It was a pristine Sunday afternoon in Perugia, Italy. Beautiful, but scorching hot.
The searing sun and overwhelming humidity set the 119-year-old Tennis Club Perugia ablaze, as qualifying neared its conclusion at the Internazionali di Tennis Citta’ di Perugia, an ATP Challenger Tour event. Summers in central Italy are notoriously hot, but Ulises Blanch did not expect conditions like this.
“It was brutal. I was playing really well in that last match of qualifying and I won the first set, but my legs started getting tight. I looked at my coach and made a face. I knew I was cramping. A game or two later, it started getting much worse. At the end of the second set, I was very close to full body cramping. There was no point in continuing.”
Sweat cascaded down the 20-year-old American’s brow. It streamed from his pores like an open faucet. Blanch was losing fluids at a rapid rate. One set stood between him and a first ATP Challenger Tour main draw appearance, but his muscles refused to cooperate.
A former junior No. 2, Blanch needed to win two matches in one day to qualify. In the morning, he had survived a two-hour and 14-minute marathon against Andrea Pellegrino, storming back from a 5-2 third-set deficit and saving a pair of match points. Physically and emotionally spent, Blanch would have only two hours to recover for his final round match. It wasn’t enough.
He faced Spain’s Pol Toledo Bague for a spot in the main draw, and after splitting sets, his body waved the white flag. But despite calling it quits, all was not lost. Hours later, Blaz Kavcic would withdraw with a right leg injury, opening the door for Blanch to enter the big show as a lucky loser.
“It was brutal, but it’s pretty crazy how lucky I was,” Blanch added. “Fitness wise, I still have a lot of room to improve.”
Blanch’s story would not end there. One of the most improbable and stunning runs to a title would ensue on the clay of Perugia. Behind a hyper-aggressive and free-swinging gameplan, the American blasted his way to his maiden ATP Challenger Tour crown without dropping a set.
Blanch would upset former World No. 9 Nicolas Almagro in the first round, followed by convincing wins over Spaniards Carlos Taberner and Bernabe Zapata Miralles and seventh seed Attila Balazs. A 7-5, 6-2 victory over in-form home favourite Gianluigi Quinzi saw him lift the trophy.
How did Blanch go from enduring full body cramps to capturing his maiden title? Even the 20-year-old has no explanation.
“I’m speechless. I have no words. It’s different from anything I’ve ever felt. It’s the biggest title I’ve ever won. To win it in my first main draw was unbelievable. I was just trying to enjoy it. There are no words to describe it.
“The ability to stay emotionally in place from the first ball to the last was pretty important for me. I was able to give myself a chance and just play my game, instead of being worried about other factors and beating myself. It got easier as the tournament went on and after I won a few rounds, I got better and better.”
Blanch is the first player to win a Challenger title on debut since Casper Ruud in Sevilla, Spain, in 2016. He is also the first lucky loser champion on the circuit in 18 months, and just the second player to win a title while sitting outside the Top 500 of the ATP Rankings this year.
After previously falling in eight qualifying attempts at the Challenger level, it was well worth the wait for the surging American. In just one week, the then World No. 508 catapulted 200 spots, soaring to a career-high No. 308.
Blanch suddenly finds himself thrust among the burgeoning #NextGenATP American contingent, led by Top 100 star Frances Tiafoe. He is one of three to lift a trophy this year, joining Taylor Fritz (Newport Beach) and Reilly Opelka (Bordeaux).
“The biggest goal for me was trying to perform well in bigger tournaments. I felt like I could, but I wasn’t able to give myself those chances. It was a dream for me to play this well and perform like I did. To do it in a tournament this big and to do it all week was unbelievable.”
Ulises’ Unique Journey: From The Americas To Asia And Back
Players traveling the world on both the ATP World Tour and ATP Challenger Tour find themselves immersed in different cultures throughout the year. But for Blanch, it was a part of life long before he fell in love with tennis.
