October 25, 2020

Back From the Brink

You know that phrase, "Down, but not out"? Well, we sure saw a prime example of that this week at the inaugural J&T Banka Ostrava Open in the Czech Republic.

Third seeded Aryna Sabalenka was trailing 0-6, 0-4, 40-Ad in her quarterfinal match against Sara Sorribes Tormo on Friday and somehow found it in her to rally for the next twelve games, not dropping a single one of them and coming out the winner under the unlikeliest of circumstances. And for those who thought she might be too spent from that effort to go any further -- I admittedly count myself in that group -- she was happy to prove us wrong, not only recovering to win her semifinal a day later, but going on to crush recent standout Victoria Azarenka with a straight set win in today's title match. And, if that weren't enough, she teamed up with Elise Mertens to win the doubles crown in Ostrava too.

It ended up being a redemption tour of sorts for the 22-year-old Belarusian. Not only did she avenge her second round U.S. Open loss to Vika on Sunday, but a few matches earlier she'd also rebounded, this time from a 1-6 first set against Coco Gauff, her vanquisher in Lexington, to manage that win as well.

But it will likely be that quarterfinal match that Sabalenka is better remembered for, rivalling even the epic turn of the tables Varvara Gracheva pulled off against Kiki Mladenovic just a few weeks ago. It's encouraging that Sabalenka was able to play more consistently in later rounds, but the streakiness of that one match certainly presents some questions -- not to mention what it says for Sorribes, who was a point away from a 5-0 lead in that second set before she was dismantled.

Sabalenka is, after all, one of the more powerful players on tour. Two years ago she caught my eye with her performance during the U.S. hardcourt season, where she picked up her maiden title in New Haven and put together his still-best Major performance with a run to the fourth round in New York. A few weeks later in Wuhan, she beat Elina Svitolina, Sofia Kenin and Ashleigh Barty on her way to a second career trophy. She beat Barty again in defending that title in 2019, and this year has wins over Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova to boot. But she's also been on the losing side of some surprising scorelines, upset by Kristyna Pliskova, Jessica Pegula, and a now in-recovery Carla Su´rrez Navarro.

But perhaps that quarterfinal marked a turning point not just for this tournament, but for Sabalenka's career. If she can prove she's more like the player we saw since then than the one before, it's going to be hard for her rivals to compete and she could not only make herself a more consistent feature of the top ten but become a real contender for the big titles. We haven't yet seen a deep run from her at the Majors, after all, but maybe that will change in the new year.

And, at the very least, we'll all know never to count her out.

October 18, 2020

The Heirs Apparent

So many of the headlines this year have surrounded the historic performances of players like Novak Djokovic, who amassed an impressive 26-0 record this season before that bizarre disqualification at the U.S. Open and passed Rafael Nadal for the record in Masters 1000 titles, and Nadal himself, who picked up an unprecendented and likely insurmountable 13th trophy at the French Open.

And as notable and monumental as those accomplishments are, it might be worth looking at a couple other players who this week may have cemented themselves as players to watch in the next generation.

Between November of last year and January of this one, Andrey Rublev put together his own unbeaten streak, winning all of his Davis Cup matches and then picking up titles in Doha and Adelaide to start 2020. While he seemed to lose a little momemtum before the lockdown, he did quickly regroup, making the quarters both in New York and at Roland Garros and picking up a clay court title in Hamburg. He came to St. Petersburg this week ranked in the top ten for the first time and made good on expectations, outlasting Denis Shapovalov in the semis and earlier today denying Borna Coric in his second straight attempt to come away with the title here.

The win not only earns Rublev his fourth title of the year -- his sixth overall -- but also gives him 34 match wins for the season, second only to Djokovic. And it certainly makes you wonder how many more he might have had if not for the seven-month shutdown. His trophies may not have come at the biggest events, but his showings at the U.S. and French Opens suggest that perhaps those are not far away. And if he can stay as consistent as he's been this year, we might see the 22-year-old's name at the top of this sport for a long time to come.

