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.

February 13, 2021

A Chance to Rebound

Something kind of cool is going on over on Court 10 at Melbourne Park.

While play at the Australian Open remains in full swing, and a couple dozen men and women are still battling it out for the first Grand Slam of the year, some of those already eliminated -- some who were expected to last much longer in the main draws -- are back in action for a new WTA 250 event.

It makes sense to get a little more out of the players when possible -- so many traveled halfway around the world, endured a strict quarantine with little opportunity to practice or rack up ranking points, only to lose their first or second match and, in another world, be sent packing. Sure, losing early is a risk you run at any tournament, but under these particular circumstances, it feels especially like a waste.

So many of the women who didn't make it to the second week of the Open are now vying for the Phillip Island Trophy, and while winning here may not be quite as fulfilling as bringing home a Major, at least there's a quick opportunity to rebound from their recent, sometimes crushing losses.

Former top tenner Daria Kasatkina has had more than a couple setbacks in her efforts to regain top form, but she's had some promising moments too. She beat seeded Polona Hercog last week in the Gippsland draw and a strong Elena Rybakina last year in Ostrava. She had chances in her second round against red-hot Aryna Sabalenka, getting an early break to start the match, but ultimately fell in straights. She kicked off her Phillip Island campaign with a second straight win over Katie Boulter and next faces comeback queen Varvara Gracheva. It's not out of the question to see her make a deep run.

Young Anastasia Potapova similarly looked strong early in her third round against Serena Williams on the big stage, getting a couple breaks in the first set and even an opportunity to serve it out. But she couldn't keep her level up after dropping the opener in a tiebreak and ultimately lost in straights. She proved she has talent, though, and could captialize this week -- she'll open against Rebecca Peterson, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the upset.

And then there's Danielle Collins, a one-time semifinalist in Melbourne and a quarterfinalist last year at the French. She'd already beaten sixth seed Karolina Pliskova at the Yarra Valley Classic, and I'm frankly surprised she wasn't able to do it again in the second round of the Open. She kicks off against either veteran Varvara Lepchenko or Nao Hibino, and is the heavy favorite against either.

Interestingly, though, things haven't got the way of the favorites so far. Sloane Stephens continues to struggle with form and after a loss to Yulia Putintseva at the Open, she lost her first round to Gracheva. And maybe more surprisingly, Nadia Podoroska and Anastasija Sevastova also dropped their first rounds.

But there's an opportunity for others -- Sofia Kenin, who failed early in her bid to defend her first Grand Slam trophy, takes on little-known Australian Olivia Gadecki on Sunday, while 2019 U.S. Open champ Bianca Andreescu, unable to handle a deep challenge from Su-Wei Hsieh as she tried to stage her own comeback, will open against Madison Brengle.

Can these ladies come back and show us what they're really made of? Well, this is as good a chance as any to do it. And if they can make some hay out of what's obviously a complicated situation Down Under, it might all be worth it.

February 11, 2021

Across Generations

There's been a lot said over the last several years, especially in the men's game, about when the long-dominant players will finally hand over the reins to the next generation of tennis greats. But if we've seen anything in the first few days of the Australian Open, it's that it's not only the Big Three who are unwilling to go yet softly into that good night -- and that there are some new young guns in the mix ready to take the spotlight from those we've been championing so loud.

I'll start with the result from last night (this morning...) that most perfectly pairs the two ends of the spectrum -- defending champion Sofia Kenin against veteran Estonian Kaia Kanepi. As I mentioned a few days ago, this wasn't a match I would've watched closely, but boy am I glad I did. The 35-year-old, coming off a runner-up finish in the Gippsland draw with wins over red-hot Aryna Sabalenka and Ekaterina Alexandrova, was a strong underdog in her second round, but you wouldn't have known it to watch her play. With ten aces, an eighty percent first serve percentage and more winners than errors, she needed barely an hour to score the win against the young American. And with a next round against a recently-struggling Donna Vekic, I like her chances to keep going. Whether she'll keep her momentum going, who knows -- this is the only Major where Kanepi hasn't reached the quarters -- but she's certainly hungry to give it a try.

Another veteran who showed his chops on Thursday, Feliciano Lopez is also well off his career high ranking, hanging out in the low double digits after peaking at #12 in the world six years ago. But if his 75 straight Grand Slam main draw appearances don't prove his continued relevance, perhaps his performance against 31st seed Lorenzo Sonego does. Down two sets to the man who stunned Novak Djokovic just a few months ago, Feli found a way to rally and pulled out the last three sets in a match that lasted over three hours. In what will be his first third round in Melbourne since 2016, and the road only gets harder from here -- his next opponent, Andrey Rublev, has been on fire over the past year, and while he was tested in his second round, I imagine he'll come out swinging against the Spaniard. But if Lopez can recoup after his marathon last night, perhaps he can surprise us again.

