November 22, 2020

From Zero to Hero

What a turnaround for Daniil Medvedev.

The world #4 came to London for his second trip to the year-end championships with a season that was a far cry than what he put together last year. Red hot to round out the 2019 season -- the now 24-year-old Russian had put together a stunning 29-4 record in his regular season after Wimbledon, playing six finals, including the U.S. Open, and picking up three titles -- I thought him nearly unstoppable. He'd beaten Dominic Thiem in Montreal, Novak Djokovic in Cincinnati, and forced Rafael Nadal to a stunning five setter in New York. But then, to the surprise of many, he went winless at the ATP Finals.

It appeared that lost momentum was following him into 2020, too -- while he made the semis at the ATP Cup, he lost fairly early to Stan Wawrinka in Australia and despite break leads in the second and third sets against Thiem in the U.S. Open semis, he ended up losing in straight sets a match that should have been much closer. He didn't do much better in the early fall either, losing in the first round of both clay court events he played, including Roland Garros, and then dropping matches to Reilly Opelka in St. Petersburg and Kevin Anderson in Vienna.

It might have been easy to write him off. But then he hit the hard courts of Paris and everything changed. He blasted past an on-point Diego Schwartzman in the quarters and came back from a set down to beat Alexander Zverev, who was coming off his own Grand Slam final debut at, offcourt issues notwithstanding, had won the last two events he'd played.

The title, Medvedev's first of the season, seemed to help him find the confidence that appeared lacking for so long. He was the only player of the eight qualifiers in London to win all three of his round robin matches, even stunning Djokovic, and didn't drop a single set. Against Rafa in Saturday's semi, he held tough after losing the first set and again when Nadal was serving for the match in the third, to pull off his first win over the world #2 in four meetings and to deny the Spaniard another chance to play for one of the few titles he's never won.

Meanwhile Dominic Thiem, last year's runner-up at the ATP Finals, was coming back to the O2 for the fifth straight year, but for the first time as a Major trophy winner. He was nearly flawless in his group matches, scoring an all-important win over Nadal but losing to London newbie Andrey Rublev in his last round robin. But he was undaunted against Djokovic in the semi -- after squandering match points in the second set tiebreak and finding himself in a 0-4 hole in the deciding breaker, he powered through to win seven of the next eight points, finally capitalizing on his sixth match point to get back to the final.

He came out firing on Sunday too, taking the first set from Medvedev in the championship match, but somehow the Russian was able to regroup again. After saving break chances in the second, Medvedev was able to force a decider and a late break in the third ultimately earned him the win.

The win for Medvedev serves as a nice bookend for the ATP Finals' time in London -- the first event held here back in 2009 was won by fellow Russian Nikolay Davydenko, what turned out to be by far the biggest win of his career. Will this be the highlight for Medvedev, too? Somehow, I doubt it. At 24, he's got much more time to be at the top of his game, and his ability to go from 0-3 to 5-0 against the very best players in the world suggests my initial belief in his talent was not unfounded.

Of course, we still don't know what next year will look like -- as we've seen the last pro matches of a very weird tennis season, there remain a ton of questions about the lead up to the Australian Open, who will make the trip, what restrictions they'll be under. But it seems certain Medvedev will hit the court running and the rest of the field will have to watch out.

November 14, 2020

A Final 50 Years in the Making

What a long and winding road it's been this year, huh? And against all odds, we're finally here at the last men's tournament of the season -- one we were doubting could possibly happen just a few months ago. But after all was said and done, the eight best players on tour this year are in London for the 50th anniversary of the ATP Finals, set to kick off their quests for a trophy that will cap off the strangest year in way more than half a century of tennis.

In the pack are a couple of year-end regulars and a handful of past champions, but if history is any guide experience isn't necessarily an advantage in London. Year-end #1 Novak Djokovic hasn't won the title here in five years, and shockingly Rafael Nadal has only ever made the championship match twice and lost both of them. Meanwhile defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas was able to win the whole thing on his first attempt last year. Does that bode well for this year's newbies? Well, they certainly hope so.

Group Tokyo 1970

The first round robin group, named in tribute to the first Masters event won by Sam Smith, is headlined by Novak Djokovic, who put together an astounding 39-3 record this year (with one big asterisk next to one of those losses). With four titles in 2020 and a 12-4 record against his groupmates, he's, as usual, the favorite for this title even with the relative drought he's had here. Still, he is coming off a pretty surprising loss to Lorenzo Sonego in Vienna, so there's more than enough opportunity for one of the new guys to step up.

