June 29, 2021

A Curse on the Big Courts

It's been two years since we last saw play at Wimbledon, and it seems like the goblins that lurk in the shadows of Wimbledon took it upon themselves to dole out punishments for that absense. In the first 48 hours of this year's event, we've already seen plenty of favorites get quite literally tripped up on the grass, some squeaking by the seat of their pants, and others not so lucky at all.

The big shocker, of course, came late today when seven-time champion Serena Williams was forced to retire in the seventh game of her first round match. She was playing well to start, but on a Centre Court that had already caused more slips and slides than we'd ever seen, she seemed to twist her knee while up an early break and never recovered. Though she returned from a medical time out, she was in tears trying to serve out her game and could barely move to the ball when returning. Within minutes she was at the net, ceding the win to world #100 Aliaksandra Sasnovich.

Serena's exit means more than just another seed out of the Championships. While she may have only be seeded sixth, she was widely considered a favorite for the title. She had, after all, made at least the final here on her last four appearances, and with 98 match wins here, more than any woman other than Martina Navratilova, it seems clear she would add at least a little bit to her total. But instead she notched only her second first round loss at a Major and her first Slam retirement since 1998. And, of course, her four year pursuit of that record 24th Big Title will continue at least a few more months. Did she just lose her best chance to get it? Well, it's probably too soon to say that, but you know chances are getting ever more remote these days.

As are the chances of Roger Federer, who survived his own set of trolls one match earlier on Centre Court. The eight-time champion was not playing his best against Adrian Mannarino in his opening round, getting out-served in the second and third set and finding himself in a deep hole early. But the Frenchman, who had only taken one set off the legend in their previous six meetings, also lost his footing deep in the fourth. He watched a couple balls whiz past him before retiring himself after losing the set, allowing Roger to book his ticket for the eighteenth straight time.

But the fact that he was tested suggests it's going to be a long road for the GOAT 🐐 contender to make it back to the final. Like Serena, he had good odds to win this title, but at a month away from 40, the window of opportunity to pick up Major #21 is closing quick. After a career where he saw thankfully few injuries for so long, he took more than a year off after losing in Australia in 2020 and hasn't been quite the force he traditionally was since his return. Hopefully, though, he'll be able to shake off the demons that plagued him in round one and make use of the opportunity that was given him.

Of course, for every favorite that was challenged, we have an underdog who got an opportunity. One-time U.S. Open champ Sloane Stephens, who's been mounting a nice comeback this summer, stunned two-time titleholder Petra Kvitova in straight sets on Monday. Andy Murray, playing at his first Wimbledon since 2017, shook off a seven-game losing streak in the third set to get the win over 24th seed Nikoloz Basilashvili. And Frances Tiafoe dealt a massive blow to French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas in straight sets, his first win over a top five player ever.

But there's a lot of play left to go at Wimbledon, and there's no telling who the gremlins will go after next. But hopefully they've got the worst out of their system, and we'll be in store for only good surprises from now on.

June 27, 2021

Wimbledon 2021 Preview: Round By Round

Well, it's been quite a road to get to Wimbledon, this year more than usual.

With the pandemic cancelling play at the All England Club last season, it's been a full two years since the last champions were crowned, and the world is a whole lot different than it was back then for so many reasons.

And in the last few weeks things got really interesting. First there was the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal, just days after his heartbreaking loss in the French Open semis, followed quickly by the exit of Naomi Osaka. And in the last few days we learned injury would keep both Dominic Thiem and defending champion Simona Halep out of the draws as well.

Add to that the fact that young standouts like Iga Swiatek, Jannik Sinner, and Sebastian Korda haven't really played on these courts -- Swiatek's Juniors crown notwithstanding -- and you have a lot of opportunity for underdogs to shine. The lead up tournaments, after all, have already given us a glimpse of the former champions and resurgent workhorses who've been able to up their up their games on grass. And any one of them could surprise us over the next fortnight.

Of course, it's going to be hard to stop the favorites, but if there's any year to do it, this might be it. So let's dive right in to the draws.


First Round

Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Carla Suárez Navarro: This is in part sentimental, as we know each tournament we see her at will be CSN's last, but don't forget the veteran fighter has had some good results here in the past, beating the likes of Sam Stosur, Genie Bouchard and Ekaterina Makarova over the years. It's asking a lot for her to take out the top seed, but it'll be fun to see her try. And who knows, she might just be able to take advantage if Barty isn't back in top form.

Bianca Andreescu (5) vs. Alizé Cornet: The struggles of the former U.S. Open champ have been well documented, and though she's shown glimmers of her former self, it's been hard for her to really find her footing. Cornet, meanwhile, has been pretty solid on the grass recently. She just beat Andreescu earlier this month in Berlin before taking out Garbiñe Muguruza to boot and this past week she put up one hell of a fight against Victoria Azarenka in Bad Homburg, just barely losing the three-hour battle. There's no reason to believe she won't be able to pull off another upset here.

Karolina Pliskova (8) vs. Tamara Zidansek: The former world #1 continues to confound me with her inconsistency. Though she looked strong in her return to the final in Rome, she was absolutely crushed in that match, winning exactly zero games in the course of 46 minutes. She went on to lose the second round at Roland Garros and hasn't won a match on grass yet this season. And while I don't know a lot about how Zidansek plays on the lawn, the surprise French semifinalist has nevertheless proven she's not afraid to be challenged. It's far from out of the question to think she could get a win here too.

Petra Kvitova (10) vs. Sloane Stephens: It's always fun, and a little weird, when two Grand Slam champions -- not that far removed from their peak form -- meet in the first round of a Major. Kvitova has been a consistent force in this sport for over a decade and remains a threat to pick up her third title at the All England Club, just barely missing out in a spot in the Bad Homburg final this past week. Stephens, of course, has been a little more spotty, but a solid clay court season shows she's not willing to give up on the big prizes quite yet. I'm not sure she'll be able to score a win over someone who thrives on grass, but it'll be fun to watch her try.

Johanna Konta (27) vs. Katerina Siniakova: Konta's done well at Wimbledon in the past, reaching the semis in 2017 and the quarters on her last outing, and while she's struggled a bit over the last few months, she was able to make a nice run to the title in Nottingham after an early exit at Roland Garros. But she can't ignore her first round opponent this go-round. Doubles specialist Siniakova, who stunned Serena Williams in Parma, is coming off a run to the title match in Bad Homburg, where she beat Jessica Pegula in the second round. And while it'll be quick turnaround for this match, she's seen her own doubles partner parlay one final run to a Major win, so who's to say she won't be able to do it too? Okay, that's a lot to ask, but she could certainly get a win or two under her belt first.

Second Round

Ons Jabeur (21) vs. Venus Williams: Venus played her first Wimbledon when Jabeur was just two years old. She won the first of her five titles here when she was five. And it was only four years ago that she made her most recent final here. We know better than to ever count her out. But Jabeur is making her own history these days, and after her maiden title in Birmingham, she comes to the All England Club at a career-high ranking. She hasn't played here since her career really started going, so it will be exciting to see how her new-found star power matches up against a long-time legend.

Jessica Pegula (22) vs. Liudmila Samsonova (W): Pegula has been one of the breakout stars of the year, making her first Major quarterfinal in Melbourne and scoring wins over Naomi Osaka, Elina Svitolina, and Victoria Azarenka along the way. At 27-years-old, she's now at her best ever ranking and though she's never won a match at Wimbledon, she did make the quarters in Berlin -- beating Karolina Pliskova on the way, for the fourth time this year -- and expectations are high. Samsonova, meanwhile, is coming off her own monster run in Berlin, where, as a qualifier, she beat five hugely talented and way higher ranked players on her way to the title. The win knocked 43 spots off her then sub-100 ranking and earned her a wildcard here. But she might just be able to prove she deserves even more than that.

