October 7, 2015

Out of Steam

Well, things haven't been going too well for a couple players who really shined last week, have they? While Kuala Lumpur champ David Ferrer and Wuhan runner-up Garbiñe Muguruza have so far stayed alive in early action, others have not been quite so lucky and seem to have immediately lost the momentum that pushed them so far just a few days ago.

Feliciano Lopez, a finalist at the Malaysian Open, took the courts in Tokyo this week, but lost his opening round in three sets to Joao Sousa, and that might create a nice opportunity for the Portuguese. Sousa, ranked #45 in the world, has been biding his time on the fringes for some time, but after reaching three finals this year, including one last month in St. Petersburg, he could be ready to break through. He's scored wins already over Roberto Bautista Agut and Dominic Thiem, but Wednesday's win marks his first over a top fifteen player since 2013. He now faces off against American Austin Krajicek, but his bigger test should come a round later, when he takes on French Open titleist Stan Wawrinka, who's won all three of their previous meetings. Still the Swiss was tested by mini-nemesis Tatsuma Ito in the second round and could be a little vulnerable now if Sousa gets an opening.

Lopez wasn't the only recent finalist to fall, though -- over in Beijing compatriot Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, who came in second in Shenzhen was also ousted early, falling in two tight sets to Ivo Karlovic. Tomas Berdych, too, who'd beaten GGL in Sunday's title match, was shockingly upset by Pablo Cuevas earlier today. Ironically these two vanquishers will face each other in the second round, but whoever comes out on top could be poised to shine. Karlovic is the obvious favorite, of course -- at #18 in the world the big-serving Croat was just outside of seeding territory -- but the feisty Uruguayan can't be counted out. Cuevas went on a fourteen match win streak last summer, picking up back-to-back titles on the clay of Umag and Bastad and then added title #3 to his kitty this year in Sao Paolo. It's been almost six years since the two last faced off, but he might just be the stronger one this time around.

Inertia was hard to keep on the women's side too. Venus Williams, who beat four seeded players in Wuhan last week, propelling her back to #14 in the world, got a first round bye in Beijing but still didn't enough have time to recover. Sixth seed Ana Ivanovic, who actually fell below the American in the rankings after failing to defend a title in Tokyo, put in one of her best performances of the year to score the win and followed up today by taking out always-tough Svetlana Kuznetsova. The former Roland Garros champ now could face the unenviable task of trying to end the career of Flavia Pennetta -- but that might be the biggest challenge she has left. After all, Serena Williams pulled out of the event a week ago and the remaining top seeds Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova both lost in their opening rounds, making the draw much less intimidating. So if Ivanovic can keep her cool a few matches more, she might quickly regain the ground she just lost.

Of course, any one of these guys could lose momentum just as quickly as the champions they beat, so the trick will be in holding on to what they've got on their sides now. And with the 2015 season so close to winding down, hopefully they'll be able to keep the juices flowing in the new year.

October 4, 2015

Back from the Dead

We should know by now that in tennis, no one should ever be counted out. With some of the best players still thriving well into their thirties -- and a couple even first breaking through when they hit that ripe "old" age -- even those who seem like their best days are behind them, somehow find a way to make a statement late in their careers. And this weekend a couple veterans proved that, while they may have been a little quiet in recent months and years, they're certainly not yet ready to be forgotten quite yet.

There's still one match left to be played in Shenzhen but it might surprise you to learn which of the thirty-plus year old contenders is looking for his first title of the year -- Tomas Berdych has reached final in Monte Carlo, Rotterdam and Doha, but hasn't yet picked up that all-important crown. Still he's looking about as strong as he has all season, rebounding from an opening round exit in St. Petersburg to roll through his early matches in China, pulling off solid wins over the likes of Jiri Vesely and always strong Tommy Robredo. In this week's rain-delayed final championship match, he'll take on Guillermo Garcia-Lopez who, despite a lower #29 ranking, has managed wins in Zagreb and Bucharest in 2015, and is actually pretty evenly matched with Berdych at 3-3 all-time. While the top-ten Czech does still boast better results on the big stages, he may have his work cut out for him in this match and he'll want to show he can still close out a win when it really matters.

