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.

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