January 29, 2020

Now For Something Sorta Different

Well the semifinals are set for this year's Australian Open, and -- no surprise here -- my picks were pretty far off. Some players recaptured their mojo, and others found theirs for the first time; some powered through unrelenting draws, and a few benefited as their own were cleared out for them. But we're left now with a surprising mix of eight players with very different levels of experience playing at these levels, and while the more decorated certainly have an advantage, you have to like the chances of the underdogs to break through.

Let's start with the obvious favorites -- Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have a combined 36 Grand Slam titles between them, thirteen here in Melbourne alone. They're the only guys standing who've ever even reached the semis Down Under, and their clash Thursday could be another one for the ages. Nole, the defending champ, does seem to have the edge -- and I'm not just talking about his 26-23 record against Fed. Since a weird hiccup in his very first set of the tournament, he hasn't dropped a set this fortnight. Roger, on the other hand, has already been pushed to a fifth twice, avoiding a repeat of his 2018 U.S. Open loss to John Millman in the third round and then saving seven match points against upstart American Tennys Sandgren in the quarters. Could he rebound to put up another fight against the world #2? If anyone can, it'd be Fed, but you have to think the better rested Djoker has the edge here.

And while Nole may be the odds-on favorite not only in his next match, but for the championship overall, the stars in the other men's semi could surprise us -- after all they've already done a good job of bringing the unexpected so far. Two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem has never made it past the fourth round here and lost his openers at the last two Grand Slams. He didn't get this year off to a great start either, losing two of his three round robin matches at the ATP Cup. But after withstanding a surprising test from wildcard Alex Bolt in his second round, he's been on a roll. And in Wednesday's quarterfinal against top seed Rafael Nadal, who -- go figure -- he's only ever beaten on clay, he seemed inspired, fighting off early challenges and winning the four-hour match in as many sets. It was the second time he's beating a #1 player at a Major -- the other one: Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros last year. Could he do it again?

Well he's got to get through Alexander Zverev first. And if Thiem was a surprise, then I'm not sure what you call the German twenty-two year old. Sure, he's been ranked as high as third in the world, but he's never made it past the quarters at a Major and he's struggled mightily this year, going winless at the ATP Cup. But after finally ending Andrey Rublev's impressive run in the fourth round, he came back from a disastrous opening set versus 2014 champ Stan Wawrinka in four sets to make the semis. And while a pledge to donate all his prize money to wildfire relief if he wins the whole event seemed like a long shot last week, it's now feeling a lot more possible that his run could mean way more than his first Major trophy.

The women's draw has shaken out just as unexpectedly -- at least to me. Yes, two of the top seeds have held true to their positions, and maybe I shouldn't be surprised. World #1 Ashleigh Barty may have lost her first match of the year, but she rebounded to pick up the title in Adelaide and without missing a beat has rolled through her early matches in Melbourne, dropping just one set to 18th seed Alison Riske. Even against last year's runner-up Petra Kvitova, she only dropped serve twice. And fourth-seeded Simona Halep was dealt what I thought would be a super tough draw, but dispatched Brisbane standout Jennifer Brady -- who notched a win over Barty there -- in her opener and rolled over Anett Kontaveit in the quarters.

Halep may have the tougher semi against unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza, who has the same number of Slam titles to her name and is staging quite the comeback herself this fortnight. But the player I'm watching most closely these last few days is twenty-one year old Sofia Kenin, who had only made it as far as a Major fourth round once before. Clearly not the young American everyone was watching in Melbourne, she was actually the one who ended the other one's Cinderella run, beating Coco Gauff in the fourth round, and despite what was probably the toughest section of the ladies' draw was somehow the one who emerged victorious. And, importantly, that's far from her only accomplishment -- over the past year, Kenin's scored wins over Barty, Naomi Osaka, and Serena Williams. She may not be the most experienced one in these last few matches, but she's clearly got the game to potentially come out the spoiler.

Of course the advantage lies with the players who've been here before and know how to win under pressure. But given all the talent left in the field and how all these guys have been performing, I wouldn't be surprised if some new life is breathed into the finals -- and perhaps even comes away with the titles.

January 27, 2020

I'm Back!...And So Are These Guys

Hey all! You may have noticed I've been gone for a few days, and wow, did a lot happen at the Australian Open while I was away. From Serena getting ousted in the third round by Qiang Wang, ranked 29th in the world and a winner of just one game in the pair's previous meeting, to Coco Gauff avenging her U.S. Open loss to defending champion Naomi Osaka but then losing to an underrated Sofia Kenin a match later. From Roger Federer almost losing again to Australian John Millman -- their 2018 clash in New York's fourth round probably shocked us all -- to the rise of the appropriately named Tennys Sandgren, who's somehow the last American man standing at the event. And of course, I can't forget the end of Caroline Wozniacki's decorated career.

But we've also seen some players, far from their best days, storm back onto the scene with some impressive and inspiring results. Once top-tier stars, these guys have fallen a bit off the radar -- some even dropping out of seeding territory. But we've all seen what they're capable of, and judging from their early results in Melbourne, they could be causing some real damage again.

Let's start on the men's side, where Sandgren's run isn't the only surprise we've seen. Former world #3 Milos Raonic has always been a dominating server and saw his talent finally rewarded with an appearance in the 2016 Wimbledon final. But an injury-rattled 2017 season kept him off the courts and pushed him down the rankings. And though he started to climb back up last season, missing the U.S. Open set him back again. He began this year with a first round loss to 81st-ranked Corentin Moutet in Doha and came to Melbourne just barely seeded. But he seems to be righting the ship so far -- he dispatched sixth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round in straight sets and followed up with another win over an always-dangerous Marin Cilic, who he hadn't beaten since 2013. Raonic hasn't lost a set yet, and though that will likely change against his next opponent, defending champion Novak Djokovic, he could surprise us again. And if not, there's no reason he can't ride this wave to bigger things this year.

