Chris Eubanks: ‘We haven’t had the luxury of a Black male like Serena who just dominated’
The breakout star of Wimbledon talks about nearly quitting tennis, finding his second wind as a late bloomer and coming into his own as the role model he never had while growing up
Christopher Eubanks motions to the white chair in the player’s area and adjusts a bench for himself, positioning his long legs on either side, trying to comfortably seat his 6ft 7in frame. The professional tennis player had just arrived in Washington DC the previous night, dropped his bags off at the hotel, and three hours later was at a Drake concert. Two days before, he was playing under the lights in quarter-finals at the Atlanta Open. Now, he is fielding my questions at the Mubadala Citi DC Open. When asked if the quick turnaround time was normal for him, he laughs.
“No. Because I usually don’t go that deep in tournaments.”
Eubanks, who reached a career high ranking of 29 in July, was toiling in the mid-100s of the table just last year. But his storybook run at Wimbledon, where he reached the quarter-finals and wooed tennis fans with his loquacious charm, was the pinnacle of a meteoric rise.
In April, the 27-year-old broke the top 100 for the first time in his five years on tour. Ahead of Wimbledon, he won his first tournament, Spain’s Mallorca Open, played on grass. Only weeks earlier, he had complained to Kim Clijsters that grass – whose slick surface causes balls to skid and stay low – was “the stupidest surface to play tennis on”. But his big serve and control at the net was a fit for the surface once he found his footing.
He carried that momentum into Wimbledon. He served and volleyed, keeping the points short and frustrating his opponents who couldn’t find a rhythm. He blasted his forehand – “my favorite shot” – and took risks with his one-handed backhand, pasting it down the line to his opponents’ surprise. He won three straight matches.
In the fourth round, Eubanks found himself down two sets to one to Stefanos Tsitsipas, a former world No 3. He would have to take the match to five sets, a grueling effort, but Eubanks saw a path forward. “I felt like if I could serve well and get myself later into the match, hopefully, I could cause him some type of discomfort, maybe put him in uncomfortable positions and do things to just kind of keep him off balance.” His serve started to click, driving a comeback in the fourth. He won in five sets.
His run brought him to the quarter-finals to face world No 3 Daniil Medvedev. During a fourth set tiebreaker –“a topsy curvy breaker” in Eubanks’ words – the grandeur of the stage briefly entered his mind, and Medvedev, who has more experience in those moments, took over. Eubanks lost the match, but by the time he left Wimbledon, he had broken the record for most winners in a single Wimbledon run – a mind-boggling 321.
On his return to his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, Eubanks, who might have been one of the most popular players in the locker room, discovered he was one of the most sought-after men in the press room. The crowd, which had always cheered for him, was ecstatic to have him back. Kids came up to him, asking for his autograph. Eubanks reached the quarterfinal at the Atlanta Open, losing to the finalist of this year’s tournament – “nothing to hang my head about” – but acknowledging “there was definitely some added attention my way.”
Eubanks describes a “very, very tight knit community” among Atlanta’s southside tennis players. His dad, a Baptist minister who picked up the sport as an adult, had already gotten Eubanks’ elder brother into the sport. With Chris, he started even younger, teaching him the game at age 2. While his father was the guiding force, they sought out expertise elsewhere. “We would go around and, you know, tinker and work with other coaches here and there to pick and choose different things to take and learn from.”
“Everyone, especially on that side of town, the south side of Atlanta, all hit at a few places. And we all just kind of came together.”
Among those players was Jarmere Jenkins, a family friend who would go on to turn pro and become a hitting partner for Serena Williams and now Coco Gauff. As a seven-year-old, Eubanks saw Jenkins playing all over the world in the ITF Men’s World Tennis Tour. “I always say Jarmere Jenkins is the first role model I ever had,” Eubanks says. “That was kind of the first person that I said, ‘Oh, man, I want to be just like that.’ I used to wear ankle braces because he wore ankle braces. Every racket I used all the way up to about 13 was one of his old rackets – he used to get rackets for free, I didn’t, so his dad would give his old ones to me.”
In high school, Eubanks began going to Donald Young’s tennis facility, just 10 minutes from his home. He’d teach the after-school program and then hit one-on-one with Young, at the time an up-and-coming pro who was coached by his parents. “That was my window of really practicing with a top pro.”
Just months after Young made a run at the 2011 US Open, Young and his parents came to 15-year-old Eubanks with an opportunity. “‘Hey, Chris, would you want to come and travel to some tournaments? Would it work with school?’” Eubanks recalls them asking. Unlike most top junior players, Eubanks was in public school. But with the OK from his teachers, he began traveling with the Youngs as a hitting partner. They went to Casablanca, Morocco and Monte-Carlo Masters in France. “They liked how I hit, they liked having me around,” he says. “I didn’t cause too much trouble.” They asked him to join them again for the clay court season. He went to Madrid, where he turned 16, then to Rome, Nice and Paris. By the end of the four weeks, he had solidified his role as a hitting partner and ingratiated himself to the family. “I know the ropes. I know the other players, I know rackets he wants to get strung, those little technical things.”
