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February 21, 2021

Unstoppable


There's no question the greatest stars in tennis know how to turn it up when it counts the most. And that's just what Novak Djokovic did Sunday to win his record ninth Australian Open title.

The undisputed King of Melbourne Park didn't have the easiest road this year, battling an injury in the third round that forced him to five sets against Taylor Fritz and made him question whether he could continue. He dropped sets to Frances Tiafoe, Milos Raonic, and Alexander Zverev too, arguably one of the least dominant paths to the final he's ever had here. And in order to take home the trophy, he'd face off against one of the hottest guys on tour at the moment.

Enough can't be said about Daniil Medvedev's twenty-match win streak going into today's championship. Of course Nole's had his own long runs over the years, but the Russian's included a dozen victories over players ranked in the top ten, even one over Djokovic himself -- not only was he winning, he was beating the best.

But in Sunday's final, it was experience that won out. After a tight first set with traded breaks near the top, it was all Novak. He ran his opponent from corner to corner, dominated at the net, and allowed few chances on his serve. After less than an unexpectedly straightforward two hours, Djokovic had earned himself his eighteenth career Grand Slam.

The win not only establishes his reign Down Under, and brings him within two titles of Roger and Rafa's Major records, but further cements the stranglehold the Big Three have at these events. Since 2005, there have only been three Slam finals which didn't feature at least one of them, and 22 that had two. Together they've won 58 of the last 70 trophies. Sure players like Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem have made inroads, but we still appear to be far away from anyone posing a consistent threat.

Medvedev, though, showed a lot of promise, and it's not just lip service to think he'll be one of the guys breaking through the barrier eventually. But if we've learned anything, it's that it'll be a while before that wall truly comes tumbling down.

February 20, 2021

The Year of Naomi

February 7, 2020.

That was the last time Naomi Osaka lost a match. And given how she played over the past two weeks at the Australian Open, it sure feels like the date will stand for some time longer.


Osaka captured her fourth Grand Slam title Saturday in Melbourne, tying her with Kim Clijsters in the Major record books and putting her just one trophy behind Maria Sharapova. And at just 23 years of age, she's got plenty of time to add to her numbers.

Her run over the last year is certainly something to be admired. Sure, her loss-less span is somewhat technical -- she, and everyone else, didn't play for nearly seven months after that defeat in the Fed Cup qualies due to the lockdown, and she did pull out of the Western & Southern final as well as the Gippsland draw ahead of the Open. But she's still accomplished so much over that period, not all of it on court, and has become a better player for it.

During her time in Melbourne she did face challenges, saving match points against last year's runner-up Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round, but pulled off a sound win in the semis over Serena Williams, who has as many Major trophies as Osaka has years behind her. And in Saturday's championship she was just as unstoppable.

Jennifer Brady, who had her breakthrough last year in New York, was playing in her first ever Grand Slam final. She was the only player subject to the hard quarantine who made it out of the third round, and though she never faced an opponent ranked in the top twenty-five during her campaign, she was still playing solid ball through the final. But while she had the opportunity to be the second straight American to win the crown here, she could never quite get a handle on the heavy favorite and eventually fell in straight sets.

The win cements Osaka's position at the very top of the sport and serves to show just how much she's grown from that maiden Slam win more than three years ago. Of course there's still a lot more left to accomplish -- her win streak was further aided by the fact that she stuck with hard courts, either by choice or by circumstances, and the true test of her tennis versatility will come when and if she is tested on the clay and grass, neither of which have given her the most success in the past.

But if one thing is clear from what we've seen over the young star, it's that she's got a lot more power and fight than she lets on, and something tells me those big wins are still to come. And it's not hard to believe that she'll be in the race for some of the biggest records in the sport soon.

February 17, 2021

A Golden Opportunity

We're just an hour away from the start of this year's first Australian Open semifinals, and we might just be on the verge of some very historic moments.

The eight players still standing each have a shot at doing something amazing -- whether it's setting a new record or breaking new ground, we're guaranteed to see something very special over the next few days.

And whoever comes out on top will truly have something to celebrate.


