Jannik Sinner, Aslan Karatsev, Aryna Sabalenka and Other Dark Horses to Look Out for at Madrid Open 2021

Published 04/29/2021, 10:43 AM EDT
Tennis – ATP 500 – Barcelona Open – Real Club de Tennis Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain – April 23, 2021 Italy’s Jannik Sinner celebrates winning his quarter final match against Russia’s Andrey Rublev REUTERS/Albert Gea

Mutua Madrid Open 2021 brings in top WTA and ATP players for the now two-week-long tournament. Everyone has their picks among top players like Rafael Nadal, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Ash Barty, Simona Halep, etc. But there are certain dark horses in the ATP and WTA draw that could surprise the natural heavyweights.


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Jannik Sinner


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Jannik Sinner of Italy celebrates after match point. Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Italian sensation ended his hard-court season by reaching the finals of Miami Open 2021. He then moved on to Monte Carlo Masters, where he faced the tough challenge of World No.1 Novak Djokovic. Although he lost that match, Sinner showed encouraging signs.

Next came the Barcelona Open, where he upset Rublev in straight sets. That match was the advertisement for Sinner’s clay-court prowess against a rather superior player. The red dirt is his preferred surface, and the 15th seed could smartly navigate through the Madrid Open 2021 draw.

Aslan Karatsev

Aslan Karatsev celebrates winning his quarter final match against Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov REUTERS/Kelly Defina

2021 has been Karatsev’s year. Having played only a handful of ATP matches before 2021, the Russian came into Australian Open 2021 as a qualifier ranked outside the top 100. He managed to reach the semifinals and didn’t stop his season there. He won his first ATP title in Dubai and followed it with strong performances in the other hard-court tournaments.

Coming to clay, Karatsev was beaten by in-form Stefanos Tsitsipas in Monte Carlo. But the spotlight was again on Karatsev after he upset Novak Djokovic in front of the Serbian fans in Belgrade. Karatsev couldn’t win the title as he lost to Matteo Berrettini, however it set the stage for Karatsev’s possible fireworks in Madrid.

Pablo Carreno Busta

 Pablo Carreno Busta in action during his semi final match against Spain’s Rafael Nadal REUTERS/Albert Gea

Carreno Busta’s favorite surface is clay. He has two clay titles to his name and in the buildup to Madrid Open 2021, he has built a good base.

He started his clay-court season with a title triumph in Andalucia Open. This was followed by a 3rd round appearance in Monte Carlo. He also reached the semifinals of the Barcelona Open, losing to eventual champion Rafael Nadal. In the past, Carreno Busta has surprised fans with long runs in tournaments, most recently at US Open 2020. Consequently, he can surprise many in Madrid in front of his own fans.

Fabio Fognini

Fabio Fognini reacts during his quarter final match against Norway’s Casper Ruud REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Fognini has had a tough outing in 2021. He barely influenced the tournament, despite his pedigree for certain tournaments. However, no one can deny the Italian’s clay-court skills. He is more comfortable on the red dirt, and that was evident at Monte Carlo.

In the Monte Carlo Masters, Fognini reached the quarterfinals and looked a little like his old self from a couple of years ago. Madrid Open might bring out the best in him that many crave to see.


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Casper Ruud

Casper Ruud in action during his semi final match against Russia’s Andrey Rublev REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The young Norwegian, Casper Ruud has taken small steps each year to progress further upward. This year on clay he has been tough to beat. Casper has been a giant killer, as he went on to defeat Diego Schwartzman, Pablo Carreno Busta and Fabio Fognini en route to his semifinals run at Monte Carlo Masters. He could again have a surprise for Madrid Open 2021.

Coco Gauff

Cori Gauff of the United States hits a forehand against Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia (not pictured) of the Miami Open at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Gauff even though is only 17 cannot be written off from a tournament. Even though clay court isn’t her forte, she could quickly develop a liking for the surface given her young age. She could make some huge statements with her tennis. A title triumph would be tough, but she could destructively pass through the draw, defeating some top 10 players in the process.

Elise Mertens

Mertens has had a hot and cold 2021 season so far. She first won the Gippsland Trophy in Melbourne before an early exit in the Australian Open 2021. Her clay court season started at Volvo Car Open, where she was beaten in the second round.

In Istanbul, though, Mertens should her clay-court strength. Seeded first, she reached the finals, only to be beaten by an unseeded player. Mertens has two clay titles and in the past has done decently on the surface. In Madrid, she is seeded 13th and is one of the dark horses.


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Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is the fifth seed and a potential candidate for the victory. Sabalenka is a strong hard-court player and over the years hasn’t been good on clay. But maybe the Belarusian has given a hint of her improved clay court play in her last tournament in Stuttgart.

Aryna Sabalenka reacts during her second round match against Russia’s Daria Kasatkina REUTERS/Kelly Defina

In Stuttgart, Sabalenka beat seasoned clay-court player Simona Halep in the semifinals. She lost a three-setter final to Ash Barty, but showed that she may be good on the clay court as well. Sabalenka has won 9 titles already in a short career and thus she is due a step up, especially on the clay court.

Maria Sakkari

Sakkari’s 2021 hasn’t gone well, however, the past few weeks have been encouraging. Sakkari has been the player enforcing upsets. In her career, she has beaten the likes of Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, etc when they were ranked number one.

Maria Sakkari of Greece serves against Naomi Osaka. Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Sakkari’s only title is on a clay surface, and this time she might be able to combine a good campaign in Madrid.


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Veronika Kudermetova

Kudermetova is ranked 28th and is one of the in-form players. The Russian has exploded in the current clay-court season. She recently won her first WTA title at Volvo Car Open.


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Furthermore, she reached the semifinals in WTA Istanbul losing to Elise Mertens. But in this month, Kudermetova has aced her report card ahead of Madrid Open 2021.


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Bhavishya Mittal

1226 articles

Bhavishya Mittal is a tennis author for EssentiallySports, who is currently pursuing his Bachelor's degree in Journalism from Manipal University. A former sports editor for The Manipal Journal, Bhavishya has also worked for The New Indian Express. He has a keen eye for many sports but he is a particularly ardent follower of tennis, with a zest to create riveting articles on the ever-evolving sport.