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.

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