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April 4, 2020

The Best of 2020 -- Breaking Through Barriers

Well, we're about to enter our fifth week of tennis isolation -- or is it the fourth? or the nineteenth? -- and we've got at least two months before we see any live action on court. So I'll continue looking at some of the best players we've seen on the tennis tours this year with a look at two stars who're really coming into their own this year and truly making a name for themselves.

So without further ado, here are the #3 picks for the Best of 2020 -- so far.

The Men: Thiago Seyboth Wild

Age: 20
Current Ranking: #114
Title(s): Santiago

The young Brazilian burst onto the scene a few months ago when he stunned his way to the title in Chile, advancing past red-hot Cristian Garin in the quarters and beating an on-the-rise Casper Ruud in the final. It was quite an accomplishment for the then-teenager, who'd only one two ATP-level matches in his career before.

But then Wild really shocked us all when he became the first tennis player to test positive for COVID-19 -- just a few weeks after capping his South American swing with that title.


I haven't heard any updates on his condition since that post, but hopefully he'll recover fully and quickly. While I'm sure tennis isn't the first thing on his mind these day's, I can't wait to see what's still in store for him. After all I doubt he was destined to top out ranked in the triple digits, and I'm sure (I hope) when things get back to normal, we'll get to see him on top again.

The Women: Ons Jabeur

Age: 25
Current Ranking: #39
Title(s): None (yet!)

Jabeur may not be high on most people's radars yet, but the Tunisian trailblazer is rising up the rankings quickly.

Her first big win of the year came in Melbourne, where she effectively ended the career of a retiring Caroline Wozniacki in the third round of the Australian Open. She backed that up with a win over the woman who beat Serena Williams. In Dubai she put on a brilliant show against eventual winner Simona Halep and a week later took out Karolina Pliskova on the way to the semis in Doha.


But perhaps the bigger accomplishment for Jabeur is what she's done for her country. She was the first Arab woman to make the final eight at a Major, and the first to break the top fifty. She's even passed compatriot Malek Jaziri, the veteran who peaked at #42 in the world early last year. Pursuing a career that's not really traditional in her community, she's certainly trying to set an example for an entire group of people.

She may not have won a title just yet. But something tells me she'll do something about that when she gets back on court.


There's still more to come in by "Best of 2020" list, so check in soon. But in the meantime, check out who else made the cut here!

And here's today's #TennisAtHome moment, courtesy of former Wimbledon champ:


April 1, 2020

The Best of 2020 -- Some Surprising Shout Outs

Hi everyone! Welcome to the second edition of my #SociallyDistanced "Best of 2020" list -- the players who've caught my eye in the few weeks of the tennis season we've had so far.

After all, with Wimbledon officially cancelled this year -- for the first time since World War II -- and tennis now on hold until at least mid-July, there's not a ton of live action to speak of. So why not look back on what's already happened this season. And there have been some highlights.

So coming in at #4 on my list are a man and woman who you might not expect to see in these countdowns, but they've both pulled off some solid wins this year and show promise to rise even higher whenever we get back on court. They may not have established themselves as consistent threats just yet, but hopefully that day is not too far in the future.

The Men: Tommy Paul

Age: 22
Current Ranking: #57
Title(s): None yet

I've said it before, but I'd been a little absent from the game for a few years before this season started -- great time to get back in, right? So I had never heard of Tommy Paul before this season. Since winning the French Open Juniors title in 2015, the American had spent the vast majority of his career on the Challengers Tour and trying to qualify for ATP events. He had to prove himself to start 2020 too, but made it to the semis as a qualifier in Adelaide with wins over Pablo Cuevas and Albert Ramos.

His more impressive wins, though, came after that -- he outlasted Grigor Dimitrov in a nail-biting second round at the Austalian Open and stunned Alexander Zverev a few weeks later in Acapulco -- the first top ten win on his resume. Now he's at a career high ranking, and while he still lags many of his fellow Americans, he seems to be on the rise. And I'd love to see him make a big run on the other side.

The Women: Ekaterina Alexandrova

Age: 25
Current Ranking: #27
Title(s): Shenzhen

The Russian is a little further along in her development than Paul, getting seeded at a Slam for the first time at this year's Australian Open. She was riding a pretty impressive win streak into that event too, winning a 125K tournament in Limoges to end the 2019 season and claiming her maiden WTA trophy in Shenzhen to start this year. For that win, she'd claimed victories over eventual Melbourne runner-up Garbiñ Muguruza and a red-hot Elena Rybakina. Alexandrova had some nice results after that too -- a win over Donna Vekic (and a walkover by Petra Kvitova) got her to the semis in St. Petersburg and earned her a career high ranking at #25 back in February.

