April 13, 2014

Unlikely Heroes

During a weekend in which only one top seed made it to a final, we shouldn't be surprised that things didn't go entirely according to plan when deciding where the trophies went. In fact, just one of the four titles awarded Sunday went to the higher seed in the championship match, and even those players who didn't come away the winners put in performances that could launch them into a new level of play.

Alize Cornet may have been the favorite in the Katowice Open final, but certainly did some heavy lifting to get there. The French wildcard dropped a bagel set to the former Klara Zakopalova (née Koukalova) but scored a comeback in the quarters and, after losing the first six games to top-seeded Aga Radwanska in the semis, rallied for the upset to reach her second championship of the year. And while this time she made good on her favored status, the real story in Poland may have been that of Camila Giorgi. The young Italian had pulled off big wins in the past, most recently against Maria Sharapova in Indian Wells, but had yet to follow up one victory with another. This week, though, she took down Roberta Vinci -- inexplicably still ranked in the top twenty, despite having won just two matches this year -- veteran Shahar Peer, and always tricky Carla Suarez Navarro. In the final she was down a set and a break before forcing a decider, and even came back from a two-break deficit to even the score. She did lose eventually, in a three-plus hour long marathon battle, but having finally kept momentum going for longer than a day she may have proven she has some staying power.

Underdogs had a little more luck elsewhere this weekend. At the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston, the two top players, John Isner and Tommy Robredo, both lost their openers, allowing numbers three and four to grind their way to the final. Nicolas Almagro, who'd only won one match in the last two months -- he'd skipped January's events with injury -- had a few relatively easy early rounds and got a walkover from Sam Querrey in the semis. Fourth-seeded Fernando Verdasco made it an all-Spanish final -- after a challenge from Steve Johnson in his opener, he rolled through his next two matches to make his first championship match since last July. He hadn't had much luck when playing for a title, though, losing in his last six attempts and going trophy-less for almost four years, and at #29 in the world with just five career crowns to Almagro's thirteen, he was the on-paper underdog in Sunday's championship. But Verdasco had the better record against his compatriot, 6-3 head-to-head, and capitalized on that history from the start -- taking advantage of weak serving from his opponent, he got the break in the first set and, after saving set points in the second, stayed stronger in the tiebreak to close out the win. While the size of the upset may not have been tremendous, the importance of the win -- the end of a long losing streak -- was much greater, and could bode well for the upcoming clay court season.

Things got a little more dramatic in Casablanca. Here, too, high seeds lost early -- Gael Monfils pulled out after his big Davis Cup weekend, while both Kevin Anderson, red-hot at the start of the season, and crowd favorite Benoit Paire, lost early. Ultimately fourth seed Marcel Granollers, a middle-of-the-road singles player who's been ranked in the twenties and thirties the last several years, and yet another Spaniard, Guillermo Garcia Lopez, well off his career high #23 in the world, were left contesting the final. Like with Verdasco, his last title came in 2010, but the thirty-year-old had beaten Monfils in Miami and had put together wins over the likes of Carlos Berlocq and Paire already this week. He also had history on his side, having won his only previous Tour meeting with Granollers at this event four years ago. But the younger finalist got the lead in this contest, taking the first set and fighting back from a break down in the second. But GGL stayed tougher here too, forcing a decider and then never looking back. It was just his third career championship -- and, again, his first in over three years -- and the win brings him back into the top forty for the first time since 2011. If he keeps the momentum over the next couple weeks, who knows what he could accomplish -- he might just be able to turn the big events upside down.

Speaking of rocking the boat, there may have been no bigger surprise this weekend than what we saw in Bogota. Former world #1 Jelena Jankovic made good on her top seeding at the Copa Claro and reached her first final since taking the title there last year without dropping a set. But with the three seeds below her all losing their openers -- and the other not fairing much better -- she didn't face anyone in the top seventy-five until Sunday. And even then she only faced off against world #74 Caroline Garcia, who'd only just made her first Tour semi a few weeks back in Acapulco. But the young Frenchwoman can play on clay -- remember a few years back when she so nearly took out Maria Sharapova in the Roland Garros second round -- and after forcing Serena Williams to a third set in Miami, she might just be improving her overall game too. In today's match she needed barely eighty minutes to dispatch Jankovic, her first ever win over a top ten player. The victory brings Garcia to within a stone's throw of the top fifty, and with several weeks of dirt events still to come, I would expect her climb even higher and maybe finally prove herself on the big stage.

