November 12, 2020

How It Started...How It's Going...

We are in the final stretch of 2020's very strange and sadly abbreviated tennis season, with the last events before the year end championships wrapping up this week. And given everything we've seen over the last ten-plus months, it should be no surprise that things look very different now than they did then.

Sure, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are still at the top of the men's game, but we've seen precious little action from the elite ladies, whether due to injury or COVID-related restrictions. And some players who hit the ground running in 2020, from Tennys Sandgren to Elena Rybakina, have quieted down quite a bit post-lockdown. On the other hand, there are a couple others who are really starting to hit their stride in the back half of the year and are really making an effort to close out 2020 with a bang.

Let's start with the ladies in Linz, where top seeded Aryna Sabalenka is looking for her second trophy in as many tournaments. After that crazy come-from-behind victory in the Ostrava quarterfinals, she's been almost unstoppable, today crushing Stefanie Voegele in straight sets. It's a nice reversal from what might not have been a tragic start to the year, but nonetheless saw her upset by Kristyna Pliskova and Dayana Yastremska as well as a first round loss in Melbourne.

But she's not the only standout. Barbora Krejcikova, long at the top of the doubles game -- she won both the Roland Garros and Wimbledon titles in 2018, had floated in the triple digits on the singles scene for years. But cracked the top hundred after making the fourth round in Paris. She's been dealt a pretty nice draw in Austria, with Greet Minnen taking out third seeded Yastremska in the first round and her next opponent Aliaksandra Sasnovich beating eighth seed Bernarda Pera for her. If she keeps her form, she might just be able to make a play for the semis, and set the stage for more successes in the new year.

Even more impressive, though, has been the continued rise of Argentina's Nadia Podoroska, someone few of us had ever heard of a month ago. Spending most of her time on the ITF circuit, she started the year #234 in the world, down from a peak of #157 back in 2017. But fresh off a title in Saint-Malo, she rode from the qualifiers to the semifinals at the French Open, beating Yulia Putintseva and Elina Svitolina on the way -- Krejcikova, too, by the way. In her first appearnce since that Cinderella run, she's now ranked in the top fifty and holds the sixth seed, and so far she hasn't disappointed. She opened with a win over veteran Irina-Camelia Begu and today came back from a set down to beat Camila Giorgi. She'll next face Ekaterina Alexandrova, another standout this year, so it's not all smooth sailing. But I sure would like to see her keep her momentum going strong.

There have been some nice showings from the men in Sofia as well. Veteran Vasek Pospisil is well off his career high ranking of #31, hit back in 2014 -- he'd falling out of the top two hundred last year -- and started the year qualifying for Auckland and losing his opener in Melbourne. He made a nice run to the final in Montpellier in February, though, helping him get back to double digits, and when the tour restarted was able to reach the fourth round at the U.S. Open -- his best Major showing in five years. This week he stunned Jan-Lennard Struff in the second round and earlier today ousted Nur-Sultan champion John Millman in straight sets. He'll face fellow vet Richard Gasquet for a spot in the final, but he's met tougher challenges before.

But the real breakout of this event, and maybe of the year, certainly seems to be 19-year-old Jannik Sinner, who started the year at #78 in the world. The Italian took a little time to find his footing, losing early in all his pre-lockdown tournaments and even on the U.S. hardcourts. But he really, maybe ironically, found traction on the clay, stunning Stefanos Tsitsipas in Rome and an ailing Alexander Zverev at the French to make his first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Now in the top fifty, he just missed getting a seed in Sofia, but hasn't yet seemed fazed, coming back from a set down to take out third seed Alex de Minaur earlier today. He'll take on Adrian Mannarino in the semis and I kind of like his chances not just for that win, but maybe for the title.

Of course this year has been hard on all of us, even those seeing the most success now. But hopefully these guys will be able to keep up their momentum on the other side of this pandemic. And maybe they can give us the inspiration we need to turn things around for ourselves, too.

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