She's a little older than most of the players on my list, but she still seems to have a lot of potential that she's just coming into now. And hopefully we'll get to see it come to fruition soon.


There's still more to come in by "Best of 2020" list, so check in soon. But in the meantime, check out who else made the cut here!

And here's today's #TennisAtHome moment:

March 30, 2020

The Best of 2020 -- So Far

As we head into Week 3 of the Great Global Quarantine, tennis, like so many other sports, businesses, and organizations, is still on indefinite hiatus. We should be in the back half of Miami, getting excited for the French Open, and speculating over who'll make the Olympic team, but instead we're practicing #TennisAtHome, or whatever else we can to stay sane.

But given everything else on our minds, it's easy to forget that we actually got in quite a few weeks of great tennis this year, crowning a host of new champions and seeing a couple new stars emerge on the scene. And while I desperately hope that this won't be all the evidence we get for this season, there's a good enough amount to do a quick status check on the best player stories of the year so far.

And so I've decided to spend the next few days and weeks counting down my favorites of 2020. Now, I warn you, these aren't necessarily the players who've won the most trophies or the ones who lead the races to their respective -- if not unlikely-to-be-played at this point -- year end championships. I'll give you a heads up -- Rafa, Roger, and Nole are not on this list. Some are players who've surprised me in their accomplishments, some who've been impressive in their consistency, some who just marked a milestone for themselves. But in all cases, they're the ones I'm sure going to be watching closely whenever we get back on the courts.

And I'll appropriately start with #5.

The Men: Casper Ruud

Age: 21
Current Ranking: #36
Title(s): Buenos Aires

Norway isn't usually a country you think of when you're trying to name tennis powerhouses -- I was frankly shocked to see them entered as a team in this year's ATP Cup. But there they were to kick off the year, headlined by the then-#53rd ranked Casper Ruud, son of former pro Christian, who had some success on tour in the mid- to late-90s.

The younger player had notched some solid wins of his own over the last few years, beating an on-the-rise Matteo Berrettini last year at Roland Garros and an on-the-decline David Ferrer a year earlier in Bastad. But he seemed to find a groove to start this season, beating both John Isner and Fabio Fognini in those ATP Cup round robins. When he won the title in Buenos Aires -- the first ever captured by a Norwegian -- he bumped his ranking up to #34 in the world, higher than the #39 high his father reached back in 1995.


Ruud seemed well on his way to establishing himself as a force in the sport, and with a nearly 64% win record on clay might have caused some real damage to the big guns heading into the French Open. It's of course a shame that his momentum was stopped so abruptly, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him come out on the other end of this stronger than ever.

The Women: Sofia Kenin

Age: 21
Current Ranking: #4
Title(s): Australian Open, Lyon

Okay, okay, I know -- how could the year's only women's Grand Slam winner come in at the bottom of my list? Well, as I mentioned, I'm not putting this together the way ranking points are tabulated, and of my picks Sofia Kenin's showing in Australia may have been the least surprising of this bunch. (Let that serve as an indication of how much fun is still to come in these lists.)

That said, what the young American did Down Under was certainly worthy of celebration. Seeded just 14th for the event, she dispatched teenage ingenue Coco Gauff in a match where she was clearly not the crowd favorite, stunned the top seeded Ashleigh Barty in the semis, and then outlasted two-time Major champion Garbiñe Muguruza in the final.

Kenin seemed to struggle a bit in the immediate aftermath of that win, going 1-1 at Fed Cup the next weekend and then losing two straight first round matches in February. But she kicked off this month with a title run in Lyon, getting severely tested in four of her rounds, with her semifinal against Alison Van Uytvanck going three tiebreak sets, but ultimately getting back the momentum she had to start the year.

Of course, she hasn't faced off against many tippy-top players this year -- Barty was her only victory in the top twenty -- but she's slain plenty of giants over the last year: Serena, Osaka, Svitolina to name a few. And I know we're all excited to see how many more wins she can add to that list when we get back to it.


Okay, well those are the first two players to make my "Best of" the first quarter list. Come back soon when I'll tell you who came in fourth.

And in the meantime, enjoy today's #TennisAtHome pick:

March 24, 2020

My Dream Team

And so, it's official.

Tokyo and the IOC announced today that the 2020 Summer Olympics will be postponed, likely not happening until next year.


