May 14, 2021

Comeback Stories

It's been a long year-plus for everyone, and tennis players are no exception. Of course the struggles on court pale in comparison to what's been going on around the world, but it's easy to see that some who were riding high at the end of 2019 have been on shaky footing the last few months.

But some recent performances in Rome suggest things may swinging back in their favor.

I'll start with Karolina Pliskova who came into last season as #2 in the world. She'd picked up three titles in 2019 and kicked off the new year with another one in Brisbane, beating Naomi Osaka in the semis. But since then she's been pretty quiet, losing early at all the Slams, getting upset by Jessica Pegula (three times in a row!), Danielle Collins, and even then-world #292 Anastasia Gasanova.

She came to Rome the 9th seed, and while she's been pretty consistent here -- she won the title in 2019 and made the final last year -- I wasn't putting too much stock in her. But she's been on point so far, beating veterans Anastasija Sevastova and Vera Zvonareva before today coming back from a set down to take out a resurgent Jelena Ostapenko, a former champion at Roland Garros. Back in the semis again, the pressure will be on, but she might just have her confidence back to keep going.

She'll have to get past another comeback kid to do it though. Veteran Petra Martic climbed to a career high of #14 in the world while I wasn't looking, thanks to a solid 2019 season where she won the title in Istanbul, made the semis in Stuttgart and the quarters at the French Open. This year has been a much different story, though -- she's got a 4-8 record, with five of those losses coming in first rounds, and she hadn't gotten a win yet on clay, arguably her best surface.

She's turning things around this week though -- after avenging her Yarra Valley loss to Shelby Rogers in her Rome opener, she took out Kiki Mladenkovic (who'd beaten Belinda Bencic) and Nadia Podoroska (who'd stunned Serena Williams) to set up a quarterfinal against Jessica Pegula (who'd shocked Naomi Osaka). Here too I didn't give her much of a shot -- Pegula may be ranked lower, but she's cleary been having the better year. But Martic demonstrated her edge on these courts, knocking out her opponent in straight sets and earning her the first Premier-level semi of her career. And in a battle with Pliskova, I really don't know who has the advantage.

And finally there's a case of, if not entirely a comeback, then certainly revenge. After all, Rafael Nadal is still #3 in the world and he did pick up a record 12th title in Barcelona last month. But he's also shown he can be vulnerable on the surface he's dominated for the last sixteen years. He was stunned by Andrey Rublev in Monte Carlo and notched a third straight loss to Alexander Zverev in Madrid. And just yesterday he was down a set and a break (plus two match points!) before sealing a win against Denis Shapovalov.

That had me worried when he faced off against Zverev for a second week in a row earlier today. But this time Rafa wrote a different story. The nine-time champion in Rome fought off all eight break points he faced in the second set and secured the win in just under two hours. He'll now face Reilly Opelka in the semis, and while the big serving American has been impressive himself this week, Nadal is 11-0 in this round at this venue. Of course that doesn't guarantee a win by any means, but I'm sure hoping he's found the game he seems to have been struggling with a bit this season.

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