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.

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