Angelique Kerber (25) vs. Ana Konjuh (Q): Okay, first of all, Konjuh shouldn't have had to play qualies to make this main draw. Second, she shouldn't have had to play Tsvetana Pironkova in the final round of the prelims. Third, it's a shame that she'll likely have to face 2018 champ and Bad Homburg titleist so early here, and that one of the two will have to go home early. The 23-year-old Croat is still working her way back up the rankings, and it would be nice to see her make some headway. But Kerber is running a hot streak, and if the French Open taught us anything, it's that playing the week before a Major might be good luck, so she's unlikely to let it end now.

Alison Riske (28) vs. Ann Li: Young Li came out the gates swinging hard this year, stunning Jen Brady to make the final at the Grampians Trophy and reaching the third round in Australia, but we haven't seen a lot of her since then. Riske has been even more MIA, thanks to injury, winning only two matches since last year in Melbourne and pulling out of the French Open last minute. She did make the quarters here on her last outing, though, stunning Ash Barty on the way, just after picking up a title in Den Bosch, so she's clearly comfortable on this surface. Plus, she might be hungry to avenge a loss to Li last year at the U.S. Open. Still, it would be nice to see the underdog make a bigger breakthrough on a bigger stage and this could be that opportunity.

Third Round

Sofia Kenin (4) vs. Danielle Collins: Kenin has to be one of the most vulnerable top seeds in either draw, but she seems to have a way of surprising me when I start to count her out. Plus, she's one of those players who only hit her stride in the two years since we last played Wimbledon, so we don't have a lot of evidence of what she can do here. Collins, though, can't be overlooked. She had a strong start to the year and seems well recovered from the surgery that cut her spring season short. And she has a 3-1 record against Kenin, just losing their most recent battle at last year's Roland Garros in three sets, so there's no reason to believe that if they meet up again she'll have many butterflies.

Victoria Azarenka (12) vs. Anett Kontaveit (24): Vika hasn't had as many headline worthy wins this year as she did last year, but she's done decently well this season even as she copes -- again -- with injury. She's not necessarily in the clear -- after a brutal three-hour battle with Alizé Cornet last week in Bad Homburg, she had to pull out of the quarters, so it's anyone's guess where she stands now. Kontaveit, meanwhile, whose only career title to date came on the gass of Den Bosch four years ago, is coming off a trip to the final in Eastbourne, where she beat Bianca Andreescu in the second round. She opens against 2019 French finalist Marketa Vondrousova, but I like her chances to set up this match and maybe even get the win.

Elise Mertens (13) vs. Madison Keys (23): I've said before and I'll say again that Elise Mertens is underrated. She's got a solid game and she's fun to watch, and she's really beeen delivering this year. And while she may have lost the only two matches she's played on grass this year, they were both whisper-thin losses and could easily have gone another way. Keys, meanwhile, has had some big successes on the lawn, reaching the quarters here back in 2015 and earlier this month stunning Aryna Sabalenka on the surface in Berlin. She's also won both of her prior meetings with Mertens, both at Slams and both in straight sets. It'll be fun to see if the on-paper favorite can channel her momentum to turn things around now.

Barbora Krejcikova (14) vs. Marta Kostyuk: It's always interesting to see how a newly-crowned Slam champion does on her very next outing -- it often doesn't work out well for them, and working against Krejcikova is the fact that she's never even played a singles main draw at Wimbledon before, hasn't even played qualies since 2017. She has, however, had plenty of success on the doubles court, winning the title in 2018 and reaching the semis again a year later. Eighteen-year-old Marta Kostyuk is also untested in the solo sport here, but the former Australian Open Juniors champ showed she was ready for the big leagues when she made the fourth round at Roland Garros this month. She opens against 2018 quarterfinalist Kiki Bertens, who's on her farewell tour, but if she can eke out a win might be able to secure a showdown against Krejcikova. And with two players so new to this, it's hard to tell which one would be the favorite.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (16) vs. Camila Giorgi: Pavs is also coming off the run of her careeer, having just made her first Major final in her record 52nd try. Can she keep her own momentum going? Well, she hasn't won a match at Wimbledon since her 2016 quarterfinal run, but if she can get in a couple here, she might set up a tough round against an unseeded Giorgi. The former top-thirty player, a quarterfinalist here in 2018, is coming off a solid run to the Eastbourne semis, where she beat Karolina Pliskova and Aryna Sabalenka. She'd likely have to get past Aussie semifinalist Karolina Muchova first, but if there's any Major where she's going to pull off big upsets, this is likely it.

Fourth Round

Aryna Sabalenka (2) vs. Elena Rybakina (18): The second seed at Wimbledon has a fourth round problem -- as strong as she is, and as many top players as she's beaten, she's never advanced past that level at a Major. And you'd think this would be the year she should do it -- running a hot streak into Melbourne, she lost in three to Serena Williams, excusable, but running and even hotter streak into Paris, she dropped in the third to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, less excusable, though in hindsight, fine. Can she break the curse now, at an event where she's only won one match before, and on a surface where she's been upset twice already this year? Well, Rybakina will certainly have something to say about that -- after a stunning win over Serena at the French, she beat Elina Svitolina on her way to the Eastbourne semis. While she's lost her only two matches against Sabalenka, they both went three sets and as she gets ready to make her main draw debut at the All England Club, you can be sure she'll try to make it a big one.

Elina Svitolina (3) vs. Karolina Muchova (20): Svitolina has been consistently at the top of this sport for years, but as one of only two players in the top ten without a Major title, we keep waiting for her to have her big success. She's come close, making the semis in her last outing here, where she lost to eventual champion Simona Halep, and then again in New York that year, where she lost to Serena. Muchova, meanwhile, is still climbing her way up the rankings, taking a big step higher after her own semi showing in Melbourne at the start of this season. But she first put herself on the radar on these very courts when she made the quarters with a win over then-#3 Karolina Pliskova in 2019. She lost her next match to, you guessed it, Svitolina, but if she can set up a rematch -- she might have to get through Camila Giorgi or Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova first -- it could be a good one.

Serena Williams (6) vs. Coco Gauff (20): Now this is the one we've been waiting for. Serena had already won six Majors -- two Wimbledons -- by the time Gauff was born, but these days all eyes are on the 17-year-old phenom. She made her first Slam quarter earlier this month in Paris, showing her standout 2019 season was no fluke, and returns to the site of her first big breakthrough at a career-high ranking. She has two wins already against the elder Williams, but has yet to face Serena, who is still going for that record-breaking 24th Big Trophy. There is no guarantee this meeting will happen, of course -- while Serena has at least made the final at the All England Club on her four outings, she is slated for a third round match against Bad Homburg champ and 2018 vanquisher Angelique Kerber. And Gauff could face Berlin finalist Belinda Bencic first, too. Still, with a little luck, we might just get this clash between generations and get a real sense of whether the torch has truly passed.


Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Daria Kasatkina (31): Admittedly there are a lot of questions hanging over Barty. While my initial skepticism over her place at #1 has been erased, injury hampered the back half of her clay court season, so we don't know what kind of shape she's in. Kasatikina, meanwhile, is coming off a run to the Birmingham final and a win over Iga Swiatek in Eastbourne. She also won her only previous meeting with Barty, right here on these courts on her way to the quarterfinals in 2018. She'd have to get past players like Jelena Ostapenko, who beat her last week in Eastbourne, and potentially Victoria Azarenka, but if she got a rematch with Barty, there's reason to believe she could pull off the win again.