Instead of playing junior tournaments, Eubanks was hitting with Young at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. The experience developed his game style. “To be able to practice and see that high level of tennis every single day did wonders for my game. When I came back, this time with junior tournaments, the ball seemed like it was going so much slower. I had so much more time. I could do exactly what I wanted when I wanted,” he says. “It also helped develop the game that I have now, being more aggressive and taking risks, because that was the only way I could get Donald a good practice. Otherwise, he would just run me side to side,” he says, laughing.
When he was home, Eubanks would usually play local 18 and over tournaments. The choice was an easy one. “Are we really going to spend a lot of money to travel and play some of the top 14 to 16 tournaments? Or we could just play local 18s tournaments, and I could get my butt beat enough times to try to figure it out.”
The local tournaments and time traveling with Young meant Eubanks flew under the radar for college recruiters. Young urged the coach at Georgia Tech to check out Eubanks, and after watching him serve, coach Kenny Thorne eagerly signed the undiscovered recruit before other coaches could scout him. It paid off; Eubanks’ Georgia Tech career earned him all-American status twice. Then in 2017, just credits shy of graduating, he decided to forgo his senior year of eligibility and take a leap of faith. He turned pro.
Reflecting on his mentors, Eubanks says he was lucky. “It gave me the ability to see that it was possible,” Eubanks says. “Because it’s tough for a kid to really believe they can be something if they don’t see anyone who looks like them doing it. It’s a tough thing to get a kid to buy into, to say, ‘You can do this,’ but when you look on TV, you don’t see anyone that looks like you doing that. I think on the men’s side, we haven’t had the luxury of having a Black male like Serena who just dominated the sport. But I think now that there’s a bigger group of us now coming up, little Black boys can turn on the TV and see maybe one of our matches and say, ‘Hey, maybe I want to do that. Maybe I don’t want to play basketball. Maybe I want to give tennis a try.’”
By 2021, Eubanks was frustrated with his ranking. He was still hovering around 195 – a reality that for many players means breaking even or going into the red. Whatever prize money one earns goes into paying one’s airfare, coach, hotel, etc. Ahead of the US Open, he set up a meeting with his agent to discuss his options.
“If I’m still ranked around this 200 mark at the end of next year, there’s got to be something else I can do. I’m just really over it,” he recalls telling his agent. His agent suggested that he try commentating for the Tennis Channel. By the fall, Eubanks was commentating a few matches for the Challenger circuit, the stepping stone to the ATP.
“I really liked it. I was like, ‘Man, I really think this is something I can be good at.’ And to some degree, it kind of lifted a little bit of the burden off my shoulders and made me say, ‘Hey, if I don’t make it in tennis, I think this is something I can do.’ And I think my game started to follow after that, where I kind of freed up, played better, and also got to see the game a lot better.”
At 27, Eubanks is not the rising young star, like his friend Coco Gauff, but he’s the pro who has started to figure it out. Looking at his game from last year to this year, he’s adamant. “Nothing really clicked per se. My game is very similar to how it’s always been.” And he’s not wrong. The stats show his first serve has stayed consistent and only small improvements in his second serve and return games. He points to the work that he’s putting in off the court – the conditioning, the drills, the rehab and rest – and the consistency that’s brought his game. But belief, he acknowledges, “is probably the biggest thing.” He points to it all beginning with his first-round win at the US Open last year. It was his first win at a grand slam and it lifted a burden off his shoulders. “I told friends of mine, ‘Alright, now I actually feel like a pro.”
As he entered the spring hardcourt season this year, he figured out that he needed to have fun on the court; if he treated it like a job, the results wouldn’t flow. He reached the quarterfinals of the Miami Open. He was smiling on court, laughing at both his mistakes and unbelievable winners. He stopped looking deep into the draw, and by the time of his second round win at Wimbledon, he had to be told his next opponent. “One match at a time” became his mantra.
“I would have loved to have had this type of success earlier in my career, but I don’t think I would have appreciated it nearly as much. The wait makes it a little bit sweeter,” he says. “I think it just reinforces the fact that if you have a process or a progression and you trust it, you just have faith that it’s going to happen. Just trust that it’s going to happen in its own time. And I just feel like I’m maybe more of a product of that than anything else.”
Since his run at Wimbledon, Eubanks progressed further than he ever had at the Atlanta Open, reaching the quarterfinals, and at the Mubadala Citi DC Open, where he reached the third round before being knocked out. But since then, he’s been dealt first-round losses, with veteran Gael Monfils besting him at the Canadian Open and Australian Open quarterfinalist Ben Shelton coming out ahead at the Cincinnati Masters. When asked about how he’s dealing with people’s expectations before the US Open, he’s quick to answer.
“I truly don’t really care at this point. Because I’m just confident in this. What I’ve done in showing myself over the past year and my process – it works for me. Not focusing on the winning and losing part of it and just focusing on my confidence to be predicated on: did I do all that – did I get enough sleep, did I eat the right amount? Did I do the extra feeds I said I was going to do on court? Did I do the extra serves? If I do all that other stuff, and I feel good when I walk on court that I did what I was supposed to do, and I go out there and I don’t win – other people’s expectations don’t really matter to me. I did what I’m supposed to do. It just didn’t go my way. That’s tennis, we move on to the next week.”