It's not a surprising move, given all the other cancellations we've already seen -- not to mention the fact that Japan was smack dab in the middle of the coronavirus crisis at the outset.

Still it throws yet another wrench into what's already been a tumultuous season for tennis, and how the Games are ultimately scheduled brings up a lot of questions for the sport, as Jon Wertheim lays out so well in this Sports Illustrated piece. After all, officials aren't planning according to the tennis calendar -- as much as I'd like to believe that this sport is the one around which all others revolve, they've got to plan for everyone participating, athletes and otherwise, and there's no guarantee that the same weeks between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open will work next year.

But all those issues aside, one opportunity the delay does provide is that players not quite in the running to make the team this year can put their nose to the grindstone and qualify in 2021 -- that, of course, assumes they have a chance to put their nose to the grindstone. So today I'm going to wildly speculate about a couple of people I'd like to see play in some sixteen months time -- and since I'm in New York, I'll focus on the home team.

Let's start with the men -- John Isner currently sits atop the Americans' singles rankings, and while he did make the quarters in London, he skipped the Rio Games in favor of Atlanta and was already leaning toward sitting out this one too. Still there are a host of other men who could fill his shoes. Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka have the ranking points, and Tennys Sandgren, after his stellar run in Melbourne, has (had?) the momentum that could propel him to the top shortly once we get back in action, and you know my heart had early on been set on a star turn from Frances Tiafoe.

Unfortunately, some of the younger players way down the rankings who could be hitting their prime next year, may not get enough match play in time to boost their stature -- teenagers like Brandon Nakashima and Sebastian Korda have both had some nice results recently, but sitting sub-200 they may be a little too long of a shot.

By the way, let's not forget doubles. The Bryan Brothers, long a staple on the American roster, are supposed to retire after the U.S. Open, which should have allowed them to raise the flag for their country one more time. Will they change their minds, or do we need to look for some other options? I'd love to see Rajeev Ram take the lead -- the Australian Open champ has been playing a lot with Britain's Joe Salisbury, but could be a good anchor for a U.S. pair.

And then there are the ladies, who are also in danger of seeing some of their most stalwart representatives passing the age sweet spot for the sport -- Serena Williams will be 39 and Venus could be 41. Sure there's a cadre of young talent in the mix, from Sofia Kenin to Alison Riske to Coco Gauff, who'll finally be free from restrictions at the ripe old age of 17 next summer.

But there are a couple other women who could also make the cut. Outside the highest-ranked players, there's Jennifer Brady, who beat Ashleigh Barty in Brisbane and Elina Svitolina in Dubai, and Jessica Pegula, who reached the final in Auckland. Either one may storm back on the scene and surprise us all. But let's also keep an eye on 18-year-old Caty McNally -- she's had most of her success on the doubles court and is far overshadowed by her compatriots, but she's still got a win over Sam Stosur this year and took a set off Serena in New York in 2019. We always like to find a few star to focus our attention on, and there's no reason she can't be the next one.

Of course, like so many things these days, all this prognostication is like spitting in the wind. Who knows when we'll be back on the tennis courts and how even the best players will fare after such a long gap between match play? Still with so much real uncertainty out there, why not create a little of a more frivolous sort?

And as we all wait for the one day when it's actually safe to #ReopenAmerica, I'll send you all a virtual hug and hope to see you on the courts soon.

March 19, 2020

#SociallyDistanced

As the world looks to stop the spread of the coronavirus, we've all had to adapt to a new normal. Whether it's working from home, skipping a night out with friends, or watching our hands shrivel up into prunes from how often we're washing them, our daily lives are way different from what they were just a few weeks ago. And tennis players, now officially all on hiatus until at least June 7, are no exception.

But luckily for us, #SocialDistancing hasn't kept them off social media. Whether they're entertaining or informing us -- Andy Roddick has been a surprising source recently -- they've certainly been communicating to all of us during these troubling times. So today I decided to share some of their takeaways over the last few days.

Find ways to occupy your time






Stick to your routine






Keep active












Help if you can




And most importantly...stay safe!






Hang in there, guys!

March 17, 2020

See You In September?

So I hear Paris is lovely in the fall...


As you well know by now, in the latest curve ball thrown at the tennis world, organizers of the French Open made the surprise announcement this afternoon that they'd postpone the 2020 event until the end of September, with the champions now crowned on October 3rd and 4th.

The decision did not go over well.


