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.

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