This is the continuation of my two-part chat with Albert Portas. In the first part, we delved into his magical run to the title of Hamburg Masters Series tournament as a qualifier in 2001, the week that shined the spotlight on Albert internationally and solidified his image in the ATP Tour as a bona fide clay-court threat.
Unfortunately, through no one’s fault, most people nowadays only remember him by that title in Hamburg. Although it was his crowning achievement, it should be underlined that Portas had a solid overall career, as noted in detail in Part 1. This second part is therefore my attempt to bring to attention a lesser-known moment – yet just as captivating – of his career that took place in the spring of 1997, one that marked his conclusive entry into the top 100. It also epitomizes Albert’s conviction in his motto, “the body has no limits.”
Spoiler alert: You are about to read is the tale of 22 matches (19 singles, three doubles) played by Portas in a span of 20 days that included three tournaments, ATP Barcelona – Prague Challenger – ATP Prague.
Part 2: Remembering the crazy three weeks of April 1997!
The marathon run by Albert began in Barcelona on April 12. Albert was ranked No. 138 when he stepped on the court to play his first-round qualifying match. Barcelona being his home, needless to say, he was genuinely delighted to compete in the tournament.
“I remember that I was coming from challengers [more on this later]. I was very happy to come home because I only played this tournament one or two times before, but it’s my home, so this time I really wanted to. I was in the qualies and I didn’t have a specific goal, just play match by match. There were many family and friends in the crowd, even in qualies. It’s always different there for me. Especially in that club, I mean, the atmosphere is different for me than the everywhere else. This probably gave me a boost. I was really motivated to play.”
Yes, he was. To say the least!
As usual, Albert entered both singles and doubles and needed to win two rounds in each to get to the main draw. In singles, he made quick work of two fellow Spaniards, Salvador Navarro-Gutierrez and Jose Imaz-Ruiz. In doubles, he and partner Alberto Martin were eliminated in the second round of qualifying. That was already four matches he played over the weekend before the main draw kicked off on Monday. It was only the beginning of his three-week odyssey of high-level competition.
Just to give you an idea of how tough the draw was in Barcelona that year, the top 5 seeds were Thomas Muster, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Goran Ivanisevic, Carlos Moya, and Marcelo Rios. Portas played each match as an underdog, except the one against a young Fernando Vicente who was the beneficiary of a wild card.
His first-round opponent was a little-known Brazilian (soon to become a global phenomenon at the French Open) named Gustavo Kuerten, ranked No. 65 that week. Portas dismissed him 6-2 6-1 on that day, but when Guga won Roland Garros six weeks later, he was as bewildered as anyone else.
“He was not favored to win Roland Garros of course. It was a big surprise! He was in the 50s or 60s in the rankings [66 to be exact], a good player for sure, but nobody expected him to win. Same as me in Hamburg probably. As you can see here [he points to the Barcelona draw], I played Kuerten in the first round, but he was not seeded. Rios was seeded.”
Rios was Portas’s next opponent in the second round. Albert upset the fifth-seeded Chilean 7-5 7-6 and played well, but it was also an odd match as far as Albert was concerned:
“I never cramped in my life. But in the second set, at 4-4 I think, I started to cramp a bit when I was serving. When I was jumping, the muscle here [pointing to his upper leg] went ‘Zap!’ [hands doing an explosion] After that, I was feeling pain every time I served but I won the match. It was the only time in my life I felt cramping on the court. But I know it was because of the tension, I was up a set and it was 4-4. It was the first time I played on the Center Court here, not used to the big crowd. Probably, if I lose this set…[eye-roll].”
When I asked him if cramps had any lingering impact on his next matches, Albert replied with a laugh: “Naaaah, 30 minutes after the match, I felt perfect again.”
Feeling good and carrying a “great rhythm” into his next match, Portas defeated Fernando Vicente in three sets in the third round, Karim Alami in the quarterfinals, and the ninth seed Alberto Berasetegui in the semis, both in straight sets.
The final on Sunday against Albert Costa was rained out and postponed to Monday. Albert remembers that Sunday as a rude (or pleasant, depending on one’s view) awakening to how his status as a tennis professional changed in the eyes of the public in a matter of a week:
“On Sunday, it was raining, and they announced around 3 PM that the match was postponed to Monday. Barca was playing at home that day, I remember. I used to go to Barca’s matches on weekends because I was a member, but the club invited me this time to some kind of VIP section. It was not the President’s box, but right below. The stadium was close to the club, walking distance. Before going, I was waiting for a friend in front of the tennis club so we could walk together. I was on the corner of the street and of course there were many people walking to the club.
“Suddenly, some people stopped to ask me for autographs, and more people after them. I didn’t know how to act because this was new for me. In the club, I signed sometimes, but I never considered that this kind of thing happened on the outside too. I felt very stressful there and on the way to the stadium [his eyes grow wide open]. If I knew this much attention was going to come to me, I think would not go to the Barca match that day.”
Why not? Why not enjoy the attention?
