By Stephen Ratte
Winner: Anett Kontaveit
Runner Up: Maria Sakkari
Kontaveit in Control
Is there a player in the world in better form than Anett Kontaveit. I mean sure, Ash Barty, but anyone else? 2021 was a breakthrough year for the Estonian in her eleventh year of professional competition. Having only won a single title prior to last year, she won four in 2021 alone. She also reached an additional final that was canceled due to COVID-induced scheduling conflicts with the Australian Open, after which she and her opponent both received the winner’s points and prize money. She reached the WTA Finals as the eighth seed, but beat everyone in the tournament she faced not named Garbiñe Muguruza to finish as the runner up. Including this past week, Kontaveit has now won twenty consecutive matches on indoor hard courts, the most since Justine Henin won twenty-two straight from 2007 to 2010 (thanks, Wikipedia!) A disappointing Australian Open notwithstanding, Kontaveit has largely picked up where she left off last year and won perhaps her first of many 2022 titles in St. Petersburg.
She certainly didn’t have an easy road. She faced five straight opponents inside the top thirty-five in the world, and had tough tests in Ostapenko in the semis and Sakkari in the final. The final in particular was an extremely tense affair, with Sakkari winning the first set after going down a break. In the second and third sets, it was Kontaveit who fell behind by a break, but she battled back both times and won by a scoreline of 5-7, 7-6, 7-5 in one of the early contenders for match of the year. These two have played a total of thirteen times, with the head to head swinging just slightly to Kontaveit seven to six. After watching this final, I’d take thirteen more in a heartbeat. Kontaveit’s single grand slam quarter final appearance is mind boggling when you watch her performance in St. Petersburg, I’d be willing to bet this is the year that all changes. Likewise, Sakkari could very well take that next step in 2022 after two slam semi finals last season.
On Sakkari, the 26-year old world number six continues to impress with her form, but still seems to struggle when the pressure is at its highest. She had a stunning 2021, making two major semifinals (she served for one of them, coming as close as two points away from the Roland-Garros final). Her serve is one of the best in the world — at the U.S. Open, she clashed with Karolina Plíšková in the quarterfinals and lost eight points on serve. Eight. She’s an endurance beast; she had Bianca Andreescu cramping after practically every point at the end of their U.S. Open fourth-rounder. Despite the physical exhaustion of the three-and-a-half hour match, Sakkari returned two days later to serve Plíšková off the court like it was nothing. Her game and physicality, I think, are where they need to be to win big titles.
Curiously, though, Sakkari doesn’t have any. She won the Morocco Open in 2019, but besides that is title-less on the singles tour. She served for the St. Petersburg title at 5-3 in the third against Kontaveit and even went up 15-love, but couldn’t close the deal.
It’s not as if Sakkari isn’t clutch — against Jessica Pegula in Miami last year, she saved six match points, five with winners. But she clearly has some shakiness when on the cusp of making a breakthrough. She served for the Roland-Garros semifinal against Krejčíková last year and was broken, after holding the break since nearly the beginning of the set. Dealing with the infamous fear of winning is incredibly hard, but for now it stands in the way of Sakkari and a breakthrough title. Still, with her skillset, it seems like a matter of time until the barrier falls.
- Another player on the rise, Elena Rybakina, has had an awful time with injuries these last few months. She looked incredible in Adelaide to start the year until running into Ash Barty in the final, but she was forced to withdraw from the Australian Open and now St. Petersburg with injuries. Here’s hoping she recovers soon and can realize the potential she’s been hinting at for the past year or so.
- Petra Kvitová is a bit out of sorts of late, and she was beaten soundly by Camelia Begu 6-4, 6-0 in round two. It’ll be an uphill climb for Kvitová to match her year end ranking of seventeen from last year given the form she’s been in so far in 2022.
Winner: Felix Auger-Aliassime
Runner up: Stefanos Tsitsipas
A First for Felix
Canadian sensation Felix Auger-Aliassime has been a tantalizing talent on the rise in tennis for years. He’s certainly been well on his way to recognizing his enormous potential over the last six months, with quarterfinal or better showings in his last three slams. However, one question lingered for the twenty one year old: when was he finally going to get over the line and win his first ATP title?
Well that question was answered in Rotterdam, as he won his first title in his ninth career ATP final in convincing fashion. Not only did he survive last year’s champion Andrey Rublev after losing the first set in the semis, but he comprehensively outplayed Tsitsipas in the final 6-4, 6-2. It feels like an important moment for Felix, who showed nary a sign of nerves despite having lost his previous eight ATP Finals without winning a single set. This combined with Canada’s ATP Cup win and a strong showing at the Australian Open seems to herald a new peak for Auger-Aliassime. The clay season may slow down his ascension, as he has never won a main draw match at Roland Garros and doesn’t have much to show for his efforts at any of the three clay Masters 1000 events, but he will be one to watch as he makes a push for Turin in the back half of the calendar. With the pressure to win a title relieved by this win, who knows what he can accomplish for the rest of the year?
