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.

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