April 16, 2015

A Few Tense Moments

This was not shaping up to be a good day for the favorites on Court Central in Monte Carlo.

With many of the top seeds getting their first taste of this season's clay court action, it's understandable that a few faltered a bit at the outset. And with some of the early action today, fans may have wondered if there was a bit of a curse on the Masters' main stage.

It started with defending champion Stan Wawrinka's third round match. The seventh seed has lost a little of the momentum he'd gained last year -- despite picking up titles in Chennai and Rotterdam, he's also notched losses to world #59 Sergiy Stakhovsky and triple-digit ranked Robin Haase this season. This week he opened with a solid win over clay specialist Juan Monaco, but had a tougher time today against also-struggling Grigor Dimitrov -- the big-hitter hasn't won more than one match at any event since the Australian Open. But the Bulgarian was back on his game today -- in less than an hour, he kept Wawrinka under fifty percent on serve, saved all six break points he faced and allowed his opponent just three games. It was the Swiss's earliest exit in Monte Carlo since 2010, but it was far from the biggest upset of the day.

That came shortly after when second seed Roger Federer took the court against recent nemesis Gael Monfils. The Frenchman, who came oh-so-close to beating the legend last year in New York, regrouped for an important win in the Davis Cup final, but has been mostly silent this year. He made a loud statement on Thursday, though -- taking advantage of a spate of errors from the four-time finalist, Monfils got the early lead in the first set and held on in the tiebreak for the second. The win keeps Roger waiting at least a year longer for one of the few Masters titles that continues to elude him and further widened the hole in the bottom half of the men's draw. Monfils will face off against Dimitrov next, and while neither are the highest ranked player still alive -- that honor goes to fourth seed Milos Raonic -- both made pretty good cases for themselves to sneak even further through the bracket.

Given what had happened on center court already today, you couldn't help but think even eight-time champion Rafael Nadal might be vulnerable. The undisputed King of Clay has had his own issues this year, losing a nail-biter to Fabio Fognini in the Rio semis and then falling to compatriot Fernando Verdasco early in Miami. And, of course, let's not forget that stunning upset at the hands of Michael Berrer in Doha. But this court is where he's arguably most at home, and many considered it his opportunity to turn a disappointing season back around. But even he was pushed today -- after surviving a tight tiebreak in his opening set against a recently resurgent John Isner, he dropped serve in the second and was forced into a decider. Ultimately Nadal was able to clinch the only break in the third set, securing the win after more than two hours of play -- but with more than a few scares, he'll have to raise his game the next time he's on court if he wants to return to the throne in Monte Carlo.

The only former champ to skate by on Thursday was Novak Djokovic. The man who dethroned Rafa in 2013 is riding quite a win streak -- he's won thirteen straight matches and crowns at the last three Masters he's played. The top seed in Monte Carlo, Nole lost just five games in his opener against Albert Ramos and today needed just fifty-six minutes to dispatch Casablanca semifinalist Andreas Haider-Maurer. Next up he faces U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, back in action after his own injury absence -- and with a 14-0 record against the Croat, you have to like his chances to keep his momentum going. Of course, just because the gremlins that seemed to haunt today's early matches seem to have cleared out in the afternoon, doesn't mean they won't be back in the next few days. And with so many surprises already this week there's no telling how many more are still in store.

April 13, 2015

A Couple Different Breakthroughs

Breakout performances can come in many forms -- sometimes it's the first big win a player scores, other times it's capturing their maiden crown, and occasionally it's a comeback after months of struggles. And this weekend, on the ladies Tour, we saw a little bit of all those things.

There's was lots of talent on the courts of Charleston this week -- at a tournament which has claimed champions from Justine Henin to Martina Hingis to Serena Williams, that shouldn't come as a surprise. But the favorites this year didn't fare quite as well -- top seed Genie Bouchard notched another early loss, falling quickly to Lauren Davis in her opener, and Ekaterina Makarova pulled out of her third round with a sickness. Instead it was two low-ish seeds playing for the crown -- world #16 Angelique Kerber who, despite a couple final appearances last year, hasn't won a title since 2013, and Australia's surprise semifinalist Madison Keys, who'd gotten through the draw without facing a single seed all week. Kerber, who'd beaten defending champion Andrea Petkovic in the semis, started off strong by taking the first set, but the young Keys was able to push her to a decider. The German seemed to lose all her momentum too -- she got down 1-4 in the decider, and with a middling 8-9 record on the year before this event, it seemed unlikely she'd be able to rally this time. Still Kerber was able to dig deep when it mattered, leveled the set at five-all and got another break to serve out the match. The win brought the twenty-seven year old her fourth career title, but after the somewhat disappointing season she's had so far, it might just be her most important.

