April 18, 2021

The Big Breakthroughs

It's been a very weird week for tennis, with some shocking upsets, some brilliant performances, and, ultimately, two champions whose victories made some really strong statements.

Monte Carlo

I'll start where the stakes were highest, at the Rolex Masters in Monte Carlo, where my theory that the house always wins was proven spectacularly wrong when eleven-time champion Rafael Nadal lost to Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals. That result guaranteed we'd see a first-time Masters winner this week, and the final result showed we should be expecting event more.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, after all, has been putting together big results for so long it's hard to believe he's only 22. His first real breakout came three years ago when, just inside the top thirty, be beat Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, and Novak Djokovic to make the final at the Rogers Cup. The next year he made his first Grand Slam semi and won the year-end championship in London, and he's been a staple in the top ten since.

And his performance this week was on point -- while he technically only faced one other seed on his way to the final, his opponents (Dubai champ Aslan Karatsev, giant-killer Dan Evans) were nevertheless formidable foes. And against Rublev for the title, the outcome was anything but certain -- the two had split their previous six meetings, with last year's breakout star most recently the victor in Rotterdam.

But Tsitsipas was clinical in Sunday's match, winning 86% of his first serve point, never allowing a break opportunity and converting all three of his. In just over an hour he had claimed the win and the title -- maybe not the biggest of his career, but certainly breaking the seal for what is sure to be a slew of more Masters titles. And with Roland Garros just about a month away, he might have made a real case that he's one to watch in Paris.


Meanwhile in Charleston, we were also treated to a real breakthrough, and one that came with a little bit of redemption on the side.

Just last week Astra Sharma fell victim to one of the most bizarre cases of chair umpire mistakes we've seen -- after having a game she won wrongly awarded to her opponent, she largely broke down, losing her opening match in Bogotá in three sets. The loss particularly unfortunate, since she'd made the final there the last time the event was held in 2019.

But Sharma seemed to shake off her frustration by the time she came to South Carolina. In a field that was pretty wide open -- there was only one player in the top thirty in the draw -- the former college star, still ranked sub-100 on tour, was actually the more experienced player in her later matches. She upended fifteen-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova's breakthrough run in the quarters and then ended Bogotá champ Maria Camila Osorio's eight match win streak in the semis.

For the title, Sharma faced off against top seeded Ons Jabeur, herself going for her maiden title. But while the trailblazing Tunisian was able to avenge last week's loss to Danka Kovinic in the semis and build a set lead in the final, she wasn't able to finish off the task. Sharma forced a decider and took advantage of weak serving by her opponent to seal off the comeback and win her first tour title.

The wins this week may seem to be of different orders of magnitude, but with the clay court season really getting in full swing now, they're both hugely important for those who pulled them off. And hopefully they're only a sign of what we have yet to see from these two talents -- and one step towards their even bigger wins down the road.

April 15, 2021

All Bets Are Off

Monte Carlo, obviously, is a gambling town, and like all gambling towns, there are a couple things we should know: 1) there are no sure bets, and 2) the house always wins. So we shouldn't be surprised by what we've seen so far at the first clay court Masters event of the season, but that doesn't make the results any less noteworthy.

I'll start with the big upset of the day, where Novak Djokovic, undefeated so far this year, took the court against the talented but unseeded workhorse Daniel Evans. While Nole's win streak was smaller than it's been at this point in previous seasons -- he skipped out on Miami because of COVID restrictions and we haven't seen him since he won that ninth Australian Open title -- he was still clearly the favorite here. He's, after all, got more weeks than anyone else atop the rankings, and with just one loss to a sub-thirty player over the last two years, few opponents have a shot at making any headway. His one-sided win over phenom Jannik Sinner in his opener further proved his dominance.

The odds didn't seem to bother Evans, though -- and they were tough odds. The thirty-year-old, who picked up the first title of his career at the Murray River Open to start the season, has been a little quiet lately -- he lost five of his six matches since then, including his opener at the Australian Open, and came to the Rolex Masters a shade off his career high ranking at #33 in the world. But he pulled of a nice win over Miami champ Hubert Hurkacz in the second round to set up a showdown with the top seed, and he was unintimidated by his opponent. He broke Nole's usually strong serve five times and kept him to under sixty percent on his first attempts. It was a long two-setter, no doubt -- over two hours at the end -- but one where the underdog didn't flinch and came away with the fourth top ten win of his career, his first ever over a world #1.

The surprises, though, didn't only come as upsets. David Goffin, who frankly stunned me with a title in Montpellier in February, went back to form right after that, winning just two matches at four events, most recently losing to world #104 James Duckworth in his Miami opener. And while his own ranking has been somewhat shielded by COVID-related rules, he hadn't beaten a top ten player in over a year. But he seems to have found his footing again this week -- after a tighted first round against former U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic, he took out former French Open semifinalist and earlier today scored an important win over fifth seed Alexander Zverev in straights sets. With a quarterfinal match now against Evans instead of Djokovic, we'll get to see if he can put his higher on-paper ranking to work.

And Goffin's not the only recently-struggling star to right his course in Monte Carlo. Fabio Fognini, who I was stunned to learn is technically the defending champion here, having beaten Zverev and Rafael Nadal on his way to the 2019 title, the last time the event was played, has been similarly spotty over the last twelve months, winning just one match in 2020 after the Australian Open, pulling off a couple nice wins at this year's ATP Cup, and then losing his last three matches to players ranked outside the top sixty. But he's turning things around this week -- he may not have played another seed yet, but he's gotten three straight-set wins so far, today over a tough Filip Krajinovic in under ninety minutes. He'll face a bigger test next against Casper Ruud, who's already beaten Diego Schwartzman and Marbella champ Pablo Carreño Busta, but perhaps there's something about this dirt that can really help Fognini shine.

Of course, as I mentioned, there are two rules of every gambling mecca, and if anyone can call the Monte Carlo Masters home, it's Rafael Nadal. He has, after all, won a record eleven titles here, eight of them in a row, and he's only been more prolific at one other event. Like with Djokovic, we haven't seen much of Rafa this year -- he hadn't played since losing in the Aussie quarters due to a back injury and his sparse schedule has forced him to cede his spot at #2 in the rankings.

He could get it back, though, if he makes the final this weekend, and so far, he's looking on point to do just that. He's lost just five games in his last two matches, needing less than an hour to dispatch one-time world #3 Grigor Dimitrov earlier today. To make the semis, he'll have to get past red-hot Andrey Rublev, and while I'm a little nervous about that, Nadal has won both of their previous meetings and Rublev has proven himself not-so-indestructable of late. Still, it could be a close one, and no matter how stacked the odds are, there's always the chance the game gets turned on its head.

But maybe, just maybe, we're in for a real big jackpot.

April 11, 2021

Where Anything Can Happen

We should know by now there are very few certainties on the clay court -- other than, of course, that if you're facing Rafael Nadal on it, it's pretty inevitable you're going to lose. But everyone else is much more vulnerable, so it shouldn't be such a surprise that so many unlikely stars were able to make such big statements over the past week, as we kicked off the now slightly longer road to Roland Garros.