Chief among the complaints is that the decision seems to have been made unilaterally -- a point the U.S. Open seemed to latch onto in announcing it (so far) still expects to go on as planned just a few weeks now before the French. Players, leagues, and officials of other tournaments were apparently given little if any notice the shift was coming.


Of course, we shouldn't necessarily be surprised that Roland Garros was moved -- it's been just over a week since Indian Wells was called off and less than that since the ATP suspended all events for a month and a half. That took a lot of clay court tune-up events off the calendar and didn't put anyone back in action until the BMW Open in Munich at the end of April. And that was in the best case scenario -- with mandatory shutdowns spreading across the globe, and impacting a much broader range of businesses and events, there was no assurance that we'd have kicked the coronavirus in any significant way within that time frame.

Still, plopping the French at the tail end of the tennis season brings up a lot of questions.

For one thing, there's the surface -- the French Open clay, as we know, is way different from the hardcourts of New York, and players would certainly prefer more than one week's time to get acclimated to it before such a high stakes event. Of course, you might argue, the turnaround between Roland Garros and Wimbledon is also short, but for one thing, we did manage to squeeze in an extra week on grass in recent years to help the transition, and for another, according to the current schedule, there's no clay court tourney scheduled that week between Paris and the U.S. to get ready. Not exactly a huge opportunity to train back up.


Speaking of that current schedule, moving the French is kind of a slap in the face to the events that had already been scheduled in that window. Now many of the women's events at the time are in China -- ironically, and I wonder if it factored into Roland Garros' decision, one is in Wuhan -- and might be cancelled anyway, but the men's Laver Cup is a big one, already drawing a commitment from Roger Federer. Would he pull out in favor of a Major? Would he skip the Slam that he's probably not going to win anyway, especially as he's recovering from injury?

And what about the guy who does usually win in Paris? Rafael Nadal was a big part of Laver Cup last year -- if he skips, does it deal a blow to that event's prestige? What'll it mean for him as he gets ready to defend not just that title, but the U.S. Open as well?

But it's not just the very top players who are affected -- for those lower-ranked players who've been effectively furloughed without a paycheck during this suspension, this shift throws their schedules even further up in the air. How do they manage qualifying events? Do they skip smaller tournaments they'd planned around for a slim chance at picking up Slam ranking points? If the whole coronavirus crisis doesn't get resolved soon, how do they manage their careers?

There are several other options that might have been taken, though I'm not sure which one is best -- they might have allowed more time between the U.S. and French, we might have considered a different location or surface, it could have been cancelled altogether. Who knows, maybe the course Roland Garros took was the least of all evils, but at the very least those with the most at stake should have been consulted. And hopefully the next time they will be.

Anyway, here's a smattering of other reactions to the Roland Garros move from across the Twitterverse.







March 12, 2020

The Weeks That Were

With the Miami Open now officially cancelled, the ATP suspending play for six weeks, and the entire spring tennis season completely up in the air, everyone's got a lot of questions.


Of course this outbreak affects so many more people outside the tennis world, and in much more dire ways than a schedule thrown out of whack. And the response we're seeing, from the shutdown of Disneyland to the entire country of Italy going on lockdown, shows just how far-reaching an impact the coronavirus is having. But I'm not going to start expounding on the health, political, or economic ramifications of what's going on -- I get to do enough of that in my day job -- and since I can't write about the on court action at Indian Wells and Miami, I instead am going to take a look back at some of the champs we've seen at these events over the last few years and where they are now.

As you know, I've been a little out of the loop -- and fittingly got back in the mix just in time for the whole thing to shut down (#sarcasm) -- so some of these results were a surprise to me. And in hindsight they took on a deeper meaning than they might have at the time. I mean, check out the list of players who've been crowned recently:

Indian WellsMiami
YearMen's ChampWomen's ChampMen's ChampWomen's Champ
2016Novak DjokovicVictoria AzarenkaNovak DjokovicVictoria Azarenka
2017Roger FedererElena VesninaRoger FedererJohanna Konta
2018Juan Martin Del PotroNaomi OsakaJohn IsnerSloane Stephens
2019Dominic ThiemBianca AndreescuRoger FedererAshleigh Barty

I was frankly shocked to realize it's been four years since Nole won at either of these events. It wasn't long ago that he'd been dominating them -- he'd swept the Sunshine Swing, historically difficult given the huge difference in climes between the California desert and the Florida tropics, first in 2011, and then from 2014-16. And given how much of a force he's been at the Majors and other Masters -- he's won a combined twelve since that last one in Miami -- it seems insane that he hasn't repeated. On the other hand Vika, who'd been similarly strong during this stretch, hasn't won a single singles title since then. Of course, she's had a baby, a grueling custody battle, and injuries that have kept her off court more than any of us would like. But seeing her name on the list certainly brought back memories. And it was great to see Fed not only doubled up in 2017 -- which came as he was reactivating his Grand Slam streak -- but took home his 28th Masters in Miami just last year.

