March 4, 2021

Unqualified Successes

The heat is turning up on the tennis courts this week as top-tier players get back to work in full force now that the Australian Open is well behind them. But it hasn't been just the big stars bringing out their A-games -- more than a few qualifiers have pulled off some of the biggest wins, leaving no doubt what they're capable of.

I'll start in Doha where, for some reason, Melbourne standout Jessica Pegula was not an automatic entry. Of course, this is a high-level event with the lowest seed still carrying a #14 ranking, but it's nevertheless a bit of a slight. But Pegula powered through anyway, trouncing Qiang Wang in her main draw opener and following up with a win over one-time French Open champ Jelena Ostapenko. Her biggest win, though, came earlier today what she blasted through third seed and former world #1 Karolina Pliskova in just an hour to reach her first WTA 500 semi. She'll next face Petra Kvitova, who bested her last year at the U.S. Open, but she sure feels like a much different player than she did last fall and might just be able to get the win this time around.

Jeremy Chardy is another one I'm surprised had to prove himself before hitting the main stage in Rotterdam. Sure the veteran Frenchman is well off his career high, but with runs to the semis in Antalya and at the Murray River Classic, he's certainly been back on the rise. He opened his campaign in the Netherlands with a solid win over a very tricky Ugo Humbert and then ended the run of recently-resurgent Montpellier champ David Goffin earlier today. For a spot in the semis, Chardy will take on ultra-talented Andrey Rublev -- one of just two seeds remaining at the event -- but bigger upsets have happened, and he might just have what it takes.

Some of the big wins, though, have come from more even more unexpected places. Eighteen-year-old Clara Tauson, who defeated Jen Brady in the Roland Garros first round, was one of my players to watch this year. She's had some successes on the ITF circuit in recent weeks, but may be ready to break into the big leagues now. Currently at a career-high of #139 in the world, she stunned top seeded Ekaterina Alexandrova in her Lyon first round and backed it up with a win over doubles star Timea Babos. She'll face an often-spotty Camila Giorgi in the quarters, and there's no reason to think she'll be entirely outmatched there, and I imagine this could be just the beginning for her.

Another rising star may be making himself known on the clay of Buenos Aires. Sumit Nagal, who'd only won three tour-level matches before this week, wasn't even seeded in the qualifying draw, but managed to make his way into the event anyway. The world #150 started with a decisive win over veteran Joao Sousa, but his bigger victory came a round later. Against second seed Cristian Garin, who simply dominated the Golden Swing this time last year, Nagal broke his opponent seven times and got the win in straight sets. He's got another challenge next -- Córdoba finalist Albert Ramos-Viñolas, arguably a bigger threat, even if a lower rank, but the twenty-three year old is spry and certainly has shown he's got a couple tricks up his sleeve.

Of course, it's not just the qualifiers who are notching big wins this week. Kei Nishikori, after a months-long recovery post his latest injury, has scored two impressive wins in Rotterdam, defeating Felix Auger-Aliassime and Alex de Minaur already. And Tommy Paul successfully brought Alexander Bublik down off the high of his biggest win yet. Lyon wildcard Clara Burel, meanwhile, opened with a win over Aliz´ Cornet and, with her next round against second seed Fiona Ferro, might be in position to continue her run farther.

Still the performance of the players who had to fight just for a spot in the main draw has been more than encouraging so far. And hopefully bodes well for what we'll see from them down the road.

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