Last among the under-the-radar Old Guard standouts is top doubles star Su-Wei Hsieh who, at #71 on the singles scene, was certainly expected to have her biggest successes when partnered up. But after what I thought was a pretty astounding win over 2020 Comeback Queen Tsvetana Pironkova in the first round, she took on 2019 U.S. Open champ Bianca Andreescu, who was playing her first event in some fifteen months, and was wholly on point. The 35-year-old, who's never made it past the fourth round at a Slam on her own, got off to a strong start against the Canadian, fifteen years her junior, and in under ninety minutes was able to capitalize on the rust that had accumulated after her long hiatus. She opens up Friday's play against qualifier Sara Errani, whose run to the French Open final in 2012 seems so, so long ago. While it won't be a walk in the park by any means, it's certainly a more manageable ask than what she's already battled.

Of course, it wasn't only the veterans pulling off big wins, and as at every Grand Slam we've already seen a peak of the talent that's still to come. Twenty-year-old Kaja Juvan, who beat Venus Williams last year in Acapulco and stunned Angelique Kerber in the first round of the French Open, was the top seed in the qualifying rounds for Melbourne and managed to advance without dropping a set. She got a bit of a pass in her opener against thirteenth seeded Johanna Konta, who was up a set but had to retire with an ab injury, and her second round against Mayar Sherif was filled with even more drama -- the exhausting two and a half hour plus match left everything on the floor for both players, but ultimately ended with the young Slovenian as the winner. She's not more challenges ahead, though, with a tough Jennifer Brady waiting for her in the third round. I'm not sure she'll recover in time, but I'm hoping her performance is a sign that we've only started to see what she can do.

And then there's Mackenzie McDonald who, at 25, admittedly isn't necessarily "young" anymore -- sorry, millennials -- but at least young in experience. Though he had a brief stint in the top sixty back in 2019 and even made the fourth round at Wimbledon the year before, he's had trouble staying consistent and currently sits just inside the top two hundred. But he has had some nice wins over the years -- my dear Juan Martin Del Potro in Delray Beach, Milos Raonic in Shanghai, and Borna Coric in the second round here on Thursday. It was his first top twenty-five win in quite some time and with his next round against Lloyd Harris, a man who went three hours in his five-setter against Alexei Popyrin in his last match, he might just be able to get the better of the sort-of-favorite. And a good showing there might help him set the stage for an even bigger year to come.

February 9, 2021

Big Wins and Bigger Opportunities

The first round of this year's Australian Open is in the books, and we've already seen a slew of surprises and standouts. And though most of the favorites have had winning starts -- even those we haven't seen in a while, even those who haven't won in a while -- not all the seeds made it out unscatched. And perhaps we've only seen the start of what those who beat them can do.

I'll start with the first big upset we saw this event, though perhaps it wasn't the most surprising. Tenth seeded Gael Monfils has struggled since the end of lockdown, losing four straight matches to end the 2020 season, suffering a next injury, and kicking back off with a loss to Matteo Berrettini in his only match at the ATP Cup. His first round opponent, meanwhile, far from a household name, was pretty active at the end of last year. Finland's Emil Ruusuvuori, a former Junior Masters champ who scored his first ATP top ten win over Dominic Thiem in Davis Cup action back in 2019, didn't have any major upsets last year, but did get his first Grand Slam victory at the U.S. Open, scored a win over Jannik Sinner, before that teen's breakout, and reached the semis at Nur-Sultan. Still ranked #86 in the world, he was a deep underdog against Monfils, but held tight after losing the first set and battled through nearly four hours to get the win. He'll next face Spain's Pedro Martinez, actually a spot below him in the rankings and someone he's beaten twice at Challengers events. If he can keep his streak going, he could set himself up for a deep run here.

Another one to watch is 20-year-old American Ann Li, who reached the Wimbledon Girls' final back in 2017 and was able to notch a few wins at the Majors last year, upsetting thirteenth seeded Alison Riske last year in New York. But she really had a break through last week in the Grampians draw, notching a surprisingly easy win over Sorana Cirstea in the quarters before a stunning victory over world #24 Jennifer Brady in the semis. While what would have been her first WTA final wasn't contested, the run helped her to a career high ranking of #69 in the world heading into the Open, and she didn't disappoint in her first match out the gate. Against veteran Shuai Zhang in the first round, she dropped just two games -- albeit on her own serve -- and rolled to the win in under fifty minutes. She'll next meet Alizé Cornet, a one-time world #11 who did beat Sofia Kenin last year in "Cincy", but if Li plays like she's been playing, I like her chances to get this win too.

Of course the big surprise of these early days came from another American who might have scored the biggest upset yet. Jessica Pegula, who really hit her stride last year with a wins over Caroline Wozniacki on her way to the Auckland final and Jennifer Brady and Aryna Sabalenka in her "Cincy" quarters run, took a set off Sofia Kenin this past week too. She's shown she's got talent, but I really didn't expect her to get the better of Victoria Azarenka like she did. One of the best comeback stories of last year, the former #1 made the final of the U.S. Open and Ostrava after capturing her first title in four years at the Western & Southern. She may have pulled out of the Grampians draw last week, but most of us thought that was to rest up for the Open, not because of any serious issue. Still, after climbing to a 5-2 lead, Vika needed two medical timeouts and couldn't get her bearings back. Pegula finished off the win in two sets, setting up a date with wildcard Sam Stosur, a champion in New York nearly a decade ago. It'll be daunting to go up against the vet, who did beat her just in 2019, but if she holds her ground, Pegula could be on her way to her best Slam showing yet.