Daniil Medvedev is the next highest-ranked player in the group, passing Roger Federer to become the #4 player in the world after his title in Paris. He went winless in his debut here last year, kind of surprising considering how strong his finish to last season was -- outside his courageous showing in the 2019 U.S. Open final, he also picked up Masters titles in Cincy and Shanghai -- so he'll certainly want to make up for that disappointing showing. A couple weeks ago, I might not have given him much of a chance, but that title in Bercy could help boost his confidence.

He got that win, after all, over another in this group -- Alexander Zverev, who claimed the championship here in 2018. He's actually the only player other than Djokovic in this group with a combined winning record against his opponents, and he's been, somewhat irritatingly, on a hot streak this fall. Since making his first Grand Slam final in New York -- and taking a 2-0 set lead in it -- he picked up two straight titles in Cologne before coming in second in Paris. And while the allegations from his ex may be all that's on our minds, he seems undistracted by anything going on off-court.

Rounding out the Tokyo Group is Diego Schwartzman, who is making his post-season debut at the ripe old age of 28. The 2014 champion at the ATP Challenger Tour Finals, Schwartzman really graduated to the big leagues in the last few months of the year, stunning Rafael Nadal in Rome and then fighting through a grueling five-setter to beat Dominic Thiem at the French Open. He hasn't lost to anyone outside the top ten since September, which may not be the most impressive stat, but certainly shows how he's upped his game recently. Still, he has by far the worst record against his opponents of anyone in London, but he's shown he's got what it takes to turn things around.

Group London 2020

The second half of the draw is led by Rafael Nadal who, in his tenth appearance at this event, is incredibly trying to capture one of the few titles missing from his trophy shelf. He has a decent draw to make it out of the round robins, with a 15-6 record against his opponents, and with a solid showing on hard courts this year, he might be able to come out on top. But, as always, the challengers will be tough.

Dominic Thiem is playing his fifth year end championship, and like Rafa has never come away with a trophy, losing in the final last year. But he's also never gone in as a Grand Slam winner, either. Will that give him a confidence he hasn't had before? It certainly could. After all, after getting OHSOCLOSE to winning the title in Australia at the start of the year -- having already beat Nadal in the quarters -- he was able to take it all in his next Major outing. He might be able to make lightning strike twice here too.

Of course, he'll face off early against the man who beat him here last year -- Stefanos Tsitsipas is back for the second straight year. But the Greek 22-year-old has been a little hot-and-cold this season. After early losses in Melbourne and New York, he was able to make his first Slam semi at Roland Garros, pushing Novak Djokovic to five sets to do it. But he lost early in his next two events, going 1-2 over the last few weeks. His biggest advantage, though, might be the element of surprise -- we weren't expecting much from him last year, and look at what he was able to do with it.

But the biggest wildcard at this event may be Andrey Rublev, who's got a tour-leading five titles this year. Playing at the tour finals for the first time, he's certainly a long shot for a title, but unlike the other newbie, he has a decent 4-5 record against his group opponents -- two of those wins came against Thiem and Tsitsipas on the way to two of his trophies this season. He's also gone on a couple of long win streaks in 2020, kicking off the season with eleven straight match wins, and repeating that run after the French Open, where he incidentally made his first Slam quarter. I wouldn't be surprised if he scored a few more victories and at least made his way to the semis.

However this event plays out, we can be sure of one things -- the best talents in men's tennis certainly made the best of what they could during this season. It may not have gone through the way we wanted, and there's still a lot more uncertainty ahead. But if these guys can keep up their best levels, we'll at least be able to end this year on a strong note.

November 12, 2020

How It Started...How It's Going...

We are in the final stretch of 2020's very strange and sadly abbreviated tennis season, with the last events before the year end championships wrapping up this week. And given everything we've seen over the last ten-plus months, it should be no surprise that things look very different now than they did then.

Sure, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are still at the top of the men's game, but we've seen precious little action from the elite ladies, whether due to injury or COVID-related restrictions. And some players who hit the ground running in 2020, from Tennys Sandgren to Elena Rybakina, have quieted down quite a bit post-lockdown. On the other hand, there are a couple others who are really starting to hit their stride in the back half of the year and are really making an effort to close out 2020 with a bang.

Let's start with the ladies in Linz, where top seeded Aryna Sabalenka is looking for her second trophy in as many tournaments. After that crazy come-from-behind victory in the Ostrava quarterfinals, she's been almost unstoppable, today crushing Stefanie Voegele in straight sets. It's a nice reversal from what might not have been a tragic start to the year, but nonetheless saw her upset by Kristyna Pliskova and Dayana Yastremska as well as a first round loss in Melbourne.

