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.

No comments: