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October 31, 2014

The Consolation Prize?

It's not quite over for the ladies -- this week eight(-ish) of the year's International-event titleists who didn't quite qualify for the WTA Championships in Singapore got a chance to pick up one more trophy before the season ended. And while all these ladies have shown their capable of big things this season, some of the results we've seen so far in Sofia aren't what you'd expect.

In the "Serdika" Group, top seed and Singapore alternate Ekaterina Makarova suffered two straight-set losses before pulling out with a back injury, allowing Karolina Pliskova entry into the Bronze-Medal event. Meanwhile it's the lowest-ranked player in the section, 2014 standout Garbiñe Muguruza who's really shining. She dropped just three games to Makarova in their opener, and then came back from a bagel set against Indian Wells champ Flavia Pennetta to take the next two, 6-1, 6-1. She'll face off against Katowice titleist Alizé Cornet today, but with a win in the pair's only meeting two years ago, the Spaniard could put up a perfect record in the round robins.

No one's been as spotless in the "Sredets" Group, though Australian Open runner-up Dominika Cibulkova came pretty close. After a string of surprising losses since the spring -- Vitalkia Diatchenko in Moscow, Cici Bellis in New York -- I wasn't expecting too much from her at the Tournament of Champions, but she took out both Tsvetana Pironkova and Carla Suarez Navarro in straight sets. But after last night's loss to Andrea Petkovic, herself trying to end a slump since her French Open semifinal, she stands now just in second place in the section, making today's final round robin between Pironkova and CSN so much more important. The Spaniard, who won her first career crown in Oeiras way back in May and then went largely silent, had a pretty easy win over Petkovic on Tuesday and could leapfrog over other players in her group if she gets the better of the Russian.

The stakes in Sofia may not be as high as they were last week, but for the ladies looking for redemption the pressure is certainly on. After all, players like Ana Ivanovic and Simona Halep have won the Tournament of Champions in the past, and their careers have been on steady upward trajectories since. And while the 2014 season may be close to wrapping up, any of these ladies could use a win her to get next year off to a great start.

October 26, 2014

The Perfect Ending

Serena Williams may not have started the year the way we expected her to, but she sure finished it off strong -- even when, for a few separate moments in Singapore, her prospects for a fifth WTA Championship were a little bit in doubt.

Serena, surprisingly, did not come out on top of her round robin group -- though she would open against Ana Ivanovic, the only woman in the field to have beaten her this year, she also got paired with two year-end finals first-timers, the season's Cinderella Genie Bouchard and Simona Halep, one of the most consistent performers at the Majors all year long. But despite a relatively quiet fall, the young Romanian was not intimidated in her Singapore debut -- against Williams on Wednesday, she denied nine break opportunities and dropped just two games, handing the top seed her worst loss since a 2007 retirement against Patty Schnyder. She might have even been stopped in the early rounds, but Ivanovic needed three sets to defeat Halep in their last Red Group match, allowing just enough room for Serena to sneak in.

Meanwhile in the White Group, U.S. Open surprise finalist followed up on her late-season surge -- the last player to qualify for Singapore, she was the only one in the entire field to win all her round robins, only dropping a set to Maria Sharapova in her first match. None of the other ladies in the section could manage more than one win in the early rounds -- Agnieszka Radwanska scored a surprisingly one-sided win over Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, the Czech rebounded nicely to notch her first victory over Sharapova since 2011, and the French Open titleist barely survived a three-hour slugfest with Radwanska. Ultimately, with one less set lost in the round robins, it was Aga who squeaked her way into the semifinals along with the recently dominant Dane.

Wozniacki's strength carried through on Saturday too -- while Halep dismissed Radwanska in barely an hour, Caro came within a few points of finally defeating Serena again. Despite an on-paper drubbing in the U.S. Open final, she's been steadily gaining ground on the world #1, taking sets off her in Montreal and Cincinnati. This weekend Wozniacki actually won more points in the pair's two-plus hour match, taking the first set and serving for the match in the third before finally, unfortunately, folding at six-all in the tiebreak.

So finally after a long week of top-quality play among the very best players on the WTA Tour, Serena Williams and Simona Halep had set up a rematch of their round robin match just four days ago. But we were certainly not in for an exact repeat -- as should be expected after a Williams loss, the world #1 found a way to raise her game and get revenge. Though she struggled to hold serve early and even got down a break at 1-2, she quickly rebounded and unapologetically rolled off eight straight games to finish off the match and claim her record-tying fifth year-end championship.


Of course Serena is almost always the favorite at any tournament she enters, but with so many fumbles and stumbles along the way this year, today's outcome was far from certain. But by finishing off the year so strong she certainly served notice that she's not quite ready to pass the reins off to the next generation of superstars. And you can bet she's going to take this momentum with her and start off next season with a bang.

