May 24, 2021

One Last Shot

It's not all that often you see the sport's top players in action so close to a Major, but there's nothing all that common about much these days. And with a host of early upsets and various measures taken around the still-not-completely-eradicated global pandemic, it's no wonder a couple stars are looking for any opportunity they can get to notch a few wins before heading to Paris.

Bianca Andreescu seemed, finally, to be getting her game back on track in Miami before injury forced her to retire during the final. Things got worse from there, when she tested positive for COVID in Madrid and was forced to skip Rome due to continued safety protocols. So this is the first time we've seen her on a clay court in almost exactly two years, and it's no wonder she wants to get some practice in.

The 2019 U.S. Open champ hasn't had a ton of success on these courts, winning her opening round during her breakout year before withdrawing against Sofia Kenin a match later. In years before, she didn't even qualify -- understandable, considering she's still only twenty years old. But, in part thanks to the protected ranking system, she came to Strasbourg this week the top seed and the sole entrant in the top 25. She opened her campaign with an encouragingly straightforward win over qualifier Andrea Lazaro Garcia, dropping just three games and will face another qualifier in the next round.

Of course things get harder from here, with a potential quarterfinal against Istanbul champ Sorana Cirstea or sixth seeded Shaui Zhang. And second seed Jessica Pegula is coming off a run to the quarters in Rome, where she got the better of Naomi Osaka in the second round -- she would be a more-than-formidable opponent should they meet in the final. But even if she doesn't make it that far, getting a few more wins under her belt will be crucial if she wants to have an impact next week.

Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic has also had an uncharacteristically quiet clay court season. As the man who might have actually become the second best clay courter on tour -- he's got five titles in Rome, three in Madrid, two in Monte Carlo, and of course that Grand Slam-completing crown at Roland Garros -- you usually expect him to win a title or two on clay each season.

That hasn't happened this year, though. After his stunning upset at the Rolex Masters, he bowed out early again at the first Belgrade event in his homeland of Serbia. While he did manage to make it to the Rome final, having to play a double header before the championship match in which he rallied from a set-plus-break deficit to Stefanos Tsitsipas and survived a tight three setter against his Vienna vanquisher Lorenzo Sonego, he eventually ran out of steam against Rafael Nadal and currently has a paltry-for-him one title on the season.

He's looking to get his momentum back as he returns to Belgrade this week. He'll open against lucky loser Mats Moraing, who pulled off a nice win over a tricky Egor Gerasimov today, and will then likely face either veterab Pablo Cuevas or Federico Coria in the quarters. With #2 seed Gael Monfils, the biggest on-paper threat in the draw, winning just one match in the last fifteen months, Novak is the clear favorite for the title -- whether he sticks it out to the end or takes a break after a couple matches remains to be seen. That strategy has, after all, certainly worked before.

Win or lose this week, it's clear both these guys are looking for a little more real match play before hitting the courts at the big event. Because, as we know, everyone in the field is going to be bringing their best and there's no time to waste getting warmed up. So a couple wins now could really pay big dividends in the near future.

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