August 30, 2020

U.S. Open 2020: Predicting the Final Four

The tennis season is always chock full of surprises, but it's safe to say no one could have predicted things would turn out the way they have this year. And now, nearly seven months since the first Grand Slam of 2020, and with precious little play since, we're finally on the verge of the second one, and weirdly it's the U.S. Open. 

Of course, it's a wildly different U.S. Open than we've seen in years past. Aside from the lack of fans and apparently virtual crowd noise, the towels strewn against the backboards, the temperature checks and COVID tests, there's of course the obviously depleted draws, with just seven of the top ten ranked men and four of the top women in action this fortnight -- and neither of the defending champions. The withdrawals, which came fast and furious over the last few weeks, have allowed players like Rebecca Peterson and Jan-Lennard Struff earn their first seedings at a Major. And they've created plenty of opportunity for everyone else to make a mark for themselves.

That's not to say the trophies are entirely up for grabs -- there is plenty of big name talent in the mix, including a handful of Grand Slam winners (ten* on the women's side, I was surprised to discover!) and runners-up that will be loathe to step aside quietly. And while we may not have had the full slate of lead up tournaments, we still have some evidence to suggest who might be able to pull off an upset or two.

And with all that in mind, I present to you my (likely-to-be-entirely-confounded) picks for who will make the final four in the men's and women's draws, and my (needs-to-be-dusted-off) Confidence Meter for those calls. And since it's been so long, it's worth a reminder what the ratings mean:

I mean, we've seen weirder things this year... →
← As sure as we can be these days

So, without further ado, let's get to it!



First Quarter

Oddly, this might be the weakest section of ladies' field this year. 

Karolina Pliskova is ranked third and seeded first in New York, the site of her only Grand Slam final to date. But that run in 2016 seems like a long time ago, and despite her consistency on the rest of the tour, she continues to struggle on the biggest stage. Her first match back from the lockdown did little to inspire -- she dropped her opening round in "Cincinnati" to Veronika Kudermetova in straight sets. And she faces a tough test at the Open -- a probable second round against Caroline Garcia, Lexington champ Jennifer Brady in the third. It's entirely possible she doesn't get back to the round of 16 like she did last year.

Petra Martic is the other top seed in this quarter, but we haven't seen the Croatian #1 since the clay court comeback events of early August. While she did decently in Palermo, she never faced a real threat there and so could be caught off guard now. She does have a slightly more forgiving early road than Pliskova, but should be tested if she meets Kristina Mladenovic in the third round. 

A little big of a wildcard, though, is three-time Major winner Angelique Kerber who lost here in the first round last year to Mladenovic. We haven't seen her since the Australian Open, and at #23 in the world she's far from her career highs, but that could work to her advantage. She kicks off against a tricky Ajla Tomljanovic, and possibly a higher-ranked Alison Riske a few matches later. But I like her chances to get at least a few rounds in.

All that said, I'm putting my money on Brady, who may have lost early at the Western & Southern, but was literally unstoppable at the Top Seed Open. This is the first time she's seeded at a Major, and given her past performances, it's no wonder why -- she's only won more than one match twice in her career. But with wins over Garbiñe Muguruza, Elina Svitolina and Ashleigh Barty already this year, she seems primed to change that. And as stated above, the luck of the draw may have worked to her favor. 

My Semifinalist Pick:Jennifer Brady
Confidence Meter:She's been the strongest one in a wide-open section

Second Quarter

This section seems to have a little more firepower in it, although maybe not from where you'd expect. 

Australian Open titleist Sofia is the on-paper headliner, but she's struggled in the months since that career-making win. She was one-for-two at Fed Cup, lost a couple early rounds in the late winter, regrouped to take the trophy in Lyon...and then lost pretty handily to Alizé Cornet in Cincy in her first match after the quarantine. And she's got a tough road from the get-go -- a first round against veteran Yanina Wickmayer, a second versus either one-time runner-up Vera Zvonareva or rising star Leylah Fernandez.

On the other side of the quarter is fifth seed Aryna Sabalenka. She's been a little more busy this summer, entered in both Lexington and the Western & Southern, but she's gotten upset both times, by Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula respectively. She'll begin against feisty Oceane Dodin and will likely then face two-time finalist Victoria Azarenka, the unlikeliest of champions in Cincinnati this year, in round two. She actually got the better of the Belarusian in their opener here in 2019, but there could be a reversal should they meet again.

But there are plenty of other threats out there too. Unseeded Venus Williams opens against Karolina Muchova while wildcard Kim Cljisters, who won her third title here in 2010 before retiring for a second time, faces Shenzhen champ Ekaterina Alexandrova off the top. And let's not forget some of the lower seeds -- both Johanna Konta and Elise Mertens had semifinal runs in Cincy, the latter also reaching the final in Prague. Either one could stand out in this already-packed crowd.

