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September 1, 2015

Rife With Upsets

The first couple of days of the U.S. Open were not very good for the seeded players, and even some of the true contenders for the title proved vulnerable in their first rounds.

Of course, most of the heavy favorites sailed -- both Serena Williams and Simona Halep were squarely in control of their matches when their opponents retired, and players like Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer -- even embattled Rafael Nadal -- got through their opening rounds with little drama. Others were not so lucky.

The upsets actually started even before any balls were hit in New York, but perhaps that set the stage. Maria Sharapova announced Sunday that the leg injury that forced her out of Cincinnati and Toronto would keep her from playing at the Open too. That should have been a huge break for her slated first round opponent, Daria Gavrilova, the Girls' champion here in 2010 -- the twenty-one year old Russian stunned her compatriot in Miami and made it all the way to the semis in Rome. She came to Flushing Meadows near a career-high ranking of #38 in the world and now, instead of playing a former champion, was gifted a match-up against lucky loser Daria Kasatkina. Unfortunately for Gavrilova, she wasn't able to capitalize -- her namesake grabbed the first set and stayed tougher after being pushed to a third. She now has a huge opportunity of her own -- with Svetlana Kuznetsova already ousted by giant-killer Kristina Mladenovic, she won't face a seed until at least the fourth round. And the way things are going, maybe even after that.

After all, one of the first matches played resulted in the biggest upset we've seen so far. Ana Ivanovic, who reached the semis in Paris and came oh-so-close to defeating Serena in Cincinnati, carried the seventh seed in New York and could have been a dark horse this fortnight. But she was dealt a tough blow, drawing former Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova in the first round. The Slovakian had been a little quiet this year, taking a break during the spring due to injury and only winning a couple matches since her return -- the lack of play sent her ranking out of the top fifty. But Domi didn't have much to lose at the Open -- she was unceremoniously ousted in her opener last year by teenage phenom Cici Bellis, and so could take her chances. After taking the first set from Ivanovic, Cibulkova could have easily let the match slip away from her -- she often does -- but for once she stayed strong, finishing out the match in just under two hours. Next up for the one-time top-tenner -- qualifier Jessica Pegula. The young American may get the crowd on her side, but maybe this time Domi will be able to power through.

It hasn't been just the top women who were susceptible to early exits either. Kei Nishikori, the surprise runner-up in 2014, this year made as surprising a move when he dropped his first round. Maybe it shouldn't have been that shocking, though -- after a solid run to the title in D.C. and a win over Nadal in Montreal, the fourth seed was demolished in the Rogers Cup semis and pulled out of Cincinnati with injury. So on day one in New York, Benoit Paire, who won his first title last month in Bastad, was able to take advantage -- he came back from two-sets-to-one down to notch what was just his third win over a top-ten player. The Frenchman now has a pretty decent path paved for him -- with Gael Monfils retiring from his first round, far short of his performance from last year, the only seeds in Paire's immediate section of the draw are wholly beatable Tommy Robredo and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He's never gotten out of the second round at this Major, but this might just be his best shot at doing it.

The upsets, of course, continued on Tuesday. Czech veteran Lucie Safarova had been having an incredible run already this year, picking up a title in Doha and a putting in a top-rate performance in the Roland Garros final. She did well during the summer too, narrowly losing in the New Haven final last Saturday. And with a win over her first round opponent Lesia Tsurenko in the Connecticut semis, she might have had momentum on her side. But the Ukrainian underdog was out for revenge -- having also lost to Safarova in the U.S. Open first round two years ago, this time she was able to turn the tables and in just about an hour scored her fifth top ten win of the year. She too has seen her section of the draw open up nicely -- with Irina-Camelia Begu losing in three today to Olga Govortsova, her first real threat will likely be either 2011 standout Angelique Kerber or two-time runner-up Victoria Azarenka. And with those two likely to put up a big fight against each other, it wouldn't be out of the question to see Tsurenko pounce on whoever comes out the winner.

Gilles Simon may not have been as highly favored as some of these other guys, but ranked just outside the top ten, he could have been a very dangerous second tier threat. The Frenchman had put together a pretty solid season, picking up a title to start the year in Marseille and reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon with wins over Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych. He'd never made it out of the fourth round in New York, but it seemed like this could be his opportunity to change that. Unfortunately for him, though, brash American Donald Young had other plans. The one time prodigy turned bitter disappointment has clawed himself back to #68 in the world, and though he did score a nice win over Berdych himself in Montreal, it's been years since he's done anything notable at a Slam. That changed today though -- after dropping the first two sets to Simon, he roared back to take the next three in the three and a half hour match. He might have had a tricky next match, too, but Britain's Aljaz Bedene dispatched a struggling Ernests Gulbis for him, and potential third round opponent Viktor Troicki, despite a strong 2014 comeback season, hasn't been so impressive this year. If Young can keep his cool he might finally live up to the potential he once so clearly had.

There have been other upsets worth mentioning too, of course -- U.S. Open Series winner Karolina Pliskova was demolished in her first round and one-time finalist Jelena Jankovic lost her lead to little-known Oceane Dodin. And there will be plenty more to come. But the big question, as always, will be whether the vanquishers can keep their performances up as the stakes get higher.

After all, there's a lot on the line for everyone in New York. And whoever can take advantage will be hugely rewarded.

August 29, 2015

Blogcast: 2015 U.S. Open Preview


Everyone may be focused on the possibility that Serena Williams stands to make history in the Big Apple, but there are a couple other stories to watch in New York.

August 26, 2015

2015 U.S. Open: Ten to Watch

With just days to go before the start of this year's U.S. Open, we all know that we could be on the verge of making history. Serena Williams has the rare opportunity to complete a calendar year Grand Slam -- an achievement that even she, with all her career accomplishments and honors, has never even had a chance to claim.

But as much as that would mean for the world #1 -- and the sport itself -- there are certainly other story lines to follow in New York. And, more specifically, other players to keep an eye on too. Some have been a little quiet of late and are looking to launch a bit of a comeback, others are hoping to capitalize on a summer during which they were really able to shine.

And while most headlines will likely focus on just a couple of favorites, any one of these guys could make a splash of their own in Flushing Meadows.


The Women


Caroline Wozniacki

Last year's Cinderella made a stunning run to her second Major final while ranked just #11 in the world and rode her success to one of the best comebacks of the year. It's not that she's done badly this season -- she was a runner-up in Auckland and Stuttgart and even picked up a title in Kuala Lumpur, which was enough to keep her in the top five on Tour. Still her summer's been a little less than spectacular -- she squandered her top seed in Stanford, fell in her Toronto opener to eventual champion Belinda Bencic, and lost in Cincinnati to Victoria Azarenka for the fourth time this year. This week she hit the courts among a crowded and talented field in New Haven -- a place where she's had a lot of success in the past. She started out strong, though, dropping just two games to Alison Riske in her opener, and if she can at least gather some momentum, she might just be able to keep her success going in Flushing Meadows.

Jelena Jankovic

JJ is another former top-ranked player who knows what it's like to come in second in New York, but her trip to the final came a long seven years ago and she's had more than a little trouble recapturing that glory. While she managed to stay in the top ten for a few years, even finishing 2013 at #8 in the world, it's been a while since she's been a relevant feature at the Majors -- in the last five years she's only made it to the quarterfinals once and she's fallen in the first round five times, twice this year alone. She's also put together long stretches without any kind of title -- after making a surprise run to the Indian Wells crown in 2010, it took more than three years before she picked up a trophy in Bogota, and since then she only scored a 125K championship in Nanchang last month, without facing a player in the top hundred to do it. Still, with all her struggles, the Serb has shown some signs of her old self this season -- she made it back to the final in the California desert and last week scored her first top ten win of the year, taking out Karolina Pliskova in Cincinnati. She did eventually lose in the semifinals, but her performance may have reminded us of the kind of damage she can do on a hard court if she's at her best.