A little further down the rankings, but also lighting up the radar these days, is 17-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, who has been demolishing the ITF and Challengers circuits this year. Having started the year ranked just inside the top five hundred, his title run in Barcelona last week helped him climb to #158 in the world. And this week in Alicante he stretched his streak even further, beating top-seeded Pedro Martinez in today's final.

He's only played two matches on the main tour so far, upsetting veteran Albert Ramos-Viñolas in Rio in February. But a third Challengers title before the age of 18 -- he's got three more ITF trophies, by the way -- puts him in the rarefied air of players like Juan Martin del Porto and, you guessed it, Novak Djokovic. And he certainly seems ready to graduate to the big leagues and start to make his mark there too.

Will these guys be the faces of the sport in the years ahead? Perhaps -- so far the old guard remains loathe to give up their hold on the top. But we all know that that day will come eventually, and the talent we've seen from these two shows they might have what it takes to pick up the mantle. If they can do it remains to be seen, but it sure looks like they're off to a great start.

October 14, 2020

Not Out of the Woods Yet

Here's a good reminder for everyone in the world, and not just for those involved in the world of tennis: we are in the midst of a global pandemic, one that has infected 38 million people so far and resulted in over a million deaths worldwide. And while we are opening back up our businesses, our bars, our gyms, our sporting events, we have to remember that we don't yet have things under control.

That's become abundantly clear when you look at what's happening at events this week in Europe. At the inaugural Forte Village tournament in Sardinia, Italy -- remember that country was one of the first COVID hotspots back in February -- top seeded Fabio Fognini was forced to withdraw after he tested positive for the coronavirus. Some reports say that more than a dozen others did as well.

And then there's the curious case of Sam Querrey who, along with his wife and child, was diagnosed earlier this week and broke quarantine to recover in an undisclosed neighboring country. I'm not sure I fault him for wanting to get out of Russia, but I certainly question his decision to go there in the first place.

After all, plenty of players have chosen to stay local during these uncertain times -- Simona Halep and Rafael Nadal stayed in Europe the last few months and put together some incredible results, while Ashleigh Barty, confined to Australia for some time, decided to win trophies in a whole other sport rather than travel to New York or Paris. But others have gone from one continent to another -- many without consequence, at least for now, but some, not so much.

In all at least ten of the top hundred players on the ATP have tested positive at some point this year -- Alexander Zverev, who raised more than a few eyebrows after his loss at Roland Garros, apparently was not COVID positive. Whether by good luck, less testing, or better safety measures, no one at the top of the WTA has. But there is something to be said about better protocols/more risk aversion -- many more of the top seeded women opted out of the U.S. Open compared to the men, and the WTA has only three tournaments left on the calendar this year, versus ten for the men, three of which are this week.

Now I know it's a difficult situation -- players need to be able to make their livings, and us fans want to watch them do it. But as much as I loved every moment of watching this year's French Open, I'm frankly stunned that it was able to be played through to completion, especially as Paris sees a resurgence in cases. Today president Emmanuel Macron, facing a record number of new positive cases this month, instituted a 9pm to 6am curfew for parts the country -- something that would have caused some scrambling had it happened a week ago, when Nadal was playing his semifinal match into the wee hours of the morning. And it just feels like we're pushing the limits of how much we can get away with.

So here's hoping the worst that comes out of the recent headlines is a few positive tests and no symptoms. And in the meantime, just wear a mask.

October 11, 2020

What's Your Number?

I don't think anyone was expecting as one-sided a final as we saw today at the French Open. But for most of his almost three-hour match against Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal put on a master class in how to play -- and win -- on clay.

It may have taken a little longer than we expected after that rare bagel in the first set -- Nole finally started to make it a match in the third, breaking in the sixth game and keeping it close for a bit before Nadal was finally able to seal the deal.

And in doing so, he added a couple of major milestones to his résum&eacture; that paint a mean picture of just how dominating his game is, especially on these courts. Let's take a look at some of the astonishing achievements Rafa now lays claim to.

