August 21, 2014

U.S. Open: 10 Things I Want to See

Well we're finally here, the last Grand Slam of the season, and, boy, have the previous three given us some big expectations. Since the opening shots of the Australian Open, we've been treated to shocking upsets, stunning breakthroughs and huge comebacks. And while I certainly didn't see everything coming, I have to say I'm pretty satisfied with my Major wish lists this year.

Of course, having said that, I've probably doomed myself to a pathetic score this time around, but why not try to go out with a bang. So without further ado, here are the things I most want to see happen at this year's U.S. Open.

10. Genie goes four-for-four

At the start of the year, I never would have thought this was a possibility. Sure other players have made the semifinals of every Slam in one season, but those are so often tried and true champions like Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic. And sure young stars have had breakouts at single Majors, but either, like Caroline Wozniacki after the 2009 U.S. Open, they struggle to return to form or, like 2005 French Open champion Gaston Gaudio, they fizzle out entirely.

But for Genie Bouchard, barely out of Junior leagues, ranking just #145 at last year's Australian Open, playing her first full season of Majors, to make not one, not two, but three Slam semis and a final -- well that's really something.

She's struggled a bit since Wimbledon, though -- in her homeland of Montreal, she was shocked by then-world #113 Shelby Rogers, a little bad luck pitted her against red-hot Svetlana Kuznetsova in her Cincinnatti opener, and after a nice opening in New Haven, she fell in straight sets to Sam Stosur in her second round. Still, she's been surprisingly consistent after her breakthrough in Melbourne, racking up wins over the likes of Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep this season, and there's no reason she can't keep going.

9. A summer star steals the spotlight

Speaking of breakouts, there are plenty others who could take up the mantle now that Bouchard has passed squarely into the established elite. And some of the guys who caused a stir over the last few weeks could now get something done on a big stage.

Topping this list of contenders might be the woman who upset Genie on her own homecourt. Shelby Rogers was ranked barely inside the top hundred fifty at the start of the summer, but took out three seeded players -- including clay court specialist Sara Errani -- on her way to the Bad Gastein final. And she made a successful transition to the hardcourts earlier this month, beating Nanchang champ Shaui Peng to qualify for Montreal before ousting Bouchard a few rounds later. She's still ranked a low #86, and has never won a main draw match at the U.S. Open -- her only Major victory came last year in Paris over even lesser known wildcard Irena Pavlovic. But recent successes suggest that's about to change.

Vasek Pospisil has had a few more opportunities at the Slams, but in his nine previous main draws he's still only scored four singles match wins in total -- he is, of course, coming off his first doubles Major, winning Wimbledon with Jack Sock to start the summer. He's got a shot at improving that record in New York though -- he beat both Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet on his way to a runner-up finish in DC, the first Tour-level final of his career, and though he lost a bunch of ranking points after failing to match his 2013 semifinal showing in Montreal, he did manage to take a set off Roger Federer last week in Cincinnati. He's still outside seeding territory for this fortnight, but he could turn out to be a spoiler to one of the favorites if he gets his game together.

So could veteran Julien Benneteau, making his eleventh trip to the U.S. Open. The thirty-two year old Frenchman has only won one match at a Major so far this year, but he upped his game big time during the summer -- after taking out Lleyton Hewitt and Ernests Gulbis in Toronto, he stunned Stan Wawrinka to make the semifinals in Cincinnati. He's now back in the top thirty, seeded twenty-fourth in New York, and while he's barely won as many matches as he's lost this year, he looks to have more momentum than he's had in a long time. The long-time journeyman is still looking for his first title -- he's lost every one of the nine ATP finals he's played during his career -- so I can't realistically expect him to walk away with the trophy, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him hanging around in Week Two, maybe adding a few more big scalps to his take.

8. A low seed rises high

Sure, Benneteau could certainly fall into this category as well, but isn't always more fun when the Cinderella's seem to come out of nowhere? To be fair, both of these players have had some nice results this year, so we shouldn't be too surprised to see them doing well. Still, considering how far off the radar they were at the start of the year, it really would be great to see them finish it off with a bang.

Ivo Karlovic was ranked in the low double-digits when the season began, but the Croat is now in the top thirty, thanks in part to four final appearances, two on hardcourts. Not surprisingly, the thirty-five year old leads the ATP in almost every serving statistic category -- he's fired off almost nine hundred aces this year, averaging about eighteen a match, won eighty-four percent of his first serves and ninety-three percent of his service games. He's never really done well in New York, reaching just the third round a few times, and has slowed down a bit since playing for the title in Bogota -- he lost to Steve Johnson in Washington and Benjamin Becker in Cincinnati -- but wouldn't that make a deep run this year that much more impressive?