And then there's Ons Jabeur, a quarterfinalist in Melbourne with wins over Konta, Karolina Pliskova, Jennifer Brady and Caroline Wozniacki this year. And as the first player from Tunisia to make any mark on tour, her accomplishments exceed even what she's done on court. She's slated to meet Kenin in the third round, and though she has a 1-4 record against the world #4, she might actually be able to get the upper hand this time.

My Semifinalist Pick:Johanna Konta
Confidence Meter:This is the one where anything can happen

Third Quarter 

Whoever emerges out of that section gets to face the winner of this one for a spot in the finals, so you can be sure she'll be paying close attention. And there's a lot to watch, too.

Serena Williams, still going after that record-tying 24th Major title, one that she's failed to get in her last eight attempts, has the third seed and a first round against last year's Cinderella (and TikTok queen) Kristie Ahn. While Williams' first several matches should be easy wins for her, we've seen her struggle since the reopening -- losing to Maria Sakkari last week after falling to then-#116 Shelby Rogers in Lexington at the start of the month. She's certainly the favorite, but everyone in the field needs to know she's not an immovable force.

Sakkari is in this section too, hopefully well recovered from her stunning win in "Cincy." While she could set up a rematch in the fourth round, something tells me that if both she and Serena make it that far, the American won't let her get by a second time. 

In the other half of this quarter, things could get interesting. Unseeded Jil Teichmann is slated for a second round against Madison Keys, who we haven't seen since she lost to Sakkari in Melbourne. If the Lexington finalist, who made it through qualies at the Western & Southern and beat Danielle Collins in that first round, can pick up where she left off, there could be some upsets in the making.

And then there's Aussie finalist and two-time Major champion Garbiñe Muguruza who pulled out of Cincy because of ankle pain. After a more-than-disappointing 2019 season, she was playing back at her true ability before the stoppage, reaching at least the quarters of every event she played this year. Her first big test should come against Donna Vekic in the third round -- or, frankly, Krystina Pliskova, who's had some nice results this summer and could upset the 18th seed -- but if her ankle holds up, I wouldn't be surprised to see her making the final four.

My Semifinalist Pick:Garbiñe Muguruza
Confidence Meter:It'll come down to her and Serena, I think

Fourth Quarter

This last quarter of the ladies' draw has some of the strongest under-the-radar players in the field all battling it out for a chance at the title.

Let's start with Anett Kontaveit, who made a solid run to the quarters in Australia, beating sixth seed Belinda Bencic in the third round, and then reached the final in Palermo at the start of the month.  She was on point in Cincy too, reaching the quarters and taking the first set off Naomi Osaka before ultimately ending her campaign. While Danielle Collins could be a test in the first round, it feels like the Estonian should make good on, and possibly surpass, the expectations of her 14th seeding.

And then there's Elena Rybakina, by far the stand-out of the season pre-lockdown. She played six tournaments back-to-back, and reached the finals of four of them, even picking up a title in Hobart. Post-lockdown, she lost a tight first round to Ekaterina Alexandrova but could come out swinging when she re-takes the court. A potential second round against Serena-vanquisher Shelby Rogers and a fourth against Petra Kvitova could be manageable.

But we can't count out Jessica Pegula, runner-up in Auckland, where she allowed Williams to break her nearly three-year title draught, and a quarterfinalist at the Western & Southern. She might just give Kvitova a run for the money if they both reach the third round. 

They're not all low profile names, of course. Coco Gauff is still unseeded but certainly a big attraction. She continued her stellar Slam showings with a fourth round appearance in Melbourne, repeating her Wimbledon win over Venus Williams and avenging her U.S. Open loss to Osaka. She made the semis too in Lexington and now sits at a career-high rank of #50 in the world. She kicks off against Anastasia Sevastova and could meet Osaka yet again in the third round.

Speaking of Osaka, she'll have to recover quick from the hamstring injury that forced her out of the Cincy final, but hopes are high that she'll be able to do it. While she got off to a sort of slow start to the year -- she's at her lowest rank in just about two years, notably when she won her first U.S. Open -- but she's developed so much as a player and person since, and her performance this past week might prove she's ready to make another run this time around.

My Semifinalist Pick:Naomi Osaka
Confidence Meter:It feels like experience will win out here


First Quarter

World #1 Novak Djokovic has made a ton of headlines this summer, and not all of them good. But he just picked up his 80th career title in Cincy-cum-New York and, still undefeated this year, is far and away the most experienced/qualified player in the field -- the only other man with a Major title to his name is Marin Cilic, and that win seems a long, long time ago. And if there's anyone who can put aside the distractions and focus on the task at hand -- going for his 18th Major title -- it's this guy. But he had some scares at the Western & Southern -- from a neck injury that caused him to pull out of doubles to nearly squandering a third set lead against Roberto Bautista Agut in their three-hour semi and dropping a 1-6 set to Milos Raonic in the final -- so there are opportunities.  