Iga Swiatek (7) vs. Maria Sakkari (15): Swiatek may have won the Junior crown at Wimbledon way back when, but she hasn't yet claimed a main draw win here, so it'll be interesting to see how she fares. She fell early in her only grass court outing this season and she has a tough draw -- one-time finalist Vera Zvonareva could be her second round opponent while 2017 champ Garbiñe Muguruza looms in the fourth. If she is able to make good on her seeding, though, she might get a rematch against Sakkari, whose victory at the French Open earned her a first Major semi. But the Greek woman would need a little luck too -- her immediate section of the draw has unseeded threats like Shelby Rogers and Sam Stosur, but to mention Eastbourne semifinalist Elena Rybakina. And if she survives that, there's also the possibility of world #4 Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth round, a woman who's won their last four meetings. Still it'd be nice to see what these recent standouts have on grass.

Belinda Bencic (9) vs. Paula Badosa (30): Badosa was my secret pick to win the French Open, and given how crazy the draws worked out, I'm a little disappointed that she didn't do it. She's much less of a known quantity on grass, though, so hoping she'll make it all the way to the quarters -- especially with players like Elina Svitolina in her section of the draw -- is kind of a pipedream. It's not much more likely to see Bencic get through either -- though she's a much higher seed, she's slated to meet Coco Gauff in the third round and Serena Williams in the fourth. But she did pull off some nice wins on her way to the Berlin final and might be turning things around. That could work to her favor against Badosa, who's already beaten her twice this year. And if she wants to get revenge, this might be the best time to do it.


Serena Williams (6) vs. Jelena Ostapenko: Serena may be coming up short in her attempts to win that elusive 24th Major, but as mentioned above, she has made the final on her last four trips to the All England Club and come home with the title two of those times. And while there may be a few challenges in the first half of her draw, you have to believe she knows how to turn it on when it counts, here perhaps more than anywhere. If she makes it that far, she'll be a heavy favorite against whoever she meets, but don't count out Ostapenko immediately. The former French Open champion has made the semis here before, and she's coming off a stellar run in Eastbourne, where she beat five higher-ranked opponents on the way to her fourth career title. She did lose her only match against Serena last year in Fed Cup, but those were a tight two sets and she might be in a good place these days to turn things in her favor.

Petra Kvitova (10) vs. Garbiñe Muguruza (11): It may have been a while since these two were claiming victories here, but they're both due for another taste of big time glory. The Czech won her first Wimbledon crown with a stunning win over Maria Sharapova ten years ago and her second three years after that, but as mentioned above remains consistently strong, reaching the final at the 2019 Australian Open, the semis at last year's French, and making a deep run just this past week in Bad Homburg. Meanwhile the Spaniard picked up lone trophy at the All England Club in 2017, and while there have been ups and downs since then, her run to the Melbourne final and her stellar start to this season show she's still got the magic. She might have a little harder of a time making the finals -- Aryna Sabalenka, Iga Swiatek, and Ons Jabeur are all in her quarter, but if she plays as well as she can, she has a decent shot at playing for the title.


Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Aryna Sabalenka (2): It's so rare that the top seeds make it to the final at a Major, especially on the women's side, but since both failed to do it at the French, where they were arguably more likely to find success, let's give them a shot here. It'll be tough, of course -- Barty's best run here has been the fourth round, while Sabalenka, of course, hasn't made it even to the third. But these draws are so wide open that it's entirely possible that their biggest threats get eliminated for them, and there's no shame in being the beneficiary of that.

Garbiñe Muguruza (11) vs. Coco Gauff (20): But, because the draws are so open, it's also possible someone else entirely walks away with the title. Muguruza is certainly the more likely of these two, having played in four Major finals, two at the All England Club. But Coco might be ready for prime time now. At 17, she's by far the youngest player in the top hundred -- the top three hundred, actually -- and she's coming off a trip to her first Major quarter, losing to eventual champion Barbora Krejcikova at the French. She's a far different player than she was at her only other appearance at Wimbledon -- that breakthrough event two years ago where she stunned Venus Williams on her way to the fourth round -- and if she can get past tests from Serena and potentially Elina Svitolina, looking for her to make the final is not that long a shot.


First Round

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Jack Draper (W): Okay, Djokovic is going to win this match, but let's take a moment to appreciate the accomplishments of the 19-year-old wildcard. Ranked outside the top three hundred at Queen's Club, Draper stunned fellow teen superstar Jannik Sinner in the first round and then took out Alexander Bublik in the second. This is his first ever Major main draw -- he failed in the first round of qualifying at Wimbledon his last two tries -- and it's bad luck that he has to open against the man who is so heavily favored to win it all. But, still, it'll be fun if he can put on a show for us.

Stefanos Tsitsipas (3) vs. Frances Tiafoe: Tiafoe has really gotten screwed in the first rounds of Majors over the years, drawing the likes of Roger Federer, Daniil Medvedev, Juan Martin del Potro, to name a few. But he always puts up a fight -- seven of his opening match losses have gone five sets. The French Open runner-up is no stranger to five-setters, of course, but there's reason for hope. Tsitsipas' worst surface by far is the grass, and he's only made it out of the first round at Wimbledon once. Tiafoe, meanwhile, just picked up a title on the lawn at a Challenger event in Nottingham, the first American to do that since Sam Querrey in 2010. And while it's been a while since his last win over a top ten player, this might be the best chance he's had to do it in quite some time.

Alex de Minaur (15) vs. Sebastian Korda: Speaking of unfortunate first rounds, it's going to be a shame to see either of these guys go home early. De Minaur will be at a career high ranking on Monday after a semi run at Queen's Club and a title this weekend in Eastbourne. Those solid grass results technically make this his best surface now, and he'll want to improve on that here. Meanwhile, we don't know a lot about what Korda can do on this surface. The 20-year-old hasn't even played qualifying rounds at Wimbledon before, and while he did notch an upset Roberto Bautista Agut, a former semifinalist here, in Halle, he was tested in his two rounds after that. Still, he's had some big wins this year, reaching the quarters in Miami and picking up his first title in Parma, so he's certainly not the kind of opponent anyone should take lightly.

Ugo Humbert (21) vs. Nick Kyrgios: The multi-talented Frenchman had a bit of a slow start to the year, even losing to Kyrgios in the second round of the Australian Open in a long five sets. But he's riding a nice win streak right now, fresh off a title in Halle where he beat both Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev, his first top-ten wins of the season. He's had nice results at Wimbledon, too, making the fourth round in his only previous outing with wins over Gael Monfils and Felix Auger-Aliassime. Of course Kyrgios has done well here too, stunning Nadal to make the quarters back in 2014. He may be a little out of practice, though -- we haven't seen him in action since Melbourne, and he responsibly laid low -- at least on court -- during most of last year too. We'll see if that serves as an advantage for the young Humbert as he tries for another deep run here.

Alejandro Davidovich Fokina (30) vs. Denis Kudla (Q): ADF is coming off a monster run to the Roland Garros quarters, during which he stunned Casper Ruud in a more than four and a half hour slugfest in the third round. The win earned him a career-high ranking and his first seeding at a Major. But we have literally no idea how he'll do on the grass -- he lost the only main draw match he's ever played on the surface, failing to qualify for Wimbledon or most other events. His first round opponent, meanwhile, may be well off his best, but he's at least had a chance to get his footing on the lawn -- a one-time fourth rounder at the All England Club, he made the final at a Nottingham Challenger earlier this month, and the next week beat former Wimbledon finalist Kevin Anderson in three sets. He hasn't dropped a set in qualifying, though, and might be in a place to notch an upset early.