But she's not the only standout. Barbora Krejcikova, long at the top of the doubles game -- she won both the Roland Garros and Wimbledon titles in 2018, had floated in the triple digits on the singles scene for years. But cracked the top hundred after making the fourth round in Paris. She's been dealt a pretty nice draw in Austria, with Greet Minnen taking out third seeded Yastremska in the first round and her next opponent Aliaksandra Sasnovich beating eighth seed Bernarda Pera for her. If she keeps her form, she might just be able to make a play for the semis, and set the stage for more successes in the new year.

Even more impressive, though, has been the continued rise of Argentina's Nadia Podoroska, someone few of us had ever heard of a month ago. Spending most of her time on the ITF circuit, she started the year #234 in the world, down from a peak of #157 back in 2017. But fresh off a title in Saint-Malo, she rode from the qualifiers to the semifinals at the French Open, beating Yulia Putintseva and Elina Svitolina on the way -- Krejcikova, too, by the way. In her first appearnce since that Cinderella run, she's now ranked in the top fifty and holds the sixth seed, and so far she hasn't disappointed. She opened with a win over veteran Irina-Camelia Begu and today came back from a set down to beat Camila Giorgi. She'll next face Ekaterina Alexandrova, another standout this year, so it's not all smooth sailing. But I sure would like to see her keep her momentum going strong.

There have been some nice showings from the men in Sofia as well. Veteran Vasek Pospisil is well off his career high ranking of #31, hit back in 2014 -- he'd falling out of the top two hundred last year -- and started the year qualifying for Auckland and losing his opener in Melbourne. He made a nice run to the final in Montpellier in February, though, helping him get back to double digits, and when the tour restarted was able to reach the fourth round at the U.S. Open -- his best Major showing in five years. This week he stunned Jan-Lennard Struff in the second round and earlier today ousted Nur-Sultan champion John Millman in straight sets. He'll face fellow vet Richard Gasquet for a spot in the final, but he's met tougher challenges before.

But the real breakout of this event, and maybe of the year, certainly seems to be 19-year-old Jannik Sinner, who started the year at #78 in the world. The Italian took a little time to find his footing, losing early in all his pre-lockdown tournaments and even on the U.S. hardcourts. But he really, maybe ironically, found traction on the clay, stunning Stefanos Tsitsipas in Rome and an ailing Alexander Zverev at the French to make his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Now in the top fifty, he just missed getting a seed in Sofia, but hasn't yet seemed fazed, coming back from a set down to take out third seed Alex de Minaur earlier today. He'll take on Adrian Mannarino in the semis and I kind of like his chances not just for that win, but maybe for the title.

Of course this year has been hard on all of us, even those seeing the most success now. But hopefully these guys will be able to keep up their momentum on the other side of this pandemic. And maybe they can give us the inspiration we need to turn things around for ourselves, too.

November 8, 2020

On the Court...and Off

Earlier today, Russia's Daniil Medvedev made an eleventh hour move to get his season back on track, picking up the title in Paris, his third Masters trophy, in the last big event before the year-end championships in London.

Of course the story that really captured everyone's attention this week was that of his final opponent Alexander Zverev, who late last month was accused by his ex-girlfriend Olya Sharypova of physical and mental abuse. (If you haven't read her account of what happened, please do.) Another ex also revealed she's having his baby and seemed to suggest he'll have no part in raising the child.

I don't often talk about the off-court lives of players here, but this instance seems especially poignant. Zverev has denied the accusations, but after today's loss gave commentary that probably won't win him any fans:
"I know that there's gonna be a lot of people that right now are trying to wipe a smile off my face but under this mask I'm smiling brightly. I feel incredible on court [...] everything is great in my life. The people who are trying can keep trying."
It's only the latest scandal to hit Zverev this year. A mainstay on Novak Djokovic's ill-fated Adria Tour over the summer, he was caught on video partying, maskless, after so many players he was with had tested positive for COVID. A few months later, after his fourth round loss at Roland Garros he admitted he played despite a hundred degree fever and cough, raising questions again of whether he'd exposed others to the deadly virus.

But this accusation hits in the gut so much harder. Sure, we haven't heard Zverev's side of the story -- only that the relationship ended a long time ago, which I'm sure I'm not the only one to point out isn't really a reponse -- but what we've read already has inspired a flood of support for Olya and calls for the ATP to suspend Zverev from the Tour.