On paper, the other favorites include David Goffin and Denis Shapovalov, though neither of them have done much since the ATP Cup at the start of the year. The former has a tough first round against big-serving Reilly Opelka, who narrowly missed getting a seed at this event. The third ranked American claimed a title in Delray Beach just before the lockdown and this week in Cincy picked off Diego Schwartzman and Matteo Berrettini before retiring in the quarters. If he recovers, he might be a threat in the early rounds.

But also keep an eye on Filip Krajinovic, who was supposed to be Nole's doubles partner last week. But he did pretty well on the singles side of things, too, trouncing Dominic Thiem in the second round and taking the first set off Milos Raonic in the quarters. He might just be able to set up a showdown with his compatriot for that spot in the semis. 

But in this one, you've got to go with the odds...

My Semifinalist Pick:Novak Djokovic
Confidence Meter:If not for the neck issues, I'd give him the full six... 

Second Quarter

This section of the draw is headlined by one of the most active players on tour during the quarantine -- Dominic Thiem, who came OHSOCLOSE to winning the Australian Open this year, picked up a couple exhibition events, including one on the ill-fated Adria Tour before the plug was pulled. But then in his first legit tournament since the shutdown he was utterly dominated by Filip Krajinovic in his opener. That's not to say he won't rebound here -- he certainly can't do any worse than his first round exit from 2019 -- and he's got a couple rounds before he faces his first test.

Then there's Andy Murray, who won his first Major in New York a full eight years ago. Two hip surgeries later he's now ranked all the way down at #134, but this past week, in his second round win over Alexander Zverev, we saw glimpses of the top talent he once was. A wildcard this year, he could meet young talent Felix Auger-Aliassime in the second round and, followed by countryman Daniel Evans and potentially Thiem. Whether he's in shape to survive multiple best-of-five matches remains a question, but I'm surprised to say I'm excited to see him try.

There could be some fireworks elsewhere in this section too -- Roberto Bautista Agut, who nearly took out Novak Djokovic at the Western & Southern, opens his campaign against the aptly named Tennys Sandgren, who made a Cinderella run in Melbourne this year, beating Matteo Berrettini and Fabio Fognini and pushing Roger Federer to the very edge in the quarters. Post lockdown, he made the third round this week in Cincy and could give us a great first round against the eighth seed.

And of course, Milos Raonic certainly reasserted himself at the Western & Southern -- "reasserted" for those who forgot he made the quarters in Melbourne this year too -- getting the unlikeliest of leads on Novak Djokovic in both the first and third sets. He's never had the best luck in New York, but maybe he can change things now. 

My Semifinalist Pick:Whoever wins between RBA and Sandgren
Confidence Meter:Is that cheating, a little?

Third Quarter

I might be most excited to see how things play out in this part of the men's draw. Last year's runner-up Daniil Medvedev will look to go one better than his banner run from 2019 and might just be in a good position to do it. While he hasn't been as strong as he was last year -- can you really compare the two seasons, though? -- he had a decent run to the fourth round in Melbourne and didn't get too tripped up in his attempt to defend his Cincy title -- a loss to Roberto Bautista Agut is nothing to be ashamed of. And his first few rounds should be similarly easy to handle.

But there are plenty of hopefuls who will try to make him a flash in the pan. Especially someone like Matteo Berrettini, who shocked the world -- okay, shocked me -- when he made the semis here last year. He had some solid wins in 2019 -- a 3-0 record against Karen Khachanov, a couple wins over Dominic Thiem -- but he's frankly still a vulnerable seed. A third round meeting with an emergent Casper Ruud could prove to be a real test of his mettle.

A couple others in the mix could really upset the balance though. Andrey Rublev got off to a pretty nice start to the year with two titles before the Australian Open and a fourth round showing in Melbourne. He's at a career high ranking going into the Open, and though he's lost his last two matches -- both to Daniel Evans -- he'll be eager to get back on track now. He's got a first round against veteran Jeremy Chardy and was slated to face his first seeded opponent Benoit Paire in the third round, but the Frenchman on Sunday became the first player to test positive for the coronavirus in New York and was forced to withdraw. That could prove to Rublev's advantage

And then there's a dangerously unseeded John Millman, who might have the upper hand in his opener against Nikoloz Balisashvili and is in the same immediate section as Grigor Dimitrov, the player we keep waiting to see take the reins in this sport. Millman stunned Roger Federer here in 2018, while Dimitrov did the same last season. The Bulgarian starts his campaign against the same man who knocked him out of the Australian Open, first round Tommy Paul, but if he's sufficiently recovered from his own calamitous bout with COVID we could get a nice clash between him and the Australian a few matches later. 

My Semifinalist Pick:John Millman
Confidence Meter:He's a strong player and really doesn't get enough credit

Fourth Quarter

The last section of the draw is led by two of the guys that hope to take over the crown from the current Big Three -- Alexandrer Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. The former surprised me with a run to the semis Down Under, but has been quiet since, dropping his first match since quarantine (and that ill-planned "gathering") to Andy Murray last week. He opens against 2017 runner-up Kevin Anderson, who's is still recovering from knee surgery. Still he's a big server and might be able to present a threat early. 