Copa Calsanitas, Bogotá, Colombia

I'll start in Bogotá, where the upsets came early and came often. Perhaps it shouldn't be that much of a shocker, as the only entrant in the top fifty was a recently surging Sara Sorribes Tormo, whose run in Miami came just a bit too late to give her the top seed here. But she lost her opening match to veteran Sara Errani, and the woman who did squeak into that #1 spot, Saisai Zhang, dropped one round later. Ultimately only one seed made it as far as the quarterfinals, and Tamara Zidansek, the 23-year-old from Slovenia ranked #93 in the world, was able to stay steady enough to make her second career final.

But in Sunday's match she ran into nineteen year old Maria Camila Osorio Serrano, a wildcard who'd played only a handful of tour-level main draws before this. But the former top-ranked Junior and 2019 U.S. Open Girls' champ was understandably at home on the courts of her native Colombia, scoring wins over seventh seed Tereza Martincova and veteran Stefanie Voegele. In the final, she dropped the first set to Zidansek, the first she'd lost all week, but then rallied back to stun her opponent in a nearly three hour match to claim the trophy. The win not only earned her some serious bragging rights, but may have put her on the radar as a potential spoiler as things really start heating up. After all, we know this is the part of the season when the young guns can really shine.

Volvo Car Open, Charleston, South Carolina

The stakes were a little higher in Charleston, where four Grand Slam champions were counted among the seeds, another elsewhere in the draw. But the favorites strunggled here too -- red hot Garbiñe Muguruza retired with a leg injury while up a bagel set to Yulia Putintseva in the third round, while Sofia Kenin lost her opener and Miami champ Ashleigh Barty was stunned by Paula Badosa in the quarters. And Petra Kvitova was ousted surprisingly easily by world #91 Danka Kovinic, who beat two more seeds on her way to the final.

There, though, she met world #38 Veronika Kudermetova, the fifteen seed who'd taken out that other Major winner -- a still-struggling Sloane Stephens -- in the quarters. It was the second championship match of her career -- she kicked off 2021 with a run to the title match in Abu Dhabi, beating Elina Svitolina before finally bowing to then unbeatable Aryna Sabalenka -- but she'd had a much easier road than her opponent, not facing another seed during her run. And she made good on her favored status in the final too, breaking her opponent four times on her way to the win. It was her first career trophy and might be enough to push her into seeding territory for the next Slam. And if she keeps her momentum going, it could really make some other sit up and take notice.

Sardegna Open, Cagliari, Italy

Things went a little more according to plan for the men last week, but that's not to say there weren't any surprises. In Cagliari, young Lorenzo Musetti stayed strong in a roller coaster of a match with top seeded Daniel Evans, saving four match points before getting the win in the second round. And world #49 Laslo Djere made a big play for his third clay court title, notching upsets over sixth seeded John Millman and fourth seed Nikoloz Basilashvili on his way to the final.

Meanwhile third seeded Lorenzo Sonego was plugging away in the bottom half of the draw. The 25-year-old Italian can be a little up and down in his play -- he lost his first five matches of last season and then scored one of the biggest upsets of the year with a win over Novak Djokovic in Vienna. In 2021 too, he lost his opener at the Murray River Open to world #265 Jason Kubler and couldn't seem to get much traction at events after that. That changed this week in Italy, though -- after staging a comeback against a very talented Yannick Hanfmann in the quarters, he got the better over second seed Taylor Fritz in the semis. He was tested again by Djere in the final, but he was able to stay strong and win his second career title. For added measure, he teamed up with compatriot Andrea Vavassori to also claim the doubles trophy. And if he can play as consistently as he did this week, he could cause a lot of trouble for the favorites when the stakes get raised.

Andalucia Open, Marbella, Spain

Of course not all top seeds were so unlucky this week. In Marbella, Pablo Carreño Busta, who'd been a little quiet this year after his phenomenal end to the 2020 season, was able to make good on his spot at the top and claim his fifth career title, his second on the dirt. Without having to face anyone in the top forty during his run, he was the clear favorite in the championship match. But that's not to say we didn't see some other surprises in Spain.

Seventeen-year-old phenom Carlos Alcaraz continued his ascent on tour, stunning veteran Feliciano Lopez in his second round and following up with a win over a quickly climbing Casper Ruud a match later. The wins earned him his first ATP semifinal and boosted him fifteen ranking spots to #118 in the world. And something tells me that number is only going higher from here. He did eventually lose to finalist Jaume Munar, though -- the fellow Spaniard, ranked just inside the top hundred, had opened his run with a solid win over an often spotty Fabio Fognini. And while he couldn't ultimately get the better of PCB in the championship match, the fact that he pushed the eventual champion to three sets might bode well for his future too.

So with week one of the 2021 clay court season in the books, and the big events starting with the Rolex Masters around the corner, we're starting to see how things could shape up as we head to Paris. Can this week's winners make any real headway at the bigger events? Well, some have better chances than others. But with momentum on their side right now, it should be fun to see what they do with it.

April 4, 2021

The Unlikeliest of Results

I've said it before, but I don't know that anyone could have predicted the men's final we saw in Miami today. And it certainly seems to have heralded in a new era in tennis.

Sure, with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer all opting out of this year's Miami Open, you knew that the door for some underdogs had creaked open a bit. But with players like newly-minted world #2 Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, and Andrey Rublev all in the mix, it certainly wasn't going to be an easy road for anyone.

And perhaps that's what makes the results over the past week even more exciting.

Young Jannik Sinner has been one of the breakout stars over the past six months, reaching the quarterfinals at Roland Garros before going on a ten match, two title win streak to bridge the 2020/21 seasons. Nineteen and at #31 in the world, he is the youngest player in the top hundred, and he plays far, far above his experience, evidenced by the serious praise he drew from Alexander Bublik after their quarterfinal match.

But that wasn't the only accomplishment by Sinner in Miami. Still a relatively "low" seed at #21, he "upset" a curiously higher-ranked Karen Khachanov in the third round and also beat two men who'd upset two of the favorites for the title -- Emil Ruusuvuori, who'd stunned Zverev in his opener, and Roberto Bautista Agut, who took out Medvedev in the quarters. And so in what was just his third Masters 1000 event, the Italian found himself in the final playing for what would easily be the biggest title of his young career.

Meanwhile in the bottom half of the draw, 24-year-old Hubert Hurkacz, who kicked off 2021 with a title himself in Delray Beach, was an even bigger underdog. Though he'd spent a few minutes in the top thirty over the last year, he'd lost early at his last few events and came to Miami down at #37 in the world with just a 26th seed into the tournament.

But Hurkacz also well outplayed his ranking during his time in South Florida. After wins over Denis Shapovalov and Milos Raonic, he stunned second seeded Tsitsipas in the quarters and backed up the win by demolishing a recently red hot Rublev in the semis.

In Sunday's final, it was understandable that both men showed signs of nerves. Hurkacz got off to a fast start with a 3-0 lead, but Sinner was able to draw even and even got a chance to serve out the set. But the Pole capitalized on some shaky serving, forced a tiebreak and never really looked back. The win, a milestone for him, not only keeps his record in finals a perfect 100% -- he also won the championship in Winston Salem in 2019 -- but should propel him into the top twenty, his highest career ranking to date.

