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.

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