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10sBalls • Ricky’s Tennis Take On The Five Most Unexpected ATP Final Matchups Of 2018

By Ricky Dimon


In this current era of men’s tennis that features Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic (not to mention three-time major champions Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka), there has not been a whole lot of room for surprises. But the rule at the 250-point level, to which the top players in the world rarely venture, is to expect the unexpected. That was certainly the case in 2018.


Ricky takes a look back at the five most surprising ATP final matchups of this past season.


Honorable mention. Stockholm: Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Ernests Gulbis

At this point in the year, Tsitsipas was already an established force on tour. Heck, he had already reached a Masters 1000 title match (Montreal). The Greek’s appearance in the Stockholm final was no surprise, but the same cannot be said of his opponent. A resurgent Gulbis, who fell off the face of the earth in 2015 and 2016, had not advanced to an ATP final since 2014 and he had to qualify just to get in the main draw. The Latvian did that, ousted Denis Shapovalov and Jack Sock, got breadsticked by John Isner only to come back and win and three, and finally fell to Tsitsipas in the final. That is enough to get Gulbis (ranked 96th) back in the main draw of the Australian Open…and back in our lives!


5. Budapest: John Millman vs. Marco Cecchinato

In hindsight, of course, Cecchinato appearing in the final of a small clay-court event is no kind of surprise. But this Budapest event came before the French Open–before Cecchinato was a household name. In fact, the Italian was still so obscure at the time that he had to play in qualifying. He actually lost in qualies, but Cecchinato got a lucky-loser spot in the main draw and the rest is history. Millman, the eventual runner-up, turned in a similarly unexpected run. The most bizarre thing about it is that the Aussie isn’t even any good on clay! But he upset No. 1 seed Lucas Pouille in the second round on the way to his first and only ATP final.


4. Kitzbuhel: Martin Klizan vs. Denis Istomin

This was a rare–but not entirely unheard of–qualifier vs. qualifier showdown in an ATP title match. Klizan’s run began by losing the first set of his first qualifying match, which he eventually survived in a third-set tiebreaker against Facundo Bagnis. The Slovak eventually ousted No. 1 seed and clay-court wizard Dominic Thiem in round two of main-draw action. Whereas Klizan is actually good on the red stuff, it is by far Istomin’s worst surface–making this matchup all the more improbable. The Uzbek took out the second-highest seed (Philipp Kohlschreiber) before eventually getting trounced by Klizan on championship Sunday.


3. Sydney: Daniil Medvedev vs. Alex de Minaur

If we also had the benefit of hindsight for this one, it would not have been surprising. Both Medevedev and de Minaur went on to have huge years. Heading into the Australian summer, however, de Minaur was basically a no-name. The Aussie teenager paved the way for his Sydney run by reaching the Brisbane semifinals, so it did not entirely come out of nowhere. Medvedev had previously never captured an ATP title and had been to only one final–none in more than a full year. The Russian outlasted de Minaur in a thriller and eventually lifted two more winners’ trophies in 2018.


2. Istanbul: Taro Daniel vs. Malek Jaziri

Damn, Daniel! How did he win the Istanbul title?!?! This was an utterly bizarre matchup that absolutely no one could have predicted when the tournament began. It can be somewhat explained only because Istanbul is a relatively new, non-descript tournament that basically nobody played in 2018 other than Marin Cilic and Cilic clearly wasn’t interested (Jaziri destroyed him 6-4, 6-2 in the second round). Unsurprisingly, it remains the only ATP final appearance in their careers for both Daniel and Jaziri.


1. Sofia: Marius Copil vs. Mirza Basic

This was an equally stunning matchup and it gets the nod over Daniel vs. Jaziri simply because this tournament took place during the February indoor swing when a lot of decent players are both active and healthy. The Sofia field featured Stan Wawrinka as the top seed, but Wawrinka’s rust opened the door for everyone else and Basic took down the Swiss in the semifinals. Basic beat Copil in a three-set thriller in what remains his only ATP final. It was also Copil’s first title-match appearance, and he eventually went on to make an even more shocking run to the Basel final (lost to Roger Federer).


Ricky contributes to 10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @TennGrand.

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