March 30, 2020

The Best of 2020 -- So Far

As we head into Week 3 of the Great Global Quarantine, tennis, like so many other sports, businesses, and organizations, is still on indefinite hiatus. We should be in the back half of Miami, getting excited for the French Open, and speculating over who'll make the Olympic team, but instead we're practicing #TennisAtHome, or whatever else we can to stay sane.

But given everything else on our minds, it's easy to forget that we actually got in quite a few weeks of great tennis this year, crowning a host of new champions and seeing a couple new stars emerge on the scene. And while I desperately hope that this won't be all the evidence we get for this season, there's a good enough amount to do a quick status check on the best player stories of the year so far.

And so I've decided to spend the next few days and weeks counting down my favorites of 2020. Now, I warn you, these aren't necessarily the players who've won the most trophies or the ones who lead the races to their respective -- if not unlikely-to-be-played at this point -- year end championships. I'll give you a heads up -- Rafa, Roger, and Nole are not on this list. Some are players who've surprised me in their accomplishments, some who've been impressive in their consistency, some who just marked a milestone for themselves. But in all cases, they're the ones I'm sure going to be watching closely whenever we get back on the courts.

And I'll appropriately start with #5.

The Men: Casper Ruud

Age: 21
Current Ranking: #36
Title(s): Buenos Aires

Norway isn't usually a country you think of when you're trying to name tennis powerhouses -- I was frankly shocked to see them entered as a team in this year's ATP Cup. But there they were to kick off the year, headlined by the then-#53rd ranked Casper Ruud, son of former pro Christian, who had some success on tour in the mid- to late-90s.

The younger player had notched some solid wins of his own over the last few years, beating an on-the-rise Matteo Berrettini last year at Roland Garros and an on-the-decline David Ferrer a year earlier in Bastad. But he seemed to find a groove to start this season, beating both John Isner and Fabio Fognini in those ATP Cup round robins. When he won the title in Buenos Aires -- the first ever captured by a Norwegian -- he bumped his ranking up to #34 in the world, higher than the #39 high his father reached back in 1995.

Ruud seemed well on his way to establishing himself as a force in the sport, and with a nearly 64% win record on clay might have caused some real damage to the big guns heading into the French Open. It's of course a shame that his momentum was stopped so abruptly, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him come out on the other end of this stronger than ever.

The Women: Sofia Kenin

Age: 21
Current Ranking: #4
Title(s): Australian Open, Lyon

Okay, okay, I know -- how could the year's only women's Grand Slam winner come in at the bottom of my list? Well, as I mentioned, I'm not putting this together the way ranking points are tabulated, and of my picks Sofia Kenin's showing in Australia may have been the least surprising of this bunch. (Let that serve as an indication of how much fun is still to come in these lists.)

That said, what the young American did Down Under was certainly worthy of celebration. Seeded just 14th for the event, she dispatched teenage ingenue Coco Gauff in a match where she was clearly not the crowd favorite, stunned the top seeded Ashleigh Barty in the semis, and then outlasted two-time Major champion Garbiñe Muguruza in the final.

Kenin seemed to struggle a bit in the immediate aftermath of that win, going 1-1 at Fed Cup the next weekend and then losing two straight first round matches in February. But she kicked off this month with a title run in Lyon, getting severely tested in four of her rounds, with her semifinal against Alison Van Uytvanck going three tiebreak sets, but ultimately getting back the momentum she had to start the year.

Of course, she hasn't faced off against many tippy-top players this year -- Barty was her only victory in the top twenty -- but she's slain plenty of giants over the last year: Serena, Osaka, Svitolina to name a few. And I know we're all excited to see how many more wins she can add to that list when we get back to it.

Okay, well those are the first two players to make my "Best of" the first quarter list. Come back soon when I'll tell you who came in fourth.

And in the meantime, enjoy today's #TennisAtHome pick:

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