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Korda, Gaston And Altmaier Rip Up The Form Book And Reach The Fourth Round Of Roland Garros Tennis In Paris

Daniel Altmaier of Germany gestures during his third round match against Matteo Berrettini of Italy at the French Open.

By Alix Ramsay

Everyone knew that this year’s French Open was going to be a little bit different – everything, everywhere this year is a little bit different – but no one was expecting it to be quite this different.

This time last week, the qualifying competition had just ended. A little gaggle of hopefuls were emerging from three rounds on the clay; they were fresh-faced and eager and they could not wait to see where they had landed up in the main draw. And most of us ignored them: they were qualifiers; they had done awfully well and they deserved their pay cheque for losing in the first round against a grown-up player. Now they could go back to the real world of the Challenger circuit as they learned their trade and dug the foundations for the rest of their careers.

But this year – this mad, mad year – the qualifiers and the wild cards (the other gaggle of young, predominantly French, hopefuls) have proved more dangerous than the seeds and the young stars of last week are still here. They have upended the good and the great and now they stand on the verge of a place in the second week.

Saturday began with the unheralded Daniel Altmaier, the world No.186 from Germany, dismissing Matteo Berrettini, the No.7 seed, 6-2, 7-6, 6-4. The 22-year-old qualifier from Kempen had no ranking at all at the start of last year due a couple of long injury lay-offs. A shoulder problem started his slide followed by a freak accident: he slipped on the yellow nap that rubbed off the tennis balls and as he tumbled on to the cement court, he injured his hip. But after nine months out, back he came and, in his first grand slam appearance, he has reached the fourth round.

How is this possible?

Two of the rookies have their own theories about this, and they make it sound so very, very simple.

Hugo Gaston, the 20-year-old world No.239, who beat Stan Wawrinka on Friday, was as cool as an October day in Paris as he tried to explain just how he had done so well this past week. He had never won a tour level match in his life before and yet confidently and calmly he dismantled Wawrinka 6-0 in the fifth set.

Hugo Gaston of France celebrates a point during his third round match against Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland.

“It’s very important to go in the court with the winning in the head,” he said.

Well, yes, Hugo, but every player wants to go on court thinking they can win. Stan probably thought the same when the match began. It is just that most 20-year-olds don’t hold that thought for very long, particularly when playing in their home grand slam against a former champion.

“I try to stay focus in my game,” he went on. “I think it’s very important for me. I’m really cool outside of the court. I try to give my best in the court, and we will see the result.

“Of course, for the moment it’s amazing for me, it’s a dream. But I try to stay focus.”

Sebastian Korda attributes his recent success to the simple fact of having played a lot of matches. In the disrupted, Covid calendar, the big guns came back from the US Open and headed straight to Rome to get some clay court work in before coming to Paris. But, obviously, only a handful of them could play a string of matches there. Seb, meanwhile, was getting three rounds of qualifying under his belt last week and was ready for whatever the main draw could throw at him.

Sebastian Korda of the USA in action against Pedro Martinez of Spain during their men’s third round match during the French Open.

“I think maybe coming from quallies we had a couple matches already under our belts here,” he said. “I mean, speaking of myself, I was pretty confident by passing through quallies. I don’t think many people in the main draw actually played that many matches unless they had a good week in Rome or Hamburg.

“Yeah, just playing matches was probably the key this week.”

They make it sound so easy, these young lads. But it is Gaston’s theory that offers the greatest hope for the future: keeping his cool under pressure and believing in his ability to win. It is one that Korda supports, too, and what has pleased the American most is the way that he has kept his head in every match.

“It’s just staying calm,” Korda said after walloping Pedro Martinez on Friday. “Even in the first couple games, he was playing really well. I was down a break. I just told myself just to hang in there.

“One of my coaches from the USTA, Dean Goldfine, he always said to just weather the storm. That is all I just kept saying to myself. I was really happy with the way that I played after. I couldn’t be prouder of myself just staying in there and keeping a positive mindset.”

What has also propelled Korda through the round is the fitness work he did during lockdown. The suspension of the tours could not have come at a worse moment for the world No.213 – he had been playing well and was making solid progress on the Challenger circuit but suddenly he was stuck at home with nowhere to go.

“It was kind of frustrating to have everything just stop,” he said. “I mean, I just kind of put my head down and said, ‘you know what, this is what’s happening right now, I can’t change anything about it’.

“I really just tried to dial in and be super positive, just kept telling myself to keep going. My fitness trainer [Marek Vseticek] did an unbelievable job with me. We were communicating every day. He wasn’t able to come to Bradenton to train with me. But, yeah, we were in contact every day.

“I’m super proud of myself. I mean, I was doing everything all by myself. The work is showing right now. I’m incredibly happy for it.”

Both Gaston and Korda grew up with tennis. Korda is the son of Petr, the 1992 Roland Garros finalist and the 1998 Australian Open champion, while Gaston’s dad was the president of the local tennis club. They both grew up with tennis rackets in their hands.

Korda, though, puts his skills down to his mum, Regina Rajchrtova, a former world No.26 on the WTA Tour. Petr is his coach now but when Seb was much younger, Petr was helping Seb’s sisters, Jessica and Nelly, as they started out on the golf tour. Left at home, Seb’s game was honed by his mum.

Sebastian Korda of the USA in action against Andreas Seppi of Italy during their men’s first round match during the French Open.

“She’s probably one of the biggest influences that I have,” Seb said. “The way my strokes are and everything is because she’s the one that kind of tuned it that way.”

Now, though, Korda’s run could come to a shuddering halt: he plays Rafa on Sunday. That said, he can’t wait. Rafa is his idol – he even named his cat after the 12-time champion.

“He’s one of the reasons I play tennis,” Seb said of his idol. “Just watching him play, unbelievable competitor. Just from him I have the never-give-up mentality. Whenever I’m on court, I try to be like him.”

The form book says that Rafa will probably be a bit better at being Rafa than Seb will, but you never know.

Gaston also has a monumental task ahead of him: he faces Dominic Thiem next. That, though, offers a slight glimmer of a chance. The Austrian is pleased with the way he has recovered from his US Open victory and simply got to work in Paris. But he also knows that, deep down, he is utterly exhausted and that the feel-good factor from New York is bound to wear off at some point. When it does, he could be toast.

“Dominic is a fantastic player a great fighter,” Gaston said. “It’s a tough match for sure, but I try to take a pleasure in court and we will see.”

In this, the maddest of mad years, nothing would surprise us.