October 22, 2014

A Taste of What's to Come

As the ladies wrap up their year this week in Singapore, the men are trying to get a few more shots in before ending theirs. And with a few spots left at the ATP Championships in London next month, both the players who've already secured their post-season and the ones still trying to make it are spending this week showing the rest of the field exactly what they're made of.

Five-time Basel champ Roger Federer, who's lost the last two finals here to Juan Martin Del Potro, comes back to his homeland as the top seed and, while he did somewhat surprisingly drop a set today to always-tricky Denis Istomin, he got his game back together and showed he's more than still a contender for the year-end crown. Compatriot Stan Wawrinka, on the other hand, continues to struggle since his breakthrough start to the year -- though he secured a spot at his second straight World Tour Final, he's 0-for-4 since the U.S. Open, losing his opener this week to world #84 Mikhail Kukushkin. Rafael Nadal seems to have found his game though -- injured since late summer and now in need of an appendectomy, he's only lost six games so far this week and he next faces young upstart Borna Coric, a threat to be sure, but certainly less intimidating than some of the guys who've brought him down this year.

But it's the bubble players in Basel who're really out to impress. Ranked ninth in the race to London, Milos Raonic has fallen a bit from his post-Wimbledon high, retiring against Juan Monaco in his Shanghai Masters opener and then losing in three to world #116 Ricardas Berankis in Moscow. So far in Switzerland he's been pushed by Steve Johnson and earlier today dropped his middle set to often-spotty Donald Young. He's got a third round meeting with summer standout David Goffin and could be in for a bigger challenge than he expects. And Grigor Dimitrov, who dropped just outside the top ten after failing to defend his Stockholm title last week, struggled against wildcard Alexander Zverev in Basel. He seems to have rebounded well enough, but he's going to have to do something big in the coming weeks if he wants to leapfrog over the players just ahead of him.

Many of those guys made the trip to Valencia this week. Tomas Berdych, who took the trophy from Dimitrov in Sweden days ago, couldn't further his cause much in Spain, though -- he lost his opener in straight sets to Pablo Andujar and made his hold on the #7 spot for London slightly more tenuous. But both Vienna finalists are back in action this week -- neither three-time titleist David Ferrer nor Andy Murray, the champion at the Erste Open, have dropped a set yet. The two, on course for their third meeting in as many weeks in the semis, have given each other quite a run for the money recently, splitting their battles in Shanghai and Vienna and Austria, each of which went three sets. And they've both really been making a last minute push to qualify for London -- a big push by either this week really could make this race a photo finish.

It is only fitting that the best players in the world continue to bring their A-Game right down to the wire this season. And those who've already booked their tickets to Singapore really need to take notice of the ones bringing up the rear -- after all, these are the guys they'll be fighting for the year-end trophy. And if this week is any indication, it's going to be a big battle.

October 19, 2014

Finish With a Bang

With the 2014 ATP almost wrapped up, there was not a lot of time left to nab the last few spots left at the London finals. But this weekend a couple guys on the cusp, who'd been a little more quiet than usual, made a real play for the year-end championships, and one clinched his first ever trip to the O2 to cap off what's so far been the best year of his career.

Tomas Berdych was looking to make up for some middle-of-the-road results throughout most of the year. The world #7 had picked up a title in Rotterdam early in the year, but he lost the couple other finals he played this season, one inexplicably to sub-fifty player Carloq Berlocq in Oeiras. But this week in Stockholm, he was one of the few favorites to survive some early carnage -- Kevin Anderson lost his opener to Bernard Tomic and Alexandr Dolgopolov was taken down too by Adrian Mannarino. And even though the top seed did reach Sunday's final, he was sure to be challenged by Grigor Dimitrov, who'd been staging quite the coming-out party all year. The Bulgarian actually took the first set, but Berdych rebounded strong in the next two, never allowing a break opportunity and dropping just a handful of points on serve. After just under two-and-a-half hours the Czech had ended what seemed like a long losing streak and finally came out on top again, holding his spot as #7 on the London leaderboard, and taking one more step toward his fifth straight appearance at the year ends.

Andy Murray has had a longer history at the London finals, but for most of the year it seemed like he might not make it here. Having skipped the event last year after surgery he had a slow-for-him start to the year, fell out of the top ten after the U.S. Open and didn't pick up his first title of the year until last month in Shenzhen, even then almost losing to Tommy Robredo in the final. He had a much stronger showing this week in Vienna, though -- somewhat luckily meeting each of his opponents right after they struggled through long three set matches. He did drop the first set to David Ferrer in the final too, risking another loss to the man who knocked him out of the Shanghai Masters just a week earlier, but he too rallied from the early deficit and battled through a break-filled decider before ultimately scoring the win. Now eighth in the race to London, he's in the best position he's had all year to qualify for his seventh season championship.

