Davidovich Fokina hitting new heights in Paris

The 22-year-old Spaniard announces himself to the French crowd with an entertaining marathon win over Ruud

Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
 - Danielle Rossingh

With Rafael Nadal celebrating his 35th birthday earlier this week, who will be the next male tennis star from Spain?

Introducing Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, a swashbuckling young Spaniard who had the crowd chanting his name after beating Norway’s Casper Ruud in a highly-entertaining four-hour, 35-minute five-set clash at Roland-Garros on Friday.

“When I won the match, was a lot of feelings, a lot of emotions,” Davidovich Fokina told reporters after reaching the fourth round in Paris for the first time in his career, and scoring a top-20 victory at a major for the first time.

“What I have been through every week or every day, how I practice to improve my game, to improve myself. I cannot describe in words how I feel in that moment: it was like I was in shock,” said the Spaniard, adding he couldn’t remember what happened on the final match point.

Davidovich Fokina, who turns 22 on Saturday, was born to a Swedish-Russian father and a Russian mother on Spain’s Costa del Sol. Having been introduced to tennis on the beach by his father, who did not want him to become a boxer like him, at the age of two, he honed his tennis skills on Spanish clay courts at the academy of his current coach, Jorge Aguirre, from the age of 11.

But that’s where all similarity with most other Spanish players ends.

Alejandro Davidovich Fokina / Troisième tour Roland-Garros 2021©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Davidovich Fokina first made a name for himself on grass, instead of clay, in 2017, when he became the first Spanish Wimbledon junior champion since Manuel Orantes in 1967.

The 1.83m-tall Davidovich Fokina has an unconventional game style, and isn’t afraid to use the underarm serve or drop shot at crucial moments. He’s also armed with a huge double-handed backhand, which he often hits while launching himself off the ground. His deft drop shots and daring underarm serves have angered opponents in the past, but also filled numerous highlight reels on the men’s ATP Tour.

Although he hails from the country that produced 13-time Roland-Garros winner Nadal, he cites Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic as key influences. He even practised with the top-ranked Djokovic a few times during the sport’s five-month shutdown in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Having missed four match points as he led 6-5 against the 15th-seeded Ruud in the fifth set, Davidovich Fokina stunned the Norwegian, a fellow bright young prospect on the men’s tour with a similar stellar junior career, with an underarm serve as he faced a break point.

The shot was so audacious, it had the crowd on Court 14 shouting “Foki, Foki” after the Spaniard sunk to the clay on his knees when he finally got over the line on his fifth match point.

Davidovich Fokina said he had played the shot intuitively.

“I didn’t know that I will do the underarm serve,” he said. “I make the point. That’s important for me.”

It was the second match on the men’s tour between the two young talents, with the 22-year-old Ruud coming out on top in an equally dramatic five-set clash during the 2019 Next Gen Finals, when his opponent battled through a painful leg injury.  

Ruud, the son of former Norwegian tennis pro Christian Ruud, had been one of the players to watch in Paris after winning a clay-court title in Geneva and reaching the semi-finals in Monte Carlo, Munich and Madrid.

“It’s difficult because you never really know what's going to come out of his racquet,” said Ruud, when asked what it was like to play Davidovich Fokina. “He can produce extremely good shots and extreme winners, passing shots, beautiful drop shots. But sometimes he can also do more mistakes.”

Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, Roland Garros 2021, third round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Since turning pro in 2019, Davidovich Fokina has surged up the rankings of the men’s ATP Tour. The now 46th-ranked Spaniard had also reached the fourth round of the US Open last year.

He is the youngest Spaniard to be ranked inside the top 50, reach an ATP Masters 1000 quarter-final and play in the fourth round of a major since a certain Nadal in 2007-08.

Having skipped this year’s Australian Open after he tested positive for Covid, it seems like Davidovich Fokina is making up for lost time in Paris.

He is already projected to crack the top 40 for the first time when the new rankings are released after Roland-Garros.

Still, he is expecting a tough fourth-round match against Federico Delbonis, who ousted the 27th-seeded Italian Fabio Fognini from the previous round in straight sets.

“I didn't play against him,” Davidovich Fokina said about the 30-year-old lefty from Argentina. “I practised with him one time in Buenos Aires. He is playing very good. Every match that he's playing, he's improving his game. It will be a tough match because, he's lefty. I didn't play here against lefty. Today I will rest. Tomorrow I will practice half an hour to relax my muscles because today was a tough match and I'm tired.”