So far the allegations haven't seemed to distract him from his game -- he was able to manage a win over Rafael Nadal in the Paris semis and, thanks in part to his first Major final in New York, will be returning to London for the fourth time. But the mood around him there -- even with no audience in attendence -- has certainly soured.

And for what it's worth, I'm hoping Olya's the one that comes out of this stronger.

November 5, 2020

What's Your Number? Take Two

A couple weeks ago we were all excited about the number 20...or 13...or 100, depending on your preference. And as striking as those accomplishments were for Rafael Nadal, since then he's laid claim to a couple more milestones that might be even more impressive.

Just yesterday, the long-time king of Roland Garros made history on a different Paris court, scoring his thousandth career singles win with a three set victory over fellow Spaniard Feliciano Lopez -- he picked up #1,001 earlier today, by the way. That puts him in rarified air occupied by just three other men: Roger Federer, of course, as well as Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors. And it further distances him from Novak Djokovic, nearly seventy wins behind him, and Pete Sampras, who retired with a relatively middling 762.

It's especially notable given how long we worried Rafa's aggressive style of play would wear him out early in his career and limit his time at the top. And sure, not every stretch of a hundred wins was as as easy to come by as the rest -- he went from 200 to 300 in fifteen months, but in part thanks to the lockdown, it's taken more than two years to get the last hundred. 800-900 took a while too. But Nadal's lost remarkably few matches to get those thousand wins -- his 83.2% overall win percentage bests all others in the four-digit club -- and, lest you think his results were skewed by his dominance on clay, he actually has more wins on hardcourts than on any other surface.

He's got a ways to go before he overtakes Lendl in total wins -- the Czech has a lead of a little over a season's worth of wins on Rafa -- and he's faaaar behind Fed and Connors, with numbers in the 1,200s. But Nadal also quietly set a record last week that he holds all to himself and which, like his 13 French Open titles, will likely stand for a very long time. As of October 26th he had spent 788 weeks ranked in the top ten, passing Jimmy Connors who'd held the record since 1988.

Rafa first hit single digits in May 2005 after winning his first title in Barcelona and, astoundingly, he's never again let his ranking dip out of the ultra elite since. There were a few weeks back in 2015 when he flirted with the next tier, dropping to #10 in the world after that devastating loss in the French quarters, but he's never let go.

Federer, number three on this leaderboard, broke a 734-week streak in 2016 after an injury-addled season cut his year short. Djokovic's reign lasted just 555 weeks and ended with elbow surgery in 2017. The player with the second-longest active run? Dominic Thiem, with just 209 weeks in the top ten. He's got some ten years to go if he wants to make a play for the top spot, and considering Nadal's tenure is only getting longer, it may be even longer than that.

Who knows how Rafa will fare the rest of this week -- he's actually only reached the final of the Paris Masters one time before, way back in 2007 -- but the results at this one tournament hardly even matter. In the horse race between the Big Three, in the grand debate over who ultimately deserves the title of GOAT 🐐, different people will pull ahead at different times and in different metrics. But there are a couple places in which Rafael Nadal has proven he can't be beat -- at least not for some time -- and whatever number you choose to define his legacy, he's clearly going to strive to keep raising the bar even higher.

November 2, 2020

The Final Countdown

We're officially in the last stretch of this abbreviated and infinitely strange 2020 tennis season, with the last big event before the ATP Finals now underway. And with so few opportunities for players to make really big statements this year, perhaps it's no surprise that such a diverse field is hoping to close out 2020 with a strong performance at the Paris Masters.

Maybe somewhat surprisingly, all four of last week's finalists are back in the draw this week. John Millman, fresh off his first career title in Nur-Sultan, opens his campaign against a tough Miomir Kecmanovic and could next face U.S. Open finalist Alexander Zverev, who, despite two straight titles in Cologne, finds himself embroiled in scandal yet again this year. And Adrian Mannarino, who he beat yesterday, looms as a potential third round.

Meanwhile Vienna (🙏) Cinderella Lorenzo Sonego, a lucky loser who jumped to a career high #32 ranking with a stunning victory over Novak Djokovic last week, starts in Paris against tricky server Alexander Bublik. And Andrey Rublev, who booked his first ticket to the year-end championship by winning the title in Austria, has a second round date with Radu Albot. He's trying to earn an inspiring sixth title this year.

Then there's under-the-radar Ugo Humbert, who picked up his second trophy of 2020 in Antwerp a few weeks ago and extended his win streak today by outlasting Casper Ruud in three sets. For his efforts, he'll be awarded a second round against second seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.

But there are a couple players in the field who are trying less to keep their recent momentum going, and more to turn around their luck. There are plenty to choose from, from David Goffin to one-time U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic. But highest on my list is Daniil Medvedev, who I thought last year would be virtually unstoppable against the top players. He's been rather lackluster in 2020, making the semis at the U.S. Open, but losing his first round at Roland Garros. He could potentially face off against Kevin Anderson, who beat him last week in Vienna, in the second round and while the South African is certainly well of his best game, he might be able to pull off an upset.

And of course, I can't leave out Diego Schwartzman, who's certainly won a lot of hearts with his performance this year. The Argentine, who stunned Rafael Nadal in Rome and made the French Open semis, has the ATP Finals in his sights for the first time in his career and would clinch it with a final appearance in Paris. He hasn't suffered a lot of upsets recently and with Medvedev the only other seed in his quarter, he could make a real play for the finish line.

Of course, there are a couple notable names absent from the Paris Masters draw this year, which could create some opportunities for spoilers. Some of that comes down to the COVID-altered ranking methodology, which allows players to count points from the better of their performances at an event in either this year or last. That's why Novak Djokovic, who won the title last year in Paris, had no incentive to defend those points and chose instead to lock in a year-end #1 with a couple wins in Vienna last week. Then there are players like Dominic Thiem, injured during his quarter final last week, who pulled out just before the draw was announced, and Gael Monfils, red-hot before the shutdown and winless since, who said he was ending his season last week.

Can the slew of lucky losers in the draw take advantage of those openings? Could top seeded Rafael Nadal take home his first hard court title in Paris -- how weird to think he's had such vastly different results in the same city?!

Whatever the case, it'll be interesting to see if these players can close out the year on a high note. While, at the end of the day, their performances may not be what we remember most about 2020, for each of them, this is a great opportunity to start to write a new story.

October 25, 2020

Back From the Brink

You know that phrase, "Down, but not out"? Well, we sure saw a prime example of that this week at the inaugural J&T Banka Ostrava Open in the Czech Republic.

Third seeded Aryna Sabalenka was trailing 0-6, 0-4, 40-Ad in her quarterfinal match against Sara Sorribes Tormo on Friday and somehow found it in her to rally for the next twelve games, not dropping a single one of them and coming out the winner under the unlikeliest of circumstances. And for those who thought she might be too spent from that effort to go any further -- I admittedly count myself in that group -- she was happy to prove us wrong, not only recovering to win her semifinal a day later, but going on to crush recent standout Victoria Azarenka with a straight set win in today's title match. And, if that weren't enough, she teamed up with Elise Mertens to win the doubles crown in Ostrava too.

It ended up being a redemption tour of sorts for the 22-year-old Belarusian. Not only did she avenge her second round U.S. Open loss to Vika on Sunday, but a few matches earlier she'd also rebounded, this time from a 1-6 first set against Coco Gauff, her vanquisher in Lexington, to manage that win as well.

But it will likely be that quarterfinal match that Sabalenka is better remembered for, rivalling even the epic turn of the tables Varvara Gracheva pulled off against Kiki Mladenovic just a few weeks ago. It's encouraging that Sabalenka was able to play more consistently in later rounds, but the streakiness of that one match certainly presents some questions -- not to mention what it says for Sorribes, who was a point away from a 5-0 lead in that second set before she was dismantled.

Sabalenka is, after all, one of the more powerful players on tour. Two years ago she caught my eye with her performance during the U.S. hardcourt season, where she picked up her maiden title in New Haven and put together his still-best Major performance with a run to the fourth round in New York. A few weeks later in Wuhan, she beat Elina Svitolina, Sofia Kenin and Ashleigh Barty on her way to a second career trophy. She beat Barty again in defending that title in 2019, and this year has wins over Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova to boot. But she's also been on the losing side of some surprising scorelines, upset by Kristyna Pliskova, Jessica Pegula, and a now in-recovery Carla Su´rrez Navarro.

But perhaps that quarterfinal marked a turning point not just for this tournament, but for Sabalenka's career. If she can prove she's more like the player we saw since then than the one before, it's going to be hard for her rivals to compete and she could not only make herself a more consistent feature of the top ten but become a real contender for the big titles. We haven't yet seen a deep run from her at the Majors, after all, but maybe that will change in the new year.

And, at the very least, we'll all know never to count her out.