Marin Cilic has come close to qualifying for London in the past, but after the stunning year he's had in 2014, this seemed to be his best opportunity. The world #8 lost the final in Rotterdam to Berdych, but won titles in the weeks before and after. His real victory, of course, came just a few weeks ago when he shocked Roger Federer and then Kei Nishikori to take the U.S. Open crown, his first Grand Slam title, propelling him into the sport's elite. In Moscow this week, he was the second seed, but became the favorite once Milos Raonic fell in his opener. And in the final against Roberto Bautista Agut, another of the year's breakthroughs, he rose to the occasion again -- the only one of this weekend's champions who wasn't pushed to a third set in the final, he denied the Spaniard on all six break opportunities and closed out the win in under ninety minutes. The proved the Croat wouldn't be satisfied resting on his New York laurels and sealed his entry to his first London final. And given the way he's played all year, there's no reason to think he won't be a force in it.

This weekend's winners may not have had the most consistent results all year long, but they sure knew how to up their game when it counted. Rounding out the season with a couple big wins put their names back on the map as time ticks down to the London final. And with just a few weeks left in 2014, there may have been no better time to do it.

October 17, 2014

Eleventh Hour Surge

The 2014 WTA season is close to wrapping up, but that hasn't stopped a couple young and largely unknown players from making some big statements at the last events of the year. And while they might not all be able to ultimately bring home the trophies, a couple might have successfully put their names on the map to stay.

More than a couple seeds had trouble gaining traction in Luxembourg, with German favorite Andrea Petkovic falling in the first round and several others not doing much better. Wimbledon Cinderella Barbora Zahlavova Strycova was one of just two seeds to reach the quarterfinals, and the only one to make it farther. A lot of that upheaval came at the hands of young Denisa Allertova, a young Czech who, at #145 in the world, is only a hair off her career high ranking. She has had quite a year on the ITF Tour though, picking up seven titles on that circuit this year, notching wins over the likes of Ksenia Pervak, Andrea Hlavackova and Lesia Tsurenko. She still had to qualify for Luxembourg, but she really made the most of her entry -- after stunning former All England runner-up Sabine Lisicki in the second round, she followed up by taking out fifth seed Varvara Lepchenko one match later. She finally ran out of steam today, winning just a game off Annika Beck in the semis, but with such a strong finish to the season, I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot more of her in the next.

Meanwhile in Moscow another couple upstarts caused a stir. Australian Open runner-up Dominika Cibulkova had a Singapore alternate ticket in her sites, and all she needed was one more win to secure her spot. But Vitalia Diatchenko had other plans -- playing in her hometown, the Russian qualifier held strong after losing the first set and took out the recent top ten star in the second round. She even pushed compatriot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to the limit today, forcing the sixth seed to three sets before ultimately losing their quarterfinal meeting. Another qualifier, though, had slightly better luck -- Katerina Siniakova, who'd only won one main draw match at the WTA level all year, followed a one-sided defeat of Elena Vesnina in her opener by slaying this season's giant-killer Kristina Mladenkovic. Earlier today she came back from a set down against rising star Camila Giorgi to reach her first career semifinal. She'll meet Pavs for a spot in the final, certainly no easy challenge, but the way she's playing, there's no reason we can't see her pull off yet another upset.

Sure, at this point these ladies' efforts may seem like "too little, too late," but some big results as they close out 2014 could give them real momentum as they prep for the new year. After all we've seen plenty of big talent emerge this season, and if this week's standouts can keep it up, they might just be the highlights of 2015 too.

October 14, 2014

Still Got Some Fight Left

It's been a long, tough year on the ATP Tour, with four different men claiming each of the season's Grand Slams and only two reaching more than one final. Momentum has shifted from one player to the next all year long, but even with the rise of a new crop of top-tier talent, the old stalwarts remain standing. And last week in Shanghai, one Master proved yet again that he's still a force to be reckoned with.

Roger Federer seemed to be staging a resurgence this year, taking titles in Dubai and Halle before grinding his way to his first Major final in two year, taking eventual champion Novak Djokovic to five sets before finally succumbing. He'd been overshadowed in recent months, though, losing quickly to Marin Cilic in New York, and has only played a couple Davis Cup matches since. In Shanghai, one of the few Masters events she's never won, he was only given a #3 seed, behind two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic and a still on-the-mend Rafael Nadal. He was challenged early, too, dropping the middle set to a barely-unranked Leonardo Mayer, a man who'd earned his first top-ten victory just a few months ago in Hamburg and held five match points for his second last week. And though Nadal fell early, now nursing appendicitis along with everything else, plenty other threats remained deep into the draws.

