January 30, 2021

Gearing Up

Exhibitions are underway, warm-up events are about to start -- the Australian Open is finally on the horizon, folks! And what we see this coming week could give us a good idea of what we might expect at the first Grand Slam of the year -- not only in terms of the action on court, but also for what sporting events could look like in a still very different sort of world.

Yup, those are actual, real life fans in the stadium in Adelaide, watching Serena and Naomi battle it out. And they'll be there too when play starts in Melbourne next Monday -- officials announced this week that as many as 30,000 observers will be allowed at the event each day. That's about half the usual capacity of the Australian Open, but would still mark one of the biggest events since the COVID pandemic began.

In some ways, it makes sense that Australia would be the first site of somewhat normalized play -- already well-isolated from the rest of the world and having implemented some of the stictest lockdown measures, it's had fewer cases of the coronavirus in total than the U.S. has had deaths in just the past month, and less than a thousand fatalities in all. But that's not to say it's entirely in the clear, and some organizational hiccups have led to plenty of questions and consternation.

A spate of athletes -- and others -- who tested positive on arrival in Melbourne, plus anyone on their flights, were forced into a rigid two week quarantine and are only now getting back on actual courts. Some, like Paula Badosa, who got a positive test a week after touching down, may go straight from the hotel room to the match play, with no practice in between -- that's if she's well enough to compete at all. And, of course, there's no telling what might happen if more cases crop up as the main draws get underway.

Meanwhile this week, six separate tournaments will take place on the courts of Melbourne Park -- the ATP Cup, as well as the Grand Ocean Road and Murray River Cups for the men, and the Yarra Valley Classic and Gippsland and Grampians Trophy for the ladies. And it's the first time we'll see some big stars at work in a long time.

Ashleigh Barty, who other than an exhibition in Adelaide hasn't seen match play since the Australian last year, makes her return in a draw that features defending Melbourne champ Sofia Kenin and seven-time winner Serena Williams. And 2019 U.S. Open winner Bianca Andreescu hits the court for the first time since a knee injury took her out of that year's WTA Finals. And on the men's side Nick Kyrgios, who somehow became the voice of reason during the pandemic, is back in action for the Murray River crown.

And as interested as I am to see how these guys perform after such long hiatuses, it'll be even more worth watching whether these events go off without any major hitches. After all, the first priority is of course that everyone stays safe and that we get the virus under control. And hopefully officials have put in place all the steps we need to do that.

And just maybe sometime soon things will truly be back to normal.

January 17, 2021

And So It Begins...

The Australian Open is still three weeks away, but players have descended upon Melboure well ahead of time this year, ready to enter the bubble and subject themselves to a slew of guidelines implemented in the wake of the COVID pandemic. And, as could've been expected, not everything has gone according to plan.

Critter issues aside, though, seventy-two players and their teams have been forced to isolate in their hotel rooms for fourteen days after passengers on their flights to the event tested positive for the virus. That prevents them from practicing or training under the already-strict protocols put in place by officials -- non-quarantined players are allowed two hours a day on court, another two hours at the gym, and an hour to eat -- until just a week before play kicks off.

And while some have tried to make the best of the situation, many are understandably peeved. After all, they've already lost the warm-up events that traditionally come ahead of the Australian Open, so most haven't seen match play since October at least. And these added restrictions put them well behind those who were able to practice more normally.

There is certainly a feeling of the haves and have nots. Players like Novak Djokovic -- who, remember, already had COVID over the summer -- and Rafael Nadal flew straight to Adelaide, where they're playing an exhibition next week, and are allowed more time out of their rooms and have access to more facilities.

Still, the second any of these players got on a plane to travel halfway across the world, they had to know they were taking a risk. Many are complaining the rules changed "overnight" or that they weren't told they'd have to quarantine if any passenger on their flight tested positive. Apparently, they were willing to accept the consequences if someone in their immediate team was affected, but didn't expect to extend that courtesy more broadly.