One Canadian Rises, Another Falls
While his friend and U.S. Open Juniors Championship doubles partner was winning the title, Denis Shapovalov was reeling from a loss to Czech Republic’s Jiří Lehečka. It was Shapovalov’s first court appearance since his quarter finals loss to Nadal at the Australian Open, and it will hardly alleviate the sting he felt losing that five setter after calling the chair umpire “corrupt.” While Shapovalov has had his ups over the last few years, notably a semifinal berth at last year’s Wimbledon Championships, his last title win came in October of 2019, which is by far the longest title drought of anyone in the top fifteen.
Still, things could’ve been worse. Aslan Karatsev, one of the other seeds to be unceremoniously ejected from the draw in round one, lost in brutal fashion after squandering several match points on his serve and failing to win a single point in the third set tiebreak. The Aslan roller coaster ride is a wild one. He followed up a convincing title run in Sydney to open the season with a decent but not spectacular third round showing in the Australian Open. Since then, however, he has lost in two consecutive first round matches in Pune and Rotterdam to players well below his ranking of world number fifteen. It’s a microcosm of the Russians 2021 season. When he’s on, he’s on and can well and truly look like one of the best players in the world. When he’s off, it’s simply brutal to watch. In his loss to Griekspoor, he hit thirty two winners to thirty seven unforced errors. Such a peak and valley low margins playstyle can produce some mind boggling highlights, but it remains to be seen whether he can sustain a high level over the course of a full tennis season.
Leheck(of)a Good Run
The semi finals lineup in Rotterdam consisted of first seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, second seed Andrey Rublev, third seed Felix Auger-Aliassime, and… Jiří Lehečka? Ranked 137 in the world, Lehečka went on a tear in Rotterdam. After upsetting Corentin Moutet in qualifying, he upset Shapovalov in round one before two three set wins over Botic van de Zandschulp and Lorenzo Musetti saw him in the semis. He even gave the top seeded Tsitsipas a scare by winning the first set before ultimately fading away and losing in three. Still it was a week to remember for the twenty year old and marked his first entry into the world’s top 100. Additionally, his name provides plenty of punny opportunities, so here’s hoping this isn’t the last we see of Jiri Lehečka.
- In one of tennis’s strangest “rivalries,” Andrey Rublev and Márton Fucsovics met yet again, with the Russian avenging last year’s Wimbledon defeat and putting Fucsovics on the wrong end of a 5-2 head to head score.
- It’s time for this week’s Murray-watch. The good: the former world number one beat Montpellier champion Alexander Bublik in straight sets to open his Rotterdam campaign. The bad: he was soundly beaten in round two by Auger-Aliassime. At least Felix went on to win the title?
- Remember Lorenzo Musetti? He was all the rage a year ago at the age of just nineteen with wins over players like Dimitrov, Tiafoe, and Schwartzman. He was even up two sets to love over Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros before he physically broke down in five. And lest we forget his Elegant One-Handed Backhand™. Well he beat Hurkacz in round two before losing to Lehečka. So that’s something.
- Since declaring in 2019 that in regards to Auger-Aliassime “I have to accept that he’s better than me. I may never beat him,” Stefanos Tsitsipas had beaten the Canadian five straight times. Maybe it’s time for another pessimistic press conference after this finals loss?
Winner: Reilly Opelka
Runner Up: Jenson Brooksby
Big Man, Bigger Serving
Reilly Opelka is tall and he hits a huge serve. This is hardly a new observation, but watching him over the week in Dallas just puts into perspective how good his serve really is. Over the eight sets he played throughout the week, he hit 100 aces and a single double fault. While I’ve thought of Opelka as a bit of an Isner-lite on serve in the past, I think he has definitively shown that he is the biggest server on the tour right now. Oh yeah, and he won the title.
It’s become a bit of an annual tradition for Opelka, as his three career titles have now all been won in the month of February on US soil (2019 New York Open, 2020 Delray Beach, 2022 Dallas). And while his serve was the highlight, it was hardly the only thing he offered in his matches. He will surprise you with his movement at times for a man his size, and he’s clearly got power off both wings when he has time. While he will probably never be a great watch, the self professed “servebot” is back in the top twenty with this win and remains a player I’d imagine no one would want to see in their draw.