100: That's how many matches he's won at the French Open, starting with a 1:45 straight-setter against Germany's Lars Bursmuller back in 2005. He'd win thirty more in a row before his first loss at Roland Garros, and in sixteen appearances in Paris lost just one other time. The only man who's won more matches at a single Major is, not surprisingly, Roger Federer -- he's got 101 at Wimbledon and 102 in Melbourne -- but the 98% win rate surpasses both those feats. And the way he's playing, there's no reason to believe he won't set the record for total wins within a year.

13: The number of trophies he's captured in Paris, far exceeding what anyone else has claimed at a single Major. Novak and Roger have eight trophies each in Australia and Wimbledon respectively, and Rafa's now more than doubled the six earned in Paris by one-time king of clay BjΓΆrn Borg in the 70s and early 80s. With fifteen years between his first and latest win here, too, Nadal has the longest reign of any man at one Slam. It's certainly more than luck that's brought him this historic victory, and as he goes for number fourteen next year, you can bet no one will be safe against him.

20: A record-tying number of Grand Slam trophies, something we would never have dreamed of a few years ago. When at Wimbledon in 2000, Pete Sampras passed Roy Emerson's twelve, a high-mark that had held up for more than three decades, and ended his career with a then-whopping fourteen Major titles, we thought he'd be the standard bearer for a long, long time. But less than seven years later, Roger Federer made himself the one to beat and, for seemingly good measure, extended his record to twenty. That Nadal could tie him and actually be in a position to take the lead too -- well, it's not something the Spaniard wanted to think about today, but goes to show just how awe-inspiring his accomplishment is.

Which of these records is most impressive? Roger will certainly look to extend his match record in Australia next year, as he plans to return to the courts in Melbourne, and Djokovic, with 17 Majors himself, is hot on the heels of his rivals. Meanwhile it sure feels like the 13-and-counting watermark will be the toughest to break, whatever Slam you're talking about -- we've got at least five years before either of his closest competitors can possibly match him.

Who knows were Nadal will stand when all is said and done. But his performance sure shows why it's so hard for anyone to make a crack in the Big Three. And as we start to approach what will inevitably be a changing of the guard, we certainly know whoever comes next will have big shoes to fill.

October 10, 2020

Making It Look Easy

Winning a Grand Slam is hard work. Like, really, really hard work. But you might not know it from watching nineteen-year-old Iga Swiatek steamroll through the draw at the French Open this year and walk away with the title.

We've already talked about her road here -- opening with an easy win over 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova before stunning odds-on favorite Simona Halep, the woman who beat her last year, in the fourth round. She didn't lose a set at all on her way to Saturday's match, and that didn't change against reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin. After giving up an early 3-0 lead to draw even, Swiatek lost just one more game over the next hour or so, and in doing so became the first player from Poland to ever win a Major title.

Her accomplishment is made even more notable by the success she also had on the doubles court. A winner of the Girls' event with Caty McNally two years ago, this time Swiatek teamed up with U.S. Open finalist Nicole Melichar to reach the semis, playing essentially every day since the tournament started.

And rather than tire her out, it's possible all that time on court gave her an edge in the final. She's not the first player, of course, to shake off any nerves that accompany playing for the big title the first time -- Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu, and even Kenin herself have not only come out the victor in their maiden Major finals, but beat women with multiple trophies already to do it. But she seemed uniquely able to put the weight of the moment aside and play like she was the one expected to win.

And maybe she was. Despite the fact that Swiatek had never won a title before Paris, only ever reaching one final at a smaller event last year in Lugano, Switzerland, after her defeat of Halep oddsmakers shifted their bets to her. After all, she's been far outhitting her current-but-climbing world #54 ranking all year -- she nearly made the quarters this year in Melbourne and put up a nice fight against eventual U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka last month, drawing praise from the former #1. And while she hasn't yet made a splash in the main draw at Wimbledon, something tells me the 2018 Girls' champion there might be one to watch in 2021.

By the way, the dominance of Swiatek both in the final and during the entire tournament shouldn't take away from the performance of Sofia Kenin, who I'd admittedly written off after she failed to impress after that magical run in Melbourne. Though she picked up a title in Lyon, she'd been otherwise pretty lackluster, getting upset in the fourth round of New York and absolutely drubbed in her Rome opener. While she had few straightforward matchs in Paris, it was encouraging to see her rebound to make her second Major final of the year. It goes a long way to showing that she's no one-hit wonder.