Not all players are taking a chance, though. Madison Keys pulled out of the Open after testing positive for COVID, while Andy Murray with the same result looks doubtful. But on the other hand, there's Tennys Sandgren, who got a positive result just on Monday and was still allowed to cross the globe.

It all speaks to the difficulties of putting on such a big event during these uncertain times, and the challenges in making sure all payers have the same opportunities while keeping everyone safe and healthy. Nearly a year into this pandemic we still haven't gotten all the answers and should know there is no right solution. But for now, the Open will go on -- what it looks like is anyone's guess.

January 13, 2021

A Strong Opening Statement

Well the first tournaments of 2021 are officially in the books, and we sure were treated to some striking performances as we get ready for the Australian Open. From the Middle East to Florida, we saw a slew of stars kick off the year on a positive note, and it wasn't just those who walked away with the trophies that made the strongest statements.

That's not to take anything away from Aryna Sabalenka, who won her third straight tournament in Abu Dhabi. The often-streaky star has been on point for months, and made her way through a tough draw in the desert, with wins over Maria Sakkari -- who'd ousted top seed Sofia Kenin -- and 2020 standouts Elena Rybakina and Ons Jabeur on her way to the final. She was the clear favorite over Veronika Kudermetova, who stunned Elina Svitolina on the way to her first title match, and she didn't disappoint.

But young Marta Kostyuk also made a bit of a statement during the week. Barely ranked in double digits, the eighteen-year-old has spent most of her time on the ITF circuit, but she made the third round at the U.S. Open last year with wins over Daria Kasatkina and a seeded Anastasija Sevastova. She had her path cleared for her a bit in Abu Dhabi, with others taking care of threats like Jennifer Brady and Karolina Pliskova for her. But she held her ground well and if she keeps it up could be primed for more success to come.

Meanwhile in Antalya, Turkey, which for the past few years was held in the summer on grass just ahead of Wimbledon, we got to see a slew of Next Gen players take the hardcourts for a chance to wrack up some hardware before heading to Melbourne. But it wasn't top seeded Matteo Berrettini or former world #7 David Goffin making the headlines -- though the latter, at least, did make the semis, notching his first match wins since the U.S. Open. Instead the final saw his vanquisher, twenty-year-old Alex de Minaur, score a win over Alexander Bublik, winning the fourth title of his career and reminding us why he's the top ranked Australian on tour.

It's worth keeping an eye on Bublik this year too, though. While he injured his ankle in his semifinal match and had to retire after the first two games of the championship, he's the kind of guy who knows how to get under the top players' skin -- and not just because of his controversial serve style. Last year he pulled off wins over Denis Shapovalov and Gael Monfils and he was the one who ousted Berrettini in the quarters. He hasn't won a title yet, but if he'd been healthy I wouldn't have put an upset past him this time around.

Perhaps the biggest surprises, though, happened in Delray Beach. Not that we shouldn't have expected Poland's Hubert Hurkacz to find the success he did -- the fourth seed scored wins over Andrey Rublev and Dominic Thiem last year -- but he had to fight through a couple of true stand-outs to do it. Most obviously in the final against rising star Sebastian Korda, who only cracked the top two hundred after a Cinderella run at Roland Garros last fall. He notched wins over fifth seed Tommy Paul and former top-tenner John Isner -- his second straight victory over the big man -- to make his first tour final. While he ran out of steam in Wednesday's match, he continues to be one high on the radar.

And then, of course, is the true wonder of the week -- Christian Harrison, the 26-year-old ranked #789 in the world who'd only won two tour-level main draw matches in his entire caree before this trip to Florida. After eight surgeries from 2009 to 2018, though he finally seemed to get his footing, powering through qualifying rounds and stunning top-seeded Cristian Garin early in his campaign. He put up a fight versus Hurkacz in the semis, though, and even teamed with his brother Ryan to make the doubles final. And while this one result should give him a nice boost back up the rankings, the real takeaway is the feel-good story he's left in our cores.

