April 25, 2021

Back on Top

It's been a long few months for all of us, and a long several years for many, and it's been a while since we've all felt on top of our games. But this weekend's results on clay helped a couple stars get their footing back under them -- and in a few cases, it was a long time coming.

Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, Stuttgart, Germany

I'll start in Germany, where a slew of top-tier talent took the courts for the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. The draw was so stacked, in fact, that even players like Maria Sakkari, who ended Naomi Osaka's year-plus win streak in Miami, and Australian Open finalist Jen Brady weren't seeded. And the favorites, for the most part, really lived up to the challenge -- while Sofia Kenin dropped her opening match to Anett Kontaveit, even those upsets came at the hands of highly-ranked opponents.

Ultimately, though, it was 2019 French Open champ Ashleigh Barty and recently red-hot Aryna Sabalenka playing for the title. Sabalenka had dealt a pretty one-sided blow to perennial clay court star Simona Halep in the semis, while Barty, who'd proven me wrong emphatically by defending her title in Miami, followed up with a somewhat surprising loss to Paula Badosa in Charleston.

In Sunday's championship, a rematch of their quarterfinal in Miami, Sabalenka got off to the stronger start, taking the first set to build an early lead. But Barty came roaring back, blanking her opponent in the second and taking advantage of both her break opportunities in the decider. For good measure, she also teamed up with Brady to take the doubles crown. As the world #1, the win(s) doesn't technically put her back on top -- she's held the top spot since September 2019 uninterrupted -- but now with three trophies already this season, it certainly shows she's shaken off any cobwebs after that nearly year-long absense.

Serbia Open, Belgrade, Serbia

Things didn't go quite as smoothly for the favorite in Belgrade, though. Novak Djokovic, fresh off a shocking loss in the Monte Carlo third round, came to his homeland event -- playing on a court named for him -- looking to make up some ground. And while he got off to a better start than he did last week -- he beat his first two opponents in straightforward fashion -- he did run into a hiccup against 2021 breakout star Aslan Karatsev.

The workhorse Russian, who followed up his Cinderella run in Melbourne -- where he lost to Nole in the semis -- with his first career title at the age of 27 in Dubai, claimed the #3 seed in Serbia, but played well above that level in Saturday's rematch. The win, his third over a top-ten player this year, earned him the chance to play for a second title, not bad for someone who'd spent most of his time on the Challengers and ITF circuits before this year.

But his run would eventually stopped by second seeded Matteo Berrettini, who'd been struggling a bit since his own breakthrough season two years ago. The 25-year-old Italian had a fairly unimpressive follow-up, winning only one match in 2020 before the lockdown and getting upset by players like Tennys Sandgren, Marcos Giron and Daniel Altmaier. He seemed to be pulling things together this year, beating Dominic Thiem and Roberto Bautista Agut at ATP Cup, before injury sidelined him again.

He was back in form this week, though, scoring an early win against one-time French semifinalist Marco Cecchinato in his opener and then surviving a test from lucky loser Taro Daniel on Saturday. Against Karatsev in the title match, he held strong too, firing off nine aces and winning more than 80 percent of his first serves. In just under two and a half hours, he was the one left holding the trophy, his third on clay and his first in nearly two years.

TEB BNP Paribas Tennis Championship, Istanbul, Turkey

It'd been a much longer drought for Sorana Cirstea, the one-time French Open breakout star who'd won her first and only tour title back in 2008 when she was just 18. Since then she's struggled with form and injury -- shoulder troubles in 2014 helped push her out of the top 200 for some time -- and while she did briefly claw herself back into the top forty, she's been in low double digits for most of the last few years.

She seemed to be getting her bearings back recently though -- she upset Johanna Konta in the second round of the U.S. Open last year, and beat both Belinda Bencic and Petra Kvitova during this year's Melbourne swing. Still ranked outside the top sixty, Cirstea caught a little bit of luck in Istanbul -- the first two seeds she was slated to meet, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Petra Martic, both lost in their first rounds, and the other seeds in her section lost early too. So it wasn't until the final against top seed Elise Mertens that she would be truly tested.

