It was not just the fact that Radu Albot won his first ATP title after beating big names such as Ivo Karlovic, Nick Kyrgios or Steve Johnson; or that he was finally rewarded after many years of sacrifice, struggle, and effort from him and his family. It was also the fact that he had just made history by becoming the first Moldovan to succeed in professional tennis.
Unlike four years ago when he was playing a tournament in France and spent about $200 on a taxi ride, Radu Albot could for once, enjoy the reward of so many years of hard work. He claimed the ATP 250 title in Delray Beach 3-6, 6-3 and 7-6 (7) over the British Dan Evans earning $97,490 in prize money. The largest payday of his career.
Albot, 29, has been on tour for more than a decade but is only now beginning to get recognized. Entering the Delray Beach Open he was ranked No. 82 in the world, just one spot below his career high of No. 81, set nearly two years ago. With his victory over Evans, in which he saved three match points, the Chisinau-born moved to a new career high of No. 52.
As the cases of Bosnian Damir Dzumhur, Latvian Ernests Gulbis and Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, who have made history as the first players in their respective countries to enter the Top 100, Albot is the first Moldovan to be ranked within the world’s top 100.
Moldova, a former Soviet republic with a population of 3.55 million, is better known for producing wine than tennis players. It has, however, had its share of Olympic wrestlers, skiers, and soccer players.
At the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Albot paraded with 23 other Moldovan athletes – Albot became the nation’s first Olympic tennis participant. In the midst of competition, Radu defeated the Russian Teymuraz Gabashvili in the first round before falling to the Croatian Marin Cilic.
Throughout the competition, only one Moldovan, Oleg Tarnovschi, managed to climb the Olympic podium after finishing third in the boating competition. However, the bronze medal that he had won was stripped after he failed a drug test.
Prior to Albot, the only tennis hopeful Moldova had was Roman Borvanov, a player who reached No. 200 back in 2011. Today, Borvanov teaches tennis near Miami, and for obvious reasons, was was cheering on his countryman throughout the tournament.
“In a way, coming from Moldova, the results I’ve had, it’s a miracle,” Albot said. “Unlike players in countries that host a Grand Slam and have a history of producing star players, he said he had no Pete Samras or Andre Agassi in from of him as role models and challenges.”
“Growing up, I never had someone in front of me, Roman [Borbanov] reached top 200 and I wanted to be like him, even better than him. But as soon as I got to No. 190, the inevitable question arose: Now what? I knew I had to go higher but I did not have someone to ask how to get there, to go for advice, I had to build my game by myself. “
When Radu was 6, his father, Vladimir Albot, watched a tennis match on television and decided that he wanted his only child to play the sport. Vladimir enrolled his son to train at a school that specialized in tennis – a government-funded tennis academy, close to the family’s home in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital. The club has eight outdoor red-clay courts and two indoor courts. Until recently, those courts were made of wooden planks – however, today, they have been converted to a hardcourt surface.
Though his parents were of modest means – Radu still lives with them in the two-room apartment they own. Vladimir traveled with Radu to junior tournaments while his mother, Svetlana, stayed hoe to work in her dental therapy practice. Vladimir sold some property he owned to fund his son’s travel.
“Rather than spend money on hotel rooms, we often slept on mattresses inside gyms connected to the clubs where I competed,” Radu recalls. “Whenever I was offered a chance to share a room with another player, my dad would sleep in his car in the tournament parking lot.”
At the age of 13, while playing in Germany, the Albots met Jimmy Oganezov, a local businessman from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia who had become a tennis coach. Oganezov invited Albot to spend the summer living and training with him in Wiesbaden. That summer turned into more than a dozen summers, and the training convinced Albot that he could have a career as a professional tennis player.
“Moldova’s tennis federation generates little sponsorship money for its players”, Albot said. ”It is a little disappointing because in some countries, like the United States and France, they get so much help, like sponsors and wild cards,” said Albot.
Dressed and equipped by his only sponsor, Yonex, Albot values what he has achieved. “I come from a country where tennis does not exist, I was not the kid who millions before turning age of 20. But, on the other hand, maybe that’s what makes me stronger.”
When his playing career is over, Radu Albot is clear about what he will do once his career is done: return to Moldova and help build the next generation of tennis players in his country.
“The task will not be easy. Unfortunately, Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, but that does not take away the illusion. I do not want to finish my career and see that tennis is dead in my country,” he says. “I want to walk into every tournament and see the Moldovan flag flying.”
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