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Taking a punch

Matt Zemek

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If you are wondering who will win the 2021 women’s French Open championship, you’re not alone… and you’re in the dark.

Who the heck knows what will happen in Paris in the first two weeks of June? We have to absorb the reality that three of the past four women’s French Open champions have come out of NOWHERE to grab the trophy.

Jelena Ostapenko in 2017. Ash Barty in 2019. Iga Swiatek in 2020. They were and are very talented players, but none of them were the top three or four choices for the title in their respective years of glory. They didn’t receive massive pre-tournament buzz. They roared from positions of relative obscurity to achieve career-changing achievements.

We can assign the position of favorite at Roland Garros in 2021 to a familiar name — Swiatek, perhaps, also Simona Halep or even Barty — but recent history suggests that Roland Garros will be wide open once again. If there is a favorite, that favorite does not enjoy a secure and commanding position.

With this in mind, it is important for players in Madrid and Rome to demonstrate to themselves that they are capable of overcoming adversity and finding the coping skills which will likely be required in France one month from now.

We are very unlikely to see one player steamroll the field the way Swiatek did last October. The 2021 Roland Garros champion — much like Naomi Osaka overcoming match points against Garbine Muguruza in Australia — will probably need to escape a tough situation at some point. Finding resourcefulness and cultivating it will be necessary in Madrid and Rome.

By that measurement, Maria Sakkari had a pretty great last day of April in Spain.

She got blitzed by Amanda Anisimova on Friday, eating a first-set bagel. Was Sakkari’s Madrid experience going to end before the first weekend of the two-weekend tournament? Was she going to have to wait roughly 10 days before her next match? Those possibilities would have put a dent in her Roland Garros plans, in a tournament which is there for the taking.

Could Sakkari cool off Anisimova and steer the match in her direction? Yes.

A 6-4-in-the-third victory probably feels better than a routine 3-and-3 win, because it immediately shows that Sakkari can rescue herself when her game isn’t clicking.

You will recall that Anisimova won nine games in a 10-game stretch in the 2019 Roland Garros semifinals against Barty. Down 5-1 in the first set, she took a 7-6, 3-0 lead and was about to set up a very rare all-teenage major final versus Marketa Vondrousova.

Barty found a way to dig out of trouble and reverse course against Anisimova. Sakkari did the same on Friday — not in a major semifinal, but certainly in a match which required a professional response.

Maria Sakkari took a punch. She might not soar in the coming weeks… but she has given herself a much better chance of doing so.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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