May 2, 2021

The Unlikely Leader

If I'd asked you at the start the year who, a month away from the start of the French Open, you thought would be the winningest player on dirt, chances are 33-year-old Albert Ramos-Viñolas wouldn't have featured high on your list.

Ranked barely in the top fifty at the beginning of the season -- barely cracking the top forty over the last three years -- the veteran Spaniard has long been vastly overshadowed by his much more decorated compatriots, scoring a few big wins here and there, but never really having the breakthrough of his contemporaries.

Perhaps that is about to change.

Ramos kicked off his clay campaign in Córdoba this year, where he stunned top seeded Diego Schwartzman and three other Argentines on their home turf before ultimately falling to young, history-making Juan Manuel Cerundolo in the final. A week later he reached the semis in Buenos Aires, losing this time to the elder Cernudolo, Francisco, in another three set nail-biter.

He got right back to work after the Golden Swing ended, going the distance in all three of his matches on his way to the Marbella semis and forcing Andrey Rublev, fresh off a monster win over Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo, to sweat it out in Barcelona. All that work gave him a season-leading eleven clay court wins going into this week's action, better than Rafa with seven and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who broke into a new level with his win at the Rolex Masters and then barely lost to Rafa in the Barcelona final -- he has nine.

Sure, Ramos's victories may have come at smaller events, but that doesn't negate their value. And he even widened the gap this week. Seeded seventh in Estoril, he finally had the benefit of some drama-free wins, dispatching his first four opponents, including former world #7 Fernando Verdasco and rising star Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, in straight sets.

In Sunday's final against Britain's Cameron Norrie, he was finally tested, dropping the first set and getting down another break before turning things around. The more experienced Ramos was able to break back in a marathon game early in the second set and after nearly three hours on court finally secured the win -- now his sixteenth clay court victory this year.

It was, I was surprised to learn, only Ramos's third career title -- given how long he's been on tour, it seemed like he should have been picking up a couple more over the years. But with by far more wins than anyone on clay this season, and a few weeks stil to go for this stretch, I imagine he'll get the opportunity to try for a few more.

Will that make him a factor when the stakes really get raised at Roland Garros? Well, it is the only Major where he's gotten past the third round -- he made the quarters there in 2016 with wins over Milos Raonic and a then-#25 Jack Sock. And he might be able to work his way up to a seed by the time the even kicks off at the end of the month, which could give him a bit of an edge.

Of course, so much can still happen between now and the French. But if nothing else, Ramos has certainly shown he's one to pay attention to, and that even the favorites may have to look out if he's in their way.

No comments: