Column: Ernesto Escobedo makes another statement for ‘Next Gen’ players at BNP Paribas Open

Ernesto Escobedo played and practiced tennis at public parks near his West Covina home and never felt underprivileged. His parents had a limited budget to support the tennis dream he had inherited from his father, also named Ernesto, who learned the game by hitting balls off a wall at the family’s house in Jerez, Mexico.

Young Ernesto, known as Neto, was invited to train at a tennis academy in Florida alongside teenagers who were systematically being groomed for stardom but a move would have split the family, so it was never an option.

He would do it his way, on talent and determination, riding out discouraging qualifying-round losses and building on glorious moments when everything meshed in happy harmony. His father, who picked strawberries as a youngster and later became a delivery truck driver, was by his side. His mother, Cristina, and his two sisters supported and loved him. That was more than enough.

“I never felt like the family was poor. I felt like we had everything,” he said. “Money doesn’t matter for me. If we have one dollar or a million, I’m still going to have a smile on my face, and my dad, as well.”


With his parents in the audience Friday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden — a place he often visited as a star-struck child with curly hair that was barely held back by a visor — Escobedo recorded one of the most significant victories of his career. His 7-5, 6-3 triumph over Frances Tiafoe — who’s widely considered one of the best talents in a promising crop of young American male players and recently won his first ATP World Tour title — was a strong statement in many ways.

It showcased Escobedo’s booming serve, which exceeded 135 miles per hour a few times. It displayed his poise in clutch moments, as when he broke Tiafoe’s serve to win the first set and went up a break in the second set to take a 4-2 lead. And it served as a strong followup to his upset of world No. 10 Jack Sock at Acapulco just before he came here, an indication that Escobedo, who got a wild-card entry at Indian Wells, is coming into his own at age 21.

More than that, his success was his tribute to the close-knit family that has shared his ambitions, and he became emotional while speaking about them on the court at Stadium 1. They are with him wherever he goes, in his heart if not in the stands cheering him on.

“My family sacrificed so much for me, especially my dad. I mean, he would take off time from work just to be with me on the court. So I’m really grateful for that,” Escobedo said. “And, I mean, playing here, I feel like I’m doing him a favor as well because he gave me so much. And it’s time for me to pay him back.”

Escobedo and Tiafoe are part of an international group that the Assn. of Tennis Professionals has dubbed “Next Gen,” or next generation, budding stars who are 21 or younger and ranked in the top 200. They’re growing up together, some inching ahead of the others. Sascha Zverev of Germany, part of the original 2016 group, is ranked No. 5 in the world and seeded fourth here. Taylor Fritz of Palos Verdes, who beat fellow Next Gen star Reilly Opelka in the first round here, is just starting to find the consistency necessary to survive and thrive on the tour.

Consistency is often elusive for young players, and Escobedo is a vivid example of that. Before his victory here and his defeat of Sock in Acapulco, he had lost in the final round of qualifying for the Australian Open, lost in the first round in Quito, Ecuador, and in the second round of a tournament in New York. Knowing that Tiafoe, 20, had become a first-time tour winner a few weeks ago in Delray Beach, Fla., was great encouragement for Escobedo.

See it, be it.

“Tiafoe is a great player. He’s going to have an amazing career,” said Escobedo, who will face No. 28 seed Feliciano Lopez of Spain next. “To see him do that, that’s awesome for him. I was really happy for him, as well, his first ATP. And I feel like the way that I’m going now, I feel like I could be there soon.”

His optimism is a stark contrast to the doldrums that enveloped him a few months ago.

“I finished last year pretty bad. I was in a tough situation. I wasn’t winning. I wasn’t enjoying it for a little bit,” he said. “But, I mean, it was my first year on the tour, like, a full schedule on the tour, so then I learned so much.

“But I just really committed to myself that in the off-season, that day in, day out, I’m going to give it all my best. Now it’s paying off, I guess.”

It is. And it’s a victory for him, for the NextGen, and for the family that nurtured his dream.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen