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Latvian Woman Takes Roland Garros

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Jelena Ostapenko (zimbio.com)

By Cheryl Jones

It was a sure thing that a woman who had never won a Grand Slam prior to today would win the title at Roland Garros. Simona Halep of Romania and Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia managed to struggle through the masses – or at least 126 other women to reach the championship round that was scheduled for 3:00 in the afternoon on the final Saturday.

 

Ostapenko was ranked 47 before the match began, on Monday, she should move up to twelve. She had plowed successfully through her opponents and after defeating Timea Bacsinszky 7-6, 6-3, 6-3 in a semi-final match, she was propelled into the final that began precisely as scheduled in Court Philippe Chatrier. The stands were filled to capacity with excited fans hoping for a three setter to make that decision, merely because it would allow more tennis watching time.

Their wish came true. Halep took the first set and Ostapenko the second. When the matches at Roland Garros began two weeks ago, each of them had their eye on the same prize, along with the 126 other women, of course. Ostapenko has now made her mark on the terre battue, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. Latvia will have a representative in the long list of countries that have garnered titles in Paris. (Latvia will join the Czech Republic, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Italy, China, Netherlands, and Hungary with one title apiece. Oddly enough, the United States is in the lead with 29. Germany is in a distant second with 10.)

The Suzanne Lenglen Cup has been the trophy awarded to the women’s winner in Paris since 1979. For the record, history buffs may remember that Suzanne Lenglen won the tournament in Paris six times. The first four wins were before the event opened its doors to competitors from outside France. (The year was 1925. Soon after that, Lenglen became ill and was diagnosed with leukemia. She lived just three more years and died of pernicious anemia on July 4th, 1928. But her legacy as one of the greatest female athletes of all time lives on, with a show court at Roland Garros that honors her.)

Halep was the Junior Girls’ Winner in Paris in 2008. She is one of the many young stars who have moved from the junior ranks to the rigors of the tour rather seamlessly. Ranked as World Number 4, before the Saturday match, she will be moving up the rankings to number two. (Had she won, she would have surpassed Angelique Kerber and become Number One.) She’s been ranked number two before, but at twenty-five, there will be more chances for her to shine on the courts. She made some impressive strides this time out. This was her second trip to the final here. In 2014, Maria Sharapova swooped in with a win in three sets, 6-4, 6-7, 6-4 to take the cup away that time.

Ostapenko seemed as if she was in a daze after the one minute less than two-hour match had been completed and the prize was hers. This was the first tour level title for her and the last woman to win her debut tour-level title at a slam was American, Barbara Jordan at the 1979 Australian Open when she defeated another American, Sharon Walsh in a staccato 6-3, 6-3 match. There will be celebrating in Riga and all the other cities in Latvia this evening – at least in tennis circles. It should be a joyous party, even without the honored guest who will have to stick around until early next week for photos and other celebrations in Paris after the men’s winner is decided on Sunday.

Ostapenko is only the third player born in the 1990s to take home a Grand Slam title. The other two are Petra Kvitova in 2011 and 2014 Wimbledon and Garbiñe Muguruza at last year’s 2016 Roland Garros. Looking back, it would be logical to assume that there will be more and more young women (and men) to have become champions because anyone born in 1990 will be 27 years old when the chimes welcome in the new year of 2018.

Thirteen years ago, Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon on what was her seventh appearance in a Grand Slam main draw. She was 17. (For the record, American Pam Shriver made it to a final after only two appearances in a main draw. It was at the US Open in 1978, but she lost to fellow American Chris Evert 7-5, 6-4.)

The last player to win their debut title at Roland Garros was Brazilian, Gustavo Kuerten who just happened to take the title on June 8, 1997. It was the day Ostapenko was born. Serendipity or not, that coincidence could have been an omen hanging out in the recesses of the tunnels leading to the center of Court Philippe Chatrier.

It’s a sure thing that Ostapenko was waiting for the right moment to vault into the spotlight. With her winnings today, she nearly doubled her previous tour bounty. The grand prize for both women and men is $2,351,000.00 in US money.

Ostapenko’s future looks more than bright. She’s got a lot to live up to in the future, but something tells me that won’t be a problem for the fresh faced young woman from Latvia. Tonight though, she’s in Paris and she’ll be surrounded by a winner’s glow no matter how early the nearly full moon manages to slip below the horizon and disappear from view.

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Australian Open Daily Preview: Olympic Gold Medalists Face Differing Challenges

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Belinda Bencic on Monday in Melbourne (twitter.com/AustralianOpen)

Six months ago in Tokyo, Sascha Zverev and Belinda Bencic earned the biggest achievements of their young careers: winning an Olympic Gold Medal for their country.  Now they have their sights set on claiming their first Major, though neither has a straightforward second round draw.

 

Wednesday’s schedule also includes top names like Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, and Daniil Medvedev.  However, with all of those stars being strong favorites on Day 3, other matches featuring some of the sport’s most exciting performers may be the day’s most compelling affairs.

Each day this preview will highlight the five most intriguing matchups, while outlining the other notable matches on the schedule.   Wednesday’s play will begin at 11:00am local time.


Victoria Azarenka (24) vs. Jil Teichmann – 11:00am on Kia Arena

It was 10 full years ago when Azarenka won her first Major in Australia, a feat she would repeat just 12 months later.  Despite reaching three finals in New York, she’s still trying to secure her third Slam title.  Injuries sidelined her several times throughout 2021, yet she still put together a strong 28-9 record on the year.  Teichmann had a breakout 2021, reaching semifinals in both Adelaide and Duabi to start the year, and upsetting three top 12 players during a run to the final in Cincinnati.  But she may be overmatched against an in-form two-time former champion, who dropped only four games in the first round.


Belinda Bencic (22) vs. Amanda Anisimova – Third on Kia Arena

Anisimova was very close to being eliminated from this tournament in the first round.  The 20-year-old American was down a set and a break to Arianne Hartono, and a point from going down a double break in the second set, before storming back to win in three.  However, that near-defeat is not revealing of her recent form, as she started the season by winning a title on these very grounds.  Anisimova has been working with Darren Cahill on a trial basis in Australia, which has already paid dividends.  Bencic has continued to play well following her Tokyo triumph, where she won medals in both singles and doubles.  Three years ago on grass in Mallorca, Belinda defeated Amanda 6-2, 6-2.  Coming off such a close call on Monday, I suspect Anisimova will play freely on Wednesday, and I would not be surprised if she upset the Olympic Gold Medalist.  When her groundstrokes are on, especially her backhand, there aren’t many players who can tame Anismova’s aggression.


Carlos Alcaraz (31) vs. Dusan Lajovic – Third on 1573 Arena

Coming off his star-making run in New York, Alcaraz went right back to work in the opening round here, easily prevailing in less than two hours.  Lajovic required nearly twice as long to overcome Marton Fucsovics in five.  The 31-year-old Serbian advanced to the second week of this event a year ago.  However, the rest of his 2021 season didn’t go as well, ending the year with a record of 18-28.  And he started 2022 by going 0-3 at the ATP Cup.  I expect to see some extra fight out of Dusan during this tournament, as I anticipate many of the Serbian players will be motivated by what occurred over the past two weeks with Novak Djokovic.  But taking out one of the sport’s most formidable newcomers, especially when you’re coming off a five-setter, is a tall task.


Sascha Zverev (3) vs. John Millman – Last on Rod Laver Arena

Following his first round victory, Zverev admitted things had not gone to plan, and he had not played his best.  Despite that, Sascha still prevailed in straight sets, escaping two tight sets via tiebreaks.  He may not be able to afford such dips in his level against one of Australia’s grittiest competitors.  Millman will certainly enjoy plenty of crowd support, and he has taken out big names at Majors before.  At the 2018 US Open, he upended Roger Federer in extremely hot and humid conditions.  And at the 2019 French Open, though he lost, Millman pushed Zverev to five sets.  However, I fully expect Sascha to up his game on Wednesday.  The German won 41 hard court matches last year, and claimed five titles, including the ATP Finals.  He seems primed to make his second Slam final sooner than later, perhaps even at the end of next week.


Gael Monfils (17) vs. Alexander Bublik – Last on Margaret Court Arena

Well this match is pretty much guaranteed to be entertaining, featuring two players who often choose the more fun shot over the smarter shot.   Monfils struggled to find any form following the pandemic shutdown, as playing in front of empty seats did not inspire him.  But with fans back in the stands, Gael’s results have improved.  He started the year by winning his first title in two years.  By contrast, Bublik played well in the first half of 2021, propelling him to a career-high ranking some September, yet his results fizzled later in the year.  During 2020’s autumn edition of Roland Garros, Bubik defeated Monfils in four sets.  But with his mojo back, the Frenchman is the favorite to avenge that loss on Wednesday.


Other Notable Matches on Wednesday:

Ash Barty (1) vs. Lucia Bronzetti (Q) – On Monday, Barty needed less than an hour to dismiss Lesia Tsurenko 6-0, 6-1.  Bronzetti is a 23-year-old Italian who reached five lower-level finals last season.

Rafael Nadal (6) vs. Yannick Hanfmann (Q) – Nadal was another straight-set victor in the first round.  Hanfmann is a 30-year-old German who took out Thanasi Kokkinakis with the loss of just seven games, as the Australian was drained from his title run last week in Adelaide.  Three years ago at Roland Garros, Yannick earned only six games against Rafa.

Barbora Krejcikova (4) vs. Xiyu Wang (WC) – Krejickova advanced almost as easily as Barty, by a score of 6-2, 6-0.  Xiyu is a 20-year-old from China who on Monday gained her first victory in the main draw of a Major. 

Matteo Berrettini (7) vs. Stefan Kozlov (WC) – Berrettini overcame some considerable stomach issues to secure a four-set win on Monday.  Kozlov is a 23-year-old American who is making his Slam debut, thanks to claiming two Challenger titles in November to earn his wild card.

Naomi Osaka (13) vs. Madison Brengle – Osaka won comfortably in the opening round, while Brengle beat Dayana Yastremska by the bizarre score line of 6-1, 0-6, 5-0(RET), with Yastremska retiring one game from defeat. 


Wednesday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Australian Open Daily Preview: US Open Champions Collide in the First Round

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Emma Raducanu practicing last week in Melbourne (twitter.com/AustralianOpen)

At the last Major, then-18-year-old Emma Raducanu completed one of the most surprising title runs in sports history.  Ranked 150th in the world, she won 10 consecutive matches over the course of qualifying and the main draw without dropping a set, and without even contesting a tiebreak.  In only her fourth tour-level event, Emma claimed her first Major title.  She has understandably lost a few matches after such a surprising, life-changing feat.  And in the opening round of the next Major, she has drawn fellow US Open champion Sloane Stephens.

 

The other shocking finalist from this past September in New York, Leylah Fernandez, will also return to Grand Slam competition on Tuesday.  WTA action also features several multi-time Major singles champions, as well as Anett Kontaveit, who was the hottest player on tour at the end of last season.

Great Britain’s biggest male tennis star, Andy Murray, is a five-time runner-up of this tournament.  Three years ago, he played what was thought to be his last match in Australia, which included an emotional sendoff after a five-set loss to Roberto Bautista Agut.  But after multiple hip surgeries, Murray has returned to Australia, where just last week in Sydney, he reached his first ATP final since 2019.  At that event, he overcame Nikoloz Basilashvili in a grueling three-hour three-setter.  On Tuesday, they will meet again.

Other ATP action includes US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, Roland Garros finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Australian No.1 Alex de Minaur.

Each day this preview will highlight the five most intriguing matchups, while outlining the other notable matches on the schedule.   Tuesday’s play will begin at 11:00am local time.


Nikoloz Basilashvili (21) vs. Andy Murray (WC) – Not Before 3:00pm on John Cain Arena

Since missing last February’s Australian Open due to a positive COVID test, Murray is a modest 19-16 at tour level, yet has shown consistent progress throughout that run.  At the end of last season, he earned two top 10 victories (Hurkacz, Sinner).  Basilashvili gained 35 victories in 2021, winning two titles and also reaching the final of Indian Wells.  But at the Majors, he went only 3-4.  In addition to Andy’s victory last week in Sydney, he also defeated Nikoloz in the first round of Wimbledon last June.  Both their matches have been tight, but with both going to Murray, the Brit is the favorite on this day as well.  He possesses much more variety than Basilashvili, and is eager to prove he can still be a factor at Slams.