And the fact that both he and Sinner were able to perform so well and so consistently over the past week or so further underscores the new depth in the men's game. For so long it's been hard for anyone to make a crack in the wall of the Big Three, but we're certainly starting to see a little bit of that happening. And it's not just the ones rounding out the top ten who have it in them to pull out the big wins.

Besides, if this week is any indication, both Hurkacz and Sinner are going to be making a play for those spots very soon.

March 30, 2021

On Solid Ground

I admit I haven't been the biggest believer in Ash Barty over the last year, and a lot of that has been because I wasn't really paying attention back in 2019 when she had her breakthrough. It felt like her French Open title, which came without facing a single player in the top ten, was a bit of a one off. And the fact that the altered ranking rules allowed her to keep her #1 ranking at the end of last year after not playing since February just added to my confusion.

Of course that ignored the rest of her accomplishments two years ago -- her first big trophy in Miami, where she beat three top ten players, her WTA Championship to close out the season, four titles in total and another two finals to boot. And while some players have been able to hold onto 2019 ranking points even when they tried and failed to defend them last year, Barty hasn't really gotten a chance to prove those successes weren't just flukes.

That is, until she came back to Miami.

Still the top seed, the twenty-four year old got off to a bit of a shaky start, facing match point against qualifier Kristina Kucova in her opener before powering through for the win. And that wasn't her only test -- in a roller coaster fourth round against three-time champ Victoria Azarenka, Barty went three lopsided sets in just under two hours, and she was pushed to a decider again yesterday in the quarters by Aryna Sabalenka.

Nevertheless, she's still alive and kicking and, now into the final four in Miami, has her first real opportunity to back up her 2019 run.

For a spot in the championship match, of course, Barty still has to get through world #5 Elina Svitolina, who can be spotty at times and has suffered some surprising losses in recent months, but she too has passed some tough tests over the past week and will be hungry for a big title of her own. She has a 5-1 record against Australian, too, which could give her some confidence. At the very least, this could be biggest test yet of whether Barty deserves to stay at the top.

In a similar situation to Barty is young Canadian Bianca Andreescu, who likewise was MIA last year after a breakthrough 2019. Ranked out of the top 150 at the start of that season, she had to qualify for the Australian Open, but really hit her stride in the spring, stunning the world with a title in Indian Wells and going on to win the Rogers Cup and the U.S. Open, beating Serena Williams in the final -- technically, in both finals.

But unlike Barty, her ensuing absense was due to injury rather than travel restrictions and lasted several months longer. That could explain why she's struggled a bit more in her comeback, going three sets in four of the five matches she played before Miami. And while the fact that I watched what she can do a little more closely during that run in New York makes me a little more forgiving of her remaining near the top of the rankings, you have to feel her meteoric rise could make her place there a little more tenuous.

Still, she's done well to prove her mettle over the past week. After a fairly straightforward win over Tereza Martincova in her opener, she edged out American Amanda Anisimova, who's had a complicated few months to say the least, in a thriller and then took out Garbiñe Muguruza, one of the strongest players of the season so far, in another tight one.

In today's last quarterfinal, Andreescu will take on unseeded but spectacularly impressive Sara Sorribes Tormo -- she won her first career title at the start of the month in Guadalajara and in Miami has already defeated Aussie runner-up Jen Brady, Elena Rybakina, and 2020 standout Ons Jabeur. Making the semis would by far be the biggest accomplishment of the Spaniard's career, and if the favorite is at all off her game, this could be an opportunity to pounce.

Whatever the case, it sure feels like last year's comeback stories have finally found their footing for the not-so-new-anymore season. And how they perform over the next few days will go a long way to proving their place. That's not to say a loss would derail everything, but a few more wins now sure would be extra sweet.

March 25, 2021

Miami Heats Up

I can't be the only one a little surprised that the Miami Open kicked off as planned -- though, I suppose, with my dear James Blake in charge, I shouldn't be so shocked (πŸ’•).

And while the primary hope is that everyone there stays safe and healty amid the revelry, as the first premiere tournament since the Australian Open, there is also a lot of top notch tennis to look forward to -- with a slew of top-ranked talent, a couple players riding huge momentum, and even a few we haven't seen in a while.

The Men

I'll start with the men's draw, which may be missing three of its top ive players, but nevertheless boasts some real firepower. Daniil Medvedev takes the court as the top seed, the first time he's hit the court as the #2 player in the world. He's never made it past the third round here, but he's a far different and much more formidable player than he was the last time he was in Miami. With a twenty match win streak that he rode all the way to the Aussie final and a title in Marseille just for good measure, he's certainly deserved his climb, and it's hard to see anyone in his immediate draw derailing him.

Of course, there are players who could surprise us in the top half. Lloyd Harris is coming off a run to the final in Dubai where, as a qualifier, he stunned Dominic Thiem in the second round, and then picked up upsets over three more players. Now at a career high of #52 in the world, he's still a real long shot to make any real play for the title -- but we might have said that about him last week too.

Also in this half of the draw is John Isner who -- meh. After a second round loss at the French Open last fall, he ended the abbreviated season due to injury and then pulled out of the Australian Open this year because of the COVID restrictions. (No comment.) We haven't really seen a lot of the 2018 Miami champion (he beat Alexander Zverev in the final, if you can believe it! -- in the past year, as he's only made it past the second round once. He'll open against qualifier Mackenzie McDonald, who did well to make the fourth round in Melboune last month, and while Isner may be the favorite, he's by no means a sure thing.

On the bottom half of the draw is a man who's had a much more successful 2020 season so far, and had to come out of the depths to do it. Aslan Karatsev, the surprise standout Down Under and brand new trophy-holder at 27, is suddenly ranked one spot ahead of Isner and is far and away at his career best. All eyes will be focused on how he performs now that we actually expect something from him, and while his first opponent, veteran Mikhail Kukushkin, has had some nice results this year, I imagine Karatsev will continue to prove his worth at least a few rounds in.

And finally on the men's side is Thanasi Kokkinakis, who played his first match since 2019 in February. The 24-year-old revealed his battle with anxiety and depression had made the game and life tough for him over the years, but it's nice to see him getting his feet back under him again -- he took Stefanos Tsitsipas to five sets in his homeland Slam's second round. Still ranked outside the top 200 -- a far cry from his previous high of #69 in the world -- he made it through qualies without losing a set and today beat another qualifier to set up a second round against Marton Fucsovics. The barely seeded Hungarian is certainly not one to be dismissed, but there will be a lot of people rooting for an upset here.

The Women

On the women's side, we've already seen some of the favorites in action and a couple have been tested. Top seed and inexplicable world #1 Ashleigh Barty is playing an event ouside of her native Australia for the first time since last February, and it's probably a good place to start. Her run to the title in Miami in 2019 was what set off that magical season that propelled her up the rankings, and what she does in her return will go a long way to quieting my doubts. She struggled in her opener, though, facing a match point against qualifier Kristina Kucova before pulling out the win. With players like Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber -- who double bageled her own opponent today -- and, more immediately, a resurgent Jelena Ostapenko in her section, she's going to have to up her game if she wants to repeat.

