Juan Manuel Cerundolo started out 2021 as World No. 341 in the ATP rankings. He hadn’t played an ATP Tour main-draw match in his career and Cerundolo only had one Challenger semifinal to his name.
Currently, Cerundolo sits at World No. 89 with a ranking as high as No. 85. He has an ATP Tour title and has lifted the winner’s trophy on the ATP Challenger Tour three separate times.
How was Cerundolo able to pull this off? In the most unconventional of ways.
Cerundolo started the 2021 season playing two clay-court Futures events, losing in the first round of one and making the final of the second before giving a walkover in the final.
You’ll see that clay is essentially a constant in the 2021 Cerundolo season. Outside of two tournaments, it was the only surface he played on.
Following the two ITF events, Cerundolo sent, what in hindsight, could be seen as a warning shot to the rest of the tour, taking the first set off of Daniel Altmaier in the Concepcion Challenger, before falling in three sets.
The following week, despite his limited resume so far, would be the defining moment in the Argentine’s career so far.
At the ATP 250 on the Cordoba clay, Cerundolo had a week for the ages. After qualifying without losing a set, Cerundolo would beat Thiago Seyboth Wild in the first round before winning four-consecutive three-set matches to take the title. This included wins over established clay-courters like Miomir Kecmanovic, Thiago Monteiro, and Albert Ramos in the final.
Cerundolo defied the traditional logic for high-level tennis in how he played. He didn’t have a massive, powerful forehand or a huge serve. His forehand was heavy, precise, and he got great depth from it, but he wasn’t hitting players off the court. And his serve was essentially meant to just start the point.
Yet, there was something so cerebral to the way Cerundolo has played that tournament, and many since. He thrives constructing points, he understands what his opponent is going to do and how to best counteract it, and he’s so patient in his approach.
After winning Cordoba in late February, Cerundolo told the ATP regarding his game, “…I’m definitely a more defensive counter-puncher. I like to use the opponent’s pace against them, and when I can attack with the forehand I use it to dictate the points.”
It was this style that helped make Cerundolo so successful during the 2021 season.
Cerundolo lost three of his next four matches, becoming too defensive at times and struggling to balance when is the right time to be aggressive.
In late April, Cerundolo seemed to find this balance, and ultimately his form, once again, winning his first Challenger in Rome. He won the final in three sets over Italian Flavio Cobolli. Cobolli was the third home-country player in a row that Cerundolo had to face. He won his first Challenger over the opponents on the other side of the court and the crowd.
Cerundolo’s mental toughness was becoming a hallmark of his game. He explained this mental strength to the ATP’s Josh Meiseles with the following, “I just try to take it step-by-step and point-by-point. I am so patient and don’t rush, so I think that is the key to these matches.”
About a month later, Cerundolo would play in his first-ever Grand Slam qualifying campaign at the French Open. While he played his heart out and gave a valiant effort, the Argentine ended up losing in the final qualifying round to Henri Laaksonen, 7-6(7) in the third set.
That loss was certainly hard to swallow and might have had lingering effects for Cerundolo, and combined with a too-defensive mindset, it’s no surprise that he didn’t win consecutive matches until the Meersbusch Challenger in August. This included his first match of the season off of clay, a first-round qualifying defeat to Enzo Couacaud in Wimbledon qualifying.
Meersbusch represented a changing of the tides for Cerundolo. He was able to reach the final, which included a better-in-hindsight victory over Botic Van De Zandschulp in the semifinals, before falling to Tomas Barrios Vera in the final. Cerundolo was figuring out ays
From there, Cerundolo’s good results resumed, and the Argentine ended up winning consecutive Challenger titles in a stretch from late August to mid-September, taking home the singles crown in both Como over Gian Marco Moroni and Banja Luka against Nicola Milojevic. Cerundolo only lost one set in the two tournaments combined.
Cerundolo had decent results for the rest of the season, but he would not snag another Challenger victory. He did make the final of the Lima Challenger in late October, but with his body breaking down under the strain of a physical week, he fell in straight sets to Nicolas Jarry.
This week was special for Cerundolo, however, because it catapulted him into the top 100 in the World for the first time, breaking this threshold as World No. 94.
As Cerundolo exclaimed the ATP’s Marcos Zugasti, “For me to see myself there is a dream come true. It is something I wanted as a child, when I started playing. I never knew when this moment was going to happen and now I think I deserve it.”
Cerundolo, remarkably, would qualify for the indoor-hard ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan, his second tournament of the year off of clay. While the Argentine wouldn’t win a match, he got a set in every match he played and showed that he wouldn’t be a total pushover off of the dirt.
Cerundolo would finish his season at the Campinas Challenger, playing his brother Francisco Cerundolo in the quarterfinals, but falling in straight sets. It was a year for the ages for Juan Manuel, now firmly inside the top 100.
So, what are the expectations for next year? While Cerundolo should by no-means drastically change how he plays, the Argentine should continue to develop his game by trying to flatten out and become aggressive with his forehand slightly more often, as this will help him not get overpowered, especially on quicker surfaces.
And to become better on quicker surfaces, Cerundolo will have to play off of clay more! It would be great to see Cerundolo sprinkle in a few more hard-court tournaments for the 2022 season and maybe even try a grass Challenger!
But, for now, Cerundolo should rest up and be proud of the season he had.
Cerundolo made huge strides in 2021 playing a very interesting, different style of tennis. He made a huge leap from World No. 341 to World No. 89, smashing the traditional expectations that onlookers would have for a player of that ranking.
It’s going to be a treat to watch Juan Manuel Cerundolo in the years to come.
Main Photo from Getty.