Meanwhile, after an earlier exit than anticipated in Melbourne, Tsitsipas did manage a title in Marseille and a final in Dubai. He made the semis in Cincy, but fell there to a resurgent Milos Raonic. He seems to have a less threatening early road in New York, but there are nevertheless some threats out there.

Chief among them is the feisty Diego Schwartzman, slated to meet Zverev for a spot in the quarters and who far outplays his 5'7" frame. He beat the German here last year and put up a fight against Rafael Nadal in the semis, and though he's been a little more quiet this year, he somehow seems to bring his best when you don't expect it.

I've also got my eye on teenage American wildcard Brandon Nakashima, playing in his very first Major. He captured an ITF title in Santa Fe, reached the quarters at Delray Beach and the semis at the Indian Wells Challengers event in February. Over the summer he became a standout in World Team Tennis, getting wins over Steve Johnson Tennys Sandgren, Jack Sock, and Tommy Paul. He'd face Zverev or Anderson in the second round -- if he can get by veteran Paolo Lorenzi -- and it will be great to see exactly what he's made of.

My Semifinalist Pick:Stefanos Tsitsipas
Confidence Meter:It seems like his time to show us what he's got

Well there you go, my full analysis of the 2020 U.S. Open draws. It sure feels weird to go through that with barely a mention of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal -- though, I suppose, we should start getting used to that some day soon.

I can't say things will feel the same without so many of the sports top stars, to say nothing of how strange it will be with all the other measures being implemented. Though I'm encouraged by how much great tennis we've still seen in spite of all that the last few weeks, and there's no reason we shouldn't expect more.

There's been a lot of speculation about whether whoever wins the titles here will have an asterisk by their names in the record books -- does a record count, will a trophy be as meaningful, if you didn't face a full field to get there? But plenty of titles have been won with the champion never beating someone ranked higher -- Ash Barty won the French Open last year facing just one player in the top twenty, no one in the top ten. And there will still be so much talent on the courts in New York, it's going to be hard to take away from any accomplishments.

So as we get ready for the first balls to be hit, let's just hope we're in for two weeks of solid ball, only the good kind of drama, and a safe tournament for everyone involved.

* By my count: Sofia Kenin, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Petra Kvitova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Sloane Stephens, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Kim Clijsters. (Active Slam winners not in draw: Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Bianca Andreescu, Jelena Ostapenko, Sam Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova.)

August 26, 2020

The Hangover

It should come as no surprise that after a big night out it's not always easy to spring out of bed the next morning and find the energy you need to really be at your best. And, while it may not always happen under the same circumstances, the world's best athletes are certainly not immune from that feeling.

Take, for example, what we've seen over the last few days at the Western & Southern Open in New York. While there have been plenty of upstarts riding high after taking advantage of the many holes in the ladies' field, too many have crashed back down to earth when looking to follow through.

The first example came when Russia's Veronika Kudermetova, who hadn't notched a top ten win at all this season, toppled top seeded Karolina Pliskova, a titleist at the Cincinnatti event in 2016 and a finalist at the U.S. Open that same year. The 23-year-old wasn't able to extend her run, though, falling a round later to a largely underappreciated Elise Mertens. Then Alizé Cornet, currently #60 in the world, trounced Australian Open champ Sofia Kenin in straight sets. The veteran Frenchwoman then fell in her third round to a resurgent Victoria Azarenka.

But perhaps the biggest high came when Maria Sakkari took the court against Serena Williams on Tuesday. The Greek star, just a shade off her career best ranking at #21 in the world, has had some decent wins over the past year, beating the likes of Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova, and Madison Keys, among others. In her opener this week she plowed through wunderkind Coco Gauff in straight sets. And while Williams has struggled to close the deal recently, winning just one title since 2017, Sakkari was clearly the underdog last night. She lost a tight first set and came within two points of dropping the whole match a few times, but after winning the second in a tiebreak, she rolled through the decider in about half an hour.

It was by far the biggest win of Sakkari's career, but unfortunately the momentum didn't last too long. She lost today in straight sets to Britain's Johanna Konta, a woman she'd defeated last year for her first and so far only title in Rabat. Notably, it's the second event in a row that Serena's vanquisher has fallen a round later -- earlier this month in Lexington, then-#116 Shelby Rogers scored the win of her lifetime and immediately folded to eventual champion Jennifer Brady. Perhaps that's a good omen for Konta.

It's not just the women who can fall victim to the second day slump -- an on-the-mend Andy Murray scored his biggest win since 2016 when he defeated world #7 Alexander Zverev on Monday, but fell to Milos Raonic a day later. But a couple men have a chance to keep their highs going a little longer. Big-serving Reilly Opelka followed up his win over Diego Schwartzman by taking out sixth seeded Matteo Berrettini, and Serbia's Filip Krajinovic not only crushed Dominic Thiem in the second round, he's currently up a break on Raonic for a spot in the semis.