Kicking off her run tomorrow will be Sofia Kenin, who followed up a second round loss in her Australian Open defense with a shocking defeat at the hands of then un-ranked Olivia Gadecki in Adelaide. She was nursing a leg injury in Melbourne and eventually had to undergo an apendectomy, so there are explanations for her upsets. Of course, now that she's recovered, we're going to want to see her step up. She'll face off against veteran fan favorite Andrea Petkovic, which will be a good test. The stage her performance sets for the rest of her season, of course, may not be clear -- we've seen her ride roller coasters before -- but a strong showing would still make a big statement.

Then there's Bianca Andreescu, who's only played this event one time in her short but prolific career, reaching the fourth round -- with wins over Kenin and Kerber -- right after her own breakthrough title in Indian Wells in 2019. Sidelined by injury for all of last year, she's had spotty results in her comeback but will try to turn things around against qualifier Tereza Martincova tomorrow. Of course the bigger challenges lie after that -- either former Roland Garros semifinalist Amanda Anisimova, who's had quite a string of bad luck this year, or one-time U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, who's had trouble putting together two straight wins recently, most immediately, and more later -- so we'll see what she's got soon.

Meanwhile, Jessica Pegula is coming to Miami at her career high ranking. She followed up her breakout run in Melbourne by making the semis in Doha, ridiculously as a qualifier, and the quarters in Dubai, absolutely dismantling former world #1 Karolina Pliskova in the process. She's barely seeded at this event, but we should be well aware of the damage she could cause. She'd likely face Pliskova again in the third round, but there's no reason to bet against her making at least the quarters. And for someone who's never won a main draw match here, that would be quite the triumph.

And finally there's Ana Konjuh, ranked #20 in the world four years ago when she was just 19, who's been pushed out of the top three hundred after one surgery after three others. She's been struggling to even qualify for events over the last few years -- her last main draw WTA win was back in 2018 -- but as a wildcard here she seem to be back with a vengence. Still just 23, the Croatian opened her run with a win over a very talented Katerina Siniakova and today notched her first top-twenty win in four years over Madison Keys. While she'll be a serious underdog against her next opponent, reigning French Open champ Iga Swiatek, hopefully her performance even thus far is a sign that she's truly on the comeback trail.

We're still in the very early days of this event, of course, and so much can still happen. But it's great to see so many players back on court. And what happens over the next week-plus could give them all a great opportunity to really shine.

March 21, 2021

Never Give Up

It's so common in tennis that we spend time focusing on the young phenoms who break through the ranks in their teens or the powerhouses that dominate the sport year after year. With Coco Gauff stealing the spotlight with big upsets or the Big Three winning one Slam after another, it can be difficult to spot those players who come into their own a little big later in life.

And that's what makes some of this week results so remarkable -- it wasn't just the shiny favorites seeing the most success, but a couple workhorses who've been building up to their big wins finally getting a chance at glory.

I'll start in Dubai where, I think it's safe to say, few could have predicted the outcome we got. Wildcard Aslan Karatsev, the undisputed Cinderella of the Australian Open, showed no signs of losing that momentum, dispatching four seeds, including 2020's breakthrough teen Jannik Sinner and nearly-unstoppable countryman Andrey Rublev, on his way to the final. Meanwhile qualifier Lloyd Harris, who'd peaked at a career high #72 last year, came out the gate swining too, notching his first top ten win over #1 seed Dominic Thiem in the second round and then besting Denis Shapovalov in the semis.

But ultimately it was the 27-year-old Russian who walked away with the title. The feat particularly notable, as Karatesev, having spent most of his career on the Challenger and ITF circuits, never played an ATP final before this week. The win will rocket him to the top thirty in the world, not bad for someone who was at a high of #112 at the start of the year. And after all the work he's put in to get here, it sure would be nice to see him stick around.

Over in Monterrey, we have a chance to see something similar. Viktorija Golubic may not have had the splashy success at a Slam that Karatsev did, and she actually has some experience in the winners' circle, with a title in Gstaad back in 2016. But the 28-year-old Swiss has nevertheless been languishing in the triple digits for the last few years and spending a lot of time qualifying for events. She had to do that earlier this month in Lyon, but made her way to the final anyway, and she had to do it again in Mexico. And so far she's taken out sixth seeded Anna Blinkova and eighth seed Ann Li to make her second straight championship match.

In the final tonight, she'll face wünderkind Leylah Fernandez, who ended Guadalajara champion Sara Sorribes Tormo's run in the semis. The 18-year-old Canadian is the favorite here, but Golubic should be able to hold her own -- and, after losing to one teenager in France, she's going to want to flip the script a bit. Either way, having made two straight finals should do a lot to boost her confidence, and might just help her get back to and better than her previous high.

If these guys' performances show us anything, it's that it's never too late to achieve success. And with so much more opportunity to thrive this year, something tells me we haven't yet seen the best they have to offer.

March 18, 2021

Golden Swing Glory

Admittedly I've been a little remiss in covering the action going on in Latin America over the last few weeks, but there have certainly been a lot of performances there worthy of some shoutouts.

From Sara Sorribes Tormo winning her maiden title over a resurgent Genie Bouchard last week in Guadalajara, to Cristian Garin ending his 2021 losing streak with a title in his hometown of Santiago, to -- who can ignore -- the standout runs from the Cerundolo brothers, the younger of whom made history by winning a title as a qualifier at his very first tour-level event in Córdoba.

And this week's results in Mexico have been just as noteworthy.

I'll start in Monterrey, where a wide open field, not to mention early losses from top seeds Sloane Stephens and Nadia Podoroska, has allowed a couple of up-and-comers and under-the-radar stars to really shine. Unlike so many players who quickly lose their momentum after a big breakthrough, Sorribes has kept her winning ways going, opening with a defeat of Lesia Tsurenko and then getting a pass when Kaja Juvan pulled out of their second round. She'll next face sub-hundred-ranked Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who stunned Victoria Azarenka last year at Roland Garros and is looking for her first title since 2018. Either stands a good chance of making a nice run here.

But they're not the only ones. My perennial favorite Leylah Fernandez still hasn't had her big breakthrough, but with Sorribes the first seeded player she'd face at this event, she could rack up a good amount of confidence to make her move now. And of course there's Aussie standout Ann Li, the Cinderella finalist for the Grampians Trophy who reached the third round at the Open. The only other seed in her half of the draw is world #52 Saisai Zheng -- not someone that should be taken for granted, but certainly an opponent she's capable of beating.

The stakes might be a little higher in Acapulco, where three top ten and seven top twenty players are contesting the title. And while top seeds Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev are still both alive and well, here too there could be some surprises. Cameron Norrie, who stunned Dan Evans in the first round of the Australian Open this year, got a solid straight-set win over a back-on-the-rise Fabio Fognini in the second round, while Dominik Koepfer, a surprise quarterfinalist in Rome last year, is making some headway on the hardcourts after taking out Milos Raonic last night. One of those two will earn a spot in the semis and could make good on the opportunity.