His finals opponent, twenty-one year old Jenson Brooksby picked up right where he left off last year. The young American was a revelation in the latter half of 2021, reaching his first career final in July and winning the opening set of his surprise fourth round US Open clash with Novak Djokovic 6-1. While he missed the Next Gen Finals last year due to injury, his return to ATP main draws in Dallas was a resounding success, and two tight 6-7 set losses to Opelka is hardly a reason to hang your head in shame. While he doesn’t have the serve of American contemporaries like Opelka, Isner, or even Fritz, Brooksby makes up for it with better than average defensive play and some baseline winners that will take your breath away. While he clearly has a lot of growing to do as a player, Brooksby is one of the most exciting young American prospects on the tour today.
Have I Mentioned the Serving?
Do you like breaks of serve? Then Dallas was not the tournament for you. We had Anderson vs Querrey as an appetizer in round one and we were off the races. Opelka and Stebe played a nearly two hour match in the second round where neither player generated a breakpoint. Then there was a rematch of an infamous 2018 Wimbledon semi final between Kevin Anderson and John Isner, a three setter wherein one breakpoint chance was generated (and saved). Not enough for you? Can I interest you in the longest tiebreak in ATP history between Isner and Opelka in the semis, with an astounding second set tiebreak score of 24-22? If only the organizers had the foresight to grant wild cards to Raonic and Karlovic, they could have rebranded as the ATP Servebot Masters. I jest. Kind of.
Final fun fact: Reilly Opelka’s 100 aces in Dallas is more than Diego Schwartzman hit in all of 2021 (88).
250 Buenos Aires
Winner: Casper Ruud
Runner Up: Diego Schwartzman
A Ruud Awakening in Argentina
For the second time in his career Casper Ruud hoisted the trophy in Buenos Aires and he looked rather good doing so. The Norwegian was an absolute menace to the home crowd, defeating Coria, Delbonis, and Schwartzman in the quarters, semis, and final to kill all dreams of an Argentine victory. Ruud now holds a 7-2 record in ATP finals with six of those seven titles coming on clay. If there was ever a time for him to solidify his position in the ATP’s top ten, it would be in the upcoming European clay court swing where he has made fewer inroads over the past few years. Most surprising for Ruud is the fact that he has never been past the third round at Roland Garros, which should in theory be his best slam. If his performance in Buenos Aires is anything to go by, he stands a good chance of going much deeper if he’s on his game in Paris.
While he did win in Buenos Aires last year, Diego Schwartzman has to be disappointed to lose a third career final on home soil. Still, he did have some special moments during the week. He was in real danger in the quarterfinals against Francisco Cerundolo, but came back from a set down to win a three hour thriller that featured twelve breaks of serve. Likewise, he survived some adversity in the semis against Lorenzo Sonego where he lost the second set. He was also the only player to take a set off of Ruud throughout the week. With Ruud’s penchant for winning clay court 250’s and Schwartzman being only twenty-nine, one wonders whether we will see many more finals meetings between these two on this same court in the future.
Del Potro Says Goodbye
Sure Ruud won the title, but the story of the tournament was Argentina’s favorite son, Juan Martín del Potro, announcing his impending retirement from the sport prior to his first round match with Delbonis. I won’t speak too much more about del Potro. Other writers on the site have done an excellent job eulogizing his tennis career. However, I am happy that he got to go out on the court as opposed to in a hospital bed, as he has been so often injured these past few years it seemed as though he may never take to a tennis court again. He is a true giant both literally and figuratively in modern tennis, and it was a pleasure to watch him play for all the time he could bear it. And on the subject of some (ridiculous) protests on Twitter regarding Delbonis playing to win the match, I am glad that del Potro got a definite conclusion out of this. Had Delbonis pulled punches and allowed Delpo to win, it would’ve been a hollow victory, a false hope for the future that would have perhaps made Delpo question if he was doing the right thing. When he laid his headband on the net following the defeat amidst a standing ovation from the crowd it felt fitting, like he had achieved a real closure. Perhaps it wasn’t the ending to his career that he would have once hoped for, but at least he got to see the love his fans bear for him in that moment. One last time.
- Casper Ruud now has the same number of ATP titles as Stefanos Tsitsipas. Chew on that for a moment.
- Thirty-eight year old Fernando Verdasco won his first two rounds in Buenos Aires, marking his first and second ATP main draw wins since May 25th of 2021. Good for Fernando, who must certainly be nearing retirement himself.
- Unfortunately for thirty-six year old Pablo Cuevas, he couldn’t match Verdasco’s success and his main draw victory drought, which is ongoing since the first round of last year’s Roland Garros, continues into its ninth month.
- While checking where Diego Schwartzman’s 4-9 finals record put him all time, I realized that Thomas Muster holds the career best winning percentage in finals (minimum of 15 finals played) with 81.5%. That’s ten percentage points higher than Nadal or Djokovic and fifteen points higher than Federer. Fun fact to impress your tennis nerd friends!