Angelique Kerber (16) vs. Kaia Kanepi – Fourth on Kia Arena

Due to suffering from COVID-19 in December, Kerber has not played a match since Indian Wells in October.  And as Simona Halep’s former coach Darren Cahill has often stated, Kanepi is one of the last people any player wants to see as their opening round draw.  He speaks from experience: Kaia upset Simona in the first round of the 2018 US Open.  As per Tennis Abstract, that’s one of eight top 10 victories Kanepi has at Majors, which also includes a win last year here over the defending champion, Sofia Kenin.  The 36-year-old Estonian is a six-time Slam quarterfinalist, and claimed two ITF events in the second half of last year.  These players have split four previous meetings, though they haven’t played in over eight years.  Considering Kerber’s interrupted preparation for this tournament, Kanepi has a great opportunity to score another first round upset at a Major.


Alex de Minaur (32) vs. Lorenzo Musetti – 7:00pm on Margaret Court Arena

De Minaur loves this first month of the season in his home country.  He went 2-1 at the ATP Cup, earning impressive wins over Matteo Berrettini and Ugo Humbert.  He’s yet to advance to the second week of his home Slam, but that could change this week in an open section of the draw, where Casper Ruud is the highest-ranked player.  Musetti is one of many standout young Italians.  The 20-year-old started last season by reaching two Challenger finals, then coming through qualifying to be the runner-up in Acapulco.  But his results tapered off from there, losing more matches than he won for the rest of 2021.  However, his flashy style should make for a fun contrast to the speed of the Australian.  And Alex will certainly feel the pressure of competing in Australia, especially during the night session.  This could turn into one of the most compelling matches of Day 2.


Stefanos Tsitsipas (4) vs. Mikael Ymer – Last on Rod Laver Arena

Tsitsipas is still working to get back to 100% after undergoing elbow surgery in the offseason, which casts doubt as to whether he is ready for best-of-five competition.  Stefanos had a great 2021, accumulating 55 wins.  At this event a year ago, he earned one of the signature wins of his career: a comeback from two-sets-down over Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals.  Ymer is a 23-year-old from Sweden who last year in Melbourne achieved his first appearance in the third round of a Major.  But that’s where he ran into Tsitsipas, who comfortably defeated him 6-4, 6-1, 6-1.  I would expect their meeting this year to be much closer, yet despite his recent elbow issues, the Greek remains the favorite to advance.


Emma Raducanu (17) vs. Sloane Stephens – Last on Margaret Court Arena

Since the US Open, Raducanu is only 2-4, and is another player who battled COVID-19 in the offseason.  In her only match thus far this year, she lost to Elena Rybakina 6-0, 6-1.  Considering how talented the 19-year-old is, and with the accomplished Torben Beltz now her coach, good results are assumedly ahead of her.  But they may not be immediate, as Emma tries to adjust to her new normal as a huge star, and as a Major champion.  Sloane Stephens is someone who can relate to that situation, as her 2017 US Open title run also came as a surprise, coming shortly after missing almost a year of action.  The American went just 19-18 last year, and is yet to play in 2022 after recently getting married.  But in this battle of US Open champs, Sloane should be favored.  Raducanu is going to feel much different at this Major than her last, with all the attention and expectations she is now experiencing.


Other Notable Matches on Tuesday:

Garbine Muguruza (3) vs. Clara Burel – Muguruza is coming off the third-biggest title of her career, winning the WTA Finals in Guadalajara.  She was a finalist here two years ago.  Burel is a 20-year-old from France who reached four ITF finals and one WTA final last season.

Anett Kontaveit (6) vs. Katerina Siniakova – Kontaveit ended 2021 by going 29-4, and winning an astounding four titles in just over two months.  Siniakova is the No.1 doubles player in the world, who earned significant singles victories last year over Serena Williams as well as Muguruza.  Anett leads their head-to-head 4-1, which includes two wins within the last six months.