And of course there's young Lorenzo Musetti, still ranked in the triple digits but still high on everyone's radar. Another standout in Rome -- he beat Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori before losing to Koepfer -- he got a win over his first ever top-ten opponent, ousting Buenos Aires champ Diego Schwartzman in the first round. He backed up the victory with another three-setter against Frances Tiafoe and will meet Grigor Dimitrov for a spot in the final four. And while the one-time world #3 may be a formidable challenge, he's not quite playing his best ball and could give the teenaged Italian an opportunity to advance.

It's always encouraging to see players start to make moves during this part of the season. Of course the question is whether success south of the border will translate into big wins on the bigger courts. But we've seen some promising signs over the last few weeks, and any of these guys could surprise us down the road.

March 14, 2021

When Numbers Lie

There's been a lot of debate over how the ranking system in men's and women's tennis has worked post lockdown and since play resumed last April. I've long raised an eyebrow at Ashleigh Barty's continued presence at the top despite having played precious few events over the past year -- and, admittedly, I've been chasten when she does well at the ones she does enter.

And while I agree with the initial premise -- that players shouldn't be punished for doing the prudent thing by not traveling during a pandemic -- the ultimate system doesn't seem to have worked out exactly right -- after all, why should Marketa Vondrousova get to keep 2019 French Open final points when she did make the return trip in 2020 and lose in the first round?

But perhaps there's no better indication of flaws in the system than the case of Garbiñe Muguruza.

The 27-year-old Spaniard struggled through the back half of 2019, winning just one match after the French Open and dropping out of the top thirty for the first time since 2014. But she really turned things around to kick off last year, knocking out three top ten players to make the final at the Australian Open. That helped her climb back to #16 in the world, but despite a more-than-solid run, she's barely been able to budge in the rankings since.

And there's plenty of reason she should be higher. Here's a list of some of what Muguruza's accomplished this season alone: she got revenge for last year's loss in Melbourne, beating Sofia Kenin in straight sets at the Yarra Valley Classic; she was the only player to get a match point against Naomi Osaka at the first Major of the year, only barely losing to the eventual champion in the quarters; inexplicably unseeded last week in Doha, she survived a nail-biter against once-unstoppable Aryna Sabalenka on her way to the final; she repeated the feat this week in Dubai, and also scored wins over Iga Swiatek, Elise Mertens, and quickly-rising Barbora Krejcikova. And in her third final of the year, she was able to walk away with the title, her first since 2019 and her biggest in four years.

That gives her eighteen wins already this season, more than any player, man or woman, and puts her second only behind Osaka in the singles race. But for her efforts, she still won't crack the top ten on Monday -- seems strange when players like Bianca Andreescu and, yes, Ashleigh Barty, remain seemingly ensconced there.

Of course, things are slowly getting back to normal and those protected points will eventually start to be shed. And Muguruza will be more than ready to fill in the gaps when they do. After all, there's nothing more intimidating than someone playing well above her ranking. And this girl seems gunning for a return to the very top.

March 10, 2021

The Return of Roger

405 days.

That's how long it'd been since we last saw the great Roger Federer in a professional tennis match.

It'd been even longer since he'd won one. (😒)

After a semifinal loss at last year's Australian Open, where he'd survived not one, but two five-set matches, he underwent not one, but two knee surgeries and had to miss the rest of what would end up being a severely abbreviated season. We got glimpses of him here and there, of course, but his absence on court was certainly felt -- and, in someways, it opened the door for some big moves.

Not only did Rafael Nadal tie Roger's record of 20 Grand Slam titles and Novak Djokovic surpass his reign of 310 weeks ranked #1, but a slew of others moved in on what has long been his turf -- Dominic Thiem won his first Major, Daniil Medvedev climbed past him in the rankings and within a whisper of ending the stranglehold the Big Three have on the top two. And players like Sebastian Korda and Aslan Karatsev, well off the radar a year ago, have since emerged as real forces in the sport -- ones that could challenge the status quo.

That's not to say these things wouldn't have happened had Federer played a normal schedule over the past fifteen months, but they certainly came with fewer roadblocks.

So that begs the question of what happens now that Roger is back. The 39-year-old (🀯) made a winning return today in Doha, a tournament he's won three times before, saving set point against Dan Evans in the first and breaking late in the decider to secure the win. He'll next face Nikoloz Basilashvili, who had a much easier time with his second round, and can't be assumed of victory, despite his second seeding and his previous drubbing of the Georgian in Melbourne in 2016.

Of course Fed's bigger tests will come against the better players -- Thiem looms as the top seed in Doha -- and on the bigger stages. While he announced earlier this month he won't be playing in Miami as he continues to rehab, there's still hope we haven't seen the last of him at the Majors. Will he still have what it takes to compete against the Rafas and Noles of the world in best-of-five matches? Well, if anyone can do it, it's probably him.

But until we get there, let's just revel for a moment in what Roger was able to do today. He's now won 1,243 matches over 24 seasons (🀯🀯), putting him one strong season away from passing Jimmy Connor and further distancing him from his contemporaries. And as we're bound to have the 🐐 conversation a lot more over the next few months and years, that stat might go a long way toward making a case for Roger.

Wherever we land though, you can bet we've still got a lot more fight left to see from this guy, and it sure will be fun to watch.

March 7, 2021

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other Ones...

Okay, I know we're all anxiously awaiting the return of Roger Federer, and we are getting really, really close. But as much as we all want to see the great one on court again for the first time in over a year, we can't the other top-tier talent that pulled off some big wins at tournaments around the world over the last week. And while a couple of top ten stars were able to add another trophy to their shelves, there was one newly minted champion that may have stood out from all the rest.

I'll start in Rotterdam, where one man further established himself as a real force of the new genereration. Andrey Rublev, who won more titles last year than even Novak Djokovic, was actually only the fourth seed here, but with three straight Major quarterfinal showings and a series of wins over top-ten players, it shouldn't be surprising that he outplayed that. He got a little bit of a break with soon-to-be world #2 Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev both losing early in the top half of the draw, but he was nevertheless clinical in his win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis. And while he played a tight first set against an under-rated Marton Fucsovics in Sunday's final, he stayed strong in the second to secure the win. It was his eighth career title -- impressive for a 23-year-old -- and brings him to a 13-1 record for the year -- Medvedev, with ten wins this season, comes in second on that stat. And there's no reason to believe Rublev won't be adding a lot more Ws to that column in the weeks to come.

The story in Doha was less about the next gen and more about the veteran class. Still, with the eight seeds all ranked in the top fifteen, there was plenty of opportunity for the on-paper favorites to face some really challenges. And they did: Australian Open runner-up Jen Brady won just three games in her first round against Anett Kontaveit, while Melbourne Cinderella Jessica Pegula, bizarrely having to qualify for this event, dismissed second seed Karolina Pliskova handily in the quarters. Ultimately, though, it was unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza, a former world #1, facing fellow two-time Grand Slam champion Petra Kvitova in the final. And while Muguruza has had some brilliant moments this year -- she took out recently-unstoppable Aryna Sabalenka in the second round and had match point against Naomi Osaka at the Open -- the much-decorated Kvitova was too much to handle. After just over an hour of play, the 30-year-old Czech returned to the winner's circle, lifting her 28th career trophy and first since 2019. And to do it amid such an illustrious field sure adds icing to the cake.

