Juan Manuel Cerundolo raised his arms to the sky and pumped his fist. It was a glorious moment for the 19-year-old Argentinian. He had just beaten veteran clay courter Albert Ramos 6-0 2-6 6-2 to win his first ATP title, in his home country.
The 2021 Cordoba tournament was the stage for the first ATP main draw wins of Cerundolo’s career, making it even more shocking that he actually snagged the title.
After winning the title, Cerundolo told the ATP, “I honestly can’t believe it. It’s an unforgettable experience, I will never forget this moment. I’m super happy and even more because it’s in Argentina, in my home with all my friends and family cheering me on.”
But, will this be the last time Cerundolo gets to experience the joy of an ATP singles title? If he keeps up his current tactics, that would seem likely.
So, what worked for Cerundolo in Cordoba? Cerundolo, a lefty, utilized his heavy forehand with a huge net clearance. He was able to stay far behind the baseline and use the blustery conditions (for much of the week) to his advantage, throwing up high heavy shots and letting the wind wreak havoc. Cerundolo was very consistent with his groundstrokes and forced opponents to take bigger and bigger risks to get the ball by him.
In addition, Cerundolo’s variety was top-notch that week. Whether a perfect drop shot that an opponent didn’t see coming, a short angle, or a touch shot at the net, Cerundolo made things very uncomfortable for opponents.
However, it was on the strength of the return that was so impressive for Cerundolo that week. In the semifinal against Coria and the final against Ramos, both opponents had a higher second serve win percentage compared to first serve win percentage. Neither Coria nor Ramos had a first serve win percentage above 51%. In addition, the two players faced 35 break points combined in the semifinal and final matches and were broken a total of 13 times!
All week, including qualifying, of the eight players he faced, only three had a second serve win percentage over 50% and only one (Thiago Seyboth Wild) had a second serve win percentage above 55%.
So, this sounds all good and well, what’s the problem?
Well, I believe that Cerundolo has adopted a mindset that is too defensive to sustain success on the ATP Tour.
The Argentinian’s serve is not a huge threat at all right now. For instance, as good as Cerundolo’s return was in the semifinals and final of Cordoba, he still wasn’t great on serve. Against Coria he only won 60% of his first serve points and 44% of his second serve points. When he played Ramos in the final, he won 61% of his first serve points and 52% of his second serve points.
So, when Cerundolo is unable to return at a high level, he’s in a bit of trouble. And it’s starting to show in the results.
Since winning Cordoba, Cerundolo is 1-3, with his lone win coming over wild card World No. 536 Gonzalo Lama in Santiago’s ATP Tour event. In none of the three losses did Cerundolo win 60% of his first serve points. Even including the Lama match, Cerundolo faced a total of 33 break points.
Cerundolo’s court positioning, while similar to when he won the Cordoba title, has not been effective since. As commentator Mike Cation noted regarding his court positioning in a recent loss to Brayden Schnur in the Tallahassee Challenger, “…Juan Manuel is returning 18 feet-ish behind the baseline, and…seven underhand serves from Brayden” (at the time).
The underhand serving goes to show how deep in the court Cerundolo was, as he tried to mimic his strategy against Schnur (and others) with limited success.
This type of returning strategy can only even potentially be effective on clay, where Cerundolo has played about 96% of his matches in his career. In fact, he has only played six matches on a hard court!
If Cerundolo tried to return from that far back and play with such tentativeness against ATP Tour-level players on hard courts, he would get absolutely destroyed. His serving issues would be even more pronounced, as while he might get a little extra boost on the serve, he wouldn’t be able to recover as well when he’s behind due to good returns. And he wouldn’t be able to return as effectively, as big servers would be able to get more free points and advantages within the points against Cerundolo.
While such a strategy might be effective on the slower clay of Cordoba, it is already seeming less effective on clay, and would be disastrous on hard.
So, what can Juan Manuel Cerundolo do to change his current path? While it might seem like an overreaction to give such a grim forecast after four losses, already a trend seems to be forming in terms of the tactics that won Cerundolo Cordoba, hurting him in the long-term.
For starters, Cerundolo has to step up in the court more. That means both on returns and during rallies. Don’t let others players dictate the points so much because, while he can counterpunch well, good players are going to find holes in Cerundolo’s defense and exploit them. That’s why it pays off for Cerundolo to get more aggressive and try to force the issue and not let others pull him around the court.
While Cerundolo might think that he’s baiting other players, more and more, players will just be taking advantage of what Cerundolo is giving them in terms of control of the point.
I want to also see Cerundolo really step up in the court and rip his forehand. Sacrificing some safety (net clearance) for a bit of extra power, given the raw talent of the Cerundolo lefty forehand, would actually enhance the Argentinian’s game rather than hurt it, and give him a better chance to become a good hard court player. The same goes for his serve, where he can sacrifice a higher first serve percentage for a more lethal first serve.
What I’m not saying is that he has to abandon everything that has brought him success. That would be very arrogant, given that he just won an ATP Tour title playing this way. But, slight adjustments to his game will be necessary in order to adapt to the competition, who are rapidly learning more and more about what it takes to beat Juan Manuel Cerundolo with every passing match.
The worry is, however, that the title in Cordoba will give him the sense that the evolution of his game won’t be necessary.
Main Photo from Getty.