Leylah Fernandez (23) vs. Maddison Inglis (WC) – Like Raducanu, Fernandez has struggled to immediately follow-up on her US Open run, going just 3-2 since.  Inglis is a 24-year-old Australian who at a lower-level event three years ago lost to Leylah in a third set tiebreak.

Daniil Medvedev (2) vs. Henri Laaksonen – With Djokovic out of the tournament, Medvedev is now the favorite, but how will he perform with that knowledge?  Laaksonen is a 29-year-old from Switzerland who advanced to the third round of two Slams last season.  During a 2019 Davis Cup tie, Medvedev defeated him in three sets.

Aryna Sabalenka (2) vs. Storm Sanders (WC) – Sabalenka has endured an awful start to 2022.  She is 0-2, and is dealing with some major technical issues on her serve, striking 39 double faults across those two losses.  Storm Sanders is a 24-year-old Australian who won a double stitle two weeks ago with Ash Barty.  She is seeking her first-ever singles win at a Major.


Tuesday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Australian Open Daily Preview: The First Major of 2022 Begins

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Matteo Berrettini in Melbourne (twitter.com/AustralianOpen)

A year after this event was delayed until February due to the pandemic, the Australian Open is back on schedule in 2022.  While Serena Williams, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic will not be present, top names like Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Ash Barty, and Daniil Medvedev are all playing.

 

The men’s singles draw only includes four Major singles champions (Nadal, Murray, Cilic, Medvedev).  Will this be the second straight Slam where a new Grand Slam champion is crowned?  Following the deportation of Djokovic, reigning US Open champion Daniil Medvedev is now the favorite.  But how will he react to that pressure?  And recent Slam finalists like Sascha Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Matteo Berrettini are eager to take advantage of this opportunity.

The women’s singles draw features 14 Major singles champions.  As the trend has been for many years, the last nine Slams have been won by eight different women.  Will someone such as Barty or Osaka assert their Major prowess, or will another new name prevail?  And how will Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez perform after their electrifying runs at the US Open?

Monday’s schedule sees three of 2021’s most improved Americans taking on top ATP names: Nadal, Berrettini, and Norrie.  WTA action includes the 2020 champion taking on a title winner from just 48 hours earlier, while another of Saturday’s champs faces the No.2 Australian.  And defending champion Osaka, as well as top-seeded Barty, will also play their opening matches.

Each day this preview will highlight the five most intriguing matchups, while outlining the other notable matches on the schedule.   Monday’s play will begin at 11:00am local time.


Matteo Berrettini (7) vs. Brandon Nakashima – Second on Margaret Court Arena

With Djokovic removed from the draw, Berrettini is now the highest seed in his quarter.  Six months after reaching his first Major final, Berrettini is seeking put last year’s Australian Open disappointment behind him, when he was forced to withdraw from his fourth round match against Stefanos Tsitsipas due to an abdominal injury.  Injuries have unfortunately been a recurring theme in Matteo’s career.  Just two months ago at the ATP Finals, the Italian was heartbroken when an oblique injury knocked him out of the event’s debut in his home country.  In his return from injury at this month’s ATP Cup, Berrettini went only 1-2, though he did push Medvedev to three sets in a high-quality affair.  Nakashima is a 20-year-old American who won two Challenger titles last season, and reached back-to-back hard court ATP finals in July.  Brandon earned six top 40 victories in the second half of 2021.  He can definitely test the Italian No.1, but he cannot match Berrettini’s fire power, which should enable Matteo to dictate his fate.


Cam Norrie (12) vs. Sebastian Korda – Third on Kia Arena

Kia Arena is a new 5,000-seat on the grounds of Melbourne Park, and is now the tournament’s fourth-largest venue.  Norrie had a tremendous 2021, going 52-25 with two titles, including his first Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells.  However, he’s currently on a four-match losing streak, and went 0-3 two weeks ago in the ATP Cup.  Meanwhile, Korda rose 80 spots in the rankings last season, finishing inside the top 40.  The now-21-year-old claimed his first ATP title in Parma, and was the runner-up of the ATP Next Gen Finals.  Last January, in the Delray Beach semifinals, Korda defeated Norrie 6-3, 7-5.  Sebi is yet to compete in 2022, as he tested positive for COVID upon arriving in Australia.  With neither player currently possessing a considerable amount of momentum, 12th-seeded Norrie is the favorite to advance based on his recent success and significant edge in experience.