Also on the comeback trail is 2014 Aussie champion Stan Wawrikna, who has also dealt with his fair share of physical ailments over the years. Knee surgery and back injuries forced him out of many tournaments in 2017 and 2018 and pushed his ranking out of the top two hundred that year. But he's been turning things around over the last year or so, reaching the quarters at both the French and U.S. Opens in 2019 and making the finals in Rotterdam and Antwerp. He earned himself a 15th seed in Melbourne, but has so far surpassed expectations. After dropping a set in his opener to Bosnia's Damir Dzumhur and getting tested by veteran Andreas Seppi in the second round, he stunned a red-hot (and my personal pick, Daniil Medvedev in the fourth. He'll next face off against seventh seed Alexander Zverev, who has won both their previous matches but had struggled for much of the year. It won't be an easy last, but certainly one that is winnable for the Swiss heavyweight.

Things are getting interesting on the ladies' side as well. Of course there's Tunisia's Ons Jabeur, who defeated Wozniacki in the third round, and Anett Kontaveit, who rolled over sixth-seeded Belinda Bencic in less than 50 minutes. But I've got my eye on former world #11 Anastasia Pavyluchenkova, who's spent much of the last couple years ranked between 25 and 40. She's had some strong moments recently, though, beating Aryna Sabalenka at Rogers Cup and taking out Kiki Bertens for the second time last year in Tokyo. She's also scored sets off Ashleigh Barty and Petra Kvitova this year and held on for a #30 seed here. With wins over second seed Karolina Pliskova and 2016 champ Angelique Kerber, she's already defended her quarterfinal points from last year and she's got a solid chance of going even one better.

But standing in her way most immediately is two-time Major champion and one-time top-ranked Garbiñe Muguruza, who didn't get a seed this year at the Open. She's been struggling since 2018, working with a series of different coaches -- including Pavs' current one, Sam Sumyk -- after reaching the semis in Paris that year, she failed spectacularly to defend her Wimbledon crown with a second round loss, and last year won just one match after the French Open. She seemed to be getting things back in order this year, with a run to the semis in Shenzhen before pulling out of the Hobart quarters. In this year's first Slam, she survived a very lop-sided first round against American qualifier Shelby Rogers, before dismantling both Elina Svitolina, my pick for the quarter, and ninth-seeded Kiki Bertens. She's got a solid 4-1 record against the Russian -- her only loss coming in a retirement at Stuttgart -- and if she can channel that talent we know she has, I wouldn't be surprised to see her improve on that now.

Of course, now that we're down to the final eight in both draws, all these guys will see their opportunities -- and challenges -- only get bigger. After all, many of the top seeds are still alive and kicking and will have something to say before these potential spoilers can ruin their runs. But if they can reclaim the game that once brought them so far in this sport, there's no reason they won't be able to push past the odds and shake things up even more.

January 21, 2020

On a Roll

It's always tricky trying to manage player schedules ahead of the first Grand Slam of the year. After a couple weeks off tour, you want to get a little bit of match play under your belt, but also be careful not to tire yourself out ahead of the big game. Some players manage it better than others, but it's not uncommon to see those stars who take on full schedules flame out early at the Australian Open. This year, though, we're getting a glimpse of a couple stars who are proving to have real staying power.

It's not all good news, of course. France's Ugo Humbert had a solid run in Auckland with wins over Denis Shapovalov and John Isner on his way to the title, but couldn't quite keep his run going against hometown favorite John Millman in his first round. On the other hand are the players you'd expect nothing but the best from -- Novak Djokovic, who went 6-0 at the ATP Cup, had a big of a bobble against Jan-Lennard Struff in the third set but made it through largely unscathed, and Serena Williams, fresh off her first title in three years in Brisbane, dispatched young talent Anastasia Potapova in under an hour. But it's some of the other performances that have really caught my attention.

Take for example Shenzhen champion Ekaterina Alexandrova. The twenty-five year old Russian took out three seeds on her way to that title, her first in the top tier, and climbed to her career-high ranking of #26 in the world. She's seeded at a Major for the first time in her career and opened against a tough Jil Teichmann on Monday. It was a tight match, taking three sets and over two hours, but for her efforts she'll get to meet Czech qualifier Barbora Krejcikova, ranked out of the top hundred. Alexandrova's won the pair's only previous meeting, almost three years ago, in another close match, but she's certainly upped her game since. Last year's finalist Petra Kvitova likely awaits her a round later, though, so it only gets tougher from here. But there are opportunities where the rising star can take advantage.

But maybe more interesting is Elena Rybakina, who actually lost in the Shenzhen final but rebounded quickly to claim her second career trophy last weekend in Hobart. She'd already played ten matches this year before even stepping foot in Melbourne Park, and though her seeding doesn't reflect it, is actually now ranked higher than the woman who defeated her in China. So far she's followed through with her early successes -- withstanding Monday's rain delay to take out an on-the-rise Bernarda Pera on Tuesday. We'll get a glimpse of how truly resilient she is, as she won't get a day off before coming up against qualifier Greet Minnen tomorrow. But perhaps her non-stop schedule so far got her ready for exactly that task.

On the men's side, you have to hand it to twenty-two year old Andrey Rublev, who started his year in Doha and flew all the way over to Adelaide without dropping a beat. In the first two weeks of the year, he's doubled his trophy count to four and, while he hasn't had to face a top twenty player in either run, brought his ranking up to #16, though like with Rybakina, his performance last week came too late to improve his seeding in Melbourne. He had a little bit of a hiccup against wildcard Christopher O'Connell in his first round, dropping a bagel in the second set, but rebounded to keep his record perfect on the year. Of course the bigger challenges are still to come, but the Russian was gifted a pretty winnable section of the draw -- his biggest immediate threat is a struggling Alexander Zverev -- and he has a chance to cement himself as a real force this year.