Of course, that challenge now falls to the most newly-crowned Slam champion. After all, out-of-nowhere winners don't always have the follow through you'd hope to see. But Swiatek's composure throughout her Roland Garros run gives me hope that we've only just started to see what she can do.

October 7, 2020

Something Old, Something New

What an eventful week and a half it's been! Now I know the more consequential stuff has been happening way, way off the tennis courts, but there have been some truly exhilerating and dramatic moments on the clay of Paris that deserve to be celebrated. And with the final four now decided on both the men's and women's side of the draws, you can't help but notice a marked differnce between the experience levels of the remaining contenders.

Let's start with the men's draw where, not terribly surprisingly, top seeds Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have largely sailed through their halves. Of course, after what we saw in New York and to a lesser extent in Rome, we could take nothing for granted, and things didn't go exactly according to plan at every turn. Rafa, still the odds-on favorite to win the title, despite coming into Roland Garros without a single clay court title this year, wrapped up his quarterfinal match at 1:30 in the morning Wednesday. And Nole, in a rematch of the U.S. Open fourth round against Pablo CarreΓ±o Busta which ended in a default, dropped the first set again today, but this time kept his cool -- it is, after all, cold this time of year -- and pulled out the win. With a combined 36 Grand Slam titles between them, it should be no shocker that they know how to bring the heat when needed.

Their opponents, on the other hand, are much less familiar to this scene, but are really making their own statements this season. Stefanos Tsitsipas, who seems like he's been at the top of this sport for much longer than his 22 years would realistically allow, had actually only made one Major semi before this year, beating Roger Federer last year in Melbourne before dropping to Rafa two rounds later. And while his performance was a little disappointing at the start of the year, he managed a title in Marseille just before the shutdown and then rebounded from early exits in New York and Rome to make the final in Hamburg. Earlier today, he avenged his loss in that championship match with a decisive straight-set win over a talented Andrey Rublev. He's never faced Djokovic on a stage this big, but he does have a couple Masters wins over the world #1, and he could give us a great show as he looks to make his first Slam final.

And then there's Diego Schwartzman, my dark horse pick to make the semis. He'd never made it out of quarters at a Major before, but had been showing signs of brilliance for the better part of two years. He notched what was by far the biggest win of his career two weeks ago, stunning Nadal on his way to the Rome final. And while he didn't face a real challenge in his first few rounds in Paris, he was well-tested by two-time defending French finalist, and recently-crowned U.S. Open champ Dominic Thiem in Tuesday's first men's match, coming back from one set-to-two down to defeat arguably the second best clay courter on tour right now. It will be a lot to ask him to make it a second straight against Rafa too -- especially after that five-hour slugfest. But the veteran Argentine has certainly pulled out surprises before and might just be able to do it again.

Turning now to the ladies, where in one half we have two seeded Grand Slam champions and in the other two players on wildly untrodden ground. Reigning Australian Open champ Sofia Kenin roundly quieted the detractors (which included me) after a lackluster post-shutdown performance (which included a double bagel loss to Victoria Azarenka in Rome). While she's certainly been tested -- she's been pushed to three sets in four of her five matches -- she's held tough and found what she needed to win. She'll face off against two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, who's made her first semi here after eight years. She's won her only two meetings with Kenin, and while the young American -- who overcame a 0-3 history against Danielle Collins earlier today -- won't let that bother her, it does feel like Kvitova has regained the form she needs to make another final.

In the other half of the draw, nineteen-year-old Iga Swiatek has incredibly emerged as the favorite -- not just to make the final but, according to oddsmakers, to win the whole thing. It shouldn't be that surprising she's finding success though -- with wins over Carla Suarrez Navarro, Donna Vekic, and Veronika Kudermetova this year, she's far outplaying her #57 ranking. And she's only continued to impress at Roland Garros. She took out last year's runner-up Market Vondrousova in the first round and absolutely drubbed heavy favorite Simona Halep in the fourth round. She's been an absolute beast in all her matches actually, losing exactly zero sets in both singles and doubles -- she and U.S. Open finalist Nicole Melichar are in the semis together, too -- and while I might worry that all that court time could exhaust her, she's showing no signs of letting up any time soon.