It should have been a straightforward win for the world #17, who's been one of the most consistent players on tour since the lockdown eneded -- Mertens has made the quarters or better at eight events during that period, picking up one trophy and notching wins over the likes of Sofia Kenin, Elina Svitolina, Jessica Pegula and others. But Cirstea was able to get the upper hand over the heavy favorite Sunday, running away with the first set easily and holding tough in the second to win the tiebreak.

The win not only earned her that long-awaited second title, but gave her a third win over a top-twenty player this year. If she can keep it up, she might just be able to make her own way back there as well.

Barcelona Open, Barcelona Spain

And then, of course, there's the win we all knew was coming, but often feared might not.

After his own shocking loss last week in Monte Carlo, Rafael Nadal knew he had to get back to the drawing board if he was going to continue his dominance on the clay this season. Sure, he'd won the title in Barcelona eleven times before, but we know how tenuous even history like that can be, and when he came within one set of notching back-to-back losses on the surface for the first time since 2002, we knew there was a real danger.

He was tested a bunch early, after all, needing three sets to take out two-time champ Kei Nishikori as well, but seemed to be back on track in later rounds. Meanwhile, in the bottom half of the draw, Monte Carlo champ Stefanos Tsitsipas was keeping his streak going strong, dispatching three seeds in a row without losing a set and reaching his second final in as many weeks.

He appeared primed to assert himself as a real contender for the French Open too when he came out with an early break and had multiple chances to increase his lead in the first. But Nadal roared back to claim the first set and had a couple of match points in the second, before Tsitsipas managed to force a decider. The two stayed close in that one too, with the Greek managing his own match point before Rafa scored the decisive break. And after more than three and a half hours of hard hitting tennis, he was finally able to seal the deal and earn his first title this season.

What it means as we head into the last few weeks before Roland Garros has yet to be seen -- after all, Tsitsipas's performance certainly proved he could be a contender in Paris. But for Nadal to reassert himself on the clay shows he is far from ceding control to the next generation.

Obviously these wins will have different impacts on all these players, but whether they came to those who've been trying to get their footing back or to those who wanted to remind us of how how big a force they are, they all made some big statements to the rest of the fields.

And here's hoping we see a lot more of all these guys winning in the months to come.

April 18, 2021

The Big Breakthroughs

It's been a very weird week for tennis, with some shocking upsets, some brilliant performances, and, ultimately, two champions whose victories made some really strong statements.

Monte Carlo

I'll start where the stakes were highest, at the Rolex Masters in Monte Carlo, where my theory that the house always wins was proven spectacularly wrong when eleven-time champion Rafael Nadal lost to Andrey Rublev in the quarterfinals. That result guaranteed we'd see a first-time Masters winner this week, and the final result showed we should be expecting event more.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, after all, has been putting together big results for so long it's hard to believe he's only 22. His first real breakout came three years ago when, just inside the top thirty, be beat Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, and Novak Djokovic to make the final at the Rogers Cup. The next year he made his first Grand Slam semi and won the year-end championship in London, and he's been a staple in the top ten since.

And his performance this week was on point -- while he technically only faced one other seed on his way to the final, his opponents (Dubai champ Aslan Karatsev, giant-killer Dan Evans) were nevertheless formidable foes. And against Rublev for the title, the outcome was anything but certain -- the two had split their previous six meetings, with last year's breakout star most recently the victor in Rotterdam.

But Tsitsipas was clinical in Sunday's match, winning 86% of his first serve point, never allowing a break opportunity and converting all three of his. In just over an hour he had claimed the win and the title -- maybe not the biggest of his career, but certainly breaking the seal for what is sure to be a slew of more Masters titles. And with Roland Garros just about a month away, he might have made a real case that he's one to watch in Paris.


Meanwhile in Charleston, we were also treated to a real breakthrough, and one that came with a little bit of redemption on the side.

Just last week Astra Sharma fell victim to one of the most bizarre cases of chair umpire mistakes we've seen -- after having a game she won wrongly awarded to her opponent, she largely broke down, losing her opening match in Bogotá in three sets. The loss particularly unfortunate, since she'd made the final there the last time the event was held in 2019.

But Sharma seemed to shake off her frustration by the time she came to South Carolina. In a field that was pretty wide open -- there was only one player in the top thirty in the draw -- the former college star, still ranked sub-100 on tour, was actually the more experienced player in her later matches. She upended fifteen-year-old Linda Fruhvirtova's breakthrough run in the quarters and then ended Bogotá champ Maria Camila Osorio's eight match win streak in the semis.