At the other end of the spectrum -- at least on the age front -- is thirty-one year old Roberto Bautista Agut, who as I've said was the surprise standout at the ATP Cup this year, marking a perfect record at the round robin-style event. He didn't go up against the very top players -- he avoided, for example, matches against Novak Djokovic and even David Goffin -- but it was enough to bump his ranking up to #9 in time for the Open. He rolled past fellow veteran Feliciano Lopez in his opening match and will face American wildcard Michael Mmoh next. And while he may be the oldest in this group, he may be the one with enough experience to keep his 2020 unbeaten streak going the longest.

Second round play kicks off in a few hours, with a couple first rounds still to be completed. But we've got a lot of players looking to really make a splash at this year's Australian Open. And if they can prove themselves here, there's no telling what more they'll be able to do for the rest of the season.

January 18, 2020

Australian Open 2020: Predicting the Final Four

Well here we are, on the eve of the first Grand Slam of the decade and there's already so much to talk about.

Now I'm well aware there's a lot going on the outside* the Australian Open, and that it could have a substantial impact on what happens inside Melbourne Park -- we saw that already in the qualifying rounds. But I can't well predict how these external issues will impact the draws, so I'm going to strictly stick to the sport's tangibles. And this year, like I did a long time ago, I'm going to start off by trying to sift through the potential match-ups and pick the men and women I think will still be standing in the semifinals. And I'll introduce my own little "Confidence Meter" as a gauge of how likely I think the outcome is:

Basically a shot in the dark! →
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After all, you can basically guarantee that things won't go according to the seedings -- last year we saw upstarts like Amanda Anisimova and Matteo Berrettini and veteran Barbora Strycova all make it out of Slam quarters, and there were plenty others to do the same in seasons past. For some of these guys, deep runs will be just one-offs, and we may never hear much from them again, at least not on court -- I'm looking at you Anna Kournikova -- but for others it could be the start of something big.

But whoever makes it that far -- whether favorite or Cinderella -- you can bet they'll be in the spotlight for a good part of the new year. So here's hoping they can back up what they bring Down Under.



First Quarter

Ashleigh Barty headlines this section of the draw as the top-ranked player and the top seed, not to mention the hometown favorite. But despite her unassailable breakthrough in 2019, which included not just the Miami and French Open titles, but the year end championship as well, I can't help but feel she's one of the more vulnerable #1s we've seen in a while. After all she started her year with a loss to qualifier Jennifer Brady in Brisbane, and even in her title run in Adelaide this past week, was tested in most rounds. She has a decent, Serena-less quarter, but there are still some obstacles there.

Of course there's Petra Kvitova, the second best seed in the section, who took this past week off after a semi showing in Brisbane. Madison Keys, too, could meet Barty in the quarters. But the trouble may start even earlier. Barty's first opponent is Lesia Tsurenko, a quarterfinalist at the 2018 U.S. Open -- she's been a little quiet since then, off court since last year's Citi Open, and has fallen out of the top hundred, but she's certainly capable of surprises. There's also Elena Rybakina, fresh off a title in Hobart and a runner-up finish in Shenzhen -- a potential third round opponent. And Shenzhen title winner Ekaterina Alexandrova is also running a hot streak right now -- she ended 2019 with a title in Limoges and went straight on to the trophy in China -- I imagine she'd be loathe to let her streak end early. I also like Greece's Maria Sakkari, who gave Naomi Osaka a run for her money in Brisbane.

Then again, many of these players have been pretty busy in the weeks leading up to Melbourne and could be a bit tired -- given the conditions, you have to wonder how long they can keep going without a pause. They could also all eliminate each other and clear the road for the eventual survivor, and perhaps that opens the door for some others.

Take Julia Goerges, for example. She's just out of seeding territory and, though she can be up and down -- she made the Wimbledon semis in 2018 and then lost in the first round of two Majors last year -- she can have moments of brilliance. She could meet a strong Allison Riske in the third round, which won't be an easy mountain to scale, but gaining some confidence early could work wonders.

My Semifinalist Pick:Julia Goerges
Confidence Meter:If she's ever had a shot...

Second Quarter

Karolina Pliskova claims the top seed in this section of the draw, and she's coming off her second straight title in Brisbane. Last year she rode that win to a semifinal showing in Melbourne, and she could very well do it again, but she'll be tested right from the get-go. Her first round opponent is barely unseeded Kristina Mladenovic, a former doubles champion here and a two-time Major singles quarterfinalist. Pliskova's also got a potential third round meeting with surprise Auckland finalist Jessica Pegula. And while she finally had a decent showing at the Majors last year, she's never been particularly consistent at these events.

Meanwhile, on the other end of this quarter, fifth seeded Elina Svitolina lost her only match so far this year pretty handily, but she could easily rebound now. She's, after all, a two-time defending quarterfinalist here and made the semis at last year's U.S. Open. She also reached the final at the 2019 year end championships with wins over Pliskova and Simona Halep. She could face an early challenge from unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza, who pulled out of Hobart with a viral illness this week. There's also young star Amanda Anisimova, who reached the semis last week in Auckland.

There are a couple other potential spoilers here, and I would really like to see a low seed break through. But for now, I think it's one of the top seeds that gets through.

My Semifinalist Pick:Elina Svitolina
Confidence Meter:It'll be tough, but I'm hopeful!