“It was too much. Too much. At least I would not have waited for my friend there. But I was waiting like a normal person, like I do every Sunday I go to a Barca match, one or two weeks before too. I was doing exactly the same thing, and nobody was stopping to talk to me [laughter]. But that Sunday, some people were stopping, and I could see other people coming behind them, maybe almost hundred people wanting autographs, many people telling me ‘Good luck tomorrow,’ so everybody knew. Too much.”
Costa defeated Portas 7-5 6-4 6-4, in three straight sets on Monday. It was still a successful week for Portas, who made his first final appearance in an ATP event. More importantly, it catapulted his ranking inside the top 100 (no. 82) for the first time in his career.
Yet, Albert could not celebrate for long as he was pressed for time. He left for Prague the next day, because he was scheduled to play his first round on Wednesday in the Prague Challenger in Czechia. He was also planning to enter the qualifying of the ATP tournament held at the same site the week after (the challenger is still held at the same club today, but the ATP event ended in 1999).
“I played the ATP Prague tournament before  and reached semifinals so I already liked this place. It was good for my game, the ball bounced high, the way I like.”
This was also when Portas’s match traffic got even crazier.
Unseeded himself, Portas defeated David Caballero on Wednesday in the first round, the eight seed Juan-Antonio Marin on Thursday in three sets, and top-seeded Franco Squillari 7-6 7-6 on Friday in the quarterfinals.
His opponent in the semis on Saturday was Alex Lopez-Moron. It was scheduled for Saturday morning BUT, the first-round matches of the ATP event’s qualifying draw were also scheduled for that same Saturday!
So, Portas had to play Lopez-Moron in the morning and Mahesh Bhupathi in the afternoon in the qualifying of the ATP event. Furthermore, little did Portas know that he was going to have repeat this odd double-tournament session on Sunday again, because he won both matches on Saturday!
“Of course, it’s not the best situation,” confirmed Albert, throwing his hands up. “But if you are there and both tournaments are in the same place, you don’t spend time doubting, you just play! If you don’t sign in for qualies, for sure you lose, no? So, you sign in and you play qualies. If you lose, you lose. But you play! You don’t think about how many matches you play.”
At this point, I am thinking to myself, yep, the body has no limits.
“I remember that I won in the morning against Lopez-Moron in the semis of the challenge. I thought that was a bit more important than the first-round qualifying of the ATP event where I had to win three matches just to make the main draw. So, in the afternoon, when I lost the first set 6-3 against Bhupathi and it was close in the second, I thought about the final of the challenger the next day, and I decided to just hit every ball hard and finish the point, so I can know quickly if I win or not. They all started going in [laughter]! I came back and won in three set, it was crazy.”
On Sunday, Albert captured the challenger title in the morning by defeating Vicente in the final (his second victory over him in two weeks) and reached the last round of qualifying in the ATP event in the afternoon by eliminating David Rikl.
Here is a quick recap of Albert’s second week (of the three-week period in question):
Monday: ATP Barcelona final vs. Costa.
Tuesday: Plane trip to Prague.
Wednesday: One match Prague Challenger
Thursday: Two matches (singles and doubles), Prague challenger
Friday: Quarterfinal Prague Challenger
Saturday: Semifinal Prague Challenger, Qualifying round ATP Prague
Sunday: Final Prague Challenger, Qualifying round ATP Prague.
That’s nine matches and 21 sets in seven days, played at two different locations in Europe, in three different tournaments. Are you keeping up?
As if that is not bizarre enough, Albert defeated Vicente again, in the last round of qualifying in the ATP event on Monday, 24 hours after beating him in the final of the challenger final. It was also the third time he eliminated Vicente in 16 days because, in case you forgot dear reader, he had already defeated him in Barcelona in the third round.
It was also at this point in our chat that my attempt at lighthearted humor on whether Vicente had a few nightmares about Albert following those three weeks were met with a wry expression and no comment from Albert!
The mayhem finally concluded for Portas when he lost to third-seeded Bohdan Ulihrach 2-6 6-4 6-4 in the quarterfinals of the ATP event on Friday, May 2.
Out of the 19 singles matches in 20 days (April 12 – May 2), Portas won 17 of them. In five out of those 20 days, he had to play two matches a day. His ranking skyrocketed by 56 places during that period, from 138 to 72.
Side note: He also began the year 1997 ranked No. 181 and ended it at No. 35.
Five weeks later, he faced Moya in the second round of Roland Garros (as a qualifier). The ninth seed was asked the day before about the prospect of taking on Portas. He appeared to be well aware of the difficult task ahead:
M0ya did indeed improve against Portas, but his assessment of Albert was quite accurate. It took two hours and 34 minutes, and a four-set grinder (4-6 6-4 7-5 6-3) for Moya to finally oust his compatriot.
Oh, and remember when Albert said, “I was coming from challengers [to Barcelona]” in the beginning of this piece? Did I mention that the three-week stretch described in detail here, actually came on the heels of another three successive weeks of challengers in Casablanca, Barletta, and Naples? Six weeks of consecutive tournaments. I kid you not!
I didn’t include those first three in this piece because Albert did not reach the quarterfinals in any of them. So…, they don’t exactly count, do they?
Until next time…