Of course, the important thing is not whether these players suffer a hangover every once in a while -- we all can relate with needing a little time to recover from a big celebration -- it's whether they pick themselves up the day after that. And whether they were the ones on the losing side of the initial upset or the ones who lost their mojo a bit, the bigger tests are still to come. And what they learn from these experiences will be what matters in the end.

August 21, 2020

And So It Begins...

Tomorrow marks the first day of main draw action at the retooled Western & Southern Open -- Cincy in NYC, it seems -- and the true kickoff of the abbreviated, and ultimately surreal, road to the U.S. Open. And while many of the sport's top players will be conspicuously missing from the draws over the next few weeks, there's plenty of opportunity for fireworks that could set the stage for an exciting slate of tennis. And we could see some of that right from the get-go.

The Qualies

It begins, of course, in the qualifiers, where a surprising number of former standouts have spent the last few days trying just for a chance to compete for the crown. Among the players contesting these pre-event matches: former world #6 Gilles Simon and doubles star Jeremy Chardy -- both of whom fell short in their matches -- as well as two-time Major finalist Vera Zvonareva, whose win this afternoon got her a spot in the main draw. But perhaps the more interesting names in the mix are the newer names who've been trying to make a name for themselves in these strange times.

On the men's side there's Sebastian Korda, who got the win over Simon today -- he's spent most of his time on the Challengers circuit over the years, but taking out the top seeded qualifier could give him some much-needed confidence. And then there's South Africa's Lloyd Harris, who seemed to me to come out of nowhere when he made the final in Adelaide. In #CiNYC he opened with a win over Mikael Ymer and followed it up by defeating Andrej Martin. But perhaps the qualifier to watch most closely is Marton Fucscovics, who made the fourth round of the Australian Open, even taking a set off Roger Federer in the process. After making it through these early rounds, he might get a bit of a breather in the main draw, opening against fellow qualifer Norbert Gombos first. But, if we know anything these days, it's that nothing is for certain.

Meanwhile, Lexington finalist Jil Teichmann faced off for a second straight week against Top Seed giant-killer Shelby Rogers and again came out on top. In her first round, she'll meet Danielle Collins, ranked just one spot ahead of her at #53 in the world, so certainly has room to keep her run going. Then there's young standout Leylah Fernandez, who not only beat Sloane Stephens last week, but made the final in Acapulco back in February. She might have a harder draw, opening against Ons Jabeur, so a continued run is no guarantee. But it could be a great opportunity for the teen to make a real mark for the year.

The Men

Of course the real drama will likely be reserved for the main draw, and with far fewer entrants this year than in seasons past, we could see a lot of that drama early on.

Surprise Auckland semifinalist Hubert Hurkacz is just barely unseeded at the W&S, and faces off in his first round against John Isner. The American won the pair's only previous meeting, but something tells me we could be in for an upset this time. Hurkacz notched wins over Diego Schwartzman and Dominic Thiem at the ATP Cup to start the year and managed victories over Kei Nishikori and Stefanos Tsitsipas in 2019 before winning his maiden, and so far only, title in Winston-Salem. And while he doesn't quite yet have the ace power of Isner, at 6'5" Hurkacz certainly could become a force in that respect. And if he can figure out how to return the big man's serve, he might just be able to do something with it.

Speaking of big servers, you don't get much bigger than Sam Querrey and Milos Raonic, two powerful players who've been unfortunately sidelined on and off and so are both well off their best rankings. But it wasn't that long ago that either's stars were shining bright -- Raonic reached the finals at Wimbledon in 2016 and a handful of Slam quarters since, most recently in Melbourne this year, and Querrey stunned the world with a trip to the final four at the All England Club in 2017. The Canadian is still ranked higher than Sam, and has a 4-2 record, but if these two can channel what they're capable of, this could be a good one.

On the opposite end of the height spectrum is the match up between rising star Casper Ruud and ninth seed Diego Schwartzman, who stands a whopping 5'7" tall. But the Argentine has nevertheless been able to pull off some impressive shots and wins during his career, putting up a nice fight against Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open quarters last year. He's got a 3-0 record against the young Norwegian, but all of those matches were played back in 2018, before Ruud really hit his stride. And at #36 in the world now, he could prove to be more of a test. I imagine we could get some really great tennis out of this one.

But perhaps the most first round star power will come from the showdown between Frances Tiafoe and three-time Major winner Andy Murray, both wildcards in #CiNYC. Tiafoe was one of my dark horse picks to win a Major this year, and we can all agree that's not happening. Nor is it likely he's going to move significantly higher up the rankings. But he is a talented player with a couple of top-ten wins under his belt. But Murray reminded us of what a force he is when he, recently back from hip surgery, won a title in Antwerp last year, beating Stan Wawrinka in the final. I imagine he's make quick work in this match too, but with a second round match against Alexander Zverev on the line, I sure would love to make this one a thing to remember.

The Women

There are some fun first rounders on the women's side too. While I was looking forward to seeing Kim Clijsters take on Lexington champ Jennifer Brady, the comeback queen put off her return a little while longer. Still there are plenty of games worth watching.