Third Quarter

Defending champion Naomi Osaka brings a #3 seed to the Australian Open this year, and obviously the pressure is on to defend those points. But she didn't get the greatest draw in which to do that -- she was the lucky one to get Serena Williams in her quarter. Encouragingly, she's kept up her pace since that breakout in 2018, ending out last year with titles in Osaka (appropriately) and Beijing, so she absolutely can't be counted out.

But of course, Serena is going after Major #24 with history in her sights. After ending a three-year title drought in Auckland, she's arguably shaken that monkey off her back (if there ever was one there...) and could be primed to roll. She opens against talented teen Anastasia Potapova, who gave Coco Gauff a tough time in their U.S. Open first round last year, but she should be an easy win for Williams.

Speaking of Coco, the other talented teen with a slightly higher profile -- at least in the States -- makes her Australian Open debut with another first round against Venus Williams, the more-than-twice-her-age legend she beat last year at Wimbledon. She's still the on-paper underdog in this match, but the gap is much narrower these days, and she's got a lot more experience under her belt now. Whatever the outcome, the winner could face Osaka in the third round.

Also in this quarter is 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki, who's saying goodbye to the Tour once her run here ends. We've seen pending retirement inspire players before, and it may have helped her to the semis in Auckland, after all. But she's got a tough section too, with U.S. Open standout Kristie Ahn in the first round and potentially Adelaide runner-up Dayana Yastremska in the second. The crowd will be rooting for her, but I expect she'll be stopped by Serena at the start of the second week.

My Semifinalist Pick:Serena Williams
Confidence Meter:She's on a roll, man, and hungry!

Fourth Quarter

This may be one of the more wide-open sections of the draw. On-paper favorite Simona Halep, who lost to an on-the-mend Aryna Sabalenka this week in Adelaide, kicks off her campaign against Brisbane giant-killer Jennifer Brady, who made the quarters as a qualifier. Halep, a two-time Major titleist -- she shocked Serena last year for the Wimbledon title -- can also be spotty at Majors, though, so the early test may not be welcome. And on the other end of things, you've got Belinda Bencic, who got bumped up a seed thanks to Bianca Andreescu's withdrawal from the event. She's sitting at a career-high ranking, but can also be up-and-down in her play -- she made the U.S. Open semis last year, but this season lost her opener in Brisbane and was upset in the Adelaide quarters by Danielle Collins, who's also in this section.

And let's talk about Collins -- the twenty-six year old, twenty-sixth seed has had a solid start to the year, notching wins not only over Bencic, but Elina Svitolina and Sofia Kenin too. She also was the unexpected semifinalist here last year, her first breakthrough at the Slams -- she hadn't won a match at one before that. She'll have a little more pressure to defend points, though, which could weigh on her in later rounds. If not for that, I may have chosen her as my Cinderella here.

But there are also a couple high profile early rounds to watch in this section. Former champion Maria Sharapova, who lost her first round in Brisbane to Brady and is ranked all the way down at #145 in the world, got a wildcard to the Open and in return was gifted a first round against Donna Vekic. It's certainly a winnable match for her, but not one she can be assumed to win. And then there's Heather Watson, on the comeback trail. She starts off against a similarly strong Kristyna Pliskova, the #2's twin, and could set up a second round rematch against Elise Mertens, who she beat this week on the way to the Hobart semis. But ultimately, I'm not sure any of these ladies will keep up their streaks into the final four.

Who could be interesting, though, is Karolina Muchova, who after qualifying for the event last year made the quarters at Wimbledon and gave Serena Williams a tough time in her U.S. Open third round. She's now the twentieth seed, and starts off against an always tricky Kirsten Flipkens. But given her draw, she might just be the spoiler.

My Semifinalist Pick:Karolina Muchova
Confidence Meter:Why the hell not?


First Quarter

Moving on to the men's draw, Rafael Nadal takes the top seed and, while he may not be considered a favorite for the title -- he's only got that one win here from waaaay back in 2009 -- he's certainly capable of doing some damage. He has made the final four other times, including last year, and he's become a real force on hard courts. He's also had some time to recover since that grueling ATP Cup schedule, so hopefully he'll at least be in good physical shape.

My big concern for him, though, is Nick Kyrgios, who despite my concerns has been pretty spot on this year. There's no love lost between him and Rafa, though, and that could be on full display if they do meet in the fourth round. I wouldn't be shocked if we saw an upset.

The bottom part of this quarter also has a lot of opportunity. While two-time French Open finalist Dominic Thiem is the headliner, he had some mixed results at the ATP Cup, losing to both Borna Coric and Hubert Hurkacz. It does feel like we could get a breakout from Felix Auger-Aliassime -- the teenager from Canada has never played a main draw here before and actually had a surprisingly dismal showing at the ATP Cup. But he had a solid run in Miami last year as a qualifier, and lived up to expectations in an Adelaide draw this week that saw more than its fair share of upsets.

Still, you have to believe this quarter will be decided in the top half, and that could mean our best matches come early.

My Semifinalist Pick:Nick Kyrgios
Confidence Meter:This pains me, but there it is...

Second Quarter

This quarter may be the easiest to call. Novak Djokovic is the defending men's champion (and seven-time titleist) and arrives on the heels of six match wins at the ATP Cup, including ones over Nadal and Daniil Medvedev. Plus he smartly sat out last week's event in Adelaide, so he should be well rested when he hits the courts in Melbourne. Of course, he's had some early exits here -- notably a stunning second round defeat by Denis Istomin in 2017 -- but he's probably one of the surest bets in the field.