Across the board this weekend's winners proved themselves up to the task against some formidable foes. And these long shots, able to perform at their best when it really counted, may have really turned a corner -- whether launching their careers or cementing a comeback, every one of them showed they're ones to watch.

And the next time they take the court, they might not be much of dark horse at all.

April 7, 2014

Back From the Brink

It sure came down to the wire this weekend at Davis Cup, with three of the four quarterfinal ties undecided until the last minute. It took some clutch performances when it counted most and featured some big upsets from unlikely stars, and in the end we're left with a talented group of teams that could very well make history.

It wasn't all edge-of-your-seat drama, of course. The two-time defending champion Czechs were the first to clinch their spot in the semis against an upstart Japanese team. Even without their star Tomas Berdych, a wily team helmed by -- go figure -- Lukas Rosol and veteran Radek Stepanek put together a 2-0 lead going into the weekend, and the two paired in the doubles rubber to give the Czechs an insurmountable lead. Rising star Jiri Vesely's win Sunday wasn't necessary, but sealing the victory with a 5-0 sure put an exclamation point on the dominating performance -- when the whole team shows up in the next tie, it'll be hard to beat them.

The French had a little tougher task after their Day One. Against an underdog German team -- they're top four players were missing this weekend -- Julien Benneteau dropped his opener to world #96 Tobias Kamke and headliner Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was pushed in a long fifth set, ultimately losing to Peter Gojowczyk, who hadn't won a match since his stellar run in January. It was their doubles team that finally turned the tide in their favor -- Benneteau and Michael Llodra finally got the French on the board Saturday and Tsonga rallied Sunday to even the score with a win over Kamke. And in the final match for the weekend, Gael Monfils took the court against Gojowcyzk, built himself an early lead and never looked back. The French face off against the Czechs next -- their head-to-head record stands dead even at 7-7 -- so they'll need to up their game. But they've certainly shown they can never be counted out, and in a setting like Davis Cup, there's no reason they can't keep their streak going.

The Italians had slightly more breathing room going into the weekend, but not much. While recently strong Fabio Fognini scored the tie's first point against Britain's James Ward, formerly formidable Andreas Seppi wasn't able to keep the momentum going against two-time Grand Slam titleist Andy Murray. The Brits took the lead on Saturday too, with Murray teaming with doubles specialist Colin Flemings to grab a 2-1 lead in the tie. With Murray taking the court again against Fognini in the first reverse singles match, it seemed likely the Italians would be sent packing -- the pair had split their previous two meetings, but the last came almost five years ago, and while Andy had slipped slightly to #8 in the world, he was still the clear favorite. But Murray wasn't at his best on Sunday and Fognini scored the upset in straight sets. And Seppi regrouped for his final rubber, closing out Ward and sending Italy to the semis for the first time in over fifteen years.

Also reaching new ground this weekend -- somewhat surprising considering the individual success of their top star over the past decade -- were the Swiss, who reached their first semi since 2003, but not in the way you'd expect. Stanislas Wawrinka, the breakout star of this season, may have supplanted long-time top-five fixtures like Andy Murray and David Ferrer as the Next Big Thing with his 11-0 start to the year, but he hadn't reached even a quarterfinal since and he opened his campaign against the Kazakhs with a four-set loss to world #64 Andrey Golubev. Stalwart Roger Federer sent the Swiss into the weekend even, but they got behind again when Golubev teamed with even lesser-known Aleksandr Nedovyesov to take the doubles rubber. Like with the Italians, it all came down to Wawrinka in the first reverse singles match Sunday, and this time the favorite made it count. After losing the first set in a tiebreak to Mikhail Kukushkin, Stan pulled himself together and closed out the match. Roger did his part too, downing Golubev in straight sets and keeping the Swiss hopes for their first ever Davis Cup still alive. They get homecourt advantage against Italy too, and if they continue to play to their ability, they could just ride their streak all the way to the end.