Let's start with the ladies, as they are the ones kicking things off first. On the top half of the draw we have a first time Major semifinalist taking on a slight favorite on paper, but perhaps a big favorite in practice. Karolina Muchova, who's only ever played the main draw here twice before, only ever winning one match, stunned top seed Ashleigh Barty in the quarters -- that after notching a big win over compatriot Karolina Pliskova a round earlier. Meanwhile Jen Brady, who only had her Grand Slam breakthrough late last year, has been playing like a veteran throughout this fortnight. She hasn't yet faced anyone ranked in the top thirty, though -- her biggest "threat" so far was a struggling world #33 Donna Vekic -- and actually lost her only previous meeting with Muchova in late 2019. Still, the fact that one of these ladies could be playing in her first Major final this weekend shows just how wide open this sport is.

Of course that favorite would be a severe underdog on Saturday, as she will either face 2019 champ Naomi Osaka or 23-time Slam winner Serena Williams who is trying for an eleventh time to make history. What is sure to be a blockbuster match between those two will be the first semi played Thursday, and will certainly set the bar high. Osaka, who has a slight edge in their head-to-head, thanks to that stellar win over Serena the 2018 U.S. Open final, is running a nineteen-match win streak that technically dates back to last February. Serena, meanwhile, has had some hiccups over the last few months, notching some surprising losses during the American hardcourt season -- and she's famously come up short when the stakes were highest for years. But while she looked shaky at points during her Melbourne campaign, she was solid in her win over second seed Simona Halep in the quarters. Could she finally break her jinx here? Well she has to get past Osaka first, but if she does, it'll be hard to stop her.


And while the women's draw is a tale of haves and have-nots, things are a lot more unfamiliar for the men. Sure, favorite Novak Djokovic, a winner here a record eight times already, is still alive and kicking, he's faced more challenges than he's used to. An injury in his third round against Taylor Fritz forced him to five sets, and he needed to go four against his next two opponents too. And while his semifinal opponent tonight is by far the lowest ranked player his faced this fortnight, world #114 Aslan Karatsev can absolutely not be overlooked. The qualifier made history as the first man or woman to reach a Major semifinal in his debut -- he's never made the main draw of any Slam before -- and his list of victims is impressive: Diego Schwartzman, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Grigor Dimitrov. Can he add the biggest prize to that list? Well, if Djokovic is still struggling with pain, there may never be a better chance to do it.

The bottom half of the men's draw features two more players looking to make history for themselves. Daniil Medvedev is looking for his second Major final, but this time he's in a much better position to come away with the title -- he did, after all, very nearly do it the last time. The young Russian is now riding a nineteen-match win streaks, with titles in Paris, London, and at the ATP Cup in his belt, and while he had a bit of a hiccup in the third round, going five sets against Marton Fucsovics, he's been largely unstoppable. He'll first face Stefanos Tsitsipas who staged the comeback of his career versus Rafael Nadal in the quarters -- down the first two sets he rallied in four-hour marathon to earn just his second win over the multiple record, but probably his most important. He'll have to overcome another losing record if he wants to make his first Slam final -- he's got a 1-5 record against Medvedev, but he's shown he's able to overcome history, and there may never be a better time to do it.



Whether we get a first-time champion this weekend or see another record set, we certainly will have a lot to talk about this year. We'll see if the Cinderellas and standouts in Melbourne will be able to keep their momentum up throughout the year, but hopefully, whatever happens, we've only seen the start of what they have to bring.

February 15, 2021

Never Saw Them Coming

We're getting down to the wire at this year's Australian Open, and like at any good Grand Slam, it's not only those you'd expect to be playing for a spot in the semis. Sure, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams have all battled through injury and have come out on the winning side of things -- so far, at least -- but there are a couple names who have faced big opponents and show no sign of slowing down now.


On the ladies side there are a couple standout players still standing. Maybe the least surprising is 25th seed Karolina Muchova, though even she's put in a showing that's worthy of note. A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon back in 2019 -- and a decent challenger to Serena at the U.S. Open that year -- she came into last season with a ton of momentum, but couldn't quite capitalize. This year she pulled out of the Gippsland draw with an injury, raising questions about how strong she'd be when the stakes were higher in Melbourne. But so far she's been on point, downing a resurgent in the first round and going on to beat compatriot Karolina Pliskova and an on-fire Elise Mertens after that. They've been tight straight-setters, though, with those last two going nearly two hours each, so she's going to have to turn things up against top-seeded Ash Barty in the next round, but she might just be able to do it.

Meanwhile, top-ranked doubles star Su-Wei Hsieh may have lost her opener in the paired draw, but she's more than making up for it on the singles scene. After stunning Tsvetana Pironkova, my pick for another Cinderella run, she's continued her dominance with wins over 2019 U.S. Open champ Bianca Andreescu and former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova. On Tuesday she'll take on third seed Naomi Osaka, one of the favorites to win this event, and will be a serious underdog. But even Naomi's admitted how hard it is to predict Hsieh's next move, which could mean an opportunity for the veteran.

