Sebastian Baez Goes Deep at Another Challenger, But What Does the Future Hold?

Sebastian Baez 2018 French Open

Sebastian Baez walked up to the net somberly while his opponent in the final of the Kyiv Open, Franco Agamenome, fell onto clay, arms raised. It just wasn’t Baez’s day at the office, winning only 51% of his service points in a 5-7 2-6 defeat to Agamenome.

But, despite the loss, the 20 year-old Baez has arguably had the best season of anyone on the ATP Challenger Tour. From the start of the season until this point, Baez has won three Challengers and made the final of two others. He won the Santiago Challenger without dropping a set, while barely missing that mark at the Concepcion Challenger, where he dropped single set during his run to the title there.

Baez has beaten some really strong players this season, with victories over Holger Rune, Damir Dzumhur, Pedro Martinez, and Corentin Moutet under his belt. Clearly, Baez has the game to play with a lot of good players one would see on the upper fringes of the Challenger Tour or lower fringes of the main tour.

Sebastian Baez in 2021

Baez’s success this season has come almost exclusively on clay, on which the Kyiv Open was played this past week. While Baez is usually solid on his serve (although it isn’t huge by any means), his return is where he makes an impact. In all four of his matches in Kyiv before the final against Agamenome, opponents won less than 55% of their second-serve points against Baez and broke his opponents a combined 20 times. And in three of those four matches, opponents didn’t even hit the 50% mark on second-serve points won.

In fact, against Alex Rybakov in the second round and Ergi Krikin in the semifinals, Baez won the majority of return points.

Of course, clay is a surface that rewards returners, as serves make less of an impact and players are more likely to be drawn into longer rallies than relying on serve-plus-one combos. And, despite listing hard as his favorite surface, the Argentine has only played four matches all season off of the dirt.

Since the pandemic hiatus, that number doesn’t increase much, with only five matches off of clay.

Not to say that this has been a detriment to his results by any stretch of the imagination, as his five Challenger finals (and three titles), 33-10 record on the clay this year, and rise in the rankings from World No. 309 at the beginning of the season to World No. 147 now.

Yet, despite what has been a terrific season, the Agamenome match in the final of Kyiv encapsulated some worrying characteristics of Baez’s game that could make it a harsh transition to the ATP Tour, whenever he tries to make that transition.

Trouble for Baez

Baez started strong, going up *5-1 in the first set. The Argentine was showcasing why he’s had so much Challenger success this season, befuddling Agamenome with his precise groundstrokes, clean ball-striking, great anticipation and foot speed. Baez’s tennis IQ is also clearly a major reason he’s achieved so much over the past year.

Baez would go on to only win two games for the rest of the match. While Agamenome wrestled control of the baseline and forced Baez is play very defensively. Baez seemed to panic, getting loose with his groundstrokes as he went for shots that weren’t there and was unable to take Agamenome out of his comfort zone. The five foot, seven inch Baez just couldn’t hold his own against a physical baseliner in the Italian.

Now, you could make the case that Baez’s loss today was a loss of focus, a blip that goes against his own philosophy of tennis. He did tell the ATP’s Josh Meiseles after his first Challenger title this season in Concepcion, “I was more focused and ready.  That is also part of the work that I do every day with my coach and my team.”

It was certainly a bad day at the office. It was a loss of focus for sure, something that Baez might not have been accustomed with. But, should that be the end of the discussion?

Paul Timmons, from the My Tennis Adventures blog, compared Baez to current World No. 14 Diego Schwartzman. It’s an interesting comparison to make. Schwartzman also stands at 5 foot, 7 inches tall and has to work around his physical limitations with increased focus, intensity, court coverage, and ball-striking.

It’s a very fair comparison and Schwartzman is certainly the model that Baez should be following to make it on the ATP Tour. It’s really the only model there is for him to follow.

