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.

February 24, 2020

The Emerging Opportunities

Things sure got interesting on the men's tour last week -- we may have been down Nole, Rafa, and an in-recovery Roger, but there was plenty of top talent on the courts with a chance to show us what they've got. But for some reason, many of these guys weren't able to capitalize on draws that were decidedly in their favor, and instead we saw some surprising names not only claim the titles, but also make big runs to the finals.

I'll start in Marseille, where we arguably saw the least unexpected results as second seed and defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas was able to make a return to glory after a bit of a rough start to the year. But that's not to say everything went according to plan. Alexander Bublik got upsets not only over Benoit Paire but also an often-volatile Denis Shapovalov. And Gilles Simon pulled off a stunning win over Daniil Medvedev, who late last year was pretty close to unstoppable.

With all that going on, it's worth giving a little props to Tsitsipas's accomplishment. As I mentioned, the world #6 has had some hiccups this year -- after winning the year-end championship in 2019, he lost two out of his three matches at the ATP Cup, was upset by an on-the-mend Milos Raonic in Melbourne, and only won one match in Rotterdam. And while he didn't face any big threats this past week, he also didn't drop a set, scooting past young Felix Auger-Aliassime in under ninety minutes. The win earned him a fifth career title and may have helped get his season, which started off with so much promise, back on track.

Things were a little more topsy-turvy in Delray Beach, where only three seeds made it out of the first round, and that set the stage for some real stand-out performances -- encouragingly, many from Americans. Among them: Brandon Nakashima, a wildcard who notched wins over Jiri Vesely and Cameron Norrie on his way to the quarters, Soonwoo Kwon, who followed up an upset of Milos Raonic in New York last week with another run to the final eight, and maybe most impressively, Jack Sock, who broke down in tears after winning his first singles match since 2018.

But with all that action, we got the biggest Cinderella story out of 24-year old Yoshihito Nishioka, who battled through four three-set matches during the week, garnering wins over John Millman and Ugo Humbert in the process. He was ultimately felled by fourth seed Reilly Opelka in the final -- the American rebounded after a heart-breaking loss in the Melbourne first round and an early ouster last week, when he was trying to defend his New York title, and won not one but two matches on Sunday -- but his run cut 15 spots from his ranking, allowing him to make his debut in the ATP top fifty. And with a game that looks kind of reminiscent of that other young man from Japan, there are high hopes that he's going even higher.

But with all that going on, the biggest surprises last week no doubt came on the rain-addled courts of Rio. Multiple delays led to a lot of catch-up play, which inevitably contributed to some of the less-than-expected results, but others happened even without the excuse of the weather. It started with a win by sixteen-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, the youngest man to win a tour-level match since 2013 -- an admittedly weird stat, considering how often we seem to set "youngest ever" records on the ladies' circuit -- he drew an upset of Albert Ramos-Viñolas in the first round and rocketed up 92 ranking spots with the win. And then there was Atilla Balazs, a very lucky loser who defeated Pablo Cuevas in his opener and kept going until the semis.

But the standout in Brazil had to be Gianluca Mager, a 25-year-old Italian who had a 2-3 career record before last week. After qualifying for the main draw, he ran in the quarters into Dominic Thiem -- arguably the second best clay court player in active duty, with his sights set this week on taking over Roger Federer as #3 in the world -- and got a set and a break lead on him before play was called. He might have ceded that advantage when the match resumed Saturday, but instead held strong and scored by far the biggest win of his career. Like his final opponent Cristian Garin, he had to finish up his semi and contest the championship on Sunday, a feat that finally proved too much for him, but his showing all week certainly put him on the map as we head into the spring season.

Of course the real test for all these guys will come in the weeks ahead -- there are, after all, a slew of top ten players in action this week in Dubai and Acapulco. But if they can harness whatever magic they found over the last few days, there's no reason to expect we won't be seeing a lot more of them in the winner's circle down the road.

February 19, 2020

Unseeded Gems

Perhaps it says something about the quality of the women's game these days that we're seeing some lower ranked players put together some of the most consistent performances in the game week after week.