And then there's Jessica Pegula, who's really coming into her own at this event. While the 26-year-old did win her lone title to date in 2019 and make the final last year in Auckland, she's never had much success at the Majors, her best showing a third round appearance in New York this past September, where she had two three-set wins over players ranked out of the top forty. But she opened her Australian Open campaign with a crushing win over a momentum-fueled Victoria Azarenka and on Monday stunned fifth seed Elina Svitolina, her first win over a player ranked in the top ten. The win earns her a date with good friend and fellow American Jen Brady, a woman she beat last year in "Cincinnatti", and while she may be the one without the seed next to her name, she could also have the know-how to cause yet another upset.

On the men's side, there have not surprisingly been fewer surprises, as most of the top seeds remain alive, if not kicking. But there's one notable exception to that, and it's all because of Grigor Dimitrov. The one-time world #3 has had his ups and downs over the years, winning the ATP Championship in 2017, dropping out of the top seventy after first round losses during the 2019 hardcourt season, then stunning Roger Federer at the U.S. Open that summer. He took the 18th seed in Melbourne, and faced a tough test off the bat, but beat former Major titleist Marin Cilic in straight sets in his opener. He got a little bit of a pass in the third round, when surprise New York semifinalist Pable Carreño Busta retired after losing the first sevent games, but his big win came in the fourth round against last year's finalist and newest member of the Big Boys' Club, Dominic Thiem. After the Austrian came back from two sets down to beat Nick Kyrgios a round prior, he wasn't able to rebound against Dimitrov, losing in three sets and in about two hours. And while the Bulgarian may be the favorite in his next round, he should know better than to rest too easy.

That's because his quarterfinal opponent is, by far, the biggest surprise of the Australian Open this year. Twenty-seven year old Aslan Karatsev has never made the main draw of a Grand Slam before, but qualified here after wins over Brandon Nakashima and Alexandre Muller in Doha. Then, in his Major debut, the 114th-ranked Russian crushed Egor Gerasimov, losing just one game that match, stunned Diego Schwartzman, and came back from two sets down to young Felix Auger-Aliassime to reach the quarterfinals. He's the first person to do that in his first outing on the big stage since 1996. And the fact that he did it at such a "ripe old age" is even more astonishing -- he's already won more tour-level matches here than he has in his entire career. It's hard to say what Karatsev will do with the pressure of a semifinal hanging before him, but it's safe to say it will be difficult for Dimitrov to figure him out too. And it could end up being the match of this tournament.

February 13, 2021

A Chance to Rebound

Something kind of cool is going on over on Court 10 at Melbourne Park.

While play at the Australian Open remains in full swing, and a couple dozen men and women are still battling it out for the first Grand Slam of the year, some of those already eliminated -- some who were expected to last much longer in the main draws -- are back in action for a new WTA 250 event.


It makes sense to get a little more out of the players when possible -- so many traveled halfway around the world, endured a strict quarantine with little opportunity to practice or rack up ranking points, only to lose their first or second match and, in another world, be sent packing. Sure, losing early is a risk you run at any tournament, but under these particular circumstances, it feels especially like a waste.

So many of the women who didn't make it to the second week of the Open are now vying for the Phillip Island Trophy, and while winning here may not be quite as fulfilling as bringing home a Major, at least there's a quick opportunity to rebound from their recent, sometimes crushing losses.

Former top tenner Daria Kasatkina has had more than a couple setbacks in her efforts to regain top form, but she's had some promising moments too. She beat seeded Polona Hercog last week in the Gippsland draw and a strong Elena Rybakina last year in Ostrava. She had chances in her second round against red-hot Aryna Sabalenka, getting an early break to start the match, but ultimately fell in straights. She kicked off her Phillip Island campaign with a second straight win over Katie Boulter and next faces comeback queen Varvara Gracheva. It's not out of the question to see her make a deep run.

Young Anastasia Potapova similarly looked strong early in her third round against Serena Williams on the big stage, getting a couple breaks in the first set and even an opportunity to serve it out. But she couldn't keep her level up after dropping the opener in a tiebreak and ultimately lost in straights. She proved she has talent, though, and could captialize this week -- she'll open against Rebecca Peterson, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the upset.