But it was some of the other names that caught my attention.

Elena Vesnina?! The Russian doubles star had a baby last year, so has been out of contention recently, but that 2017 trophy in Indian Wells was by far her biggest singles win. It came not long after her Major breakthrough -- after never really having any success on her own at the Slams, she somehow made her way to the semis at Wimbledon in 2016. The title in California, which came with wins over Angelique Kerber, Venus Williams, and Svetlana Kuznetsova, did a lot to prove that showing was no fluke.

And then of course, there's John Isner, who, as you know, has long confounded me. That performance in Miami earned him what's so far his only Masters title, and set him up for the unlikeliest of runs to the Wimbledon semis in 2018 -- I remember watching that 6:30 hour match against Kevin Anderson and thinking, "There's no way John Isner is going to make a Grand Slam final, is there?!" Well, he didn't, and he's never made it to another Major final four -- before or since. He has admittedly had some other decent showings, though, at least getting back to the Miami final last year. But as we've seen, it's been a struggle for him since.

It's been rough going for Juan Martin Del Potro too, but for different reasons. The one-time U.S. Open champion has been plagued by one injury after another and is currently recovering from a knee surgery that kept him out of the most recent Australian Open. But I was encouraged to be reminded that it wasn't so long ago that he was at the top of his game, and it gives me hope that he could be once more.

The wins by Sloane Stephens and Johanna Konta also came at interesting points in their careers. Stephens had just won the U.S. Open title a few months earlier but then went winless for months. Then after winning in Miami, she struggled on clay and then somehow reached the French Open final. More recently she's again in a funk, managing only one win this year, over a player barely ranked inside the top 500. Konta similarly hasn't won a title since her Miami run, but she's arguably been a little more consistent, reaching a Major semifinal and two quarters last year. Still for two players who seem to hold a lot of hope for their respective countries, we might have wanted to see a little more hardware to show for their efforts.

And finally are the women whose wins really set the stage for the biggest successes of their careers. Naomi Osaka had never won a title before Indian Wells, Barty had just a couple small trophies under her belt, and Andreescu was ranked #60 in the world ahead of her run. But all three went on to capture Grand Slam gold in a matter of months -- Osaka got two titles. She's struggled a bit this season, though, and Andreescu's been dealing with injury, but all three are young -- oh my God, so young -- and there's no reason to believe they don't have a lot of time left to make more splashes. And when they do they could be big ones.

It's a shame we won't be able to crown another set of winners this year in either Indian Wells or Miami and follow their stories over the years. But one day, hopefully soon, this pandemic will pass, and we'll all be back on the courts again, and there will be plenty of great champions to come. So until then, let's enjoy the memories of what we've had and take comfort in the fact that a whole lot more is still to come.

March 9, 2020

Cancelled

We are living in highly unusual times.

Last night, organizers of this year's BNP Paribas Open announced that the tournament, one of the biggest events of the season, would not be held due to concerns over the spreading coronavirus.


It's not the most surprising decision given what's going on. For weeks we've been seeing measures taken to rein in the spread -- companies restricting employee travel to impacted areas and encouraging work from home, major corporations like Facebook and Amazon pulling out of huge industry conferences and scrapping their own. Just Friday SXSW cancelled its annual festival in Austin, Texas, a decision that could cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars.

So it makes sense that Indian Wells would be affected too. California Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday declared a state of emergency, and last week the tournament released a list of precautions it was taking, barring ball kids from handling player towels or drinks and telling players not to toss shirts or headbands to fans after matches. But as the situation in the U.S., particularly on the west coast, gets more severe, event staff ultimately decided they were better safe than sorry.

Tennis players, after all, are required to travel all over the world on a weekly basis, and some of their stops on tour are in places that have been particularly hard hit. Davis Cup matches were held over the weekend in Japan, where there have been more than a thousand confirmed cases of the virus and whose government has been sharply criticized for its handling of the disease, as well as in Cagliari, Italy, where the stadium was open only to officials and media. And of course the epicenter of everything is Wuhan, China, a city most of my friends and colleagues had never heard of before, but which we all know as the site of a huge WTA event at the end of the season.

