If he had not come through such adversity when embarking on his professional career, Marcelo Arevalo believes he would not have come so far.
Travelling for up to 20 hours by bus from one country to another, sharing beds with his peers and stringing their racquets to scrape together enough money to eat dinner. Without the lessons learned from his baptism of fire, it is unlikely Arevalo would be stepping onto court on Saturday 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 so easy to achieve and that you have to work to get them,” the 31-year-old El Salvadorian told ATPTour.com. “Good things are hard to get. I feel that is something that personally has given me mental strength. To keep fighting for my dream of being a professional tennis player and competing in the biggest tournaments.”
That dream was born at six years of age in Sonsonate, just over an hour from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. There, at the club where his parents (Rafael and Sofia) and his siblings (Erika and Rafael) would go every Sunday, Marcelo tried out his first racquet; a yellow Head Radical like that of his hero Andre Agassi. Although the American’s 1990s battles against countryman Pete Sampras were Arevalo’s inspiration, the man known as ‘Chelo’ always wanted to follow in the footsteps of his brother Rafael, four years his senior.
As he grew older, Arevalo realised 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 play in tournaments. Comfort was not the priority. “I wasn’t privileged, but I cannot complain either,” said Arevalo. “I always had the support of my family, which is the most important thing. That gives you a lot of security. We weren’t a family with lots of money, but my parents always made an effort to send me to the tournaments. Obviously, you had to make sacrifices when you travelled.”
Often, the best option was the bus, even when he had to cross borders and spend more than 20 hours on the road to reach tournament venues in Costa Rica, Mexico and other countries in the region. Austerity continued to rule when he arrived at tournaments, where he almost always shared accommodation. Once in 2007, he shared a twin room with five other tennis players.
“That was the most challenging thing that happened to me,” said Arevalo. “There were only two beds and we would take turns. You had to win to sleep in a bed with another player. And if you lost, you’d sleep on a duvet on the floor.”
As well as focussing on his on-court performance, he would sometimes also have to turn his attention to washing kit, which he would then hang on balconies or in bathrooms in the accommodation. And he was never guaranteed food.
“In Juniors and Futures I travelled 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. That machine had already strung thousands of racquets by the time I got my hands on it, but it really helped me save and earn some money,” said Arevalo.
“I would string my racquets, and other people’s. And if at the tournament venue they charged 10 dollars, I would charge seven. It worked well. I remember that if I strung one or two racquets for others, I would always say, ‘That’s for lunch’. I would say it 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 while competing away from home. He remembers one example from a tournament in Mexico when he was a teenager. His lunch was cheap bread with tinned tuna from the supermarket, which he would alternate with 75 cent tacos bought opposite a fire station. On other occasions, he would simply have a late breakfast and lunch in order to save his dinner money.
“We couldn’t afford ourselves the luxury of going to a restaurant to eat pasta or meat,” explains Arevalo. “But we always ate. Many tennis players have been through the same thing, especially in our region. It wasn’t easy for us, but it makes you tough.”
At one 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 university level.
Two years later he rediscovered the belief that he could become what he had always dreamed of, leaving university and setting his sights on the ATP Tour once more. Starting from zero, he travelled on a shoestring just as he used to, never complaining when he had to drive a hire car for 15 hours to get to a tournament in Houston or when he had to ask to stay with his peers in their hotel room.
Austerity started to become a thing of the past when his tournament earnings began to grow. The maturity he had acquired at university also helped him establish himself on the ATP Challenger Tour (where he won three singles titles) and reach his best singles position (No. 138) in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. But there was soon another obstacle in his path.
A hernia in Arevalo’s back meant that he was unable to fulfil his goal that season of continuing to progress. However, realising that his injury was not such a burden when playing doubles, he started to lean more towards that discipline. His final year competing in singles came in 2019. Since then he has enjoyed a steady progression in doubles. His win alongside Jean-Julien Rojer over Rohan Bopanna and Matwe Middelkoop in the semi-finals at Roland Garros on Thursday was his 100th as an ATP Tour doubles player.
On Saturday in Paris, he will be battling it out for his fifth tour-level title and the biggest of his career against Ivan Dodig and Austin Krajicek. Regardless of the result, he and Rojer will move into the Top 3 of the Pepperstone ATP Doubles Team Rankings as a result of 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 has not been an easy road, and certainly not a short one either,” said Arevalo, who on Monday will also break into the Top 20 of the Pepperstone ATP Doubles Rankings for the first time. “My story has been one of hard work, climbing the ranks, fighting every week. On the way I faced difficult moments, [but] things came little by little and I always believed I could do it.”