Column: Former UCLA star Marcos Giron finally breaks into the Australian Open

Marcos Giron celebrates a point against Alex de Minaur during a men's singles match at the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Marcos Giron celebrates a point against Alex de Minaur during a men’s singles match at the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
(Yong Teck Lim / Getty Images)

Marcos Giron’s biggest win came in a loss.

Without experiencing a defeat that was agonizing and exhilarating, the 26-year-old from Thousand Oaks wouldn’t have rediscovered his love for a sport that had tested his affections — and he wouldn’t have been able to realize his dream of playing in the main draw at the Australian Open on Monday.

Giron’s promising career, which included winning the 2014 NCAA singles title for UCLA, stalled after he underwent hip surgery late in 2015 and early in 2016. His ranking dropped to No. 579 at the end of 2016. He went through rehab and coached the Bruins a bit. The thought of giving up flitted across his mind.

“There was a stretch where I lost, like, 14 or 15 matches when I was up a set and a break, all against good players,” he said, “and I just thought, ‘Oh my God. Do I just not have what it takes?’ ”

He found the answer in a tournament in Los Cabos, Mexico, in the summer of 2018.

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After getting a late acceptance as a qualifier, he made it to the main draw and won his first-round match. His next opponent was Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro, a U.S. Open winner who was then ranked among the top five in the world.

“It was a night match in front of thousands of fans and it was just an amazing, electric energy. I was down a break, then I played three unbelievable games and the next thing you know, the crowd’s going wild,” Giron said.

“I was serving for the first set at 5-4 and ended up losing in straights but it kind of gave me this sense. ... Playing against the caliber of someone like him, feeling that my level was there, that I was serving for the first set, clearly the game was there and it gave me the belief that I can deal with the best in the world, that the tennis is there, but I’ve got to figure out why I’m losing some of these close matches. It really gave me life and an excitement to strive for and play at that level.”

Giron was ranked 308th in the world at the end of 2018 but kept firm hold of the spark he had felt against Del Potro.

“Especially at the lower level, when you’re traveling to cities and playing at tournaments that you’re not really comfortable with and there aren’t that many people watching, it’s easy to lose the big picture and really keeping in mind every day when I go out there, ‘Why am I doing this? What am I trying to achieve?’ ” Giron said.

“It’s a fine balance of not putting too much pressure on yourself but keeping yourself very motivated and understanding that it’s all for the big picture.”

His results began to trend upward early in 2019, when he won a Challenger-level tournament in Orlando, Fla. In March he survived qualifying play at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells and upset Jeremy Chardy and Alex de Minaur in the for his first two-match win streak at the tour level.

Giron then won the first set and was up 3-0 and 4-1 in the third set of his round-of-32 match against Milos Raonic before 14th-seeded Raonic came back to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-4.

“I made a few mistakes, but I think he showed why he’s one of the best players,” Giron said afterward.

Still, his path continued to zigzag. He didn’t make it out of qualifying for the French Open but won three Wimbledon qualifying matches to reach the main draw there for the first time, though he lost to Feliciano Lopez of Spain in straight sets.

He was given a wild-card entry to the U.S. Open — his first appearance since he received a wild-card berth as the NCAA champion in 2014 — and won the first set against Yoshihito Nishioka but lost the next three.

UCLA's Marcos Giron follows through on a forehand return against Pepperdine's Alex Sarkissian during the 2014 NCAA men's single championship match.
(John Bazemore / Associated Press)

Losing in the final of a Challenger level event at New Haven put him under duress in another Challenger tournament at Houston in November. He had to win the title to be sure he’d get into the main draw at the Australian Open, but that seemed impossible when hard-serving Ivo Karlović took a 6-1 lead in their third-set tiebreaker in the final.

“I was thinking, ‘You know, it’s been a good year. I won’t be main draw but it’s still a good year. I just want to go out swinging on my terms,’ ” Giron said.

Taking that approach seemed to free him: He fought back to save six match points and prevailed 7-5, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (9) to earn his first ticket to the Australian Open. Subsequent withdrawals meant he got in without having to use the wild-card berth he’d earned, but the way he won reinforced his confidence.

“If I’m given 1,000 chances again I’m not sure I top him,” said Giron, who moved up to a career-best ranking of 102 at the end of 2019 and is now 112. “I’m stoked. I’m really excited. It was a huge dream of mine to play in all the Grand Slams and this is my first time going Down Under. It’s a huge honor.”

In preparation, he played in a Challenger tournament that was moved within Australia from Canberra to Bendigo because of poor air quality caused by the country’s devastating bushfires. He lost his first match but shook that off quickly in his next event, where he upset No. 2 seed Roberto Carballes Baena before losing to Stefano Travaglia in the semifinals.

Giron’s first-round opponent in the Australian Open will be Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany, No. 74 in the world. Having learned that a loss can be a triumph of the spirit, Giron has set new goals and is confident they’re within reach.

“I want to finish top-50 in the world, play second week of a Grand Slam, and make runs in ATP events,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a lot of work but I’m really excited for this year.”