But we absolutely can't count out her net opponent, qualifier Nadia Podoroska, who's already played eight singles matches in what's only her second Major main draw (her only other appearance was at the 2016 U.S. Open where, as a qualifier again -- she'd beaten Donna Vekic in the prelims -- she lost to Annika Beck in the first round). Don't let her ranking, all the way down at #131 in the world, fool you, though -- she won an ITF title on clay in Saint-Malo, France, at the start of September and made the final the week prior in Prague. In her run here, she survived a volatile Yulia Putintseva in the second round and then crushed an in-form Elina Svitolina in the quarters. She's far exceeded any expectations she could have had for herself this event, but what a story it would be if she managed to go even one round further?

By the way, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how happy I am that three of my four men's semifinal picks did make it as far as I hoped, although my gloating must be tempered by the fact that none of the ladies I expected lived up to expecatations. Still, I'm sufficiently satisfied with that record. I'll be back with another gimmick for next year's Slams -- and, of course, for more coverage of all the action that's left this season...and at this Major.

And if what we've seen so far at the French is a signal of what that'll look like, we've got a lot to look forward to!

October 4, 2020

The New Normal

We're now halfway through this year's French Open, and we're at no shortage of gripping stories. Young stars breaking onto the scene, qualifiers heading into the second week, and top seeds toppled -- those may not be headlines entirely foreign to Grand Slams, but this year they seem to pack a special kind of punch, and at least one has come in a uniquely 2020 way.

Let's start with the big upset of the day -- Simona Halep, the champion in 2018 and a heavy favorite to win the title again, stunned by nineteen-year-old Iga Swiatek, who she'd dropped just one game to in the same round last year. (The irony, of course, that Halep had just drubbed Amanda Anisimova, the woman who ousted her in the quarters last year.) It was by far the biggest win to date for the young Pole, who'd already taken out last year's runner-up Marketa Vondrousova and a newly in-form Genie Bouchard this week, and could put her in position to make her first Major semifinal. The oddsmakers, anyway, now think she could take home the whole thing.

Standing in her way, though, is qualifier Martina Trevisan, who is playing in her first main draw here this year. A Junior semifinalist eleven years ago, her career was sadly put on hold by an eating disorder that took her out of the game for four years. On her return she hit a career high ranking of just #144 in the world back in 2017 and is a shade off that now. But things are certainly turning around for the 26-year-old Italian. This past week, she beat Coco Gauff, Maria Sakkari and, in the fourth round, fifth seed Kiki Bertens, who made the final four in Paris four years ago. She's already played seven matches this tournament, and it will be tough to keep her streak going. But she's been impressive so far and could put up quite a fight in the next round.

On the men's side the big shocker today may have come after the fourth round match between Alexander Zverev and Jannik Sinner was over. Sinner, who opened his first Roland Garros run with a win over David Goffin, booked his ticket to the quarters with a four-set win over the U.S. Open finalist, but the scoreline doesn't tell the full story. Zverev later said he'd been sick since he played Marco Cecchinato on Friday, suffering 100 degree fever and cough during the match. The German didn't say when he was last tested for COVID, but guidelines ask those with his symptoms to quarantine for a week and after his less-than-responsible behavior over the summer, you'd hope he'd be a little more cautious. How Sinner will be affected remains a question -- luckily tennis is by nature one of the safest sports in this time -- but hopefully his Cinderella run won't be clouded or cut short based on illness.

Whether we've seen the fresh faces of tennis begin to emerge or get a gut reality check on safety protocols, it sure seems like we're in a new world for this sport, and we'll all have to get used to some changes. We can only hope that the more persistent story will be that of new-found success and bringing the sport to a new level. After all, at the end of the day, the performances we've seen from these young talent deserves to shine through.

