito Nishioka in four, a fine win even if the Japanese is not at his best on the clay. But the best was still to come from Gaston. Squaring off against three-time Major champion Stan Wawrinka in the third round, Gaston delivered an inspired display, playing with  panache and precision to knock out the 2015 champion, 2-6 6-3 6-3 4-6 6-0.

It was unquestionably the win of Gaston’s career and saw him become the first player ranked outside the top 200 (an achievement matched later that day by world #213 Sebastian Korda) to reach the last 16 at Roland Garros since Arnaud Di Pasquale in 2002. It also meant that he was the only Frenchman to reach the second week in Paris, despite the fact that five of his countryman are ranked inside the top 50 and that there were 18 Frenchmen in the main draw ahead of the first round.

All but Gaston lost in either the first or second round, with Gaston the last man flying the tricolour when play began on Friday, tying the record for the least number of Frenchmen to reach the third round since 1925. Few had expected Gaston’s French Open to last much longer, with Wawrinka appearing to have adapted perfectly to the autumnal conditions in Paris and the change of ball supplier from Babolat to Wilson, with players describing the new balls as almost like rocks.

That was not entirely surprising, with the slow conditions giving Wawrinka the time he needs to open his shoulders and really hit through the ball. And when Wawrinka hits through the ball, it doesn’t much matter whether it is Babolat, Wilson or an actual boulder, it will stay hit. So it proved in the first set, as the 16th seed conjured a storm of winners to take it 6-2, with Gaston appearing entirely outclassed by his illustrious opponent.

But the wildcard, who was playing in only the fifth tour-level match of his career, fought back. Although at 5’8” he is amongst the smallest players in the men’s game, he does not lack in physical intensity. He harried Wawrinka, taking everything that Wawrinka could throw at him and hurling it back with some force of his own. His court coverage was also supreme, with Wawrinka left gasping for air at times after protracted baseline exchanges.

Indeed, in the end it was the Swiss who cracked first, with Gaston storming through the deciding set to complete a famous victory. Gaston, who was awarded a wildcard having twice failed to qualify for Roland Garros, has now more than repaid the faith of the French tennis Federation. Understandably, he was thrilled with his victory and during his post-match interview, the excitement in his voice was palpable.

“It’s amazing for me, it’s a dream,” Gaston said. “I tried to take pleasure in every minute and every moment, and today I won. I started (to play tennis) because my Dad was president of a tennis club. After, I loved to play, I loved the game and so I continued,” the 20-year-old said, explaining how his journey started.

His journey will continue when he steps on to court to face newly crowned US Open champion Dominic Thiem in the fourth round, this time not on the fringes, but instead the very centre of attention. After all, he will be carrying his nation’s hopes with him. It does seem like a daunting challenge, with the Austrian having booked his place in the second week by crushing the in-form Casper Ruud. But Gaston is clearly a man who does not know his limits. Who could say what he might yet achieve?

Main photo:
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