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.

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