Barbora Zahlavova Strycova has already shown how impressive she can be -- barely ranked inside the top hundred when the season began, she beat three seeded players on the way to the final in Birmingham and then knocked out Na Li and Caroline Wozniacki on her way to the Wimbledon quarters. She's been a little less splashy since then but still managed wins over Mona Barthel and Roberta Vinci at a couple Premier-level events and this week in New Haven has so far scored wins over rising stars Belinda Bencic and Caroline Garcia. Her performance has been enough to earn her a seed in New York -- the first time that's happened at a Major in her decade-plus long career -- and something tells me she might just be able to rise even higher.

7. An American wildcard steps up

I realize this is a little derivative of previous wishes, but I'm going to be a little more particular here. We've been talking a long time about the next generation of American stars, and after the results some players put up over the summer, there's no reason to believe this won't be their chance to really shine.

Former Junior #1 Taylor Townsend, who added two ITF titles to her kitty this year, is entered in her first U.S. Open main draw, having fallen in qualifying rounds two times before. Still the eighteen year old is at her highest career ranking, #103 in the world, and has managed wins over Klara Koukalova and Julia Goerges during the summer hardcourt season. She was also, against all odds, the last American woman standing at the French Open, reaching the third round with wins over Vania King and Alize Cornet. And if the draw works in her favor she might be able to surpass even that this coming fortnight.

Also on the wildcard list is twenty-six year old Tim Smyczek, ranked just inside the top hundred. He's had a little more experience at Flushing Meadows and has steadily improved his performance here, barely losing in the third round in 2013 to Marcel Granollers. He's been busy the last couple months, too, reaching the third round in DC and hanging tough with Feliciano Lopez after qualifying for the Toronto Masters. He hasn't quite matched the results of contemporaries like Jack Sock or Steve Johnson this season, but he could be ready to turn that around now.

6. Young guns hit their stride

Of course even with homecourt advantage, the Americans will face a tough challenge in New York. And a couple players still on the verge of making the big time could prove to be their undoing.

One-time French Open Cinderella David Goffin is running on a most-unlikely twenty-five match win streak this summer. The twenty-three year old Belgian had fallen well off the radar over the past eighteen months and dropped as low as #113 in the world at the start of the season. But after losing his first round at Wimbledon -- his seventh straight opening round loss at a Major -- he picked up three consecutive Challengers' titles and his first big boy's crown in Kitzbu¨hel last month. This week in Winston-Salem he defeated defending champion Jurgen Melzer and and will play his quarterfinal match later today. He's still off his career high ranking, but he seems to have more confidence and is playing better ball than we've seen from him in a long time. And that could bode well for him when he hits the courts of New York.

Perhaps former Junior Roland Garros champion Elina Svitolina has an even better shot at making a splash. The world #34 just successfully defended her title in Baku and is fresh off her first top-ten win, beating Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova on her way to the quarters in Cincinnati. She doesn't have a lot of success in the Majors' main draws -- her best result was the third round of this year's Australian Open -- but she's only been playing with the big girls a few years. And she's scored wins over multiple Grand Slam champions -- Kvitova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Francesca Schiavone -- as well as over the likes of Carla Suarez Navarro, Sloane Stephens and Genie Bouchard. She might not be a favorite yet, but she has the talent to spoil the hopes of a couple who are.

5. A weak streak is ended

For every player who's put together a great run this season, there is one who has let his or her game slip a bit. For some it's been months since we saw their best stuff, for others much longer than that. But what better place to turn around their luck than at the last Major of the year?

Mikhail Youzhny certainly has had some of his best results in New York -- twice a semifinalist, he even made the quarters here last year. But he's had three straight second-round exits at the Majors this season, and hasn't won more than two matches at any event in 2014. But there is reason to believe he can rebound -- last week in Cincinnati, he summarily ended the momentum of Toronto champ Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and followed up the win with a straight set victory over Andreas Seppi. He'll have a lot on the line over the next few weeks, but with his history and hopefully rebuilt confidence, he has a real shot at going far.

Alize Cornet actually had been having one of the best years of her career, reaching the final in Dubai and winning the title in Katowice. At #23 in the world, she's at her highest ranking since 2009, and earlier this summer she notched her first ever top-ten win at a Slam, stunning Serena Williams for the second time in a row in the Wimbledon third round. Since then, however, she's only won one match, losing twice to players ranked outside the top hundred. On the plus side, though, she should be well rested when she heads out to defend those third round points from last year -- and if she can harness the talent we know she has somewhere in there, she should be able to do it.

Flavia Pennetta has a little more on the line at the U.S. Open -- last year's surprise semifinalist beat Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sara Errani and Simona Halep during her 2013 campaign. She carried that momentum with her early into this season, too, reaching the quarters in Melbourne and then winning her biggest title to date in Indian Wells. But then she really slowed down -- she lost in the second rounds of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon and couldn't put up much of a fight in the summer Premier events. Her latest effort resulted in an early upset this week by world #44 Alison Riske in New Haven. Still, despite her recent weakness, she's risen to her highest ranking in over four years -- if she wants to stay there, she's going to have to deliver big this fortnight.