Still, the timing of the cancellation is interesting, coming just hours after Steve Johnson and Irina-Camelia were crowned champions of the Challenger events being held at the very same venue that would house this week's matches. And wildcards had just been awarded to teens Caty McNally and Leylah Fernandez, as well as Aussie standout Tennys Sandgren and an on-the-mend Jack Sock. Qualifying events were scheduled to start today and many players had already made their way to the grounds. It's certainly a disappointment for those looking to make their debuts at such a premier event.

But some players were already thinking of skipping not only Indian Wells, considered by many to be the fifth Grand Slam, but also Miami, with similar prestige, which is currently still slated to start in two weeks' time. Fabio Fognini, who helped Italy get past South Korea over the weekend and qualify for the Davis Cup finals, said he was thinking about skipping both events despite what it would mean for his ranking -- he was eager to get match play after some recent early exits. Now, I assume, the cancellation means everyone essentially forfeits any points they may have accumulated or defended during the fortnight, so no one is necessarily hurt more than anyone else.

If the virus, though, persists deeper into the spring it could hit the European clay court season hard -- Italy just advised cancelling all sporting events until at least April, and that's just a few weeks before the Rome Masters tournament, nevermind the French Open, Wimbledon, and, lest we forget, the Tokyo Olympics.

The cancellation of Indian Wells has an impact not only on the players. The California desert city was expecting some half a million visitors for the event, and their absence could take a big bite out of the economy. And while tournament director Tommy Haas is leaving open the possibility of rescheduling the event for some time later this season, it's unclear when, during an already-packed calendar, that could be.

To be clear, all these measures are unquestionably necessary -- the priority of course is first and foremost the health and safety of everyone involved -- but it's going to require a lot of adjustments. Hopefully in a few weeks time, this will all be past us and things will start returning to normal, as much as they can, anyway.

But until then everyone take care of yourselves and each other.

March 4, 2020

Challenges at the Challengers

I don't often cover the Challenger Series events, but for a couple reasons, this year's action in Indian Wells before the main tournament kicks off next week is worth an extra look.

First let's start with the action on court, because we've already seen some stellar results.

On the men's side there's a lot at stake for fourteenth seed Marcos Giron, who currently sits atop the series' leaderboard -- the Americans who earn the most points during the four tournament stretch, which included events in New Haven, Houston and Newport Beach over the last few months, get an entry to the main draw next week. The twenty-six year old is currently ranked just outside the top hundred, so may need the extra boost to make the cut. He's currently on court with Britain's Ryan Peniston, in danger of being pushed to a third set, but could seal the deal soon. And then, of course, is Frances Tiafoe, who's my long (and getting longer) shot to make a big breakthrough this year. He, thankfully, won his first match against Michael Mmoh in a convincing two sets.

But perhaps the big story this week is Jack Sock, the one-time top ten player who now sits all the way down at #768 in the world. Before this week, he'd only won a single singles match in some eighteen months, crying in relief when he beat Radu Albot in Delray. But he may have found that spark again in Indian Wells. Against top seeded Ugo Humbert, who kicked off this year with his first career title in Auckland and then made the semis in Delray, Sock was able to score a straight set win in the second round and will now face Evgeny Donskoy for a spot in the quarter. A win there could set him on pace for even more success down the road.

The ladies' draw also has some interesting bright spots. While the series' leaders didn't fare quite so well -- both Madison Brengle and CoCo Vandeweghe both lost their opening rounds -- some others are nonetheless making nice comeback runs. First there's Yanina Wickmayer, who was once ranked #12 in the world but whose career was interrupted by everything from back injury to Lyme's disease. Now outside the top 150, she surged past wildcard Claire Liu and then battled Brengle in a two and a half hour match, where she avenged a loss from last month at an ITF event in Kentucky. A couple more wins like that could mean a lot for her as she looks to mount a comeback.

But my favorite story on the women's side is none other than Vera Zvonareva, a two-time Grand Slam finalist and former world #2, she too has been plagued by injury and actually used her time off tour to get a college degree. Now ranked at #319, she's had a couple wins in 2020, but it'd been a while since any real big heads. She may have turned the tide this week though, opening with a victory over Acapulco standout Xiyu Wang in her opener and then ending a streak of eight straight losses, which extended back to 2004, to Sam Stosur in her second round. Up next for the veteran Russian is top seed Katarina Siniakova, so the task only gets harder from here. But, if you know me at all, you know how much I love rooting for this feisty underdog.