I'll start with another player I had high hopes for at the start of the year -- former world #1 and two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka, who starts her #CiNYC campaign against 15th seed Donna Vekic. The Belorussian hasn't quite lived up to my expectations this year, and Vekic has won their two previous meetings. Still Vika has done well on these courts before, reaching the finals at the U.S. Open the same years she won her Majors in Melbourne, and she might just be hungry enough for an upset here.

Then there's Venus Williams, who came out the victor against Vika in their first round in Lexington earlier this month. She's the wildcard, on-paper underdog against 16th seed Dayana Yastremska, who actually picked up three titles while I wasn't looking over the last couple years. The twenty-year-old Ukranian made the final in Adelaide this season and notched a win over Aussie champ Sofia Kenin in Doha, and is clearly a force on the court. Still, we've seen a lot of great ball from the veteran over the last few months, including a classic against her own sister last week. I wouldn't be surprised to see her pull through again here.

Meanwhile, one of the women who's been a thorn in Venus's side for the past year will look for another big win to add to her resume. Coco Gauff, fresh off a semifinal run in Lexington and at a career-high ranking of #50 in the world, will face world #21 Maria Sakkari. It would be far from the biggest win of Gauff's season -- she's already won battles against Aryna Sabalenka and Naomi Osaka in 2020 -- but it would put her in spitting distance of what would be a blockbuster: a potential third round against Serena Williams, what would be the first meeting between the two. Gauff is unlikely to be distracted by that possibility, though, and will remain focused on the task at hand, and there's no reason she shouldn't pull off another big win.

And then there are two ladies who quietly got off to some of the best starts of the year. Ekaterina Alexandrova, another one just out of seeding territory, won her maiden title in Shenzhen in January and then made the semis in St. Petersburg. She's had less success since lockdown, but nonetheless could be a threat. Her first round opponent Elena Rybakina, meanwhile, was on court practically nonstop before March, reaching four finals in five back-to-back events, winning a title in Hobart, before finally pulling out of the third round in Doha -- she's somehow already played 25 matches this year, impressive with only two and a half months of events! This is her first event back in action, but I'm hoping she can pick up where she left off and show us her performance this winter was no fluke.

So the countdown is on to the first big tournament we've seen in a while, and it certainly seems like we have a lot to look forward to. If these matches live up to their potential, we might not even notice the big holes that seem to be in the draws. And all that could open the doors for some new blood when the stakes are even higher.

And at the end of the day, here's hoping we get some great tennis and a safe and healthy outcome.

August 16, 2020

Top Shelf Tennis

There may not be any fans in the stands, or the usual post-match handshakes. There's not a ton of prize money or ranking points on the line. For so many reasons these first few weeks back in action since the lockdown really highlight how much has changed in for tennis, and of course, for the entire world. But that didn't stop us from getting some of the most inspiring match play we'd seen since even before the five-month pause went into effect.

Let's start in Prague, where Simona Halep, the highest ranked player we've seen in action since March, took the court after bowing out of Palermo a week earlier. The top seed got off to a shaky start, splitting lopsided sets with Polona Hercog in her opener and then dropping the first set to wildcard Barbora Krejcikova a round later. But she seemed to get her groove back after that, downing lucky loser Magdalena Frech in less than an hour in the quarters and coming back from a break down in the final against Elise Mertens to capture her 21st career trophy.

But her performance wasn't necessarily the biggest standout. Fellow Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu, once a stone's throw away from the top twenty, had fallen a bit down the rankings in recent years, spending a lot of time on the ITF circuit and playing qualifying rounds in Shenzhen and Hobart. But she picked up steam just before quarantine, winning the Indian Wells Challenger Series, the last event before August. In Prague she opened with an upset of Anastasija Sevastova, and then was cursed with a series of night matches that were suspended for darkness, subjecting her to two straight days of double-headers. She eventually fell to Halep in the semis, but may have done a lot to get her game back in gear.

The biggest surprise out of Prague, though, might have been the showing from one-time world #5 (and three-time Major semifinalist) Genie Bouchard, now ranked all the way down at #330 in the world but granted a wildcard here. She'd had some encouraging results early this year, beating Caroline Garcia in Auckland, and helped the Chicago Smash make the finals in World Team Tennis last month, and that could have helped her this week. She dominated eighth seed Veronika Kudermetova in her first round and endured a tight three setter versus Tamara Zidansek before finally falling in three to Mertens. Whether that's enough to propel her for the rest of the year, we'll certainly see, but it was nice to see glimpses of the former Wimbledon finalist again.

Things were even more interesting at the inaugural Top Seed Open in Lexington, Kentucky, which boasted plenty of starpower in its initial field -- and even more excitement by way of the upsets. Serena and Venus Williams faced off in their 31st career meeting in the second round -- a match after Venus had dismissed fellow former world #1 Victoria Azarenka -- and put on a show reminiscent of any of their heyday championship matches. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Coco Gauff added more big upsets to her resume, taking out second seeded Aryna Sabalenka and the barrier-breaking Ons Jabeur.

