May 21, 2015

Blogcast: 2015 French Open Preview

Rafael Nadal's dominance at Roland Garros could be at risk as Novak Djokovic goes for the career Grand Slam. Serena Williams looks to make a winning return in Paris, while Maria Sharapova hopes she can finally take out her long-time rival. There's sure to be a lot to talk about at this year's French Open.

May 17, 2015

Serving Notice

We've seen a lot of new faces on the winners' blocks over the last few weeks. But with the French Open now just a week away, a couple players took their opportunity to make a real statement in Rome. And it might have been the perfect time to do it.

Carla Suarez Navarro has long been a threat on the clay courts, but it seems she's really only coming into her own now. After finally picking up her first career title last year, she's quietly sneaked into the top ten on the heels of a stellar run to the championship match in Miami. And this week in Italy she was equally impressive, taking out, in turn, Genie Bouchard, Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep on the way to her third final of the year. Not a bad showing as she looks to improve on her run to the quarterfinals in Paris last year.

But ultimately CSN ran into a slightly more immovable force in Maria Sharapova, who in a week will set out to defend her Roland Garros title. She'd been a little more quiet than usual this clay court season, losing her opener in Stuttgart and getting shocked in the Madrid semis by Svetlana Kuznetsova. But she made it through the Rome draw without losing a set, even against real threats like Victoria Azarenka and young Daria Gavrilova, who beat her just a few months ago on the American hard courts. She started off shaky Sunday though, letting the Spaniard get an early lead and even giving back a break in the second set -- but she was able to fight back, rolling through the decider and after more than two and a half hours finally sealed the win. It was her third title in Rome and her second of the season. But after so many close calls this year, this one really seems to put her back on the map.

The men's draw in Rome shook out a little more as you'd expect -- while there were certainly a couple upsets along the way, the top two seeds were the ones eventually showing down in Sunday's final. Roger Federer, who'd backed up his first red clay title in six years with a shocking loss to Nick Kyrgios in his Madrid opener, was quick to rebound. He easily took out both Tomas Berdych and compatriot Stan Wawrinka to make his fifth final of the year. With such dominating games against the sport's best it's not that long a shot to expect him to keep it up in Paris.

Of course there's one man who stands in his way. World #1 Novak Djokovic had taken it easy for most of this clay court season, skipping Madrid and smaller events after picking up a second trophy in Monte Carlo. He seemed a little rusty to start, though -- riding a seventeen match winning streak coming in to Rome, he dropped sets to both Nicolas Almagro and Thomaz Bellucci in his early rounds. He even survived a test against Kei Nishikori, the man who vanquished him in New York just last year. Against Federer in the final, though, he was at the top of his game -- he dropped just a handful of points on serve, fended off seven aces from his opponent and saved the only break point he faced. After just over an hour he'd dismissed the all-time great, putting him back just a game away from tying their all-time head-to-head. But, more importantly, with just a few days before he makes another go at capturing his very first French Open -- and becoming the third active player on the ATP to complete the career Grand Slam -- he may have cemented his place as the real favorite this time and set himself on a course to really change history.

There are only a few days left before the first shots are taken at Roland Garros this year, and both this weekend's champions and runners-up have shown they mean real business in Paris. The road ahead will certainly be full of challenges, but it seems all of them have proven they're more than up to the task.

And maybe this year they'll finally be able to overcome the biggest obstacles they've faced their entire careers.

May 14, 2015

Back in the Groove

As we come down to the wire for this year's French Open, plenty of top stars are on the courts in Rome this week to get in those last couple hits before heading off to the season's next Major. And more than a few are looking to make, surprisingly, their first big statements of the season.

After all, you can't help but notice that a couple of perennial favorites have been missing from the winners' stands this clay court season. But so far this week they seem to be making a pretty good effort to change that.

Victoria Azarenka may be somewhat excused from her relatively quiet year to date -- the former world #1 missed most of last season with injuries and took a pretty big tumble down the rankings as a result. Her comeback has been a little spotty -- she opened the year with a surprising loss to then-largely unheralded Karolina Pliskova in Brisbane, but did make the final in Doha and put up a big fight against Serena Williams last week in Madrid. Still unseeded in Italy she faced a potentially tough draw, but pulled off her third win of the year over good friend Caroline Wozniacki in the second round, her seventh top-twenty win this season -- more impressive now that she's barely within the top thirty herself. And if she gets past young Irina-Camelia Begu later today, there's no telling what that could do for her confidence.

Of course that win would set up a meeting against long-time rival Maria Sharapova, who's been struggling too of late. The defending Roland Garros champion lost opening rounds in both Miami and Stuttgart and was stunned by compatriot Svetalana Kuznetsova in Madrid -- the latter two, events she'd won last year. She's been solid so far in Rome, building a solid lead in her opener before Jarmila Gajdosova had to retire and then dismissing Bojana Jovanovski in straight sets today. And she could keep her streak going -- she's won her last three matches versus Vika, finally drawing even in the pair's head-to-head, and with super-nemesis Serena pulling out on Thursday, the road may be cleared for her to pick up another title on the dirt.

Roger Federer hasn't exactly been having a bad year, picking up a trio of titles so far, including his first on red clay since that history-making Grand Slam six years ago. Still he notched a second straight loss to Gael Monfils in Monte Carlo and in Madrid became the second top-ten upset of teenager Nick Kyrgios's career. Roger's rebounded in Rome, though -- he easily won a rematch of the Istanbul final against Pablo Cuevas in his opener and took out big-serving Kevin Anderson in two quick sets today. He has a tough road though -- if he wants to pick up hie first title in Italy, one of the few Masters he hasn't yet won, he could face the likes of Stan Wawrinka or Tomas Berdych, both of whom have already reached the quarters. And there's an even bigger threat in his half of the draw.

