July 4, 2021

Golden Opportunities

Well now we're really getting down to it -- one week of Wimbledon in the books and one more to go, and as expected we've had some standout play. But as we start to get really serious in the second week, maybe it's time to reassess where we stand -- after all plenty of favorites are out of the mix and a couple of surprise standouts have really got a chance to do something big.

The Men

Sure most of the favorites on the men's side are alive and well -- after dropping his first set to wildcard teen Jack Draper, defending champion Novak Djokovic has been unstoppable, Roger Federer rebounded from a pretty ugly opening round and has sailed through his next two, even Daniil Medvedev, who's never made it out of the third round here, came back from two sets down to former finalist Marin Cilic yesterday to reach the final 16. But there have been other standouts.

Seeded 14th, Hubert Hurkacz has basically done what he's supposed to so far, but for a Miami champ who'd only won one match since that breakthrough performance, it's been a good reminder of what he's capable of. The 24-year-old Pole got to his first Major fourth round with surprisingly straightforward wins over teen phenom Lorenzo Musetti, resurging Marcos Giron, and underrated Alexander Bublik, becoming the only man who hasn't lost a set yet. That may change against second seed Medvedev tomorrow, but as stated the favorite was pushed to the limit in his third round and could be vulnerable now.

And Sebastian Korda, who was ranked outside the top two-hundred at this time last year, has so far been unintimidated by the grand stage of his first Wimbledon. After a four set win over Eastbourne champ Alex de Minaur, he went on to beat hometown favorite Dan Evans in the third round. And he's got a huge opportunity to make his first Major quarterfinal -- 25th seed Karen Khachanov has been a little quiet lately, and thanks to a stunning win by Frances Tiafoe in the first round here, hasn't been an underdog in a match yet. Korda will still be the underdog tomorrow -- on his 21st birthday no less -- at least on paper, but something tells me he might be able to get the better of even the more experienced Russian. It sure would be a pretty nice way to celebrate.

Meanwhile Marton Fucsovics has been quietly hacking away at his part of the draw too. A fourth-rounder at two Grand Slams last year -- he took out Denis Shapovalov in Australia and then stunned Daniil Medvedev back when he was winless in Paris -- he's been ranked as high as #31 in the world, but often plays well above that level. He opened his campaign at the All England Club with a big win over wünderkind Jannik Sinner and then dispatched ninth seed Diego Schwartzman in the third round. For a spot in the quarters he'll face Andrey Rublev, certainly a hard ask, but he has won the pair's only previous five-setter, though that was four years ago. Still the Hungarian has a strong game, and I wouldn't be surprised to see his run continue.

But the real surprise has been Ilya Ivashka who, at 27, is one of the oldest first-time main drawers in the field. The Belorussian comes to Wimbledon at a career high ranking of just 79th in the world, thanks to a run to the quarters in Eastbourne, but he also has a win over Alexander Zverev and took a set off Rafael Nadal in Barcelona this year. He's had a pretty clear path so far, with his second round opponent having taken out Aslan Karatsev and his third having dismissed Casper Ruud for him, but that still got him what's already been his best Major performance by far. He'll next face Matteo Berrettini, whose run this year has honestly been so refreshing and will certainly be no easy challenge. Still, if there were ever a year for the late bloomer to shine, it might be this one.

The Women

The ladies' side has seen a similar dichotomy. Former Major champions Ashleigh Barty, Angelique Kerber, Iga Swiatek, and even the most newly-crowned Barbora Krejcikova, playing her first singles main draw here, advancing without too much drama. And much-lauded upstarts like Coco Gauff, Ons Jabeur, Elena Rybakina, and Paula Badosa have all shown their recent successes were no fluke. But some others are making a run here and have a shot at really redefining their careers.

It may seem weird to start that conversation with a look at second seed Aryna Sabalenka, but when you realize the world #4 and ten-time WTA title holder has never made it out of the fourth round of a Major, you might see what I mean. After her stellar run on clay, I gave her a pretty good shot at taking the French Open title, but she fell in the third round. She also lost her opener in Berlin and was stunned by world #75 Camila Giorgi in Eastbourne. She's been decently strong so far, coming back from a set down to British wildcard Katie Boulter before taking out teen breakthrough Maria Camilia Osorio Serrano in her Wimbledon debut. Next up for Sabalenka is Rybakina, who's turning her year around in a big way. The favorite may have won both their previous matches, most recently in the Abu Dhabi quarters, but we'll see if she can steel her nerves enough to finally break her curse.

Meanwhile wildcard Liudmila Samsonova is quickly proving her Cinderella run in Berlin was legit. Ranked in triple digits just last month, her wins over five top-fifty players, including Victoria Azarenka and Belinda Bencic told everyone she's a force, and her wins this week over Sloane Stephens and seeded Jessica Pegula really drove it home. She'll face off Monday against eighth seed Karolina Pliskova, who's been admittedly strong in her first week of play here. Samsonova may be the underdog in this fight, but I have to say, it's as good a shot as any she might have to reach her maiden Major quarter.

Also with a shot at reaching a milestone is relative veteran Viktorija Golubic, who's been quietly having a pretty solid year. A finalist at two straight tournaments during the spring and a winner over Belinda Bencic in Eastbourne, she'd cut her ranking in half already this year and is primed to go even higher. After a marathon first round against Veronika Kudermetova which went 11-9 in the third, she had a surprisingly easy time against Danielle Collins one match later and dropped just three games to Madison Brengle on Friday. She's up against Madison Keys next, certainly a bigger threat and one who scored a big upset of her own against Elise Mertens. Still it's a winnable match for the Swiss and could really open things up for her.

Of course, the big surprise in the ladies draw comes in the top quarter of the draw. Veteran Ajla Tomljanovic, who's struggled with consistency over the years -- she beat Aga Radwanska at the French in 2014 then lost in eight straight first rounds that year, she broke the top 40 in 2019 but was 5-12 last year -- seems to have found her footing in London again. She held tough against Alizée Cornet, who'd scored a huge win over Bianca Andreescu in her opener, and came back against Eastbourne champ Jelena Ostapenko, someone I thought had the potential to go far. She'll face off against this event's clear Cinderella, British wildcard Emma Raducanu, an eighteen year old junior quarterfinalist here a few year's ago who's picked up a couple ITF trophies over her very short career. Her run in her Major debut, though, might suggest there's more to come -- she beat former French finalist Marketa Vondrousova and stunned an in-form Sorana Cirstea on Saturday. This match-up presents a huge opportunity for both women, neither of whom have even had a whiff of a quarterfinal before. Going forward, it'll only get harder of course -- the winner will meet one of the recent French Open champions -- but what a chance to put one of their names on the map.

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