Diego Schwartzman may have come into his own a little later than these two champions -- he only cracked the top ten for the first time last year, at 28 years old, but as a long-time workhorse on tour, he's certainly put in the work to have earned it. The ATP Challenger Tour champion way back in 2014, he slogged it out in the middle tiers, picking ups smaller titles in Istanbul, Rio, and Los Cabos along the way, before his breakthrough last season. And after a disappointing early exit last week in Córdoba, he was eager to make good on his top seed this time around. But he'd have a big roadblock -- qualifier Francisco Cerundolo, whose younger brother shocked the world with a title last week at his first tour event, was hoping to keep the family win streak going, first dismissing inexplicably seeded Benoit Paire -- he's 2-10 since the lockdown -- and then repeating Juan Manuel's win over Albert Ramos-Viñolas in the semis. But Schwartzman was just too tough for him in the championship match, dropping just three games in the course of 80 minutes to win his firt title on home soil. And while he has a ways to go to catch up to those other two champs this week, I'm shown he's got the work ethic to at least try.

Of course, as I alluded to above, it wasn't just players adding to their trophy count this week -- in Lyon, we got a brand new champion thanks to a final contested by not one but two qualifiers, both playing for their first title. Of course, at 28 years old, Viktorija Golubic has a little more experience, having made the final in Linz back in 2016, where she beat both Madison Keys and Garbiñe Muguruza, and reaching a high just out of the top fifty in the world. But she's since dropped into triple digits and has spent most of the year on the ITF circuit. This week, though, she seemed to get back on track, stunning Caroline Garcia in the second round and then coming back for a win over second seed Fiona Ferro in the semis. Meanwhile, eighteen-year-old Dane Clara Tauson, who'd beaten Jen Brady in the Roland Garros first round last year, followed up her upset of top-seeded Ekaterina Alexandrova here with three more straight set wins to make the final. She didn't let up in on Sunday, either, staying tough against an oppenent a decade her senior to win that maiden crown. The win should put her into the top hundred for the first time in her young career, and while she might be far from the accomplishment of this week's other champions, Tauson might just have shown she belongs among their ranks too.

March 4, 2021

Unqualified Successes

The heat is turning up on the tennis courts this week as top-tier players get back to work in full force now that the Australian Open is well behind them. But it hasn't been just the big stars bringing out their A-games -- more than a few qualifiers have pulled off some of the biggest wins, leaving no doubt what they're capable of.

I'll start in Doha where, for some reason, Melbourne standout Jessica Pegula was not an automatic entry. Of course, this is a high-level event with the lowest seed still carrying a #14 ranking, but it's nevertheless a bit of a slight. But Pegula powered through anyway, trouncing Qiang Wang in her main draw opener and following up with a win over one-time French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko. Her biggest win, though, came earlier today what she blasted through third seed and former world #1 Karolina Pliskova in just an hour to reach her first WTA 500 semi. She'll next face Petra Kvitova, who bested her last year at the U.S. Open, but she sure feels like a much different player than she did last fall and might just be able to get the win this time around.

Jeremy Chardy is another one I'm surprised had to prove himself before hitting the main stage in Rotterdam. Sure the veteran Frenchman is well off his career high, but with runs to the semis in Antalya and at the Murray River Classic, he's certainly been back on the rise. He opened his campaign in the Netherlands with a solid win over a very tricky Ugo Humbert and then ended the run of recently-resurgent Montpellier champ David Goffin earlier today. For a spot in the semis, Chardy will take on ultra-talented Andrey Rublev -- one of just two seeds remaining at the event -- but bigger upsets have happened, and he might just have what it takes.

Some of the big wins, though, have come from more even more unexpected places. Eighteen-year-old Clara Tauson, who defeated Jen Brady in the Roland Garros first round, was one of my players to watch this year. She's had some successes on the ITF circuit in recent weeks, but may be ready to break into the big leagues now. Currently at a career-high of #139 in the world, she stunned top seeded Ekaterina Alexandrova in her Lyon first round and backed it up with a win over doubles star Timea Babos. She'll face an often-spotty Camila Giorgi in the quarters, and there's no reason to think she'll be entirely outmatched there, and I imagine this could be just the beginning for her.

Another rising star may be making himself known on the clay of Buenos Aires. Sumit Nagal, who'd only won three tour-level matches before this week, wasn't even seeded in the qualifying draw, but managed to make his way into the event anyway. The world #150 started with a decisive win over veteran Joao Sousa, but his bigger victory came a round later. Against second seed Cristian Garin, who simply dominated the Golden Swing this time last year, Nagal broke his opponent seven times and got the win in straight sets. He's got another challenge next -- Córdoba finalist Albert Ramos-Viñolas, arguably a bigger threat, even if a lower rank, but the twenty-three year old is spry and certainly has shown he's got a couple tricks up his sleeve.

Of course, it's not just the qualifiers who are notching big wins this week. Kei Nishikori, after a months-long recovery post his latest injury, has scored two impressive wins in Rotterdam, defeating Felix Auger-Aliassime and Alex de Minaur already. And Tommy Paul successfully brought Alexander Bublik down off the high of his biggest win yet. Lyon wildcard Clara Burel, meanwhile, opened with a win over Aliz´ Cornet and, with her next round against second seed Fiona Ferro, might be in position to continue her run farther.

Still the performance of the players who had to fight just for a spot in the main draw has been more than encouraging so far. And hopefully bodes well for what we'll see from them down the road.

February 28, 2021

A Couple Young Guns and Some Old Hat

As is so often the case, tennis players got right back to work after the Australian Open, some traveling halfway across the world to compete in tournaments this past week. And impressively, when all was said and done, we not only saw some recently-struggling stars start to turn things around, but a couple relative newcomers prove they're here for the long haul.

I'll start in Adelaide where a slew of top shelf talent crowded the draw, and some strong workhorses stepped up to the challenges. Danielle Collins, who was somewhat surprisingly dismissed in the Australian Open second round, somewhat made up for it with a win over top seed and still-#1 Ashleigh Barty here. And Coco Gauff, who's been a little quiet since her breakthrough 2019 season, will make her top forty debut Monday after making the semis.

But ultimately the final came down to reigning French Open champion Iga Swiatek and former U.S. Open semifinalist Belinda Bencic, who'd only won a handful of matches since play resumed last August. She encouragingly put together a string of wins this week, but was ultimately no match for the nineteen-year-old Pole. Swiatek hit 22 winners and just 6 errors in the barely hour-long match, dominating on serve and breaking her opponent four times. In what was just her third championship round, she showed nerves and came away with the trophy without losing a set the whole tournament -- she didn't lose one during that Roland Garros run either. And with two titles now, on two surfaces, she's really proving the force she's going to be.

Meanwhile at the inaugural Singapore Open, another young talent made us sit up and take notice. Twenty-one year old Alexei Popyrin, who'd outlasted David Goffin in a nearly four-hour marathon in Melbourne before falling in another five-setter to Lloyd Harris, rebounded nicely at this event. While he was able to avoid a second round rematch with Harris, who lost his opener to wildcard Adrian Andreev, and second-seeded countryman John Millman eliminated for him, he did face former U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic in the semis. The Croat, who'd lost his last four matches before this event, seemed to be pulling things together this week, but Popyrin was unperturbed and was able to notch the upset to make his first career final.