Then there was wildcard Shelby Rogers, who back in 2014 took out Carla Suarrez Navarro, Sara Errani and Camila Giorgi to make the final in Bad Gastein as a qualifier and, two years later, reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. After knee surgery took her out of the game for over a year, she'd struggled to regain form and came into this event ranked #116 in the world. But after a solid showing against up-and-comer Leylah Fernandez, she pulled off what's undoubtedly the biggest win of her career. Down a set to Serena Williams in the quarters -- she dropped the first 1-6 in less than 30 minutes -- the 27-year-old somehow rallied over the next hour, taking advantage of her opponent's errors to defeat the top seed in a third-set tiebreak. It was the first time Serena has lost to a sub-100 player in eight years. Rogers would lose a round later to Switerland's Jil Teichmann, but the win should give her confidence that she still has what it takes to get those big wins.

But of course, the standout story from Lexington is that of champion Jennifer Brady, who picked up her first career trophy with a straight set win over Teichmann today. The 25-year-old entered the event near her peak ranking just inside the top fifty, helped by wins over Maria Sharapova and Ashleigh Barty in Brisbane and a run to the semis in Dubai. Still, unseeded at the event, she had a tough road to the final facing sixth-seed Magda Linette in the second round and a surging Gauff in the semis. But the former UCLA national champion didn't lose a set all week, closing out the Swiss in a little more than 100 minutes. The win helps her not only break the seal of claiming that maiden crown, but also pushes her up the rankings, now within seeding territory for the U.S. Open.

Speaking of the U.S. Open, the field there continues to thin out as players elect not to make the trip to New York in these uncertain times -- while Novak Djokovic finally confirmed his intent to play not just the Major, but the lead up "Cincinatti" tournament this week, defending champion Bianca Andreescu and 2019 semifinalist Belinda Bencic both withdrew. In all, fourteen wouldbe seeds -- nine women and five men -- are sitting out the Slam.

What that means for who's going to walk away with the trophy, I don't know yet. But if this week's action is any indication, we're certainly in store for a lot of great tennis, whatever happens.

August 10, 2020

A Little Rusty

It should come as no surprise that, after five months without organized tennis events, players needed to shake off a little dust in their first tournament back. 

We saw plenty of evidence of that in Palermo, where the withdrawal of the top two seeds even before the event started was followed by early, first round exits from second seed and 2019 French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova as well as world #20 Maria Sakkari.

But that rust made room for a couple players well off the radar to really make their marks on the clay of Italy -- one even scored the championship.

Among the standouts for me last week was 24-year-old Jasmine Paolini, who made her debut in the top hundred early this year on the back of some solid performances on the ITF circuit in late 2019 -- she made the quarters in Guangzhou, where she lost to Sofia Kenin, the semis in Shenzhen, and the final in Tokyo. She had won only one qualifying match in 2020 before the lockdown, but stunned former top-tenner Daria Kasatkina in the first round in Palermo. Back on court this week in Prague, I'm excited to see what else she can do.

Then there was nineteen-year-old wildcard Elisabetta Cocciaretto, who, no big deal, is studying to be a lawyer in her spare time. But she's been making a mark for herself on the tennis court too (sorry, couldn't help myself), picking up ITF titles in Trieste, Asunción, and Colina last year. She made her maiden Grand Slam main draw in Melbourne to start this season, losing to Angelique Kerber in the first round, but upped her game in Palermo. She opened with a straight-set win over veteran Polona Hercog and then took out sixth seeded Donna Vekic before falling to eventual finalist Anett Kontaveit in the quarters. By the way, with compatriot Martina Trevisan she scored the doubles runner-up trophy too.

Of course, it wasn't all fresh new faces breaking through on the clay of Sicily. Sara Errani, a former French Open finalist currently ranked in the low hundreds, struggled before and since a doping ban -- she tested positive for a breast cancer drug that may have found its way into a family meal -- took her out of the game for nearly a year. In 2019, outside an ITF trophy in Rome and a quarterfinal showing in Bogotá, she really had only a handful of main draw wins, and she fell in the first round trying to qualify for the Australian Open this year. But last week, the two-time titleist in Palermo, showed why she's got the most clay court wins of any active player on tour with solid wins over Sorana Cirstea and Kristyna Pliskova on her way to the quarters. 

Who'd she lose to? None other than the ultimate champion Fiona Ferro, whose name I first heard when she entered Feliciano Lopez's virtual Mutua Madrid Open. But of course, she's done a lot more than that -- she beat Alizé Cornet and Sam Stosur last year to claim her first career title in Lausanne and made the third round at the U.S. Open with wins over Daria Gavrilova and Kristina Mladenovic, only losing to eventual quarterfinalist Qiang Wang, who you might remember beat Serena Williams this year in Melbourne. Ferro was a little quiet in the first few months of the year, but reported played a bunch of exhibition matches heading into Palermo, which apparently served her well. After defeating this year's Shenzhen champion Ekaterina Alexandrova and Errani, she outlasted a hard-hitting Camila Giorgi and rolled over fourth seeded Anett Kontaveit to capture her second crown -- and the first awarded since the lockdown.