Taylor Fritz (31) vs. Brandon Nakashima (Q): Fritz is a fighter, man. After tearing his miniscus at Roland Garros and undergoing knee surgery, he's been rehabbibng for hours a day to get back on court, and here he is, not even a month later. Bad ass. He opens his campaign against talented 19-year-old Brandon Nakashima, who beat veterans like Ernests Gulbis and Viktor Troicki in his qualifying rounds. It's a good opportunity for Fritz, who came OHSOCLOSE to beating Novak Djokovic in Melbourne, but also a chance to see what the future of American men's tennis could look like. And the winner will make a good case to take up the mantle.

Second Round

Denis Shapovalov (10) vs. Pablo Andujar: Veteran Pablo Andujar had two of the biggest wins of his career in the last few weeks, first stunning Roger Federer on the clay of Geneva and then ousting two-time French finalist in the first round in Paris. Does he have another upset in him? Well, it'll be much harder on grass, where he has a less-than-inspiring 2-15 record, but those two wins did come on these courts, in five sets each, so you never know. Shapovalov can't be discounted, of course -- he did make the semis at Queen's Club -- but he's certainly a less intimidating opponent than the Spaniard has faced in the past. If they get to this match -- no sure thing, as Andujar would have to get through former doubles champ Pierre-Hugues Herbert first -- it could be a good one.

Casper Ruud (12) vs. Kei Nishikori: Ruud has not disappointed in his follow-up to that breakout 2020 season, making his first Major first round in Melbourne and putting together a solid run on clay. He's never won a match at Wimbledon, though, losing his first round to John Isner in 2019 and in qualifying the year before. Fan favorite Nishikori, on the other hand, has made the quarters here on his last two outings and just reclaimed his spot as Japan's top player. He'll open against a very talented Alexei Popyrin, but if he's able to get that win he might be able to use his experience to his advantage over the rising star.

Lorenzo Musetti vs. Marcos Giron: The teen phenom has had a splashy introduction to the tour, and while he may not have scored that maiden title like some of his contemporaries, he has notched some nice wins and is slowly climbing his way up the rankings. He scored his first top ten victory over Diego Schwartzman in Acapulco and then took out David Goffin in his first round in Paris before a slightly ignominious meltdown in the fourth round against Novak Djokovic. He's never played at Wimbledon before, but opens against a recently struggling Hubert Hurkacz, who he beat in the first round in Rome. Meanwhile Giron who, at 27, is suddenly at his highest career ranking at #65 in the world. He hasn't won a main draw match at Wimbledon yet, but he is coming off a run to the quarters in Halle, and if he gets a shot, he might be able to get the better of Musetti too.

Felix Auger-Aliassime (16) vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Here's another one you want to see just for senitmental reasons. Former world #5 and two-time Wimbledon semifinalist Tsonga has been dealing with a chronic back injury for the last several years and has only won one match since 2019. Though he has to get past a talented young Mikael Ymer first, the match I'll be watching is his next one against the young gun, who's put together a nice run on grass this year. FAA may still have trouble closing the deal, but he did make the final in Stuttgart and stunned Roger Federer in Halle a week ago. His 14-5 recod on lawn makes it by far his best surface. It'll be interesting to see what Tsonga can bring against the relative upstart, but it might be even more interesting to see what Felix can do with the opportunity.

Third Round

Daniil Medvedev (2) vs. Marin Cilic (32): Well this could be interesting. The second seed has done a lot to put distance between himself and current #3 (😢) Rafael Nadal, upending his prior record at the French to make the quarterfinals and this week winning his first title on grass in Mallorca. He also had one of his first big wins on these courts, beating then-#3 Stan Wawrinka in the first round in 2017. Cilic, meanwhile, a finalist at Wimbledon that year, has been up and down this season, but won his first title since 2018 on the grass in Stuttgart and kept his run going until the quarters at Queen's Club. Medvedev does have an early date with young Carlos Alcaraz, but the teen phenom is probably more of a threat on clay, and if the on-paper favorite plays his best he has the added advantage of the win in his only previous meeting with Cilic. Still, it'll be fun to see how they do when they're both riding such hot streaks.

Roger Federer (6) vs. Cameron Norrie (29): Roger has said the priority of his comeback was to do well at Wimbledon, and despite everything he's been through over the last year-plus, the eight-time champion (and four-time finalist) remains a favorite to win the whole thing. But it will be a slog -- he was, after all, stunned in the second round at Halle, an event he'd won ten times. Norrie, on the other hand, put up a nice fight in the final of Queen's Club, where he scored three upsets on his run. It's hard to know if he'll have the hometown crowd on his side against a legend like Federer, but for him to power through the pressure is certainly not out of the question.

Hubert Hurkacz (14) vs. Grigor Dimitrov (18): Hurkacz has been super quiet since that breakout run in Miami, where he stunned both Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev on his way to the title. He's only won one match since, with two losses to players outside the top 150, and he opens here against Lorenzo Musetti, the man he retired to in Rome. All that to say it's no sure thing he makes it to the third round, but if the seeds play out as expected -- when does that ever happen? -- he could meet former semifinalist Grigor Dimitrov. The veteran Bulgarian may not be at his best right now, but he did make the quarters in Melbourne, stunning Dominic Thiem on the way. If he's recovered from the injury that forced him out of the French, he might be able to make another deep run here.

Lorenzo Sonego (23) vs. Sam Querrey: Here's another one where a recently struggling star seems to have found his footing again. Querrey, once a semifinalist here and twice a quarterfinalist, has beaten Novak Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, and Andy Murray on these courts. And after a 2-6 start to the year, he reached the semis in Stuttgart and the final in Mallorca. Sonego, meanwhile, also made a final this week, coming up just short of his second grass title in Eastbourne with a three set loss to Alex de Minaur. Querrey will have to get past a tough Pablo Carreño Busta in the first round, so a meeting with Sonego is no sure thing, but if he can find the magic he's had here before, he might just be able to make a play for the second week.

Fourth Round

Andrey Rublev (5) vs. Jannik Sinner (19): The higher-ranked Russian has made the quarters of three different Majors over the last year and hopes to round out the pack doing at least that well here. He hasn't had a lot of experience at Wimbledon, though, but did make a trip to the final in Halle just a week ago. Sinner's even less experienced, losing his only qualifying match back in 2019, and getting stunned by fellow teen Jack Draper in his first round at Queen's Club. But both guys come to the All England Club at the top of their games and will be excited to test out these grounds. Sinner may have the harder road, opening against a very talented Marton Fucsovics and slated to meet Diego Schwartzman in the third, but those matches are both winnable for him, and if he gets to meet Rublev, he has the benefit of the only full match win in the pair's head-to-head.

Roberto Bautista Agut (8) vs. Andy Murray: It has been a long road back for Murray, but it sure is nice to see him back on the courts of his hometown Slam again. The two-time champion got a wildcard to play here and, while it's a lot to ask him to play multiple best-of-five matches, he's got a pretty nice draw to do it in. While he opens against Nikoloz Basilashvili and could face Denis Shapovalov, his biggest threat is RBA, the surprise semifinalist here back in 2019. The veteran Spaniard lost his opening round in Halle to Sebastian Korda, but he has scored wins over Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem, and Andrey Rublev this season. If makes good on his seeding, he could arrange for another big blockbuster between the two.

Aslan Karatsev (20) vs. John Isner (28): This is another one that might be a little unlikely, but both these guys know how to surprise us. Isner may be best-known for that Wimbledon match against Nicolas Mahut eleven years ago, but he played another epic against Kevin Anderson in the 2018 semis, just barely missing what would have been his first Major final. Karatsev, meanwhile, is playing his first Wimbledon main draw and barely has any record to speak of on grass so far. But he came from out of nowhere with that semi run in Melbourne, picked up his first title at the age of 27 in Dubai, and scored wins on clay over Daniil Medvedev, Diego Schwartzman, and Novak Djokovic in the spring. In order for this match to happen he'll likely have to get past Casper Ruud, and Isner is slated to face Queen's Club champ Matteo Berrettini, but as we know, stranger things have happened here before.

Feliciano Lopez vs. Mackenzie McDonald (Q): Even more of a long shot would be this match up, but hear me out. Feli has made the quarters here three times before, and though his failure to defend the title at Queen's Club knocked him percipitously close to a triple-digit ranking, a win over Karen Khachanov in Mallorca earned him a milestone 500th career win. He opens against Dan Evans and may face Eastbourne champ Alex de Minaur too, but if he's in top shape, he might be able to do it. McDonald had to qualify for this main draw, but made the fourth round the last time he played here, so just maybe he can do it again. Sure that might be something of a pipe dream, but every tournament has to have a Cinderella, right? Why not one of these two?


Stefanos Tsitsipas (6) vs. Reilly Opelka (27): It'll be interesting to see how Tsitsipas picks himself up after that narrow loss in the French Open final, and while this has by far been his worst Major, nothing would prove his all-court potential -- not to mention his resilience -- better than a deep run right off the bat. As mentioned, he's got a tough first round, and he's in the same section as Eastbourne champ Alex de Minaur, so it won't be easy, though. Opelka, on the other hand, has a relatively easier draw, with his biggest threat being 2019 semifinalist Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round. But the suddenly top-ranked American is looking to raise the mantle for the U.S., and though he pulled out of Eastbourne last week with a hip injury, he might just be able to do it.

Alexander Zverev (4) vs. Matteo Berrettini (7): Not that long ago, I would've been surprised if you'd told me Berrettini would still be in the top ten now. But the 24-year-old Italian who had his breakthrough on the New York hardcourts in 2019 has followed through with a clay court title in Belgrade and one on grass at Queen's Club. Zverev, meanwhile, has been frustratingly strong too, nearly pulling off a win in the Roland Garros semis, which would have earned him a second Major final. A meeting between these two would be a rematch of their Madrid Masters final, which Zverev won in three tight sets. But on a court where neiter has made it out of the fourth round, we might just see a different outcome.


Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Dan Evans (22): There are lots of big name threats in Nole's half of the draw, but there are also plenty of potential spoilers. And while it's hard to imagine anyone but him making it out of his quarter -- he's made the semis all but two times since 2010 -- maybe the hometown crowd will help lift Evans out of the bottom one. The world #26 lifted his first career title at the Murray River Open made the quarters at Queen's Club. He even dealt Djokovic one of his only three losses this year. It's a whole different animal at the Majors of course, but it'll be interesting to see if Evans can finally make a breakthrough there.

Roger Federer (6) vs. Casper Ruud (12): In the bottom half of the draw, Medvedev and Zverev may be the on-paper favorites, but Roger's eight titles here certainly carries some weight, and while he faces some threats early, he could very well make a play for his fourteenth semi here. Ruud, too, at 22 and at a career-high ranking, may be ready to break in to the second week of a Major for the first time in his career. He met Roger once, in the third round of Roland Garros back in 2019, but he hadn't yet truly found his game at that point. And the next meeting between the two, wherever and whenever it may come, will surely be much closer.


Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Daniil Medvedev (2): Okay, I usually try not to do this, but Nole is just so far and away the favorite for this title, that I have to put him in both my final picks. He truly has a real shot at winning the first three Slams of the year -- something that hasn't happened since Rod Laver won his Golden Slam in 1962. Of course saying that all but guarantees he'll lose early, but still. A showdown with the #2 seed would give us a rematch of that surprisingly one-sided Aussie final which Djokovic won while barely breaking a sweat. Still, Medvedev is running a nice win streak after that title in Mallorca, and we know that winning right before a Major worked for both French Open champs this year. And with a decent record against the world #1, he's one of the few players who could potentially stop him in the final.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Roger Federer (6): The other, of course, is Roger Federer, who's won more matches on these courts than anyone ever. A 51st meeting between these two GOAT 🐐 contenders no doubt favors the top seed, who currently has a 27-23 edge, head-to-head. But it really could go either way -- their nearly 5-hour marathon in the 2019 final is haled as one of the best matches ever, and if any players know how to bring the heat when the pressure is highest, it's these two. But of course, it's a long way to Championship Sunday, and who knows what could happen in the meantime.

Well there you have it, my very long lookahead to what could be a very strange, but super exciting Wimbledon fortnight. And as much as we think the last few weeks and months has informed us on what we can expect, the one thing we know for certain is that nothing is certain.

But since we've been waiting so long for this return, let's just hope we get a chance to see the very best, from the very best.

June 24, 2021

Home Turf

The grass court season is such a short part of the overall tennis calendar that it's easy to forget who really thrives on it. And while, of course, the favorites at Wimbledon certainly can dominate the headlines, there are some more under-the-radar players who've had their best results on the surface. And they're doing their best to remind us of that in the final days before the next Grand Slam.

Camila Giorgi is one of those players. The 29-year-old first caught my attention back in 2012, when as a qualifier she stunned Flavia Pennetta in her first round. Ranked #145 at the time, she made it all the way to the fourth round, but had even better results several years later when she reached the quarters, even taking a set off Serena Williams, in 2018. She's stuggled to stay consistent though and currently sits at #75 in the world. But this week in Eastbourne she's getting her groove back -- after an opening round upset of Karolina Pliskova she stunned top seed Aryna Sabalenka earlier today, eliminating the last seed standing and setting up a semi with Anett Kontaveit. She's still got a ways to go if she wants to pick up her third title, but she's looking fresher than she has in a while and could keep her run going.

Angelique Kerber has, of course, had even more success on grass. The former world #1 won the most recent of her three Major titles on these courts in 2018 and had reached the semis and final before that. But she's been a little more quiet recently, losing the opening round in each of her last three Slam showings and falling slowly out of the top 25. Still, she's bringing her A-game this week -- as the fourth seed at the inaugural Bad Homburg Open, she dropped just two games in each of her first two matches here. With most of play cancelled for today, she might have to endure a double-header on Friday, but first she'll have to get through former French Open semifinalist Amanda Anisimova, whose own recent struggles have dropped her out of the top eighty. If Kerber plays like she has been, though, she might be able to make quick work of her coming opponents.

Meanwhile in Mallorca we may be seeing the resurgence of one recently left-for-dead. One-time top-ranked American Sam Querrey, who's more known these days for breaking COVID protocols than for notching big wins on the court, has fallen well below his top ranking, spending much of the last few years in the low double digits. Still, he's one of few active players from the U.S. -- male ones, anyway -- with a title on the lawn, and his semi showing at Wimbledon in 2017 -- where he beat then-#1 Andy Murray in his third-straight five-setter that tournament -- was by far his best shot at taking home a Major title. He'd won just two matches this year before the grass season, but made the semis in Stuttgart and this week beat third seed Roberto Bautista Agut earlier today. Up next he's got also unseeded Adrian Mannarino, who's been strong himself this season, but I, somewhat surprisingly, like his chances to get to the final.

So what does this recent strength mean for these guys when they head to the big stage next week? Well it's certainly too soon to call for them to make a play for the titles, but at the very least they could be primed for an upset or two. And if they can make the most of the short time on grass, it might just give them all a shot at a second life.

June 20, 2021

Going Green

Grass, for lack of a better term, is a totally different animal than hard or clay courts, and with so few tournaments on the surface -- and this year, a two year gap since we saw any action on it at all -- it can take a lot of people by surprise.

But for some players the lawn can be a real opportunity. Whether it's Johanna Konta, who picked up a title in Nottingham last week, her fist since 2017, or one-time Wimbledon finalist Marin Cilic, who rode momentum from a trophy in Stuttgart to the quarters in Halle, we've already seen a couple turn around what had been fairly lackluster years. And this week, not only did we continue to see some comebacks, but we also got a few big breakthroughs.