4. A former champ makes a stand

For the last several years this tournament has really been dominated by just a few players -- Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have won all but two of the last ten U.S. Open men's crowns and Serena Williams is going for the three-peat in New York, looking for her sixth career trophy here. But a couple players who actually broke their Grand Slam seal in Flushing Meadows have fallen a little out of the spotlight, and this could be their chance to jump back in.

We're not that far removed from Andy Murray's heyday -- it was only last year that he was making history as Wimbledon champion. But back issues plagued him late last season, and though he was able to reach the semis at Roland Garros, he hasn't put up much of a fight even outside the Majors. Now #9 in the world, he's in danger of going title-less for the first time since 2005, surprising for a man who seemed so unstoppable just a few months ago. He's shown some signs of strength on the summer hardcourts -- he dismantled Rafa-killer Nick Kyrgios in his Toronto opener and sneaked out a close win over John Isner last week in Cincinnati. The pressure will be turned higher at the Open, though, the first Slam he won, but it seems that's when he does best, so watch for him to make a statement on his return.

Svetlana Kuznetsova's reign in the Big Apple was a little longer ago -- it's been a full decade since she beat Elena Dementieva for the U.S. Open title. Her career's gone up and down since then -- she peaked at #2 in the world way back in 2007, battled various injuries and struggled with her form, shocked the world with a crown at Roland Garros in 2009 and picked up a couple doubles titles at the Majors too, fell out of the top fifty and went a full four years without a trophy. Still, the veteran Russian has been a fixture on Tour, playing singles in all but two of the last forty-eight Slams, and at #21 in the world now, she's at her best ranking in over two years. She kicked off the summer with her first title since 2010 and beat Genie Bouchard in the second round of Cincinnati. It's probably a long shot to call for Sveta to make the second week, but the long-trudging workhorse is one of those players no one wants to see in her section of the draw, and she certainly could surprise us all.

So could, it seems, two-time champion Venus Williams, who played her last final here in 2002. The thirty-four year old has lost in the second round here the last three years, but despite illness and injury refuses to go away. To start the year, she pushed Ana Ivanovic to a third set in the Auckland final and exacted revenge in Dubai, where she ultimately claimed the title, her first since 2012. Earlier this month she pulled off her first win over sister Serena in five years, coming back after losing the first set to the world #1 in the Montreal semis. Whether she can last a full fortnight remains to be seen -- she's fallen before the fourth round at eleven of the last twelve Majors she's played -- but perhaps this time the extra day of rest between matches will help. She's certainly got the drive and talent to make a run, so why not do it at her homeland Slam?

3. A winner trades up

While these guys are looking for a return to glory of sorts, a couple of recent champions are still hoping for that big break. They've all been talked about as contenders in the past -- some long ago, some very recently -- but maybe their recent performances on the North American hardcourts suggest they're ready for some even glossier hardware.

Milos Raonic has long been discussed as a potential multi-Slam winner, but it wasn't until this year that he finally hit his stride. The big-serving Canadian reached the quarterfinals in Paris and broke through to the semis at Wimbledon, climbing to a career-high #6 in the world. To start the summer, he added the biggest trophy yet to his coffers, claiming his first 500-level event in DC. To go from that straight to a Major is probably a big ask, but he has the ability to give the top stars a run for the money, and on this surface, by far his best despite stalling in the fourth round here two years straight, he's probably got the best chance to do it.

Agnieszka Radwanska has been playing in the big leagues for years, but seemed to fall by the wayside after her runner's-up finish at the All England Club two years back. Sure, she's picked up a few titles here and there, but none nearly as big as the one that slipped through her fingers in 2012. Losses in some big matches she should have won also seemed to suggest her best days were behind her. But earlier this month in Montreal, the former world #2 took out some huge opponents -- Sabine Lisicki, Victoria Azarenka, Venus Williams, to name a few -- on the way to her biggest crown in quite a while. She has yet to make the quarterfinals in New York, but that could be about to change.

Like Aga, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hadn't played his best tennis in years. Though the 2008 runner-up at the Australian Open had scored wins over the likes of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer at the Slams, this year he'd been struggling, needing five sets to get past both Sam Querrey and Jurgen Melzer at Wimbledon. But he got his game together in a big way this month -- seeded a mediocre thirteenth in Toronto, he took out four top-ten players in a row, the first player to do that at a Masters event since Guillermo Canas in 2002, ironically, also at the Rogers Cup. He was understandably exhausted and lost his next match to Mikhail Youzhny, but with a few weeks off between that and his opener in New York, he should have built up the strength for another deep run here.

