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 protΓ©gΓ© 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.

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