Rafael Nadal (6) vs. Marcos Giron – Not Before 4:00pm on Rod Laver Arena

As Gaspar Ribeiro Lanca highlighted on Twitter, this will be the first Major of Nadal’s long career without both Federer and Djokovic in the draw.  But Rafa does not arrive with much match play, which is usually crucial to his chances at a Slam.  This will only be Nadal’s fourth match since the first week of August.  He only required three wins to prevail at a lead-up event two weeks ago in Melbourne, his first tournament since undergoing a procedure to address a lingering foot injury.  Overall Rafa was 24-5 in 2021.  At this event a year ago, he let a two-set lead slip in the quarterfinals against Stefanos Tsitsipas.  Giron is a 28-year-old American who achieved a career-high ranking of No.56 this past October.  Between June and October, he reached four ATP quarterfinals.  However, upending  a player as formidable as the 20-time Major champ is a feat Marcos is yet to achieve.  But he should offer enough to resistance to reveal just how ready Nadal’s body is for this Major, in his first best-of-five match since June.


Sofia Kenin (11) vs. Madison Keys – Not Before 5:00pm on John Cain Arena

Last week was huge for the career of Madison Keys.  After going 11-15 last season, she gained her first title since 2019 by becoming the champion in Adelaide.  Similarly, Kenin also had a rough 2021, and is hoping to rediscover the form that made her 2020’s WTA Player of the Year by bringing her father back as her coach, just six months after he left her team.  Kenin has a 2-2 record thus far in 2022.  These Americans played three times in 2019, with Keys taking both of their hard court matchups.  Based on that history, and their current form, Madison should be favored to eliminate the 2020 champion. 


Paula Badosa (8) vs. Ajla Tomljanovic – Last on Margaret Court Arena

On Saturday in the Sydney final, Badosa overcame Barbora Krejickova in a third-set tiebreak after a dogged fight by both players.  The Indian Wells champ has now won 13 of her last 16 matches.  Tomljanovic advanced to her first Major quarterfinal six months ago at The Championships, but has lost almost as many matches as she’s won since that time.  And just this past Wednesday in Sydney, she was defeated by Badosa in their first meeting.  Assuming Paula is fully recovered from Saturday’s grueling final, the Spaniard should be able to eliminate the Australian for the second time in as many weeks.


Other Notable Matches on Monday:

Naomi Osaka (13) vs. Camila Osorio – This will only be Osaka’s fourth match since her US Open upset at the hands of Leylah Fernandez.  Osorio is 20-year-old from Colombia who ended 2021 at a career-high ranking thanks to reaching her second WTA final in October.  This is their first career meeting.

Reilly Opelka (23) vs. Kevin Anderson – Opelka achieved his first two Masters 1000 semifinals last year, and debuted inside the top 20.  Anderson has struggled to regain his level of a few years ago after battling multiple injuries.  Six years ago in Atlanta, when Reilly was ranked 837th in the world, he upset Kevin in three sets.

Ash Barty (1) vs. Lesia Tsurenko (Q) – Barty was a stellar 42-8 in 2021, and started this season by winning a WTA title in Adelaide.  Tsurenko is a 32-year-old who came through qualifying without dropping a set, and was a quarterfinalist at the 2018 US Open.  Both of their previous encounters have occurred in Australia, with each prevailing once.

Barbora Krejcikova (4) vs. Andrea Petkovic – The reigning French Open champion is coming off the aforementioned demoralizing loss on Saturday to Paula Badosa.  Last summer, Petkovic earned her first WTA title since 2015.  But she also lost to Krejcikova last summer, as Barbora was victorious in straight sets at Wimbledon.

Sascha Zverev (3) vs. Daniel Altmaier – Zverev accumulated 59 wins last year, and has advanced to the second week at the last eight Majors.  Altmaier is a fellow German who ended 2021 by winning a Challenger tournament in Puerto Vallarta.


Monday’s full Order of Play is here.

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