Two years after claiming a gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Hugo Gaston, aged just 20, succeeded in reaching the last 16 of a Grand Slam event, beating former French Open winner and world number 17 Stan Wawrinka in a thrilling five setter, before forcing world number 3 Dominic Thiem to a heart-stopping fifth set.
Sitting on his chair on the Suzanne Lenglen court on a rainy autumn day, Hugo Gaston, ranked 239th in the world, was beaming from ear to ear. Like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. But this was for real.
The player from Toulouse in the south-west of France had just outclassed Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka, the world number 17, with a 6-0 drubbing in the final set of his first-ever five-set match. “It’s totally crazy,” he observed phlegmatically. “I’m trying to make the most of every moment. I’ll enjoy all this with my family and coaches. I’m really pleased that this has happened in Paris.”
King of the dropshot
Aged just 20, Gaston thus reached the last 16 of a Grand Slam tournament, despite having played – and lost – only one match at this level, the Australian Open in January, where he was beaten by Spain’s Jaume Munar in four sets. But what particularly impressed those watching was the talent of this young left-hander, who can mix up his game with a variety of dropshots, counter drops, lobs and tweeners, destabilising Wawrinka, who won the tournament in 2015 and was previously world number 3.
In the next round, the Youth Olympic Games 2018 winner almost caused a massive upset for recent US Open winner Dominic Thiem, with 58 dropshots in five sets. The 1,000 spectators at the Philippe Chatrier court (a COVID-19 restriction) cheered him every step of the way in spite of their face masks, even singing the Marseillaise to encourage their hero, France’s last player left in the men’s singles tournament.
Flagbearer in 2018
“I hugely respect the other French players,” he replied when asked what he thought of his new status. “I mostly try to stay focused on my own performance. I enjoy playing under pressure. That’s how I give it all I’ve got.”
He certainly experienced pressure at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Buenos Aires 2018, where he was picked to be the flagbearer for the French delegation. “That week, all the planets were aligned,” recalls Marc Barbier, his coach since Gaston was six years old, and who was with him in Argentina. “He was among the potential medallists but not the favourite. In the final, he beat Argentina’s Facundo Diaz in a match with a crazy atmosphere.” Gaston also won the bronze medal in the mixed doubles with Clara Burel, and another bronze in the men’s doubles with his friend, Clément Tabur.
Modest and respectful
“His background means that he has simple values. He is polite and modest, and has learnt to respect people,” Barbier explains. “These are fundamental values for a young athlete. We try to ensure that his feet stay firmly on the ground with his head well centred between his shoulders.” Born into a family of tennis enthusiasts, Gaston played many games with his older brother using the walls of the family living room, and his father became President of the Fonsorbes tennis club, around 20 kilometres from Toulouse.
His adventure at the Buenos Aires YOG had been his best sporting memory up to now. “I took a big step forward there,” he acknowledged. “Winning the gold medal was very important to me. And it was amazing to win three medals. I had some incredible emotions. Today, I’ve reached the last 16 of the French Open, and that’s a dream come true for me. I work hard each day to try and become a very good player. For the moment, I’m trying to take things step by step.”
After his tremendous performance at the French Open, Gaston has almost reached the 150th spot in the world ranking, but above all he has made a name for himself through his unusual playing style, which is not unlike that of John McEnroe, another famous left-hander from the 1980s. Despite measuring just 5 feet 8½, he is already walking tall.