Now there's something to be said for the argument that, unlike the men's tour which is so dominated by three big names, talent in the ladies' field is much more spread out, allowing new names to not only pull off an upset or two, but to bring home the big titles. Still, over the last few weeks there are a couple players who have been more steady, and while they haven't quite broken into the top ranks yet, sure look like they're about to do so.

Let's start with Jennifer Brady, who this week may have given us a little more reason to think she has staying power. The twenty-four year old American has had some nice wins over the years, beating Alison Riske on her way to the final of an Indian Wells lead-up last year and taking out Maria Sakkari in Nottingham, and really started to stand out when she stunned Ashleigh Barty as a qualifier -- having just beaten Maria Sharapova -- and made the Brisbane quarters. But she seemed to struggle after that, unable to score an upset in her Melbourne opener and losing to Svetlana Kuznetsova in her St. Petersburg first round. She's been more impressive in Dubai, though, absolutely demolishing Elina Svitolina in the first round and today coming back from a set down against French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova to reach the quarters. The back-to-back wins suggest that maybe she's ready to have a true breakout.

Also ready for the next level, despite her loss today, is Tunisia's Ons Jabeur. The 25-year-old from Tunisia is of course the one responsible for ending Caroline Wozniacki's career Down Under, but she also pulled off wins over Johanna Konta and avenged an earlier loss to Serena-killer Qiang Wang during that run. She's currently at a career-high ranking, but still stands just within the top fifty though her potential is clearly much greater. She began this week with a solid win over also-unseeded Alison Riske but really shone in her second round against world #2 Simona Halep. After running away with a 6-1 first set she saved three match points in the third set decider before ultimately succumbing in the two-hour match. Still, there were glimpses of the damage she can inflict on the top ranks, and it feels like she's just getting primed to do it.

But the real standout to me this year is twenty-year-old Elena Rybakina who somehow isn't seeded this week in Dubai. The Kazakh who had to qualify for Grand Slams last year and lost in the first round of the two whose main draws she made, nevertheless started the year at #36 in the world and is going nowhere but up. She made the final in Shenzhen to start 2020, flew straight down to Hobart where she won the title, again picked up immediately for the Australian Open, ultimately losing to Barty in the third round. Lest you feel she hit her peak early, she made it back to a final last week in St. Petersburg and kicked off her Dubai campaign by stunning Melbourne champ Sofia Kenin in straight sets. She won her second round today, too, bringing her record for the year to a staggering 17-3 -- not bad for just seven weeks into a season. The worry, of course, is that she burns out too soon, but if she can learn how to manage her schedule, I imagine we're going to see her sticking around the champion's block a lot more this year.

An event like Dubai is a great opportunity for players like this to really show off their talent -- obviously some of the best in the game made the trek out there and to hold their own with the stars shows just how much they're capable of. And though all these ladies are sitting at or near their highest rankings yet, I'd be surprised if we didn't see them go even higher -- and soon. Their performances not just this week, but this whole season, certainly make the case for that.

February 16, 2020

The Standouts

Sometimes you don't have to win a tournament to really make a statement. After all, only one person can be left holding the trophy at the end of the day, but plenty of others can not only have matches of their lives along the way, but can certainly make it easier for that eventual champion to claim the win. And at this week's events from Thailand to New York and Europe, we certainly saw some career-making runs among those who didn't quite seal the deals.

Let's start with the men in Buenos Aires, where we saw some clay court veterans try to make a stand. Thirty-four year old Pablo Cuevas did manage an upset of Albert Ramos, just two years his junior, and took top-seeded Diego Schwartzman to three sets before losing in the quarters. But Argentina's Guido Pella, seeded second thanks largely to a quarterfinal run at Wimbledon last year, was less fortunate, losing his second match of the event to Juan Ignacio Londero, after squeaking through a qualifier in his opener. Today's final, though, will be a battle between the old and new guard in the most unlikely of ways. Eighth seeded Casper Ruud, who picked off John Isner and Fabio Fognini at the ATP Cup this year, has largely sailed through the draw, upsetting world #24 Dusan Lajovic on the way to his first career final. Only Portugal's Pedro Sousa, ten years older than him, stands in his way. The lucky loser, who benefited from the withdrawal of Cristian Garin, hasn't had a real test this event as Schwartzman pulled out with a leg injury ahead of their semi. Ruud is the heavy favorite for this match, but win or lose, something tells me we'll be seeing a lot more of him this year.

