A cursory glance over the top half of the Australian Open 2014 men’s draw reveals that it’s pretty much business as usual in the male professional ranks.
R. Nadal, R. Federer, A. Murray, J. Tsonga – all the usual suspects are there in the fourth round.
Yet one slightly unusual entry catches the eye: S. Robert. It’s one that leaves journalists scrambling for the ATP media notes and casual fans hitting up Google.
S. Robert is Stephane Robert, a 33-year-old Frenchman currently ranked No.119 and who finds himself in the fourth round at a Grand Slam tournament for the very first time.
He’s setting records while he’s at it.
Robert actually fell in the final round of Australian Open qualifying, taking his place in the draw only following the withdrawal of Philipp Kohlschreiber, and apparently finding out he was due on court for his first round match just 10 minutes before it started.
Yet he’s become the first lucky loser into the last 16 in Australian Open history.
The draw gods have been mightily kind. With 13th seed John Isner’s first round retirement opening up his section, Robert has faced in succession Aljaz Bedene, Michal Przysiezny and Martin Klizan, the latter a fellow lucky loser.
But you can only beat who’s on the other side of the net, and now Robert finds himself up against a star of the sport in Murray, on the imposing Hisense Arena, and is set to pocket at least $135,000 for reaching this stage of the event.
Even his opponent is lapping up the feel-good story.
“It's good to see,” Murray said.
“He's obviously 33 years old. Could be easy to stop playing, you know, if you're not in the top hundred or necessarily making a great living. But it does show if you stick at it, you're professional, when your chance comes, you take it, you can do great things.
“Great for him. Good for tennis as well … he's played a lot of matches here. He's played six or seven matches already. He'll be match-tight, that's for sure.
“I know him a little bit when I was coming through the futures and challengers. Playing in Europe and in the UK, I've seen him play a little bit then. Obviously quite a while ago now.”
Indeed, Robert has spent the bulk of his career toiling away at those lower-rung events, trying to crack the game’s top 100.
He did hover just inside that elite bracket for most of 2010, peaking at world No.61 in February that year, but for the most part, he’s been consigned to the role of a journeyman.
Since that breakthrough season three years ago – and his career-best win over then world No.6 Tomas Berdych in the first round of the 2011 French Open – he has played sparingly in the big leagues, mustering just one tour-level appearance in 2013 by qualifying at Wimbledon.
He’s suffered his fair share of hardships, including the financial struggles that afflict players on the Challenger circuit. He earned less than $70,000 in 2012, and his Australian Open fourth round pay-cheque will almost better his entire 2013 season earnings.
There have also been some setbacks far more serious and unlucky, including a long battle with Hepatitis A that sidelined him for 18 months beginning in early 2007. “I didn't practice for months. I'm not an athlete anymore,” he said on his return.
But now, just a few months out from his 34th birthday, his situation has turned a decidedly positive corner.
And who knows? As the season progresses and if the Frenchman’s form continues, seeing ‘S. Robert’ on a fourth-round rung of the draw come the second week of a major might not seem so unusual.
Robert will take on Murray in the fourth match on the schedule at Hisense Arena on Monday.