David Ferrer may have done just that in Kuala Lumpur. The one-time French Open runner-up had a really strong start to the year, picking up a trio of titles in the first two months of the season and even reaching the quarters at Roland Garros. But injury forced him out of Wimbledon and he didn't play a hardcourt match through the summer before the U.S. Open, challenged there too by unknown Moldovian Radu Albot before losing in the third round to unseeded Jeremy Chardy. He seems to have gotten his game back on track though -- the top seed at Malaysian Open, he quickly dispatched early opponents, dropping just one set to always tricky Benjamin Becker in the semis. Meanwhile second seed Feliciano Lopez seemed primed to continue his resurgence this fall -- after a run to the quarterfinals in New York, the thirty-four year old Spaniard finally ended Nick Kyrgios's comeback on Saturday. But Ferrer proved too much for him in the final -- he was able to create eleven break opportunities, and though he just converted on three, it was enough to clinch the win and his unexpected fourth trophy of the year. Still in more-than-good shape to qualify for the year-end championships, the Spaniard has now won six games in a row since New York, and may have made his best case to date that he's still part of the sport's elite.

Over in Wuhan, Venus Williams certainly showed she's still part of that group. The former world-#1 has remained relevant during the latter stages of her career, running to the trophy in Auckland at the start of this season and making it all the way to the U.S. Open quarterfinals last month. This week the thirty-five year old took the courts among a crowded field which included seven top-ten players, but didn't seem daunted by that fact. While many of the favorites were ousted early -- Maria Sharapova retired from her first match since Wimbledon and Simona Halep was stunned by Johanna Konta in the third round -- Williams battled her way past Tokyo champ Aga Radwanska in their opener and then stopped short Roberta Vinci, the woman who'd stunned her sister in New York. In Saturday's final against Garbiñe Muguruza, who'd also scored a win over Serena not that long ago, the veteran American came out the stronger too, taking the first set and getting a break in the second before her opponent retired. It was one of Williams' biggest titles in years, but at this point in her career, may be her most valuable.

Of course this weekend wasn't all about the vets -- in Tashkent, twenty-year-old Nao Hibino, who's picked up a couple of ITF titles during her short career but had never done much to speak of on the WTA Tour, worked her way through the draw and finally ousted Donna Vekic in Saturday's final. Whether that's enough to propel the now-#117 ranked player into greater fortunes is yet to be seen. But if her fellow winners this weekend are any indication, she's got plenty of time left to do it.

October 1, 2015

Trying to Shake It Off

Tennis is a tough sport -- when you're out on the court by yourself, there's a lot of pressure on individual players to deliver and even the very best can feel the toll. After all Serena Williams announced today she would end her season early, pulling out of next week's China Open and saying she'd skip the season ending championships in Singapore. She mentioned a couple injuries that had been nagging her game this year, but perhaps more tellingly, acknowledged her heart was a little broken after that shocking semifinal loss in New York. And if she needs time to recover, then everybody does.

Of course not everyone had as much riding on their shoulders as Serena did at the U.S. Open, and some might be much more used to notching a loss here and there. But that doesn't make their need to rebound any less important, and this week a couple are hoping they can dust themselves off and get back on track.

At this time last year Marin Cilic was riding high off his first ever Grand Slam title, but he had a tough time reliving that glory in 2015. After a lackluster season for the most part, though, he actually put up an admirable showing in the City, getting all the way to the semis, albeit without having to face anyone in the top fifteen. But he was absolutely drubbed by eventual champion Novak Djokovic in his final four match, winning just three games and not even a third of the total points over the ninety minutes they played. In his first match since that loss this week in Shenzhen, the Croat was tested by Australian John Millman but was able to survive. Next up he'll face little-known Hyeon Chung, who's been climbing up the rankings through the Challengers' Tour and is coming off a title last week in Taiwan. He may be a tougher test for Cilic than the Croat realizes, but if he can get through it, it could put him in a position to end the year on a higher note.

