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.

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