Yet, despite all of his Challenger results this year, there are still key weaknesses in his game that provide a wide gap between Schwartzman and him. They also help explain why he’s still 2-2 in matches at the ATP Tour main draw-level this year (one main draw because of a lucky loser spot) and failed to qualify for all of the Majors in which he entered the qualifying draw (all besides the Australian Open).

There’s still instances when better players with bigger weapons and those who are striking the ball very cleanly from the baseline (like Agamenome) can take hold of the baseline and force Baez way behind the baseline and in very defensive positions. And because Baez doesn’t have quite the pop on his groundstrokes that Schwartzman has, a reliable bigger weapon like the Schwartzman backhand, nor the ability to ramp up the pace of his groundstrokes without spraying errors, he’s not able to control the baseline in the same manner as Schwartzman.

Now, the retort to this, which would be correct, is that he’s only 20 years old and he has plenty of time to figure these aspects of his game out. Which, is 100% correct. There’s no argument there. At such a short height, he won’t have a serve like Opelka’s, giving him a lot of free points on-serve and allows rising up the rankings to be a bit of a smoother process.

But, there’s a worry trend as 2021 goes on that the most adept Challenger players with groundstrokes, the type of player he would see often on the ATP Tour, are starting to figure out the Baez game and how to best attack it.

Since winning the Challenger title in Zagreb before French Open qualifying, Baez has lost to players such as Tallon Griekspoor, Gianluca Mager, Matthew Ebden, and Juan Pablo Varillas (after a couple wins over him earlier in the season). All of these players have big weapons whether it be the serve or going for a lot on their groundstrokes and seemed to have figured out ways, in recent months, to defuse the Baez game.

They’re also players who either play at the ATP Tour-level, or mimic the style of play that Baez would see at the ATP level much better than, say, his grinder quarterfinal opponent in Kyiv, Filip Jianu. Agamenome did well today to really ramp up the aggression and play that ATP Tour-style.

Of course, a major part of tennis, especially for such a young player, is to adapt. We have seen 18 year-old Juan Manuel Cerundolo do that in recent tournaments. Cerundolo is another interesting player comparison for Baez. Besides the obvious difference of Baez being a righty and Cerundolo being a lefty, both are young Argentine clay-courters who aren’t particularly tall (by tennis standards), Cerundolo is only six feet tall, and both rely on their baseline games to do much of the damage due to weaker serves.

Cerundolo burst onto the scene early this season, when he won the ATP Tour clay event in Cordoba, and then not too-long afterwards won a Challenger on the clay courts of Rome. His consistent depth, variety, change-of-pace, and precision from the baseline, especially on passing shots, confused a lot of opponents.

However, players slowly started to figure out Cerundolo’s game, and his results dipped, culminating in a six-match losing streak that spanned from shortly after the French Open to early August.

Since that losing streak, however, Cerundolo has won two Challengers, made the final of another, and the semifinal of yet another. He’s figuring out more-and-more how to not get pushed back far behind the baseline, and honing his game so that being consistent doesn’t necessarily getting pushy, that he doesn’t have to sacrifice consistency to still make an impact from the baseline.

Something that Cerundolo has that Baez can improve upon his the angles and pinpoint variety shots. Some more backhand slices, improving his ability to change the pace, and more varied shot-selection are all things that Cerundolo does well that could take Baez’s game to the next level.

Now, of course, Baez is in a much better spot than Cerundolo was during his six-match losing streak. Baez just made another Challenger final! And his results aren’t as good as before, but he’s certainly not tanking. This isn’t to take anything away from Baez’s incredible season.

But, with so much prosperity on the Challenger Tour comes increased expectations and a look-ahead to how that player would fare consistently playing on the ATP Tour. And the Argentine’s game has many characteristics that would make the transition smooth.

However, there are key concerns that Sebastian Baez will have to work on to make it to the next level. And it will be fascinating to see in the coming years whether or not Baez rises to the occasion, or is stuck at the Challenger level.

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