The excitement and drama around Davis Cup is only going to intensify from here, but this weekend's winners sure proved they can deliver when times are toughest. There's still a lot of ball left to be played, of course, but it sure looks like we could be in for something completely different this year. And I can think of no better way to stir things up.

April 4, 2014

A Door Creaks Open

It's been a good couple weeks for some of the stars of the WTA. Flavia Pennetta cemented her comeback with a win in Indian Wells, her biggest title to date, and Serena Williams closed out trophy #7 in Miami last weekend in dominating form. But the efforts got to both of them this week, and each lady bowed out of the first real clay court tournaments of the season earlier than expected. And that might have opened the door for other players looking to turn around a spate of bad luck in their own corners.

Uber-veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm took out Pennetta in their Monterrey Open first round, and followed the victory with a three-set win over Timea Babos. A couple other largely unknown names have also thrived south of the border -- qualifier Julia Boserup, ranked #302 in the world, took out Kirsten Flipkens on her way to the quarters and Jovana Jaksic, a winner of fourteen ITF titles and only one match win in a WTA main draw before this week, will face off today for an unlikely spot in the semis. But the bigger opportunity in Mexico lies with Caroline Wozniacki, seeded third and just off her lowest ranking in almost six years. She did reach the semis in Dubai and the quarters in Miami, so maybe she's been pulling her game together a bit over the last few months. She's handled challenges from American upstart Coco Vandeweghe and doubles champion Kristina Mladenovic already this week and should be the favorite today against Karolina Pliskova, though the Czech has put in some inspiring performances herself. If Caro can stay strong, she might just get back the confidence she needs to relaunch herself back in the elite

Up in Charleston, an exhausted and injured Serena lost her opening round to little-known Jana Cepelova who, to her credit, backed up the win by taking out another seed in Elena Vesnina. And as strong as the world #78 has been, the glaring hole in the draw has created opportunities for a slew of players who haven't tasted big victory in quite some time. Sara Errani, just hanging onto a spot in the top ten, has barely won more matches than she's lost this year, while former #1 Jelena Jankovic has only won one title since 2010. They're both still alive, but it's the lower seeds who could most surprise us. Quickly recovering Andrea Petkovic drubbed Sabine Lisicki in the third round and Daniela Hantuchova may not face a seed through the semis. But I'll keep an eye on Lucie Safarova, runner-up at the Family Circle Cup in 2012 -- she was the only player to take a set off eventual champion Na Li in Melbourne, even holding match point, and last night pulled off a stunning victory over Sam Stosur, bringing her record against the one-time Grand Slam champion to an impressive 9-2. She has a less impressive record against Petkovic, who she'll face in today's quarter, but could just have the momentum to push her a few matches more.

Of course the early exits of the very favorites at this week's tournaments should signal that nothing is certain -- and we've already seen several surprises in both draws, so there could very well be more in store. Whether these players take advantage of these opportunities remains to be seen, but the way they're playing there may never be a better chance to do so. And for some of them, a win could put them on a much brighter path for the rest of the year.

March 30, 2014

Total Domination

This weekend in Miami we were treated to a rare occurrence at the Sony Open -- in both the men's and women's draws, the world #1's and #2's had survived the tough, first-rate fields to make championship weekend. And while all did not go as we might have expected -- or hoped, in some cases, I'm sure -- the ultimate winners both earned their trophies with some spectacular performances, wholly overpowering opponents who seemed caught slightly off-guard when it mattered most.

Serena Williams had already claimed the crown here six times before, and though she suffered a mild hiccup against world #74 Caroline Garcia in her third round, was the clear favorite in Saturday's final. Australian Open champ Na Li, who'd three times been stopped in the quarters here, had been pushed to the limit by Dominika Cibulkova in the semis -- a match in which she actually won fewer points than the Melbourne runner-up. It'd also been almost six years since her only win over Serena, and she'd only taken one set off the American in their last nine meetings.

Still, Li came out swinging on Saturday, taking advantage of a sluggish start from the American -- she broke Williams' first service game and built a 5-2 lead in relatively short order. But Serena, as she often does, upped her game when she needed too. She foiled Li's two attempts to close out the set and after more than one-and-a-quarter hours of play -- longer than her entire quarterfinal against Angelique Kerber -- somehow took the first for herself. She didn't let up in the second, either -- she upped her service game, never allowing a break opportunity this time, and pounced during her return games. In a much shorter set, Serena only barely let Li to get on the board, putting together a run of eleven games in twelve to cap off the match and secure her record seventh title in Miami, making this the winning-est venue in her career -- quite a feat for someone with nearly sixty titles to her name.

Novak Djokovic hasn't reached that milestone just yet, but after nailing down trophy number four in Miami earlier today, he may be well on his way. The world #2 had an easy trip to the final here, getting walkovers in both his third and semifinal rounds. Still, coming off a crown at the BNP Paribas Open, he was going after the elusive Indian Wells-Miami double -- for a second time, something only Roger Federer had ever been able to do. Nole did have some things going for him though -- since the U.S. Open, he'd only lost two matches and had put together a 19-0 record at Masters events. And having narrowed his head-to-head record against world #1 Rafael Nadal over the last several months, he had to have confidence on his side as well.

Nadal, for his part, certainly had some advantages himself. Three-times a runner-up at one of the few Masters events he hasn't won, he'd seemed to have bounced back well from an early Indian Wells exit and with three easy wins to kick off his Miami campaign -- plus a walkover himself in the semis -- he seemed hungry and able to finally change his luck at the Sony Open. He even earned the first break chance of the match and dominated his early service games. But once Djokovic turned up the heat, Rafa had nowhere to go -- Nole broke in the sixth game of the match and never blinked again. He held Nadal to just fifty percent on both serves in the second set, never allowing the Spaniard a break opportunity again, and closed out his final in a drama-free eighty-odd minutes. He now stands behind just Andre Agassi in titles in Miami, and may have secured his place as the only man to beat here.

While neither of these outcomes might have been totally predictable -- at #2, Nole was the on-paper underdog in the final, and it sure looked like Serena would have to fight through three sets in hers -- the one-sided performances from both these champions sure puts them at a level above the rest of the field. And though things might be about to change for both of them -- the red clay season is just around the corner -- there's no reason to believe their domination won't continue.

And even on courts where they might not be at their best, they've certainly sent the message that everyone should beware.

March 27, 2014

It's Their Year

With the fields narrowing down as we head into final days of the Sony Open, it should come as no surprise that some of the stalwarts are hanging tough. Three-time champion Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, who won her sixth trophy here last year have been progressing with little drama, and heavyweights like Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and even 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych have bounced back nicely from disappointing results in Indian Wells.

But the real story might just be the new crop of tennis stars -- those who've seen success in the past but are only now putting together win after win consistently -- and they could be on the way to the best years of their careers.

Dominika Cibulkova was long my Little Engine That Couldn't. Though she popped in and out of the top twenty and scored huge wins over the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki -- last year she even had a set and a break up on Serena in the Miami -- she also had enormous meltdowns on court and played in three finals before winning her first title just over two years ago. This year, though, she's already beaten four top ten players, reached her first Grand Slam final and climbed to a high ranking of #11 in the world. In tonight's second semifinal -- she scored a huge come-from-behind win against Aga Radwanska to get here -- she'll meet Na Li for the third time this season. She has yet to beat the world #2 in their six previous meetings, but she did come close at the BNP Paribas Open and might just be up for the challenge this time.

The men aren't suffering any success hangovers either. Kei Nishikori, a bit of his career high ranking at #21 right now, successfully defended his title in Memphis last month and pushed Rafael Nadal in their Australian Open fourth round. This week in Miami, though, he's had his most success -- he followed up a win over last year's runner-up David Ferrer win a stunning three-set victory over Roger Federer last night, his second straight win over the all-time great. But of course the bigger story here continues to be Alexandr Dolgopolov, the uncontested Cinderella in Indian Wells -- after taking out Rafa, world #14 Fabio Fognini and big-serving Milos Raonic in the desert, he stayed tough against breakout Grand Slam titleist Stanislas Wawrinka to reach the quarters. He's up next against Berdych, a man he hasn't yet beaten, but the momentum he's been carrying with him could help change that. And at a tournament like this, there may be no better time to do it.

After years of riding the rankings roller coaster, all of these guys seem to be upping their consistency lately, and are clearly on the upswing. By performing at their best against the best day in and day out, they might be on the road to even bigger successes down the road. They might not ultimately win the titles here in Miami, but something tells me we haven't seen the last of any of them this season -- and if they keep their streaks going, there's no telling how high they can climb.

March 24, 2014

So Far, So Good...

Things have gone a little smoother for the seeds this week in Miami than they did at Indian Wells, with just a couple of the top ten on the women's side making earlier-than-expected exits at the Sony Open. But there's a lot of play left before the trophies are awarded, and at a tournament like this, certainly anything can still happen. And the way things have gone recently, nothing should take us by surprise.

Serena Williams wasn't in the draw in the desert, so the six-time former champion doesn't have to rebound, per sé. Still she's survived a couple tough matches, even dropping a set to rising star Caroline Garcia on Saturday before regrouping in the decider. And Maria Sharapova, having failed in her Indian Wells defense, eked out a win over always feisty Kirsten Flipkens earlier today, her second straight three-setter. Perhaps the biggest opportunity in the top half of the women's bracket lies with twelfth seeded Ana Ivanovic -- the one-time French Open champion managed what's nevertheless the biggest win of her career in Melbourne, and while she still has to get past the likes of Petra Kvitova today and then Sharapova -- who she hasn't beaten since 2007 -- she might just be playing the kind of ball to get her there.

The bottom half of the ladies' draw could also see the resurgence of a couple former #1's. Yes, the highest seeds have been progressing with little drama -- Na Li benefited from a walkover in her opener, and after being pushed to a tiebreak against Madison Keys, ultimately closed out that match in just over ninety minutes. And Aga Radwanska, so clearly struggling with injury during the Indian Wells final has so far seemed in good shape -- she delivered a bagel set to Romina Oprandi on Friday and after taking out Elena Vesnina in the third round, she's rewarded with another non-seeded opponent for a spot in the quarter. Even Dominika Cibulkova, a stone's throw from the top ten after a semi run in California, has been uncharacteristically consistent, dominating Yvonne Meusburger and then fighting back against spunky Alize Cornet. But her next opponent Venus Williams, champion here at the turn of the century, has been strong too, and Caroline Wozniacki, who slaughtered Sloane Stephens in last night's late match looks poised for a comeback. If they keep their games in tact, either could be a spoiler in this half.

The men have a little less play in the books so far, but Rafael Nadal, Stanislas Wawrinka and even Tomas Berdych have passed early tests. The problem in the top half of their draw, though, is that Alexandr Dolgopolov, the Cinderella story of Indian Wells, is still alive and kicking, having just scraped out a win over world #89, lucky loser Dusan Lajovic. But in a field that might have been made tentative by recent losses, perhaps the confident Roberto Bautista-Agut will come out on top. Already a winner over Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro this season, he knocked off big-serving Jerzy Janowicz to start this week off. He's got a pretty tough road forward, of course, facing Fabio Fognini later today and likely Rafa down the road, and making a real play for the title might be asking too much. But this seems to be the Spaniard's year, and I wouldn't put a couple more big wins past him.

There are quite a bit fewer holes in the bottom half of the men's draw. Only three seeds failed to win their opening rounds, and Kei Nishikori caused the only on-paper upset in the third taking out fifteenth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov in straight sets. Meanwhile, all the favorites have done just fine -- Richard Gasquet bounced back from his early Indian Wells loss and David Ferrer, who skipped the trip to the desert, dropped just a handful of games in his two matches to date. Even defending champion Andy Murray, coachless in Miami since splitting with Ivan Lendl, took out Feliciano Lopez yesterday in just his second straight-set win in nine matches. But the player to watch here might just be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who battled back after losing his first set to veteran Marcos Baghdatis yesterday. The eleventh seed has had an up-and-down season so far, reaching the final in Marseille, but also getting ousted in the second rounds of Rotterdam and Indian Wells. He'll square off against Murray next, a man he's only beaten once, way back in 2008, but if he can take advantage of the Scot's spotty play, he could make a move to change that history.