On Sunday he faced off against Alexander Bublik, who I feel is a better player than his #46 ranking suggests. With wins over Yoshihito Nishioka and Radu Albot this week, he too was looking for his first career title -- he'd come up short in his last three attempts, most recently at the start of the year in Antalya. He came up short here too -- after losing the first set, world #114 Popyrin stormed through the second to force a decider and never looked back. He won seven straight service games at love and only lost six points on serve total for the match. If his performance in Australia didn't put him on the map, his maiden title this week sure did, and hopefully it's just the start of what we'll see from him.

Of course, it wasn't just the new generation that came out swinging this past week. In Montpellier, it was two veterans who made good on their top seedings to make the final. Roberto Bautista Agut was hoping to turn around a slow start to the year -- after a perfect 6-0 record at ATP Cup in 2020, he was 1-2 this season and lost his first round at the Australian Open too. But he seemed back on trace in France, notching a solid win over dark horse Ugo Humbert in the quarters and following through in straight sets over Peter Gojowczyk to make the final.

In the bottom half of the draw, recently struggling David Goffin -- he ended 2020 with five straight match losses and had gone down this year twice in a row to players ranked outside of the top hundred -- seemed to right his course this week. Still seeded second thanks to that weird COVID-related ranking system, he pulled off an impressive win over a very talented Lorenzo Sonego and held tough against Egor Gerasimov to make the final. After he dropped the first set to RBA, I was sure he was done for, but the Belgian found the strength to rebound and come back for the win. It was his fifth career title and his first since 2017 -- and coming after so many months of hard knocks, it might not have come at a better time.

Finally in Córdoba, we'll get the perfect juxtaposition of the two themes of the week -- old versus new, veteran versus upstart. Thiry-three year old Albert Ramos-Viñolas is four years removed from his career-high ranking in the top twenty, and with seven first round losses since the lockdown, most people probably didn't give him much of a chance here. But he stunned top-seeded Diego Schwartzman in the quarters and backed it up with a win over another Argentine, Facundo Bagnis, in the semis.

Meanwhile, young Juan Manuel Cerundolo, only nineteen and ranked just #335 in the world, was playing his first ever tour-level tournament, and boy did he make a statement. After slogging through qualifying matches, he took out fellow young gun Thiago Seyboth Wild in his opener, and then got the better of two seeds in the next two rounds -- Miomir Kecmanovic and Thiago Monteiro. Can he possibly keep his Cinderella run going in tonight's final? Well, I suppose weirder things have happened.

And while the result may not have wider implications for the inevitable passing of the torch in this sport, it might just seal in the winner between the two generations for this week, at least.

February 21, 2021


There's no question the greatest stars in tennis know how to turn it up when it counts the most. And that's just what Novak Djokovic did Sunday to win his record ninth Australian Open title.

The undisputed King of Melbourne Park didn't have the easiest road this year, battling an injury in the third round that forced him to five sets against Taylor Fritz and made him question whether he could continue. He dropped sets to Frances Tiafoe, Milos Raonic, and Alexander Zverev too, arguably one of the least dominant paths to the final he's ever had here. And in order to take home the trophy, he'd face off against one of the hottest guys on tour at the moment.

Enough can't be said about Daniil Medvedev's twenty-match win streak going into today's championship. Of course Nole's had his own long runs over the years, but the Russian's included a dozen victories over players ranked in the top ten, even one over Djokovic himself -- not only was he winning, he was beating the best.

But in Sunday's final, it was experience that won out. After a tight first set with traded breaks near the top, it was all Novak. He ran his opponent from corner to corner, dominated at the net, and allowed few chances on his serve. After less than an unexpectedly straightforward two hours, Djokovic had earned himself his eighteenth career Grand Slam.

The win not only establishes his reign Down Under, and brings him within two titles of Roger and Rafa's Major records, but further cements the stranglehold the Big Three have at these events. Since 2005, there have only been three Slam finals which didn't feature at least one of them, and 22 that had two. Together they've won 58 of the last 70 trophies. Sure players like Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem have made inroads, but we still appear to be far away from anyone posing a consistent threat.

Medvedev, though, showed a lot of promise, and it's not just lip service to think he'll be one of the guys breaking through the barrier eventually. But if we've learned anything, it's that it'll be a while before that wall truly comes tumbling down.

February 20, 2021

The Year of Naomi

February 7, 2020.

That was the last time Naomi Osaka lost a match. And given how she played over the past two weeks at the Australian Open, it sure feels like the date will stand for some time longer.

Osaka captured her fourth Grand Slam title Saturday in Melbourne, tying her with Kim Clijsters in the Major record books and putting her just one trophy behind Maria Sharapova. And at just 23 years of age, she's got plenty of time to add to her numbers.

Her run over the last year is certainly something to be admired. Sure, her loss-less span is somewhat technical -- she, and everyone else, didn't play for nearly seven months after that defeat in the Fed Cup qualies due to the lockdown, and she did pull out of the Western & Southern final as well as the Gippsland draw ahead of the Open. But she's still accomplished so much over that period, not all of it on court, and has become a better player for it.

During her time in Melbourne she did face challenges, saving match points against last year's runner-up Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round, but pulled off a sound win in the semis over Serena Williams, who has as many Major trophies as Osaka has years behind her. And in Saturday's championship she was just as unstoppable.

Jennifer Brady, who had her breakthrough last year in New York, was playing in her first ever Grand Slam final. She was the only player subject to the hard quarantine who made it out of the third round, and though she never faced an opponent ranked in the top twenty-five during her campaign, she was still playing solid ball through the final. But while she had the opportunity to be the second straight American to win the crown here, she could never quite get a handle on the heavy favorite and eventually fell in straight sets.

The win cements Osaka's position at the very top of the sport and serves to show just how much she's grown from that maiden Slam win more than three years ago. Of course there's still a lot more left to accomplish -- her win streak was further aided by the fact that she stuck with hard courts, either by choice or by circumstances, and the true test of her tennis versatility will come when and if she is tested on the clay and grass, neither of which have given her the most success in the past.

But if one thing is clear from what we've seen over the young star, it's that she's got a lot more power and fight than she lets on, and something tells me those big wins are still to come. And it's not hard to believe that she'll be in the race for some of the biggest records in the sport soon.

February 17, 2021

A Golden Opportunity

We're just an hour away from the start of this year's first Australian Open semifinals, and we might just be on the verge of some very historic moments.

The eight players still standing each have a shot at doing something amazing -- whether it's setting a new record or breaking new ground, we're guaranteed to see something very special over the next few days.

And whoever comes out on top will truly have something to celebrate.