October 1, 2020

Wide Open Spaces

We're now at the point in a Grand Slam when, if things had gone exactly according to plan, we'd have gotten rid of all the qualifiers and wildcards, everyone would have beaten an oppenent only if they were ranked lower than them, and we'd be left with a draw that pitted one seed against another.

Of course, things never go exactly as planned, and this year at the French Open, a couple early upsets and literal luck of the draw seem to have created some big swaths of land that could allow some unexpected players to run free.

Let's start with the men, who admittedly have a much narrower path than the women, but who nevertheless have created a couple opportunities. The bottom quarter of the draw may be the most open, with the early exit of Daniil Medvedev and today's stunning loss by my semifinal pick Denis Shapovalov at the hands of world #101 Roberto Carballes Baena. While Hamburg champ Andrey Rublev and sith seed Stefanos Tsitsipas remain real threats here, someone like Marton Fucsovics, who beat Medvedev, might be able to take advantage. He made the fourth round in Australia this year, and with his next match against Thiago Monteiro, he's got a good shot of at least matching that. He'd likely face Rublev a round later, and while their only previous meeting was three years ago when Rublev was a much less formidable foe, it was on clay, and he did win. It did also go five sets, but at the very least this could be a nice fight.

Fewer favorites have survived the second quarter of the men's draw, and while one of those still standing is twelve-time champion Rafael Nadal (who, I'm told, has never lost a match at Roland Garros when seeded second), that doesn't mean all hope is lost for the others. Qualifier Marco Cecchinato stunned the world two years ago when he beat Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals here, and while he's since dropped out of the top hundred, his performance over the last week or so may suggest he's back on track. He opened with a win over Alex de Minaur and then took out Juan Ignacio Londero in four sets. He'll be tested by U.S. Open finalist Alexander Zverev in the next round, of course, but the German had to battle through a four-hour five-setter in the last round and could be taken advantage of.

Things could get even more interesting for the ladies, where a couple sections have opened up wide. Patricia Maria Tig, who'd lost her first round match in four of the five Majors she'd played before Paris -- she lost in the second round of this year's U.S. Open -- quietly won her first career title on the clay of Istanbul while the rest of us had our eyes glued on New York. She hasn't had to do anything spectacular yet -- her last opponent took care of Karolina Muchova and her next one, Palermo titleist, dispatched Elena Rybakina -- but with Sofia Kenin struggling a bit, she may not have to for a few rounds yet.

And then there's 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko, who before this year had never won a match at the French before or since that title run. She seemed to be getting her form back last week in Strasbourg, though she was broken six times in her quarterfinal match against Nao Hibino, but a decisive straight set win over second seeded Karolina Pliskova today could be what she needs to really get her confidence back. The now twenty-three year old will next face Paula Badosa, who also got the better of 2018 runner-up Sloane Stephens today, and with my very meh pick Petra Martic lurking in this section, I could see either of them surviving a few more matches.

But perhaps the biggest opening was created in Serena Williams' quarter (actually, I guess, Elina Svitolina's quarter) -- not necessarily because the American was a favorite to win here (as we know this is her worst Slam), but because of all the other craziness that happened there. Yes, the top half of this section is stacked -- the only non-seed there is Caroline Garcia, who is hardly an underdog -- but the bottom half is wide open.

Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who first hit my radar with a win over Venus Williams here in 2014 and stunned red-hot Victoria Azarenka yesterday will face Nadia Podoroska who, ranked #131 in the world, had never won a match at a Major before this week, but really got under the skin of Yulia Putintseva in their second round. And U.S. Open feel-good story Tsvetana Pironkova, the immediate beneficiary of Serena's withdrawal, will take on doubles specialist Barbora Krejcikova, who beat Barbora Strycova in the second round. It just seems incredible that one of these long shots is guaranteed a place in the fourth round.

Then again, isn't that what's so great about sport? And in a year like the one we've seen, it's those stories that can really stand out for the good -- whether they're comebacks or breakthroughs, it's great to see new talent shine -- and maybe just give us all something to celebrate.