Roger ran into the biggest of those in the semis, meeting top-seeded Novak Djokovic for the first time since their Wimbledon clash in July. And this time the Swiss giant did get the better of his opponent -- he saved the only break chance against him and needed just over ninety minutes to secure the win. He actually struggled more in the final against a surprisingly unseeded Gilles Simon, playing in just his second Masters championship match -- Federer was broken early on Sunday, but eventually crawled back from a 3-5 deficit to take the set in a tiebreak. And despite being denied break points in the second, he closed out the match more decisively in this breaker, scoring an important win over a man who's given him a little trouble in the past.


Federer's win, his fourth title of the year, brings him back to #2 in the world, not far behind Djokovic, and at thirty-three years of age, that's no small feat. And it certainly serves notice to all the upstarts who're trying to nose their way into the sport's elite. He's still kicking strong and hard, and the way's he's playing this year, there seems to be no stopping him.

October 9, 2014

The Resurgence

So much of the action on the tennis courts this year has been about seeing young players make a real statement -- previously unheralded athletes finally breaking into the upper echelons of the sport, former Junior champions having epiphanies on the adult Tours. But this week some of the attention may have shifted from the newbies to the veterans as a couple ladies who'd seemed to fall by the wayside this year are putting themselves back on the map with some surprising performances.

At the inaugural Tianjin Open in China, U.S. Open semifinalist Shaui Peng looks to have recovered from her upsetting withdrawal in New York, reaching the quarters with her win today. Top seed Jelena Jankovic on the other hand was less successful, battling through an uneven opening round only to be upset by world #112 Saisai Zheng on Thursday. But there are a few others in the draw that merit attention too. Su-Wei Hsieh, doubles champ at Roland Garros this year, was once ranked in the top twenty-five in singles and even picked up a couple titles in 2012. Now, though, she's all the way down at #160 in the world and lost in the first round of every major this year. She may have gotten her game together now, though -- she opened with an easy first round win in Tianjin and followed up today by surviving a three-setter against fifth seed Shaui Zhang. And Sorana Cirstea, a breakout in 2009, had climbed back into the top thirty this season, but after failing to defend runner-up points from Cincinnati, she's now back in triple digits. She suffered a heart-breaking loss in the Big Apple, too, going three sets with Genie Bouchard and just falling short. The Romanian has been on point this week, though -- she hasn't faced a seed yet in China, but she also hasn't dropped a set and with Jankovic out of her way, she could have a clear path to the semis and even beyond.

The bracket opened up a bit in Linz, too, with Singapore-qualifier Ana Ivanovic pulling out with a hip injury and Bouchard earlier today also giving Tsvetana Pironkova a walkover to the quarters -- and a couple ladies will try to take advantage of those holes. Camila Giorgi, who beat Carla Suarez Navarro on her way to the Katowice final and Maria Sharapova in Indian Wells, has slowed down a bit since, losing six first round matches over the summer. Unseeded at the Generali Open this week, she notched her third win over Andrea Petkovic this year, losing just three games to the top twenty player in their opener. With no seeds left in her half, there's no reason her winning will stop. She might have to face off against another rebound story, Karin Knapp, whose health struggles the last few years pushed her almost beyond #500 in the world. She's become a force again this year, though, nearly beating Sharapova in the Australian heat and picking up her first career trophy in Tashkent this fall. This week in Austria she opened with a big win over Sabine Lisicki and today took the first set from Magdalena Rybarikova before the Slovak retired. She'll face Pironkova next, before possibly meeting Giorgi, a match that could be a real battle between two re-emerging talents.

But the real comeback story is happening over in Japan, where former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur is putting together a late-season surge. Once ranked #4 in the world, she briefly fell out of the top twenty this year, losing to players like injury-addled Timea Bacsinszky, Guangzhou qualifier Yafan Wang, and world #406 Naomi Osaka. It might not have been a precipitous fall, but with just a handful of wins over elite players this season, it far from impressive. But last week the veteran Australian got to the semis in Beijing, taking out Caroline Wozniacki and forcing Petra Kvitova to a third set. And at the site of her first career title five years ago she seems to have confidence again -- with many seeds in her section out already, the first real challenge won't come until after she wins her next match, but if she can keep the momentum she's gathered the last few weeks, the might be able to add trophy #3 in Osaka to her mantle.

With just a week left before post season, most of these ladies are getting in their last few matches of 2014 this week, but for many it doesn't seem like too-little-too-late. There's plenty of opportunity for them to carry their success into the new year, and if they can keep it going, there's no reason they won't be able to rise back to new heights -- and maybe climb even higher.