Viking Classic, Birmingham, Great Britain

Ons Jabeur has been quietly building on her successes of last season, climbing to a career high of #24 in the world after the French Open. But while she's had some deep runs at events here and there, she's never been able to bring home that trophy for all her efforts. And with only one match win at Wimbledon in her last three attempts, I didn't give her much of a shot at changing things this week.

But she really surprised us all in Birmingham. After early wins over some of the sport's up-and-coming stars, she ultimately faced off against former top-ten player Daria Kasatkina in the final. The Russian may have been seeded lower, but with a quarterfinal run at the All England Club in 2018 and two titles already this year -- not to mention wins in her both of her previous meetings with Jabeur -- she might have nevertheless been the favorite.

But Jabeur persevered in the tight two-setter, staying ever so slightly stronger on serve and ultimately pulling off the win. It was meaningful for a lot of reasons -- not only her first career title, but also the first won by a woman from the Middle East. She's now tied with Ashleigh Barty for most wins this season, not bad company to share. And as she gets ready for the third Major of the year, she's well made a case that she's one to watch.

Bett1Open, Berlin, Germany

The draw in Berlin wasn't quite as favorable for the favorites, with the top four seeds all losing their opening round matches. And that opened the door for a struggling Belinda Bencic to really up her game. Since making the final in Adelaide at the start of the year, she's been pretty quiet, losing three first round matches and to Kasatkina in the second round of the French. But she got her game together in Germany, with wins over a resurgent Petra Martic and a very talented Ekaterina Alexandrova. Plus she ended the run of another comeback story -- Alizé Cornet, who'd stunned both Bianca Andreescu and former Wimbledon champ Garbiñe Muguruza on her way to the semis.

But Bencic's own momentum was no match for qualifier Liudmila Samsonova, who's so far had most of her success on the ITF circuit. Still ranked in triple digits, the Russian opened with a win over 2019 French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova and followed that up by taking out Charleston champ Veronika Kudermetova and one-time U.S. Open runner-up Madison Keys, who was fresh off her own big upset of top seed Aryna Sabalenka. But her big win came in the semis, where she shocked former world #1 Victoria Azarenka in straight sets.

The final was a seesaw of a match, with both ladies taking 6-1 sets off each other. But Samsonova got the early break in the decider and, though Bencic kept it close, she never looked back. The win, another first, was also the second time this year a WTA qualifier went home with a trophy. Will it be enough to earn her entry into the Wimbledon main draw, the only Major she has yet to make the cut for? I suppose we'll find out tomorrow, but she certainly put up a nice argument for herself this week.

Cinch Championships, Halle, Germany

Elsewhere in Germany the seeds were similarly sanguine. With Daniil Medvedev, who clearly only enjoys playing on hardcourts, losing his first round in Halle, and ten-time champion Roger Federer getting stunned by protégé Felix Auger-Aliassime, there were plenty of openings for others to sneak through. And the one to do it was a highly-underrated Ugo Humbert -- after a breakthrough 2020 season, the 22-year-old Frenchman has been a little quiet this year, scoring just one win the entire clay court season and amassing a losing record going into this week.

But, not surprisingly, he started getting his game back on grass. A fourth-rounder at Wimbledon in 2019, where he beat FAA and Gael Monfils, he made the quarters last week in Stuttgart and in Halle scored his first top-ten win of the season over Alexander Zverev. He backed that up by taking out breakthrough star Sebastian Korda and FAA again to make the final against a very prolific Andrey Rublev, the only seed to make it out of the second round.

And while the Russian was the heavy favorite, it was the unseeded Humbert who was able to seize the opportunity on Sunday. In the colossally close match, he was able to convert the only break of serve and took the second set in a tiebreak. The win gives him a perfect 3-0 record in tour finals and should give him a big confidence boost heading to the All England Club. And with much higher expectations on his head this time around, it will be interesting to see how he handles the challenge.

Noventi Open, London, Great Britain

Meanwhile, much closer to the upcoming action at Wimbledon, we saw one player really start to assert himself as a true all-court threat. Matteo Berrettini may have had his Major breakthrough on the hardcourts of New York, but he added to his trophy case on clay this season and actually has his best record on grass at 13-5. He improved on that at Queen's Club this week, beating five-time champ and sentimental favorite Andy Murray in the second round and then taking out Dan Evans and Alex de Minaur to boot.

On Sunday he faced off against Cameron Norrie, who's having his own strong season with a win over Dominic Thiem on his way to the Lyon final last month. The 25-year-old Brit had scored wins over Dubai titleist Aslan Karatsev and second seed Denis Shapovalov on the way to his third final of the year, and was hoping that this time he might be able to come away with his first tour-level crown.

But as I said, Berrettini was on a mission to demonstrate his breadth. He didn't allow even a break opportunity in the nearly two-hour match, firing off an astounding 19 aces and winning more than 90 percent of his first serves. That's the kind of service game that should work well for him at Wimbledon. Will it make him a contender for the crown? Who knows, but it sure will make some of the favorites sit up and take notice.

June 13, 2021


Let it be known that the gods of Roland Garros don't look kindly upon those who take out their king.

Back in 2009, when Rafael Nadal's 31-match win streak was shattered in the fourth round by Robin Soderling, the then-#25 was able to ride his momentum to the championship match, but lost there in straight sets to Roger Federer, allowing the legend to finally capture the career Grand Slam, the first man to do so since Andre Agassi ten years earlier.

In 2015, when a sort of struggling Rafa was ousted in the quarters by Novak Djokovic, his vanquisher was again denied the ultimate prize, this time by Stan Wawrinka. It would take another year, one in which Nadal pulled out of the event before his third round with a wrist injury, for him to complete his own Major sweep.

And today, another six years after Rafa's last loss in Paris, because appaently that's the cycle of these things, the powers that be tried their damnedest against Djokovic again. But this time their efforts weren't quite good enough.

It isn't surprising that Nole seemed to come out of the gates a little sluggish today. His semi against Nadal was widely and appropriately heralded as one of the best clay court matches of all time. The four hour, eleven minute battle featured some of the most brilliant shotmaking we've ever seen with, as one commentator pointed out, both players hitting multiple winners in every point. And while I'm still smarting from the outcome -- and might argue that it was Rafa who pulled the more awesome tricks out of his bag -- ultimately it was Nole who wore down the thirteen-time champion for a spot in the final, and it made sense he'd be a little worn down too.

And on Sunday the gods -- or Stefanos Tsitsipas, appropriately for the analogy, the first Greek to make a Major title match -- did their best to take advantage of that. The fifth seed had put together the best clay court record this season, winning 22 matches to get here and picking up two titles, including his first Masters, along the way. I thought he had a pretty good shot at winning the whole thing before play even got started in Paris, and after he took the first two sets in the final match, hoped he might just be able to pull it off.

But we should all know better than to count Nole out of any match. He converted a break in a long game in the third set and it took the wind out of Tsitsipas' sails in a big way. Frustrated he wasn't able to hold, the 22-year-old was unable to regroup, never earned himself another chance to break, and despite a couple of good gets, failed to recapture the magic of those first few hours. And after a match exactly as long as his semi with Rafa, it was finally Djokovic able to hold the trophy up high.

It takes something ultra special to overcome all the odds and pull off all that Novak did this week -- first to find the brilliance to beat Nadal on these courts and then to find the stamina to come back from two sets down against a supremely talented opponent suggests a strength not of the mortal world. The victory brings him his nineteenth Major trophy, drawing him ever closer to Roger's and Rafa's record twenty -- and with Wimbledon just a few weeks away and a real shot at winning the U.S. Open too, he might just pass them both before the year's over.