Some of these wins were certainly more surprising than others, but any one of them could set the stage for something big for the victors. We'll see if they can hold on to the momentum in the coming days. After all, anything can happen Down Under, and it's up to them to make the most of it.

February 7, 2021

Australian Open 2021 Preview: Round by Round

Happy Australian Open Eve, everyone!

And as I've said ahead of any major-small-m event over the last several months, it's hard to believe we've finally made it.

Of course, a lot of questions still hang over this year's first Major-big-M, from how players will fare coming straight from a week of hard-hitting tune-up events, to what 30,000 people in the stands will look like post-lockdown, to what happens if someone else tests positive. But while we've already had some disruptions, things have so far generally progressed as well as we could have hoped. So maybe we might just come out of this in one piece.

Here's hoping so anyway.

And this year, I'm going to highlight what might be some of the most exciting matches we'll see in the first round ... and potential match-ups that could make for some real required viewing later down the line.

Of course, there's no telling whether these battles will truly come to be -- if my predictive skills from last year continue, most likely won't -- and I might highlight potential third rounds that completely obviate one of my fourth round picks.

I'm not going to commit myself to choosing a particular number of matches per round -- after all, while there can only possibly be one final pairing, there may be several I'd love to see. And while there will always be a slew of good fights in the middle rounds, I'll probably have trouble picking them out now. I promise not to go entirely by the seedings, but in some cases it will be nearly impossible to avoid. As with everything these days, it's all just a grand experiment.

So let's see how this goes, shall we?



As is often the case, the women's draw is wide open this year, and while there are certainly favorites, there's a lot of opportunity to shake things up a bit.

First Round

Elena Rybakina (17) vs. Vera Zvonareva: The 21-year-old Kazakh was one of the hottest players on tour at the start of last year, making the final at four of the first five tournaments she played, taking no time off in between. She slowed down a bit after the lockdown, and did lose her first match in the Grampians draw this year, so she could be vulnerable against the two-time Major finalist. Zvonareva made the third round at the Yarra Valley Classic, pushing former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova to three sets. This could be a chance for the veteran to make a big statement.

Elise Mertens (18) vs. Leylah Fernandez: Mertens is a sleeper at any event she plays, quietly making the quarters at the U.S. Open last year and taking the title at the Gippsland event this past week, beating Elina Svitolina on the way. A semifinalist in Melbourne back in 2018, she's more than comfortable on this court. But Fernandez is a rising star in this sport, with a win over Belinda Bencic and a couple versus Sloane Stephens in the past year. It's a shame one of these ladies has to lose early, but it sure will be fun to see who wins.

Karolina Muchova (25) vs. Jelena Ostapenko: The seeded Czech had a strong season in 2019, winning a title in Seoul, making the final in Prague, and reaching the quarters at Wimbledon. She was doing well at the Gippsland event too, but pulled out of her quarterfinal match with an injury. Hopefully she's recovered in time to make this one a match. After all, Ostapenko, who struggled since her breakthrough at the French four years ago, finally seems to have her game back -- she won her first matches at Roland Garros since that title run last fall, beating Karolina Pliskova, and took a set off Elina Svitolina in the Gippsland third round. If these ladies are at the top of their games, it could set the tone for a solid season.

Ons Jabeur (27) vs. Andrea Petkovic: Jabeur had her breakthrough here last year when she reached the quarters with wins over Johanna Konta, Caroline Garcia, Qiang Wang, and Caroline Wozniacki. She's now at a career-high ranking, but obviously has a lot of points to defend. Petkovic meanwhile is far from the top of her game -- she made the quarters at three Majors way back in 2011 -- but always a strong force. She may not prove to be a roadblock for Jabeur, but she'll certainly put on a good match for us.

Second Round

Bianca Andreescu (8) vs. Tsvetana Pironkova: This is the first time we've seen the 2019 U.S. Open champ in action in more than a year -- she pulled out of the Grampians draw last minute to focus on the Open. Meanwhile, Pironkova has been grinding away in her comeback, stunningly making the quarters in New York last year and battling through qualies for this event. She beat an inexplicably seeded Donna Vekic at the Yarra Valley Classic too, and might just be ready to take advantage of any holes in Andreescu's game. After all, the Canadian's rise up the rankings was swift and dizzying, and there's no proof yet she has staying power.

Sofia Kenin (4) vs. Kaia Kanepi: Not long ago I would've thought this would be a walk in the park for the defending champion, but the veteran Kanepi had a major resurgence this past week in the Gippsland draw. After ending Aryna Sabalenka's red hot win streak, she went on to defeat Ekaterina Alexandrova to make her first final since 2013. And she's had success at Slams in the past, reaching the quarters of every one but the Australian twice. I'm not calling for the upset just yet, but this one could be more of a fight than we expect.

Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Coco Gauff: No one wants to see the sixteen-year-old American in their section of the draw, especially not so early. Gauff has marked some of her biggest wins on the biggest stages, taking out Venus Williams, Johanna Konta, and of course Naomi Osaka here last year. She's not Kryptonite, though -- she lost to world #371 Katie Boulter this week at the Gippsland event -- so the on-paper favorite should take solace. Svitolina, after all, has been a staple in the top ten for four years, and while she's picked up more than a dozen trophies, including ones at the year-end championships and at Premier events like Rome, she's yet to even make the final of a Major. Surviving this test could be crucial to changing that now.

Third Round

Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Ekaterina Alexandrova (29): I had my doubts about how Barty would do when she took the court again after her nearly one-year absence, but she surprised me with a title at the Yarra Valley Classic, beating Garbiñe Muguruza in the final. But she could really be tested by the talented Russian ranked well below her ability. Alexandrova picked up her first career trophy a year ago in Shenzhen, beating Qiang Wang, Elena Rybakina, and Garbiñe Muguruza on the way. While she hasn't had a real breakthrough at the Majors, she did beat Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open last year, and this past week stunned both Iga Swiatek and Simona Halep in the Gippsland draw. If they both make it this far, she could give the top seed a run for her money here too.

Victoria Azarenka (12) vs. Maria Sakkari (20): These two both pulled off something last year that few women have -- they each beat Serena Williams, Sakkari in the upset of her career at the Western & Southern and Vika in her comeback capstone in the U.S. Open semis. They might have met each other in the Grampians semis, but Azarenka withdrew ahead of the Open. Sakkari, meanwhile, lost a tight match to Anett Kontaveit to miss out on the final, but perhaps that will give her a little extra rest as she looks for a big result at a Major. And I have a feeling this potential match-up could be a good one.

Johanna Konta (13) vs. Jennifer Brady (22): The 25-year-old American may be the on-paper underdog here, but she's on a bit of a roll. After breaking through with her very first title in Lexington last year and reaching the semis in New York, she made it to the semis in the Grampians draw. Konta, meanwhile, who made the quarters of three Majors in 2019 -- plus the semis in Paris, has been a little more quiet since lockdown ended, this week gettin upset by Irina-Camelia Begu in the Gippsland third round. I wouldn't be surprised now to see an upset again.

Fourth Round

Naomi Osaka (3) vs. Garbiñe Muguruza (14): It's easy to have missed it, but the third seed essentially hasn't lost a match since February -- she withdrew from the "Cincy" final before her impactful run to the title in New York and was on point throughout her Gippsland campaign, pulling out again to make sure she was in form for the Open. Muguruza, meanwhile, was on fire at the Yarra Valley Classic, losing just ten games before the final, though she did eventually drop in that event's final. Weirdly, these two top stars have never faced each other before, and if they both make it to this round, you can bet it will be a battle. And the winner could really make her case for taking home the title.

Aryna Sabalenka (7) vs. Serena Williams (10): Don't adjust your screens -- that's not a typo. Sabalenka is, in fact, ranked and seeded higher than Serena. And for good reason -- the often steaky player put together a fifteen-match win streak before losing her opening round at the Gippsland event. Serena, meanwhile, had been looking solid before pulling out of the Yarra Valley semis with a shoulder injury. Strangely, these two have never met, but I imaging if they both make it this far -- which is not a given, Sabalenka could face talented Grampians finalist Ann Li in the third round -- we could see some heavy hitting and masterful points. And with a spot in the quarters on the line, they're going to want to bring it.


Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Nadia Podoroska: As mentioned above Svitolina is still trying for that big breakthrough at a Major, and she may have to face a rematch of last year's French quarterfinal to do it. Of course the still-unseeded Podoroska would likely have to pull off a couple of big upsets to do it -- potentialy Sofia Kenin in the third round, Jennifer Brady or Johanna Konta a round later -- but she's shown her Cinderella run at Roland Garros was no fluke. This past week at the Yarra Valley Classic, she stunned Petra Kvitova and very nearly took out former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova in the quarters. A lot of stars would have to align to make this one happen, but I'd love to see it come true.

Shelby Rogers vs. Danielle Collins: This one might be an even harder sell, but these hard-hitting Americans have pulled off more than a few big wins in the past. Rogers, of course, stunned Serena Williams in Lexington last year and then went on to beat Petra Kvitova to make the U.S. Open quarters. Collins, meanwhile, a semifinalist here in 2019, beat Ons Jabeur and Garbiñe Muguruza on her way to the final eight at the French and this past week got the better of Karolina Pliskova -- and nearly Serena -- at the Yarra Valley Classic. They've got plenty of challenges to make this match-up a reality -- Collins should get a rematch with Pliskova in the second round -- but both have proven they can pull off upsets under pressure.