Match results aside, though, there's another issue that seems to have come back into the forefront this week, and that's the one of player pay. It's long been a hot button topic in the sport, where the handful of lucky athletes who can win Grand Slams and other big events can earn millions of dollars, while the vast (vast) majority of players are making comparatively nothing -- paying to fly not only themselves around the world and board up at hotels, but for a team of coaches and physios too, all to make just a couple thousand dollars if they lose in an early round. And they're not making the same kind of dough the Serenas and Rafas of the world are in endorsements.

Darren Cahill most recently pointed out the huge discrepancy in prize money between someone who won just two matches in Dubai and someone who won just one match more. And as pointed out by Nicole Gibbs -- who earned a paltry $1,130 in her first round loss this week -- that hits players ranked as high as #31 in the world.


Borrowing a point made by the late David Foster Wallace in one of his many glorious essays on tennis, can you imaging being better than all but thirty people in the world at your chosen profession and not being able to make a living?

Yes, I realize that, in a world where income inequality is such a far-reaching problem, pointing out its impact on people who play a "game" may miss the forest for the trees, but you have to remember that this is people's livelihoods and one they won't be able to sustain as long as us normal people can stick with our own careers.

That's one of the big benefits of these Challenger Series events: giving players at lower ranks -- and again, by lower, we're often talking about low double-digit rankings -- an opportunity to play more matches, grab more ranking points, and eventually gain entry to the bigger tournaments, as Giron hopes to do. Still it would be great if some of those sky-high prices we pay for tickets to the U.S. Open and other events -- I don't even want to mention what grounds passes for middle Saturday cost me last year! -- went to increase payouts at these events.

The idea of upping purses for all players is one shared by those ranked high and low, and if we really want to keep the best talent coming to the sport, we're going to have to get something done about this soon.

March 2, 2020

The Triple-Digit Club

In case you hadn't noticed, there was something a little different about a couple of the winners' circles at this week's tennis events -- sure Novak Djokovic pulled off a stunning comeback from match points down in the Dubai semis to claim his fifth title there, his first since 2013, and Rafael Nadal ended a similarly long drought in Acapulco, his without losing a set, but it was some players way down the rankings that made the biggest statements over the past seven days -- some even making it all the way to the winners' circles.

How far down the rankings?

Well, put it this way -- even with the points they earned during their runs, they're all still ranked outside the top hundred!

Let's start with the ladies' draw in Acapulco which, unlike the men's event, didn't attract anyone in the top twenty and only one contestant in the top fifty. That's not to say there was no talent in the field -- Venus Williams, a champion there back in 2009 and 2010, took the fifth seed -- but it certainly presented an opportunity for everyone else in the mix. And they certainly were quick to grab at it. First there was Mexico's own Renata Zarazua, who'd entered the event ranked #270 in the world, but stunned top seeded Sloane Stephens in her opener and rode through to the semis, her first final four outside the ITF circuit. For her efforts the twenty-two year old wildcard is now ranked at #187, still a hair off her best-ever ranking, but perhaps in a better position now to make a sustained climb higher.

Then there was Xiyu Wang, who I'd at least seen a little more of this year. Still, ranked at #127 before Acapulco, she had to work her way through qualifiers before making the main draw. But she kicked that campaign off with a bang, ousting second seed Yafan Wang in the first round and sixth-seeded Lin Zhu a few matches later. Coupled with a quarterfinal showing in Hua Hin -- where she beat Petra Martic -- she's now a stone's throw away from what would be a career-high double digit ranking.

But the real story in Mexico last week was Canada's Leylah Fernandez. Like many of these ladies, I hadn't heard much of her before last month -- and, again, I know, I've been a bit out of the loop the last few years. The 17-year-old has spent most of her time on the Juniors tour, making the Australian Open Girls' final in 2019 and winning the French Open crown. She first hit my radar in early February after defeating fifth-ranked Belinda Bencic in Fed Cup, but may have had her break out this past week. Another qualifier in Acapulco, she had a jam-packed week and didn't lose a set until the final, pushing an on-the-rebound Heather Watson to three sets before ultimately succumbing. Now ranked #126, she's still got a lot of work to do before she gets an open invitation to the Slams, but the way she's playing it feels like that is right around the corner.