Then we head over to Rotterdam where Gael Monfils just picked up a second title in as many weeks. Still, let's not discount the performance of his final opponent Felix Auger-Aliassime. The Canadian teen was one of my players to watch this year, but kind of got off to a slow start. After losing all but one of his matches at the ATP Cup, he lost in the Adelaide semis to the seemingly unstoppable Andrey Rublev, and he was shocked by a resurgent Ernests Gulbis in his Australian Open first round. But he seems to have found his game again this week -- just barely unseeded he took out an always tough Grigor Dimitrov and Aljaz Bedene, who'd dispatched second seed but struggling Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round. The championship match may not have gone the way he hoped, but his performance up to that point certainly makes me more optimistic for the future of FAA.

Closer to home for me, the New York Open was full of upsets and surprises. Mustachioed Jordan Thompson, who's had a solid career on the Challenger's circuit and stunned Andy Murray at Queen's Club a few years back, hasn't had consistent success on the main tour and had only won a single match so far this year. But after dismissing big-serving Ivo Karlovic in his first round he took on another ace machine in top-seeded John Isner, getting the win in three sets and two and a half hours. And Soonwoo Kwon, ranked 84th in the world managed a big upset of Milos Raonic on his way to the quarterfinals. But the real surprise of this event for me was thirty-year-old Jason Jung, who's never cracked the top hundred in his long career and had to battle through qualifying round last week. He took out another big man in Kevin Anderson, a two-time Major finalist, in his opener and defending champion Reilly Opelka to make the semis. While he was ultimately stopped by Andreas Seppi, his performance certainly puts him on a map he may never have been on before.

Some of the more amazing breakthroughs, though, happened on the women's tour this week. In St. Petersburg, ultimately second seeded Kiki Bertens got the win over a red-hot Elena Rybakina in the final, but some much more interesting stories emerged earlier in the draw. There was unseeded Ekaterina Alexandrova, who notched her first career title to start the year in Shenzhen -- she beet Donna Vekic on her way to the semis -- and Oceane Dodin, who caught my eye years ago with a win over Jelena Jankovic at the U.S. Open. This week she scored wins over Viktoria Kuzmova and Johanna Konta. But perhaps the one to watch out of this event is Maria Sakkari -- yes, she's seeded just outside the top twenty, but she's playing well above that ranking. The Greek got a solid win over Madison Keys and took Petra Kvitova to three in Melbourne. This week in Russia, she ousted top seed Belinda Bencic and won the first set off Rybakina. She's only won one trophy in her career so far -- taking the title in Rabat last year -- but she seems primed to really have a breakthrough in 2020.

And that leaves us with Hua Hin, where the draw went the way no one would have expected. Nao Hibino, who lost to Sakkari in Melbourne, scored her first top ten win over Elina Svitolina on her way to the semis, and Patricia Maria Tig took out two seeded players during her run. But the big story here was nineteen-year-old Leonie Kung, currently ranked #283 in the world. The Swiss qualifier not only ended Hibino's campaign, but took out Qiang Wang, the woman who stunned Serena in the Australian Open third round. While Kung ultimately lost in the final to fifth-seeded Magda Linette, it seems her star is only rising, and I'll be excited to see what she brings to the table this year.

While these guys may not have been the ultimate winners this week, they all certainly made the case that they should be taken seriously on the court. It's hard to tell, of course, whether they'll all be able to follow up their performances this past week with more success down the road, but it sure feels like they were each able to make a couple of splashes. Whatever the case, you can be sure you haven't heard the last from any of these guys.

February 9, 2020

Fed Cup Follies

Fed Cup is -- and Davis Cup used to be, though I'm not so familiar with the new format and don't really have enough evidence to say the statement does or does not stand anymore -- always a little strange. With each round often taking place right after the Majors, it often surprises me how many of the sport's top player show up for their countries after a grueling fortnight (though, in many cases, the athletes probably played much less at the Slams than they'd hoped). And maybe it's just because of that timeline that we see such interesting and unexpected results at these events, and this year was no different.

