NEW YORK (AP) — Victor Estrella came to the perfect place to earn his first Grand Slam victory at the age of 34.
He's starting to become a household name back home in the Dominican Republic after playing in a major tournament for the first time this year, and in a city with a large Dominican population, he had a loud cheering section at the U.S. Open on Tuesday.
Rallied by his fans at a packed Court 6, Estrella came back from down a set and a break to beat Igor Sijsling of the Netherlands 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 in the first round.
"I was expecting a lot of Dominicans, but not that many," Estrella said.
"I started a bit nervous and for a moment I was upset that I was disappointing all these people who came to see me," he added. "But even if I would have lost that second set, I knew that I was going to be able to win."
Every point, they were singing, "Victor, Victor."
"Sometimes they were calling the ball out in the middle of a point. I have to tell them, 'Please don't call them out, because you're confusing me.' But it was great," he said.
In a country where the sporting idols are baseball stars such as David Ortiz, Robinson Cano and Albert Pujols or the hurdler Felix Sanchez, a two-time Olympic champion, Estrella is becoming famous. He realized his newfound celebrity when he went to the Dominican Republic to train before the U.S. Open.
"My last name in Spanish means star and that was it, but now people notice me," Estrella said. "I hope all this can help tennis in the Dominican, paving a way, and gets to motivate little kids to play the sport."
Estrella, the first player from his country to reach the top 100 of the ATP rankings, likes to think that he's younger than his age.
"I see that the guys from my generation, from the '80s, most of them have retired," Estrella told The Associated Press. "But I really didn't play when I was 18, 19 or 20. I think my body is rested in that regard. I'm not worn out physically."
Estrella's path in the sport is an odd one. It began when he was 8 years old, and his parents took him to the Centro Espanol club in Santiago to play tennis because he was so restless at home.
In his younger years, Estrella mostly played in Futures tournaments, the lowest level in pro tennis, plus Davis Cup.
Hailing from a country where baseball rules completely and there are very few public courts for tennis, he couldn't get the financial support to travel abroad and decided to give up, becoming a coach.
Estrella chose to try a comeback when a former coach, Sixto Camacho, asked him to be a hitting partner for a Puerto Rican team preparing to play Davis Cup.
"Everything turned around at that moment. I rekindled the dream that I had at 18, to become a top 100 player. I decided to stay at the academy, went to a hard training regime for two, three months," he said.
But another setback came in 2012. While playing Davis Cup against Mexico, he tore cartilage in his right elbow and was out for six months.
The injury made him train and play with a sense of urgency.
"It was a blessing in disguise. It made me realize that I couldn't waste more time," he said.
Estrella kept climbing in the rankings and managed to crack the top 100 last February when he won a Challenger tournament in Salinas, Ecuador. That opened the doors to gain direct entry to the French Open and Wimbledon, his first Grand Slam events. He lost in the first round both times.
And now, Flushing Meadows. In the second round he will be facing Croatia's Borna Coric, who upset 29th-seeded Lukas Rosol in straight sets. At 17, Coric is half Estrella's age.