Nick Kyrgios is also looking to regain momentum, though his might have been lost for a different reason. The talented Aussie, who's got wins over Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer under his belt, has made headlines more recently for his behavior rather than his performance. Once ranked twenty-fifth in the world, since that on-court run-in with Stan Wawrinka in Montreal a few months ago, he's fallen out of the top forty, was dropped from the Davis Cup semis tie, and lost three straight matches. He got back on court this week in Kuala Lumpur, though, and has already taken out Santiago Giraldo by retirement and a strong Tatsuma Ito earlier today. In Friday's quarterfinal he'll take on big-serving Ivo Karlovic, who he's beaten in their only previous meeting. But the match will be about more than just the final score -- Kyrgios needs to prove he's about more than just flare and bluster and that he can handle the stress of not only high expectations but of a high profile. And if he can get through these next few matches he might be able to put a rough summer well behind him.

Donna Vekic was unwittingly caught up in the drama that engulfed Kyrgios too, and at a time when the teen was trying to revive her career. With wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dominika Cibulkova and Garbiñe Muguruza last year, she seemed primed to take off, but injury plagued her later in the season and after failing to defend her Kuala Lumpur crown this year, fell well out of the top hundred. Though she did score a nice win over Francesca Schiavone in Baku, she fell in qualifying at both the French and U.S. Opens and struggled too even on the ITF circuit. But this week in Tashkent she seems to have gotten a little spring in her step back -- she came back after dropping the first set to second seed Carina Witthoeft and has survived three deciding sets to make the semis. She'll face off against Evgenia Rodina in the next round, but at an event where no seeds are left in contention, the door may be wide open for the young Croat. And if she can take the opportunity she'll be happy to see her name in the headlines for all the right reasons.

Roberta Vinci certainly knows how a big win can put your name in the spotlight already. The surprise vanquisher of Serena Williams in New York became a household name seemingly out of nowhere, after months middling results on Tour and a drop out of the top forty. But perhaps the win took a little too much out of her -- she fell to compatriot Flavia Pennetta a match later, when even more was on the line. That hiccup doesn't seem to have had a lasting effect, though -- this week in Wuhan, among a field that included seven top ten players, the Italian picked up right where she left off, taking out Seoul champion Irina-Camelia Begu in the second round and earlier today stunning third-seed Petra Kvitova in straight sets. There are still plenty of threats left in the draw, of course, and even the unseeded players like Venus Williams and Anna Schmiedlova pose a risk. Vinci did absolutely dismantle her next opponent Karolina Pliskova the last time they met, dropping just one game to the now-#12 Czech back in 2013, so she could keep her streak going even longer. And after pulling off the biggest win of the year, there's might not be anything she can't do.

September 27, 2015

Never Too Late

This hasn't always been the best season for all the ladies on Tour -- even when a couple stars seemed to have an opportunity to do something big, they seemed to fall just a little bit short when it counted. But luckily the year isn't quite over yet, and for a few players this week turned out to be one to put their careers back on course.

Irina-Camelia Begu has shown a lot of potential since the start of her career, but even after a breakout 2011 season, she never quite followed through. The other young Romanian did earn a title in Tashkent, but couldn't make much of a run at the Majors. She started out this year strong, strong, taking out Angelique Kerber in her Melbourne opener and going all the way to the fourth round. She got to the quarters in Charleston and Madrid too, and even scored a seed at the French Open, the first time she'd risen that high. She slowed down since then, though, upset by Olga Govortsova for the second time this summer in her U.S. Open first round. But she seems to have shaken that loss off pretty well -- this weak in Seoul she took terrific advantage of her top seed, only challenged once, dropping a set to Polona Hercog early on her way to the final. There she met super Cinderella Aliaksandra Sasnovich, a qualifier who'd already beaten Anna Schmiedlova and Sloane Stephens in Korea. But the Belorussian may have run out of steam on Sunday, and Begu was able to pounce -- breaking her opponent's serve six times she clinched the match in just under eighty minutes and picked up just the second trophy of her career. It should give a nice boost to her current #29 ranking, but more importantly might help her make a sustainable push into the top tiers of the sport. And there's no telling what she'll be able to do once she's there.

