Federico Delbonis had his big breakthrough back in 2013 when after winning two ATP Challenger Tour titles in Colombia, he reached the final at the German Open as a qualifier. That run saw him eliminate established clay-courters such as Tommy Robredo or Fernando Verdasco, before running into and beating Roger Federer in the semifinals. While the Swiss was struggling with a back injury and was trying out a new, bigger racket frame, it was still a commendable effort from Delbonis, who was at that point expected to develop into a great terre battue specialist.
Not progressing as expected
But while Delbonis certainly had a few great runs here or there (tour-level titles in Sao Paulo and Marrakesh), his career had been largely disappointing. Before 2021, he had never reached a quarterfinal at a Masters 1000 event and only reached the third round at a Grand Slam once. Surprisingly, it wasn’t even the French Open, where Delbonis had won just three matches in eight tries coming into 2021. It felt like he was mostly brought down by his mental struggles, issues when closing out sets and matches, and very uneven performances.
Even on hard courts, he could look like a top 20 player in his win against Andy Murray at Indian Wells or in the deciding match of the 2016 Davis Cup final against Ivo Karlovic. But the consistency just wasn’t there. But that has changed over the course of this season’s European clay-court swing.
Having to go through the qualifying stage at each of Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Rome, the Argentinian fought through all of these campaigns to make solid runs at all three of the biggest non-Grand Slam clay-court events. Rome had him reach the quarterfinals at a Masters 1000 for the very first time and with his confidence now sky-high, Delbonis came into Roland Garros with a 16-5 win/loss record since Monte Carlo.
Better late than never
Radu Albot was a great opening-round draw, but looking at Delbonis’ track record in Paris, he’s lost to some weaker opponents (eg. Konstantin Kravchuk). Despite a horrific second set where he hit just three winners and made 12 unforced errors, the Argentinian was dominant for the rest of the match, only losing two games in the three sets he won. Pablo Andujar was a much tougher test with the Spaniard being just as in-form and coming straight off a stunning upset over Dominic Thiem.
In a thrilling five-set clash, Delbonis was the one who preserved a lot more energy towards the end of the match and was able to comfortably take the decider. It’s never too late for a best run of your career and the Argentinian made his maiden French Open third round at 30 years of age. Facing Fabio Fognini, with whom he’s had a brilliant clay-court rivalry over the years (which started in the aforementioned Hamburg final), Delbonis played a very clean match, although admittedly, he didn’t have to do much.
The Italian committed 52 unforced errors to just 19 winners and was nowhere near close to breaking through his opponent’s consistent baseline tennis.
Most important match of his career
But will he ever get a better chance for a Grand Slam quarterfinal than this? Probably not as the opponent awaiting him is Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. The Spaniard eliminated Casper Ruud in an over 4 hours and a half-long thriller. Delbonis should be coming into that one fresher and the set of tools he has to perform well on clay is undeniable. The uniquely high ball toss on serve may raise the eyebrows of tennis coaches, but it does bring him a good number of free points. The loopy forehand is a textbook mechanism of developing the ball around a clay court.
Delbonis will know that a better chance is unlikely to come up in the future. The importance of this match might get to him as it used to do in the past. Yet somehow, this season has seen the Argentinian constantly break barriers that were unavailable to him before. Perhaps Delbonis isn’t done winning in Paris yet.
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