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.

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