Jelena Jankovic has already had some major accomplishments during her career, reaching the final at the 2008 U.S. Open and holding onto the #1 spot for an impressive eighteen weeks -- that's only a week less than Victoria Azarenka and just three weeks short of Maria Sharapova. But those days sometimes feel very far behind us -- now the world #25, she made her way to the final at Indian Wells, but lost in the first round at Roland Garros, she picked up a 125K title in Nanchang and stunned Karolina Pliskova in Cincinnati, but fell early again in New York, this time to sub-hundred Oceane Dodin. It had been more than two years since her last main Tour title when she took the court in Guangzhou as the fourth seed, and with players like Simona Halep and surprise Tokyo International champ Yanina Wickmayer in the field, the Serb had her work cut out for her. But after handling an always-tough Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarters, she finally ended Wickmayer's win streak in the semis. Meanwhile in the top half of the draw, Denisa Allertova, ranked just seventy-fourth in the world, followed up a shocking win over Halep by taking out third seed Sara Errani to make her first Tour final. But Jankovic proved a little too much to handle -- after trading breaks early, the thirty-year-old rattled off a string of games and bageled her opponent in the second set. She may not have had to pull off any big upsets to claim her fourteenth career title, but breaking the seal should serve as a reminder of what she is still more than capable of doing.

The same can be said of Aga Radwanska, who was getting dangerously close to finishing the year outside the top ten for just the second time in eight years. The one-time world #2 started the year off huge with an exhibition win over Serena Williams, but seemed to struggle right after that -- early in the season she lost twice to both Venus Williams and Garbiñe Muguruza and fell well short of her 2014 performance at Indian Wells with a third round loss in the California desert. Even when she looked strong to start an event, she'd end up crumbling -- in Katowice, her homeland's tournament, she sailed through her first three rounds but then was stopped short in the semis by Camila Giorgi, and even during her traditionally strong grass season, she was three times upset by players ranked well below her at the time. It was the first time since 2010 she'd gone so long in a year without a title. Ranked just thirteenth in the world at the start of the week, she was given a relatively low seventh seed at the crowded Pan Pacific Open, which boasted four top-ten players and eight seeds in the top fifteen. And Aga was challenged from the start -- she opened against Wimbledon Cinderella Coco Vandeweghe and went on to beat Karolina Pliskova and a resurgent Dominika Cibulkova, last year's runner-up at the Australian Open. In the final she faced off against Belinda Bencic, the woman who not only beat her in the Eastbourne final, but who also usurped her Rogers Cup title just last month -- the young Swiss may still have been seeded slightly below, but with a win over Serena in Toronto, she arguably has had the better year and might have been the favorite in Sunday's final. But this time Aga got the better of her, taking advantage of weak serving and scoring five breaks for herself. The win may have saved her from going titleless for the first time in five years, but with so many true powerhouses in the field, it might have also reminded us all of her place among the elite.

And with a couple more weeks left in the season, after all, we might just see her -- and any of these ladies, really -- make a play to get back there.

September 24, 2015

Time to Get Crackin'

The 2015 Grand Slam season may be in the books, but that doesn't mean there isn't more ball to be played. And a couple ATP stars that came up a little short at the U.S. Open seem to be taking the opportunity this week to turn things around.

