On Sunday, a number of tennis fans who tuned in to the Viña del Mar final without having followed the rest of the tournament were probably curious what a tall, lanky Argentine was doing standing crosscourt from Fabio Fognini. Two hours later, despite a 6-4, 6-2 loss to the top-seeded Italian, everyone watching had a much clearer idea.
Leonardo Mayer is one of a group of promising Argentine players that began to emerge in the past half-decade to replace fellow countrymen David Nalbandian, Gaston Gaudio, and Juan Ignacio Chela near the top of the ATP rankings. However, until the tournament in Chile last week, the all-court specialist seemed to have slowly faded from memory, surpassed since his emergence in 2009 by his compatriots.
Of those, Horacio Zeballos has made the biggest splash on the tour, winning the 2013 Viña del Mar in spectacular fashion against Rafael Nadal. In doing so, he became only the third man to defeat the Spaniard on his surface of choice after Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Carlos Berlocq, Eduardo Schwank, and Juan Mónaco have been vital parts of Argentina’s Davis Cup teams for years, while Mayer has been only a sporadic presence for his country. In fact, most people who have recognized his surname have quickly had to be redirected to another, realizing they were thinking of German No. 3 Florian Mayer.
But, all of that isn’t meant to discredit the athletic and agile 26 year old. It’s just that the tennis world hasn’t seen the best of him until now. And I’m convinced that 2014 might finally be the year Mayer actually makes the jump from contender to victor.
The son of a banker and teacher, Mayer picked up his first tennis racket at the age of nine. Although he has called soccer his first love and Diego Maradona his greatest idol, he stuck with tennis and went on to a highly-accomplished junior career, reaching the quarterfinals of the 2005 US Open, where he lost to eventual winner Ryan Sweeting, and winning the 2005 French Open doubles with Emiliano Massa. He reached as high as No. 2 in the ITF rankings before turning professional.
Mayer quickly rose from the Futures circuit to the Challenger tour, making three quarterfinals in addition to a final in Puebla, Mexico in 2006. The following year he would win his first two singles titles: one in Cuenca against Thomaz Bellucci, and another against Dawid Olejniczak in Puebla, reaching No. 189 in the world rankings.
From 2008-2010, Mayer would really start to emerge as one of the most promising players in South America, collecting singles and doubles titles on the Challenger tour and making his first ATP-level appearance at the Austrian Open in 2008. In 2009, he reached the second round of the US Open, French Open, and Wimbledon. By the end of 2010, he was No. 51 in the world and had reached his first ATP semifinal at the Nice Open, where he lost to Fernando Verdasco, advanced one round further at the French Open, where he lost to Marin Čilić, and was a member of the Argentina Davis Cup team.
Then it seems stagnation hit. Despite reaching the third round at Roland Garros again in 2011 and 2012, most of Mayer’s success came on the Challenger tour, winning five more titles by the end of that year. Though he remained in the Top 100 and won his first ATP doubles title with Pablo Andujar at Winston-Salem, he could not manage more than two quarterfinal appearances at São Paulo and Los Angeles on the ATP tour, and a third-round showing at the US Open in 2012 to accompany first-round eliminations in Australia and Wimbledon.
2013 brought much of the same, though Mayer received greater attention when he took a set off defending champion Andy Murray in the second round of the US Open. He finished off the year by winning a Challenger title against Pedro Sousa in Guayaquil.
And now to the past two months, arguably Mayer’s best start to the year at the top level.
At the Aussie Open, Mayer defeated then world No. 60 Albert Montañés in straight sets before he was ousted in convincing fashion by Novak Djokovic. The potential was there, however, with his forehand looking strong and his long, swift backhand looking particularly effective.
The tournament in Chile last week was considerably more impressive, as Mayer, ranked No. 91 at the time, defeated opponents of higher ranks in all but the Round of 32. His most noteworthy victory was against Tommy Robredo, who he came from one set down to beat 3-6, 7-6(8), 6-4 in the Round of 16.
Fognini exposed his inconsistent return game in the final, though Mayer did save a match point with a stunning crosscourt forehand (video above) before going down in straight sets, 2-6, 4-6.
Mayer, however, has a chance for redemption today in Buenos Aires.
The 26-year-old defeated compatriot Facundo Arguello 6-3, 6-4 in the first round of the Copa Claro yesterday, thus securing a rematch against Fognini to be played at 6:00 P.M. EST.
Although the Italian has only lost once in his last 21 matches on clay, it wouldn’t be an absolute gaffe to put some money on Mayer adding a second loss to that impressive tally.
Below is a video of Mayer’s loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the 2012 US Open that highlights some of his greatest assets: a willingness to come to net, good volleys, and a variety of angled shots on the forehand and backhand to stretch his opponent.
Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): Carine06