Estrella Burgos Wants To Change Tennis
Record-breaking titlist wants no one to have to follow his bumpy path
The moment Victor Estrella Burgos waited years for has finally arrived, and the Dominican can hardly breathe. He lies collapsed face down, his head buried in the red clay of Quito, his body shaking from disbelief.
Estrella Burgos has just beaten four-time titlist Feliciano Lopez, then No. 14 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, to win the 2015 Ecuador Open Quito. At 34, he has made history, becoming the oldest first-time ATP World Tour winner in the Open Era. He's also become the first player from the Dominican Republic to win an ATP World Tour event.
By this time, though, Estrella Burgos had already made a career of shattering obstacles. As a boy, he taught himself how to play tennis. In his 20s, he taught the sport for years to fund his future career and achieve Dominican tennis history. When he could finally afford to go pro at the age of 26, people laughed at him. “It's too late,” they told him.
But he has proved them wrong year after year, and when he retires, he'll try to accomplish one more ambitious goal. The lifelong Santiago resident wants to make sure his story is never repeated. He wants everyone in the Dominican Republic with an interest in tennis to have the ability to pursue the sport.
“I don't want the younger kids to have the same problems as me, like what I had before,” he said. “I want to change everything."
Had it not been for his abundance of energy, who knows if Estrella Burgos' own tennis talent would have been discovered. When he was eight, his dad asked a tennis teacher at a local club if he had anything that could keep his son busy.
“I was the ball boy,” Estrella Burgos said.
For about three hours every day, after and sometimes before school, Estrella Burgos would dash around the court, acting like a human tennis bucket, gobbling up balls while watching people play. During downtime, he'd grab a racquet and play like the people he saw: right-handed.
That's why, almost 30 years later, even though Estrella Burgos writes with his left hand, he still hits a forehand with his right hand. “I didn't have anybody to show me [how to play],” he said. “I saw the people play with their right hand, I took the racquet and I started.”
As a nine year old, Estrella Burgos won a junior tournament at the club, which upped his interest and landed him some advice. “So many people started to help me,” he said.
He gradually kept improving, becoming a top junior in the Dominican Republic and eventually teaching at the club. Through international competitions, including the Pan-American games and Davis Cup matches, Estrella Burgos soon believed he had the talents to compete among the best in the world.
As a 23 year old, for instance, he faced Uruguay's Pablo Cuevas, then 18, in a Davis Cup match. Estrella Burgos, No. 1,110 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, swept past the future Top 20 player 6-4, 6-3, 7-5. “I knew I had the level,” Estrella Burgos said.
But he lacked the finances to spend months and years on tour. So he kept working and teaching lessons at the club, squirreling away funds to someday launch his pro career.
No one from the Dominican Republic had done what he was trying to do – have a successful Top 100 career on the ATP World Tour. Yet Estrella Burgos was committed, and in 2006, as a 26 year old, he finally felt comfortable enough to give it a go professionally. He moved away from Santiago and relocated to Miami to practise with more people on a regular basis.
“Everybody thought, 'It's too late to start.' But I think it's never too late,” he said.
Read More: First-Time Winner Spotlight: Estrella Burgos
Estrella Burgos sweat it out at Futures events, his ranking in the low 900s of the Emirates ATP Rankings. By 2010, he had climbed to No. 211. By 2013, he had overcome torn cartilage in his right elbow to win multiple ATP Challenger Tour events for the first time in his career, including the Quito title, the start of his successful streak there.
The next year, Estrella Burgos hit his prime. In March, he became the first Dominican to crack the Top 100. In July, he reached the semi-finals in Bogota, beating then No. 14 Richard Gasquet in the quarter-finals before falling to eventual champion Bernard Tomic in a third-set tiebreak in the semi-finals.
In late 2014, Estrella Burgos became the oldest player to make his main draw debut at the US Open. He also became the first player from his country to play in the Grand Slam championship's main draw.
The achievements kept coming and coming, but the best came in February 2015 in Quito, when he won five consecutive matches to take the title. In July 2015, he also reached a career best No. 43 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. Earlier this year, as a 35 year old, he won five more matches in Quito to become a two-time ATP World Tour champion.
“Quito is just special for me,” he said. “I feel very confident. I feel I play very good and thank God I won the tournament again.”
He's not done yet, either. “I think I can get better and better this year,” said Estrella Burgos, who turned 36 earlier this month.
How many titles, though, would Estrella Burgos have if he had turned pro when he was 18? How high would he be in the Emirates ATP Rankings?
These are questions he doesn't want another Dominican to have to consider, so when he retires, he plans to start a foundation that will help promote tennis across the country. To start, Estrella Burgos, who moved back to Santiago after a handful of years in Miami, wants to work with the government to build public tennis courts in Santiago, which has a population of 550,753. When he was a kid, the city had nine public courts. Now, he said, it has zero.
If you want to play tennis but don't belong to one of the three private clubs in Santiago, he said, you have nowhere to play. “That's why everything is hard, because we don't have the facilities,” he said. “If you are not a member, you cannot practise... That's why everybody decides to play baseball, basketball, or another sport, not tennis.”
Estrella Burgos, who still lives in the home he grew up in, also wants to make sure kids who show tennis talent at a young age can gain the proper instruction. “I know so many of them play good but they don't have any help or anybody to help them to make tournaments,” he said. “With my experience, with my ideas and everything, I have to help.”
He has seen how his historic career has generated interest in tennis in the Dominican Republic, and he wants to make sure he's not the first and the last player from his country to win titles and break ATP World Tour records.
“This is my dream, to make a foundation,” he said. “We can make something different.”