Not everyone was successful of course -- in St. Petersburg top seed Tomas Berdych, who fell in the fourth round in New York, didn't make it even that far and dropped in straight sets to Simone Bolelli -- but others may fare a bit better. Milos Raonic, who's had some trouble coming back from foot surgery earlier in the year, opened with an easy win over Evgeny Donskoy. And Dominic Thiem, winner of back-to-back titles to start the summer but was dismissed quickly by Kevin Anderson at the Open. He seems back on track in Russia though, scoring his fourth straight win over compatriot Andreas Haider-Maurer to start his run. But perhaps the player under the most pressure to rebound is last year's standout Roberto Bautista Agut, who in 2014 boasted wins over the likes of Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro but this season only has one win over a top-twenty player, and that by retirement. Earlier today against hugely talented Teymuraz Gabashvili he saved match points before closing out the win in an over two-and-a-half hour match. Next up he faces young Lucas Pouille, who's had some big wins himself over the past several months -- but if the Spaniard recovers in time, he might just be able to end this year on a higher note.

Over in Metz a couple more heavy hitters are looking to make up ground. Some didn't have terrible showings at the U.S. Open -- surprise French Open titleist Stan Wawrinka made it all the way to the semis but ultimately lost in a quick three sets to countryman Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a semifinalist in Paris, took defending champ Marin Cilic to five sets in the quarters. But both have been tested this week though -- top-seeded Wawrinka came back after dropping his first set to Dustin Brown and Tsonga needed two tiebreaks and a decider to take out qualifier Mischa Zverev -- and will want to show they haven't lost any steam. But the player really looking to recoup is Gilles Simon who, despite climbing back into the top ten, has been on a bit of a lull this summer. He'd won just two matches since Wimbledon and was stunned in his New York first round by a resurgent Donald Young. But he finally stopped his losing streak in his homeland, taking out Edouard Roger-Vasselin in straight sets earlier today. He's slated next to face off against Gilles Muller, who had a promising start to the year and already took out seventh seed Fernando Verdasco -- he's won the pair's only previous meeting about a year ago, and there's no reason he can't do it again and perhaps put himself on course to ultimately claim the title.

After all there are still a couple more months left in the 2015 season, and plenty of big titles still up for grabs. And while these guys may have been a little quiet of late, there's plenty of time to turn up the volume now.

September 20, 2015

The Way, Way Back

Over the last couple years we've seen some new names and faces make some big statements at Davis Cup. Whether they ushered in a new era of domination on the world stage or finally rewarded efforts that had so far only been successful on the singles circuit, the countries that hoisted the trophies at the end of the year were breaking new ground.

But this year's final will turn back the clock more than a bit and bring back two teams who've long been missing from this battle. In fact, you have to rewind all the way to 1904 to find a championship contested by the two nations who'll be out for long-awaited glory this year.

Great Britain, in fact, despite deep talent over the years, last reached the Davis Cup final in 1978. And after years of being relegated to the World Group playoffs, the one-time world power finally made it back to the big leagues just last year. They were up against a tough Australian team, though, which might have been missing a recently verboten Nick Kyrgios, but still boasted young, albeit brash, talent from Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis -- so the Brits knew they had to bring their A-game. Andy Murray got off to a good start, easily handling Kokkinakis in the first rubber, but the lead was erased when Tomic felled Daniel Evans in four sets. On Day Two though, Murray teamed up with his brother Jamie and in a marathon doubles match against veteran Lleyton Hewitt and 2014 standout Sam Groth came back from dropping the fourth set tiebreak to claim the win and a 2-1 lead. The world #3, clearly over his surprise dismissal at the U.S. Open earlier in the month, went on to score another decisive win over Tomic on Sunday, clinching the tie for his country and, more importantly, their first trip to a Davis Cup championship in almost four decades.

There they'll face a team whose had an even longer drought at these events. Belgium's won just six ties at the World Group level and their only trip to the final came those hundred-plus years ago when they faced off against what were known as the British Isles at the time. But led by last year's comeback kid David Goffin, this year they've taken out the defending champion Swiss in their first round and then blanked the Canadians back in July. In this weekend's tie against Argentina, Goffin again put his team ahead with a tight win in the first rubber, but saw his team fall behind as Steve Darcis lost both his singles and Saturday's doubles rubber to Leonardo Mayer & Co. He kept Belgium alive though on Sunday, dropping just a handful of games to Diego Schwartzman, making Darcis' deciding match against Federico Delbonis that much more important. But this time Darcis stood up to the challenge -- after dropping the second set and failing to serve out the match in the fourth, he rolled through a tiebreak to pull off the win and give his teammates a chance they haven't had in a long, long time.

