25-year-old faces Tsitsipas next at Roland Garros
In December 2016, after moving twice years earlier to follow his dream of becoming a professional tennis player, Dellien wanted to return home and train in Bolivia. But he found no support in his home nation, which lacks much tennis history, so he stopped playing.
Dellien got a girlfriend, hung out with friends and formed an ice company with his father, investing the $15,000 he had saved from his tennis career – he was ranked No. 743 at the time – in the business. He was living, he said, “a normal life”.
“The first two months were perfect,” Dellien told ATPTour.com in Paris. “But I started to feel that this was not the life I wanted.”
The first hint came when one of his brothers was playing at an international tournament in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and people started asking for photos with Dellien and quizzing him on his life. “Why aren’t you playing anymore?” they wanted to know.
They had looked up to him, and couldn’t figure out why he, the player with so much promise, had stopped. Dellien kept quiet, even though he felt nostalgic for his old tennis days.
Rock bottom of his brief stint without tennis, however, came when he went to an ATM to pull out money and had nothing. Dellien was broke, and he had to ask his father for money.
“It gave me so much shame and made me think about what I really wanted to do,” Dellien said.
He landed on a familiar subject: tennis. “I was sending a message to the kids that it’s impossible, and nobody’s leaving Bolivia,” he said. “I set out to get to where I had to go. It didn’t matter how.”
He moved to Mexico to train and live with his coach Eduardo Médica, who let him stay rent-free. “I will always be grateful to him,” Dellien said.
In late January 2017, in his first tournament back, Dellien won the Futures event in Weston, Florida, U.S.A. Twelve months later, he had climbed 502 ATP Rankings spots, from No. 743 to No. 241 to finish 2017.
He spent the bulk of 2018 on the ATP Challenger Tour, and this year, including during day one of Roland Garros, he’s made Bolivian tennis history.
“I realised that you have to fight for your dreams, no matter how or in what conditions, you just have to try to feel that you gave everything you have to get them,” Dellien said.
On Sunday, the 25-year-old from Trinidad, Bolivia, became the first player from his country to win a Grand Slam match since Mario Martinez at the 1984 Roland Garros. Dellien routed Indian Prajnesh Gunneswaran 6-1, 6-3, 6-1 in 75 minutes.
“I’m very happy to be able to win so quickly and to be in the second round,” he said.
Dellien has been hearing Martinez’s name a lot in the past year as he’s matched some of the accomplishments Martinez achieved during his second-to-last year on Tour, in 1984. Last July, Dellien became the first Bolivian since Martinez to crack the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings, and in February, Dellien became the first Bolivian since Martinez to win an ATP Tour or Grand Slam match en route to the Rio Open presented by Claro quarter-finals, the first of his three ATP Tour quarter-finals this season (Sao Paulo, Geneva).
“All of my results are compared to 30 years ago,” Dellien said with a laugh.
Bolivia has little tennis history, and, in his family, only his uncle played the sport recreationally. Dellien started playing tennis during an after-school program. He learned the game at a club with four courts – all clay – in Trinidad.
But when he was 13, he moved to Santa Cruz, about six hours from Trinidad, where his family remained. Dellien began to study online. “That was my first big step. I started to prioritise tennis,” he said.
He spent three years living there before moving again to Buenos Aires, the tennis capital of South America, as Dellien described it.
“In Bolivia, it is difficult to play tennis because obviously it is very expensive, and we don’t have economic support. We do not have tournaments in our country,” Dellien said.
“The athlete isn’t prominent and doesn’t represent any brands or companies. We also have no tennis tradition. We don’t have players among the best in the world, only Mario Martinez 35 years ago, before there was social media, and not many people know it.”
Dellien is slowly changing that, and everyone will know his name – and his country – if he can make the third round in Paris. He next faces sixth seed and Next Gen ATP Finals champion Stefanos Tsitsipas, one of the favourites to make a deep run at Roland Garros.
Beat Tsitsipas and Dellien will have a piece of Bolivian tennis history all to himself. Martinez gained three wins in Paris, but never against a Top 10 player. Dellien could become the first Bolivian player, period, to beat a Top 10 player at Roland Garros, a marker for future generations to chase.