And then there's Danielle Collins, a one-time semifinalist in Melbourne and a quarterfinalist last year at the French. She'd already beaten sixth seed Karolina Pliskova at the Yarra Valley Classic, and I'm frankly surprised she wasn't able to do it again in the second round of the Open. She kicks off against either veteran Varvara Lepchenko or Nao Hibino, and is the heavy favorite against either.

Interestingly, though, things haven't got the way of the favorites so far. Sloane Stephens continues to struggle with form and after a loss to Yulia Putintseva at the Open, she lost her first round to Gracheva. And maybe more surprisingly, Nadia Podoroska and Anastasija Sevastova also dropped their first rounds.

But there's an opportunity for others -- Sofia Kenin, who failed early in her bid to defend her first Grand Slam trophy, takes on little-known Australian Olivia Gadecki on Sunday, while 2019 U.S. Open champ Bianca Andreescu, unable to handle a deep challenge from Su-Wei Hsieh as she tried to stage her own comeback, will open against Madison Brengle.

Can these ladies come back and show us what they're really made of? Well, this is as good a chance as any to do it. And if they can make some hay out of what's obviously a complicated situation Down Under, it might all be worth it.

February 11, 2021

Across Generations

There's been a lot said over the last several years, especially in the men's game, about when the long-dominant players will finally hand over the reins to the next generation of tennis greats. But if we've seen anything in the first few days of the Australian Open, it's that it's not only the Big Three who are unwilling to go yet softly into that good night -- and that there are some new young guns in the mix ready to take the spotlight from those we've been championing so loud.


I'll start with the result from last night (this morning...) that most perfectly pairs the two ends of the spectrum -- defending champion Sofia Kenin against veteran Estonian Kaia Kanepi. As I mentioned a few days ago, this wasn't a match I would've watched closely, but boy am I glad I did. The 35-year-old, coming off a runner-up finish in the Gippsland draw with wins over red-hot Aryna Sabalenka and Ekaterina Alexandrova, was a strong underdog in her second round, but you wouldn't have known it to watch her play. With ten aces, an eighty percent first serve percentage and more winners than errors, she needed barely an hour to score the win against the young American. And with a next round against a recently-struggling Donna Vekic, I like her chances to keep going. Whether she'll keep her momentum going, who knows -- this is the only Major where Kanepi hasn't reached the quarters -- but she's certainly hungry to give it a try.

Another veteran who showed his chops on Thursday, Feliciano Lopez is also well off his career high ranking, hanging out in the low double digits after peaking at #12 in the world six years ago. But if his 75 straight Grand Slam main draw appearances don't prove his continued relevance, perhaps his performance against 31st seed Lorenzo Sonego does. Down two sets to the man who stunned Novak Djokovic just a few months ago, Feli found a way to rally and pulled out the last three sets in a match that lasted over three hours. In what will be his first third round in Melbourne since 2016, and the road only gets harder from here -- his next opponent, Andrey Rublev, has been on fire over the past year, and while he was tested in his second round, I imagine he'll come out swinging against the Spaniard. But if Lopez can recoup after his marathon last night, perhaps he can surprise us again.

Last among the under-the-radar Old Guard standouts is top doubles star Su-Wei Hsieh who, at #71 on the singles scene, was certainly expected to have her biggest successes when partnered up. But after what I thought was a pretty astounding win over 2020 Comeback Queen Tsvetana Pironkova in the first round, she took on 2019 U.S. Open champ Bianca Andreescu, who was playing her first event in some fifteen months, and was wholly on point. The 35-year-old, who's never made it past the fourth round at a Slam on her own, got off to a strong start against the Canadian, fifteen years her junior, and in under ninety minutes was able to capitalize on the rust that had accumulated after her long hiatus. She opens up Friday's play against qualifier Sara Errani, whose run to the French Open final in 2012 seems so, so long ago. While it won't be a walk in the park by any means, it's certainly a more manageable ask than what she's already battled.

Of course, it wasn't only the veterans pulling off big wins, and as at every Grand Slam we've already seen a peak of the talent that's still to come. Twenty-year-old Kaja Juvan, who beat Venus Williams last year in Acapulco and stunned Angelique Kerber in the first round of the French Open, was the top seed in the qualifying rounds for Melbourne and managed to advance without dropping a set. She got a bit of a pass in her opener against thirteenth seeded Johanna Konta, who was up a set but had to retire with an ab injury, and her second round against Mayar Sherif was filled with even more drama -- the exhausting two and a half hour plus match left everything on the floor for both players, but ultimately ended with the young Slovenian as the winner. She's not more challenges ahead, though, with a tough Jennifer Brady waiting for her in the third round. I'm not sure she'll recover in time, but I'm hoping her performance is a sign that we've only started to see what she can do.