Sloane Stephens

I don't think I was the only one who wrote off the former Australian Open semifinalist a few months ago -- after her stellar start to the 2013 season, she had a hard time following through. Last year she lost four matches to players ranked in the triple digits and with a 2-4 record to start 2015, she saw her own position fall out of the top forty. But she's been getting her game back together more recently, it seems -- in Indian Wells she scored upsets over Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and even took a set of Serena Williams in the fourth round. She rode her momentum to the quarters in Indian Wells later that month and went on to score upsets over Coco Vandeweghe in Strasbourg, Venus Williams at Roland Garros and Carla Suarez Navarro in Eastbourne. It wasn't until the start the summer hardcourt season, though, that she really hit her stride -- unseeded at the Citi Open in Washington, the American took out both Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Sam Stosur to claim her first Tour title without dropping a set. While she fell early in Toronto, she was able to put up a nice fight against Ana Ivanovic in Cincinnati, and might just have re-established herself as a contender on the big stages again.

Anna Schmiedlova

The young Slovakian will celebrate her twentieth birthday on the same day the women's champion is crowned, and while it might be a tall order to ask that she's still around at the end of the fortnight, it might not be so far out of the question. After all, we've seen two first time Major finalists already this year, so why not add Schmiedlova to the mix. The former French Open Girls' runner-up has already made a couple big statements at the Slams -- last year she picked up a couple ITF titles on clay and went on to stun Venus Williams in Paris. This year she's proven herself on the WTA Tour too -- after reaching the final in Rio, she picked up her maiden trophy on the hard courts of Katowice and, for good measure, added another crown in Bucharest. Ranked just outside the top forty to start the month, she still had to qualify for the main draw in Cincinnati, but she rode an upset of former world #2 Aga Radwanska all the way to the quarters and a #32 ranking. While she hasn't yet made it out of the third round at a Major, I wouldn't be surprised if this was her chance to change that.

Margarita Gasparyan

Don't worry, you're not the only one who's never heard of the twenty-year-old. The little-known Russian has spent most of her time on the ITF Tour and hasn't gotten much action at all against the sport's elite. But she has quietly picked up a trio of titles on that circuit and put together a 37-8 record so far this year, climbing from a sub-two hundred ranking to #71 now. She even managed to qualify for both the French Open and Wimbledon, playing the first two Major main draws of her career. Her big break, though, came this summer when she took to the courts of Baku -- a lower-tier tournament which has nevertheless boasted champions from Elina Svitolina to Vera Zvonareva. She opened with a solid win over one-time Grand Slam runner-up Dominika Cibulkova and then took out Karin Knapp, who was fresh off a solid showing in Bad Gastein. In her WTA-level final debut, she was challenged a bit by also-unknown Patricia Maria Tig, but came out on top to claim her maiden Big Girls' trophy which might give her the confidence she needs in the Big Apple. Gasparyan has a little work left to do to make the main draw, though -- the top seed in qualifying tournament, she rolled through her opening round opponent on Tuesday, but still could face plenty of challenges, including one-time New York darling Melanie Oudin. But maybe this time she's finally primed to get that all important win when it counts.


The Men


Marin Cilic

It's not often that the defending champion is as far off the radar as this Croat is, but the man who unexpectedly ran off with his maiden Major title twelve months ago has had a hard time keeping the momentum going. Though he did manage to pick up another title at the end of the year in Moscow, he lost all three of his round robin matches at his first year-end championship and was forced to skip the first Grand Slam of this season with injury. Since he returned to action at Indian Wells he's lost in his opening round four times and racked up a barely break-even 18-13 record. There have been some glimpses of what he's capable of, though -- he reached the quarters at Wimbledon and put up a nice fight in a rematch against Kei Nishikori in the Citi Open semis. Still he's got a lot to lose in his return to New York, and if he's not truly back in form he could potentially fall well down the rankings by the time this fortnight is over. But if he can put together even a decent run -- which we know he can -- he might just be able to set the stage for an even bigger rebound down the road.

