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Finals Watch: Andrey Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas renew rivalry as round robin clashes continue in Turin, GuadalajaraBy Nov 14, 2021
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ATP & WTA Finals
Finals Watch: Andrey Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas renew rivalry as round robin clashes continue in Turin, Guadalajara
Monday's matches also feature five-time ATP Finals champ Novak Djokovic and WTA Finals top seed Aryna Sabalenka.
Published Nov 14, 2021
WATCH: Rivals Rublev and Tsitsipas paired up for a rousing men's doubles meeting at this year's Laver Cup.
Such is pro tennis during the pandemic that the WTA and ATP are playing their season-ending events simultaneously. The Akron WTA Finals began last Wednesday, while the Nitto ATP Finals got underway Sunday.
Here’s a look at Monday’s slate of matches.
Akron WTA Finals
Paula Badosa vs. Iga Swiatek
Start time: 3:00 p.m. EST
Head-to-head: 1-0 Badosa
Most recent: Badosa def. Swiatek 6-3, 7-6 (4), 2020 Tokyo Olympics 3R (hard)
Alas, it’s often the case in the later stages of a round-robin event that the outcome of a particular match has no bearing on the story of the tournament. Such is the case for Badosa-Swiatek. While Badosa has won both of her prior matches and already clinched a spot in the semifinals, Swiatek has gone 0-2 and been eliminated from further contention. That said, this is a compelling matchup between two crisp ball-strikers who hopefully will be among the WTA’s elite for many years to come.
These two are both fast and powerful. A year ago, Swiatek was the player who soared from outside The Top 60 to the elite. This year, that’s been Badosa. “Everything was very new for me,” she said Saturday. “I needed experience. I needed to pass through all that. I think when I got the experience, all of that things, it went well. I think I'm quite competitive. I think I needed a little bit to adjust myself, to be here and play these kind of matches, to learn.”
Each is an excellent mover with a great forehand. But the thinking here is that on this occasion, Swiatek has more to prove and will therefore bring more urgency to this match. No one wants to play a round-robin and leave without at least one victory.
Prediction: Swiatek in two.
Aryna Sabalenka vs. Maria Sakkari
Start time: 8:30 p.m. EST
Head-to-head: 4-1 Sabalenka
Most recent: Sabalenka def. Sakkari, 6-3, 6-2, 2021 Abu Dhabi SF (hard)
Let us now praise the round-robin format. Each has a 1-1 match record at this event. Now, a bake-off: the winner advances to the semis.
Had you based the evaluation on Thursday’s opening matches, you’d have picked the fit and focused Sakkari, who played sharp, composed tennis that day to beat Iga Swiatek, 6-2, 6-4. Meanwhile, Sabalenka finished terribly in losing her opener to Paula Badosa, 6-4, 6-0.
But while Sakkari didn’t play too badly in a narrow 7-6 (4), 6-4 defeat to Badosa on Saturday, Sabalenka improved tremendously to defeat Swiatek, 7-5 in the third. Said Sabalenka following that victory, “After the first match I just didn't want to do the same mistake. I just didn't want to give up again. I was just keep saying to myself, ‘You have to put this ball somehow. If you don't feel well, doesn't matter, you just have to fight and you just have to try your best.’”
Were this an exam in school, Sakkari would be the student with good work habits, smooth penmanship and well-organized notes. In contrast, Sabalenka’s got flair but inconsistency, her ink smudged, her thoughts not always clear. And yet, those moments of brilliance can surface. As the record shows, Sabalenka has dominated Sakkari, no doubt always with power. So how will Sakkari attempt to disrupt Sabalenka? Strictly with movement and consistency? Or will there be a few other tactical wrinkles?
As well as Sabalenka fought to find her groove in beating Swiatek, it’s hard to imagine she’s shaken off the rust that was so clear at the start of this event. There will be a few plot twists in this match; more from Sabalenka, but also possibly a pivotal one from Sakkari. Consider this match a battle of serves and nerves.
Prediction: Sakkari in three.
Nitto ATP Finals
Novak Djokovic vs. Casper Ruud
Start time: 8:00 a.m. EST
Head-to-head: 1-0 Djokovic
Most recent: Djokovic def. Ruud, 7-5, 6-3, 2020 Rome SF (clay)
Casper Ruud has never played a match at this event. Novak Djokovic has played 54, including five title runs. So how much does experience matter, particularly given the tournament’s one-of-a-kind round-robin format?
Each man has won five singles titles this year. But while that’s a familiar tally for Djokovic, for Ruud it’s been a breakout season. All of Ruud’s titles came at 250 events, including four on clay. "It's been an unbelievable year that will have the perfect end to the season," Ruud said earlier this month. "It's been a stressful couple of weeks and months, because it’s been such a tight [FedEx ATP] Race [To Turin]. It’s been fun at the same time. It’s been so exciting to watch as a tennis fan, and I’ve watched a lot as well."
Djokovic’s five championship runs included three majors – the third time in his career he’s done in that in a calendar year. Djokovic also will finish the year ranked number one in the world for a record seventh time, passing the prior mark set by his tennis hero, Pete Sampras.
Ruud’s best tennis happens when he can get in a lot of first serves and dictate play with his forehand. It will be intriguing to see if it’s possible to make that work versus Djokovic. One intangible factor: How nervous Ruud will be taking on the world No. 1 in his debut at such a prestigious event? The more tangible asset is Djokovic’s spectacular return of serve. Should the Serb return strongly early in this match, he’ll pin Ruud back to the baseline and soon enough take control of the rallies, perhaps also by going wide to Ruud’s forehand.
Though it’s strange to say a player like Djokovic needs additional confidence, surely even he was buoyed by his recent title run in Paris—including a tactically innovative three-set win over Daniil Medvedev in the finals. Djokovic rushed the net more than usual versus Medvedev. Said Djokovic after that match, “I just felt like I could maybe play the style of tennis that I really want to play every single match, you know, come in to the net and be a little bit freer on the shots, swing through the ball.” Might that continue? Either way, Djokovic should be able to withstand Ruud’s forehand and move him around the court proficiently enough to win this match.
Prediction: Djokovic in two.
Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Andrey Rublev
Start time: 3:00 p.m. EST
Head-to-head: 4-3 Tsitsipas
Most recent: Tsitsipas def. Rublev, 6-3, 6-3, 2021 Monte Carlo F (clay)
A pleasing contrast between Tsitsipas’ all-court attack and Rublev’s power baseline game. Tsitsipas, who won this title two years ago, earned his way back into the elite eight largely thanks to the results he generated in the first six months of 2021: five finals, including two title runs and a runner-up effort at Roland Garros. Since then, the Greek’s best results are a pair of semis, back in August. In Paris last month Tsitsipas was forced to retire in the first set of his second-round match to an arm injury. Rublev too has occasionally looked weary during the last half of ’21. After reaching three finals in the first half of the year, since Wimbledon, he’s only been that far once.
Count on a wide range of rallies in this match. Each is a creator, but in a very different way. If Tsitsipas is feeling healthy and returning well, he will look to assert himself with his big topspin forehand and selectively charge the net. Rublev rifles exceptionally hard, deep forehands and backhands. Paris last month, Tsitsipas said, “I'm trying to give my last breath on the court and become more of, I don't know, selfish player on the court, and unveil my killer attitude on the court.” But the executional challenge is simpler for Rublev. Given each man’s recent form and the wild card of Tsitsipas’ recent injury, Rublev has a slight edge.
Prediction: Rublev in three.