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.

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