March 7, 2021

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other Ones...

Okay, I know we're all anxiously awaiting the return of Roger Federer, and we are getting really, really close. But as much as we all want to see the great one on court again for the first time in over a year, we can't the other top-tier talent that pulled off some big wins at tournaments around the world over the last week. And while a couple of top ten stars were able to add another trophy to their shelves, there was one newly minted champion that may have stood out from all the rest.

I'll start in Rotterdam, where one man further established himself as a real force of the new genereration. Andrey Rublev, who won more titles last year than even Novak Djokovic, was actually only the fourth seed here, but with three straight Major quarterfinal showings and a series of wins over top-ten players, it shouldn't be surprising that he outplayed that. He got a little bit of a break with soon-to-be world #2 Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev both losing early in the top half of the draw, but he was nevertheless clinical in his win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis. And while he played a tight first set against an under-rated Marton Fucsovics in Sunday's final, he stayed strong in the second to secure the win. It was his eighth career title -- impressive for a 23-year-old -- and brings him to a 13-1 record for the year -- Medvedev, with ten wins this season, comes in second on that stat. And there's no reason to believe Rublev won't be adding a lot more Ws to that column in the weeks to come.

The story in Doha was less about the next gen and more about the veteran class. Still, with the eight seeds all ranked in the top fifteen, there was plenty of opportunity for the on-paper favorites to face some really challenges. And they did: Australian Open runner-up Jen Brady won just three games in her first round against Anett Kontaveit, while Melbourne Cinderella Jessica Pegula, bizarrely having to qualify for this event, dismissed second seed Karolina Pliskova handily in the quarters. Ultimately, though, it was unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza, a former world #1, facing fellow two-time Grand Slam champion Petra Kvitova in the final. And while Muguruza has had some brilliant moments this year -- she took out recently-unstoppable Aryna Sabalenka in the second round and had match point against Naomi Osaka at the Open -- the much-decorated Kvitova was too much to handle. After just over an hour of play, the 30-year-old Czech returned to the winner's circle, lifting her 28th career trophy and first since 2019. And to do it amid such an illustrious field sure adds icing to the cake.

Diego Schwartzman may have come into his own a little later than these two champions -- he only cracked the top ten for the first time last year, at 28 years old, but as a long-time workhorse on tour, he's certainly put in the work to have earned it. The ATP Challenger Tour champion way back in 2014, he slogged it out in the middle tiers, picking ups smaller titles in Istanbul, Rio, and Los Cabos along the way, before his breakthrough last season. And after a disappointing early exit last week in Córdoba, he was eager to make good on his top seed this time around. But he'd have a big roadblock -- qualifier Francisco Cerundolo, whose younger brother shocked the world with a title last week at his first tour event, was hoping to keep the family win streak going, first dismissing inexplicably seeded Benoit Paire -- he's 2-10 since the lockdown -- and then repeating Juan Manuel's win over Albert Ramos-Viñolas in the semis. But Schwartzman was just too tough for him in the championship match, dropping just three games in the course of 80 minutes to win his firt title on home soil. And while he has a ways to go to catch up to those other two champs this week, I'm shown he's got the work ethic to at least try.

Of course, as I alluded to above, it wasn't just players adding to their trophy count this week -- in Lyon, we got a brand new champion thanks to a final contested by not one but two qualifiers, both playing for their first title. Of course, at 28 years old, Viktorija Golubic has a little more experience, having made the final in Linz back in 2016, where she beat both Madison Keys and Garbiñe Muguruza, and reaching a high just out of the top fifty in the world. But she's since dropped into triple digits and has spent most of the year on the ITF circuit. This week, though, she seemed to get back on track, stunning Caroline Garcia in the second round and then coming back for a win over second seed Fiona Ferro in the semis. Meanwhile, eighteen-year-old Dane Clara Tauson, who'd beaten Jen Brady in the Roland Garros first round last year, followed up her upset of top-seeded Ekaterina Alexandrova here with three more straight set wins to make the final. She didn't let up in on Sunday, either, staying tough against an oppenent a decade her senior to win that maiden crown. The win should put her into the top hundred for the first time in her young career, and while she might be far from the accomplishment of this week's other champions, Tauson might just have shown she belongs among their ranks too.

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