Over in Poland, though, there were even more surprises, and maybe an even bigger breakthrough. Hometown hero Aga Radwanska looked unstoppable early, losing just a handful of games through her first three matches in Katowice, but the former world #2 has also struggled recently and fell in straight sets to third seed Camila Giorgi in the semis. The bottom half of the draw was opened up even earlier -- defending champion Alizé Cornet endured a long opening round, going three sets against Polona Hercog, and then won just two games against twenty-year-old Anna Schmiedlova in the quarters. The young Slovak, a runner-up in the 2012 French Open Girls' championship, didn't stop there -- coming off a win over Venus Williams last year in Paris and a run to the final in Rio, she finally made her biggest statement on these hard courts. After dropping sets in her early rounds, she raised her game the deeper she got in the draw and in the final pulled off a quick upset of Giorgi -- also going for her first title this week -- in straight sets. It bumped her more than twenty spots up the rankings, helping her crack the top fifty for the first time in her career. And with the clay court season just around the corner I imagine we'll see her continue her ascent over the weeks and months to come.

April 10, 2015

Shooting for #1

Okay, it's probably a long shot to think that any of the players I'm going to talk about here will be rising to the very top of the ATP rankings any time soon -- but with some impressive performances in the early days of the clay court season, there are a couple men in action this week who have a real shot at picking up their first career titles. And you might be a little surprised to see who's still in the mix.

In Casablanca top seeded Guillermo Garcia Lopez was stunned by wildcard Lamine Ouahab of Morocco, and that created a big hole in the top half of the draw -- so far Daniel Gimeno-Traver has seemed more than happy to fill it. The world #95 has picked up a handful of wins over top ten players during his career, but has never made a significant run in the rankings himself. He's got fourteen Challengers titles to his name though, and seems ready to make a stand on the ATP Tour now. He was well in control of his match against Mikhail Kukushkin when the seventh seed retired in their second round and then dismissed Ouahab with little drama today to reach the semis. Though he'll face wünderkind Jiri Vesely next, he could use experience to his advantage and may finally be able to get his big break. Young Damir Dzumhur has a similar opportunity -- the twenty-two year old Bosnian had only won eleven matches on Tour during his career and had to qualify for most of the events he's played this year. But at the Grand Prix Hassan he's so far looked on-point -- he got a straight-set win over veteran Paul-Henri Mathieu in his opener and on Friday notched an easy win over sixth seed Andreas Haider-Maurer in just over an hour. Next he'll meet Martin Klizan, a man who's had ups and downs throughout his career, and it's not impossible to think Dzumhur has a real shot at getting the upset.

Things have been just as interesting in Houston, even with most of the seeds doing well through their early rounds. It hasn't been all smooth sailing though -- 2013 titleist John Isner, fresh off a stellar run in Miami couldn't keep his momentum going on the dirt and fell in yesterday's late night match. His vanquisher, Teymuraz Gabashvili has pulled off big wins in the past -- he stunned Andy Roddick at Roland Garros back in 2010 and took out David Ferrer in Barcelona just last year. Still at #79 in the world he's usually far off the radar. But he still could surprise us -- he faces defending champion Fernando Verdasco next, and the Spaniard has been famously spotty of late. He could be caught off guard this time too. And Jack Sock, back in action after surgery cut short his breakout 2014 season, scored his second straight win over second seeded Roberto Bautista-Agut yesterday. His next opponent, Colombian Santiago Giraldo may be the on-paper favorite, but with a middling 7-9 record on the year he's been far from impressive, and the young American could surely take advantage.

Sure there are still a couple more matches left before this weekend's champions are crowned, but the performances these guys have put up so far this week may show just how hungry they are to nab that elusive first title. And once they break the seal, there's no telling how far they can go.

April 7, 2015

Where to Begin...?!

Wow, I am really far behind, huh?

