July 25, 2021

First Time Charm

All eyes may be on Tokyo these days, and understandably so. In just the first two days of play there've been a ton of headlines -- from the singles withdrawal of two-time defending champion Andy Murray to the first round upset of world #1 and reigning Wimbledon champ Ash Barty.

But the Olympics aren't the only game in town, and at a handful of tournaments around the world this weekend a handful of players were able to accomplish something that eluded them so far in their careers. And whether they've been long toiling on tour or are still fresh to the top tiers of competition, you can bet their accomplishments are something they'll remember a long time.

Palermo Ladies Open, Palermo, Italy

I'll start in Italy, where 27-year-old Danielle Collins was making up for lost time in a big way. After a strong start to the year, she'd missed the entire pre-French Open clay court season due to endometriosis surgery, but hit the courts hard when she returned. She played four straight weeks since the start of Wimbledon, reaching the quarters in Hamburg and the semis in Budapest before making the trip to Palermo. And though she was tested -- and conquered -- by much lower ranked players at both those events, this week she made it to the final -- surprisingly her first at this level -- without dropping a set.

In Sunday's match she faced off against qualifier Elena-Gabriela Ruse, the 23-year-old Romanian who was coming off her own maiden WTA final in Hamburg, where, also as a qualifier, she'd stunned veteran Andrea Petkovic to win the crown. She kept her momentum going with the help of a walkover from third seed Jil Teichmann, but scored a solid win over Oceane Dodin to reach her second straight chapionship match.

Her impressive run would end eventually at Collins' hands, though, and it seems a fitting time for the relative veteran to have her breakthrough. We know, after all, how powerful Collins' game can be -- she stunned then-#2 Angelique Kerber on her way to the Australian Open semis in 2019, and last year scored wins over Garbiñe Muguruza and Ons Jabeur on her way to the Roland Garros quarters. This year, before her surgery interrupted her season, she'd taken out Karolina Pliskova and Ash Barty during the Australian swing and, happily, seems to have picked up right where she left off. She might not have had to pull off any huge upsets on her way to that all-important first trophy, but having now broken the seal and with her condition hopefully behind her, there's no telling what other big wins might be in her future.

BNP Paribas Poland Open, Gdynia, Poland

The stakes weren't quite so high in Poland, where changes of schedule for top seed Yulia Putintseva, who was hoping to ride momentum from her Budapest title to success at the Olympics, but retired in her first round, and second seed Tamara Zidansek, fresh off her first career trophy in Laussane, meant the highest ranked player in the field was world #71 Irina-Camelia Begu.

That left things wide open for everyone else, which helps explain how Belgium's Marynka Zanevska, ranked #165, and Slovakian Kristina Cucova, at #150, were able to make the final. The former, who lost to Zidansek last week in the Laussane semis, this week upset ninth seed Nuria Parrizas Diaz, while the later was a winner over tenth seed Irina Bara in the second round. Both were playing for their first WTA title.

And it was, ultimately Zanevska who walked away with the trophy, another 27-year-old making her breakthrough this week. Will it be just the start of big things for her? That's a little harder to tell, but after two of the best weeks of her career, it very well could be.

Croatia Open, Umag, Croatia

On the men's side, it was less a story of veterans finally getting their pay off and more one of next gen stars showing us what they got. In Umag, 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, who scored his first tour-level win over veteran Albert Ramos last year in Rio, repeated the feat, but this time it was in the semis and after a year that had helped him rise to #73 in the world. He'd also scored a win over third seed Filip Krajinovic, the runner-up in Hamburg just a few weeks ago, in the quarters, so he was clearly in a much more accomplished frame of mind.

In the other half of the draw, veteran Richard Gasquet was working his way through the draw and ultimately reached his 38th carreer final, but his first since 2018. The 35-year-old, who hit his career high ranking of #7 in the world when Alcaraz was just four years old, was going for his 16th trophy and, maybe more impressively, his 561st career win, the most of any active player outside the Big Four.

But this time youth would triumph over experience. In his first ATP final, Alcaraz saved all three break points he faced and won nearly 80 percent of his first serves to finish off the championship match in just under 80 minutes. The win makes the Spaniard the youngest champion on tour in over a decade, when then-18 year old Kei Nishikori claimed the trophy in Delray Beach. And it certainly seems Alcaraz is destined for even bigger things from here, and I wouldn't be surprised if we started seeing that soon.

Mifel Open, Los Cabos, Mexico

Slightly older than Alcaraz but still, as yet, undecorated was Cameron Norrie, who has nevertheless climbed his way up the rankings thanks to final showings in Estoril, Lyon -- where he beat Dominic Thiem, and Queen's Club -- where he beat Denis Shapovalov. The top seed in Los Cabos, he was hoping to finally break the seal and after a tight opening set against Mikael Ymer, he didn't lose more than three games a set on his way to the final, beating a very talented Taylor Fritz three-and-one in the semis.

Meanwhile 19-year-old Brandon Nakashima was hoping to be the second teen champion of the weekend. Still ranked outside the top hundred, he had picked up a couple Challengers titles in his young career, but has mostly been an also-ran at the ATP level so far. If his performance in Mexico is any indication, that could be about to change, though -- after a straight set win over fourth seed Sam Querrey, he took out Jordan Thompson and then stunned John Isner in the semis, breaking his big-serving compatriot twice and dishing out twelve aces himself.

But it wasn't enough against Norrie. The 25-year-old Brit was finally the more experienced one in the championship round and was able to prevail in his fifth final appearance. In another straight set match, he was able to score his 35th tour win of the season, tying him with none other than Novak Djokovic for the third most on tour. And with the consistency he's shown in this first half, there's no reason to believe he won't be adding more wins to the docket soon.

Swiss Open, Gstaad, Switzerland

The only place where we didn't see a first time champion this weekend was in Gstaad, where Casper Ruud, fresh off a win in the appropriately rhyming Bastad, picked up his third title of the year and his fourth overall. He's now running a seven match win streak since that surprise early exit and Wimbledon and could be making a play for the top ten before the year is out.

But that doesn't diminish the accomplishment of his final opponent, twenty-year-old Hugo Gaston, who'd been, up to this week, a little quiet after that resounding run to the fourth round last year at Roland Garros. So far at the Slams this year, he'd fallen to Richard Gasquet in his Paris opener and failed to qualify for Australia or Wimbledon, and he'd only won two matches elsewhere on tour.

But he found his footing this week, stunning clay court specialist Federico Delbonis in the second round and then going on to beat Cristian Garin and Laslo Djere to make his first ATP final. While three straight three-setter may have left him too little in the tank to put up a fight against Ruud on Sunday, his performance certainly gave us hope that we haven't seen the best of him yet.

And while the first time may not have been his charm, something tells me it won't be too long before he gets his.

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