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Santiago Giraldo & Co.

DEUCE Extra - Australian Open 2012

Giraldo© Getty Images / All Other Photos: Robert FarahSantiago Giraldo is one of two Colombians in the Top 100 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings. In February 2011, he reached his first ATP World Tour final.

Santiago Giraldo is among a small group of friendly globetrotters from Colombia, who are making an impact on the ATP World Tour.

Once upon a time there was a boy who lived high up in the Andes Mountains who learned to play tennis in a valley famed for growing coffee. Like most children, who play tennis seriously, he dreamed that one day he would become a professional player. His story alone is worthwhile, but when you ask him about how he made it, he instead talks about that of his teammates, Alejandro Falla, Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah. His tale, becomes 'their' story. It is true that in his own way, each of these young men has helped the others to climb higher up the tennis ladder. This is the story of Santiago Giraldo and Team Colombia.

He always seemed to come up with some ridiculous shot on a big point

For most people, the name Colombia brings up images of danger, drugs and violence. Today, Colombians would like for the world to know that those dark days are over. Blessed with the Andes Mountains, Amazon River and Caribbean islands, Colombia is a fertile land full of strong national pride that is made even stronger because of the tough times they have had to endure. Here in Colombia men and women wear sombreros, blue jeans, cowboy boots and drive 4x4 Jeeps. They might eat a typical breakfast known as bandeja montanero, a type of mountain meat platter that consists of grilled steak, minced meat, fried pork, sausage, rice and beans with a fried egg on top and a corn tortilla. And don't be surprised if you see the men wash it all down with a few slugs of aguardiente, or fire-water drunk straight as a shot, like the Mexicans drink tequila.

Giraldo, Farah, Cabal, Falla pose for a photo during a Davis Cup weekend.Tennis-rich nations like Argentina, France and Spain may not think that having two players placed in the Top 100 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings and two more in the Top 70 of the ATP Doubles Rankings is something special. For those nations the trail to the ATP World Tour has been blazed so often that just about every club in Buenos Aires, Paris and Barcelona has had multiple junior tennis players become professionals. It isn't the case in Colombia.

It all started for Giraldo when he was only five years old. He played his first tennis tournament in the southern city of Cali. The boy who he would share a room with all those years ago, would become one of his best friends today.

"I have known him since he was five years old," says Farah. "He came to Cali to play a tournament and actually got housing at my home. Falla, Cabal and I are all from Cali, but he is from Pereira. I remember Santi [Giraldo] all through the juniors as he was not so big, but he was very tough mentally. He always seemed to come up with some ridiculous shot on a big point that would change the momentum to his favour. He always believed he could make it on the tour."

On the tennis tour we often run around like chickens with our heads cut off

As Giraldo, Cabal and Farah toured the junior circuit together news of Falla's tennis results would trickle in to the boys. You see, Falla was four years older and already making his mark on the ATP World Tour. Falla had become the proverbial big brother, a mentor for the Colombians. The boys were too young and naïve back then to know how great the odds were against any of them ever making it to the ATP World Tour's mythical 'Top 100 club'. 

"Falla was older than us," says Farah, "and we looked up to him as he was the star when we were little. We wanted to be like him. He was our hero."

Within a few years, the trio would each get their chance to be heroes too. While Falla was about to provide a little extra inspiration.

Falla congratulates Federer after their match at the All England Club on 21 June 2010.It would be broadcast on live television nationwide and all of Colombia would be tuned in for a first round match at Wimbledon in June 2010. Roger Federer and Falla both entered Centre Court, the sport's cathedral, dressed in traditional white shirts and shorts. Federer sporting his classic bandana and walking as if the All England Club had been built especially for him, while Falla followed like a cowboy born in the saddle - bow-legged, packing heat and sporting the mother of all five o’clock shadows. What was supposed to be a routine straight sets win for Federer, turned into an old fashion showdown with Falla taking the first two sets. Even NBC commentator Dick Enberg was stunned and could only manage to say, "oh my" over and over. Eventually, Federer triumphed in five dramatic sets - 5-7, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(1), 6-0 in three hours and 18 minutes - but not before Falla had sent a message to the tennis speaking world that Colombia was a force to reckon with.

"Having Santi, Sebas [Cabal] and Robert as my teammates has helped my tennis because of the motivation they have given me for many years," Falla told DEUCE. "On the tennis tour we often run around like chickens with our heads cut off, so it is very comforting to have such good friends to have dinner, practice with and party together. We are more like brothers than teammates."

Within three months, Colombia would get another opportunity to shock the tennis world in a 2010 Davis Cup World Group play-off tie in Bogota between 17-19 September. Giraldo lead the host nation against the United States, the 32-time champion. For the Americans, it was a must-win tie, a loss would relegate them to the Americas Zone. For Colombia, it was their first play-off tie, a stepping stone into the elite 16-nations for the following year.

Santi has a natural weapon that he can winners from both sides and from unlikely positions

On the night before the first day of singles rubbers, the door to the hosts team suite at the Crowne Plaza Tequendama Hotel is open. One by one team members file into the room. One would expect the team to be a bit on edge, but they are not the least bit nervous. Chairs and cushions are brought into a circle and the players, coaches and trainers huddle around the coffee table. Mobile phones are silenced, as Falla shuffles a deck of cards and begins to deal. Welcome to Colombia's Davis Cup team tradition of boys' night out.