Of course these were only the opening salvos of the 2021 tennis season, and it will be a few weeks before play picks back up in Australia. But it certainly seems like we've gotten off to a good start. And hopefully there's a lot more of what we've seen still to come.

January 11, 2021

Desert Training

I'm still not sure I entirely understand all the reasoning behind the move, but with the pandemic throwing our lives into disarray in so many ways, I suppose rearranging the schedule ahead of this year's Australian Open is the least strange thing that's happened in the past year.

And so we find ouselves at the start of the qualifying rounds for the first Grand Slam of 2021, held not the week before the main draw kicks off, but nearly a month ahead of time -- and not on the courts of Melbourne Park, but in the heat of the Middle East, with the men battling in Doha while the women face off in Dubai.

The conditions are oddly similar -- it is, after all, the heat of the summer Down Under -- but it still remains to be seen how those who make it through these rounds will fare when they make the trip down to Australia. Still, there are a couple early results, both from players new to the game and those who've been around a while, that might be reason to sit up and take notice.

The Women

Part of the young guard ready to take up the reins, twenty-year-old Kaja Juvan is the top seed in the women's qualifying draw, and after a year in which she scored wins over Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber, she might be ready to capitalize. But it's also worth watching Renata Zarazua, who made history at Roland Garros last year as the first Mexican to win a main draw match at that event. She could challenge Juvan for one of those open slots here, too. There's also teenager Clara Burel, who stunned Juvan at the French last year to make the third round. She'll face off against Anna Kalinskaya to make the final round.

Maybe highest profile of the young bunch, though -- at least in the U.S. -- is nineteen year old Caty McNally, who has won a handful of Grand Slam matches already in her short career -- she also made the quarters in doubles at the French last year. She's been overshadowed a bit by her doubles partner, Coco Gauff, and might just be ready to break out on her own now.

Of course, there are a couple of more familiar, or at least more battle-worn, faces in the mix trying to make another run for glory too. Chief among them is Sara Errani, a quarterfinalist in Melbourne back in 2014 and 2015, but now ranked #131 in the world. She had to fight for her win in the first round of qualifying and next plays a Georgina Garcia Perez, a woman who's only ever played one Major main draw, but is coming off a double bagel victory in her last match. There's also Genie Bouchard, one of my comeback stories of 2020. Her semifinal run here seems a lifetime ago, but she's making a real effort to make herself relevant again, and I'd like to see her keep going.

But if you want my pick for the vet to watch, it's got to be Tsvetana Pironkova. The undisputed Cinderella of the U.S. Open last year, it seems wrong that she has to endure qualifying rounds in Melbourne, but she crushed her first round opponent and seems poised to continue her comeback. Whatever happens though, I imagine we're going to see a lot more of her over the next few months.

The Men

Many of the young men I was hoping could make a statement this year, unfortunately, will have to wait a little longer to be heard. Brandon Nakashima, who capped off 2020 with a Challenger title in Orlando, fell in three sets to Russia's Aslan Karatsev, while Lorenzo Musetti, who beat Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori in Rome, squandered an early lead to lose his first round in the qualifying draw. Even Thiago Seyboth wild, my pick for one to watch this year, fell just short, losing in a third set tiebreak to veteran Robin Haase.

But not all hope is lost for the men. Seventeen year old Carlos Alcaraz, who stunned Albert Ramos in Rio last year, took one step closer to making his first main draw at a Slam with his win Sunday. While he's expected to meet second seeded Hugo Dellien if he advances past the next round, something tells me he might just be able to add another upset on his resume.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are a couple of veterans worth watching in the men's qualifying draw, too, though their prospects may be a little more tenuous than the tried-and-true women. First off there's Viktor Troicki, who peaked just outside the top ten nearly a decade ago and now sits below the #200 in the world. He hasn't qualified for a Major in two years, and even when he was playing them regularly, he never got past the fourth round. He won his first match in Doha, and it'll be interesting to see if he can find what it takes to get a few more wins in now.