It doesn't mean there won't be drama, though. Roberto Bautista Agut was the unexpected standout for the Spanish team at the ATP Cup, winning all six of his singles matches, including one over Nick Kyrgios. He was a quarterfinalist here last year, and with his biggest on-paper challenger in the early being a potential fourth round against a recently spotty Stefanos Tsitsipas, he could make it back there. Spoilers for him, though, could be young Corentin Moutet, who stunned Stan Wawrinka on the way to the Doha final and faces unseeded Marin Cilic in his opener, or Benoit Paire, who's fresh off a final run in Auckland.

There's also Diego Schwartzman, who surprised me with his performance against Rafael Nadal at last year's U.S. Open. He kicks off against Adelaide's surprise runner-up Lloyd Harris, who made the final there as a qualifier. I'd like to see the Argentine make a deep run here and see no reason he can't at least give Djokovic a bit of a challenge.

My Semifinalist Pick:Novak Djokovic
Confidence Meter:You just gotta go with the odds here

Third Quarter

Djokovic isn't the only one who knows how to win here, of course -- Roger Federer has six trophies himself and has only not made the semis twice since 2004. Of course, one of those early losses came last year, when he was ousted in four (tiebreak) sets to then-rising star Stefanos Tsitsipas, who he lost to again at the year end championships. Unlike many of the top seeds in Melbourne, we haven't seen Fed in action yet this decade. That's not necessarily strange -- he hasn't played a lead up event to the Australian Open since 2016 and won the thing twice since -- but it could mean he's less accustomed to the extenuating circumstances this year.

He's also got an interesting draw. He's got a first round against American Steve Johnson, who if nothing else, is certainly capable of pushing the great to five sets. More interesting, though, would be a potential third round against Ugo Humbert, who won his first career title in Auckland this week, or a fourth against Grigor Dimitrov, who finally got that elusive "W" over the master at the 2019 U.S. Open and played solid ball to start the year at the ATP Cup.

The other high seed in this section is another New York Cinderella, eighth-ranked Matteo Berrettini, whose favored status I wonder about. While he has what should be some easy early rounds, he could be an opportunity for Borna Coric to stand out -- the one-time Croatian wunderkind hasn't quite lived up to his potential yet, but I continue to root for it. If he can take care of a struggling Sam Querrey in his opener, he could be the breakout here.

It's also worth watching young Denis Shapovalov. The twenty-year-old Canadian did well at ATP Cup, beating both Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, and though he lost in the Auckland quarters to Humbert, he could surprise us this fortnight. At the very least, here's hoping he puts together enough wins to keep it interesting.

My Semifinalist Pick:Roger Federer
Confidence Meter:Sure, but this does feel a little long in the tooth...

Fourth Quarter

Okay this section could get interesting. Daniil Medvedev's performance at the ATP Cup helped bump him up a seed for the Australian Open so he's the headliner, and you have to think he'll be as ruthless in his early rounds as he was through the end of last year. The twenty-three year old Russian was more than impressive in his first Slam final in New York and bookended that run with titles in Cincinnati, St. Petersburg, and Shanghai. While he (somewhat surprisingly) lost all his matches at the year-end championships, he recovered for a solid run at the ATP Cup. His opening round against Frances Tiafoe breaks my heart a little, but he should make it through the first week untested.

Meanwhile Alexander Zverev will need to step up to the plate. The seventh seed is winless so far this year and had some surprising losses at the end of last. He has a potential fourth round against Andrey Rublev, seeded only seventeenth but moving higher after titles in Doha and Adelaide already in 2020. I'm always worried about exhaustion playing a factor in runs like that, but the Russian will be eager to keep his win streak alive.

A potential spoiler here -- as much as a former champion can be a spoiler -- is fifteenth seed Stan Wawrinka, who may have had a surprising loss to Corentin Moutet in Doha but is otherwise well on the comeback trail. In the second round, he could face veteran Andreas Seppi or young Miomir Kecmanovic, who beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the start of the year, but you have to like his chances to give some of the favorites a run for the money.

All said and done, though, Medvedev has future Major champion written all over him, and it feels like he's going to make some strides to get there soon.

My Semifinalist Pick:Daniil Medvedev
Confidence Meter:I just don't see a lot of early challenges...

Well there you have it. My first preview piece in years. I'm sure I'm out of practice and may only get one or two of these picks even close to correct. Whatever the case though, I hope we're in for an exciting two weeks of play. And let's all stay safe out there.

* If you'd like to help in the relief efforts from the bushfires that have ravaged Australia's wildlife over the past several weeks, please visit the Red Cross website or the multitude of other nonprofits lending aid to the region. Here's a good list of options.

January 15, 2020

The Rematch

I know we're just a few days away from the Australian Open, but today I want to take a little journey back in time to last year's French Open to make an observation. The ladies draw was weird, wasn't it? Now I say, again, that I hadn't been paying close attention to the game for some time, and so I wasn't too familiar with all the up-and-coming players who'd emerged over time -- but still! Players came out of nowhere to make the second week and beyond.

Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Karolina Pliskova all lost in the third round, and fourth seeded Kiki Bertens was out by the second. While then defending champion Simona Halep made it to the quarters, by the time we got to the semis, the remaining ladies had an average ranking of #31 and two weren't seeded. I wouldn't have been able to name the runner-up a few days ago.

The careers of the two women who contested the final have gone in very different directions in the seven months since Roland Garros -- Ashleigh Barty converted her title run to a #1 ranking, a WTA Finals trophy, and a top seed at next week's Major. Marketa Vondrousova, meanwhile, is near a career high ranking, but lost in the first round at Wimbledon and was sidelined the rest of the year as a wrist injury and surgery kept her off the court through 2019.

Why do I bring this up now? Well, it turns out the two will face off again Thursday for a spot in the semifinals in Adelaide. And with the next Grand Slam on the horizon things might not go as we expect.

Barty, after all, didn't get off to the best start of the year. She lost her first match in Brisbane last week to qualifier Jennifer Brady an needed two hours and three sets to make it past Anastasia Pavlyucenkova in her opener here. Vondrousova, meanwhile, still ranked high enough for the eighth seed, has only lost three games this week, dealing Alina Rodionova a double bagel Wednesday in just fifty-one minutes.

Can she bring the same strength tomorrow? Probably -- after all, unbeknownst to me until now, she had some solid performances even before Paris last year, making the quarters in both Indian Wells and Miami, with wins over Simona Halep and Elise Mertens along the way. And while she only has one title to her name so far, at just 20 years of age, she's got plenty of time to start racking them up.

But maybe more immediate is the question of what a win tomorrow could mean for the coming fortnight. If Barty can manage a repeat, it could bode well for her confidence in Melbourne. But I gotta say, with no real basis for the statement other than a gut feeling, it seems this match is winnable for the young Czech.

And that might throw the draw wide open not just for the rest of this week, but into the Australian Open as well.

January 12, 2020

A Taste of What's to Come?

Well we wrapped up the action at the first-ever ATP Cup overnight, and week-plus of play was not without its fair share of upsets, standouts, and drama -- both on and off the court. And while it was ultimately Serbia that came away with the title, beating Spain Sunday when Novak Djokovic, who'd already downed Rafael Nadal in their singles rubber, joined countryman Dusan Lajovic for a doubles win to claim the match. But it was the performance of a couple others this week that really drew my attention and may set the stage of what we'll see at the Australian Open.

Let's start with the good. I have to say I was impressed by the showing from firebrand Nick Kyrgios, who not only won his first three singles matches -- including one over world #6 Stefanos Tsitsipas -- and scored a dramatic doubles victory with Alex De Minaur in the quarters, but he kicked off the slew of pledges to donate to help relieve the Australian brushfires. The only loss he suffered this week came at the hands of Roberto Bautista Agut who, you may be surprised to realize was the only Spanish singles player to go undefeated this week -- Rafa lost to not only Djokovic in the final, but to David Goffin in the quarters. RBA who kicked off the year at a career high #9 in the world certainly did his part to show he's deserving of the ranking, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him climb even higher still.

Of course not everyone excelled this week. Daniil Medvedev may have helped Russia get as far as the semis, winning his first four matches during the event, but lost his cool even in victory against Diego Schwartzman in the quarters. After a tight first set, which he won, he got a warning for an exchange with the Argentine, and when apparently seeking clarity on what happened, banged his racket against the umpire's chair -- twice. He recovered to pull off the win and ultimately seemed accepting of the penalty, but it still set the wrong tone for his game. And then there's Tsitsipas, who not only lost to Krygios, but also fell in a tight two-setter to twenty-year-old Canadian Shapovalov. It's an unfortunate start for someone who ended last year on the high of a ATP Championship.

But things were really dour for a couple of top players who went winless in Australia. First there's former world #3 Alexander Zverev, who only won one set in his three matches down under. It was only thanks to compatriot Jan-Lennard Struff's win over Greece's Michail Pervolarakis that Germany won any of its ties. Even more disappointing was John Isner's 0-3 record during the event. He, too, only won one set, but his was against world #53, Norway's Casper Ruud, a seemingly much less formidable opponent on paper, and he still lost the match. The U.S. was blanked in its showing at the ATP, finishing dead last in its group.

As for the tournament itself, there were certainly a few things left to be desired. On the positive side, the event drew more than a little bit of star power, with fifteen of the top twenty players taking part. But the format also drew some complaints. Like in traditional Davis Cup -- I admittedly haven't yet figured out the new format -- country teams played round robins in different locations, three cities across Australia. But like current Davis Cup, all the action was boiled down to a short period, in this case a little more than a week, with the qualifying teams coming from Brisbane and Perth to Sydney for the quarterfinals. That meant not a lot of time to adjust to different weather and different time zones -- Nadal and Medvedev both voiced their frustration after those losses and tantrums. As an indication of the toll the event took on players, both Djokovic and Medvedev pulled out of tournaments this week to rest up for Melbourne.

The Grand Slam there, you surely know, is just a week away, and the ATP Cup certainly gave us some ideas for who might be standouts -- and possibly who could disappoint. Whatever the case, you can be sure the action won't go entirely according to plan. And I can't wait to see it all!

January 10, 2020

Playing Catch-Up

It was a busy Friday in Doha, where rain cancelled most of yesterday's play and caused a bit of a scramble to get the quarter- and semifinal matches wrapped up in time for the weekend. And those double headers made for some surprising results in what had already been an unexpected week.

I mean, only two seeds were still standing by the elite eight -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Milos Raonic both lost their opening matches to players I'd never heard of before this week, and Frances Tiafoe, my dark horse pick to win a Major in 2020, didn't make it out of the first round.

And with more than a few double-headers scheduled for Friday, things got even more interesting. Top seeded Stan Wawrinka, who appeared well on his way back to the top ranks at the end of last season, and world #23 Andrey Rublev, a titleist in Moscow late last year, both got their first matches of the day wrapped up without drama, while France's Corentin Moutet won his fifth match of the event against one-time Australian Open semifinalist Fernando Verdasco.

But when the second matches of the day rolled around, Rublev dismissed Tsonga-vanquisher, Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic -- the only player who'd gotten his match in on Thursday. But while it at first seemed likely he'd battle Wawrinka for the crown, the Swiss #2 couldn't capitalize on winning his first set versus Moutet, and after more than two hours, it was the qualifier who'd earned his spot in the final -- the first of his career and quite a way to start the decade.

It seems obvious that Rublev will be the favorite to score the trophy tomorrow, but the action all week certainly sets an interesting tone for the men's game this year, well beyond the final. After all there were a lot of unknown players getting into the later rounds of the draw (and even a couple unknowns making it into the seeds -- who on Earth is fifth-seeded Laslo Djere?! I am again reminded that I need to study up on everything I've missed over the last couple years).