The same might to apply to the other teen making waves last week -- this one in Santiago. Brazil's Thiago Seyboth Wild was ranked #250 before coming to Chile. The 2018 U.S. Open Boys' Champion also won a Challenger event last season in Guayaquil, but was still far off the radar this week in Chile. That didn't seem to bother the wildcard though -- he scored an upset of fifth-seeded Juan Ignacio Londero in the second round and then advanced past top seed Cristian Garin, the Cordoba and Rio champ who lost a tight first set before pulling out with injury. Seyboth Wild came up against fellow 2020 breakout Casper Ruud in the final, and unlike the other sub-100 players this week, he was able to get the better of his foe, upsetting the second seed in the over two-hour match. The win was enough to more than halve his ranking, bringing him up to #113 in the world to start this week.


It's sort of a shame that these guys didn't get an even bigger boost after their stellar performances last week. But given how early some of them are in their careers, they were starting from so far back that there was no way they could go higher than they did. The real question will be what they do from here -- whether they can take their momentum into the coming weeks and prove their results were no fluke.

They may not all succeed, but I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't hear a lot more from all of them. And one day soon, hopefully these triple-digit rankings may be but a distant memory.

February 26, 2020

Goodbye, Maria

It may not have been the most surprising of headlines to cross this morning, but the news of Maria Sharapova's retirement from tennis nonetheless hit hard across the sports world.

The five time Grand Slam champion and former world #1 took to Vanity Fair to announce the news, penning an essay that began: "How do you leave behind the only life you’ve ever known? How do you walk away from the courts you’ve trained on since you were a little girl, the game that you love—one which brought you untold tears and unspeakable joys—a sport where you found a family, along with fans who rallied behind you for more than 28 years? I’m new to this, so please forgive me. Tennis -- I’m saying goodbye."

Her departure from the professional game evokes mixed feelings for many. The Russian stormed on the scene in 2004 when, at 17 she stunned Serena Williams to capture the Wimbledon title. She climbed to the top spot in the rankings a year later and picked up Majors two and three in 2006 and 2008 respectively. And when she completed the career Grand Slam in 2012 with the unlikeliest of victories in Paris -- and, against all odds, repeated there of all places -- she cemented her place in history.

Still, there was something about Maria's years in the spotlight that didn't always sit well. Yes, she picked up 36 titles through her professional career and spent 441 weeks in the top ten over nearly two decades. But competing in an era so dominated by the Williams sisters and even veterans like Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, she just didn't seem to be in the same league. She, by far, earned more money from sponsorships and business ventures than she did on the court. And while we'd always get so excited for a rematch between her and Serena, truth was she only won two of their 22 matches, none since 2004, and just a handful of sets in those meetings.

There were injuries too, of course -- a lot of them. Shoulder surgery in 2008 took her out of the game for several months, and she's been in and out of physical therapy throughout her career. In describing her U.S. Open first round loss last year -- which she, surprise, lost to Williams -- she said, "Just stepping onto the court that day felt like a final victory, when of course it should have been merely the first step toward victory. I share this not to garner pity, but to paint my new reality: My body had become a distraction."

And then, of course, there's that thing looming in the background.

It's the one topic Sharapova didn't address in her VF piece, but which is still in the back of everyone's mind.

The incident certainly lost her some fans, and as for her career, we knew back in 2016 that Maria wouldn't be the same force she was when -- and we knew, even at that time, if -- she returned. Sure, she wasn't rehabbing off the courts, but the lack of match play, and the fact that she'd be in her thirties by the time she could compete again just compounded the belief that she was not the kind of player who would be dominant for the long haul.

I don't say that to diminish her accomplishments, but sometimes even when she was the higher seed she felt like the underdog -- she should, after all, have won that Wimbledon final against Petra Kvitova in 2011. Still, I was long a fan and almost always rooted for her to win. The fact that she captured two Major titles on the surface that once made her feel like a cow on ice, just shows what she's capable of.

But as she acknowledges, her biggest asset was her ability to fight, no matter what the odds and even if she didn't come out on top. Her drive and focus provides a lesson that can certainly instruct the next generation:

"I believed that if I kept grinding and grinding, I could push myself to an incredible place. But there is no mastering tennis -- you must simply keep heeding the demands of the court while trying to quiet those incessant thoughts in the back of your mind...I want anyone who dreams of excelling in anything to know that doubt and judgment are inevitable: You will fail hundreds of times, and the world will watch you. Accept it. Trust yourself. I promise that you will prevail."

We might not have seen a lot of Maria over the last few years, especially not in the later rounds of tournaments, but the game certainly will feel different without her -- it'll sound different too. Maria Sharapova ushered in a new generation for tennis, and it's hopefully one that not only brings more young talent (and fans) to the sport, but also shows the importance of grit and determination.

And we can be sure we'll see more of it from her, whatever there is to come.