Born in Puerto Rico to Spanish parents, Blanch and his three siblings were embedded in many cultures at a very young age. Blanch’s father Ernesto worked for Coca-Cola, a job that saw the family live in China, India and for eight years in Thailand, where Ulises first picked up a racquet. At the age of 13, they moved to Argentina. Much like countryman Jared Donaldson, who developed his game on the clay of the South American country, Blanch took his talents to the next level there.
Despite his diverse multi-cultural background, Blanch says he has American blood in his veins. Having also lived in Seattle for a short period, he is currently based at the USTA’s National Campus in Florida. His father always encouraged him to make the U.S. a part of his identity and he would attend American schools throughout the world.
“I started playing tennis in Thailand when I was five,” added Blanch. “I was playing soccer all day and my dad wanted me to try other things, like swimming and tennis. For the first 2-3 years I didn’t like tennis at all, until I started playing better. I was usually hitting with older kids and coaches in Thailand, so I really improved when I went to Argentina. It was a completely different story there.”
Ulises’ unique name comes from Greek mythology. It is the Spanish form of the name Ulysses, which derives from the legendary Greek king who is the hero of Homer’s famous poem ‘the Odyssey’. The character is known for learning to adapt to different situations he faces, an important trait that Ulises’ father wanted to instill in his son.
His two brothers are also named after influential figures – Dali and Darwin – while his sister Crystal’s name refers to being crystal and transparent in life.
It’s what every aspiring pro dreams of. The chance to learn and cultivate their skills under the tutelage of a former World No. 1. For Blanch, that dream became a reality the instant he entered the gates of the USTA’s training centre in Florida.
Blanch, who has been coached by Argentina’s Rodrigo Alvarez for the past four years, had the opportunity to trade forehands and backhands with Ivan Lendl. Lendl, a player development consultant at the USTA, has been a mentor for the young American. The former No. 1 knows potential when he sees it.
“There are no words to describe his impact,” said Blanch. “I remember the first day I got to the USTA, I hit with him. My first session there was with Ivan. Every time I step on court with him, it’s unbelievable. I don’t know what to say. He’s helped me with shot selection the most. He says that the weapons are there, but he mainly teaches me how to play and when to play each shot.”
Blanch’s sudden success might have come as a surprise to many, but the 20-year-old was already making strides years before his dream week in Perugia. An auspicious junior career saw him rise to No. 2 in the world in May 2016 after reaching the quarter-finals at the prestigious Orange Bowl and Eddie Herr Championships. Two months later, he found himself in the Wimbledon semi-finals, before falling to Alex de Minaur.
“When I was younger, we didn’t really know much about tennis back then and he would tell me to hit the ball as hard as I can. Hit the forehand as hard as you can and the serve as hard as you can. Until we moved to Argentina, that was my gameplan. But the timing of striking the ball was developed there. When I started learning how to play matches and hit my shots, but the impact of how I played when I was younger stayed with me. When I’m playing like I did last week, it feels great. I play well on all surfaces. I played a lot on clay in Argentina, I enjoyed the grass as a junior (2016 Wimbledon semis) and on hard courts, I can adapt pretty well too. I actually don’t have a favourite surface.”
As Blanch looks to continue developing his game and rising the ATP Rankings, he understands that there is plenty of work left to be done. While securing his first Challenger crown was a significant step in his maturation, it is the first of many milestones to the top.
“I feel like the biggest difference [between juniors, Futures and Challengers] is the mental aspect. These guys can all play, but mentally there’s a big difference. I can play well all week, but the second my focus drops, these guys are always there and they’re ready to eat you alive as soon as you drop one percent. That’s the life at this level.”
With his career still in its infancy, the American is not setting any immediate ranking goals. Instead, he is looking to take it one step at a time and focus on what he can control between the lines. On the doorstep of a Top 300 breakthrough, Blanch is hoping his success in Perugia will propel him to even greater heights.
“The biggest goal for me is to keep on improving and to give myself a chance to play my tennis and play within myself. I was just more concerned about that than anything. We all thought that as soon as I could do that, I could start playing better. Here I am now.”