Colombia Davis Cup team playing cards"It started about five years ago," says former captain Felipe Beron. "We found that it brings everyone together and relaxes them before bed." They never play for money, only bragging rights. "We meet every night that we are together for the Davis Cup," says Giraldo. "We have not missed a night since the tradition began years ago."

Giraldo defeated the much higher-ranked Sam Querrey 6-2, 6-4, 7-5 on the first day with his best stroke, the return of serve, and a barrage of compact ground strokes punctuated by sharp, staccato burst of high altitude air catapulting out of his lungs. Colombia would lose that all important tie versus the United States, when Mardy Fish ousted Giraldo 8-6 in the fifth set on the final day. However, Colombia displayed the type of fight and tenacity that South American hero Simon Bolivar would have been proud of. It left the team brimming with confidence.

Bolstered by Falla's close encounter with Federer at Wimbledon and the spirited 'Battle of Bogota', each player stepped it up a level. Giraldo led the way in February 2011, when he marched through the draw to his first ATP World Tour singles final in Santiago, where he lost to Tommy Robredo.

Falla confirms Giraldo's belief, by telling DEUCE, "He is the kind of person that wanted to be the best at anything he would do. He has the mentality to be successful. In tennis, he has always trusted himself in a way I haven't seen before. He wants to be a very good tennis player no matter what."

We have an amazing group of guys

Colombia's Davis Cup captain Marcos Gorriz says, "Santi has a natural weapon that he can winners from both sides and from unlikely positions. For him the most natural way is hitting. Though he is quick, movement is not his natural talent. Where he is talented is that he finds ways to win matches."

Farah, Cabal at the All England Club in June 2011.When Colombia's first chance at winning a Grand Slam championship title in more than 40 years came, it was not from Giraldo or Falla. Rather from an unlikely source, Cabal, who was playing in his first ever tour-level match at Roland Garros in May 2011. Cabal teamed up with Eduardo Schwank and five matches later found themselves in the final where they lost to Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor. Then, just a few weeks later, unseeded Farah and Cabal took down the four seeds Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi and Rohan Bopanna 21-19 in the final set at Wimbledon.

Perhaps, some of Colombia's recent tennis success can be attributed to Robert Cocheteaux, the director of a national medical care company, Colsanitas, who founded Team Colsanitas in the early 1990s to provide tennis players with everything they needed to realise their dreams. "The program was founded 18 years ago," recalls Cocheteaux. "Over the years we have had some great moments from our men, women and junior players. Overall, as a team, each player has benefitted from one another."

In a twist of fate, two of the world's most respected tennis coaches, Patricio Alvarez and Ivan Molina left Colombia a long time ago and became extremely successful when working for other organisations. Alvarez went to Spain and became responsible for revolutionising Spanish tennis in the late 1980s and 1990s when he served as the national coach for 16 years. He also molding Andy Murray's game, during the Scot's stint in Barcelona as a teenager. For nearly two decades, Molina has been occupied in nurturing some of the sport's junior talent as head coach for the ITF's Junior Development team.

Giraldo, GorritzBut the head coach of Team Colsanitas/Colombia is Gorriz, a hard-working Spaniard who says little but notices every detail of stroke, drill and match play. While Alvarez has become a Spanish national, Gorritz has become a naturalised citizen of Colombia. 

"We have an amazing group of guys," says Gorriz. "Yes, this is an individual sport, but it is good to have good friends and a team environment it helps a lot that they have a group. When Robert Farah went to study in college at USC everybody thought his career as a professional tennis player was over. But he had other plans and with real determination he succeeded in college tennis and is now Top 70 in doubles, a gold medallist in singles and doubles at the recent Pan-American Games and continues to play singles as well. And Cabal, who showed unbelievable confidence at Roland Garros to make the doubles final. The Colsanitas team from Colombia is something special in tennis."

It is very nice to travel and share this part of my tennis career

The spirit amongst this generation of Colombian players was encapsulated by the fact that at the end of the 2011 ATP World Tour season, they boarded a long-haul flight bound for Hawaii. Photos from the trip show the boys dressed in cowboy hats and swimsuits, drinking beer and playing paddle tennis in the day time and candle light dinners with their lady friends in tikki huts at night. This is not part of their pre-season training camp, but rather a holiday among friends.

"Having Santi, Cabal and Robert as team mates is really good," says Falla. "Because we feel like brothers, more than friends. I feel lucky being surrounded by such good guys."

Beach holidayGiraldo confirms, "It is very nice to travel and share this part of my tennis career with a great part of friends from my childhood, and people who have known me all of my life. They have all of my confidence. We are a few Colombians that play professionally, but we are certainly as close as you can get, and we treasure these moments and feel blessed."

What Cabal, Falla, Farah and Giraldo are proving is that in a sport where winning and losing is a fact of life, their friendships will remain as strong as they ever has been. For Colombian tennis, this can only be a positive. 

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