Hugo Gaston managed to find a lot more consistency of results on the professional circuit this year, especially with four Challenger Tour final appearances. In his relatively short career so far, he’s already become famous for pulling off spectacular runs in big tournaments completely out of the blue.
The first of such this year came at the ATP 250 event in Gstaad. Gaston was able to reach his maiden tour-level final, eliminating such proficient clay-court specialists as Federico Delbonis or Laslo Djere. The biggest scalp came over Cristian Garin in the quarterfinals, a match that required him to save four match points in a thrilling deciding set tie-breaker. The surprise factor that week was the effectiveness of the Frenchman’s first serve. With his physicality, it’s never going to be a massive weapon, but the tournament in Gstaad saw him get an increased amount of free points on his delivery. Looking at the overall stats for 2021, his first serves won ratio went up by three percent (from 63 to 66). In the final, Gaston ran into the unstoppable Casper Ruud, in the middle of his 13-match win streak.
The other run in Paris saw him face even higher-quality opposition and proved that Gaston doesn’t have to remain a clay one-trick. The 21-year-old tends to be engaged in wild matches and storylines, with his Bercy campaign being no exception. Having saved two match points (3-5 down in the decider) to beat Kevin Anderson in the first round of qualifying, Gaston went on to reach his first ATP Masters 1000 quarterfinal and break the top 100.
The French crowd was going crazy for him and the 21-year-old rode the wave to score wins over world #17 Pablo Carreno Busta and the wunderkind Carlos Alcaraz. Even facing Daniil Medvedev in the quarterfinals, Gaston showed he wasn’t afraid of anyone and came agonizingly close to taking the first set (three set points on serve).
Underperforming in Challenger finals
Hugo Gaston reached four Challenger finals this year, losing each of them. The consistency of getting there is still quite impressive, but the way he handled the occasion mentally has been disappointing. In Rome, the Frenchman faced a surprise package in Andrea Pellegrino. The Italian wildcard was also debuting in a final at that level and while he confirmed his progress with another good run in Lisbon later in the year, Gaston seemed like a strong favorite to take it, having defeated Thanasi Kokkinakis or Juan Pablo Varillas in emphatic fashion. The youngster took the opening set but grew increasingly frustrated and by the decider, could barely land a ball in the court.
His performance in final in Iasi against Zdenek Kolar was one of his best of the year, and certainly his best in a final. It wasn’t his own game breaking down that stopped him from clinching the title there, it was rather the Czech’s fabulous disposition in the deciding set. Kolar found it in himself to be a lot more aggressive in the most pivotal moments of the match and pulled off some brilliant shot-making to win it 7-5 4-6 6-4.
However, the next two finals were very disappointing. Gaston took just three games each against Mats Moraing in Tulln and Dimitar Kuzmanov in Barcelona. The former was an excellent display of first-strike tennis from the German but with each game, it became increasingly clear that the 21-year-old wasn’t even trying to put up a fight anymore. When he finally loosened up, he played and won a couple of great aggressive points with his forehand. It was all too little, too late though. In the latter final, Gaston just never really showed up at all, uncharacteristically missing shots in plenty of neutral rallies.
Liking to dictate in his own way
Gaston is now one of just two players in the top 100 who don’t own a Challenger title (the other is Milos Raonic, who in contrast to the Frenchman has eight ATP trophies under his belt). The ranking he managed to obtain by the end of 2021 will let him play on the ATP Tour almost exclusively and looking at how Gaston has performed in his career so far, a deep run should be expected every once in a while.
Especially in the latter half of the season, the 21-year-old’s game acquired more punch than before. It’s combining off-pace balls and faster forehands that makes Gaston stand out, along with superb (and improving) retrieving skills. The dropshot is his trademark, but a successful one cannot really be made from a defensive position. While often mistakenly thought of as a counter-puncher, the Frenchman is actually at his best when he has control over the rally and can use his great sense of the geometry of the court to its full extent. There are always going to be opponents that are going to overpower him, but Gaston has proven time and time again that he can be a nightmare to play even for these, who should theoretically be able to keep him behind easily.
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