Roberto Carballes Baena practiced at the John Cain Arena with Italian star Jannik Sinner on Thursday afternoon. The pair trained for two hours before taking a five-minute break prior to the points game. During that brief stop, the Spaniard checked his phone and noticed an unpleasant surprise.
Carballes Baena received a Twitter message that he would face nine-time champion Novak Djokovic in the first round of the Australian Open.
“It’s definitely something that when I saw the draw was difficult in a way,” Carballes Baena told ATPTour.com. “But on the other hand, it is a very good experience for me. I think [Rod Laver Arena is] one of the best courses in the world so I will try to enjoy, I will try to do my best and I will try to play a good game.
It is not the first time that 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, ten minutes I was a little nervous. It was very different. It was like a movie. It’s like she’s one [clapper] and you should start playing now. But after five or ten minutes you start to concentrate on your game, try to do your best,” said Carballes Baena. “I think maybe I know him a little better than the first time. I’ve seen him on TV so many times, but I haven’t played against him. I know he’s very good at everything, but I think I have more of an idea of how to play.”
That’s because the Spaniard has become a practice partner for Djokovic when the former world number 1 spends time in Marbella, about an hour’s drive from Carballes Baena’s home.
“For me it’s great. It’s a very good thing. I try to play with the best players and he is probably one of the best in history,” said Carballes Baena. “You try to learn more about his shots, his shots are very clean. He plays very well everywhere. He serves very well, he hits back incredibly, he has a good backhand, so he’s very good at everything.”
Carballes Baena also knows that training comfortably with Djokovic is different than during a match. The best are able to raise their level in the heat of battle.
“It’s different. The nerves before the game, when you start you have to be very, very focused and in practice it’s different,” said Carballes Baena. “You try to learn every day, you try something different. But when you start a match in a tournament like this, you are a bit nervous and you try to give the best of yourself.”
The 29-year-old will also try to embrace the moment. It’s a competition like this that the Spaniard has been working towards since he started his tennis journey at the age of two.
Carballes Baena’s father, Pio, had no tennis background from an early age. But while living in London, he started playing “a lot” and then moved to Tenerife for two years. Pio did not work there and chose to focus on tennis. He never turned pro, but the sport became a big part of his life. Carballes Baena passed on his love of tennis to Roberto.
“After [that] I started taking some lessons and I started playing with some kids,” Carballes Baena recalled. “I really liked it. I wanted to play all the time. I went to school and then I went to the club and stayed there all afternoon and that was it.”
His passion remains with him to this day. According to his compatriot Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, with whom he won an TBEN doubles title in 2020, his dedication shows on and off the field.
“I know him very well since many years, maybe since 2015, ’16. One thing is that he is always very modest,” said Davidovich Fokina. “He fights a lot on court and he always wants to do more, he wants to improve every time he trains or plays in a match or is in the gym. He’s a fighter.”
Carballes Baena was once a boy who waited until school was out so he could play tennis. Now Carballes Baena has another chance to compete on one of the biggest podiums in the sport. He will play against Djokovic at the Rod Laver Arena on Tuesday evening. The first time he stepped onto Melbourne’s center court was after the draw came out.
“I think it’s something else,” said Carballes Baena. “Arthur Ashe was huge. When you go to court, you see the court and you think it’s very, very big. I don’t know this one. It’s a little different.
“It’s a special game… I’ll try to do my best and I’ll try to get some chances.”