And then there's Mackenzie McDonald who, at 25, admittedly isn't necessarily "young" anymore -- sorry, millennials -- but at least young in experience. Though he had a brief stint in the top sixty back in 2019 and even made the fourth round at Wimbledon the year before, he's had trouble staying consistent and currently sits just inside the top two hundred. But he has had some nice wins over the years -- my dear Juan Martin Del Potro in Delray Beach, Milos Raonic in Shanghai, and Borna Coric in the second round here on Thursday. It was his first top twenty-five win in quite some time and with his next round against Lloyd Harris, a man who went three hours in his five-setter against Alexei Popyrin in his last match, he might just be able to get the better of the sort-of-favorite. And a good showing there might help him set the stage for an even bigger year to come.

February 9, 2021

Big Wins and Bigger Opportunities

The first round of this year's Australian Open is in the books, and we've already seen a slew of surprises and standouts. And though most of the favorites have had winning starts -- even those we haven't seen in a while, even those who haven't won in a while -- not all the seeds made it out unscatched. And perhaps we've only seen the start of what those who beat them can do.


I'll start with the first big upset we saw this event, though perhaps it wasn't the most surprising. Tenth seeded Gael Monfils has struggled since the end of lockdown, losing four straight matches to end the 2020 season, suffering a next injury, and kicking back off with a loss to Matteo Berrettini in his only match at the ATP Cup. His first round opponent, meanwhile, far from a household name, was pretty active at the end of last year. Finland's Emil Ruusuvuori, a former Junior Masters champ who scored his first ATP top ten win over Dominic Thiem in Davis Cup action back in 2019, didn't have any major upsets last year, but did get his first Grand Slam victory at the U.S. Open, scored a win over Jannik Sinner, before that teen's breakout, and reached the semis at Nur-Sultan. Still ranked #86 in the world, he was a deep underdog against Monfils, but held tight after losing the first set and battled through nearly four hours to get the win. He'll next face Spain's Pedro Martinez, actually a spot below him in the rankings and someone he's beaten twice at Challengers events. If he can keep his streak going, he could set himself up for a deep run here.

Another one to watch is 20-year-old American Ann Li, who reached the Wimbledon Girls' final back in 2017 and was able to notch a few wins at the Majors last year, upsetting thirteenth seeded Alison Riske last year in New York. But she really had a break through last week in the Grampians draw, notching a surprisingly easy win over Sorana Cirstea in the quarters before a stunning victory over world #24 Jennifer Brady in the semis. While what would have been her first WTA final wasn't contested, the run helped her to a career high ranking of #69 in the world heading into the Open, and she didn't disappoint in her first match out the gate. Against veteran Shuai Zhang in the first round, she dropped just two games -- albeit on her own serve -- and rolled to the win in under fifty minutes. She'll next meet Alizé Cornet, a one-time world #11 who did beat Sofia Kenin last year in "Cincy", but if Li plays like she's been playing, I like her chances to get this win too.

Of course the big surprise of these early days came from another American who might have scored the biggest upset yet. Jessica Pegula, who really hit her stride last year with a wins over Caroline Wozniacki on her way to the Auckland final and Jennifer Brady and Aryna Sabalenka in her "Cincy" quarters run, took a set off Sofia Kenin this past week too. She's shown she's got talent, but I really didn't expect her to get the better of Victoria Azarenka like she did. One of the best comeback stories of last year, the former #1 made the final of the U.S. Open and Ostrava after capturing her first title in four years at the Western & Southern. She may have pulled out of the Grampians draw last week, but most of us thought that was to rest up for the Open, not because of any serious issue. Still, after climbing to a 5-2 lead, Vika needed two medical timeouts and couldn't get her bearings back. Pegula finished off the win in two sets, setting up a date with wildcard Sam Stosur, a champion in New York nearly a decade ago. It'll be daunting to go up against the vet, who did beat her just in 2019, but if she holds her ground, Pegula could be on her way to her best Slam showing yet.

Some of these wins were certainly more surprising than others, but any one of them could set the stage for something big for the victors. We'll see if they can hold on to the momentum in the coming days. After all, anything can happen Down Under, and it's up to them to make the most of it.