It also earns him a second Career Grand Slam -- at least two trophies at each Major. He's the first man in the Open Era to have achieved that feat and joins Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the only ones to hold that honor. With stats like that it's no wonder so many are eager to have the GOAT 🐐 conversation or that Djokovic has deservedly risen to the top of the contender list. And while it might still be a little to early to lock in that decision, it's clear that Novak is in a league very few will ever reach.

And perhaps one that will ultimately be all his own.

June 12, 2021

From Out of the Blue

Paris has long been considered a place where magic can happen, and that may be no place where that's more evident than on the courts of Roland Garros.

For the last half decade, five ladies have claimed their first Grand Slam titles here, some of them coming fom seemingly out of nowhere to do it. And today, unseeded and relatively unheralded Barbora Krejcikova became the latest one to do it.

It's not that the 25-year-old Czech has been completely off the radar, but until last September almost all of her successes had come on the doubles court. A paired titleist with Katarina Siniakova at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2018, and a runner up in Melbourne this year, she's picked up eight titles in that specialty over the years and reached #1 in the world in those rankings.

And while she remained in triple digits on the singles side of things, it was on these very courts last year that she began her ascent. A win over compatriot -- and fellow doubles standout -- Barbora Strycova in the second round and a resurgent Tsvetana Pironkova in the third got her to her first Major sweet sixteen, which she lost to that event's breakout, Nadia Podoroska. The run, though, helped her climb to #85 in the world and, with a semifinal in Linz and a runner-up finish in Dubai, she's continued to climb. A title in Strasbourg literally the day before play started at the French -- her first ever solo crown -- put her just outside of seeding territory.

And the streak didn't stop there. After dropping her opening set in Paris, she went on to take the next nine, with straight set victories over the likes of fifth seed Elina Svitolina, 2018 runner-up Sloane Stephens, and Parma champ Coco Gauff. She faced match point against Maria Sakkari in the semis, but powered through to reach the final in one of the unlikeliest of performances.

In Saturday's final she faced Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, another player who'd taken her time to reach this level. A three-time Junior Slam titleist, and a runner-up in the French Girls' draw in 2006, she made the quarters in Paris in 2011 but couldn't get out of the third round since. She was just barely seeded for this event, but pulled off wins just as impressive as Krejcikova's, stunning Aryna Sabalenka, one of my favorites for the trophy, Victoria Azarenka, and her Serena-slaying doubles partner Elena Rybakina on the way. It took her a record 52 tries to make her first Major final, and as the relative veteran in the final, seemed in a good position to take home the title.

But Krejcikova had other plans. She ran away with the first set in about half an hour and, though things see-sawed in the second with Pavs able to rebound and force a decider, it was the on-paper underdog able to draw first blood in the third. After what had been a lop-sided start, it was encouraging to see things stay so close at the end, and while the Russian was able to save a couple championship points on her own serve, ultimately Krejcikova was able to serve it out and win the ultimate prize.

That makes it a pretty nice three weeks for someone who'd only ever reached one singles final before this year. And, to further sweeten the pot, she's got a shot at picking up another doubles title with Siniakova tomorrow. She'd be the first person since Mary Pierce in 2000 to go home with both trophies. But win or lose Sunday, she's certainly proven the breadth of her talent over the last few weeks.

And while this win may seem to have come from nowhere, it's exactly that talent that'll help Krejcikova stick around for some time to come.

June 10, 2021

A Striking Imbalance


That's how many Grand Slam titles reside with each half of the remaining men's draw at Roland Garros. If that's not enough of an disparity for you, how's this? 56-1: the number of times each side has played a Major final. Or 73-5: how many semis. However you slice it, there is a huge difference in experience between the top and bottom halves of the draws. And while one may be brimming with opportunity, the other won't step aside that easily.

When the draws were released nearly two weeks ago, we were all disappointed to see Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal -- not to mention Roger Federer -- on the same side of the bracket. It seemed like some credit should be given to Rafa's thirteen titles here, even if he had ceded the #2 ranking. I mean, if these two should meet in Paris -- for the eighth time -- shouldn't it be in the final?

And they have, unsurprisingly, played up to form over this fortnight. Djokovic, who claimed a title in his hometown of Belgrade just a day before play started at the French -- had a weird fourth round against young Lorenzo Musetti, dropping the first two sets in tiebreaks before steamrolling through the next two and a half, but was in top form against Matteo Berrettini in yesterday's quarter. Nadal, meanwhile, may have had his 36-set win streak here broken in the quarters here, but he continues to find his best game when it matters and remains undefeated since 2015.

There's a lot at stake in their match tomorrow -- whoever wins will certainly take the advantage into Sunday's final, and a title there has historic implications. For Rafa, still the favorite no matter his ranking, two more wins earns him a record 21 Grand Slam titles, pulling him out of his current tie with Federer and potentially putting him in unreachable territory. But if Novak gets the win -- and he could, he was the last to actually beat Nadal on these courts -- he climbs within one Major of his rivals, and the way he's been playing Down Under, could fast establish himself as leader of the pack.

But does a win tomorrow necessarily guarantee a title at Roland Garros? Chomping at the bit in the bottom half, after all, is Stefanos Tsitsipas, who's been having one of the best clay court seasons out there -- 21 wins on the dirt so far, not to mention titles in Monte Carlo and Lyon, give him arguably a better run even than Rafa this year. He came pretty dang close to beating him in Barcelona, too, so this could be the best chance he's had yet to not only make his first final, but maybe even cause the upset of the century in it.

Meanwhile, Alexander Zverev, who dropped his first two sets in Paris to qualifier Oscar Otte before going on a fifteen-set win streak, came OHSOCLOSE to victory in his first Slam championship last year. He also has a win over Rafa on clay this year, getting the better of him on the way to a Madrid title last month. He's had a relatively easy path in Paris, though, without facing another seeded player yet, so let's see how he does when he's pitted against someone who's been so strong this year, because the winner of tomorrow's first semi will have a huge opportunity come Sunday.

Of course, it's going to be hard for one of the Next Gen to have his breakthrough against the OG. The last person outside of the Big Three to beat one of them during his run to a Major title was Stan Wawrinka all the way back in 2016. And we know these guys only up their games when the stakes are highest.

Still, the scales are going to start tipping in favor of these guys eventually, and if victory comes when the long-time champions are still at their prime, it'll only mean that much more. Because it seems certain that "0" at the top is going to tick up, and the only question is when.

June 7, 2021

Some New Blood

With the quarterfinals for this year's Roland Garros now set, you might notice more than a couple newbies in the mix.

The women's draw, shredded from the start, has just two players remaining who've ever reached the final eight at a Major before, and only one of those still standing is ranked in the top fifteen. And while most of the favorites have survived so far on the men's side, outside Nole and Rafa, even the top seeds have relatively little experience this deep into a fortnight.

And all that might mean the fireworks have only just started.

The Women

We already knew things were going to be interesting on the ladies side of things, which so many withdrawals, upsets, and retirements in the early days, but that just makes the consistent performances we've seen so far that much more impressive. Defending champion Iga Swiatek, somehow the most accomplished of the bunch at just twenty years of age, pulled off a strong win today against eighteen-year-old Marta Kostyuk, who rode her first round upset over former titleist Garbiñe Muguruza all the way to the fourth round in a pretty impressive run. Meanwhile, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the relative veteran of the group -- she's not even thirty yet! -- has made it back to the quarters in Paris for the first time in a decade. But everyone else is charting new territory.