And hot-headed Bernard Tomic, once heralded as the next big thing in the sport, has only won one match at a Slam since 2017. The one-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist hasn't played at all since last March, when he lost early at a Challenger event in Monterrey, but did notch a win in qualifying over Jozek Kovalik earlier today. There are no more seeds left in his section of the draw, so the path's wide open for him, if he chooses to take it.

I know I don't often spend a lot of time covering qualifying events, but a variety of circumstances make the results this week seem a little more worthy of our attention. And the fact that we've seen some truly inspirational performances recently from the players who've emerged from these draws makes them even more noteable.

Will any of these players stand a chance when they hit the courts in Melbourne? Who knows. But if we've learned anything over the last year it's that [almost] anything is possible. And wit a little bit of luck, maybe one of these guys will be the one that makes a splash.

January 3, 2021

A Grand, If Curious, Kick-Off

Well, guys, we've made it. After the long slog that was 2020, we're finally in the New Year, and while things are far from completely back to normal, we're starting to see the gears turn again.

There may not be a traditional lead-up to the Australian Open -- there's no action in Brisbane and the qualifying tournaments will be held, weirdly, in Dubai -- but after much speculation and concern, the first Grand Slam of the year is hopefully within sight, albeit a little further away than ususual. And we're just a few days away from the first matches of this strange and shifted season.

The women kick off their action in Abu Dhabi, with last year's Australian Open champ Sofia Kenin and world #5 Elina Svitolina leading the field. It will certainly be interesting to see if my 2020 Player of the Year can come out of the gates hot, but there will be plenty of competition looking to halt her momentum. Not least of whom is Aryna Sabalenkra, riding a nine-match win streak into the new year. But there's also Karolina Pliskova, who honestly had a pretty disappointing season last year, and comes into 2021 with a new start and a new coach.

There's plenty of other talent in the field, too. Surprise French Open semifinalist Nadia Podoroska will be back in action, with a spotlight on her for the first time. And Maria Sakkari, too, a smidge off her career high ranking, but coming off a year where she bagged wins over Svitolina and Serena Williams to boot. Any of these ladies could make a play to start the year off on the right foot.

The men, meanwhile, will split their action in two very different parts of the world. Matteo Berrettini, David Goffin, and Fabio Fognini take the top seeds in Antalya, Turkey, an event moved up from June and onto hard courts, and could find themselves vulnerable to early upsets -- Fognini, for one, has only won one match since last year's Australian Open.

Instead I'd keep an eye out for Jannik Sinner, fresh off his first career title in Sofia -- the nineteen year old seems to be far outplaying his #36 ranking. Even one-time Roland Garros semifinalist Marco Cecchinato, who is trying to climb his way back into the top tiers of the sport. His specialty may be clay, but he might just be able to surprise us with a little luck.

A little closer to [my] home, there's more action going on in Delray Beach, another tournament that's moved up in the calendar. Three former titlists will hit the courts in Florida to try to make lightning strike again: Reilly Opelka, who snuck in a win here last year, before the season shut down; Frances Tiafoe, who won his only ATP crown here in 2018 but managed a Challenger win in Parma near the end of last season; and 2016 champ Sam Querrey, trying to rebound after getting fined for breaking quarantine protocol at the St. Petersburg Open last fall.

Delray will also mark the return of John Isner, who suffered some big defeats to cap off his 2020 season and ended the year at his lowest ranking since 2016. That might get him halfway to the reckoning I called for at the start of last year, but these days he certainly seems to be making more headlines for his controversial mask comments and political views than for his performance on court.

On the other hand, in what's been quite a reversal for me, I've suddenly found myself rooting hard for Andy Murray, who's taking a wildcard in Florida. Not sure if it's his pro-BLM stance or just the desire to see a great comeback, but I'd actually be more than happy to see him walk away with a title here.

Of course, it's going to be interesting to see how any of these events play out, as there is still so much strange and unusual about how we live these days. But there is light at the end of this tunnel, and hopefully this kick-off will just be the first rays of sunshine to peak through.

After all, it's 2021 now, and things can only get better from here!