Nick Kyrgios

I haven't spent a lot of time writing about the scandal that overtook the young Australian -- and kind of the entire sport -- the last few weeks, and while I have absolutely no desire to get into the details here, I can't help but wonder what it will mean for his performance in New York. The twenty-year-old had been putting together a more-than-impressive season through the start of the summer -- he reached the quarters at his homeland's Major and reached his first career final in Estoril. More impressively, though, he took out 2014 semifinalist Milos Raonic at Wimbledon and two-time champion Roger Federer in Madrid. His early successes got him all the way to a career high #25 ranking in early June, but he's taken a bit of a tumble since then. After grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons in Montreal, he lost his next match in straight sets to John Isner, and a week later in Cincy, he only managed to take three games off Richard Gasquet in his opening round. He's now fallen out of seeding territory for the U.S. Open, which could make him vulnerable from the get go -- and while he only has third round points at stake in his return to New York, if he's not able to shake off the stink that's been cast over him this month, he might be an easier target this time than he would be under other circumstances.

Alexandr Dolgopolov

It was about this time last year that the Ukrainian star's season began to implode -- after a year in which he'd stunned Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells and took out recently crowned Grand Slam champ Stan Wawrinka in Miami, he'd re-established himself as a legitimate force on Tour. But knee surgery in July kept him out of the draw in New York and off the courts until late September, since when he only won one match the rest of the year. It took a while for him to get his footing back this season -- after failing to defend points during the spring hardcourt sweep he fell to #80 in the world and had to qualify for the Rome Masters event. Things got a little better in the summer though -- he took out four higher ranked players on his way to the semis in Nottingham, and after qualifying again for Cincinnati last week, was two points away from defeating Novak Djokovic for a spot in the final. He may have run out of steam a bit in Winston-Salem though -- still unseeded, despite his post-Ohio boost, Dolgo lost two tiebreaks to young Thanasi Kokkinakis -- but perhaps that will give him the time and rest he needs to make a real push in New York.

Marcos Baghdatis

As much as I always root for the veteran Cypriot, I can hardly believe myself that he's still alive and kicking these days. A finalist at the Australian Open nearly ten years ago, the former world #8 has dealt with one injury after another, falling out of the top hundred several times since hitting his peak. In fact at the start of 2014 he'd gone as low as #155 in the world. But he's nothing if not resilient -- after a second round loss at Wimbledon last year, he picked up a trio of Challengers' titles to end the season and this year pushed Grigor Dimitrov through a long five sets in their Melbourne third round. He continued his momentum with a semi run in Zagreb and even beat David Ferrer in Nottingham. Back in the top fifty again after a trip to the All England Club, he made his way to the final in Atlanta, his first Tour-level championship since 2011. He too had a bit of a hiccup this week in Winston-Salem, losing to qualifier Pierre-Hugues Herbert in his opener, but given how he's pulled his game together this year, there's no reason to believe he won't be able to rebound again.

Denis Kudla

As we Americans wait (and wait) for the next big star to take over the reins from Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and even Andy Roddick, there have been a couple names that have come up as potential contenders -- John Isner, Sam Querrey, and, what now seems like a long time ago, James Blake. And while a couple of the young guns surely still have an opportunity to make a splash, this year it could be someone way farther down the radar that causes a stir. The twenty-three year old Kudla put up a huge fight against Feliciano Lopez at the Australian Open and then endured a couple more five-set marathons on his way to the fourth round at Wimbledon, the only man from the U.S. to get that far. He kept up his success at the start of the summer, too, qualifying for the main draw in Atlanta and beating compatriot Jack Sock on his way to the semis -- where he, incidentally, took a set off eventual champion Isner. He qualified for Montreal and Cincy too, and managed to climb to a career high ranking of #74 in the world at the start of this week. While he may be a little older than his contemporaries were when they made their first impact in New York, he might just have the experience and maturity now to make a more lasting impression.


Bonus Round

Okay, I know I've been limiting these lists to five men and five women all year long, but with the U.S. Open being the final Major of 2015, this is the last chance players have to make any sort of real statement this season. So I'm expanding the field this one time to include a couple athletes who might not be quite on the radar in New York, but nevertheless could prove to be big spoilers.

Roberta Vinci

The two-time quarterfinalist in the Big Apple has fallen well off the radar in the last several months -- both on the singles circuit and on the doubles Tour, which she and former partner Sara Errani dominated for years. After a disappointing 2014, she began this year barely ranked inside the top fifty and notched surprising losses to players like world #113 Tatjana Maria and #168 Veronica Cepede Royg. Though she made a somewhat surprising run to the final in Nürnberg, she lost four straight matches after that, even going 0-3 during her traditionally strong grass court run. But something seemed to click one the seasons turned -- she took out a strong Daria Gavrilova to make the elite eight in Toronto, and earlier this week as a qualifier in New Haven, trounced former Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard in a barely hour-long opening match. Though she'll now face off against three-time champion Caroline Wozniacki, she's certainly shown she still has the capability of pulling off big upsets and could keep proving that for a few more matches to come.

Mardy Fish

Now I realize the veteran American hasn't made as big an impact at the Majors as others, but as the one-time world #7 gets ready for his last U.S. Open run, you can't help but appreciate all he's accomplished. Long a middle-of-the-road player, he had a breakthrough in 2010 -- dropping some thirty pounds, a fact many commentators seemingly could not get over, he soared to new levels in the game, stunning Andy Murray three times in a row, in Miami, Queen's Club, and Cincinnati and racking up a slew of other top-ten wins. He cracked the single digit rankings himself less than a year later, rode his momentum to a quarterfinal showing at Wimbledon and surpassed Andy Roddick as the top-ranked player in the U.S. But just as he was peaking, Fish was dealt an unfortunate blow -- diagnosed with severe anxiety and a heart condition that required surgery, Fish skipped the entire 2014 season and has only played three singles matches since his return at Indian Wells -- winning just one last week in Cincinnati -- but that might not be the worst harbinger. Remember how well a struggling Andy Roddick did after announced his retirement a few years back? Of course, it'll be much tougher for Fish to put together a big run, but with the crowd certainly behind him in the Big Apple, I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a little splash.


Well there you go -- ten or so players who may not be super high on the radar this year at the U.S. Open, but nonetheless could stir things up a bit. And while we're all so focused on the favorites, any of these guys could surprise us while our eyes are trained elsewhere.

Of course, with a few days left before the draws are released, who knows yet how challenging any of their roads in New York will be -- but there's no reason one or more of them can't rise to the occasion.

After all, with this being their last big opportunity to make a name for themselves in the 2015 season, expect all of them to put up their biggest fight now.

August 23, 2015

A Quick Recovery

As the last big event before the start of the 2015 U.S. Open wound down, you couldn't help but think we might have been give a glimpse of what to expect at the final Major of the year. We certainly saw a couple upsets throughout the week in Cincinnati, but ultimately it was the top two seeds -- the top two ranked athletes, as it turned out -- left playing for the titles. And while the eventual champions were pushed to their limit, they both proved they've got more than enough fight in them to keep their streaks going for much longer.

In the men's draw, where eight of the sport's top ten players were vying for the title, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer dispatched each threat they faced -- the world #1 easily dismissing Stan Wawrinka, the man who'd foiled his best chance yet to complete the career Grand Slam, and the defending champion never even allowing Montreal titleist Andy Murray a chance to break during their semifinal meeting. So Nole and Roger set up their forty-first career match-up, having evenly split their previous forty, but with Djokovic winning the last three, momentum certainly seemed to be on his side. But he'd been tested a bit more during the week, dropping sets to both David Goffin and Alexandr Dolgopolov at the Western & Southern Open, while Fed had gotten to the final with four straight-set wins. And he stayed strong through Sunday's match too -- after a tight opening set where he again didn't allow his opponent a chance to break, he ran off with the tiebreak and then got an early lead in the second. After that, Federer didn't look back -- in just over ninety minutes he'd claimed his seventh crown in Cincinnati and shown he can not only still compete with the sport's best, but beat them definitively too. And while the pressure will certainly be turned up more once he hits the courts in the Big Apple, he might just have the hunger he needs to finally break a three-year dry spell at the Slams.