But things sure got interesting in the last few days of the Miami Open, that I can't help but react, even a few days after the champions were crowned. Sure, maybe we should have expected that Serena and Nole would come out on top, but there were nevertheless a couple surprising faces hanging around late in the tournament. And their showings could bode very well for them the rest of the year.

I've been talking for a while about how impressive John Isner's been over the last few weeks, but he really exceeded expectations in Miami. After stunning Milos Raonic in the fourth round, he pulled off a solid upset over Kei Nishikori in the quarters, his second top-ten defeat of the tournament. He had a shot at Novak Djokovic in Friday's semis, but after dropping the first in a tight tiebreak, he was fairly demolished in the second. Tomas Berdych had a shot against Andy Murray too -- in a rematch of their Australian Open semi, a match to which he'd brought a 6-4 record -- but fell short for a second straight time, succumbing to superb serving from the Brit and falling short of another run to the final here.

But ultimately we were treated to a repeat of the Melbourne final, with Murray trying to end a streak of six straight losses to the world #1. And having scored his milestone five-hundredth career win in the fourth round, he looked ready to keep his momentum going. He pushed the defending champ to a first set tiebreak, and then got the decisive break in the second to force a third. But Nole, as he so often does, found his motivation when he needed it most -- in the deciding set he blanked the third seed, finally finishing off the match in just under three hours and picking up the elusive Indian Wells/Miami combo for the third time in his career. It marks title #3 for the season, too, and guarantees him the top ranking at least through Wimbledon. But with some inspired performances from so many others in the field this week, there may be a couple out there ready to give him a run for his money.

The women's draw wasn't without its surprises either. With players like world #2 Maria Sharapova, former champ Aga Radwanska and even in-form Caroline Wozniacki all getting upset, the bottom half of the bracket was decimated pretty early during the event. That opened the door for two unlikely semifinalists to make a play for the title. Andrea Petkovic, a little spotty this year despite a title in Antwerp, notched wins over Ekaterina Makarova and red hot Karolina Pliskova during her run. But she was ultimately stopped short by a resurgent Carla Suarez Navarro, who'd pulled out of the Antwerp final but scored two wins over Petra Kvitova already this season and took a set off eventual champion Simona Halep in Indian Wells. In Miami she scored her third win over veteran Venus Williams in the quarters, precluding a much anticipated match-up between the two sisters.

She was thoroughly outmatched in the final though -- Serena, who'd survived quite a squeaker against Halep on Thursday, was coming off a tight two-hour long semi before reaching the weekend's championship. But the seven-time champion didn't seem too fatigued after the fight -- she lost just two games in the fifty-six minute match, handing the Spaniard the fifth bagel set in their five meetings. With a record eighth title in Miami, she's certainly shown she's not ready to cede her spot at the top any time soon -- but performances from the rest of the semifinal field may give us some clue as to who's ready to take over when she does.

March 31, 2015

The Slump-Buster

The couple months leading up to Miami haven't been great for everyone. Perennial stars have fallen before they should and recent risers have struggled to find their footing as breakthrough players have come into their own. But over the last couple days we've seen some players find their games again, and it could be just what they need to turn their seasons back around.

After several months of struggling, John Isner had started to claw his way back in Indian Wells, scoring a solid win over Kevin Anderson in his third match. But with a marathon loss to world #111 James Ward in Davis Cup and upsets at the hands of Gilles Muller and Sam Querrey already this year, he's still well off his career high ranking in the top ten and only carried a #22 seed to the Miami Open. But last night he held tough against Grigor Dimitrov -- after taking the first set in a tiebreak, already his fourteenth of the year, he did what he so rarely does and broke his opponent twice to take the match in straight sets. It was his biggest win in almost two years, when he made a stellar run to the Cincinnati final, and could give him a little boost for his next test -- he'll face off against world #6 Milos Raonic tonight. Somewhat surprisingly the big serving American actually has won both of their previous matches, also both at Masters events. But a win this time might be slightly more meaningful.