2. The curse is broken

The tricky thing about Grand Slams is that it's so often difficult to follow up one win with another -- in fact, so many players have trouble even lasting a few rounds into the next event they play. And some of this year's champions are going to want to change that trend.

Stanislas Wawrinka shocked the tennis world with his maiden Major in Melbourne, where he turned the tables on Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal -- both of whom he'd held losing records to before. He climbed to #3 in the world after that and even picked up his first Masters title a few months later. But he's also disappointed when the pressure was on -- he lost his opener in Paris, was bested by sub-fifty player Andrey Golubev in Davis Cup and notched two losses to Kevin Anderson on the U.S. hardcourts. Last week in Cincinnati, he squandered a 6-1 lead over Julien Benneteau and crumbled quickly in the eighty minute match. He did reach the semifinals in New York last year, then his best Slam showing, but if he wants to prove he's no one-hit wonder, he might need to do more than just defend those points.

Petra Kvitova had also struggled immediately after she was first crowned a Grand Slam champion -- the 2011 Wimbledon winner only won two matches during that summer and lost in her New York first round to world #48 Alexandra Dulgheru just a few weeks after her surprise run at the All England Club. She'll want to make sure that doesn't happen again -- in her first tournament since Trophy #2, she fell in three sets to Ekaterina Makarova in Montreal and lost last week to Elina Svitolina in her Cincy opener. She's been strong so far in New Haven, dropping just three games in a grudge match versus Makarova, and will next take on compatriot Barbora Zahlahvova Strycova for a spot in the semis. Hopefully, if she doesn't tire herself out, she'll be able to ride that momentum into a truly successful run in Flushing Meadows.

1. #2 upends #1

As much as each individual match win at a Major matters, ultimately the goal for every player is to win the trophy at the end of the fortnight. And, upsets, breakdowns and Cinderellas aside, you have to assume the favorites have earned that status for a reason. But there's no reason that, even if the top two seeds smash their way into the finals, we can't see a couple fireworks when the titles are on the line. And why not have the biggest surprises come when the stakes are highest?

With Rafael Nadal's injury-induced absence, fellow former champions Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer claim the high spots in the men's draw at the U.S. Open, and if the seedings play out as planned, they'd set up their fifth meeting of the year and their third battle when a Major trophy's on the line. Not surprisingly, the pair's head-to-head record is spitting-distance close -- Nole's five-set victory at the All England Club brought him a match away from drawing even against the All Time Great. And as the top-ranked player in the world, he'd be the favorite to close the gap in this potential match up -- but I'm hoping Roger pulls back ahead. The Swiss is fresh off back-to-back Masters finals, claiming his sixth trophy in Cincinnati. Far from done with his record breaking career, he might just be primed to add Slam #18 to his mantel during his campaign here.

It's a bit of a tougher sell to call for the same to happen on the ladies' side. Five-time champion Serena Williams is the favorite again, followed somewhat distantly by relative newbie Simona Halep, who's reached just one Major final in her much-shorter career. Serena is coming off wins in both Stanford and Cincinnati, clinching the top spot in the U.S. Open Series, Halep dropped her opener in New Haven to world #68 Magadalena Rybarikova. But the young Romanian is an impressive 15-3 in Grand Slams this year compared to an uncharacteristic 6-3 for the world #1. Halep has rocketed up the rankings, from #21 heading to Flushing Meadows last year to #2 now. She's also won an astonishing eight titles since the start of 2013, defeating the likes of Sam Stosur, Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova in the finals. She's got five top-ten wins this year, and though she's lost six straight sets to Williams over the last three years, she's not the kind of player that will let that bother her. If she can make it back to a championship match, I won't put winning it past her.

There you have it -- my final Major wish list for the year. Lists are tough -- props to you, BuzzFeed -- I most likely will be changing my strategy next year, but until then, here's hoping I don't spoil my track record too much with this one.

Of course, I know I haven't covered all the bases yet -- don't worry that's still to come. Check back this weekend for my Blogcast preview of what to expect in the Big Apple. And in the meantime, let me know what you're hoping to see at this year's U.S. Open.

August 18, 2014

The Throwback Tourney

Okay, sure -- the last time Roger Federer and Serena Williams hoisted the same trophy didn't come that long ago. But while both have remained not just relevant, but truly dominant in the years since, they'd also proved their fallibility against even the most unlikely opponents. This week, though, they seemed to turn back the clocks, and while both were certainly challenged in Cincinnati, ultimately they each recaptured the strength they'll be sure to bring with them in the weeks that come.

