If he hadn’t gone through such adversity at the start of his professional career, Marcelo Arevalo believes he wouldn’t have come to this.
Traveling up to 20 hours by bus from one country to another, sharing beds with his peers and putting on their snowshoes to collect enough money for dinner. Without the lessons learned from his baptism of fire, Arévalo is unlikely to take to the court Thursday at Roland Garros as the first Central American doubles player in history to reach a Grand Slam final.
“Sacrifice makes you stronger, as does seeing that things aren’t that easy to achieve and you have to work to get them,” the 31-year-old Salvadoran told ATPTour.com. “Good things are hard to come by. I think it’s something that personally gave me mental strength. To continue fighting for my dream of being a professional tennis player and participating in the biggest tournaments.
This dream was born at the age of six in Sonsonate, just over an hour from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. There, at the club where his parents (Rafale and Sofia) and siblings (Erika and Rafael) went every Sunday, Marcelo tried his first racquet; a yellow Head Radical like that of his hero Andre Agassi. Although the American’s battles in the 1990s against fellow countryman Pete Sampras were Arévalo’s inspiration, the man known as ‘Chelo’ has always wanted to follow in the footsteps of his brother Rafael, of four years his senior.
As Arevalo got older, he realized that if he wanted to emulate Rafael (who reached No. 374 in the Pepperstone ATP rankings in 2008), he would have to leave the country to compete in tournaments. Comfort was not the priority. “I wasn’t privileged, but I can’t complain either,” Arevalo said. “I have always had the support of my family, which is the most important. It gives you a lot of security. We weren’t a family with a lot of money, but my parents always tried to send me to tournaments. Obviously, you had to make sacrifices when you were traveling.
Often the best option was the bus, even when he had to cross borders and spend more than 20 hours on the road to get to tournament sites in Costa Rica, Mexico and other countries in the region. Austerity continued to reign when he arrived at tournaments, where he almost always shared accommodation. Once in 2007 he shared a double room with five other tennis players.
“It was the hardest thing that ever happened to me,” Arevalo said. “There were only two beds and we took turns. You had to win to sleep in a bed with another player. And if you lost, you’d be sleeping on a duvet on the floor.
In addition to focusing on his performance on the field, he sometimes also had to pay attention to the washing kit, which he then hung on the balconies or in the bathrooms of the accommodation. And he never had guaranteed food.
“In Juniors and Futures, I traveled with my stringing machine, a Barton that my dad bought at a tournament in Costa Rica from Gonzalo Tur, who now travels as [Andrés] Molteni’s coach. This machine had already threaded thousands of racquets by the time I got my hands on it, but it really helped me save and make money,” Arevalo said.
“I was stringing my racquets and those of others. And if at the place of the tournament they charged 10 dollars, I would charge seven. It worked well. I remember if I was stringing a racquet or two for others, I would always say, “It’s for lunch.” I would say that as a joke, but it was actually very true,” added Arevalo, who was the No. 8 ranked junior in the world in 2008.
Arevalo always found a way to make sure he had food when he competed away from home. He remembers an example from a tournament in Mexico when he was a teenager. His lunch was cheap bread with canned tuna from the supermarket, which he alternated with 75-cent tacos bought in front of a fire station. On other occasions, he simply ate a late breakfast and lunch to save his dinner money.
“We couldn’t afford the luxury of going to a restaurant to eat pasta or meat,” Arevalo explains. “But we still ate. Many tennis players have experienced the same thing, especially in our region. It was not easy for us, but it makes you difficult.
At some point, however, he began to doubt his potential and decided to study business management at the University of Tulsa, where he continued to compete at the varsity level.
Two years later, he rediscovered the belief that he could become what he had always dreamed of, dropping out of college and once again aiming for the ATP Tour. Starting from scratch, he traveled with little means like before, never complaining when he had to drive a rental car for 15 hours to a tournament in Houston or when he had to ask to stay with his peers in their hotel room. .
Austerity began to be a thing of the past when his tournament winnings started to increase. The maturity he had acquired in college also helped him establish himself on the ATP Challenger Tour (where he won three singles titles) and achieve his best singles position (No. 138) at the Pepperstone ATP standings. But soon there was another obstacle in his way.
A hernia in Arévalo’s back meant he was unable to achieve his goal this season of continuing to improve. However, realizing that his injury was not such a burden when playing doubles, he started to lean more towards this discipline. His final year in singles was in 2019. Since then, he has seen steady progression in doubles. His victory alongside Jean-Julien Rojer against Rohan Bopanna and Matwe Middelkoop in the semi-finals at Roland Garros on Thursday was his 100th as an ATP Tour doubles player.
Saturday in Paris, he will fight for his fifth title at tour level and the biggest of his career against Ivan Dodig and Austin Krajicek. Regardless of the outcome, he and Rojer will enter the Top 3 of the Pepperstone ATP Doubles Team Ranking following their run in the French capital, giving Arevalo hope of qualifying for November’s Nitto ATP Finals for the first time in his career.
“It hasn’t been an easy road, and certainly not a short one either,” said Arevalo, who will also break into the Pepperstone ATP Doubles Top 20 on Monday for the first time. “My story has been one of hard work, climbing the ranks, fighting every week. Along the way I faced hard times, [but] things came little by little and I always believed that I could do it.