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Steve Flink: Escobedo Eager to Succeed in 2017

As a proud young man of Mexican heritage, Californian Ernesto Escobedo believes he is ready to assemble the pieces of his game more productively than ever before as he heads into the heart of the 2017 season. This soft-spoken, hard-fighting and unmistakably determined fellow is one of a scintillating crop of young Americans with wide ambitions and large dreams who want to build momentum, create openings and establish themselves unequivocally in the months and years ahead. Escobedo received a wildcard into the Abierto Mexicano Telcel ATP World Tour event this week. He was victorious in his first round match yesterday against Stefan Kozlov.

Escobedo currently stands at a respectable No. 113 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, and he has every intention of climbing decidedly higher across the rest of 2017.

We spoke by telephone last week, and Escobedo came across as sincere, fundamentally decent, humble and delighted to be potentially on the cusp of some tall achievements. Escobedo is clearly not deluding himself into thinking that his foremost aspirations will be realized overnight, but he seems to have a realistic set of long term expectations. His genuine self conviction was evident throughout our 34 minute discussion.

This 20-year-old American has done commendable work ever since he turned pro back in 2014. In 2016, particularly, he found the forum to reveal his talent persuasively, winning a pair of Challenger tournaments in Lexington, Kentucky and Monterrey, Mexico, reaching the finals of the Challenger events in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Cary, North Carolina. As a wildcard, he won a round in the main draw at the U.S. Open last year, and this season he qualified for the Australian Open, making it to the second round in Melbourne. Escobedo has every reason to be optimistic about the upcoming campaign in 2017.

And yet, Escobedo did not arrive at his current level of the game by conventional means. His journey through the juniors was highly unusual, featuring three appearances at the US. National 18 Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but very little serious tournament competition otherwise.

As he explains, "I didn't play many tournaments in my junior years because I didn't have the funds to travel. My parents couldn't afford it so I just trained at my house for like five years very, very hard. Southern California has so many good players to practice with, so I hit a lot with the guys from USC and UCLA. If I were to do it over again, I would play a few more junior tournaments. It would have been a good experience to play the junior Slams. But the funds were not there. I still felt I was becoming a good tennis player the way I did it."

I asked Escobedo if the USTA had ever expressed an interest in helping him financially? He replied, "There was a time when I was 14 or 15 when they offered to pay for my expenses, but the USTA wanted me to move to Boca Raton, Florida to train there. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to stay at home in California with my family. It was not a tough decision for me. I made the best choice for myself because family is super important to me."

When Escobedo did venture out to Kalamazoo to compete in that prestigious tournament, he was surrounded by accomplished American juniors including Jared Donaldson, Noah Rubin, Kozlov, Tommy Mmoh and Frances Tiafoe among others. Escobedo recalls getting to the quarterfinals twice and gaining experience, and also recollects how highly ranked and regarded most of his adversaries were.

"I mean, most of those guys were like top 20 in the ITF rankings and I had never played juniors in my life, so I didn't have any rivalry with them at that time. But Kalamazoo was a lot of fun to be around the best juniors in the U.S. I was learning what it was like to be away from home competing in a junior tournament. Once I got used to that I felt I had a good shot against anyone out there, but I would say that I did not feel that way until the second year of my pro career."

Escobedo began playing a lot of Futures tournaments and eventually tested himself in Challengers. One powerful recollection he carries with him to this day was his rookie year as a professional when he received a wildcard into the 2014 U.S. Open qualifying. As he remembers, "I was ranked around 600 in the world and the USTA gave me a wildcard into the qualifying. Surprisingly, I won two rounds. I beat Somdev Devvarman and James Duckworth and then lost to Facundo Bagnis. It was really shocking. That had to be the biggest thing in my career at that time and winning two rounds in the qualifying was amazing."

Performing with that kind of efficiency when he was only 18 provided a considerable boost to his morale, but Escobedo unfortunately met misfortune at the end of 2014, and it impeded his progress significantly. As he recalls, "I suffered with two bulging discs in my lower back, so then I was out for four months. I lost a lot of confidence and it was a tough time for me trying to come back from that. 2015 was not a good year for me."

But Escobedo did not allow that feeling of frustration to last for long. During the off season at the end of 2015, he worked persistently with his coach Peter Lucassen, setting the stage for an uplifting 2016 season. Escobedo asserts,"Peter really helped me a lot. I hired him in August of 2015 and without him I wouldn't be having this great success right now. At the end of 2015 we had a great off season in Carson, California for about three weeks. In 2016 I wasn't winning that much early in the year but then I made the finals of Sao Paulo. It was a risk going there because I skipped a Challenger in Florida and it was a long way to travel for just one tournament. I just told Peter, 'Let's go there and see what happens.' Getting to the finals gave me a lot of confidence."

Now he was off and running, and starting to hit his stride. As Escobedo says, "After Sao Paulo I went to Europe for two months and I wasn't feeling that good about being away for so long. I felt somewhat homesick but I picked it up at the start of the grass court season when I made two main draws on the ATP Tour. I won a round in the main draw at Nottingham and lost second round there to Sam Querrey. It was a great three or four weeks on the grass. It was my first time playing on grass and I absolutely loved it. My game is very aggressive. I have a big serve and a big forehand and I take a lot of risks in my game. I just go for it a lot. I had a good feeling on the grass."

Over the summer of 2016, shifting onto the hard courts, beginning to believe in himself more convincingly, Escobedo qualified for Washington and lost a hard fought, three set match to countryman Donald Young in the first round of the main draw. That was a pivotal moment in the mind of this young player. A loss turned essentially into a triumph.

As Escobedo clarifies, "That was one of my turning points. I lost that match to Donald Young in a close third set but I played very well. I was going the next week to the Challenger in Lexington and after I lost to Donald I just told myself, 'If I keep playing this way for sure I am going to win Lexington, without a doubt.' The match with Young had a lot to do with how I felt."

The fact remains that Escobedo was on the brink of defeat in the quarterfinals of Lexington when he faced Lloyd Glasspool in a rugged encounter. Escobedo says, "Glasspool was serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set but I just didn't quit. I broke in a very tight game and somehow won the second set and then I broke in the third set and won the match. After that I had a good feeling about winning the tournament. I won my semifinal and played Frances Tiafoe in the final. It was a big match because I had never won a professional tournament in my life. I had made it to like six finals of Futures and Challengers but lost all of them. I was up a set and a break against Frances, but I didn't close it out and he came back and was playing well. I told myself to just hang in there. I played some of my best tennis to win in a third set tie-breaker."

That was a celebratory and defining moment in Escobedo's career, and he followed up on his Lexington showing with those final round appearances at Challenger tournaments in Cary, North Carolina and Monterrey. In the former, he toppled Tiafoe, winning another riveting skirmish that went to a final set tie-break. In the latter he upended Sam Groth, securing another uplifting victory a final set tie-break. Escobedo displayed in the process his growing propensity to come through in tight contests and handle pressure with extraordinary poise.

Escobedo lauds Lucassen for the way he has improved so much as a match player. Lucassen works for the USTA and these days he coaches not only Escobedo but also Ryan Harrison.

As Escobedo explains, "Peter has been with me and Harrison for the past year. I had hired him in the summer of 2015 and he taught me that tennis is about more than winning and losing. He told me that I would probably lose almost every week so I should try to have more fun on the tennis court. I am doing that now. Before I worked with Peter, I had been close to stopping tennis for a long time because there was so much stress on me to win, win, win. He taught me to enjoy life more."

Asked to shed some light on how Lucassen divides his time between Harrison and himself, Escobedo remarks, "During the grass court season the USTA told Peter that he is going to be in charge of Ryan and me and it has been really good for both of us. Peter is spending more weeks with me and less with Ryan, but Harrison and myself are going to be playing many of the same tournaments. That means maybe here and there I might have to go alone to a tournament but that would be only once every month or two. Both of us practice twice a day, so there are times when Ryan and I just hit twice a day together because it can be easier on Peter. Harrison is somebody I can talk to and learn from. He is 24 and has been through a lot."

Meanwhile, Lucassen has been encouraging Escobedo to expand his game and to display more diversity. As Escobedo puts it, "He is helping me to become more aggressive. I am a one-two puncher, serving big and hitting a big forehand. But I have been trying to come in more to the net because nowadays you have to finish points at the net. I have been doing that lately. I have also improved my backhand, although it does need more work. I am really confident about my game right now."