But perhaps we're getting a nice taste of who could fill out the ranks when the current top players ultimately, inevitably step to the side. And who knows, maybe Moutet will walk away with the trophy tomorrow and make his mark on the road to that new world early.

January 7, 2020

The Kick-Off

Well here we are at the dawn of the new tennis season and the ladies have wasted no time turning up the volume for the New Year. From early upsets to stand-out stars to surprising comebacks, we seem to be setting the stage for what could be an exciting stretch.

Let's start in Shenzhen where defending champion Aryna Sabalenka was ousted overnight in straight sets by the lesser-known Pliskova twin. And she wasn't the only surprise exit -- top seeded Belinda Bencic, just a hair off her highest ever ranking, took the "L" against Russia's Anna Blinkova. There are still a couple seeds left in the draw, chief among them former world #1 and two-time Major winner Garbiñe Muguruza, who's trying to claw herself back up from a sub-thirty ranking, but even she was pushed to three sets in her opener against wildcard Xinyu Wang.

But perhaps the one to watch over the next week will be Elise Mertens, who's had some of her best results this time of year -- she made the semis in Melbourne back in 2018. Over the last several months, her losses have come largely, albeit not exclusively, to the top players in the sport, so she doesn't have much to be embarrassed by. As the top seed left in the draw, she's now the on-paper favorite. Her next opponent will be Elena Rybakina, a player who's had her own big successes over the past year -- She beat Simona Halep in Wuhan and reached the semis in Luxembourg. But wins for Mertens tomorrow and throughout the week could set her on a solid course as we count down to the Aussie Open.

Speaking of Australia, we're seeing some big upsets already in Brisbane that could also presage things to come there. While the top two seeds, Ashleigh Barty and Karolina Pliskova -- the defending champ, by the way -- have yet to take the court, we've already seen Naomi Osaka pushed to the limit in her first round and fourth seeded Elina Svitolina knocked out by American Danielle Collins. And she's not the only U.S. star causing waves this week -- Jennifer Brady ended Maria Sharapova's wildcard dreams with a close match overnight and takes on Barty next. Sofia Kenin nudged past former #11 Anastasija Sevastova in straight sets and hopes for a repeat of her Cincinnati win over Osaka in the next round. And my spoiler pick for the year, Alison Riske, might just be able to keep her run going Down Under -- she could face Pliskova a few rounds down the road.

The real shock, though, may come from the "old guard" of the sport -- Sam Stosur, who spent much of last year ranked in the triple digits before a final run in Guangzhou got her back in the top hundred, was just a wildcard in Brisbane, but took advantage of an on-the-mend Angelique Kerber in her first match of the year. It was a moment of brilliance from the former U.S. Open titleist, who's famously not fared too well in her homeland -- she's been ousted in the first round in Melbourne four years running. It gets harder from here, of course, as she'll face talented Madison Keys for a spot in the quarterfinals, but she has won all three of their previous meetings, the last one just this previous March. There's no reason she can't keep her record in tact now, right?

And then finally we head to Auckland, where there may be a lower-ranked slate of contenders than in Brisbane, but the star power certainly more than makes up for it. There's Serena Williams, ranked tenth in the world but taking the top seed, Caroline Wozniacki, kicking off her farewell tour with a one-and-oh win in her first round, and 2019 ingenue Coco Gauff who picked up this year right where she left off, beating Slovakian Viktoria Kuzmova in just over an hour. I'm, for one, excited to see Coco face off against Serena in the quarters -- she's already beaten one Williams sister, why not another? -- but we've still got a round left before that happens.

But we could see another story line emerge from New Zealand. One-time Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard only won one match between last February and early November and is now at her lowest ranking since 2012. She got a wildcard into the ASB Classic, though, and somewhat surprisingly pulled off a straight set win over an always-tricky Kirsten Flipkens. Next up she'll face off against Caroline Garcia, who is no slouch, but is herself a bit off her best game and certainly beatable. It's a good part of the draw to be in for the Canadian, and if she can pull it off could get her back on the right track for the new year.

There's a lot more ball to be played, this season of course, but also this week, so whether these ladies can capitalize on early wins or take advantage of their opportunities still remains to be seen. Still, there's no reason they can't shake things up over the next few days. And if that gives them a little extra jolt heading in to the Australian Open, well... all the better!

January 1, 2020

2020 Vision: Just One More Thing...Or Four

Okay, I lied. I said yesterday would be the last in my series of 2020 outlook posts, but turns out I have a little more left in me. So I decided to kick off this year with a couple predictions -- some wild and outlandish, others more predictable...or at least attainable. And all are things I'm looking forward to big time in 2020. Sure, there's no reason any or all of them should come true. But if there's ever a time to declare with complete confidence something that may never happen, it's at the dawn of a brand new decade.

#1) Someone not named Rafa, Roger, or Novak wins a Major

To be fair I started laying the groundwork for this in my first post in this thread, so I might as well get the ball rolling on it. But instead of looking at some of the new hot shots on the scene -- the handful of youngsters in the top ten who've already made solid showings on the big stages. But instead, today, I'm going to look at a couple other contenders who, admittedly long shots, have the talent that can bring home the prize.