Some of the ties were runaways -- Germany blanked Brazil, winning all three of their singles and their only doubles rubber, and Elise Mertens lived up to her potential to help Belgium advance over Kazakhstan -- but even then there were surprises. Belinda Bencic was stunned by world #185 Leylah Fernandez, but Jil Teichmann was able to pull out the big guns for Switzerland and pull them out against a Bianca Andreescu-less Canada (the defending U.S. Open champ was slated to play doubles, but didn't have to take the court). And two-time Slam winner Naomi Osaka committed fifty errors against upstart Sara Sorribes Tormo, while veteran and soon-to-be-retiree Carla Suarez Navarro was surgical in her two wins, lifting Spain above Japan, 3-1.

But the more interesting results came in the closer ties. Russia was surprisingly challenged by Romania, who was playing without Simona Halep -- while early 2020 standout Ekaterina Alexandrova managed wins in her singles matches, world #38 Veronika Kudermetova was upset in both of her rubbers. Russia eked out the win in doubles in order to advance. The Netherlands, on the other hand, wasn't able to capitalize on the success of their top star -- while world #8 Kiki Bertens was able to win on her own, beating a recently struggling Aryna Sabalenka on day two, the Belorussian doubles specialist was able to rally with partner Aliaksandra Sasnovich to clinch the decider.

Of course, though, all eyes were on the U.S., which brought some serious firepower to their tie: newly-minted Melbourne champion Sofia Kenin, perennial heavyweight Serena Williams, rising star Alison Riske, and everyone's favorite teen Coco Gauff. They were the clear favorites against Latvia and got off to a strong start on Friday with Kenin easing past former world #11 Anastasija Sevastova and Serena eking out a two-tiebreak victory over 2017 French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko (who, by the way hasn't won a single main draw match at Roland Garros outside that breakout year). But things turned around sharply Saturday as both Americans lost their reverse matches, Williams getting stunned by Sevastova in three sets for her first ever Fed Cup singles defeat. But as is so often the case, Kenin had to get right back to work for her third match in two days, teaming up with her Australian Open doubles partner Bethanie Mattek-Sands to decide the win.

Do the results this weekend give a broader picture of the state of these players' games? Maybe. Kenin's played a lot of ball this year, so it makes sense she might be a little exhausted. On the other hand, I'm a little surprised to see Serena's less-than-dominating performance and Osaka's messy match. As for the players who stood out -- Alexandrova's solid results certainly suggest her ranking is only climbing from here, while Bertens can certainly use her wins to shore up her season. We'll get a better idea of where everyone stands in the next few weeks, of course. And hopefully, by the time they're back on court for their countries in a couple month's time, hopefully they'll come out swinging.

February 5, 2020

The Measure of a Champion

I'm not a regular watcher of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, so I know very little about Tony Kornheiser's style or credentials. I'm sure he's very well respected and has a lot of breadth and experience in sports journalism. But his recent argument that Novak Djokovic doesn't stack up as a potential GOAT in tennis is frankly preposterous.

Now I usually try not to revisit the same topic in consecutive posts, but this one seems like an elephant that needs to be addressed. Kornheiser's thesis is based on two points: 1) that Nole "only" dominates at the Australian Open, the "least" important of the four Majors and 2) that the success somehow doesn't count because he's getting his wins against "old men" like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Where do I begin?

Let's start with the first part. Novak may have earned eight of his 17 Major trophies Down Under, but that means he's still won more elsewhere -- his five Wimbledon crowns trail just Fed and Pete Sampras in the Open Era. Plus he's got an 80 percent win record at each of these events throughout his career -- that number rises to 85 percent if you look at his record since 2010. And unlike some players who focus only on the Majors, Novak is a force throughout the year -- he's a multi-trophy winner at Masters events like Miami and Indian Wells, and he's just one trophy away from tying Nadal's record 35 titles at these tourneys. And though he's "only" won one French Open, he's got 13 other trophies on the surface to prove his all-court caliber.

