Paris the hard way: Qualifiers making mark at French Open

As the stars of tennis converged on the French Open and settled with entourages into bio-secured hotels, Daniel Altmaier was already grafting on the clay courts, getting dirty in the dust and picking up clues here, tips there about the surface’s quirks as he fought like a man in a hurry through qualifying to reach the main draw.

With his largely unknown name now in the main-draw mix with the rich and famous, the 22-year-old German is proving as stubbornly hard to remove as the courts’ ochre brick-dust on fresh linen.

Sets lost on his way to the fourth round of his debut Grand Slam tournament: Zero.

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Nerve-testing tiebreakers won: All three.

“I keep going,” the 186th-ranked player said Saturday after his latest upset victory, a 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4 humbling of seventh-seeded Italian Matteo Berrettini.

And the bonus: A mention in history books for the German who has fought back from shoulder and hip injuries and developed a thick tennis skin on the sport’s lower-level circuits. After clutch points, like when he broke Berrettini with a forehand winner as the Italian was serving for the second set, he jabs a forefinger toward his temple. He copied that and his gee-up cries of “Allez!” from three-time major winner Stan Wawrinka, his idol who fell Friday and whom Altmaier has outlasted at this topsy-turvy Roland Garros pushed back by the virus pandemic from its usual May-June slot.

With his win on Court Philippe Chatrier, its new roof open under what began as glorious and crisp autumnal blue skies, Altmaier joined two other Roland Garros debutants — Sebastian Korda and Jannik Sinner — in round four. That many men haven’t gone that far on their debuts at Roland Garros since four first-timers were among the last 16 in 1994.

Korda, the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda, like Altmaier also took the long route through qualifying. Altmaier and 20-year-old Korda were not yet born when Roland Garros last saw multiple men advance from qualifying into round four in 1998.

The women’s draw also has two qualifiers into round four, both also shining on their Roland Garros debuts: Nadia Podoroska from Argentina and Italy’s Martina Trevisan. The third qualifier who made the women’s third round, the first time that had happened since 2008, fell Saturday. Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin blew past Irina Bara, playing her first Grand Slam, in 72 minutes, winning 6-2, 6-0.

The Grand Slam tournament spotlight is so unfamiliar to Altmaier that when retired French star Fabrice Santoro came out to conduct his post-match interview on Chatrier, the newbie said: “It’s nice to meet you.”

Still, for Altmaier, the autumn breezes that have blown over Roland Garros, with often cold and damp conditions that mucked with the fine-tuning of some established players, are also winds of change.

“Tennis really changed after this corona break,” he said. “Very healthy and helping tennis hugely to see new faces, to see tough battles by unknown players.”

His fourth-round opponent will be Pablo Carreno Busta, seeded 17th. He beat fellow Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, seeded 10th, 6-4, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4.

The fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas and 18th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov will face each other in round four after their third-round opponents both retired Saturday when trailing by two sets. Also advancing to play each other next were No. 13 seed Andrey Rublev and 63rd-ranked Hungarian Marton Fucsovics.

Carreno Busta will be the third seeded player that Altmaier has faced. Altmaier beat No. 30 Jan-Lennard Struff in round two.

“I’m a machine,” Altmaier said after that win. He meant it jokingly. But his regularity on clay is making him a serious challenge. He used the tour’s virus-enforced March-August break to hone his fitness, working via Zoom with a coach from Argentina, efforts bearing fruit with his grass-hopper-like bouncy energy on the Paris clay.

“Literally everyone can beat everyone at the moment,” he said.

Also in action Saturday in third-round play in the men’s draw is top-seeded Novak Djokovic. He can overtake Roger Federer’s mark of 71 matches won at Roland Garros by beating 153rd-ranked Daniel Galan of Colombia. Only 12-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal has more: 96 and counting.

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