Wednesday, October 12, 2016

For Colombia's Giraldo, it's all about having a ball

No. 2 seed Santiago Giraldo, formerly ranked in
the top 30, displays the smiley-face ball he looked
at during changeovers on Tuesday to "remember
how lucky I am." Photo by Paul Bauman
   FAIRFIELD, Calif. -- Before his match on Tuesday, veteran Santiago Giraldo did something for the first time in his -- and perhaps anyone's -- career.
   The 28-year-old Colombian took a tennis ball out of his racket bag and placed it on the chair next to his. Not just any tennis ball. A ball with a smiley face that his new physiotherapist, David Juan, had drawn on it with a black marker.
   "This is my way to remember how lucky I am ... in everything in my life," the second-seeded Giraldo said after beating 18-year-old American prospect Michael Mmoh 6-3, 7-5 in the first round of the $100,000 Fairfield Challenger at Solano Community College. "I'm healthy, and I play a sport that I like since I was a kid. I did my dream to play at the highest level, and I'm still doing my dream. When I'm angry, I look at that ball, and it helps me a lot."
   Juan, a 24-year-old Spaniard, laughed when asked why he gave Giraldo the ball.
   "We were asking about happiness," said Juan, whose English is limited.
   Juan scoffed at the notion that Giraldo is unhappy, but these are tough times for him on and off the court. Giraldo has tumbled from a career-high No. 28 in the world to No. 124, and Colombia is in turmoil. On Oct. 2, voters narrowly rejected a peace deal with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels that could prolong a 52-year war. The conflict has killed 220,000 people and displaced 7 million of the country's 47 million inhabitants from their homes.
   Briefly in the second set against the promising Mmoh, Giraldo wasn't just angry. He was irate. Giraldo fell behind 5-2 (two service breaks) and at one stage screamed at the top of his lungs in frustration. He virtually conceded the second break point, belting his second serve as hard as his first and double-faulting.
   "Yeah, I lost control a little bit," Giraldo admitted of his emotions on the second serve. "With my experience, I'm not very proud of this, but it can happen."
   Giraldo, though, quickly regained his composure during the changeover with the help of his customized tennis ball and won five straight games to close out the match.
   "I just tried to relax and say, 'OK, the worst thing that can happen is I lose the match," Giraldo said. "In the end, it's not important. Then I calmed down and started to play better."
   Meanwhile, all three singles players with NorCal ties lost.
   No. 6 seed Dennis Novikov of Milipitas in the San Francisco Bay Area fell to 19-year-old Tommy Paul of Boca Raton, Fla., 7-6 (6), 6-3.
Giraldo beat 18-year-old U.S. prospect Michael
Mmoh 6-3, 7-5 after trailing 5-2 (two service
breaks) in the second set. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Mackenzie McDonald, a 21-year-old native of Piedmont in the Bay Area, succumbed to Brian Baker of Nashville, Tenn. 6-3, 6-4. Baker, 31, has undergone 11 operations (both hips, right elbow, back, sports hernia and four repairs of his right knee).
   Wild card Tom Fawcett, a 6-foot-5 (1.96-meter) Stanford junior, bowed out with a 6-4, 6-1 loss to qualifier Cameron Norrie of Great Britain. Norrie, a Texas Christian junior left-hander, reached the final of the Aptos (Calif.) Challenger as a qualifier in August.
   Also losing were fourth-seeded Darian King of Barbados and 20-year-old American Noah Rubin, the runner-up in last week's $100,000 Stockton (Calif.) Challenger.
   King, who won the $100,000 Tiburon (Calif.) Challenger two weeks ago, fell to Belgian left-hander Ruben Bemelmans 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (4) in 2 hours, 44 minutes. King served at 4-3, 40-0 in the third set.
   "I never put my head down," said Bemelmans, who lost to Andy Murray of Great Britain in host Belgium's 3-1 loss in the Davis Cup final last November. "I was fighting until the end, and that made the difference."
   Top-seeded Frances Tiafoe, an 18-year-old American who won the Stockton title to crack the top 100 in the world, beat Slovenia's Blaz Rola, the 2013 NCAA singles champion from Ohio State, in the first round for the second consecutive week, 7-6 (6), 6-3.
   Longtime Northern California fans might remember Giraldo. He won the $50,000 Sacramento Challenger in 2009 at the Natomas Racquet Club, propelling him to the elite ATP World Tour.
   Giraldo has ended each of the past six years in the top 70, but that streak is in jeopardy. He dropped from No. 32 at the end of 2014 to No. 70 last December.
   Giraldo reached his career-high ranking "not that long ago -- September of 2014, about two years. I was in the top 50 (almost) all year in 2015 and started this year in the top (70).
   "I finished last year so tired after a lot of years." explained Giraldo, who's slim at 6-foot-2 (1.88 meters) and 166 pounds (75 kilograms) and will turn 29 on Nov. 27. "My head was not there. My game is always there, and my conditioning is always there, but if your head is not there, you cannot compete because it's a very tough sport. You have to play from January to November. Sometimes you get tired. I guess that's happened to me, but now I have the opportunity to go back to the top 100. I'm still young, and I have experience. We'll see what happens, but I'm (optimistic)."
Ruben Bemelmans, who played singles for Belgium in the
Davis Cup final last November, upset No. 4 seed Darian King
of Barbados. King won the $100,000 Tiburon Challenger two
weeks ago. Photo by Paul Bauman
   A top-100 ranking ensures direct entry into Grand Slam and ATP tournaments.
   Entering the match against Mmoh, the runner-up in Tiburon and a semifinalist in Stockton, Giraldo was coming off a 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 loss to 6-foot-4 (1.93-meter) Marcelo Arevalo of El Salvador in the first round at Stockton. The previous week, Giraldo had reached the quarterfinals of the $50,000 Claro Open on clay in Medellin, Colombia.
   "For me, it's important this last part of the year," Giraldo said. "It's been a very tough year for me. I'm trying to finish in the top 100. I started the last (six) years in the top 100 or the 50s, and I don't want to start (lower). I'm pushing myself a little more.
   "Last week was a little unlucky because I just arrived two days before to play (on hardcourts) again, so I was not prepared. It was kind of a mistake to rush, but now I have 10 days or something like that to practice, so I'm feeling good. Now I can fight for the finals, for the championship of the tournament."
   Against Mmoh, Giraldo looked at the ball with the smiley face during every changeover.
   "I think I'll keep it forever to remind myself how lucky I am and not complain about stupid stuff," he said.
   Here are the singles and doubles draws and today's schedule.

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