Cristian Garin, a dark horse to make a run at Roland Garros, knows it's not ideal to live in Santiago, Chile, his hometown in South America. He's a 14-hour flight from Paris, and similar distances from other European cities, where nearly half of the ATP Tour's 63 events will take place this year.
But, as apologetic as he might be about his home, he wouldn't have it any other way. He tried Barcelona and Mallorca, where he trained at the Rafa Nadal Academy, and he briefly lived in Los Angeles, where he worked with Larry Stefanki, the former coach of Garin's countrymen Marcelo Rios, former World No. 1, and former No. 5 Fernando Gonzalez.
But Garin wasn't happy, and his tennis reflected that. Up until last July, the 2013 Roland Garros junior boys champion hadn't been higher than No. 160 in the ATP Rankings.
But in August, Garin partnered with Argentine coach Andres Molteni and began living in South America again – in Argentina until December, when he moved back to Santiago – and his tennis has flourished.
The 22-year-old cracked the Top 100 in October and the Top 40 earlier this month, behind two ATP Tour titles, in Houston and Munich, both on clay. This week, he won his first Grand Slam match at Roland Garros, beating 6'11” American Reilly Opelka 7-6(0), 7-5, 7-6(7).
“I'm not changing again. For me, Chile is my country, it's where I love to live. And I have everything there,” Garin told ATPTour.com.
His parents, Sergio and Anna Medone, live there, along with his 13-year-old brother Sebastian, and his five-year-old Golden Retriever, Sneaky. And it's the place where Garin is most happiest, a problem that, along with the pressure saddled on him after his Roland Garros junior title, has plagued the Chilean.
The moment he won his Grand Slam junior boys title, as a 17-year-old, the comparisons began: Would Garin match the pro careers of two other Chileans who had won Grand Slam junior boys titles: Rios, who won the US Open boys title in 1993 and later reached No. 1, and former No. 5 Fernando Gonzalez, the 1998 Roland Garros junior boys titlist?
Four months earlier, in 2013, Garin had become only the fifth player 16 or younger, since 2000, to win an ATP Tour match, beating Serbian Dusan Lajovic in Vina del Mar, Chile. “It was big pressure,” Garin said.
The teenager became singularly focused on winning and scaling the ATP Rankings.
“When I was young, I was like hoping to go up fast. I wasn't thinking how to get up, I was just playing. I wasn't thinking to build a solid team or to build a [training] base,” Garin said. “I was just playing and playing and playing, not building something – I was just thinking, 'Win', and I think that was a mistake.”
He changed coaches and moved to Spain when he was 18, the first time he had lived away from Santiago. It seemed like a good move: He was closer to Futures and ATP Challenger Tour tournaments, and he'd be able to get home quicker. He could lose on a Wednesday and be home by Thursday.
“That was also a big change, and I was so young,” Garin said.
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He never felt settled in Europe, and by 2018, he was training in Los Angeles with Stefanki, who had also helped former World No. 1 Andy Roddick in the latter half of his career.
Garin, though, kept his eye on South American tennis and was seeing Argentine Juan Ignacio Londero reach career-high after career-high in the ATP Rankings. Londero was ranked in the No. 360s when he started working with Molteni to start 2017, but seven months later, by July, Londero was approaching the Top 100.
Garin started working with Molteni, whom he had known for years, two weeks before the 2018 US Open, and the veteran coach remembers Garin feeling lost.
He didn't have a place where he regularly trained when he wasn't playing in tournaments, he didn't have a physical trainer, and he wasn't enjoying tennis, Molteni told ATPTour.com.
“He was alone,” Molteni said.
Garin had watched Croatian Borna Coric and Zverev, both players he dismissed during the 2013 Roland Garros junior boys championships, beat the likes of Roger Federer and win ATP Tour titles.
Garin, meanwhile, was still hovering above No. 150 and felt burdened with doubts. “I don't know if I'm good enough, I don't know if I can be good,” Molteni said Garin thought.
“He expects so much, and was thinking, 'No, no, no, I'm not good enough. I can't do it.'”
Molteni took their relationship decision by decision. They hired a physical trainer to travel with them some weeks of the year, and most importantly, Molteni focused on getting Garin to enjoy tennis again.
“What I tell him all the time is he must try to compete. He must try to do his game and try to be full on the court... because I think his problem before was so much pressure for him and against him, that everybody expects so much of him,” Molteni said. “I think he cannot control so much that pressure, and he was in the court, expecting to do everything perfect.
“For me, it is more important if you try to find your way, compete, be focused all the match. Try to win, try to do your game. It doesn't matter if you win or not, you have to try to be competitive in that day.”
Garin won three consecutive ATP Challenger Tour titles to end his 2018, and this year, his first season of playing ATP Tour events, he's already won two titles and gained two Top 20 wins, including a three-set win against then-No. 3 Zverev in Munich.
Under pressure, Garin has performed his best, going 8-1 in deciding sets, according to his FedEx ATP Win/Loss Record.
“I'm having more fun now, and I think that is the biggest difference,” Garin said. “I'm enjoying my game and having fun on the court, and I think, for me, that's the most important thing.”
Molteni keeps life off the court fun as well. The two play the card game UNO and battle each other in the app, Clash Royale.
“We play a lot... it's too good,” Molteni said of the game, bringing it up on his phone.
Garin hesitates to call all of his past moves “mistakes,” calling them “decisions”, not good or bad, just part of his maturation process on the ATP Tour.
He prefers to focus on his 2019. Garin will next face 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka. The upset would push Garin further up the ATP Rankings and cause a stir in Paris. But Molteni won't be discussing those details.
“I try to always tell him, he doesn't have to do it well here,” Molteni said. “We don't have to beat Wawrinka. We have to compete, and then we'll see. I think I trust him that if he competes good, we have a chance.”
If not, Garin will head back to Santiago, hug his parents and welcome Sneaky back into his home.
“That for me is the best thing,” Garin said. “I try to give my 100 per cent in every tournament I play, and if I win or lose, I'm going back home. So that's a really good thing for me.
“It's far away but it's where I love to be.”