A new tennis season always provides some fun surprises. Under-the-radar players rise up the rankings, win titles, and challenge top players. During this slow stretch before Roland Garros, it’s a good time to reflect on some of these players’ early successes from 2013.
Here are my 10 biggest surprises from lower-profile players so far.
1. Lukas Rosol
In his second main draw Wimbledon match in his entire career, Rosol, then 26 years old and ranked No. 100, defeated Rafael Nadal in a shocking upset that seemed to reshape men’s tennis for the duration of 2012.
At first glance, the storylines that arose from that Wimbledon match were all about Nadal. It was one of the most surprising defeats in the Spaniard’s career, and his long absence from the tour left many observers skeptical about Nadal’s future until his return.
But now that the Nadal-related dust has settled, Rosol’s compelling story has emerged from the rubble. The 27-year-old, who had never been ranked higher than No. 65, has used that win to propel himself to a new career-high ranking of No. 35, and last week won his first career ATP title in Bucharest, just 10 days after his father passed away.
2. Jelena Jankovic
For reasons that are sometimes warranted and sometimes not, Jankovic tends to be written off. But the former World No. 1 deserves some credit for her form in the first few months of the year.
Jankovic has gone 18-7 on the season so far, winning a title in Bogota, making a run to the semis in Miami, and reaching the Charlestown final, where she took a set off of the eventual champion Serena Williams. She’s back in the top 20. It might be time to consider Jankovic relevant again. Maybe.
3. Tommy Robredo
A year ago, Robredo was ranked No. 470 and struggling with a leg injury. With his stellar results this year, he’s risen to No. 38, notching impressive wins over Grigor Dimitrov, Tomas Berdych, and Stan Wawrinka. He also bagged his first ATP title since 2011 in Casablanca.
It’s also his 31st birthday today. Happy birthday!
— Tommy Robredo (@TRobredo) May 1, 2013
4. Stefanie Voegele
Ranked No. 87 to start the year, Voegele has played consistently well, going further than the first round in all tournaments she’s played except the Australian Open, and pushing her ranking up to No. 56.
The Swiss 23-year-old reached the semifinals in Memphis, then backed it up by doing the same in Charleston, beating Caroline Wozniacki for the first top 10 win of her career.
5. Fabio Fognini
Lost in the usual drama of his matches is the fact that Fabio Fognini has just entered the top 25 for the first time in his career.
The 25-year-old’s 2013 didn’t start out very well; he won just one match in his first four tournaments to start the year.
However, Fognini has earned good results on clay, beating Stan Wawrinka and reaching the quarterfinals in Acapulco, and beating Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet on his way to the semifinals in Monte-Carlo.
And I think he’s enjoying this just a bit.
6. Madison Keys
The 18-year-old American Keys began her year outside the top 100, ranked No. 135. She immediately made waves by reaching the quarterfinals as a qualifier in Sydney before falling to Li Na in three sets.
In Charleston, she reached another quarterfinal, moving her ranking up to No. 63.
Though Sloane Stephens has commanded a lot more media attention, Keys is another young American to keep an eye on.
7. Richard Gasquet
When I covered Miami, I was blown away by Gasquet’s good form. The 26-year-old almost known more for his frustrating lack of ambition than for his tennis abilities seems to finally feel that elusive hunger to improve.
Gasquet has already won two titles in Montpellier and Doha this year, and reached the semis in Miami, even while dealing with a lingering ankle injury he sustained in Indian Wells.
His recent rise to No. 9 in the rankings can be attributed to his consistency on the ATP Tour. But Gasquet can also beat the best players when he’s on, which makes his newfound determination potentially more exciting if he’s able to channel it in big tournaments.
8. Monica Puig
Puig, a 19-year-old from Puerto Rico, gained some attention when she pushed Angelique Kerber to the brink in Brisbane to start the year.
Like most young players, her week-to-week results have been a mixed bag, but she earned wins over Andrea Petkovic in Indian Wells and Andrea Hlavackova in Charleston.
As I write this, Puig has reached her first career WTA quarterfinal at the Portugal Open, where she’ll face Carla Suarez Navarro. That result will allow her to crack the top 100 for the first time next week.
9. Jarkko Nieminen
Nieminen has racked up an 19-10 record in 2013, beating Tommy Haas (in Melbourne), Milos Raonic (in Monte-Carlo), and Juan Martin del Potro (Monte-Carlo) along the way.
He reached the semifinals in Montpellier and the quarterfinals in Monte-Carlo, which was enough to boost his January ranking of No. 70 all the way up to No. 42.
Of course, he also double-bageled David Goffin, inciting Juan-Jose to reach new levels of disdain.
10. Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Having dealt with a string of injuries, Mattek-Sands is finally healthy, and reminding us what she is capable of.
So far this year, she’s reached a final in Kuala Lumpur, demolished Sloane Stephens in Charleston 6-2, 6-0, and made the semifinals in Stuttgart, beating Sara Errani and Sabine Lisicki. Her ranking, which floundered at No. 168 in January, is all the way up to No. 72.
Bethanie Mattek Sands powers her way to Quarterfinal twitpic.com/cm2f9o
— Monique Filippella (@ziamiki) April 26, 2013
What are your pleasant surprises from this year? Feel free to share them in the comments.