Ofner Feels At Home In Kitzbühel, Taking On All Comers

Sebastian Ofner (photo: Brigitte Urban)

KITZBUHEL/WASHINGTON, July 27, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

The good news for Austrian qualifier Sebastian Ofner is that he’s through to the second round of the ATP 250 Generali Open in Kitzbühel, thanks to a 1-6, 7-5, 7-5 comeback victory over former World No. 7 Richard Gasquet. It was the kind of victory that could kickstart his career.

The bad news? The 235th-ranked Ofner gets to face Austrian favorite son Dominic Thiem, the 2019 Kitzbühel champion who, in his comeback from a lengthy wrist injury, is playing some of his best and most inspired tennis on clay over the past three weeks.

Ofner, who sports an 11-13 tour-level win-loss record but is 6-4 in the Austrian Alps and was a 2017 semifinalist, and Thiem will meet in Wednesday afternoon’s featured match. They’ve played once before, in 2019 won by Thiem, 6-3, 6-2, the year he won the Kitzbühel title. He’s 7-2 lifetime against his fellow countrymen, while Ofner is 2-1 versus Austrians in tour-level matches and is seeking to reach his second career ATP Tour quarterfinal.

Both players drew large crowds at Kitzbühel Tennis Center for their respective matches on Tuesday and it’s expected that the Centre Court stands will be filled again on Wednesday.

The 26-year-old Offer, a 6-foot-2-inch native of Bruck an der Mur in the Austrian state of Styria, felt right at home against the 79th-ranked Gasquet on Tuesday afternoon. He took advantage of every opportunity the veteran Frenchman gave him – whether it be Gasquet’s poor shot selection that allowed Ofner to come into the net and hit drop shots with deft surprise and accuracy or to paint the baseline with solid forehand returns. He fought for every point – and it rewarded him in the end.

During the final two sets, Ofner overtook Gasquet’s opening set advantage. At 6-5 in the second set, Ofner broke Gasquet to win the middle set, then rallied from a break down at 2-4 in the final set. After he drew even at 4-all, Ofner simply became the steadier, more reliable player down the stretch.

Ofner saved two break points to hold for 5-4. Then, after going ahead 6-5, he gained a match point after Gasquet sailed a forehand well beyond the baseline. However, the Frenchman saved it after Ofner erred on the 22nd shot of the rally by netting a forehand return. Soon, Ofner gained a second match point with a drop volley winner that surprised everyone – especially the off-guard Gasquet – but wasn’t able to convert it.

Next, Ofner gained a third match point after hitting a cross-court forehand winner but once again he could reach the finish line. A fourth match point came and – finally – Ofner put away the 10-minute, 14-point final game and won the match after Gasquet killed a 17-shot rally with a netted backhand return.

During his on-court interview, Ofner was asked how he felt after his victory. “I feel incredible,” he said. “After the first set and a break down in the second, I thought ‘I’ll try my best but today’s not the day.’

“Then, after the re-break, I had the feeling that I still had chances, that I could still win the match. A break down in the third set and somehow, I came back and played some good tennis. So, I’m very happy with the win.”

Ofner, who turned pro in 2015, brought the house down on Centre Court with his victory, one of the most satisfying of his career. He showed plenty of heart and desire and it brought to mind his 2017 Kitzbühel semifinal run as a wild card, which came soon after he reached the third round of Wimbledon upon qualifying for the main draw in his Grand Slam debut.

By May 2019, Ofner achieved a career-high ranking of No. 126. Since then, he has settled in splitting his time between the ATP Tour and playing on the Challenger circuit, where he’s won three career titles – 2018 Astana, 2019 Puerto Vallarta and 2022 Prague-1 – and reached seven finals overall.

Meanwhile, Tuesday evening, Thiem took advantage of his opportunities and the popular Austrian was rewarded with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over 157th-ranked Russian lucky loser Alexander Shevchenko to set up his second-round clash with Ofner. The victory improved Thiem’s 2022 win-loss record on Tour to 6-8 – including 6-2 on clay over the past three tournaments since his return.

During his on-court interview, the 28-year-old Thiem said: “I was very, very nervous because even though the past weeks were better and better, I’m still not like two or three years ago when everything was going by itself somehow. My goal was to be able to give a good show, to give good tennis to this amazing crowd and I’m happy that I was able to do it.”

Now, can Ofner pull off another upset when he walks out on court against Thiem, his country’s national idol? Or, will it be Thiem reaching his third straight clay-court quarterfinal? Anything’s possible. One thing’s certain: An Austrian player will win to reach the last eight and there will be plenty of Austrian flag-waving fans cheering both players on.