Victor Estrella Burgos, Tennis’ Cinderella Man, Hangs Up His Racquet

Victor Estrella Burgos

Victor Estrella Burgos shares more than a passing similarity with James J. Braddock, nicknamed the ‘Cinderella Man’. Braddock, who was to become the 1935-1937 heavyweight champion, had severe injuries early in his career that almost brought his career to an end. During the Great Depression, Braddock worked as a longshoreman and accepted government relief in order to put food on the table. And then on June 13, 1935, ‘Cinderella Man’ beat the heavyweight champion of the world Max Baer at the Madison Square Garden in what is to this day considered one of the most famous boxing upsets of all time.

Ron Howard immortalised Braddock’s story in the 2005 film, also called ‘Cinderella Man’. And whilst Estrella Burgos never reached the world #1 ranking or won a Grand Slam, the story of the Dominican’s career is every bit as inspiring as Braddock’s.

Inspiring a nation

Estrella Burgos hails from a country with almost no tennis tradition. Indeed, when he broke into the top 100 of the ATP Rankings in 2014, Estrella Burgos became the first Dominican to do so. He is the only person responsible for the popularity of tennis in the Dominican Republic. The inspiration he gave to players like Jose Hernandez-Fernandez, career-high #179, Roberto Cid Subervi at #225 and indeed the next two generations of Dominican tennis players is impossible to exaggerate. Since 2015, the Dominican Republic has hosted a Challenger tournament in the capital of the country, Santo Domingo. It is already the biggest event at its level in Latin America.

Finding a sponsor

There are late bloomers and then there’s Estrella Burgos. The Dominican’s talent didn’t blossom before he was in his thirties, which left him facing severe financial difficulties early in his career. With limited financial resources, Burgos played mostly in the Davis Cup and some ITF Futures tournaments in the Caribbean in his youth. In 2004, the Dominican almost gave up on his dream to make it as a professional player.

He had been forced to give up touring, and was instead only coaching and playing for the Dominican Davis Cup team, though he did pick up the memorable scalp of Pablo Cuevas in 2004. But Estrella Burgos was handed another shot at pursuing his dream in 2006 when he was recruited by a friend as a sparring partner for the Puerto Rican Fed Cup Team and was spotted by the owner of Performance Tennis Academy, who offered him a sponsorship.

That enabled Estrella Burgos to play a series of American ITFs, where he had some success. Step by step, the Dominican was slowly able to rise up the ranks and in May 2007, he qualified for his first ATP Challenger Tour event. Though he managed few wins at Challenger-level, Estrella Burgos accumulated enough points to enter the qualifying draw at the 2008 Cincinnati Masters. There the Dominican defeated Rohan Bopanna and Paul Capdeville to make his ATP main draw debut. And despite losing in 3-6 5-7 to 10th seed Fernando Verdasco, he acquitted himself well.

Every rose has its thorn

But that did not immediately lead to further success on the main tour. Estrella Burgos would not claim his first Challenger title until the age of 31, when he won in Medellin and he failed in his first 11 attempts to qualify for a Grand Slam. That left him thinking he might not make it after all. Particularly as he picked up a troubling elbow injury, that threatened to end his career.

But he managed to avoid surgery and put together a late surge in 2013, capturing Challenger titles in Quito and Bogota. Another triumph at Challenger-level, in Salinas in February, saw him finally break into the top 100 on March 3rd, 2014. That gave him direct entry to the main draw of the 2014 French Open, where he made his second appearance on the main tour and his Grand Slam debut. Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz proved too strong, winning in four. But later in the year at the US Open, the Dominican reached the third round, beating Igor Sijsling and Borna Coric, before losing to Milos Raonic in three tiebreak sets.

A Legend Built in Quito

His 2014 breakthrough enabled him to start playing at ATP-level events regularly and he reached an ATP semifinal in Bogota (lost to Tomic). Yet, the Dominican’s story would still be unknown to most if it wasn’t for one tournament. The Ecuador Open in Quito was a clay-court event established in 2015 and played in early February.

Peculiar conditions, principally the very high elevation and correspondingly thin air, made Quito a venue loved by some and hated by others. But Estrella Burgos was clearly right at home. The Dominican impressed from the outset, not losing a single set to make his first ATP Tour final, beating the likes of Martin Klizan and Thomaz Bellucci en route. There he faced Feliciano Lopez in a thriller, but he found a way to prevail 6-2 6-7 7-6 and clinch his maiden ATP title.

The high elevation made the balls at Quito travel faster than they usually would on clay and Estrella Burgos took full advantage. That triumph clearly gave Estrella Burgos real confidence as he compiled a career-best 2015 season, peaking in the rankings at world #43 and claiming his only top ten win by beating Marin Cilic in Barcelona.

Coming back for more

The Dominican came back to Quito a year later, hoping to defend a big percentage of his ATP points. And he did just that. Estrella Burgos beat Albert Ramos Vinolas in the semifinals before getting the better of the Brazilian Bellucci in the championship match, winning 4-6 7-6 6-2. His serve, not usually one of the stronger elements of his game, proved an invaluable weapon in his title defence.

Unfortunately, he struggled to replicate that level through the rest of the year, and even with the Quito title, his ranking hovered on the edge of the top 100. When the Ecuador Open was moved to a week later and the points dropped before he had the chance to defend them, he arrived in Quito in 2017 as the world #156. The 36-year-old drew the top seed Ivo Karlovic in the second round and having choked away four set points in the opener, it looked like his title defence would be coming to an early end. But in a match in which only one out of 36 games played went to deuce, Estrella Burgos saved three match points, including one on Karlovic’s serve, winning 6-7 7-6 7-6.

Refusing to go down

The Dominican kept fighting, beating Bellucci for the third year in a row to advance to the final. There Paolo Lorenzi put up his best serving performance ever, hitting 17 aces and winning almost 90 percent of first-serve points in an over two-and-a-half hours long contest. Estrella Burgos, at one point, found himself down 6-7 2-4 but yet again managed to out-fight his opponent. He took the match to a deciding tiebreak and, after saving another match point, picked up his third-straight title at the Ecuador Open.

Later in the year at Santo Domingo, Estrella Burgos became the fourth oldest Challenger Tour champion, though he has since been surpassed by Karlovic and Tommy Robredo. His Quito story did eventually come to an end, as he lost in the second round to Austria’s Gerald Melzer in 2018. But he did manage to keep part of his tradition in Ecuador alive by beating Bellucci for the fourth year in a row. That was to be the last edition of the Ecuador Open, a tournament that will now forever be remembered as the site of Estrella Burgos’ three astonishing triumphs.

Saying goodbye at home

For Estrella Burgos, that defeat in Quito was to prove the beginning of the end. Time, that unbeatable foe, began to catch up with him and he took three just wins in eight events in the first half of 2019.  As a result, Estrella Burgos decided to make the Santo Domingo Challenger the last of his professional career. But fittingly, his farewell was one to remember. With huge and vocal crowds rarely seen even on the main tour, Estrella Burgos took down Marcelo Arevalo 7-5 7-5, converting his seventh match point. He went on to face the fourth seed, Thiago Monteiro. And although the match itself wasn’t a classic, the Dominican got to bid goodbye in front of his fans.

Estrella Burgos will take to the court at least once more in doubles, partnering with 20-year-old Nicky Hardt. The two played a Davis Cup doubles rubber together last month and will play Facundo Bagnis and Facundo Mena in the first round of the 2019 Santo Domingo Challenger. But hopefully, that will not be the end of Estrella Burgos’ story. After all, the only thing needed for Cinderella Man II is an actor as good as Russell Crowe who looks like Estrella Burgos.

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