Having come together to compete last month in Australia, the traveling tennis circus spends February in all corners of the globe. Here’s a look at three pro finals, each played on a different continent—Asia, Europe, North America.

Abu Dhabi: Belinda Bencic vs. Liudmila Samsonova

The second edition of this WTA 500 level tournament will feature a final between two sharpshooters, world No. 9 Belinda Bencic and 19th-ranked Liudmilla Samsonova.

Though Bencic has long been ranked higher, Samsonova has won all three of their previous matches. Most notably, Samsonova’s 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Bencic in the finals of the 2021 Billie Jean King Cup clinched the title for the Russians that year. That was the capper of a remarkable week for Samsonova. In her Billie Jean King Cup rookie year, Samsonova went 5-0 (2-0 in singles, 3-0 in doubles). Of course, Russia has since been banned from international team play. Playing without a flag next to her name, Samsonova rose from No. 39 at the end of ’21 to a career-high ranking of No. 19 last October.

But prior to this week in Abu Dhabi, her ’23 match record was 2-3. Seeded 18th at the Australian Open, Samsonova was upset in the second round by 64th-ranked Donna Vekic, 6-3, 6-0. In Abu Dhabi, though, her powerful groundstrokes have carried her to four wins, including victories over ’21 Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova, fourth-seeded Veronika Kudermetova and, yesterday in the semis, a 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 win versus recent GQ China cover subject, ’22 WTA Newcomer of the Year Zheng “Queenwen” Qinwen.

The Billie Jean King Cup loss to Samsonova was no doubt disappointing to Bencic, particularly since months earlier, in the summer of ’21, she’d strongly represented Switzerland at the Olympics, earning a gold medal in singles and a silver with Viktorija Golubic in the doubles. But last fall, once again revealing how well she can play under the Swiss flag, Bencic led her team to victory in the Billie Jean King Cup—Switzerland’s first title at that event. Having played Hopman Cup with Roger Federer, and been mentored by both Martina Hingis and Hingis’ mother, Melanie Molitor, one could call Bencic an attempted sequel to a tough-to-replicate story titled Swiss Tennis Geniuses. Those are not easy shoes to fill, but perhaps playing under that flag proves both comforting and inspirational.

At her best, Bencic delivers many of Hingis’ great aspects, most notably, the ability to hit the ball early with laser-like precision—particularly down-the-line—and take away time from opponents in ways that frequently put them on their heels. She’s done that well this week in Abu Dhabi, winning all three of her matches in straight sets. In yesterday’s semi, against powerful lefty Beatriz Haddad Maia, the second-seeded Bencic soon enough established complete control, taking 92 minutes to win, 6-2, 6-3. Having already won Adelaide in January, Bencic now hopes to earn her eighth WTA singles title and up her ’23 match record to 12-2 (in Melbourne she lost in the round of 16 to eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka).

This match figures to crackle with many crisp rallies. There is a bit more margin built into Samsonova’s array of techniques and tactics. If not quite as razor-sharp as Bencic’s A game, Samsonova is capable of generating tremendous power and direction. Dare I say that her B game is more proficient than Bencic’s?

Samsonova has won all three of her previous meetings with Bencic.

Samsonova has won all three of her previous meetings with Bencic.


Montpellier: Jannik Sinner vs. Maxime Cressy

Saturday in Montpellier offered much promise. First up was a semifinal between second-seeded Jannik Sinner and a rapidly rising French teen, Arthur Fils. After saving two set points at 4-5, 15-40 to win the first set, 7-5, the 17th-ranked Sinner quickly ran through the second, 6-2. Between a first-round bye and a second round walkover, the 21-year-old Sinner has only played two matches in Montpellier and so, if anything, is under-tennised.

Both of Sinner’s potential opponents were going to make for an alluring final. The favorite was first-seeded Holger Rune, the dazzling Danish teenager with tons of moxie, skill and the charisma of flourishing youth. Rune-Sinner has the makings of a major rivalry of the current decade and perhaps even into the next. Thus far, they’ve only played one another once, Rune winning a three-setter last fall in the semis of Sofia.

But Chapter Two of Rune-Sinner will have to wait, courtesy of 51st-ranked Max Cressy’s 7-5, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4) upset win. We’ve seen Cressy on the global stage for a couple of years now. He is the quintessential example of the notion that while the baseliners tend to come out of the box, ready to go, complete with the batteries included, the netrushers often take longer to become fully proficient (ask Martina Navratilova and Pete Sampras). Playing at UCLA for four years, Cressy only truly blossomed in his senior year of 2018-‘19, at last becoming the top player on the Bruins squad. As a pro, he hit the radar at the ’21 US Open. Ranked No. 151 at the time, Cressy made his way out of the qualifying and in the first round rallied from two sets to love down to beat world No. 12, Pablo Carreno Busta, 9-7 in a fifth set tiebreaker.