Serena Williams, meanwhile, is looking to make her own history at the U.S. Open, and her performance in Cincinnati showed she's not going to let a stumble or two along the way derail her plans. The twenty-one time Major winner seemed to rebound immediately from her surprising loss in the Toronto semis just last week, sailing past Tsvetana Pironkova in her opener and handing a spunky Karin Knapp a bagel in their first set. She struggled a little against a rejuvenated Ana Ivanovic on Friday, losing the first set and finding herself down a break in the second, but as she so often does, Williams was able to rally for the win. Meanwhile Simona Halep, who had to retire during the third set of last weekend's final, seemed more than recovered herself, surviving early tests from Kristina Mladenovic and Andrea Petkovic before finally reaching Sunday's championship match and securing a return to the #2 ranking. She even grabbed an early lead in the final, breaking Serena to start, but the heavily-decorated champion fought back to take the first set, and, even after ceding a lead in the second, was able to push the young Halep to a tiebreak. Serena kept her cool then too, and despite some gutsy play from her opponent -- the Romanian never seemed to count herself out of the match -- Williams was able to capitalize for the win, picking up her fifth title of the year. And as she makes the trip to Flushing Meadows to try to complete her calendar year Grand Slam, it seems she's far from allowing any pressure to slow her down.

Of course, there are only eight days left before action starts in New York, and all of these guys will need to make sure they don't run out of steam too early. Still with their dominating performances over the last week show none of them are willing to lie down easily -- and the way they've been playing, there's no reason to believe they won't come out swinging right from the start.

August 21, 2015

The Clock is Ticking...

With the last Grand Slam of the Year just about a week away, it's no wonder we're seeing everyone up their games just a little this week in Cincinnati. Whether it's the heavy favorites or the ones who've been largely counted out in recent months, there seems to be a little more spark in players' steps these days. And while it could certainly serve as great prep for their performances in New York, there's no reason they can't take more immediate advantage of their opportunities at the Western & Southern Open now.

Serena Williams didn't seem much disturbed by her early exit from the Toronto championships last week -- after losing just her second match of the year in the semis, she got right back to work, losing just two games yesterday to always-spunky Karin Knapp. But she's not the only lady worth watching in Ohio. Elina Svitolina's success in 2015 has come in fits and starts so far -- after taking a set off Williams in Australia she reached her first Major quarterfinal in Paris, but lost her second round at Wimbledon and her opener at the Rogers Cup. She was barely seeded in Cincy, but scored an easy win over a tough Caroline Garcia and even took out one-time wunderkind Genie Bouchard in straight sets. She'll now face off against Roland Garros finalist Lucie Safarova, who's been a little quiet since that Cinderella run and could allow the Ukrainian a chance to sneak through. And we can't ignore former world #1 Jelena Jankovic, fresh-ish off a title in 125K title in Nanching -- her first in more than two years. The unseeded Serb, who reminded us of her relevance in Indian Wells, has already notched a couple upsets at the W&S, first over a talented Madison Keys, then against season-breakout Karolina Pliskova. She's up next against young Anna Schmiedlova, who's certainly coming into her own herself this year, but if the former champion is able to get in a few early hits she might just make a case for her return to the podium.

