New faces dominate Winston-Salem Open

First-time finalists take the singles and doubles crowns

Ilya Ivashka returns a volley against Mikael Ymer in the first set of the Winston-Salem Open finals Saturday at Wake Forest University. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM — Coming a week before the U.S. Open, the Winston-Salem Open is often called a tuneup for the Grand Slam event.

This year, however, the tournament at Wake Forest’s tennis complex instead played the role of coming-out party.

For the first time in tournament history, the championship match pitted two players making their first appearance in an ATP event final. Both were also unseeded and outside the world’s top 50, also firsts in Winston-Salem Open history.

Ilya Ivashka took the tournament title, making short work of Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2 to win the 2021 Winston-Salem Open.

Ivashka, 27, became the lowest-ranked player to win the Open in the tournament’s history at No. 63 in the world entering the final. He also became the first player from Belarus to win an ATP Tour singles title in 18 years. Max Mirnyi was the last, in 2003.

“I grew up watching Max play,” Ivashka said. “He was like an idol for all of us. I’ve wanted this since I was a kid. I just can’t say how happy I am. We don’t have too many people in Belarus who have won an ATP title, so it’s a great feeling.”

The 22-year-old Ymer, who was No. 90 in the world, was also ending a drought for his home country, becoming the first Swedish player to reach a final since 2011.

He was no match for Ivashka, who seemed to get better as the tournament went on. Ivashka took out Pablo Carreno Busta, the tournament’s top seed, in the quarterfinals, then blew out Emil Ruusuvuori in the semis, breaking serve five times to win 6-2, 6-1. He broke Ymer three times in the final and wrapped up the title in 56 minutes, the shortest ATP final of the year.

Ivashka lost just one set in his entire run in the tournament, making a powerful statement in his first career tournament victory.

“This is an incredible feeling. It’s something I’ve been dreaming of,” he said. “My coach and I were talking a few months ago about what my goal was. For me, it was to win an ATP title this year.”

The doubles side also featured a coming-out party. Marcelo Arevalo and Matwe Middlekoop reached their first tournament final, then beat Ivan Dodig and Austin Krajicek 6-7(5), 7-5, 10-6 to take the crown.

Arevalo and Middlekoop earned their title by battling back from three match points in the first round to top Andrey Golubev and Andreas Mies in an epic match, 6-2, 5-7, 11-9.

They faced another match point the following day in the quarterfinals before winning another marathon, beating Luke Saville and John-Patrick Smith, 3-6, 7-6(6), 10-7.

Dodig and Krajicek, meanwhile, didn’t lose a set before facing Arevalo and Middlekoop in the final.

“I feel amazing. The match was all over the place. I’m still processing it,” said Middelkoop after he took the final with first-time partner Arevalo. “We had some hard moments this week, but we bounced back. The future looks very bright.”

The future is just as bright for Ivashka, the singles champion. He vaulted 10 spots in the world rankings after winning in Winston-Salem. Of the previous 10 winners of the Open, nine eventually made it into the world’s top 20.

He credited the Winston-Salem crowd with providing energy as he advanced through the week.

“It’s amazing to play with a full crowd,” he said. “I love these guys. The support has been awesome. We have been playing a lot of empty stadiums, so I enjoy this much more.”

Ymer also enjoyed playing in Winston-Salem as he upset his way to the final, knocking off seeded players

by coming from behind to take both matches. Tiafoe had earlier in the week sent former World No. 1 Andy Murray packing.

“I love the atmosphere here. I also really like the people working with the tournament. I feel very welcomed here,” Ymer said.

After a year away, the tournament saw the top names in its field dispatched early, opening the door for some new faces to get a chance to shine.

“We have always known this is a world-class event,” tournament director Jeff Ryan said. “These are just more great stories coming out of our community. The bigger story, though, is the support our fans gave all week long. We can’t say thank you enough. This is really a great experience for everyone, not just tennis fans, and we look forward to being back in 2022.”