ATLANTA, GA - JULY 27: Christopher Eubanks runs around the court celebrating with fans after defeating Jared Donaldson during the BB&T Atlanta Open at Atlantic Station on July 27, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

U.S. Open spot ‘beyond comprehension’ for Tech’s Eubanks

This is the part of the journey where it’s all a little hard to believe.

Georgia Tech senior Chrisopher Eubanks got his first ATP Tour win this summer. The Westlake High grad won a lower-tier professional tournament. Eubanks even has his own page on the ATP website, complete with his match history, bio (he’s a fan of the Falcons, Hawks and Braves) and world ranking.

“And then the picture’s pretty cool,” he said last week. “It’s like, Wow, Chris Eubanks, 310. Wow. That’s high.”

He has a topper to close his summer – a spot in the 128-player main draw of the U.S. Open, which starts Monday in New York. Awarded a wild card by the USTA, Eubanks is the first Tech player to compete in the main draw while still a student at the school. He will play a first-round match against Israeli Dudi Sela at a time and date to be determined.

“It’s beyond comprehension at this point,” he told the AJC.

Ranked No. 322 as of Friday, Eubanks earned one of the eight wild cards awarded by the USTA through his performance this summer. Winning a Futures tournament, reaching the finals of another and then pocketing a few wins in two ATP events filled with players prepping for the U.S. Open, Eubanks gave the USTA plenty of reason to grant him a shot in its championship.

Eubanks learned of his invitation after he was eliminated in the first round of the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati two weeks ago. Eubanks returned to the tournament site to clean out his locker and thank the tournament director. Outside the director’s office was Stephen Armitraj, the USTA director of collegiate tennis.

“Stephen just opens his arms to me and he goes, ‘Give me a hug. You got into the Open,’” Eubanks said. “Just right there in the middle of the players lounge. It was pretty incredible.”

After winning ACC player of the year for the second year in a row, Eubanks started the summer by winning a Futures event in Winston-Salem, N.C., in June. In July, he won two rounds at the BB&T Open at Atlantic Station. He reached the quarterfinals by taking out Jared Donaldson, then the world No. 59. In the first round, he beat another young American, Taylor Fritz, for his first tour win, in front of hundreds of supporters.

“I still can remember match point, hitting a forehand winner and not believing I’d actually done it,” Eubanks said.

The trip to New York is at once a dream come true but also perhaps the first steps of a career about to lift off. He has vivid memories of a trip to the U.S. Open as an 11-year-old boy in 2007. He took a picture with Patrick McEnroe, then the U.S. Davis Cup captain and now an acquaintance. He shared a park bench on the national tennis center grounds with legendary instructor Nick Bollettieri and sought advice. He watched Roger Federer play a night match in the stadium court.

“And I’m like, wow, I’m actually going to be playing in the main draw of that tournament,” Eubanks said.

After the U.S. Open, Eubanks will take the fall semester off to play in Challenger-level ATP events as an amateur and, in his words, “kind of live the pro life for the next few months.” He’ll finish his Tech career in the spring. (He plans to return for his final semester to graduate with a business administration degree.) And then his professional career can begin in earnest.

As a freshman, Eubanks professed a desire to play professionally, “but, honestly, I don’t know if I actually meant it,” he said. “It was more like trying to speak it into existence. It wasn’t until after my sophomore year that I started to say, ‘Hey, maybe I can do this.’”

At least by the standard of rankings, Sela is a beatable opponent for Eubanks. He beat world No. 69 Janko Tipsarevic in Cincinnati in a qualifier. Sela, from Israel, is No. 72. Playing a best-of-five match will be new territory. Should he win, his likely opponent would be No. 5 seed Marin Cilic.

“Once I can get through the first couple games, I think I can kind of settle in, but there’s definitely going to be some nerves there, for sure,” Eubanks said.

Eubanks has a long frame – he’s 6-foot-7 – that can gain strength and hammer big serves. He has the awareness to recognize where he has to improve (strength, mobility, serve). He has allies, such as Atlanta-based pro Donald Young, coaches with the USTA and Kenny Thorne, his coach at Tech.

“To me, he’s one of the better competitiors out there,” Thorne said. “He’s not afraid to hit the ball under pressure and he never gives up. Put that together with his big game, he could do very, very well.”

And, starting next week, he has perhaps the biggest opportunity of his young career.

“It’s pretty crazy, because a couple years ago, I always said, ‘Yeah I want to be No. 1 in the world, but I didn’t know what it all took to be that good,” Eubanks said. “Now, I’m starting to see (what it takes), and I’m actually kind of enjoying the process of working towards it, and it’s pretty surreal.”

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