Simona Halep (2) vs. Naomi Osaka (3): Both these ladies put together impressive win streaks at the end of last year, Halep on the European clay and Osaka on the American hardcourts, and while neither may have the top seed in Melbourne, it sure feels like either one could be a favorite for the title. There will be challenges, of course -- Halep may face a rematch of her rematch against Iga Swiatek in the fourth round, while Osaka as mentioned above has some tough matches early. But if they can get past those threats, they're in a good position to give us the match so many are hoping for.

Petra Kvitova (9) vs. Iga Swiatek (15): In a parallel universe, things don't go quite as planned for the top seeds -- Swiatek keeps her streak alive versus Halep and Kvitova avenges her loss to Osaka in the final here two years ago. In that world we get the first ever meeting between two fan favorites, with the two-time Wimbledon champ taking on the most recently minted Major champion for a spot in the final. It's hard to say who I'd be rooting for in that scenario, but I do know it'd be an amazing match.


Sofia Kenin (4) vs. Garbiñe Muguruza (14): The whole world loves a rematch and this year the draws worked out so that if we were to see last year's finalists play each other again at the Australian Open, it would have to be in the title match. Of course, Muguruza did just get revenge over Kenin in the Yarra Valley Classic last week, so there's reason to believe she might have figured out the key to what eluded her last time. But the American's run to the final in Paris -- especially after that drubbing in Rome -- proves you can never count her out.

Serena Williams (10) vs. Victoria Azarenka (12): No Australian Open preview would be complete without pointing out again that Serena is still looking for that elusive, record-breaking 24th Grand Slam title. And if she's going to get a chance to win it, I'd love to see her face off against Victoria Azarenka. The Belorusian's comeback last year was cemented, after all, by her win over Serena in the U.S. Open semis, the first time she ever beat her friend and long-time rival at a Major. Could she do it again? Well this is the site of her two Slam trophies, so there's no better venue for her. Whatever the case, if both these ladies make it this far, you should get ready for some fireworks.


It was way harder to wade through the men's draw without getting too duplicative since, as we know, the game has been so dominated by a handful of guys for so many years. And, as it turns out, the draws mostly worked to the advantage of the top seeds -- and not just those who've taken home the big trophies before. But that's not to say there isn't room for some surprises, and maybe just a little bit of hope that some underdogs can sneak through.

First Round

Denis Shapovalov (11) vs. Jannik Sinner: Well, now, this just isn't fair. Nineteen-year-old Sinner, a quarterfinalist at the French Open last year, just missed being seeded, but after his first career title in Sofia is just a stone's throw out of seeding territory and is coming off his first title in Sofia last year and another at the Great Ocean Road Open last week, that ranking is rising and fast. Shapovalov, who broke into the top ten after his own run to the quarters at the U.S. Open plus a semi showing in Rome, is weirdly at 21 years of age the elder statesman of this pairing, but went oh-for-two in ATP Cup action. Still, he's a strong hitter and may not let lack of momentum get him down. And as much as I'd like to see both these guys go far, whoever comes out on top may set the stage for a big event ahead.

Pablo Carreño Busta (15) vs. Kei Nishikori: PCB has had a solid couple of months, backing up his asterisk of a win over Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open with a stunning upset of Denis Shapovalov and a run to the quarterfinals in Paris. He also helped Spain to the semis at the ATP Cup, eventually losing to Fabio Fognini in three sets. For his efforts he'll face off against an on-the-mend Nishikori, a finalist in New York what seems like ages ago. The now-veteran man from Japan has had a more difficult time with this comeback, but nevertheless could cause some surprises against the seeded favorite. And it feels like this is as good a place as any for him to stage an upset.

Matteo Berrettini (9) vs. Kevin Anderson: I admit I have been skeptical about the popular Italian's spot in the top ten amid the ranking freeze, but I am happy to say he's starting to win me over. He pulled off upsets over Gael Monfils and Dominic Thiem at the ATP Cup, leading Italy to the final. But he'll still be challenged by the two-time Major finalist, who's trying to battle back from multiple right knee surgeries. Anderson's had some success, too, beating Daniil Medvedev last year in Vienna and Feliciano Lopez this past week at the Great Ocean Road Open. If Berrettini's level slips even a little, it could be a chance for the South African to shine.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Jeremy Chardy: Okay, Djokovic is going to win this match. He has a 13-0 record against Chardy, won his last fourteen rounds at the Australian Open, and hasn't dropped a first match at a Major since 2006. But let's give a moment of respect to what Chardy's done already this year. The former top-25 player -- and a doubles finalist at the French Open in 2019 -- he went 2-5 last year, capped by a heartbreaking loss to world #170 Jurij Rodionov in a four-and-a-half-plus hour first round at the French. But he's been on a bit of a roll in 2021, making the semis in Antalya and notching wins over Marin Cilic and Taylor Fritz on his way to the Murray River Open semis. It's a shame he probably won't be able to keep his streak alive in Melbourne, but it'll be fun to see him try.