Things could get just as interesting on the men's side of the draw. Andy Murray kept right on swinging after his big win in Montreal over the weekend, yesterday surviving quite a scare from Grigor Dimitrov to clinch the win in a nearly three-hour match. And top seed Novak Djokovic, who dropped a set Thursday to David Goffin rallied too to set up another meeting with Stan Wawrinka, a man who's now beat him on the way to both of his Grand Slam titles. And while there will certainly be fireworks in the favorites' matches, you can't ignore the underdogs who've sneaked into the quarters. Alexandr Dolgopolov, a legitimate threat on Tour at this time last year, had to qualify for the main draw in Cincy, but he's upset both Bernard Tomic and big-serving Jerzy Janowicz already this week. Next up he faces Tomas Berdych, a man who's won all four of their previous meetings -- still, if the Ukrainian is truly back in form, he could certainly pull off the win. And then there's Feliciano Lopez, the Spanish veteran who hit a career high ranking last year at age thirty-two. He's been a little quiet too, of late -- winning just a couple matches at every event he's played since March and falling out of the top twenty now -- but last night he pulled off a huge come-from-behind win over Rafael Nadal, his second straight win over his compatriot. Setting up a meeting today against Roger Federer, he won't have much time to recover before he's tested again. But with so much on the line this week, he might just have the motivation to get in a few more shots.

And for all these guys, there's no better time to make a statement. As they wrap up their warm-ups for the U.S. Open, they really could show everyone in the field what they're made of.

August 16, 2015

"Más Pelotas que Nadie"

I had a friend in college with a t-shirt brandishing that slogan attesting to his gutsiness. Funny thing -- he had no idea what it meant. But the guys and gals who walked away with the titles in Canada this weekend sure understand it -- whether coming from behind, pulling off upsets or taking on the very best in the sport, they showed they not only have the skills, but the nerve and mental toughness they need to not only have one successful run, but to possibly climb even higher up the ranks than they ever have before.

Up in Montreal the men, despite some early drama that had nothing to do with the game, certainly brought their A-games to Rogers Cup play. While plenty of upstarts were able to make a bit of a dent in the draws -- long-struggling Erensts Gulbis actually had match points against Novak Djokovic in their quarterfinal match and little-heralded Jeremy Chardy launched a huge comeback against John Isner to make his first Masters semi -- ultimately it was the top two seeds who made it to Sunday's championship match. World #1 Djokovic was going for his sixth title of the year, having lost at just three events all season long and seemed to survive every test he was handed. Andy Murray, meanwhile, fresh off an opening round loss at the Citi Open, rolled through his half of the draw, easily dispatching recent nemesis Tommy Robredo and defending champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, both in straight sets. Still with an 0-8 record against the powerful Serb over the last eighteen or so months, he might have been a little less than confident -- as an example of his nerves, after getting an early break he squandered a couple chances to build an even bigger lead and then gave the break right back. He managed to take the first set but then dropped the second and could have easily let the match slip away. But the newly-expecting Scot was able to up his game again. Fighting off opportunities Djokovic had to even out the decider again, Murray ultimately was able to serve out the three-hour match and claim his fourth trophy this season. And while it may not have been the most significant title of his career, by ending a long losing streak against the top player in the world, it could be just as meaningful.

But this weekend's finals weren't just about players reasserting themselves on court -- over in Toronto we were treated to seeing what might be the biggest breakthrough of the season. Teenage phenom Belinda Bencic may have been one of the most improved players of last season, but she's really been able to shine in 2015. After a kind of slow start to the year -- she lost her first round qualifying in Doha and six openers during the first five months of the year. But she really hit her stride once the grass court season, reaching the final in Den Bosch and picking up that all-important maiden title in Eastbourne, beating Aga Radwanska in the final. This week she racked up a couple more top ten wins -- Caroline Wozniacki in the second round, Ana Ivanovic in the quarters and -- stunningly -- Serena Williams in the semis. To put that in perspective, the eighteen-year-old was only two when the world #1 won her first Grand Slam title and now, sixteen years later, handed her just her second loss of the season. And even after all that, in the final against second seed Simona Halep, the Swiss Miss still seemed in better shape. She eked out the first set in a tiebreak and seemed in control of the second, but a struggling Halep fought back from the brink multiple times to force a third. Despite the huge effort from her opponent, though, Bencic stayed that much tougher -- when the Romanian came back from a break between the second set and the decider looking even more depleted than before, the unseeded teen pounced and ran off to a 3-0 lead before the world #3 retired. It may not be the way she wanted to claim the trophy, but after the wins she scored all week, you can't discount how much she accomplished.