(Of course, Kornheiser obviously also ignores the fact that Nadal "only" dominates at Roland Garros, where he's won twelve of his 19 Major titles. Though, to be fair, he wasn't asked where Rafa lands in the GOAT discussion, and he may well believe he's undeserving of such a title, too. As much as I love the Spaniard, I'm probably more willing to be persuaded on this point, but I also argue that Nadal's talent on hardcourts is vastly underrated and that if you're talking GOATs, all three of these guys are worthy of consideration.)

And how about the second half of that first clause? Does Melbourne really rank last among the Slams? Well, to an American, it's certainly the hardest to follow -- with most of the matches played overnight for us, casual fans are probably not watching most matches in real time, and even I have to play catch up to get the latest scores every morning. Still, Australia counts just as much to a player's ranking as the other Majors and awards even more prize money than the French Open, trailing Wimbledon by just a hair.

As the first Slam of the year, Australia also catches most players before a long and grueling season has worn them out. Yes, there are some who have to miss out on the circuit with injury, but by and large we're treated to the cream of the tennis crop in Melbourne. Many players -- sincerely or not -- call it their favorite event, and as the only Major in the Eastern hemisphere, it arguably gives the sport a global audience -- and importance -- it might not reach otherwise. Sure, I'd love to see the Asian Major played in, you know, Asia, but if this is as close as we can get for now, we need to recognize its importance.

But the biggest offense of Kornheiser's statements comes with that second leg of his argument. It sounds like his "old man" jibe is trying to suggest that Nole is taking advantage of these guys as their careers are flagging. Forget the fact that Rafa is only a year older, we've long talked about how the Big Three have dominated the sport for years and years -- together they've won the last 13 Majors and have 59 titles between them, and it's been 15 years since anyone has posed any sustained threat to their stranglehold on these events. But that's not because the younger generation can't keep up, it's because these three are just that good.

A decade ago -- when none of these guys could be accused of being "old men" -- Djokovic jokingly lamented that he was born at the wrong time, that back when he was just a one-time Slam champion, he would have (could have, should have) been winning a lot more if not for the duopoly his rivals had on the game. He did eventually break through of course, and now he's part of that unbreakable wall. After his final loss to Nole at the Australian Open this year, Dominic Thiem acknowledged that winning a Major while these guys are still in the mix means so much more than doing so after they've gone -- after all, you become a champion by beating the best, not by taking walks in the park. Getting a win, therefore, isn't like getting a bye -- it's an honor.

Now where we ultimately end up in the GOAT debate is still a question to be answered. Honestly these days I'm surprised when Djokovic isn't the top seed at an event that includes Roger and Rafa. Over the years he's not only caught up to both of them in their head-to-heads, but has surpassed them: he's 10-4 against Fed since 2015 and 10-3 versus Nadal. Roger, of course, still sits atop the Grand Slam leaderboard and has the most diverse set of trophies of the group. He's also shocked the world, picking up three in the years since most people wrote him off. But Djokovic and Nadal have a couple years more to catch up to him and, despite some concerns early on have had their bodies hold up remarkably well. And there's no way to eliminate all the variables and see exactly how these guys would compare at their primes.

But in my humble opinion we're all lucky that we're able to watch all these greats play not only in our lifetimes but against each other. And when the next crop of stars finally does break through -- that day is, after all, inevitably coming -- I'm just hoping they give us a fraction of what these three have.

February 2, 2020

The Dominance Down Under

It probably comes as no surprise that, here we are with the 2020 Australian Open all wrapped up, and we have yet again crowned Novak Djokovic as champion.

But at various points throughout Sunday's final, it didn't always seem clear that that would be the case. And the fact that it is shows just how much of a force the Serb is on these courts.

Novak came back to Melbourne the defending champion and the #2 seed, and he hadn't dropped a set this fortnight since a hiccup at the very beginning of his opening round. His opponent Dominic Thiem, meanwhile, had been tested a few times, fighting back from 1-2 sets down against wildcard Alex Bolt in the second round and slugging through more than four hours on court with Rafael Nadal in the quarters. In all he'd already spent nearly 16 hours on court before his last match in Melbourne, compared to about 12 and a half for Djokovic.