Serena, somewhat surprisingly, had long seemed to be cursed at the Western & Southern Open -- in her five previous appearances she'd only made the final one time and lost last year to Victoria Azarenka in a three-set nail-biter of a championship. And after a health scare at Wimbledon and a semifinal loss to her sister in Montreal, she didn't seem like she was playing at her best this past week either. In her opener against Sam Stosur, her vanquisher, yes, at the U.S. Open several years back, but a woman, nonetheless, she'd dismantled just days earlier, she went two hours and two long tiebreaks before eking out the win, getting barely half of her first serves in and squandering her only break opportunity. Then she dropped the first set to an in-form Caroline Wozniacki in the semis before sneaking into the final against Ana Ivanovic, the woman who'd stunned her in Australia just months ago. The Serb had survived her own squeaker on Saturday, defeating Maria Sharapova for the second straight time in a nearly three-hour battle, and seemed to lose some steam in the title match -- after building a 3-1 lead and holding points for two breaks, Serena upped her game dramatically. She rattled off ten straight points and won eleven of the next thirteen games and after an hour of play had claimed her fifth title of the year, ending a long drought in Cincinnati and setting her up for what could be a successful run in New York.

Federer's had a little more success in Cincy, racking up five trophies in Ohio over the years. But while he's clawed himself back up the rankings this season, reaching at least the final in eight events he's played, he's also fallen just short when it counts most. He'd won neither a Masters title nor a Grand Slam in two years and had been overshadowed by the current generation's stars at most of the big events. Still, Roger kept on kicking -- this week at the Western & Southern, he nudged past back-on-the-upswing Vasek Pospisil in his opening match and needed another decider to get past Gael Monfils. Against tougher opponents in the later rounds he actually had an easier time, dismissing both Andy Murray and summer standout Milos Raonic in straight sets. David Ferrer, who'd just pressed him to three sets the prior week in Toronto, presented a tougher challenge again in Sunday's final -- the veteran Spaniard fired back after losing the first set to build a 5-0 lead in the second -- but Federer rebounded again, breaking early and closing out the match in just over an hour and a half. It was Roger's first Masters title in three ties this year, and his twenty-second overall, and while it wasn't enough to put him atop the U.S. Open Series standings, it certainly shows he's not ready to slink off into the shadows after his disappointing Wimbledon final loss. And that could serve him well as we head to the final Major of the year.

We shouldn't be too surprised that this weekend's champions did what they do best in Cincinnati -- but there's something refreshing in seeing them reclaim the spotlight that had started to drift away. While plenty of players have shown they're contenders for the title in New York, you certainly can't put a title run past these two guys. And with just a week to go before the first balls are hit at Flushing Meadows, everyone out there better be ready for what they're going to bring.

August 14, 2014

A Few Familiar Faces

This year, really, has been about the next generation of tennis greats. With players like Genie Bouchard, Simona Halep and Nick Kyrgios making such big strides, it's been easy to lose track of some long trudging champions.

But this week in Cincinnati, we've seen the vets come back into the spotlight after some seemingly long absences. And they might just have what it takes to keep on going.

Sloane Stephens was long heralded as the Next Big Thing in American women's tennis, and she seemed destined to live up to that reputation when she stunned Serena Williams at the Australian Open last year. But she fell a few rounds short of the semis this time around and had only managed one top-twenty win all season, beating Ana Ivanovic in Indian Wells, while she lost to a handful of players ranked outside the top hundred. This week at the Western & Southern Open, though, she seems to have gotten her stride back -- she kicked off her campaign with a straight-set win over French Cinderella Andrea Petkovic and then took out Wimbledon standout Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. She next faces a rematch with Jelena Jankovic, the woman who beat her in Montreal just days ago, but she went three long sets in that battle and could turn the tables in her favor now that she's playing on her own homecourt.

Sabine Lisicki has also struggled since her career high last July. Consistently a threat at Wimbledon, she final reached the championship match in 2013, but didn't win more than one match at an event until Madrid this season. Even when she was breaking service records in Stanford, she was still losing matches she should have won. She also may be back on track in Cincinnati, though, taking out both Roberta Vinci and her co-#1 doubles partner Sara Errani to start the week. And like Sloane again, she'll meet her Rogers Cup vanquisher in tonight's late match -- she was the only player to take a set off Aga Radwanska last week in Montreal, and might now have the fire to go one better this time.

While these unseeded ladies have outlasted expectations already in Cincinnati, David Ferrer is looking to give himself a bit of a boost. Last year's runner-up in Paris has remained consistent this year, reaching the quarters in Australia and at Roland Garros and remaining squarely in the top ten of the ATP. But he's also suffered some surprising losses -- to Teymuraz Gabashvili in his Barcelona opener and to Andrey Kuznetsov in the second round at Wimbledon. And even when he's won, he's had a tough time doing it -- yesterday against Phillipp Kohlschreiber in Cincy, he needed three tiebreaks and nearly three hours to advance. Up next for the sixth seed is Mikhail Youzhny -- a man who's been struggling himself this year, but encouragingly followed up a win over Toronto champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga by beating Andreas Seppi on Wednesday. Ferrer has a less-than-spectacular 3-5 record against the Russian, but if he can rally for the win there's no telling what it would do for his morale.

