September 21, 2020

When in Rome...

No matter how much has been said about it, it still feels weird that, at this point in the year, we're talking about the clay court season and the lead up to Roland Garros. And with only two weeks between the last two Slams of the year, we had to pack a lot of action into an exceedingly short time. But with the Rome Masters now in the books, and Hamburg and Strasbourg underway, we did get some indications of what we can expect when we finally make the trip over to Paris. And, as always, we're bound to be in for a couple surprises.

Let's start with the ladies, who actually got in a couple weeks play on the surface before the U.S. Open, both in Palermo and Prague, and at an event concurrent with New York in Istanbul. But it wasn't just those who'd been acclimated to the clay that shined this past week. Victoria Azarenka, who made a stunning run to the final in the Big Apple, got right back to work at the BNL Internazionali d'Italia, avenging a loss in Lexington to Venus Williams and shredding defending Aussie Open champ Sofia Kenin, oh-and-oh. And Yulia Putintseva, the somewhat surprising quarterfinalist in New York, got a second straight win over favorite Petra Martic in Rome and took out a recently meh Elena Rybakina before retiring in the quarters.

There were some other standouts too -- Marketa Vondrousova, one of last year's many surprises at Roland Garros, seemed to get her year back on track after what's been an unimpressive 4-8 record so far this year. A decisive quarterfinal win over Elina Svitolina, who was playing her first tournament since March, made that all-important statement as she looks to defend her French Open runner-up points. And Garbiñe Muguruza, who lost early at the U.S. Open, losing to Tsvetana Pironkova in the second round, battled through a tough draw, besting Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff, Johanna Konta and Victoria Azarenka to make the semis.

Ultimately though, the final featured the top two seeds in the draw, with Simona Halep, who skipped the U.S. Open but took a title in Prague this summer and repaid her Melbourne loss to Muguruza on Sunday, taking on defending champion Karolina Pliskova, who, since opening the year with a title in Brisbane, has struggled to make the laters rounds of events. The title match didn't quite live up to potential, though, as Halep ran off with the first set in twenty minutes and an injured Pliskova retired after the third game in the second. It was the Romanian's twenty-second career title and her third in a row, giving her a win streak of fourteen straight matches. And as she looks to reclaim the title she won in Paris more than two years ago, she might just have established herself as the player to beat.

The men's side of things in Rome was no less dramatic and saw its own fair share of surprises emerge. I'll get to the "big" one (was it just one?) in a moment, but it's worth starting with some of the more under-the-radar players that made a splash this week. Denis Shapovalov, who came OHSOCLOSE to making the semis in New York, went a long way to prove not only that was no fluke, but that he can be a true force on clay too. After a test from Ugo Humbert, he went the distance again versus Grigor Dimitrov, withstanding three three-setters in a row during his semifinal run -- a pretty impressive show of endurance considering he played 22 sets at the Open.

Meanwhile Casper Ruud, a breakout star in the pre-lockdown portion of the season, continued his march higher with a win over former U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic and another against surprisingly consistent Matteo Berrettini, who he'd lost to in New York. It was his first Masters semifinal appearance, and his third trip to the final four this year. Not bad for a guy who kicked off the season outside the top fifty.

The real Cinderella, though, was former college star Dominik Koepfer, who made it through qualifiers with wins over Gilles Simon and Mikhail Kukushkin and then stunned Gael Monfils in the Frenchman's first match since a solid winning stretch in February. Koepfer made it all the way to the quarters and even took a set off Novak Djokovic before finally ending his run. It could bode well for where the young-ish German is heading from here.

Of course the shocker of the event came when two-time defending champion Rafael Nadal, going for his tenth title in Rome, fell in straight sets to Argentina's Diego Schwartzman in the quarters. It was the eighth seed's first win over Rafa in ten tries, and his first victory over any of the Big Three. He'd go on to the final, where he eventually lost a two break lead and the match to Djokovic, but what's by far the biggest win of his career could put him on a much different path than we'd expected when we make it to Paris.

Of course, what Nole accomplished in Rome was in itself spectacular. The world #1, whose only loss this year came under the most unusual of circumstances, wasn't playing his best all week, had a few outbursts, and was tested by players who he should have beaten easily. But at the end of the day, he walked away with the trophy, a record 36th at the Masters. Does his dominance, and Rafa's hiccup, signal a changing of the guard at Roland Garros? Not necessarily. Nadal will continue to be the player to beat at the French Open until he isn't, and one loss at his first event in seven months, should not be taken as an omen.

But we certainly have started to see the next generation start to step up -- whether by default or not -- and given the circumstances, this could be their best opportunity to rise to the challenge.

And with just six days to go before the final Major of the year, there's no better time to do it.

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