May 20, 2020

The Grand (Re)Opening: Take Two

This week we were supposed to be in the final stretches of the 2020 clay court season, getting ready for the French Open, which was originally scheduled to kick off this coming Sunday. 

Things are different now, of course, with tour-level tennis now on hold until the end of July at least, even as some countries and states begin what will undoubtedly be the long and arduous process of reopening not only their courts but their entire economies.

Still there is some reprieve for those aching for some live professional sports -- South Korean baseball has resumed with fake fans filling the stadiums, Nascar held its first race over the weekend in South Carolina, and Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson won a charity Skins game benefitting COVID-19 first responders. 

And on the tennis front, this weekend we'll get the second edition of the UTR Pro Series event, with four ladies this time competing for the first title since February and a little bit of that much-needed prize money.
Danielle Collins and Amanda Anisimova, semifinalists at the Australian Open and Roland Garros respectively last year, Alison Riske, who was just off a career-high ranking at #19 in the world when play was stopped, and Ajla Tomljanovic, will compete in round robin style down in West Palm Beach, Florida, hoping to duplicate the success seen by Reilly Opelka a few weeks ago.

And while each of these players may be a little rusty after two months without true match play, some of their results pre-lockdown could give us a glimpse of what to expect now. So why not take a stab at telescoping what we might see when play gets underway.

Alison Riske is the on-paper favorite, with the highest ranking of the group and the most career titles -- two. But despite the low hardware count, she's had some solid wins over the past year, taking out Petra Kvitova and Elina Svitolina in Wuhan, and taking Serena to three in the Wimbledon quarters, after ousting world #1 Ashleigh Barty a round earlier. She's been a little quieter this year, losing the two matches she's played since the Australian Open and beating no one in the top twenty to date. Of course, she's got a lot of talent, but there's plenty of opportunity for someone to notch an upset here.

Anisimova too comes to this event a little vulnerable. While she remains in the top thirty, the eighteen-year-old American is still riding high on the points she earned at last year's French, where she stunned Simona Halep and took Barty the distance in the semis. But a back injury kept her off court for most of the back half of 2019 and she'd been a little slow at the start of this season too, getting demolished by Serena in Auckland and pulling out of Doha after an admittedly impressive win over Svitolina. And while she did win the U.S. Open Juniors title back in 2017 -- beating Coco Gauff, by the way -- it still feels like she might've done better had the clay season gone as scheduled. 

So it may just be that the biggest surprises come from the lower-ranked entrants. Danielle Collins came out swinging this year -- while she fell well short of defending points from her 2019 Melbourne run, she did score wins over Svitolina in Brisbane and both Sofia Kenin and Belinda Bencic in Adelaide. And Tomljanovic, the only one of these four not from the States, actually has the most match play this year -- albeit with the only losing record at 5-6. Still, with two career wins over Riske and another over Anisimova, she's had the most experience against this group, and knows how to win.

Of course, all that said, we'll certainly see a few surprises this weekend. Overall, these ladies don't have a lot of experience playing each other, and, as above, it could take some time for them to shake off the cobwebs that have collected over the last few weeks.

But if this UTR Pro event is a success, it could really help set the stage for more play this season. And after all, no matter how different it feels and looks, isn't that what we all want the most?

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