In turn, Escobedo is finding his bearings in big tournaments, and he acquitted himself well in both the 2016 U.S. Open and 2017 Australian Opens in contrasting ways. He took advantage of his U.S. Open wildcard by defeating Lukas Lacko in New York. "I was down two sets to one and then he started to cramp. He had to retire. So that was a big win for me. I lost to Kyle Edmund in straight sets. I just played one bad service game in every set. I was disappointed because I thought I had a good chance to win that match and get myself into the third round of a Slam."

In Australia this year, Escobedo garnered his spot in the main draw with three wins in the qualifying. "It was really tough conditions," he recalls.

"It was very hot over there and it was my second time playing qualies at a Slam so I was ready to play. I had a great off season to get myself prepared. I was super happy to qualify. Then I beat Daniil Medvedev in the first round. He is a great player with a big serve and a big game. He is super tall and I was surprised how well he moved. I was really impressed with his game. We split the first two sets. At the end of the third in the tie-break, he broke his racket. I was pumped up after that going into the fourth set. I just zoned in during that set and played out of my mind. That set lasted about 25 minutes and I won it 6-1. I didn't miss one ball."

In the second round, Escobedo took the opening set from the guileful David Ferrer but bowed in four sets. He says, "After the first set I felt a little bit nervous. He didn't miss one ball during the last three sets. My service percentage went down a lot in the second, third and fourth sets. I realized I needed to be more patient and take more time on the big points. I would be down 15-30 and I would serve in like ten seconds."

While he was in Melbourne for the Australian Open, Escobedo crossed paths with Roger Federer, who congratulated him on qualifying for the first major of the year. Escobedo had trained with the Swiss late last year. He says, "I went to Dubai at the end of November for two-and-a-half weeks. The USTA set it up. If I was told correctly, Federer's agent [Tony Godsick] contacted the USTA and the USTA picked me to go to Dubai to practice with Federer. I was happy and, of course, I said yes. We would hit for three days, have one day off, and then do three more days. We kept going like that. Most of the days we hit from 9AM to 11AM and then again from 2PM to 4PM. He is such a great guy. He said I need to be quicker on the court. I have got the strokes but he told me to be lighter on my feet. We spoke for five minutes when I saw him in Australia after qualifying and he said, 'Great job. Keep it up.' "

Another major development in Australia was Escobedo's conversation with the tournament director of Acapulco. "I asked the tournament director about the possibility of a wildcard. I know him pretty well because I met him in Monterrey last year during the Challenger. So I talked to him a bit in Australia. After the tournament, he emailed me back to say I had the wildcard. It was big news for me. My parents grew up in Mexico and I watched the tournament in television from the time I was very young. I have always dreamed about playing this tournament in front of my family. It means the world to me."

Escobedo's heritage also matters greatly to him. He points out, "Tennis in the family started with my Grandpa, who was about 40 years old when he picked up the racket in Mexico. My Dad was really curious about tennis and he fell in love with the sport and loved traveling. The fact that tennis in the family started in Mexico is important to me. I was born and have been raised in the States and the USTA has been helping me so much, but Mexico feels like home to me."

Having said that, Escobedo deeply values his place in the American game alongside so many gifted and immensely driven players. How does he compare himself with the likes of Fritz, Tiafoe, Rubin, Donaldson and Kozlov? Escobedo answered before Acapulco, "I think I am up there with them. I totally have the game to be with them. I beat Tiafoe twice and Kozlov twice. I just have to stay patient and not get ahead of myself. Me and Tiafoe are very good friends and I have known him since I was 14 years old. I played Fritz somewhere in Southern California in the 16s. So I have known a lot of these players for a long time. We are all good friends but at the same time there are no friends on the court. Off the court we all get along well."

So where does Ernesto Escobedo go from here? He answers, "I am 113 in the world right now. I would love to finish the year in December in the top 70. To do that, I have to do well in some Tour events. I would love to make the semis of an ATP World Tour event. That is a big goal for me. In the next few months I am going to be playing more ATPs so I believe I have a good chance to reach that goal. I also want to stay injury free for the rest of the year. It is tough out there on the tour but I just want to be happy, take it day by day, try my best every week to get the most out of myself."

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