Roberto Carballes Baena was practising inside John Cain Arena Thursday afternoon with Italian star Jannik Sinner. The pair trained for two hours before taking a five-minute break ahead of point play. During that brief stop, the Spaniard checked his phone, on which he noticed an unpleasant surprise.
Carballes Baena received a Twitter message that he would be facing nine-time champion Novak Djokovic in the first round of the Australian Open.
“For sure it is something that when I saw the draw, it was tough in one way,” Carballes Baena told ATPTour.com. “But in the other way it’s a very good experience for me. I think [Rod Laver Arena is] one of the best courts in the world so I will try to enjoy, I will try to give my best and I will try to do a good match.”
It is not the first time Carballes Baena has faced Djokovic at a Grand Slam. The Serbian triumphed 6-4, 6-1, 6-4 against him in the first round of the 2019 US Open.
“The first five, 10 minutes I was a little bit nervous. It was very different. It was like a movie. It is like they have a [clapper] and you have to start to play now. But after five or 10 minutes you start to focus on your game, try to give your best,” Carballes Baena. “I think maybe I know him a little bit more than the first time. I saw him so many times on TV but I didn’t play against him. I know that he’s very good in everything but I think I have more of an idea how to play.”
That is because the Spaniard has become a practice partner for Djokovic when the former World No. 1 spends time in Marbella, about an hour’s drive from Carballes Baena’s home.
“For me it’s great. It’s something very good. I try to play with the best players and he’s probably one of the best of history,” Carballes Baena said. “You try to learn about his shots, his shots are very clean. He plays very good from everywhere. He serves very good, he returns unbelievable, he has a good backhand, so he’s very, very good in everything.”
Carballes Baena also knows that feeling comfortable training with Djokovic is different from doing so in a match. The best are able to raise their level in the heat of competition.
“It’s different. The nerves before the match, when you start you have to be very, very focussed and in practice it’s different,” Carballes Baena said. “You are trying to learn every day, you are trying something different. But when you start a match in a tournament like this you are a little bit nervous and you try to give your best.”
The 29-year-old will try to embrace the moment, too. It is a match like this the Spaniard has worked towards since beginning his tennis journey aged two.
Carballes Baena’s father, Pio, did not have a tennis background from a young age. But when living in London, he began to play “a lot” and then moved to Tenerife for two years. There, Pio did not work, choosing to focus on tennis. He never turned professional, but the sport became a big part of his life. Carballes Baena passed on his love for tennis to Roberto.
“After [that] I started to take some lessons and I started to play with some kids,” Carballes Baena recalled. “I liked it a lot. I wanted to play all the time. I went to school and then I went to the club and stayed all the afternoon there and that’s it.”
His passion remains with him to this day. According to his countryman Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, with whom he won an ATP Tour doubles title in 2020, his dedication shows on and off the court.
“I know him very well since a lot of years, maybe since 2015, ‘16. One thing is that he’s always very humble,” Davidovich Fokina said. “He fights a lot on court and he always wants to do more, he wants to improve every time that he practises or plays in a match or is in the gym. He’s a fighter.”
Once a boy waiting for school to end so he could play tennis, Carballes Baena has another opportunity to compete on one of the biggest stages in sports. He will play Djokovic on Tuesday evening inside Rod Laver Arena. The first time he stepped on the Melbourne centre court was after the draw came out.
“I think it’s something different,” Carballes Baena said. “Arthur Ashe was huge. When you go to the court, you see the court and you think that it’s very, very big. This one, I don’t know. It’s a little bit different.
“It’s a special match… I will try to give my best and I will try to have some chances.”