Of course the Brits won that championship a century ago by a score of 5-0, but something tells me this time around things could be a little closer. After all both teams have some real talent on their side and, perhaps, even a couple vulnerabilities. And with a chance neither has seen in several lifetimes, you can bet both will bring their very best to this year's final, and perhaps set a brand new stage for what's to come

September 17, 2015

The Minor Leagues?

It's always kind of fun in the immediate aftermath of a Grand Slam to see the players who jump right back into action once the pressure is off. Whether they're trying to gain some headway while the very best in the sport take a break, or to make up for missing an opportunity in New York, a couple ladies this week are doing their part to show that, while they may not have been a contender for the title last week, they might just be one the next time around.

Up in Quebec City more than a few players were looking for redemption -- second seed and defending champion Mirjana Lucic had fallen out of the top hundred after her first round exit at the U.S. Open, and Anna Tatishvili -- who stunned Karolina Pliskova in her Big Apple first round -- dropped just as easily a round later. Both are still alive and kicking, but perhaps some others are worth a mention too. Eighteen year old Jelena Ostapenko made it through qualifiers in New York and took a bagel set off Sara Errani in their second round -- she got right back to work this week with an upset of third seed Mona Barthel in her opener. Now ranked just out of the top hundred, she seems ready to make a real play into double-digits soon. And then there's her next opponent Paula Kania who didn't quite make the main draw of the year's last Major. The little-known Pole did get a win over eighth seed An-Sophie Mestach this week, though, and still hasn't dropped a set in Canada. At #150 she's the on-paper underdog in her quarterfinal match, but this might just be the perfect stage for an upset. But perhaps the greatest opportunity lies with young American Louisa Chirico -- the New Jersey teen had a very busy summer, entering every event between Wimbledon and the Open and even notching a win over Alizé Cornet in Washington. She fell to Cinderella Johanna Konta in New York, but could rebound now. She faces Tatishvili today, a woman she lost to earlier this year in Auckland, but perhaps this is her chance to turn things around.

The field in Tokyo is arguably a little more intimidating, but with top seeded Carla Suarez Navarro losing in her first round, the opportunity is just as great. Kateryna Bondarenko, who pulled off that upset, was one of my dark horses for the U.S. Open, but she ran into a feisty Simona Halep in her second round and was sent home earlier than she might have otherwise been -- after all, she's scored other big wins this year, stunning Venus Williams on her way to the Istanbul quarters. Next up for the Ukrainian is one-time New York semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer, who's been languishing in the low double digits for a few years now, and something tells me Bondarenko might be up for the challenge. But there's opportunity too for some of the seeds still standing -- Ajla Tomljanovic, who beat Jelena Jankovic to start the year in Brisbane and made it to the final in Pattaya City, has been a little quiet recently, and lost in three sets to Karin Knapp in her first round in Flushing Meadows. She's been tested a bit in Japan, needing three sets in her opener and a couple tiebreaks to make the quarters, but she seems to have her game back in shape. And her next opponent, third seed Madison Brengle -- who the Croat beat in Strasbourg -- is also trying to rev her season back up. After reaching the final in Hobart as a qualifier and stunning players like Andrea Petkovic in Melbourne and Petra Kvitova in Stuttgart, she's slowed down noticeably, going just 1-10 through the spring and summer. She hasn't faced huge threats yet, but she's only lost seven games this week, which could do a lot for her confidence.

Of course whether these ladies can keep up their performances when the big guns get back on court will be another matter entirely. But these smaller events are as good a chance as any to get their names on the map. And maybe by the time they get bumped up to the big leagues, they'll be able to make an even bigger statement.