From Soda To Stardom: Inside The Rise Of Sebastian Baez
Sebastian Baez met his longtime coach, Sebastian Gutierrez, for the first time when he was 15. He was in Brazil for an ITF event, where Gutierrez was coaching the Argentine players.
It did not take long for them to make a connection, but not on the court. Gutierrez wasted no time commenting on something that some coaches would not do for weeks, if not months.
“I drank Coca-Cola every day, every time. I ate all foods,” Baez recalled. “He looked at me and said, ‘Why do you drink Coca-Cola every time?’”
Baez was already one of the best juniors in Argentina. But being a good junior and a top professional are worlds apart. That first meeting with Gutierrez set Baez on a path to where he is now, the No. 37 player in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
“I said, ‘I really like Coca-Cola! It’s the best thing!’ He said, ‘No, you have to drink water.’ I said, ‘Okay’. It was a difficult change in that moment, but I think that was the first thing he told me,” Baez said. “The other coaches from my country just told me how I have to hit the ball and everything. He was focussed outside the court and that is what makes all the difference.”
Some juniors would be fussed if their coach bothered them about enjoying a soft drink at such a young age. Baez realised in that moment Gutierrez was the coach for him. Gutierrez explained that it is important for upcoming players to have good habits, both on and off the court.
“Seba drank a lot of Coca-Cola [and] he liked to eat ice cream for dessert every day,” Gutierrez said. “When they are children, sometimes you have to try to make them understand that in the road, having those good habits will for sure make a difference in the future.”
From then on, Baez shifted his mindset. Now, the Argentine focusses on controlling everything he can in order to get the most out of his game, whether that is nutrition or fitness off the court or maximising his practice time.
“I think one of the keys was to be focussed to be better. Just to focus on me. To say, ‘Okay I have to do these things, I have to do them perfectly’,” Baez said. “If I do that good, okay. But you can do that better than you think. That started me [wanting] to do better every day. That was the big key to be here and of course to be on the top I need to do perfect compared to [what I do] today.”
By the end of Baez’s junior career, he was the junior World No. 1. But it was not easy for him to make the jump to the next level.
“I started to play Futures and everything [as a] professional, from the start to the Futures, it was too different to the juniors. I think that was the worst thing, to change the age and the circuit,” Baez said. “In professionals, you have to start at zero. At the beginning, it was hard.”
Some of it had to do with the level of players he was facing. But it was also the realisation of what it takes to be a professional. Baez bought a stringing machine to save on the expenses of paying for someone to do the job for him.
“I had to learn to string a racquet and in the tournament, we would take the machine [too],” Baez said, before cracking a laugh. “But I didn’t string the racquet any more because my coach said, ‘Now we are in the tournament, I want you to have the racquets good so I will do them. You are terrible!’”
The Argentine cracked the Top 500 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings in October 2019, but five months later his progress came to a halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of letting slip his momentum, Baez made even more of a focus on maximising his potential every day.
Ever since, he has been on the rise. Last year, Baez won six ATP Challenger Tour titles — tied for second-most in a season — and qualified for the Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals. According to Baez, his biggest breakthrough came this clay-court season, when he claimed his first ATP Tour title in Estoril.
“It was a big moment for me and I think I changed a little bit in my mind after that tournament,” Baez said. “I can be there. Of course I have to do better, to win a lot of tournaments to be on the top. But I think I can. Why not me?”
Watch Estoril Final Highlights:
The 5’7” Argentine has drawn comparisons to a countryman of the same height: Diego Schwartzman. Both men agree they are not that similar as tennis players, though.
“I think he is playing very, very aggressive. I’m different. I think he has a very good serve, a fast serve. So he’s improving a lot,” Schwartzman said. “It’s the first year for him playing these kind of tournaments, he’s doing so well. He’s improving. It’s important for our tennis. He’s playing so many different tournaments that he was not playing before, so obviously he is going to change some parts of his game in the future.
“I think we have similar things, but not enough to say we are similar. Maybe because of the size and how we [wear] our hat, we’re similar. But not enough to have a similar game. I think we are a little bit different and that’s a good thing, I think.”
Baez will try to show the world his game in a tough first-round test against third seed Carlos Alcaraz. It will be a rematch of their semi-final clash in Milan last year, which Gutierrez called “a beautiful experience”.
“I think it will be a different match. Seba already has more experience on Tour but at the same time it is a good opportunity to add another great match on his shoulders. Seba is also only 21 years old, he is very young and a match like this can give him a lot to be a better professional,” Gutierrez said. “One of the most positive things of this season is to capitalise on each of these moments, that he has been able to play all the Grand Slams or that he has played in big stadiums, against great rivals.
“Every day he tries to be a little better.”