And with both of this year's Rogers Cup champs proving just how strong they can be when pushed to the limit, there's no telling how much more they can do.

August 13, 2015

The Comebacks

Is it just me, or have we seen a couple of recently-forgotten stars find a way to shine again on the courts of Canada?

Sure, some hometown heroes are still struggling in their native land -- both Genie Bouchard and Milos Raonic lost their Rogers Cup openers -- but a couple other players who've been underperforming of late seem to have gotten their games back together this week. And that could bode well for their future.

Sabine Lisicki hadn't fallen so far off the radar, but the former Wimbledon runner-up has been a little quiet of late. The German powerhouse has scored wins over the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova, even Serena Williams, but despite a couple solid runs during the early spring hardcourt season, had dropped to #24 in the world coming into Toronto. That wasn't high enough to earn a seed this week, but so far she's proven to be a dangerous spoiler -- she lost just three games to Venus Williams in her first round and yesterday took out last year's comeback kid, Barbora Strycova in a tight two sets. She'll face off against young Belinda Bencic today -- the Swiss breakout is coming off an upset of Wozniacki herself -- but with a win in the pair's only previous meeting, Lisicki is more than capable of keeping her streak going.

Perhaps Roberta Vinci will be able to do the same. The one-time world #11 has notched more than a few surprising losses over the past few seasons, this year going 0-3 on the grass, what's traditionally been her strongest surface. She did manage a final run in Nürnberg, but has also lost to players like Tatjana Maria and Veronica Cepede Royg, both ranked in triple digits. She came to Toronto still outside the top fifty herself, but opened with a double bagel of compatriot Karin Knapp, the woman who beat her for that title in Germany, and on Wednesday scored a huge win over recent giant-killer Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Next up for the Italian veteran is Daria Garvrilova, a former Junior champion who's already beaten Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova this year. The unseeded Russian is also coming off a huge win over surprise Roland Garros finalist Lucie Safarova, so she certainly can't be discounted -- but a win in their match today could give Vinci the confidence that seems to have been missing from her game for quite some time.

There have been a couple resurrections at the men's tournament in Montreal too. Former U.S. Open semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny has put together a middling 6-18 record this year, losing eight straight matches since late May, and hasn't gotten out of a Major second round in almost two years. Now ranked at #107 the Russian qualifier could have been well out of contention at the Rogers Cup, but he took out 2014 standout Viktor Troicki in his opener and yesterday pulled off his first win over ninth seed Gilles Simon since 2011. His road only gets tougher from here, of course -- the thirty-three year old will meet Rafael Nadal for a spot in the quarterfinals and while the also-struggling has shown a few kinks in his armor of late, he dismantled Youzhny in what had the potential to be a very tough first round in Melbourne. Still the ten-time Tour titleist is playing better than he has in quite some time and might just be able to take advantage of any opportunity he's given.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of the week has come from former French Open semifinalist Ernests Gulbis, who's had more than a little trouble coming back from a shoulder injury that hampered the back half of his season in 2014. A disappointing 5-13 this year, he only made it to the second round in Paris and has fallen from a #10 ranking last September to a whopping #87 now. But the Latvian might be proving it's never too late to shake off the cobwebs -- also a qualifier in Montreal, he started his campaign by avenging a U.S. Open loss to red-hot Dominic Thiem and then picked up another win over Lukas Rosol. Slated next to face Donald Young, launching his own comeback after taking out Tomas Berdych on Wednesday, Gulbis could sneak even further through his draw. And while there's no shortage of threats left in the bracket, this could be the perfect time for him to cement his return.

Whether these guys can continue their runs not only in Canada, but throughout the rest of the year of course remains to be seen. But it sure is nice to see each of them putting together a couple wins in a row this week. And if momentum stays with them, who knows what they'll be able to do when the stakes get even higher in a few weeks' time.