Roberto Bautista Agut won’t be found in any discussion of major title contenders in 2019. He won’t be included in anyone’s list of the five most burning questions on the ATP Tour this season — maybe the top 15 questions, but not the top five.
That is a reflection of his career — very successful, very lucrative, very consistent, very admirable… but not in anyone’s top tier of foremost men’s tennis players or topics. A cut below the top tier is where he resides. That’s much better than being 10 or five cuts below the elites… but it’s not the elite, at least not if we measure the elites, the true ruling class of men’s tennis, by the important championships they win and the big matches they play.
Nevertheless, with all that having been said, if you were to unfurl a list of the 15 foremost questions on the ATP Tour for 2019, one of them would legitimately be this: Will Roberto Bautista Agut make his first major-tournament quarterfinal?
That question rose to the forefront on Friday, when RBA slugged away and upset World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in a lengthy three-setter in the Doha semifinals. RBA regularly gives Djokovic a good battle. He has done so in Paris at multiple French Opens. He beat Djokovic in Shanghai a few years ago. Now he has this win. It is obvious that Bautista Agut can make his presence felt on tour. Last October, he was right there with Roger Federer in Shanghai before getting jobbed on a bad call and losing a tight three-setter to the Swiss.
Yet, in much the same way it defied all logic that John Isner hadn’t made at least one Wimbledon quarterfinal before last year’s run to the semis, and in much the same way it was crazy that Karolina Pliskova hadn’t made the third round of Wimbledon before last year, it remains utterly puzzling that not even once has RBA reached the quarters of any major.
He has reached stacks of fourth rounds, but he has often run into a Big 3 opponent, and when he hasn’t faced a bracket path with a Big 3 foe in the first four rounds at a major, he failed to take advantage of the opportunity. It is one of the mysteries of life.
It won’t receive the level of media attention Sascha Zverev’s quest for a major title will receive, or the level of scrutiny Dominic Thiem’s evolution on hardcourts will receive, but it is a prominent question nonetheless.
Tennis, as we are constantly reminded, is a sprawling theater of activity in which new heights and new thresholds are all relative.
One person’s first major title is another person’s first main-draw appearance at a major. Someone, somewhere, is attaining a new career milestone or reaching a new landmark every week on tour. RBA’s most conspicuous “first” in 2019 would be to finally make the round of eight at one of the four signature tournaments on the calendar.
Judging by his display against Djokovic in Doha, his game will put him in position — just like Don Quixote — “to reach the unreachable star” this year.
Let’s see what happens, as always.