Of course, odds lie with the favorites, and they'll all certainly do their part to make sure they stay at the top of their game. But there are more than a few opportunities for some upsets to sneak through, and any of these guys has the opportunity to really shake things up when things get most interesting.

March 20, 2014

A Slightly Different Story

It's easy to assume that the Sony Open, the second American hardcourt Masters event in March which, like Indian Wells before it, lasts nearly a Slam-like fortnight and attracts the best players in the sport, should play out along the same lines. But with more humid weather and arguably quicker courts at night, this is a vastly different tournament. Huge stars like Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova have never been able to lift the trophy, and only seven men and two women have won both in the same year.

That doesn't necessarily bode well for last weekend's champions in the Califonia desert, but it could mean those who were disappointed in the first half of the month have a shot at redeeming themselves this time. And there are plenty in the field who'll be looking to improve.

Those two Major champions certainly lead that list. Both titleists in Indian Wells last year, Rafa's loss in his third round to Cinderella Alexandr Dolgopolov was surpassed in shock value only by MaSha's earlier exit at the hands of qualifier Camila Giorgi. They've each reached the final in Miami in the past, many times, in fact, so they know how to win here -- the problem has been, of course, closing it out. Sharapova begins her campaign with the late-night match today against rising star Kurumi Nara, while Nadal will take on either Lleyton Hewitt or Robin Haase in his opener -- both matches the favorites should win. But we've seen surprises in the past of course, so if either is going to redeem themselves, they'll need to bring it from the start.

There are other ladies, though, also out to prove themselves over the next two weeks. Ana Ivanovic, Sam Stosur and Angelique Kerber have all fallen from the heights of their careers and are looking to erase memories from earlier than anticipated exits last week. They each won their openers in Miami already today, so may be on good ground to do so. Meanwhile Sara Errani, who failed to defend quarterfinal points in Indian Wells when she lost in the third round this year, and has at much at stake at the Sony Open -- she's facing off against Patricia Mayr-Achleitner right now and will want to make quick work of that challenge. But the real one to watch in the women's bracket is Sabine Lisicki, one of the biggest talent's in the sport who's nevertheless only won three first round matches this year. She's so far split sets with veteran Nadia Petrova, a woman she beat here three years ago, but she'll need to up her game if she wants to finally realize her full potential.

The men's seeds will begin their opening round matches tomorrow, but the pressure will be on them too. Jerzy Janowicz was the breakout star of 2013, somehow reaching the Wimbledon semis as the twenty-fourth seed. He lost his BNP opener to Alejandro Falla, though, and has yet to beat a top ten player at all this year. And Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has been rather quiet this year despite a run to the Marseille final. He's made the quarters here three times before and might have the kind of section that allows him to do that yet again. Tomas Berdych, on the other hand, who had his breakthrough here four years ago, suffered one of the biggest early upsets at Indian Wells. He opens against another Melbourne Cinderella, though, so he'll be tested again right from the start.

But while all these guys are looking to turn around their luck, last weekend's winners can't be counted out just yet. Flavia Pennetta continued her run today with a straight set win over Olga Govortsova and Novak Djokovic, the last man to complete the Indian Wells-Miami sweep, will begin his quest for another title against Jeremy Chardy tomorrow. They way they're both playing, either could prove the transition isn't as tough as so many believe. And with the momentum they're carrying so far, it certainly will be tough to derail them.

Whether Miami becomes an opportunity for redemption or another tough slog for all these athletes of course remains to be seen. But it sure looks like a lot of the top players are well on their way to writing a plot twist to their seasons. And if they can keep it up, we might be in for a surprise ending no one saw coming.