Washington: The longest road to the biggest stages of tennis started where no road had before.
Victor Estrella Burgos, who turns 34 on Saturday, will be the oldest player ever to make his debut in the main draw at the US Open when it begins Aug. 25. He will also be the first from the Dominican Republic to participate in the 128-player draw. In February, he became the oldest and first Dominican to crack the Association of Tennis Professionals top 100 after he won a Challenger tournament in Salinas, Ecuador.
"I won the tournament, and finally it means that my dream is true, to make top 100," he said last week. "This day I'm not going to forget because it's unbelievable how I wanted so much to show the world that, in Dominican, we can play tennis. We have the athleticism for this; just we have to work hard."
Ranked 87th, Estrella Burgos is projected to reach a career-best No. 80 or 81 next week after reaching the third round of the Citi Open in Washington. His ascent has been steep: At this time last year, he was ranked outside the top 300.
No one in his family had played tennis, but Estrella Burgos' father was friendly with a coach at a tennis club in their city, Santiago. With 8-year-old Victor constantly fighting with his two older brothers, his father sent him to the club to stay out of trouble, and the coach channeled Victor's hyperactivity into work as a ball boy.
"My first time, nobody was teaching me," he said. "I think I saw, I copied from other people, how they played, and then I start to play. Thank God the club allowed me to play, because I was a hyper kid, but I never made trouble."
Though small for his age (even now he is only 5 feet 8 inches), Estrella Burgos began playing against older teenagers and adults.
"The first time I played an adult tournament, I was 14 years old," he said. "They don't want to let me play because I'm so short, so small. I was like 5 feet, maximum. They don't want me to play because the tournament had an alcohol sponsor, Heineken. They said, 'No, he cannot play.' I was crying, I was fighting with them, 'Please, I want to play.'
"And then they let me play in my city. I made the semifinals, in Santiago. After that, they let me play all the alcohol tournaments."
But for a lack of money, Estrella Burgos largely delayed his career at the ages when most players are making their biggest pushes to reach the tour. He worked at the club in Santiago as a coach, competing only occasionally in tournaments and for the Dominican's Davis Cup team.
In 2006, after a brief stint working as a sparring partner for the Puerto Rican Davis Cup team in Miami, Estrella Burgos, at the urging of a coach, decided to try to make a living in Futures and Challenger events in the Americas. His results were largely unimpressive, until a year ago, when he was inspired by a surprisingly successful recovery from an injured elbow ligament.
"I still have the level," he remembered thinking, "and I'm going to keep it."
After cracking into the top 100 in February, Estrella Burgos played in the main draw of Grand Slam events for the first time at the French Open in May and then at Wimbledon in June, losing in the first round both times.
In July, Estrella Burgos had his best result at the ATP level, reaching the semifinals of a tournament in Bogota, Colombia, by ousting 14th-ranked Richard Gasquet in the quarterfinals. He lost to the eventual champion, Bernard Tomic, in a third-set tiebreaker.
Along with an ability to summon better tennis against tough competition, Estrella Burgos attributes much of his rapid rise to a focus on conditioning. Instead of playing tournaments, he is taking the next two weeks off for a training regimen designed to put him in peak shape for the Open.
Though he wants to keep playing, Estrella Burgos plans to start a foundation to provide equipment to promising young players and increase the number of public courts in Santiago (population 550,753), where there were only nine public courts, most in disrepair.
"This is making me very sad," he said of the lack of opportunities. "A lot of little guys, I think they can have talent, but they cannot play because they don't have memberships."
Estrella Burgos says that more children in his country have been motivated to play by his success.
"They are motivated because I'm the first one," he said. "I receive every times a lot of messages from the kids and everything. But it's not going to be easy. They have to be very interested and working hard."
Estrella Burgos hopes the excitement of his playing at the Open will inspire even more children, especially with the crowds he hopes will support him in New York, home to more than 650,000 Dominicans.
At his second-round victory in Washington last week, the contingent was small but boisterous.
"If here we have 10 Dominican people," he said after that match, "it's going to be like 100, for sure."
© 2014 New York Times News Service