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.

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