Ernesto Escobedo living out his -- and his father's -- dream

Ernesto Escobedo's ranking rose more than 400 spots in the past year. Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Back in the early 1980s, Ernesto Escobedo Jr. dreamed of becoming a professional tennis player.

"But I did not have any talent," he explained last week from Las Vegas. "No, no, no. I wasn't really a tennis player."

As a teenager, he played events in Mexico and found his way to small-money tournaments in Holland, France, Italy and Spain. But after a few years of scuffling -- his career-high doubles ranking was No. 727 -- he returned to Mexico.

"I loved everything about tennis," he said, laughing. "But when I hit 20, I started to realize it wasn't my future. I always had the feeling that I was going against the water, the ocean."

In Mexico, where most of his family was, he met his future wife, Cristina. In 1986, they moved to Los Angeles, Ernesto Jr.'s birthplace.

A decade later, Ernesto III appeared, and although his father tried to steer him into team sports like soccer and basketball, he was happiest with a tennis racket in his hand. This made Ernesto Jr. very unhappy.

"He didn't want to me to go through what he did," Ernesto III said.

The son hit against the wall at school, sometimes joined by his mother. Initially, Ernesto Jr., who drove a truck for UPS, stayed out of it. But when he saw those unnaturally fluid strokes, Ernesto III's precocious court sense, he eventually relented.

The first tournament, at the age of 8, came at Pacific Palms in Industry Hills, California.

"I lost first round," Ernesto III said. "But it was so much fun. I liked being out there and competing."

Gradually, the father's deferred dream came true -- for the son. And today, the son is succeeding primarily because of his father.

On Oct. 15, when Ernesto III won the ATP World Tour Challenger event in Monterrey, Mexico, the first call was to his father.

"He cried," Ernesto III said. "He said he was proud of me.

"That meant a lot."

Escobedo, at 20, is one of the most dynamic young players in this country. Brad Gilbert, former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick (one of Escobedo's idols growing up) sees him as a future top-50 player and maybe better.

The title at Monterrey completed a spectacular 53-week cycle that saw his ATP ranking rise from No. 541 to a career-high No. 129. After reaching the semifinals a year ago in Monterrey, Escobedo ripped through the Challenger circuit, reaching the finals in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Cary, North Carolina, and winning in Lexington, Kentucky, beating highly regarded American teenager Francis Tiafoe in the final.

At 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, Escobedo hits the ball big off both wings and, according to Gilbert, has a better serve than his modest body would suggest. Gilbert, however, describes his movement as "average."

When this was relayed to him, Escobedo started laughing.

"I'm not the quickest guy on the court," he said. "It's something for me to improve on. I've been working hard for the past two months on the track with explosive weights, and that's been helping me a lot."

Working hard is something he picked up from his father, who like Richard and Oracene Williams started his child on the public courts of southern California.

"Same thing," Ernesto Jr. explained. "I didn't want to get into tennis because I knew how hard it was. I had no resources, no money. So it was the parks, not the clubs. I started hitting with him and, little by little, we got hooked again.

"I told him then, 'If you're going to be good one day, it's not going to because of the money.'"

Ernesto Jr. cut his job back to part time so he could spend more time on court with his son. Like the Williams' parents, he also avoided the conventional junior system, saying he wanted to keep the family together.

"He started playing Futures tournaments when he was 16," Ernesto Jr. said. "When he reached a semifinal, we started practicing harder. My plan was for him to go to college, but he said he wanted to see if he could make it in the pros.

"He told me, 'A lot of players don't have this opportunity. I don't want to be regretting this for the rest of my life.'

"I wasn't convinced."

But his son's persistence -- and evident happiness -- changed his mind. Ernesto Jr. still wishes he was pursuing a college degree that he said was offered by USC, but he's seeing progress.

A year ago when Ernesto III reached the semifinal in Monterrey, he wasn't ready.

"I couldn't focus at all," Escobedo said. "It was too big of a stage for me, and my emotions got in the way.

"I learned a lot from that match. I've matured a lot. I'm much more comfortable in that situation."

His goal is to be in the top 100 "pretty soon," which would qualify him automatically into the main draws of Grand Slams. He said he is trying to be a more aggressive player, coming to net more often and serving and volleying. This isn't the conventional baseline style, but Escobedo isn't as big as some of the ATP's other #NextGen players, such fellow American Taylor Fritz, with whom he shares coach Peter Lucassen, or Alexander Zverev of Germany.

This week's Las Vegas Challenger, where he won his first-round match, was his 28th event in a jammed calendar that included a good mix of Futures, Challengers and ATP tournaments. He won his first ATP-level match after qualifying in Nottingham back in June, beating Diego Schwartzman. Escobedo, a wild card at the US Open, split four sets with Lukas Lacko before winning by retirement. Escobedo will finish up with Challengers in Ecuador and Colombia.

With the help of the USTA, Escobedo is getting coaching and support as he travels the world and learns the nuances of the game. His father still insists he play hard and exhibit good body language.

Understandably, because of his personal experience, he is cautious.

"You can't get ahead of yourself," Escobedo Jr. said, speaking more of his son than himself. "I'm trying not to get too excited. We don't know what lies ahead, two, three years.

"But, I've already done my part."

What was it like to hear that his son had won an important tournament?

"Doing what I dreamed of," he said, voice trailing off. "It's a beautiful feeling. Beautiful. I can't ask anything for more."