Veteran Juan Monaco has seen some of his biggest successes on these courts, breaking the top ten after a semifinal run in Miami three years ago. But the thirty-one year old Argentine has given up a little of his momentum and has lost in the first round of seven Majors since. He did make the final in Buenos Aires a few weeks ago, though, and has come back from a triple digit ranking to #46 in the world now. And over the last few days he's dispatched three seeds, starting with a struggling Ernests Gulbis and culminating with an easy win over Fernando Verdasco this afternoon -- he broke the Spaniard, fresh off his second straight win over Rafael Nadal, four times and kept him well under fifty-percent on his second serves. The win earns him a quarterfinal match-up against eighth seed Tomas Berdych, a man he hasn't beaten in any of his six previous tries, but he's pulled off bigger wins before and with some of the shots he's been making this week it doesn't look like he's in any rush to slow down.

On the women's side we're also seeing a couple ladies come back from the brink. Former Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki has always seemed destined for great things. But with yet another injury-marred season last year and losses this season to players like Kristina Mladenovic and then-#94 Alexandra Dulgheru, the powerful German had seen her ranking fall almost out of the top thirty. She made up some ground in Indian Wells, scoring wins over Sara Errani and defending champion Flavia Pennetta on her way to the semis. She might have been even more impressive this week, though, repeating a win over over Errani on Monday and taking out fifth seed Ana Ivanovic in straight sets. She's up against Serena Williams next, no easy task to be sure, but we all remember that stunning win over the world #1 at the All England Club two years ago. If she is back in form there's no reason to expect she won't put up a fight again this time.

Young Sloane Stephens has fallen a little farther since the days of her big win over her compatriot. After peaking at #11 in the world a little more than a year ago, she's had a rough time on Tour, losing eight first round matches last year and falling out of the top forty earlier this month. Like some of the others I've mentioned, she had a bit of a resurgence in Indian Wells, beating Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova before taking a set of Serena in the fourth round. And this week in Miami she hasn't dropped a set yet, scoring a nice win over seventeenth seed Madison Keys before taking out Belinda Bencic on Monday. Her road, like everyone else's, also gets tougher from here -- she'll meet third seed and BNP Paribas Open champ Simona Halep next, but the twenty-two year old certainly seems to have her groove back and could give the favorite a run for her money.

It seems like it's been a long couple months for all these players, but sometimes you only need one good run to boost your confidence and get back on track. And for these guys, hopefully that's exactly what Miami will be.

March 28, 2015

The Newest Crop

It always seems that about this time of year we start to see a couple young players emerge on the tennis Tours. Some go on to accomplish big things in their careers, others fade away a little. But all are able to get in a couple wins that earn them a little more notice. And this year in Miami is no different.

We've already talked a bit about young Borna Coric. The Croatian teenager backed up his stellar 2014 season with a stunning win over Andy Murray in Dubai and a rapid rise to a career-high #59 in the world -- he was barely in the top three hundred at this time last year. Playing in just his second Masters level event in Miami, he's certainly at an experiential disadvantage, but that might not work too hard against him. After solidly beating Andreas Haider-Mauer earlier this month in Indian Wells, he had a slight hiccup against the Austrian in his opener -- he only won one game in the opening set -- but came back strong for the win. He faces eighteenth seed David Goffin next but, with a mediocre 5-6 record on the year so far, the Belgian seems to be struggling to keep the momentum from his comeback season. For a guy who's beaten two of the three top ten players he's met during his career, Coric could certainly take advantage of this opportunity too.

James Duckworth has been around a little longer, but outside his native Australia he hasn't garnered too much attention. The twenty-three year old has won a couple Challengers titles but has made much less headway on the bigger stages. He's struggled to qualify for most Majors and hasn't won any main draw matches outside of his homeland. He did manage a nice victory over Gilles Simon to start this season in Brisbane, though, and after beating Dominic Thiem in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open he finally cracked the top hundred. He had to manage through preliminaries in Miami too but managed a good win over fellow qualifier Damir Dzumhur in his opener. He's on serve early in his rematch against Fernando Verdasco now -- Duckworth lost a fairly quick two sets to him a few weeks ago in Indian Wells -- but we all know how inconsistent the Spaniard can be and maybe the underdog will get a chance to pounce.

