On The Rise... Horacio Zeballos
by James Buddell|
Don't label Argentina's fast-rising new star Horacio Zeballos a clay-court specialist. Following in the footsteps of US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, Zeballos is among a new breed of Argentine players comfortable on all surfaces. In 2009 he reached his maiden ATP World Tour final at the St. Petersburg Open and rose 164 spots in the South African Airways ATP Rankings to finish the year in the Top 50.
Raised in a tennis environment beside the golden beaches of Mar del Plata that kiss the Atlantic Ocean, around 400 kilometres south-east of Buenos Aires, Horacio Zeballos had no choice but to pursue a sporting career. His father, Horacio Sr., had been raised and practised at the same club as Guillermo Vilas, Argentina's most famous player.
Nationally ranked, Horacio Sr. contested tournaments throughout Argentina but was unable to travel further afield due to circumstance. Years later and fuelled on tales of Vilas, who won a Grand Prix title in his hometown in 1981, father taught son from experience what it meant to be an aspiring professional player.
"Travelling alone didn't work out. I didn't have a game plan or a fixed schedule"
"Tennis was always my motivation," admitted Zeballos, who began lessons with his father at the age of six at the Edison Lawn Tennis Club in Mar del Plata – approximately 15 minutes from the family home. "I started at a young age, but I also played football and swam with my friends."
He attended the same school where his mother, Carolina, taught geography. "But that didn't put me under any additional pressure to do well in school," he confessed. "I was a normal student. My mum never had a problem with me focusing more in tennis. She wanted me to play."
Identified as a gifted junior with potential, he was encouraged to play with older players. Zeballos was also coached on a variety of surfaces, which ultimately benefited his development and he now considers himself as an aggressive all-court player.
"The more I played tennis, the more I liked it," he smiled. "My parents supported me and helped me with my tennis decisions, so by the age of 17 or 18 I took the sport seriously and began to travel with my dad.
"When I was 20, I had been playing [ITF] Futures for a year but I hadn't done so well. I then reached a semi-final in Chile and a final in Argentina against players ranked 300 in the world. For the first time, it gave me the confidence that I could make it."
In 2007 Zeballos represented Argentina at the Pan American Games and won a doubles gold medal with long-time friend Eduardo Schwank, but his singles form on the ATP Challenger Tour was erratic and his ranking continued to fluctuate throughout the year.
Circumstances came to a head in the summer of 2008, when he was unable to pay for a coach and he began questioning whether he could make it as a professional. "Travelling alone didn't work out," he admitted. "I didn't have a game plan or a fixed schedule.
"I felt really lonely until I met Sergio Roitman and Alejandro Lombardo, my current coach. Sergio opened the doors, so I could work with his group and he gave me good advice. I then organised myself on and off the court and that gave me confidence."
Lombardo, who worked with Roitman and Gaston Gaudio, came on board in October 2008. "He [Zeballos] was No. 340 when we started and after six months he was No. 150. He started to trust his tennis, he began to feel he could play the big tournaments and that is when his training and mental approach improved."
"I realised that if such an important coach wanted to work with me, then I could train and play better"
Zeballos re-dedicated himself to the sport during the 2008 off-season, training "100 per cent in every practice. He [Lombardo] gave me all his trust and motivation. I realised that if such an important coach wanted to work with me, then I could train and play better."
With a schedule, a diet, a physical exercise plan and lengthy practice sessions, Zeballos took the 2009 ATP Challenger Tour by storm, compiling an outstanding 48-14 match record with a season-best five titles in eight finals to break into the Top 50 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings.
He also qualified for his first Grand Slam championship, the US Open, and advanced to his first ATP World Tour final at the St. Petersburg Open [on hard court] in October, when he held a match point in the third-set tie-break against Sergiy Stakhovsky. It has been a dramatic rise, when you consider he has played just 10 tour-level matches.
There was a touch of irony in Zeballos' ATP World Tour debut last year. Hailing from a country renowned – at least historically – for producing clay-court players, the Buenos Aires resident's first tournament was on grass at the Campbell's Hall of Fame Tennis Championships, at Newport, Rhode Island, in July. "I was playing well, with confidence, but I didn't know if I would be able to handle it. I lost a really tight match [6-4, 6-7(4), 6-2] to World No. 40 Philipp Petzschner and afterwards I said to myself, If I lost 6-2 in the third set and he is here, why not me? At that moment I made a big step to get to where I am now."
Zeballos, who favours hard courts, is the No. 3 Argentine behind Juan Martin del Potro and Juan Monaco. Lombardo firmly believes that as the generation of Guillermo Coria, Juan Ignacio Chela, Mariano Zabaleta and Gaudio retires, the days of players from Argentina being classified as clay-court specialists will come to an end.
As an aggressive left-hander, Zeballos possesses a powerful serve and a stellar one-handed backhand slice that helps him attack the net. Unlike many South American players, he likes to finish points at the net, benefitting from quick hands and very good volleys. Calm, poised and disciplined, he doesn't lose his temper.
"Horacio's development has been a recent phenomenon," said Lombardo. "He is different, because he likes to play indoors or on hard courts rather than just on clay courts like so many Argentines in the past.
"He likes to attack and head to the net, so it is easier when it comes to decide on what tournaments he can play. He doesn't just play on clay. He's part of a new generation of Argentineans, who are comfortable on a lot of surfaces."
Zeballos is keeping his feet firmly on the ground, solely determined to maintain and improve his Top 50 ranking. In preparation for the new season, Lombardo and Zeballos have trained together for six or seven hours a day.
"He's part of a new generation of Argentineans, who are comfortable on a lot of surfaces"
"He obviously made a big jump in 2009, but now he needs a bit of time to truly feel he can play any match against the top players," said Lombardo. "He knows that he has to work just as hard as last year."
With the goal of selection in a Davis Cup first-round tie against Sweden in Stockholm two months away, Zeballos admits: "It would be incredible, my biggest dream to play for Argentina in Davis Cup, but I need to get stronger at this level."
As someone who played on the ATP Challenger Tour for more than three years, Zeballos has identified "perseverance, consistency and professionalism" that separates the lower tier from the ATP World Tour elite.
"ATP players always try to make things perfect because every player is so good. You have to get to small details that make the difference, and that's professionalism. Each detail on court that my coach can see, I'll have to work on."
Stronger all-round, Zeballos has absorbed Lombardo's philosophy over the past 15 months. He has grown in confidence in practice and should it translate in his matches this year, the 24 year old might well receive a call from Tito Vazquez, Argentina's captain, with an offer he cannot refuse. For someone who considered quitting the sport, it would be a remarkable transformation.
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