Gael Monfils can't really ever be accused of having too little confidence, but he's struggled to come back from injury over the last several months, and success has come in fits and starts. He did claim a title early in the year and took Andy Murray to five sets in the Roland Garros quarters, but he also was dealt a early exit at the hands of Jiri Vesely at Wimbledon. Last week in Toronto he pushed Novak Djokovic to the limit, ultimately losing in the almost-three hour match, but it might have lit a fire under him for the Western & Southern -- he went three sets in his opener, but rebounded quickly to upset 2014 breakout Roberto Bautista-Agut. It's only going to get tougher from here, of course -- he'll take on Roger Federer this evening -- but Monfils actually won the pair's last meeting at the Shanghai Masters and might have the momentum to pull off another big upset.

Of course it's great when new talent crops up in the tennis world, but there's something reassuring about seeing these guys and gals hitting back so strong against the tide. They might not be the favorites in the field, but they've all scored some huge wins in the past and could certainly find the strength to do it again. And if they keep it up, things could get really interesting in the weeks to come.

August 10, 2014

Feels Like Forever

In truth, it hasn't been that long since this weekend's champions last hoisted a trophy, but it sure feels like it's been a while. Whether dealing with injury, being overshadowed by rising stars, or falling in early rounds to players ranked far below them, both Aga Radwanska and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had been pushed from the headlines the last few months. But their performances this week in Canada might have turned the tide back in their favor, and it couldn't have come at a better time.

Agnieszka Radwanska had put up a couple solid performances this season, reaching the semis in Melbourne and the final in Indian Wells, but she hadn't won a title since Seoul last fall and was upset in the first week at both the French Open and Wimbledon. She still held onto the third seed in Montreal this past week, but she faced a tough draw from the start -- she opened against All England Club Cinderella Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, followed up with a win over record-breaking server Sabine Lisicki and then scored her second straight win over long-time rival Victoria Azarenka. In her semifinal against Ekaterina Makarova she avenged her loss in the Wimbledon fourth round and set up a clash with veteran champion Venus Williams for the title. Sure, Aga was the on-paper favorite against the unseeded Williams, but Venus had already notched wins over Stanford runner-up Angelique Kerber and recent foil Carla Suarez Navarro before stunning younger sister Serena in a three-set semi, her first win over the world #1 since 2009 -- she certainly was more than capable of getting another win on Sunday. But Radwanska got the upper hand this time, pouncing on Venus's second serve and breaking her opponent five times. In under an hour and a half, the Pole had picked up trophy number fourteen, her biggest since 2012, and put herself squarely back in the conversation as the summer hardcourt season really heats up.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga seemed to have fallen even further out of that conversation -- the one-time world #5 failed to defend his Marseille title in February and hadn't made it to the second week of a Major since Roland Garros last year. He'd posted losses this season to players like #46 Santiago Giraldo in Madrid, #60 Marinko Matosevic at Queen's Club, and #119 Peter Gojowczyk at Davis Cup and went 0-7 against opponents ranked in the top ten. That was, of course, before he got to Toronto. A low thirteenth seed at the Rogers Cup, he stunned two-time champion Novak Djokovic in the third round and followed up with wins over Andy Murray and Grigor Dimitrov to make his first Masters final since 2011. There he faced off against legend Roger Federer, who'd reached his fifth final at this event, albeit by facing a couple challenges on the way -- he'd played late into the night in two-and-a-half hour-plus third round battle against Marin Cilic and needed another three sets to get past David Ferrer in the quarters. Tsonga, though, who'd notched a couple big wins over Federer in the past, proved the cooler of the two in the final -- on serve through the first eleven games of the match, he converted the only break opportunity of the opening set and created six more chances in the second while winning more than ninety percent of his first serves. Though he squandered one match point on Roger's serve, he ultimately took the championship in a tiebreak, capping off what might have been the most successful week of his career.

With their wins this week, both Radwanska and Tsonga have not only ended a long dry spell, but put themselves back in the mix as we head to the final Grand Slam of the year. While the stakes are only getting higher in the weeks to come, their performances in Canada show they know how to perform under pressure. And if they can keep it up, there's no telling how much more they can do.

August 7, 2014

Homecourt Disadvantage

It's a little surprising, given how successful Canadians have been on the tennis courts this year, that when they get to the biggest tournaments played in their own homeland, where presumably the crowd support would give them a nice boost, so many are having troubles.