It's encouraging that the event in Palermo -- after an arguably inauspicious start from withdrawals to an unnamed player testing positive for coronavirus -- went off without any more of a hitch and bodes well for play over the next few weeks and months. It's even more encouraging to see some of this new talent spring up and really show us what they've got. 

We'll get a quick look at whether Ferro can keep up her momentum, too -- she along with Paolini and several other Palermo entrants will be right back in action this week in Prague. What that means for their prospects at the ever-encroaching U.S. Open, well that remains to be seen. But if they can keep up their games even when the top players have shaken off the cobwebs, it's a good sign for the sport.

August 5, 2020

If a Tree Falls in the Woods...

...And Rafa's not there to hear it...

By now, we all know that Rafael Nadal won't be making the trip to New York to defend his U.S. Open title. The four time champion in New York cited ongoing concerns over the spreading coronavirus as his reason for missing what would strangely be the second Grand Slam of the year.

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After many thoughts I have decided not to play this year’s US Open. The situation is very complicated worldwide, the COVID-19 cases are increasing, it looks like we still don’t have control of it. We know that the reduced tennis calendar is barbaric this year after 4 months stopped with no play, I understand and thank [officials] for the efforts they are putting in to make it happen. We have just seen the announcement of Madrid not being played this year. All my respects to the USTA, the US Open organisers and the ATP for trying to put the event together for the players and the fans around the world through TV. This is a decision I never wanted to take but I have decided to follow my heart this time and for the time being I rather not travel.

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It's not the most shocking news of course -- with travel restrictions still in effect and the French Open expected to start just a few weeks after New York wraps, my money was long on Nadal opting to stay local and play the event that launched his career.

Still, it's certainly the highest profile withdrawal from the event so far -- while Roger Federer has been out with injury (albeit, a recent surprise visit to Italy might belie that excuse) and Stan Wawrinka is mysteriously absent from the official entry list, Ashleigh Barty and Nick Kyrgios have taken the same COVID-centric stance as Rafa. 

The potential holes in the men's draw don't stop there -- Grigor Dimitrov, the Typhoid Mary of sorts at the Adria Tour, is still recovering from his bout with coronavirus (I'm not even going to go into how concerning it is that a professional athlete isn't bouncing back so easily). And there's even some speculation that Novak Djokovic, who's entered in the singles and doubles draws for "Cincy", may also pull out (though, let's be honest, how likely do we really think that is?).

So far the women's side is a little more in tact -- though Simona Halep raised some eyebrows with her sudden withdrawal from Palermo, she is currently slated to play in New York, making Barty the only top-tenner not on the list. 

But in all, five of the top twenty men are currently missing from the roster for New York for a variety of reasons -- and it will be the first Major without both Nadal and Federer since 1999 (!!) -- which begs the question: what does that mean for the rest of the field -- and, maybe more importantly, what does it say about the eventual winner?

Obviously, the hands-down favorite of the pack is Djokovic, who'd be going for his eighteenth Grand Slam title, putting him just one behind Rafa. In fact, there are only two other previous Major winners in the field: Marin Cilic, whose lone big trophy came on these courts back in 2014, and Andy Murray, who's said he's willing to take the risk of returning to the scene of his breakthrough after so much injury and time off (I'm not sure I agree with the logic, but Murray has been one of the voices of reason on many issues this summer, so I'll hold my breath). 

The young guard, though, from three-time Slam finalist Dominic Thiem and last year's New York runner-up Daniil Medvedev, to Stefanos Tsitsipas and much-maligned Alexander Zverev, are chomping at the bit to take over. Of that group, Medvedev is really the only one who's kept a low profile this summer, and whether their on-court time lights a fire under them or provides a distraction -- well, I guess we'll see. 

On the other hand, if the limited evidence we have of match play the past few weeks is any indication, after a couple months off, there's a lot of opportunity for players who you don't expect to make a name for themselves. Nineteen-year-old Brandon Nakashima, for one, turned out to be the standout in World Team Tennis -- he might not be ready for the title yet, but he certainly could cause some damage. 

At the end of the day, though, it's going to be a weird tournament, and I'm not sure anyone will know what to make of the results. It's not just the lack of Roger and Rafa -- players (mostly Novak) have won Majors without facing either one of the greats -- or the bizarre, fanless, teamless circumstances -- not to mention the lack of practice, the lack of qualies, etc. The winners' prize money will be cut by more than 20 percent from last year, but the $3 million paycheck is nothing to scoff at. 

Whatever the case, it feels like this year's U.S. Open will be the start of a new generation in tennis -- whether it's a different look and feel to the game we all love, or a fresh slate of champions taking over the reins, things are going to be a lot different on the other side. 

And the sound they create will set the tone for a while to come.