Let's start with Juan Martin Del Potro, who of course already knows what it's like to taste Grand Slam glory. But since that miraculous day in 2009, his career has had some real ups and down. Plagued by one injury after another, it feels like he's spent more time off the court than on in the past decade. Still, he always seems to claw his way back to the elite ranks -- the 31-year-old (when did he get that old?!) has fallen out of the top two hundred twice after being sidelined, even dropping to quadruple digit rankings in 2016, but plowed himself back into the top ten both times. During his comebacks he's picked up more than a few titles, even winning the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics and reaching the U.S. Open final in 2018. He's currently in recovery again, though -- a knee injury taking him out of action since this past June. We don't yet know when he'll get back to work, but when (if?!) he does, you can bet he'll come out fighting and could do some damage -- hopefully to the favorites, and not to his own body.

My other choice comes from the other end of the spectrum -- ten years younger, much less experience -- but scads of raw talent nonetheless. American Frances Tiafoe first hit my radar during the 2016 U.S. Open when, ranked #125 at the time, he took John Isner to five sets in the first round. Isner and five sets wasn't so much of a surprise -- he's gone the distance 30 times, and has lost most of them, which seems excessive -- but the then-teenager's shot-making was. And he's built on that strength in the years since. He picked up his maiden title in 2018 in Delray Beach and slugged his way to the quarters in Melbourne this past season, notching wins over Kevin Anderson, Andreas Seppi, and Grigor Dimitrov in the process. He's still on the outskirts of the sport's very best -- at #47 in the world, he's got some work to do to be seeded at the Majors -- but it's often this tier of players that can really break through. Maybe not in Melbourne, but something tells me we're going to be seeing a lot more of Tiafoe this year. And besides, it's about time an American brought back a title.

#2) Vika re-enters the top ten

These days, former world #1 Victoria Azarenka has been more of a force on the doubles court than in singles -- she made the final at the U.S. Open with Ashleigh Barty and claimed a title in Acapulco with Shuai Zheng -- but she's still out there fighting for solo glory. While she hasn't won a trophy since Miami in 2016, she had some solid wins this past season, beating the likes of Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina, and Angelique Kerber, and made her way to the finals in Monterrey. She's currently ranked #50 in the world, about where she was at the start of the year, and she doesn't have a ton of points to defend in the early part of the season. And while she pulled out of the Australian Open for "personal reasons", sparking rumors of retirement, her camp insists she'll be back on court later in the year. So if she can get some momentum on her side early, there's no telling how high she can climb.

#3) The next big thing emerges

We had our share of youngsters crash the party this year -- from Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, to Bianca Andreescu and of course Coco Gauff -- reminding us of those days when teens ruled this sport. And as the field of veterans age it's only going to become more plausible for these guys and gals to take over. So let's look at some of the possibilities.

Nineteen-year-old Dayana Yastremska was the woman who made it highest up the rankings this year, thanks to titles in Strasbourg and Thailand. And those trophy runs were no walks in the park -- she beat Caroline Garcia and Aryna Sabalenka for the former, and Garbiñe Muguruza for the latter. She's even scored some wins at the Slams, reaching the fourth round in her first Wimbledon main draw. Now ranked #22 in the world, the Ukrainian is no longer the obvious underdog in her matches, and so may get the benefits that come with seeding. But she'll also be more in the spotlight so pressure will be on her to deliver. But a couple good performances could go a long way in establishing her spot in the top ranks.

Another teen who did a lot to prove her mettle in 2019 is American Amanda Anisimova, who won the U.S. Open as a junior in 2017. She also won her first WTA title this year, getting the trophy in Bogotá as the sixth seed, but she didn't have to face anyone ranked higher than #138 in the world. Her bigger successes, though, came on the bigger stages -- she took out Sabalenka and Lesia Tsurenko at the Australian Open and reached the semis at Roland Garros by beating Sabalenka again, as well as Simona Halep. The eighteen-year-old slowed down a bit towards the end of the season, only playing three events after Wimbledon and winning just two matches, so she's going to have to defend the majority of the points that got her to #24 in the world early on in the year.  Whether or not she can withstand the pressure, she certainly seems like she has what it takes to stick around for some time.

But my top pick to really upend the status quo may be the lowest ranked teen in the top hundred. Anastasia Potapova was once the top-ranked Juniors player and 2016 Wimbledon Girls' champ over Yastremska. Currently ranked in the nineties, and a bit off her career high of #64, she only played a handful of WTA-level main draws this year. But she shocked Angelique Kerber in the first round of the French Open, and while she lost her first match at the U.S. Open, she more than held her own -- and impressively kept her cool -- against technical underdog but clear crowd favorite Coco Gauff. She'll still to qualify for most of the big events, but given the way she's played under pressure, and the talent she's clearly shown, I imagine she'll earn her way into those draws in short order.

#4) A reckoning for John Isner

I mentioned above how we shouldn't be surprised to see John Isner be pushed to fifth sets by his opponents, but let's take it a step further. For a player who's so long been the top-ranked American in the sport -- he's closed out every year since 2011 in the top twenty -- he struggles to break serve of most players and contests tiebreaks in more sets than he should (more than 700!), especially given the fact that he's consistently one of the best servers out there. He has the highest career Serve Rating of any ATP player, has won more service games than anyone save Ivo Karlovic, and fires off an average of more than 18 aces per match (third all-time). But he's only won ten percent of his return games (Roger Federer, meanwhile has won 27% and Rafael Nadal 34%).  As far as the Majors go, his legacy will forever be that Wimbledon first round in 2010 and never his actual successes -- he's made only one Slam semifinal in 45 tries and, no surprise here, went 50 games in the deciding set, which this time he lost. His opponents, even the low-ranked ones, are slowly but surely figuring out how to play his game and take more points off his serve than they give up, and that will eventually catch up to him. And I wouldn't be surprised if that happens sooner rather than later.

Okay, now that's it, I promise. And just in time too -- the 2020 season officially kicks off tomorrow across Australia with the inaugural ATP Cup. And the first Grand Slam of the year is only a few weeks away, so keep coming back for coverage of all the action!