Not everyone has fallen, of course, but even DC champion Milos Raonic had to fight back in Toronto after losing the first set to Jack Sock last night, and needed two tiebreaks to ultimately advance. He next faces Julien Benneteau, a thirty-two year old veteran who is still looking for that first career title, and while he has won two of the pair's three meetings, the fight for the quarterfinals could be quite a battle. The Frenchman dropped just three games against Newport champ Lleyton Hewitt in his opener and then took out eleventh seed Ernests Gulbis in straight sets. If he catches Raonic off guard, he might just pull off another upset.

Meanwhile Citi Open runner-up Vasek Pospisil, whose campaign there pushed him up nine ranking spots to #27 in the world, fell a bit short of last year's semifinal showing at the Rogers Cup. He drew a rematch of his DC semifinal in his opener, and this time fell to Richard Gasquet in straight sets. And the twelfth seed in Toronto kept that momentum with him -- after dropping his first set to Ivo Karlovic yesterday, he didn't allow another break opportunity and finally took out the big-serving Croat in about two hours. He faces Andy Murray next, certainly a big ask, but the Frenchman has gotten wins over the two-time Grand Slam winner in the past and could have the confidence to get it done again.

But by far the biggest upset for the Canadians this week was the opening round exit of 2014 standout Genie Bouchard. Fresh off a second-place finish at Wimbledon, her first Tour-level Grand Slam final, and a climb into single-digit rankings, the twenty-year old suffered a shocking defeat in her Montreal opener, dropping two bagel sets to qualifier Shelby Rogers on Tuesday night. The young American who's only won a handful of ITF titles during her career, stormed onto the scene last month, beating Carla Suarez Navarro and Sara Errani on her way to the Bad Gastein final. Last week she beat third seeded Alize Cornet in DC and, still ranked outside the top hundred, ousted Nanchang champ Shaui Peng to qualify for this event. Her win over Bouchard is her biggest victory to date, and while she'll certainly be tested by former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki in today's third round, there's no reason she can't add one more upset to her r&eacture;sumé.

Sure, it's a little disappointing to see the Canadians struggle this week, even as their stars shine bright on the broader tennis stage. Of course I don't think their performances signal an end to their rise, but those left standing at the Rogers Cup have a huge opportunity to capitalize now. After all, with wins over players who've really come to the forefront of the sport in recent weeks and months, they've shown they've got what it takes to keep on going.

And with just a few weeks left before the U.S. Open, there's no better time to do it.

August 4, 2014

Back in the Saddle

We saw a lot of players last week reassert themselves in the tennis world, and while many of them were encouragingly able to keep up their performances most of the week, when it came down to the wire it was the tried-and-true who came away the winners. But for some, it had been a long time since they tasted that kind of victory.

Milos Raonic had been putting together his most successful season to-date, but despite his first Grand Slam semi at Wimbledon and breaking into the top ten for the first time, he hadn't won a title all year. The big-serving Canadian came to the Citi Open in DC as the second seed, but faced some tough competition during his run. Despite fifty-four aces, the first five sets he played all went to tiebreaks, and it wasn't until the quarterfinals against Steve Johnson that he finally held onto a break lead. In Sunday's final versus compatriot Vasek Pospisil, who'd already come back from sets down in his previous two matches, he broke early in the match and never looked back -- after just over an hour he'd secured the win, the first 500-level title of his career. It was Raonic's first trophy since Bangkok last September, but after so many close calls this year, it might mean a little more.

Svetlana Kuznetsova has been away from the winner's circle a little longer -- the two-time Major winner claimed her last title almost four years ago and lost the only two championships she's played since then. She has remained relevant, though, reaching the quarterfinals at the last two French Opens and climbing back up the rankings from #85 in the world last January to #26 before making the trip to DC. The sixth seeded Russian was blessed with a fairly open draw, with red-hot Lucie Safarova losing her opener and two-time defending champion Magdalena Rybarikova falling quickly in her first round. But she didn't lose a set in her first three matches, beating compatriot Ekaterina Makarova in less than ninety minutes in their semi. Sunday she faced off against unseeded upstart Kurumi Nara, who'd won her first career trophy in Rio to start the year and was clearly going to put up a fight for title #2. After taking the first set, Sveta fell behind in the second to the young Japanese and was forced to a decider. And both ladies raised their games in that set, with the first and only break conversion coming at match point after more than two hours of play. The win not only ended Kuznetsova's long drought, but more importantly reminded us all of how relevant she still is as we draw closer to the last Grand Slam of the year.

Serena Williams also made a big statement this week. While the world #1 had already picked up three crowns this season, she'd been getting more attention lately for her early Slam exits and a weird Wimbledon meltdown. Though she'll still be the favorite to defend her U.S Open title later in the summer, plenty of pundits wondered whether she'd be mentally and physically fit enough to play against the top stars in the sport. She may have silenced those critics at the Bank of the West Classic, where she'd won the trophy on her last two outings. She kept that win streak going last week, coming back from a set down to Ana Ivanovic in the quarters and winning eight straight games to close out her semifinal against Andrea Petkovic. In yesterday's final she got down an early break to Angelique Kerber -- a woman who'd delivered her only loss in the in back half of 2012 -- but rebounded quickly, taking the first set in a tiebreak and allowing just two points on serve in the second. The win puts her squarely on top of the U.S. Open Series rankings, a place she's used to occupying, but more importantly proves she can't be counted out. And while there might be a few more openings for her opponents, she's not going anywhere any time soon.

With the summer hardcourt season now in full swing, it was the perfect time for this weekend's winners to get back on a winning track. Whether it'd been months or years since they last tasted victory, their recent results show us just how much in control of their games they are. And with just a few weeks left before action kicks off in New York, everyone else should stand up and take notice.

August 1, 2014

Don't Call This a Comeback...

Is it just me, or does it seem like a lot of players have taken the opportunity this week to put their names back on the tennis map?

Whether tried and true veterans or once-hot young guns, more than a few players had slowed down in recent months and years, some making more headlines for their lack of results than for any match wins. But someone seems to have lit a fire under these guys, one which hopefully won't flicker out any time soon.

Juan Monaco seems to have brought the momentum that took him all the way to the Gstaad final last week with him to Austria. Now ranked back in the top hundred dropped his opening set in Kitzbühel in a bagel, but came back strong to take out seventh seed Jarkko Nieminen and, earlier today, notched another upset over world #48 Andreas Seppi. He'll meet upstart Dominic Thiem in the second part of his double-header later today, but I like his chances to get back to a championship match. But the real story at the bet-at-home Cup is really David Goffin, a surprise fourth-rounder at the French Open two years ago. Since then he's lost in seven Major first rounds and this year has only won three ATP-level matches. He is, however, doing well on the Challenger circuit, claiming three clay court titles since Wimbledon and carried a 15-0 streak to Kitzbühel, where he took out top seed Phillipp Kohlschreiber early in his run. Earlier today he came back after losing his opening set to Maximo Gonzalez -- he'd been serving for it at 5-4 -- and will, against all expectations, be playing in his first career final tomorrow.

Over on the American hardcourts a couple more players are showing why they were once thought to have so much potential. Vasek Pospisil hit a career high of #25 in the world at the start of the year, but went on an eight-match losing streak during the spring and early summer. He did a little better in doubles, though, teaming with Jack Sock for a stunning victory at the All England Club and backing it up with a quick-and-easy title run in Atlanta. This week in DC, he scored his third win versus a top-ten player, repeating his win over Tomas Berdych from almost a year ago. He'll still be the on-paper underdog in today's quarterfinal against Santiago Giraldo, but he's shown he can pull off bigger wins than that. Donald Young too is having a bit of a resurgence -- after his famously unsuccessful 2012 season, he saw his ranking plummet from #38 to sub-200. But even with a few nice wins this year, he still has a losing record in 2014. He has managed wins over Julien Benneteau and Denis Istomin this week, though, so he might just be back on track.

The ladies in Washington haven't seen as many notable rebirths -- Kristina Mladenovic continued her stellar season by taking out top seed and Wimbledon semifinalist Lucie Safarova while consistently strong Ekaterina Makarova dominated two-time defending champion Magdalena Rybarikova in her opener. But she'll next meet 2012 finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who seems to have gotten her mojo back. Since claiming the title in Paris last February she's lost five matches to players ranked in triple digits, but hasn't dropped a set yet this week. And Svetlana Kuznetsova, who's been winning in fits and starts the last several years, had a surprisingly easy time against Kirsten Flipkens to make the quarters. She's the lowest seed still standing, but might just be able to re-harness the talent we know she has.

But perhaps the player we should be most focused on is Venus Williams who this week returns to Stanford for the first time since 2009. The former world #1 has understandably slowed down a bit since being diagnosed with Sjorgrëns disease three years ago, but she remains relevant, picking up title #45 in Dubai last February. And she's reached the final here seven times before, the first one way back in 1998, and though she's unseeded at the Bank of the West Classic she's clearly still a threat. Late last night she notched her first top ten victory of the year over Victoria Azarenka, herself struggling to come back from injury, and next faces Andrea Petkovic -- a woman she beat on her way to the 2012 Luxembourg title. She could easily set up a showdown against sister Serena for a spot in the championship match, and while she'll of course be the underdog there, I wouldn't expect anything other than fireworks.

All of these guys and girls have tasted big victories in the past, and though it may have been a while since they've been at the top of their game, they've all been around for years and know how to win when it counts. And this might be just the time to do that.