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TENNIS.com Round Robin: 2021 players to monitor, favorite AO rewatches
As a highly intriguing and already unprecedented tennis year gets underway, our team weighs in on three diverse topics.
January 23, 2021
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As a highly intriguing and already unprecedented tennis year gets underway, our editorial team gathered—virtually, of course—to discuss and compile thoughts on a variety of topics. Here, we bring you the first edition of “The TENNIS.com Round Robin.”
What have you personally missed most about tennis during the pandemic?
David Kane: The circadian rhythm of the tennis schedule is something on which I’ve come to depend. In an unpredictable world, I eagerly anticipate when I can once again set my watch to the schedule, for the year to begin and end in all of the familiar places.
Nina Pantic: Being on site for live matches and in-person interviews. There’s something so magical about being at a tournament in real time and experiencing all the reactions, emotions and intricacies up close.
Kamakshi Tandon: It’s been hard to keep track of dates, but it was even harder not having tennis’ distinctive seasons–clay, grass, hard as ingrained as the seasons of the year–unfold during their usual times.
Jon Levey: Wins and losses come and go, but nothing beats swapping tennis tales with fellow travelers over a few adult beverages. COVID has limited interaction to a racquet tap and a masked dash to the car. I was grateful tennis was largely available during the pandemic, but I’m relishing the return of leagues and team matches that inject more of the social and less of the distancing.
Jordaan Sanford: The crowds igniting after Rafael Nadal finds a way to retrieve a ball and lines it up perfectly for an epic passing shot in Paris. The tennis world is small, and when fans come together to take in the game, it feels similar to a family reunion.
Cale Hammond: As a Los Angeles resident, I do miss being able to frequent many of the city’s beautiful public tennis courts with no reservations or lines. There’s no question the pandemic has been a boon to tennis’ global popularity, as it remains one of the most socially distant sports. I firmly believe one of the next great American tennis players is learning to play right now.
Joel Drucker: The sights, sounds and smells of covering an event. Watching a morning practice session, bumping into a familiar source, sitting alongside an outer court, seeing a match get surprisingly dramatic—all that texture.
Name a player who has not won a singles Slam that you are interested in this season—and why?
Ashley Ndebele: Nick Kyrgios. Love him or hate him, the polarizing Aussie has the talent and ability to topple the world’s best players in any given day. Since the pandemic hit, we’ve seen a more mature Kyrgios be an outspoken critic of players who’ve disregarded COVID protocols. Now the question is, can he bring this newfound attitude to his home Slam?
Peter Bodo: Alexander Zverev created one of the most amazing breakthroughs in tennis history when, barely 20 years old and operating in perhaps the most competitive era in tennis history, he won five titles in 2017. But despite his talent and record of consistency, he hasn’t won the long-predicted major, and he’s becoming a poster boy for entitlement and privilege.
Van Sias: After finishing 2019 with a first title, runner-up showing at the Paris Masters and Davis Cup final, it appeared the stage was set for Denis Shapovalov to have a huge 2020. However, despite reaching some career milestones, the young shotmaker finished the year barely above .500. It will be interesting to see if he can effectively navigate what’s sure to be another unpredictable season.
Levey: Felix Auger-Aliassime. All great players seem to have that light-bulb match or tournament—usually a Slam—when something clicks in their games and their careers take flight. FAA has had his share of impressive wins, but I think we’re still waiting on his A-ha! moment. When it arrives, I expect to see a bunch of major titles to follow.
Tandon: I find Daniil Medvedev‘s game fascinating because he can swing between two extremes—ultra-defensive to super-offensive—and I’m interested in whether he, unlike some recent ATP Finals winners, can build on that triumph.
Hammond: I am a huge Ugo Humbert fan. I believe his combination of ball-striking, movement, shot-making, deft feel—and left-handedness—is seriously underrated, and am excited about his future. He seems to have the most positive parent/player relationship on tour with his mother Anne. Not only does she shower her son with positive energy and support during the match, she will also give standing ovations to her son’s opponent after incredible points and shots.
Ed McGrogan: Kyrgios, because he hasn’t played since last February, and because he has played some of his best tennis in Australia, tennis’ impending epicenter.
Matt Fitzgerald: Maria Sakkari continues to take steps forward each season. She can outslug anyone when her “Sakk attack” is on. At 25, does she now have enough experience to find ways to win when not at her best? I’m optimistic there’s much more to come.
Sanford: Jennifer Brady has put in a lot of work over her career, and it showed last season. After claiming her first WTA title in Lexington and sprinting into the US Open semifinals, it will be interesting to see if she carries that momentum into the 2021 season.
Steve Tignor: Brady. The American finally made her exciting brand of tennis work at the highest levels last year. But it still seems like an open question whether the 25-year-old can remain at that level in 2021.
Pantic: Aryna Sabalenka is on a 15-match win streak, dating back to October, and has the most confidence out of anyone on the WTA tour right now. She’s been honing her powerful game and is finally figuring out that magic other half she needed to match her big strokes: consistency.
Drucker: Belinda Bencic has been around for a while, but is still just 23 years old. I’ve always greatly enjoyed watching the way she intelligently applies pressure to her opponents by taking the ball early. But Bencic can also be up and down, so I’m fascinated to see what’s to come for her in 2021.
What Australian Open match do you enjoy rewatching?
Sias: The semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco in 2009 deserves to be counted among the best matches ever played at the tournament. Despite an 0-6 record against the top seed going into this one, Verdasco came to play this night. The 14th seed went toe-to-toe with his countryman for just over five hours before finally going down 6-4 in the fifth. If you have a few minutes to spare, just watch the fourth-set tiebreak, which Verdasco played as perfectly as one could imagine.
Ndebele: The 2018 women’s final between Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep. Who was going to break the Slam curse? The player who was willing to abandon her counter-punching comfort zone had a better chance of breaking through. On this occasion, both Wozniacki and Halep graced us with an utterly astonishing match that unfolded over nearly three hours in the draining Aussie heat.
Bodo: I can never get enough of the 2012 final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, who were ranked No. 1 and 2 in the world respectively when they produced the longest (in duration) final in Grand Slam history. The five-hour, 53-minute struggle was superb kinetic chess, but its greatest glory was the stamina and unrelenting fighting spirit of both men.
McGrogan: The 2008 men’s final between Novak Djokovic, seeking his first Slam title, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. If you were told then that, 13 years later, the two players would combine to win 17 Slams, how would you have distributed them?
Kane: History is written by the winners, which is why the 2001 quarterfinal between Martina Hingis and Serena Williams is a forgotten classic. The match features Hingis at the peak of her powers, still able to solve the power game that set the standard for decades to come. It also shows Williams just shy of the legend she would soon become, the strides she would make in a mere 14 months to begin her first Serena Slam.
Tignor: I still love Rod Laver vs. Tony Roche from 1969. The black and white film, the debilitating heat, the powerful serve-and-volley play, the long, slow, grueling-but-never-boring duel to the death of two lefties over five sets and nearly as many hours. It’s mesmerizing.
Fitzgerald: The 2018 semifinal between Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber. To me, it was a top contender for match of the decade. The athleticism, the desire, the dramatic flair, the shot-making, the stakes, the magnificence of two supreme competitors bringing out the best in each other all make it a classic that will forever keep me on the edge of my seat.