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.

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