By John Delong
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (July 10, 2017) – Ernesto Escobedo may just be the best young American tennis player that nobody knows much about.
The Los Angeles native didn’t have a noteworthy junior career, mostly because he didn’t have the finances to travel to the big junior tournaments. He never attended any tennis academies, learning the game instead from his father on public courts. Until recently, he had never received any of the hype that has followed other promising young American players like Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Jared Donaldson and others.
Yet Escobedo finds himself squarely in the Top 100 and on the rise, coming in at No. 74 in the latest ATP World Tour rankings.
He has won two Challenger titles in the past 12 months and made his first big splash on the ATP World Tour in April by reaching the semifinals at Houston. Included in that march was a win over two-time Winston-Salem Open champion John Isner in the quarterfinals.
He also made it through qualifying at the Australian Open and won his first-round match before falling in the second round.
It’s been a whirlwind rise after Escobedo was ranked as low as No. 335 in April of 2016. He started 2017 ranked No. 141.
“I wasn’t winning a lot of matches my first two years on tour, so to have the results come this quickly is a little surprising,” said Escobedo, who is affectionately called “Neto” by friends and family. “But at the same time, I don’t want to say it surpassed my expectations. This is what I’ve been working for. Now that I’m winning matches, I’m really feeling I belong.”
Escobedo, who turned 21 on July 4, is currently eighth in the Race to Milan standings as he tries to make the eight-man field at the #NextGen ATP Finals in November.
He quickly admits he highly is motivated to make it to Milan. In fact, he told the New York Times recently that he often looks at the #NextGen ATP Finals Twitter account that includes a group shot of several other young Americans, but not him.
“I see the photo every day,” Escobedo said. “It’s everywhere. They’re great players, and I think I deserve to be there, too. But I’d rather people be like, ‘Where the hell did this guy come from?’”
Brad Gilbert, who will be returning to the Winston-Salem Open again this year as part of ESPN’s coverage, has been following Escobedo’s career closely. Gilbert likes the fact that Escobedo has worked his way up the rankings without a lot of fanfare.
“He’s kinda flown under the radar, in the shadows of Tiafoe and (Stefan) Kozlov and Reilly and some of the other Americans,” Gilbert said. “But he has quietly put up some results and has got into the Top 100, and you know, that’s pretty impressive. He’s a big hitter. He hits the ball big. Heavy power. And he has got some good pop on his serve for a guy that’s not that big. He’s a nice kid, so I hope he can continue to move up.”
Escobedo admits he has always been the underdog. He played his first local tournament at age eight after being inspired by Andy Roddick’s win in the 2003 US Open. He lost in the first round, but loved the competition and was hungry to start improving.
Never during his junior career did he project to be anything near a Top 100 player.
“In those years, so many people said I’m not going to make it,” Escobar recalled. “I’m too slow. I’m too big. ‘He’s not that good. He doesn’t even have a coach, his coach is his dad.’ Things like that.”
He did eventually blossom, and in 2014 was set to attend the University of Southern California on a tennis scholarship. But then came the opportunity to turn professional, and he eventually decided to go for it.
The start of his rise came when he won the Lexington Challenger last year, beating Tiafoe in the finals. He also won a Challenger in Monterrey – a hugely gratifying win for him because of his Mexican heritage – and he made the finals of Challengers in Maui and Cary.
His first match win at the ATP level came in June of 2016 over Diego Schwartzman in Nottingham. Then came his first win in a Grand Slam as he beat Lukas Lacko in the first round at last year’s US Open.
To open 2017, he qualified for the Australian Open and won his first-round match over fellow #NextGen player Danill Medvedev. He climbed into the Top 100 for the first time by qualifying and making the second round at Miami in March, and then continued to move up with his performance in Houston.
Escobedo knows that he’s still got a lot of improvement ahead of him, and it will be interesting to see how much higher up the rankings ladder he can get this year now that he’s playing ATP-level events virtually every week.
Making it to the #NextGen ATP Finals, he said, is one of his top remaining goals for the rest of the year.
“It’s a great event,” Escobedo said. “I hear about it so much during the tournaments. It’s great for us because I feel like it is important to have a young rising star come up, and it makes it much more exciting. And then you see all your friends there that are your age doing well. All of us are pushing each other to do better and better. It’s good for the sport.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Winston-Salem Open has showcased great up-and- coming players throughout its history from Kei Nishikori to Grigor Dimitrov to Jack Sock to David Goffin. The trend is sure to continue this year with a large group of #NextGen players jockeying for position in the ATP World Tour’s Race to Milan. This is the fourth in a series featuring #NextGen players who could be on hand for the seventh-annual WSO Aug. 19-26.