Frances Tiafoe vs. Stefano Travaglia: You know Tiafoe is one of my favorites to pick up the tennis mantle for the next generation, and he had moments late last year when he seemed ready to do it, winning a Challengers title in Parma and making the fourth round of the U.S. Open. Unfortunately, though, he opens his campaign at the Open against the Great Ocean Road Open finalist, who beat Alexander Bublik and Hubert Hurkacz on the way. Travaglia may have historically had his best results on clay, but his performance this past week suggests that's changing. The winner of this match, might not go much farther -- he'll likely face Novak Djokovic next -- but a solid performance will nevertheless put him in good stead the rest of the year.

Second Round

Milos Raonic (14) vs. Corentin Moutet: Young Moutet may be ranked at a pretty mediocre #80 right now, but he seems pretty primed for a breakout soon. This past week at the Murray River Open he scored wins over Frances Tiafoe and second seed Grigor Dimitrov on his run to the semis. Raonic, meanwhile, seemed to be back on the rise for much of last season, making the quarters in Melbourne and the final at the "Cincinnati" Masters. He did go one-and-one at the ATP Cup this week, though, and lost his only contest against Moutet last year in Doha -- the Frenchman rode that victory all the way to the final as a qualifier. Despite the ranking disparity, this could be a pretty evenly matched fight and if we see an upset, it could set the stage for a big year for one of these guys.

Taylor Fritz (27) vs. Reilly Opelka: Fritz seems to have had his big rise up the rankings while I wasn't looking, beating the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev in 2019, bringing him into the top thirty. But while he did make it to the final in Acapulco last year, he lost more matches than he won that season. His big serving compatriot, though, ranked just out of seeding range, managed a title in Delray and got wins over Daniil Medvedev, Diego Schwartzman and Matteo Berrettini. He lost all of his first rounds at Majors, but if he is able to break that streak to set up this match, it could be a great opportunity for him to finally make a statement.

Ugo Humbert (29) vs. Nick Kyrgios: The young Frenchman was one of my under the radar stars to watch, after a season that brought him titles in Auckland and Antwerp as well as wins over Denis Shapovalov, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev. He didn't come out of the gate swinging quite so hard this year, but still could put up a good show against the unseeded Kyrgios, who is nothing if not a showman. The hometown hero stayed off tour most of last year due to the pandemic and notched a few wins at the Murray River Open -- will that be enough to make a deep run here? Who knows, but you can be sure you'll see some sparks fly however far he goes.

Third Round

Stefanos Tsitsipas (5) vs. Carlos Alcaraz: The seventeen-year-old Spanish qualifier may only be ranked just inside the top 150, and he may be playing in his first Major main draw, but he's proven over the last year that he's a true talent. After a stunning defeat of Albert Ramos in Rio, he picked up three Challengers titles in the back half of the year and he stunned top seeded David Goffin at the Great Ocean Road Open this past week. It might be a lot to ask him to make the third round in his Slam debut, but he could do it, and a match against Tsitsipas, who was two-and-oh at the ATP Cup, could give us a real sense of what he's capable of.

Fabio Fognini (16) vs. Tennys Sandgren: Last week I would not have given the seeded Italian a second glance at this event -- the thirty-three year old lost eight of his last nine matches last year, including one against Sandgren in the Australian Open fourth round. But he seemed to get his game together at the ATP Cup this past week, notching wins over Benoit Paire and Pablo Carreño Busta on the way to the final. The controversial American, meanwhile, who was similarly unproductive at the end of 2020, lost in the second round of the Great Ocean Road Open after a spectacular outburst in his opener. Those recent results might set the stage for Fognini to avenge last year's loss.

Fourth Round

Diego Schwartzman (8) vs. Felix Auger-Aliassime (20): The fan favorite Argentine is coming off the best year of his career -- his first Major semi, his first Masters final, his first win over Rafael Nadal. The young Canadian, meanwhile, is coming off a final showing at the Murray River Open -- frustratingly, his seventh trip to a championship match without a title. FAA has only won a handful of matches at the Majors, and he's got to feel pressure to do something big, but perhaps the favorite can see his way to another deep run.

Alex de Minaur (21) vs. Daniel Evans (30): There would have to be a couple of upsets in this section of the draw for this match-up to come to fruition, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. De Minaur, who surprisingly went winless at the ATP Cup last week -- he won both his round robins last year -- reached his first Major quarterfinal in New York and won the title in Antalya last month. He'd have to get past Fabio Fognini, not to mention Tennys Sandgren, to make the fourth round. Evans, meanwhile, fresh off a title at the Murray River Open -- the first of his fifteen-year career -- may only be barely seeded, but posted wins over Andrey Rublev, David Goffin, and, yes, de Minaur himself last year, not to mention Felix Auger-Aliassime last week. He'd likely meet Rafael Nadal in the third round, but we know this isn't Rafa's best Major, and there's a chance the Brit could get things done.


