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Hubie Hurkacz Is Happy Again

Hubert Hurkacz celebrates with his Shanghai Masters trophy
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

It's been an odd season for Hubert Hurkacz, the most wholesome and most inconspicuous elite player on the ATP. The man is always smiling, but the current world No. 17 hasn't been living up to his usual standards. Compared to his top-10 finishes in 2021 and 2022, Hurkacz has flopped in 2023. You look at the raw components of his game—a top-three serve, an exceptional net game, solid movement, good backhand—and wonder why he doesn't win a good deal more than he actually does.

This summer, Hubie had a pair of almost-wins against the best players on tour that underlined both of his incredible talent and his high-pressure disappointments. In a fourth-round match at Wimbledon, he pulled off one of the best serving performances in recent memory, so good that the tour's best-ever returner was in hell: "I don't recall being so helpless on the return games, to be honest," said Novak Djokovic after. Hurkacz had plenty of tantalizing chances in the tiebreaks, but Djokovic came away with the 7-6(6), 7-6(6), 5-7, 6-4 win. A month later, in Cincinnati, Hurkacz gave Carlos Alcaraz fits, and lined up a match point, before losing 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-3. I even began to wonder if his placid persona was somehow holding him back professionally. But there were no such disappointments for Hurkacz on Sunday, as he salvaged his season with a Shanghai Masters title, beating Andrey Rublev 6-3, 3-6, 7-6(8), in a battle of the well-adjusted versus the madly tormented.

Rublev had been the hottest player in the tournament. He hadn't dropped a set heading into Sunday's final, taking down several in-form players without incident. The 25-year-old has been steadily refining his simple, everything-is-a-nail-and-I-am-a-hammer brand of tennis. On a good day, his baseline power is just too much to cope with. While he still has yet to break through to a semifinal at a major, he's been one of the most consistent performers on tour over the last few seasons. An impressive win over Holger Rune in the Monte-Carlo final in April earned Rublev his biggest title to date. No matter his success, howling fury remains an essential component of the Andrey Rublev experience, and it cropped up again in Sunday's final. He charged at a courtside photographer who'd moved around during an important point. He went to town on his own leg after losing the match. If, psychologically, Hubie is a still pond, Andrey is a toilet mid-plunge.

In pure tennis terms, both guys played a clean match, full of accurate serves and diverse shot-making. They're an interesting pairing. Rublev destroys every ball without hesitation. After his colossal serve, Hurkacz, counterintuitively, hits some of the slowest groundstrokes on tour, massaging the ball around the court. This works out for him because, contrary to the stereotype of tall immobile servers, the 6-foot-5 Hurkacz can glide around and hang in longer rallies as needed. He also excels at sneaking up to the net and making use of his wonderful volleys. So he has this low-powered, all-court finesse game stapled to a servebot's serve. And Hurkacz will always be a threat when he's putting up serving statistics this ridiculous: 21 aces, zero double-faults, 75 percent of first serves in play.

Both players secured championship points in the deciding tiebreak, but Hurkacz hung on to take it 10-8 and claim his second career Masters title. Next week, he'll improve to No. 11 in the world, and suddenly finds himself in contention for the year-end finals. In tennis, one pleasant week can turn around your whole crummy year.

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