Let's start with the ladies, as they are the ones kicking things off first. On the top half of the draw we have a first time Major semifinalist taking on a slight favorite on paper, but perhaps a big favorite in practice. Karolina Muchova, who's only ever played the main draw here twice before, only ever winning one match, stunned top seed Ashleigh Barty in the quarters -- that after notching a big win over compatriot Karolina Pliskova a round earlier. Meanwhile Jen Brady, who only had her Grand Slam breakthrough late last year, has been playing like a veteran throughout this fortnight. She hasn't yet faced anyone ranked in the top thirty, though -- her biggest "threat" so far was a struggling world #33 Donna Vekic -- and actually lost her only previous meeting with Muchova in late 2019. Still, the fact that one of these ladies could be playing in her first Major final this weekend shows just how wide open this sport is.

Of course that favorite would be a severe underdog on Saturday, as she will either face 2019 champ Naomi Osaka or 23-time Slam winner Serena Williams who is trying for an eleventh time to make history. What is sure to be a blockbuster match between those two will be the first semi played Thursday, and will certainly set the bar high. Osaka, who has a slight edge in their head-to-head, thanks to that stellar win over Serena the 2018 U.S. Open final, is running a nineteen-match win streak that technically dates back to last February. Serena, meanwhile, has had some hiccups over the last few months, notching some surprising losses during the American hardcourt season -- and she's famously come up short when the stakes were highest for years. But while she looked shaky at points during her Melbourne campaign, she was solid in her win over second seed Simona Halep in the quarters. Could she finally break her jinx here? Well she has to get past Osaka first, but if she does, it'll be hard to stop her.

And while the women's draw is a tale of haves and have-nots, things are a lot more unfamiliar for the men. Sure, favorite Novak Djokovic, a winner here a record eight times already, is still alive and kicking, he's faced more challenges than he's used to. An injury in his third round against Taylor Fritz forced him to five sets, and he needed to go four against his next two opponents too. And while his semifinal opponent tonight is by far the lowest ranked player his faced this fortnight, world #114 Aslan Karatsev can absolutely not be overlooked. The qualifier made history as the first man or woman to reach a Major semifinal in his debut -- he's never made the main draw of any Slam before -- and his list of victims is impressive: Diego Schwartzman, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Grigor Dimitrov. Can he add the biggest prize to that list? Well, if Djokovic is still struggling with pain, there may never be a better chance to do it.

The bottom half of the men's draw features two more players looking to make history for themselves. Daniil Medvedev is looking for his second Major final, but this time he's in a much better position to come away with the title -- he did, after all, very nearly do it the last time. The young Russian is now riding a nineteen-match win streaks, with titles in Paris, London, and at the ATP Cup in his belt, and while he had a bit of a hiccup in the third round, going five sets against Marton Fucsovics, he's been largely unstoppable. He'll first face Stefanos Tsitsipas who staged the comeback of his career versus Rafael Nadal in the quarters -- down the first two sets he rallied in four-hour marathon to earn just his second win over the multiple record, but probably his most important. He'll have to overcome another losing record if he wants to make his first Slam final -- he's got a 1-5 record against Medvedev, but he's shown he's able to overcome history, and there may never be a better time to do it.

Whether we get a first-time champion this weekend or see another record set, we certainly will have a lot to talk about this year. We'll see if the Cinderellas and standouts in Melbourne will be able to keep their momentum up throughout the year, but hopefully, whatever happens, we've only seen the start of what they have to bring.

February 15, 2021

Never Saw Them Coming

We're getting down to the wire at this year's Australian Open, and like at any good Grand Slam, it's not only those you'd expect to be playing for a spot in the semis. Sure, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams have all battled through injury and have come out on the winning side of things -- so far, at least -- but there are a couple names who have faced big opponents and show no sign of slowing down now.

On the ladies side there are a couple standout players still standing. Maybe the least surprising is 25th seed Karolina Muchova, though even she's put in a showing that's worthy of note. A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon back in 2019 -- and a decent challenger to Serena at the U.S. Open that year -- she came into last season with a ton of momentum, but couldn't quite capitalize. This year she pulled out of the Gippsland draw with an injury, raising questions about how strong she'd be when the stakes were higher in Melbourne. But so far she's been on point, downing a resurgent in the first round and going on to beat compatriot Karolina Pliskova and an on-fire Elise Mertens after that. They've been tight straight-setters, though, with those last two going nearly two hours each, so she's going to have to turn things up against top-seeded Ash Barty in the next round, but she might just be able to do it.

Meanwhile, top-ranked doubles star Su-Wei Hsieh may have lost her opener in the paired draw, but she's more than making up for it on the singles scene. After stunning Tsvetana Pironkova, my pick for another Cinderella run, she's continued her dominance with wins over 2019 U.S. Open champ Bianca Andreescu and former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova. On Tuesday she'll take on third seed Naomi Osaka, one of the favorites to win this event, and will be a serious underdog. But even Naomi's admitted how hard it is to predict Hsieh's next move, which could mean an opportunity for the veteran.

And then there's Jessica Pegula, who's really coming into her own at this event. While the 26-year-old did win her lone title to date in 2019 and make the final last year in Auckland, she's never had much success at the Majors, her best showing a third round appearance in New York this past September, where she had two three-set wins over players ranked out of the top forty. But she opened her Australian Open campaign with a crushing win over a momentum-fueled Victoria Azarenka and on Monday stunned fifth seed Elina Svitolina, her first win over a player ranked in the top ten. The win earns her a date with good friend and fellow American Jen Brady, a woman she beat last year in "Cincinnatti", and while she may be the one without the seed next to her name, she could also have the know-how to cause yet another upset.

On the men's side, there have not surprisingly been fewer surprises, as most of the top seeds remain alive, if not kicking. But there's one notable exception to that, and it's all because of Grigor Dimitrov. The one-time world #3 has had his ups and downs over the years, winning the ATP Championship in 2017, dropping out of the top seventy after first round losses during the 2019 hardcourt season, then stunning Roger Federer at the U.S. Open that summer. He took the 18th seed in Melbourne, and faced a tough test off the bat, but beat former Major titleist Marin Cilic in straight sets in his opener. He got a little bit of a pass in the third round, when surprise New York semifinalist Pable Carreño Busta retired after losing the first sevent games, but his big win came in the fourth round against last year's finalist and newest member of the Big Boys' Club, Dominic Thiem. After the Austrian came back from two sets down to beat Nick Kyrgios a round prior, he wasn't able to rebound against Dimitrov, losing in three sets and in about two hours. And while the Bulgarian may be the favorite in his next round, he should know better than to rest too easy.

That's because his quarterfinal opponent is, by far, the biggest surprise of the Australian Open this year. Twenty-seven year old Aslan Karatsev has never made the main draw of a Grand Slam before, but qualified here after wins over Brandon Nakashima and Alexandre Muller in Doha. Then, in his Major debut, the 114th-ranked Russian crushed Egor Gerasimov, losing just one game that match, stunned Diego Schwartzman, and came back from two sets down to young Felix Auger-Aliassime to reach the quarterfinals. He's the first person to do that in his first outing on the big stage since 1996. And the fact that he did it at such a "ripe old age" is even more astonishing -- he's already won more tour-level matches here than he has in his entire career. It's hard to say what Karatsev will do with the pressure of a semifinal hanging before him, but it's safe to say it will be difficult for Dimitrov to figure him out too. And it could end up being the match of this tournament.