Daniil Medvedev (4) vs. Andrey Rublev (7): These two paired up for an unbeatable showing at the ATP Cup last week, winning all of their singles matches to secure the title for Russia. And while Medvedev got a little jump start on his long-time friend, putting up one hell of a fight in the 2019 U.S. Open final before Rublev had his breakout last year, they're both on the cusp of cracking the big three's stranglehold on the Majors. If this match does in fact happen, I'd expect the younger Rublev to put up a bigger fight than he did in the New York quarters. Still, Medvedev is riding a fourteen match win streak -- which is only getting longer if he makes it this far -- and I'd be surprised if he let it end without a fight.

Gael Monfils (10) vs. Stan Wawrinka (17): It's asking a lot for these two vets to make it to the quarters. After a nice streak in the early spring of last year, injury slowed Monfils down after the pandemic, and after a loss in his only ATP Cup rubber, he hasn't won a match in almost a year. And Wawrinka, a winner here seven years ago has been a little hit-or-miss of late, beating Andrey Rublev in the Paris Masters but losing to world #239 Hugo Gaston at Roland Garros, winning a Challenger title in Prague and pulling out of the quarterfinals at the Murray River Open. They'd each have to pull off major upsets -- Monfils likely over Alexander Zverev and Wawrinka over long-time foil Novak Djokovic -- but it'd be fun to see some different members of the Old Guard make a run here. Why not these guys?


Rafael Nadal (2) vs. Daniil Medvedev (4): The theme of this round is the rematch. Remember how close Medvedev came to beating Nadal in the 2019 U.S. Open championship match? It was a nailbiter! Well, he eventually got revenge at the ATP Finals, one of the many wins in his current fourteen-match hot streak. And he might just be able to do it again on an even bigger stage. Of course, it's far from a given that both or either of these guys will make the final four -- Rafa, remember, has been notoriously unprolific in Melbourne -- but if they do, I begrudgingly give the advantage to the Russian (though, a little less begrudgingly than in the past).

Dominic Thiem (3) vs. Alexander Zverev (6): Remember how close Zverev came to beating Thiem in the 2020 U.S. Open championship match? It was a nailbiter! And while this rematch would likely mean the German was able to upset Novak Djokovic in the quarters, it could happen. Could there be a different outcome? For the sake of humanity, I hope not. But as long as Zverev is allowed to play, I can't deny that he's a force to be reckoned with. He won two titles in Hamburg last year and made the final at the Paris Masters. And he helped Germany to the ATP Cup semis this past week, while Thiem only won one match in a retirement. Still last year's runner-up now knows what it's like to win the big title and he'll be hungry to add another to his trophy case.


Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Rafael Nadal (2): What would be the 57th meeting between the two most decorated men in the field, as to be expected could only come in the final. And while Nole's chances of getting here, having won his last fourteen matches in Melbourne Park, are slightly better than those of Rafa, who won his one and only title here twelve years ago, their draws could play out exactly as their seedings predict. Nadal, after all, has made the final four more times since that 2009 run, and Djokovic is going for a ninth trophy Down Under. As the latter tries to narrow the gap in Grand Slams and the former tries to claim a record for himself, there's no better opponent for either of them.

Stefanos Tsitsipas (5) vs. Alexander Zverev (6): Then again, this could be the year we see a whole new slate of Grand Slam champions emerge. We saw Dominic Thiem break the seal in New York, so how about someone else now. Tsitsipas made the semis here in 2019, beating Roger Federer on the way, and Zverev, admittedly, came within inches of his own victory in New York. If these guys play at their best, they could guarantee another newbie making a victory lap. And you can guess whose side I'll be on to take home that crown.

Well, we made it! Two draws, seven rounds, and countless possibilities for great match-ups over the next fortnight. Whatever happens, there's the potential for some real history to be made on the courts of the Australian Open. And hopefully we all come out stronger on the other side of the action.

And while we wait for the first balls to be hit, here's hoping we can all pull it off safely.

February 3, 2021

A Strong Start Comes to a Halt

It was almost too good to be true.

With less than a week to go before the start of the Australian Open, players were finally out of quarantine and back on the courts. Some who we hadn't seen in quite some time came out swinging, others picked up right where they left off last year, and a couple more pulled off surprises no one saw coming.

And then, it all went on hold.

A positive COVID test from a worker at a hotel where players are staying caused all occupants to go back into isolation and forced organizers to cancel all matches scheduled for Thursday. What that means for matches the rest of the week -- and certainly for the Open next week -- remains to be seen, but it certainly goes to highlight the risks and intricacies of staging such a large event at a time like this.

And it is a shame, because we had seen such inspiring and encouraging play up to that point.


I'll start with the ATP Cup, where Serbia is looking to defend its 2020 title and seems well on the way to doing that. But some of the more impressive results are coming from elsewhere in the draw. Daniil Medvedev is extending his ten-match win streak into the new year with wins over Diego Schwartzman (again) and Kei Nishikori, while compatriot Andrey Rublev, winner of more titles last year than anyone else, kept the Russians undefeated in singles, securing the team a spot in the semis.

And then there's Matteo Berrettini, who's admittedly making me eat a little crow in these early days of 2021. The top-ranked Italian is making up for some recent early losses and upsets this week, stunning Dominic Thiem in both singles and doubles and backing up those wins against a seemingly still on-the-mend Gael Monfils over night. That performance was enough to get Italy into the semis, and maybe enough to get him back in my good graces.