Though it’s the mission of every tennis player to disrupt and break down an opponent’s game, the 25-year-old Cressy does this in a way quite rare. Tactic number one: He serves two first serves. In some cases, the second is even faster. Like a savvy investor, Cressy has done his calculations and figures this is the best way to generate value. So what if he served 10 double-faults versus Rune? He also served 15 aces and got in 74 percent of his first serves.

More significantly, Cressy hardly let Rune play, the Dane frequently denied the chance to establish a comfortable rhythm and dictate the tempo of a rally. In an era of baseline-dominated tennis, Cressy is unwilling to accept the common answers. Versus Rune, he asked the same question, again and again and again. You might recall Roger Federer’s SABR—Sneak Attack By Roger. Try this: OABC—Obvious Attack By Cressy. One underrated aspect of the Cressy strategy is his complete tranquility in the face of one point after another flying by. This is a man well aware of his tennis identity.

Still, it took a command performance—and a fairly slick indoor court—for Cressy to beat Rune, and only by the narrowest of margins. He’ll need to be at least that proficient versus the incredibly powerful Sinner. While Sinner is trying to win his seventh ATP title, Cressy has won one. Naturally, it came on grass, last summer at Newport.

The only prior Sinner-Cressy match came in the summer of ’19, Sinner taking three sets to beat Cressy at a Challenger event in Lexington. Going back more than 40 years, Cressy-Sinner reminds me of those lively days when first-rate chip-charger Vitas Gerulaitis repeatedly pressed supreme ground-stroker Ivan Lendl—and yes, Lendl was willing when necessary to drive a passing shot smack at Gerulaitis’ body. Why not? It’s just business.

Isner will play the 31st ATP final of his career in Dallas. He's 16-14 in his first 30.

Isner will play the 31st ATP final of his career in Dallas. He's 16-14 in his first 30.


Dallas: John Isner vs. Wu Yibing

Watching men’s pro tennis return to Dallas these last two years stirs fond memories of those many springs in the ‘70s and ‘80s when this city hosted the WCT Finals. No need to clog this space with all the political machinations that made and unmade this great event, but the WCT Finals was both tidy and significant – an eight-man elimination tournament that culminated a series of tournaments played all over the world. For several years in the ‘70s, WCT Dallas was considered a far more cherished trophy than an Australian Open title. The 1972 final remains one of the greatest matches in tennis history, Australian titans Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver going toe-to-toe for more than three hours. Aired on NBC, this match went on into primetime, drawing more than 21 million viewers – and making it arguably a major catalyst in triggering the tennis boom. Rosewall won it in a thrilling fifth-set tiebreaker.

Tiebreakers remain central to the Dallas storyline. How could they not when local resident John Isner has reached this year’s final? Like one of those veteran first basemen who rack up staggering fielding statistics, Isner on Friday won his 500th career tiebreaker, extending his already record tally. In Saturday’s semi, the 37-year-old Isner naturally needed yet one more to subdue a high-energy fellow American 13 years his junior, 43rd-ranked J.J. Wolf, 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4). In a brisk two-and-a-half-hour match, Isner hit 31 aces, upping his record total to 14,133 to reach his 31st career singles final (16-14).

But for all the numbers Isner has lately notched, a digit that’s no longer next to his name is one he held for many years: American male number one. Currently Isner is ranked 39, 31 spots behind the leading American, fellow Dallas semifinalist Taylor Fritz. Just as the Montpelier semis posed the possibility of a peer-level final between Sinner and Ruhne, only to be scuttled by an adventurous contender, so went the plot line in Dallas. In this case, Fritz was upset by 97th-ranked Wu Yibing, 6-7 (3), 7-5, 6-4.

Only a week ago did the 23-year-old Wu crack the Top 100. His four wins in Dallas have covered a spectrum. Wu opened with a three-setter over aggressive Michael Mmoh. Then, victories versus a pair of lefties, albeit of highly different stripes. Livewire Denis Shapovalov was tamed in straight sets, as was the subdued and crafty Adrian Mannarino.

Versus Fritz, Wu in the second set escaped two near-conclusive situations. Serving at 1-2, Wu fought off five break points. Seven games later, down 4-5, love-30, Wu again rallied to hold. All match long, Wu backed up his serve magnificently, faring even better on his second serve (74 percent) than first (65 percent), as well as winning all nine break points he faced.

Breaking Fritz at 2-2 in the third, Wu stayed in control. Serving at 5-4 to reach his first ATP singles final, Wu sprinted through four straight points, closing it out with a thunderous forehand swing volley. It will be fascinating to see how he competes versus Isner. These two have never played one another, and while Wu is likely more familiar with Isner, all Isner needs to do is watch five minutes of highlights to take in Wu’s impressive game.

It’s breathtaking to watch the way Wu strikes the tennis ball – a highly contemporary blend of pace and depth, aided by plenty of the topspin necessary to target the ball deep and often whip it off the court. Wu does this wonderfully off both sides. One suspects that Isner, like Cressy versus Sinner, will want to keep the rallies to a minimum. Easy as that will be when Isner serves, the Wu serve games will be the ones that tell the story of this match. And probably, at least one tiebreaker, possibly two, maybe even three. Isner? Dallas? Of course.