I've already extolled the performance of Elena Rybakina, who rebounded from a sluggish start to the year to pull off the biggest win of her career in the fourth round, dismantling Serena Williams as she went for that still-elusive 24th Grand Slam title. And I've also been a big cheerleader for Paula Badosa -- with her title in Belgrade and a win over 2019 French runner-up Marketa Vondrousova in the last round, she's now riding a nine-match win streak and could be hard to beat. But there's also Maria Sakkari, the highest ranked first-timer, who ousted last year's runner-up Sofia Kenin earlier today. She's had trouble backing up one big win with another, but she'll be trying to change that against Swiatek in the next round

But we can't count out Tamara Zidansek who is having a true coming out party in Paris. About 30 spots off her career high ranking at #85 in the world right now, she's never made it out of the second round of a Major, and though she did manage a nice run to the Bogotá final, I wasn't giving her much of a shot here. But she followed up a first round upset of sixth seed Bianca Andreescu with wins over Serena's Parma slayer Katarina Siniakova and Istanbul champ Sorana Cirstea. She's certainly the on-paper underdog, but we should know better than to count her out.

And, of course, there's the match I might be most excited for -- seventeen-year-old Coco Gauff, the youngest woman to reach a Slam quarter in fifteen years -- Nicole Vaidisova, on these courts -- will take on Barbora Krejcikova, whose won a couple of Major doubles titles but has only even entered a handful of singles draws, in a battle of players riding nine-match win streaks. Gauff has a huge opportunity here -- her win over Ons Jabeur helped secure her a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team, while Krejcikova, who followed up an upset of fifth seed Elina Svitolina with a win over a resurgent Sloane Stephens, could get revenge for a doubles loss to Coco in Miami this year. But with a spot in her maiden semi on the line, it's great to see two unexpected superstars really stand out.

The Men

Things went a little more according to plan on the men's side, but that doesn't mean a total lack of drama -- or of fresh faces. Nineteen-year-old Lorenzo Musetti looked experienced well beyond his years when he took the first two sets off Novak Djokovic earlier today before losing steam and retiring in the fifth set, and fellow Italian teen Jannik Sinner got off to a strong start against Rafael Nadal, but the king of clay was able to do what he always does best to pull out the win.

The two favorites will take on two relative newcomers to the later rounds of Slams. Matteo Berrettini, whose ability to deliver I questioned for so long has happily proven me wrong, taking the title in Belgrade and making the final in Madrid. He got a little lucky with Roger Federer withdrawing before their fourth round match, but that extra rest could help him against a tested Djokovic. And Diego Schwartzman, who's turned around his clay court season in a big way, has yet to drop a set in his first four matches. Whether that gives him a shot at repeating his Rome revolution against Rafa -- well let's just say it's good to see him winning again.

The real surprise for the men has come in the bottom half of the draw, which, with the only Grand Slam titleholder in it eliminated in the first round, seemed to hold a huge opportunity for the next generation's leaders to breakthrough. And they've admittedly done well so far -- my favorite for the final, Stefanos Tsitsipas, is alive and well, dropping just one surprising set so far to John Isner, while Alexander Zverev has thrived after surviving an opening match scare and even Daniil Medvedev has found his footing on clay.

The standout, though, has been 21-year-old Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who's become a bit of a dark horse over the last few months. Outside the top fifty at the start of the year, he beat Berrettini in the second round of Monte Rome and took out Grigor Dimitrov in Rome. Playing just his third main draw in Paris, he stunned Casper Ruud, one of my favorites to go far, in the third round and followed it up with a win over sleeper Federico Delbonis. He's lost both his previous matches to Zverev, but whatever happens in the next round, this could set the stage for a lot more to come in his career.

Maybe we shouldn't be so surprised that so many twists and turns have come out of the French Open. But it's truly encouraging to see so many players breaking new ground over the last ten days. For the women, there's an unprecedented opportunity to claim a first Grand Slam title. For the men, while the odds still lie with the most decorated of the bunch, we're really going to see which next gen star has what it takes to step up.

And there's no better stage than this on which to do it.

June 6, 2021

Quite the Turnaround

The draws this year at Roland Garros have gotten shaken up for a lot of reasons, the most recent of which being the sudden withdrawal of Roger Federer earlier this morning. But as disappointing as that news was, it's honestly not the most shocking -- Fed had long said the goal of his comeback was not the French, but Wimbledon in a few weeks time. So whatever he needs to get ready for the Major where he's reached the final twelve times -- as opposed to the one he's missed four of the past six years -- seems prudent.

But outside of the withdrawals, the upsets, and the retirments, there's been unexpected pockets of strength, where even players who've struggled recently, or on these courts in particular, have pulled out big wins and erased opportunities for those who may have hoped to take advantage.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the success of world #2 Daniil Medvedev, who has made no secret of the fact that he's no fan of the red clay. He's lost almost two matches for every win he's had on the surface and before this year had never gotten out of the first round at Roland Garros. Facing a barely unseeded Alexander Bublik in his opener, I wasn't giving him much of a shot at changing that, but he got the win and went on to defeat 2015 French Boys' champ Tommy Paul and big-serving Reilly Opelka, who was coming off a semifinal run in Rome. Today, Medvedev got revenge for his Madrid third round loss to clay specialist Cristian Garin, firing off fourteen aces and winning more than 80 percent on his first serve. He's got a much tougher task in the quarters against Monte Carlo champ and Barcelona runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas, but the young Russian may have finally found his footing on the dirt and could use that to his advantage.

Diego Schwartzman, on the other hand, has always thrived on clay but was starting to show some signs of rust this year. After his stunning win over Rafael Nadal in Rome last year and a trip to his first Slam semi in Paris, he should have been in peak form coming into this season, but he hadn't been much of a force on clay in 2021. Though he picked up a title in Buenos Aires -- his biggest test in that run was world #42 Miomir Kecmanovic -- he lost his first rounds in Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome, and Lyon. But he's seemed to have recovered his magic a bit in the first week of the French, advancing through his first three rounds without losing a set. For a spot in the quarters he'll face off against Jan-Lennard Struff, a man who beat Andrey Rublev in his opener and wünderkind Carlos Alcaraz yesterday, so his ticket is far from booked. But a win would certainly go a long way in putting his year back on track.

Also finding her groove again in Paris is veteran Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Though she burst onto the scene over a decade ago, beating then #2 Jelena Jankovic and Aga Radwanska in Indian Wells in 2009 and reaching the quarters at the French and U.S. Opens in 2011, she went a long stretch with middling results at the Majors and little success there outside of Australia. She didn't play much on clay before Roland Garros this year, but she started to make a statement in Madrid -- ranked #41 in the world, she upset four top 25 players, including sixth seed Karolina Pliskova and eleventh seed Jen Brady on her way to the semis. And this week in Paris she not only avenged that loss in Spain, taking out one of my favorites for the title, Aryna Sabalenka, but went on to defeat former semifinalist Victoria Azarenka, who had also been putting together quite a comeback the first week.

The upset earned Pavs a quarterfinal date with a woman who is staging her own turnaround in Paris -- one who also happens to be her doubles partner here. Elena Rybakina was one of the young standouts of early 2020, reaching one final after another and barely taking a week off in between. She slowed down a bunch after the shutdown, losing early in New York and Paris, and while she made the quarters to start this season in Abu Dhabi, she didn't win more than one match at any event after that. That's changed in a big way this week, though -- after ending the comeback of Elena Vesnina in the third round, today she pulled off the win of her career, dismantling Serena Williams in straight sets in just over an hour, doubling her on aces (albeit only four to two) and breaking serve five times. It'll be her first Major quarterfinal, her best performance by far, and couldn't have come at a better time, given her slow start to the year.

Of course, there's still a long road to go for any of these players to get the big win in Paris, and their biggest tests still lie in front of them. It'll be a lot to ask any of them to come away with the titles, but their performances so far sure suggest they're ready to take on the challenges.