Murray River Open

They weren't the only men in action, of course. A slew of top thirty players are entered in the Murray River Open, and while Stan Wawrinka and Grigor Dimitrov may be the headliners -- and some of my ones to watch like Casper Ruud and Ugo Humbert may have fallen a bit short -- there are others worth keeping an eye on.

Top of the list is Felix Auger-Aliassime, still striving for that first ATP tour title. The 20-year-old Canadian has made six finals in his short career and each time come away empty-handed. Does his luck change this week? He faces off against a talented Egor Gerasimov for a spot in the quarters, but may have a pretty clear path back to another championship match.

And then there's Nick Kyrgios, who we hadn't seen in action since last February. He won his first two matches and will next face off against Borna Coric, a man whose COVID diagnosis last year elicited no sympathy from the Aussie. Something tells me that match will bring all kinds of fireworks to the court.

Great Ocean Road Open

The final tournament for the men has brought its fair share of excitement as well. There was the angry outburst from the always-controversial Tennys Sandgren -- who maybe should change his name? -- during the one match he actually won, and the return of the newly controversial Sam Querrey. But there have been other standouts as well.

First there's Alexander Bublik, who so far seems to have recovered from the injury that forced him out of the Antalya final. Seeded eighth at the event, I continue to feel his ranking doesn't do justice to his talent. He was pushed in his opening match but managed a win and can hopefully continue the momentum. And we can't ignore young Jannik Sinner, who capped off last year with his first career trophy in Sofia. He too is probably better than his #36 ranking and could go a long way to proving that this week.

But the real one to watch at this event is seventeen-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, who won a couple Challenger events at the end of 2020, ran through qualifying rounds for the Australian Open, and this week shocked top seeded David Goffin in straight sets. He may be just inside the top 150, but if he keeps playing like this, he's going much higher, and soon.

Grampians Trophy

Of course it's not just the men in action in Melbourne this week. And while the much anticipated return of Bianca Andreescu was delayed, there were plenty of other stars to watch at the Grampians event. Last year's comeback kid Victoria Azarenka is going to make her latest case for a return to the top ten, and Jennifer Brady will look to follow through after her breakout season.

But there are some non-seeds worth a second look too. Let's start with Sorana Cirstea, who had her Cinderella run at the French Open over a decade ago. It's been a long time since then, but she did pick up an ITF title in Dubai at the end of last year and had some pretty inspired moments in New York too. She'll face second seeded Belinda Bencic next, but the one-time U.S. Open semifinalist has only won one match since the quarantine lifted and is imminently beatable. Sure would be great to see Cirstea put up a fight.

And of course, there's young Leylah Fernandez who is quickly making her way up the rankings. She opened her campaign with a win over Sloane Stephens, and while I have a hard time rooting against Maria Sakkari in the next round, the eighteen-year-old Canadian is more than capable of making that a match.

Gippsland Trophy

Things have gotten pretty interesting in the Gippsland draw too. While favorites Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka have advanced without much drama, Aryna Sabalenka's long win streak came to an end against the unlikely Kaia Kanepi, and red-hot Iga Swiatek was drubbed by an ever-talented Ekaterina Alexandrova.

But it's also worth watching Karolina Muchova, who's trying to get back to the glory of her stellar 2019 season. The former Wimbledon quarterfinalist crushed Caty McNally in her opening round and stayed steady for a win over Jasmine Paolini a round later. She'll face Kanepi for a spot in the semis, and I like her her chances to get the win.

Yarra Valley Classic

And finally there's the Yarra Valley Classic, marked by the return of Ashleigh Barty. I'll admit I've been surprised that she's been able to so seamlessly re-enter the fray, but she'll certainly be tested in her next round when she faces Shelby Rogers, who's already notched wins over Fiona Ferro and Petra Martic. I imagine this one could give us some fireworks.

Then there's Danielle Collins who, you might remember, made the semis at the Australian Open a few years back. She also stunned Garbiñe Muguruza and beat Ons Jabeur on her way to the quarters at Roland Garros last year. This week she took out Karolina Pliskova, her third win over a top ten player since the start of last season. It's only getting harder from here -- she meets Serena Williams next -- but it might not be the walk in the park for the favorite you might expect.

And then there's the other French Open standout Nadia Podoroska, whose run to the Paris semis included wins over Yulia Putintseva and Elina Svitolina. Now ranked #47 in the world, she pulled off a come-from-behind victory against two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova to make the quarters. And with her next match against Marketa Vondrousova, she might just be able to keep her run going.

It'll be interesting to see how the rest of these events play out and what they mean for the Open. COVID restrictions and precautions aside, I can't remember the last time we've seen so many top-notch stars in action the days before a Grand Slam, and their strategy over the next few rounds could have a major impact on their performances next week.

But as always, here's hoping that whatever happens, everyone stays safe and healthy down in Melbourne. Because as much as we all want to get back to normal, we have to make sure we're doing it in the best possible way.