There's plenty of fresh talent on the women's side too, but perhaps the most notable name is one we got a quick glimpse of not too long ago. Catherine Bellis was ranked #1208 in the world when she drubbed Melbourne finalist Dominika Cibulkova in the first round of last year's U.S. Open. She had a shot at going even further when she bageled Zarina Diyas in their second set and seemed to have momentum to manage even that win. She ultimately lost to the underrated Kazakh -- but she was able to get revenge. Fresh off a ITF title in Racho Santa Fe, the fifteen-year-old Cici only dropped just three games to the twenty-ninth seed yesterday, needing barely an hour to score the win. The road gets much tougher from here of course -- she'll most likely face two-time defending champion Serena Williams -- she's won a total of seven titles in Miami -- next. But she still seems destined to climb much higher than her current #211 ranking and even getting a couple good shots in on Serena, who incidentally won her first U.S. Open a few months after Bellis was born, could put her well on the road to do just that.

Unlike some of these other guys, Daria Gavrilova hadn't had many high-profile wins on the WTA Tour before this week, but the 2010 U.S. Open Juniors champ but was quick to change that in Miami. The Russian wildcard, whose first round opponent retired in the middle of their opening set, didn't seem hampered by the lack of match play. Facing second seed Maria Sharapova -- five times a finalist here but still unable to capture the one big crown that's eluded her -- the world #97 was relentless. She took advantage of weak serving from MaSha, keeping her well below fifty percent on second serve and firing off the only two aces of the match herself. The five-time Grand Slam champ was sent packing in straight sets, marking by far her earliest loss at this event since 2003. For her efforts Gavrilova will have to handle Kurumi Nara, a titlist in Rio last year, and while the lady from Japan can be a tricky player to be sure, there's no reason the lesser-known Russian can't follow up her big upset with another one.

The question for these guys, of course, is whether they can follow up success in Miami not just with more wins over the next week, but much more importantly, wins in the months to come. And hopefully they'll all be able to stick around and show us just how much they've got to give us.

March 23, 2015

At the Top of Their Games

The last couple months have given plenty of under-the-radar players a chance to shine on Tour, but over the last week or so in Indian Wells, we got to see the very top players really show us what they've got. And for one of this weekend's champion, we got a glimpse of just how much more she's capable of.

We haven't seen too much of Novak Djokovic since he won his fifth Australian Open in January -- the world #1 has only played one event since, falling in the Dubai final to Roger Federer. Not surprisingly the top two players in the sport fought their way through the draw in the California desert too, setting up their thirty-eighth career meeting. Djokovic was barely challenged in his first five matches, getting a walkover from a back-in-form Bernard Tomic in the quarterfinals and drubbing Andy Murray for his sixth straight win over the Brit. Roger had a similarly easy road to Sunday's match -- after avenging his Melbourne loss to Andreas Seppi he quickly dismissed Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic, who'd just a day before eked out a win over former champ Rafael Nadal. But their final was not nearly so straightforward -- Nole got the first break of the match early, converting for once after squandering all seven opportunities he held in the Dubai final, but Federer fought back and took the second set in a tiebreak. After trading breaks again in the decider, Djokovic finally took hold of the match, winning the last four games in a row to claim his fiftieth title and his twenty-first Masters 1000. And with momentum now squarely back in his corner -- he and Roger have alternatively won all of their last nine meetings -- he might just be able to swing things back in his favor for many more matches to come.

Young Simona Halep may only be just starting to build her momentum, but by following through on her breakout 2014 season, she's certainly given us reason to believe she's here to stay. The third seed at Indian Wells, she actually faced more than a few challenges during her run -- she dropped her opening set to qualifier Daria Gavrilova, went the distance against a tough Varvara Lepchenko and needed another comeback versus Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarters. She got a big break on Friday, though, when Serena Williams pulled out of the semis with a knee injury, but with a win over the world #1 not that long ago, she might have been able to pull off another if given the chance. It was the other half of the draw where things got really interesting though -- with players like Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki and Genie Bouchard all getting shocked early, 2009 champ Jelena Jankovic, just 2-4 on the year before this tournament, was the surprising final contender. She looked like she would pull off the upset here too -- up a set and a break on the heavy favorite -- but Halep regrouped late in the second and was able to even the score. The ladies kept it close in the third too, but the Romanian was finally able to get the only break of the set -- surprising since they'd lost serve a combined seventeen times in the first two -- and clinched her biggest trophy to date after more than two and a half hours on court. And with the next round of Majors quickly approaching, there may never have been a better time to make such a big statement.

Sure both of these champions were tested during their runs in Indian Wells. But by coming out on top they showed they can truly triumph in the face of adversity. And as the stakes get higher in the weeks to come, they've each made a case for themselves as the ones to beat.