At the top of the tour, on its glimmering surface, tennis’s best players—the Federers, Nadals, and Serenas of the world—roll along year after year, hopscotching across the globe, racking up Grand Slam titles, absorbing the love of fans in sold-out arenas wherever they go.
But just below that surface, where the game’s mortals roam, the waves can get much choppier. The sport’s long season and relentless physical demands, its nonstop travel and varying surfaces, make it difficult for most players to sustain their winning momentum for long. As anyone who has played tennis knows, you’re only as confident as your last match allows you to be—even if you win 10 in a row, one loss can rob you of all of that belief and send you reeling in the other direction.
The pros are no different. We see them put together three-month runs of success on one surface, followed by three months of frustration on another. We see next-big-things turn into yesterday’s news in the span of a season or two. Just as one player pops his or her head up for a few weeks, another one drops below our radar again.
For the most part, the players have one chance at a clean slate, and it happens now, in Australia in January. As short as the off-season is, it’s better than nothing, and the pros really do seem re-energized when they arrive Down Under. It’s not a coincidence that the Australian Open is famous for producing classic matches; everyone is as physically fresh as they’re going to be all year. Everyone in the draw, in a sense, is rebooting.
Last night in Melbourne we saw three women who are trying to bounce back from different forms, and levels, of adversity. All three have bottomed out in the rankings in recent years, and been counted out. But I get the feeling they’ll all be back on our radar on a regular basis at some point in 2020.
CiCi Bellis, believe it or not, is just 20 years old. She has already experienced a career’s worth of ups and down in her short time on tour. She made a show-stopping debut as a 15-year-old at the US Open in 2014. She struggled for a few years to legitimate that win, but with a lot of hard work she established herself on tour and reached No. 35 in 2017. Then injuries struck—last year Bellis endured four surgeries on her wrist and elbow, and was told she might never play tennis again. Instead, by the end of 2020 she was winning matches at a 125K event in Houston, and overjoyed to be back on the court.
“Being able to compete has been definitely one the best moments of the last year for me,” Bellis told WTA Insider last November. “I’ve just been so excited each match, even the warm-up for each match.”
Despite all of her ups and downs, Bellis looked much the same in her 6-4, 6-4 win over Karolina Muchova last night. Her forehand is still a model of balance and stability, she still has the same court sense and easy movement, and her game is still appealingly self-contained. As she says, she still loves to play as much as she ever has, and now, just like that, she has matched her best result at a Grand Slam by reaching the third round.
If the Australian Open has been a triumphant return—or as triumphant as possible—for Bellis, it has been a refuge from tragedy for Jelena Ostapenko. Just two weeks ago, she announced that her father, Jevgenis, had died. It made her the third young WTA player, after Amanda Anisimova and Aryna Sabalenka, to suffer the loss of a father in recent months.
“I decided to play [in Melbourne] because I will be busy with something,” Ostapenko told ausopen.com. “If I stay home I think it’s going to push me even more and will be even harder for me.”
“I’m just trying to be in the present moment, to not think about anything else,” she said after beating Ludmilla Samsonova in the first round.
Ostapenko maintained her concentration and composure again in her second-round match. While she lost 7-5, 7-5 to Belinda Bencic, she led in the second set, and showed flashes of her old go-for-broke brilliance, as well as her repertoire of facial expressions.
Ostapenko says that she has received messages of consolation from her fellow players, and she has talked to Sabalenka about their shared loss. Sabalenka has said that she is playing for her father, who wanted to see her become No. 1. Ostapenko may find the same inspiration. But even before her father’s passing, she had begun the long climb back up the rankings. After plunging to No. 83 last year, she began working with a new coach, Marion Bartoli, and together they finished 2019 with a title in Luxembourg and a runner-up finish in Linz. We’ll see if Ostapenko can find her way back onto that upward track as 2020 continues.
“I’m happy to win a match where there’s lots of…stuff.”
That was Garbiñe Muguruza’s assessment of her 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 win over Ajla Tomljanovic in Rod Laver Arena yesterday. There always seems to be a lot of…stuff in Muguruza’s matches. Powerful winners, wild shanks, intense emotions, careening momentum swings, and the occasional death stare in the direction of her player box: It’s all part of the Muguruza experience. She’s a former No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion, but you never know what you’re going to get from her next.
Muguruza isn’t trying to bounce back from the type of adversity that has affected Bellis or Ostapenko, but she does seem to be in fresh-start mode Down Under. She could use one. After finishing No. 2 in 2017, she dropped to No. 18 in 2018, and dipped again to No. 36 by then of 2019. Last year she lost in the first round at Wimbledon and the US Open. So far in 2020, though, she has done her best to put those results behind her. Muguruza has teamed up again with the woman who guided her to the Wimbledon title three year ago, Conchita Martinez, and is 7-2 to start the year.
While she isn’t a smooth or balletic player, there’s an emotional drama at the heart of every Muguruza match: Can she overcome her doubts? Every player goes through this struggle, of course, but with Muguruza you can see it etched on her face after virtually every point. When she succeeds, the results can be spectacular; when the fails, they can be equally dismal.
During the off-season, Muguruza scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. Over the course of the five-day trek, when temperatures sank well below zero, she said she wondered, “What am I doing here?” But she persisted, and succeeded. “Just keep climbing,” she told herself.
If Muguruza starts to scale the rankings in 2020, it’s a safe bet that we’ll hear comparisons to her Kilimanjaro adventure. Whether or not she reaches the top, it’s good to see her climbing again.