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.

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