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.

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