For the title, Sharma faced off against top seeded Ons Jabeur, herself going for her maiden title. But while the trailblazing Tunisian was able to avenge last week's loss to Danka Kovinic in the semis and build a set lead in the final, she wasn't able to finish off the task. Sharma forced a decider and took advantage of weak serving by her opponent to seal off the comeback and win her first tour title.

The wins this week may seem to be of different orders of magnitude, but with the clay court season really getting in full swing now, they're both hugely important for those who pulled them off. And hopefully they're only a sign of what we have yet to see from these two talents -- and one step towards their even bigger wins down the road.

April 15, 2021

All Bets Are Off

Monte Carlo, obviously, is a gambling town, and like all gambling towns, there are a couple things we should know: 1) there are no sure bets, and 2) the house always wins. So we shouldn't be surprised by what we've seen so far at the first clay court Masters event of the season, but that doesn't make the results any less noteworthy.

I'll start with the big upset of the day, where Novak Djokovic, undefeated so far this year, took the court against the talented but unseeded workhorse Daniel Evans. While Nole's win streak was smaller than it's been at this point in previous seasons -- he skipped out on Miami because of COVID restrictions and we haven't seen him since he won that ninth Australian Open title -- he was still clearly the favorite here. He's, after all, got more weeks than anyone else atop the rankings, and with just one loss to a sub-thirty player over the last two years, few opponents have a shot at making any headway. His one-sided win over phenom Jannik Sinner in his opener further proved his dominance.

The odds didn't seem to bother Evans, though -- and they were tough odds. The thirty-year-old, who picked up the first title of his career at the Murray River Open to start the season, has been a little quiet lately -- he lost five of his six matches since then, including his opener at the Australian Open, and came to the Rolex Masters a shade off his career high ranking at #33 in the world. But he pulled of a nice win over Miami champ Hubert Hurkacz in the second round to set up a showdown with the top seed, and he was unintimidated by his opponent. He broke Nole's usually strong serve five times and kept him to under sixty percent on his first attempts. It was a long two-setter, no doubt -- over two hours at the end -- but one where the underdog didn't flinch and came away with the fourth top ten win of his career, his first ever over a world #1.

The surprises, though, didn't only come as upsets. David Goffin, who frankly stunned me with a title in Montpellier in February, went back to form right after that, winning just two matches at four events, most recently losing to world #104 James Duckworth in his Miami opener. And while his own ranking has been somewhat shielded by COVID-related rules, he hadn't beaten a top ten player in over a year. But he seems to have found his footing again this week -- after a tighted first round against former U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic, he took out former French Open semifinalist and earlier today scored an important win over fifth seed Alexander Zverev in straights sets. With a quarterfinal match now against Evans instead of Djokovic, we'll get to see if he can put his higher on-paper ranking to work.

And Goffin's not the only recently-struggling star to right his course in Monte Carlo. Fabio Fognini, who I was stunned to learn is technically the defending champion here, having beaten Zverev and Rafael Nadal on his way to the 2019 title, the last time the event was played, has been similarly spotty over the last twelve months, winning just one match in 2020 after the Australian Open, pulling off a couple nice wins at this year's ATP Cup, and then losing his last three matches to players ranked outside the top sixty. But he's turning things around this week -- he may not have played another seed yet, but he's gotten three straight-set wins so far, today over a tough Filip Krajinovic in under ninety minutes. He'll face a bigger test next against Casper Ruud, who's already beaten Diego Schwartzman and Marbella champ Pablo Carreño Busta, but perhaps there's something about this dirt that can really help Fognini shine.

Of course, as I mentioned, there are two rules of every gambling mecca, and if anyone can call the Monte Carlo Masters home, it's Rafael Nadal. He has, after all, won a record eleven titles here, eight of them in a row, and he's only been more prolific at one other event. Like with Djokovic, we haven't seen much of Rafa this year -- he hadn't played since losing in the Aussie quarters due to a back injury and his sparse schedule has forced him to cede his spot at #2 in the rankings.

He could get it back, though, if he makes the final this weekend, and so far, he's looking on point to do just that. He's lost just five games in his last two matches, needing less than an hour to dispatch one-time world #3 Grigor Dimitrov earlier today. To make the semis, he'll have to get past red-hot Andrey Rublev, and while I'm a little nervous about that, Nadal has won both of their previous meetings and Rublev has proven himself not-so-indestructable of late. Still, it could be a close one, and no matter how stacked the odds are, there's always the chance the game gets turned on its head.

But maybe, just maybe, we're in for a real big jackpot.

April 11, 2021

Where Anything Can Happen

We should know by now there are very few certainties on the clay court -- other than, of course, that if you're facing Rafael Nadal on it, it's pretty inevitable you're going to lose. But everyone else is much more vulnerable, so it shouldn't be such a surprise that so many unlikely stars were able to make such big statements over the past week, as we kicked off the now slightly longer road to Roland Garros.

Copa Calsanitas, Bogotá, Colombia

I'll start in Bogotá, where the upsets came early and came often. Perhaps it shouldn't be that much of a shocker, as the only entrant in the top fifty was a recently surging Sara Sorribes Tormo, whose run in Miami came just a bit too late to give her the top seed here. But she lost her opening match to veteran Sara Errani, and the woman who did squeak into that #1 spot, Saisai Zhang, dropped one round later. Ultimately only one seed made it as far as the quarterfinals, and Tamara Zidansek, the 23-year-old from Slovenia ranked #93 in the world, was able to stay steady enough to make her second career final.

But in Sunday's match she ran into nineteen year old Maria Camila Osorio Serrano, a wildcard who'd played only a handful of tour-level main draws before this. But the former top-ranked Junior and 2019 U.S. Open Girls' champ was understandably at home on the courts of her native Colombia, scoring wins over seventh seed Tereza Martincova and veteran Stefanie Voegele. In the final, she dropped the first set to Zidansek, the first she'd lost all week, but then rallied back to stun her opponent in a nearly three hour match to claim the trophy. The win not only earned her some serious bragging rights, but may have put her on the radar as a potential spoiler as things really start heating up. After all, we know this is the part of the season when the young guns can really shine.

Volvo Car Open, Charleston, South Carolina

The stakes were a little higher in Charleston, where four Grand Slam champions were counted among the seeds, another elsewhere in the draw. But the favorites strunggled here too -- red hot Garbiñe Muguruza retired with a leg injury while up a bagel set to Yulia Putintseva in the third round, while Sofia Kenin lost her opener and Miami champ Ashleigh Barty was stunned by Paula Badosa in the quarters. And Petra Kvitova was ousted surprisingly easily by world #91 Danka Kovinic, who beat two more seeds on her way to the final.

There, though, she met world #38 Veronika Kudermetova, the fifteen seed who'd taken out that other Major winner -- a still-struggling Sloane Stephens -- in the quarters. It was the second championship match of her career -- she kicked off 2021 with a run to the title match in Abu Dhabi, beating Elina Svitolina before finally bowing to then unbeatable Aryna Sabalenka -- but she'd had a much easier road than her opponent, not facing another seed during her run. And she made good on her favored status in the final too, breaking her opponent four times on her way to the win. It was her first career trophy and might be enough to push her into seeding territory for the next Slam. And if she keeps her momentum going, it could really make some other sit up and take notice.

Sardegna Open, Cagliari, Italy

Things went a little more according to plan for the men last week, but that's not to say there weren't any surprises. In Cagliari, young Lorenzo Musetti stayed strong in a roller coaster of a match with top seeded Daniel Evans, saving four match points before getting the win in the second round. And world #49 Laslo Djere made a big play for his third clay court title, notching upsets over sixth seeded John Millman and fourth seed Nikoloz Basilashvili on his way to the final.

Meanwhile third seeded Lorenzo Sonego was plugging away in the bottom half of the draw. The 25-year-old Italian can be a little up and down in his play -- he lost his first five matches of last season and then scored one of the biggest upsets of the year with a win over Novak Djokovic in Vienna. In 2021 too, he lost his opener at the Murray River Open to world #265 Jason Kubler and couldn't seem to get much traction at events after that. That changed this week in Italy, though -- after staging a comeback against a very talented Yannick Hanfmann in the quarters, he got the better over second seed Taylor Fritz in the semis. He was tested again by Djere in the final, but he was able to stay strong and win his second career title. For added measure, he teamed up with compatriot Andrea Vavassori to also claim the doubles trophy. And if he can play as consistently as he did this week, he could cause a lot of trouble for the favorites when the stakes get raised.

Andalucia Open, Marbella, Spain

Of course not all top seeds were so unlucky this week. In Marbella, Pablo Carreño Busta, who'd been a little quiet this year after his phenomenal end to the 2020 season, was able to make good on his spot at the top and claim his fifth career title, his second on the dirt. Without having to face anyone in the top forty during his run, he was the clear favorite in the championship match. But that's not to say we didn't see some other surprises in Spain.

Seventeen-year-old phenom Carlos Alcaraz continued his ascent on tour, stunning veteran Feliciano Lopez in his second round and following up with a win over a quickly climbing Casper Ruud a match later. The wins earned him his first ATP semifinal and boosted him fifteen ranking spots to #118 in the world. And something tells me that number is only going higher from here. He did eventually lose to finalist Jaume Munar, though -- the fellow Spaniard, ranked just inside the top hundred, had opened his run with a solid win over an often spotty Fabio Fognini. And while he couldn't ultimately get the better of PCB in the championship match, the fact that he pushed the eventual champion to three sets might bode well for his future too.

So with week one of the 2021 clay court season in the books, and the big events starting with the Rolex Masters around the corner, we're starting to see how things could shape up as we head to Paris. Can this week's winners make any real headway at the bigger events? Well, some have better chances than others. But with momentum on their side right now, it should be fun to see what they do with it.

April 4, 2021

The Unlikeliest of Results

I've said it before, but I don't know that anyone could have predicted the men's final we saw in Miami today. And it certainly seems to have heralded in a new era in tennis.

Sure, with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer all opting out of this year's Miami Open, you knew that the door for some underdogs had creaked open a bit. But with players like newly-minted world #2 Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, and Andrey Rublev all in the mix, it certainly wasn't going to be an easy road for anyone.

And perhaps that's what makes the results over the past week even more exciting.

Young Jannik Sinner has been one of the breakout stars over the past six months, reaching the quarterfinals at Roland Garros before going on a ten match, two title win streak to bridge the 2020/21 seasons. Nineteen and at #31 in the world, he is the youngest player in the top hundred, and he plays far, far above his experience, evidenced by the serious praise he drew from Alexander Bublik after their quarterfinal match.

But that wasn't the only accomplishment by Sinner in Miami. Still a relatively "low" seed at #21, he "upset" a curiously higher-ranked Karen Khachanov in the third round and also beat two men who'd upset two of the favorites for the title -- Emil Ruusuvuori, who'd stunned Zverev in his opener, and Roberto Bautista Agut, who took out Medvedev in the quarters. And so in what was just his third Masters 1000 event, the Italian found himself in the final playing for what would easily be the biggest title of his young career.

Meanwhile in the bottom half of the draw, 24-year-old Hubert Hurkacz, who kicked off 2021 with a title himself in Delray Beach, was an even bigger underdog. Though he'd spent a few minutes in the top thirty over the last year, he'd lost early at his last few events and came to Miami down at #37 in the world with just a 26th seed into the tournament.

But Hurkacz also well outplayed his ranking during his time in South Florida. After wins over Denis Shapovalov and Milos Raonic, he stunned second seeded Tsitsipas in the quarters and backed up the win by demolishing a recently red hot Rublev in the semis.

In Sunday's final, it was understandable that both men showed signs of nerves. Hurkacz got off to a fast start with a 3-0 lead, but Sinner was able to draw even and even got a chance to serve out the set. But the Pole capitalized on some shaky serving, forced a tiebreak and never really looked back. The win, a milestone for him, not only keeps his record in finals a perfect 100% -- he also won the championship in Winston Salem in 2019 -- but should propel him into the top twenty, his highest career ranking to date.

And the fact that both he and Sinner were able to perform so well and so consistently over the past week or so further underscores the new depth in the men's game. For so long it's been hard for anyone to make a crack in the wall of the Big Three, but we're certainly starting to see a little bit of that happening. And it's not just the ones rounding out the top ten who have it in them to pull out the big wins.

Besides, if this week is any indication, both Hurkacz and Sinner are going to be making a play for those spots very soon.