Saturday, February 24, 2024

2024 so far: trophies, coaching changes, and--at long last--a new Fighting Italian

The 2024 season isn't even two months old, but there's a lot going on. 

The big early-season news, of course, is that Aryna Sabalenka won her second consecutive Australian Open title. The world number 2, long known for her shaky serve, has put that problem behind her; her Melbourne run was very impressive. Of note: This year's finalist was Zheng Qinwen, who is now number 7 in the world.

While it's sad news, it has the potential to be good news: Karolina Muchova just had surgery for her troublesome risk. Muchova is an extremely talented player. When she had that span of good health last year, we saw her reach the final of the French Open and also the U.S. Open semifinals. But 2024 brought on more injury, so the Czech player--who finally reached the top 10, but will now drop out of it--so surgery was the answer.

Both world number world number 5 Jessica Pegula and world number 11 Maria Sakkari announced that they had parted ways with their coaches. Pegula is no longer being coached by David Witt, while Sakkari ended a six-year relationship with Tom Hill.

Danielle Collins announced that this will be her final year on the tour. The 2022 Australian Open finalist took the long road to join the tour; she played college tennis and won the NCAA singles title twice. Collins is 30 years old.

2024 is also the year (perhaps the only one?) that Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova--members of a very elite doubles team--are playing with other partners. So far, so good for Siniakova--she and Storm Hunter just won the Dubai championship.

Now, cue the new year, and enter--stage left, right and everywhere--Alona Ostapenko. The Latvian star has already won two tournaments--Adelaide and Linz, both 500 events. There's no point, ever, in trying to determine what these big wins mean, but it will be interesting, as always, to watch Ostapenko this season.

It sounds odd to say that former world number 1 Karolina Piskova just made a comeback, of sorts, but she recently did, in Transylvania. It was there that Pliskova won her first title since 2020. It was a 250 event, but it still has to be a confidence-booster.

Meanwhile, Elena Rybakina won Brisbane and Abu Dhabi (both 500 events), delivering a bagel to Aryna Sabalenka in the Brisbane final. The 2022 Wimbledon champion reached a third final, in Doha, but lost that one to Iga Swiatek, which now gives her a 3-2 record against the world number 1. 

Swiatek started the year strong by winning the United Cup, and then won the 1000 event in Doha. She looked good in Dubai, too, until she came up against qualifier Anna Kalinskaya, and lost in the semifinals. 

Diana Shnaider won the Thailand Open, the first singles title of her career, and Elise Mertens won the tournament in Auckland.

That brings us to Dubai, also a 1000 event. Qualifier Anna Kalinskaya had an amazing run, taking out three top 10 players (world number 9 Alona Ostapenko, world number 4 Coco Gauff, and world number 1 Iga Swiatek. Kalinskaya gave us a taste of what she's capable of at the Australian Open when she made a run to the quarterfinals. 

In the Australian Open round of 16, Kalinskaya defeated Jasmine Paolini in straight sets before she lost to eventual runner-up Zheng Qinwen. This week, in Dubai, after going through qualifying and taking out the aforementioned top 10 players, Kalinskaya fell to Paolini in the final. It was an excellent final, too, with a lot of momentum swings. In the end, though, Paolini, who--like her opponent--has been getting better and better in the last several months--defeated Kalinskaya 4-6, 7-5, 7-5. 

The unseeded Paolini is something we haven't seen in a long time--an authentic Fighting Italian. She did get a little help in Dubai from Rybakina, who gave Paolini a walkover in the semifinals because of a viral illness. But the champion did her share of heavy lifting, defeating 11th seed Beatriz Haddad Maia, Leylah Fernandez, 6th seed Maria Sakkari, and Sorana Cirstea. It was a great tournament, with so-called "surprise" finalists, and a lovely trophy ceremony.