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.

No comments: