He played before the world at Wimbledon. Tuesday night, Christopher Eubanks returned home to play in front of the people who knew him when.
The stadium court at the Atlanta Open brimmed with men, women and children who had come to Atlantic Station to support the Westlake High grad and former Georgia Tech star in his first-round match, his first appearance since his surprise run to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon two weeks ago.
Family members and friends filled the stands as sunset cast a golden glow on the stadium. Among them were Michael and Tamiko Rainey, Eubanks’ first coach and his wife. Rainey gave Eubanks lessons at the Burdett Tennis Center in South Fulton starting when he was six or seven years old.
“Little Chris, he had that ‘it,’” Michael Rainey said. “I was telling his father (Mark) about this. I remember that day we were talking and he said, ‘That boy, he’s going to play in a major.’ We both said it.”
A coach of a later vintage, Tech coach Kenny Thorne, was also in attendance (along with men’s basketball coach Damon Stoudamire and athletic director J Batt), as was fellow Westlake alum and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.
Eubanks said that he knew Newton was coming, but “I didn’t know he was going to be there right at 7, which was really cool. I looked up as soon as we walked on court. I could see (it was him), he’s a very distinguishable figure.”
In a year that he has described as a dream come true – his first professional tournament title (in Mallorca, Spain) followed by making the Wimbledon quarters – Eubanks extended the reverie. Eubanks, whose world ranking is a career-high 32nd, won for the 10th time in his past 11 matches. Facing Tech’s Andres Martin, a hitting partner of Eubanks’ who was allotted a wild-card entry into the field, the fifth-seeded Eubanks cruised 6-2, 6-4. He needed but 67 minutes to advance to the second round. He’ll play Brandon Nakashima in a second-round evening match Wednesday.
Eubanks’ elegant backhand was a precision weapon. The serve-and-volley game racked up points. Martin challenged Eubanks at different moments, but the gap between the amateur Martin – albeit an All-American – and a professional at the top of his game was clear.
“It felt good,” Eubanks said. “It’s always fun playing at home. These conditions have always suited my game really well – the humidity, the ball moving quick through the air.”
It was a day to celebrate tennis in Atlanta and the state of Georgia. The afternoon lineup included Georgia great John Isner. Martin, Eubanks’ opponent, is from Flowery Branch. The final match of the night featured Ben Shelton, who grew up in Atlanta as the son of former Tech women’s tennis coach Bryan Shelton.
“When I saw the schedule and I saw John before me, I knew I was coming after him and then Ben to follow, that’s what you dream about,” Eubanks said. “I think the crowd hopefully they were able to get their money’s worth, to have a lot of people to support in back-to-back-to-back matches.”
Isner, the six-time Atlanta Open winner, lost 3-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (3) to Germany’s Dominik Koepfer, the first time he has ever lost in the first round in his 13 appearances in the event. At 38 and out of the top 100 for the first time since 2009, Isner is contemplating retirement. He said it “absolutely” crossed his mind that Tuesday’s loss at Atlantic Station might have been his last time playing at an event that he has defined.
“I don’t want to end like that, but it appears that my best tennis is behind me,” he said. “But that happens to everyone, right? But it still sucks losing. I still know I’m tough to beat if I play the right way and do the right things. I think I can be in this tournament in some capacity. We’ll see.”
In the nightcap, Shelton, who made headlines in January by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and entered this week’s tournament ranked 41st in the world, fell 6-4, 6-4 to China’s Juncheng Shang.
The day belonged to Eubanks, soaking in the moment as fans were in his corner as he played Martin. He has played the event multiple times, but it’s the first time where he said he couldn’t walk to the racquet stringer without getting stopped for autographs and pictures.
“I think (the support) has really gone up a few notches because of Mallorca and Wimbledon,” Eubanks said. “At the end of the day, it’s a pretty good problem to have. People want to come out and support you and really want to see you do well. You can’t really ask for much more.”
In a post-match interview on the court, fans enthusiastically cheered each answer he gave. Eubanks delighted supporters by telling them that “Atlanta means everything” and listing off tennis centers where he had played as a junior – “I don’t know if you guys know Hudlow Tennis Center” – eliciting a reaction similar to what rock stars get when they open a concert with “Hello, Atlanta!”
It has been a long time coming for Eubanks, an atypically late arrival to the world top 50. Where players making the top 50 and competing for grand slam tournaments by the time they’re 20 or 21 is standard, Eubanks turned pro out of Tech in 2017 at the age of 21 after three seasons at Tech. From there, he struggled to establish himself, scuffling on the minor-league Challenger Tour and having to go through qualifiers to play his way into the bigger ATP Tour events.
His turnaround finally happened last summer after a first-round loss in a Challenger event in Chicago, as he tired of Challenger life and rededicated himself to sticking to routines like properly warming up, cooling down and sleeping and eating better. And – surprise – results followed, culminating with his stunning showing at Wimbledon.
The loss in Chicago may have been a rock-bottom event, “but, trust me, I was on tour for, what, five years,” he said. “There were a lot of low points, a whole lot of them.”
And a pretty high moment Tuesday night, and not only for Eubanks. After his post-match interview at the Twelve Hotel lobby, Eubanks greeted friends, doling out hugs, taking pictures and sharing memories. His old coach Michael Rainey and his wife were among them, Tamiko getting reduced to tears by the moment. Michael Rainey was asked what Tuesday night meant.
“Man, without getting too emotional, it’s kind of hard,” he said.