But it was surprisingly Thiem who seemed to be more in control in the early parts of Sunday -- while Nole won the first set, the Austrian roared back in the second, winning six straight games and building a 2-1 set lead on the heavy favorite. It was the first time Djokovic had lost two set in a Melbourne final since 2012.

Still, as he so often does, the thirty-two year old was able to shake off exhaustion, dehydration, and whatever else seemed to be ailing him in the early parts of the match, breaking late in the fourth set and never looking back. While Thiem kept it close and stayed admirably resilient given how much ball he'd played over the past two weeks, he was unable to break the seal and, for now, remains winless in his three Grand Slam final opportunities.

Djokovic's performance in Australia not only earns him a record eighth trophy there, but keeps the family of Major titleholders to an exclusive group -- Nole, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal have won every one since 2017 and ceded only a handful going back some 15 years. Unlike the women, who've seen a parade of first-time champions over the last several years, the latest coming just yesterday, it's been almost impossible for anyone to break the stranglehold these three have at the biggest events.

But perhaps we are starting to see some cracks in the armor. I predicted a few weeks back that this might be the year we finally see a new name in the champion's stand. For a few moments today it seemed like that could be Thiem. (And a few months ago Daniil Medvedev looked like he was ready to step up.) It seems clear that the talent is there in the younger generation -- it just needs a little more refinement before it truly shines on the big stage.

And here's hoping we start to see some of that soon -- because the guys at the top sure seem a long way away from just stepping aside and letting them take over.

February 1, 2020

Sofia Kenin: Under the Radar and Now on Top

Ladies and gentlemen, we officially have a brand new Grand Slam champion.

As you doubtless know by now, the women contested their Australian Open final Saturday with the unlikeliest of players reaching the final -- Spain's Garbiñe Muguruza, a two-time Major champion and probably the favorite despite being unseeded this fortnight, had trounced Elina Svitolina and Simona Halep on her way to the championship, and fifteenth-ranked Sofia Kenin powered through a quarter that included Serena and Venus Williams, Naomi Osaka, Caroline Wozniacki, and Coco Gauff, and by some weird twist of fate, didn't face another seed until the top one, Ashleigh Barty, in the semis. But after dropping the first set, the American, playing in her first Slam final -- she'd never gotten further than a fourth round before -- was able to find her game and take advantage of every opportunity to score the win and ultimately lift the trophy.

The victory says a lot about the talent and potential of the young Kenin. Her unusual service motion and end-of-game ball spikes notwithstanding, she's a smart counterpuncher, runs down every ball and finds corners when she needs to.

But she wasn't paid much attention to in the early rounds of the tournament -- after her defeat of the much more visible Gauff, her father bemoaned the fact that sometimes the spotlight gets focused less on players who've arguably accomplished more. There's something to be said for that -- nothing against Coco, of course -- the fifteen-year-old has had an amazing six months, with wins over top players and even a trophy to her name. Kenin on the other hand, six years Gauff's senior, amassed three titles last year, albeit at small-ish events -- the highest-ranked player she beat at them was then-#12 Anastasija Sevastova -- and has been quietly scoring a list of Big Game wins at higher-level tourneys -- Serena at the French Open, Barty in Toronto, Osaka in Cincinnati. And until this week, she was a relative unknown outside the tennis world.

But perhaps Kenin was able to thrive exactly because all eyes weren't on her. After all, she was able to keep her head under some trying circumstances Down Under -- the crowd was not rooting for her in her matches against either Gauff or hometown favorite Barty, but she wasn't deterred. And in the final, she twice was able to come back from 0-40 to hold serve and then break her opponent. It's not the kind of fortitude you'd expect to see from someone playing her first Grand Slam final. In fact most who lose the first set in their debuts can't come back to win the trophy -- if I heard the announcers correctly, Kenin became only the second player to do so in some fifty chances -- the other being Jelena Ostapenko, who stunned Halep to capture her first career title at the 2017 French Open just days after she turned 20.

Of course, things are going to be different now -- now that she's a Major champion and will be a top-ten player, Kenin's going to be on everyone's radar. Whether she can do as well in the spotlight as she has out of it -- well, we'll find out soon enough. But something tells me this girl has the goods to be around for a long time. And I can't wait to see what she does next.