Garin braced for former champ

With two trophies already this season, Chilean Cristian Garin is primed to take on Wawrinka.

 - Dan Imhoff

Cristian Garin accepts the arduous route some require before beginning to realise long-touted potential.

Therein lies the problem with a breakout success coming so young.

On Monday, the Chilean had cause to believe the hard work was paying off after he stifled the heavy blows of 6’11” American, Reilly Opelka.

It was his first win in a Grand Slam main draw.

The reward: a showdown with 2015 champion Stan Wawrinka, a match which Garin would relish with 20 clay-court match wins to his name already this season.

While not at the height of his powers that led to three Grand Slam trophies, Wawrinka has mounted a steady climb back to the top 30 following two knee surgeries and a slower-than-expected return to form in 2018.

The Swiss saw off Slovakian Jozef Kovalik 6-1, 6-7(3), 6-2, 6-3 to reach the second round, snapping a three-match losing streak.

“He won here, he’s an amazing player,” Garin grinned. “These are the matches that I like to play… I feel that I'm playing well. I feel good, and it's a challenge that I would like to be able to face, 100 per cent.”

While only 22, expectations began to build around the next great Chilean hope when in 2013, at just 16 – and playing before his home crowd – Garin won his maiden tour-level match.

He would go on to beat Alexander Zverev for the junior Roland-Garros title a few months later.

Fast forward six years and the stocky-built 22-year-old had Zverev’s number again on clay.

This time he thwarted the German’s title defence in Munich only weeks ago, en route to a second career title, having raised the silverware in Houston in February.

In the six years since the two had crossed paths, Zverev had soared to become a permanent fixture in the world’s top 10, while Garin had been grinding it out in lower-tier events, and in the rounds of Grand Slam qualifying.

“I don’t like to think about my past,” Garin said. “I played a lot of Challengers, a lot of Futures, it was really, really tough.

“Of course I wanted to go higher when I was 16, 17 but it was tough for me.

“I didn’t have a solid team like I have now. Of course maybe now the position that I’m in maybe I’ll do different things but I’m happy about my present so I can’t complain.”

It is a humbling route and one, which has kept the softly spoken 22-year-old with his feet firmly grounded.

Following a stint training at his idol Rafael Nadal’s academy in Mallorca, Garin began working with Andres Schneiter about a year ago – when on the road – and with Chilean former player Paul Capdeville when back home in Santiago.

Much of 2018 was spent chipping away at Challenger level and he arrived in Australia to start the season ranked No.84.

“The Challengers gave me more confidence to be here, to be playing with the best,” he said. “It’s already been an amazing season for me.

“The first two months in Australia I didn’t play as I wanted but then I started to play Davis Cup… The second match I played unreal. We won the [tie] and we qualified for Madrid. After that I’ve been playing great tennis.”

With good friend Nicolas Jarry, 23, also making giant strides in the past 12 months the Chileans have set themselves lofty goals for Davis Cup in the future.

As for his own benchmarks for the season? That will require some re-evaluation.

“My goal was to be top 50 at the end of the year,” the current world No.37 said.

And when reminded Nadal never won a junior Roland-Garros title and currently has fewer titles and clay-court match wins this season, Garin shrugged off the cheeky comparison.

“Yeah he never won the juniors here but he’s won 11 times,” he grinned. “I prefer to win once here.”