Six-time champion Rafael Nadal is looking to turn around the least-prolific season of his career since 2004, and seems better poised to do so than he has in a while. Despite picking up a title in Buenos Aires at the start of the clay court circuit, he's had some struggles at the bigger events, losing twice to Fabio Fognini on the surface dropping out in the semis on a court he once dominated in Monte Carlo. Last week in defense of his crown in Madrid, he was stunned by Andy Murray in the final. But perhaps he's back on track now -- he dropped just two games in his first round in Rome and today ended John Isner's streak of eighty-four straight service holds to reach the quarters. Next up for him, though, is Wawrinka, who famously beat him in last year's Australian Open final. They haven't faced off since, and on the dirt we should expect Rafa to thrive -- but the way he's played recently, every win seems like a major victory for him. And if he can survive this test, it could bode well for him over the next several weeks.

It's just about the last chance for all these guys to make a big stand before the French Open -- but thankfully for them it seems like they've each gotten their games back after a few missteps. And if they can keep their momentum going, we might get a chance to really see them shine in Paris.

May 10, 2015

Beating the Best

Winning a tennis tournament is always a great feat, but a title might mean slightly more when you have to face the toughest challenges yourself. All the heavy hitters were out in force, no one cleared the road for you, and you still managed to defy the odds and bring home the trophy.

And not only did this week's champions in Madrid manage to add a little more bling to their mantels, but they had to get through the very best the sport has to offer to do it.

There were lots of upsets in the women's draw, maybe unsurprisingly, with former French Open Juniors champion Simona Halep losing her opener to Alizé Cornet and a still-struggling Genie Bouchard building a 6-0 lead over Barbora Strycova before falling in three sets. But the biggest shockers were saved for the final two rounds -- two-time Major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, now barely in the top thirty, faced one big threat after another, dispatching in turn Ekaterina Makarova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Sam Stosur and Lucie Safarova before stunning defending Roland Garros champ Maria Sharapova in the semis. They were her first top-ten wins of the season and got her to her first final since Washington last year.

There she met a woman who'd been equally stunning this week -- Petra Kvitova, though still ranked #4 in the world, hasn't played a lot this year, taking March off to recover from a hectic 2014 schedule. But she hit the ground running in Madrid -- after dropping her first set to qualifier Olga Govortsova, she rebounded quickly for the win and cruised the rest of the week. In the semis the young Czech stunned Serena Williams in straight sets, handing the top-ranked player her first official loss of the season and scoring her first ever win over the nineteen-time Slam champion. Playing in the final again for the first time since 2011, Kvitova was on-point -- she lost only three games to Kuznetsova, needing just over an hour to earn her second title of the year. And as much as the trophy must mean -- it's probably the road she took to get there that means even more.

The same can be said on the men's side, where the undisputed King of Clay was out to defend his crown. Rafael Nadal may have come to Madrid ranked fourth in the world, a lower spot than what he's been used to, and he may have been hoping to turn around what's been a relatively disappointing season so far. But that doesn't make him any less of a force on this surface. And with a couple weak-for-him showings in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, it felt like his run in Madrid carried a little extra meaning. And he looked more than motivated at the outset -- easily handling a potential test from Grigor Dimitrov and then taking out Tomas Berdych in the semis, he seemed ready to add clay court title #47 to his trophy chest, which would get him that much closer to Guillermo Vilas's record forty-nine.

But Andy Murray had other plans -- fresh off, astonishingly, his first clay court title last week, the second seed was focused on keeping his streak going. He won a tight rematch against Munich runner-up Philipp Kohlschreiber in his opener, but didn't drop a set again, losing serve just one time in his next three matches, against such formidable opponents as Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori. He faced a much tougher task against Rafa, of course -- the decorated Spaniard had only lost a handful of clay court finals in his career. But the Scot wasn't preturbed, and on Sunday he kept his cool under pressure, breaking his opponent three times and delivering him a straight set loss in less than ninety minutes. To back up his maiden Munich crown with a Masters-level win over such a formidable foe, might just put Murray on a path we didn't expect from him so long ago.

This weekend's champions may have higher-profile trophies on their shelves, but by vanquishing the very best in the field to score victories in Madrid, they may have accomplished something even more important. And that could just further shake things up when even bigger titles are on the line in just a few weeks' time.

May 2, 2015

The Big Fight

Okay, I realize that most eyes will be trained on one particular bout in Vegas tonight, but the face-off between Pacquiao and Mayweather isn't the only one worth mentioning these days. And for a couple players contesting this weekend's championships, the opportunity is just as great.

Tomorrow's final in Munich pits two players who've had very different seasons so far against each other. Top seeded Andy Murray, fresh off his second final of the year in Miami, is back at #3 in the world and finally seems in contention again at the big events. Veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber, on the other hand, was struggling to win many matches at all -- he's lost three opening round matches, all to players outside the top fifty, and before this week had a losing record on the year. He's been able to turn things around this week though, taking out Bucharest runner-up Jiri Vesely in his first round and then notching an upset over David Goffin in the quarters. He'll certainly be the underdog against the Scot on Sunday, with his only win coming more than five years ago -- but he does, surprisingly, have a chance. He took a set off Murray a few weeks ago in Indian Wells, and pushed him for four long hours at Roland Garros just last year, barely losing 12-10 in the fifth. If he can find that game again, he just might be able to capitalize on this chance to turn his season around.

The German's run in his homeland may have been unexpected, but the draw in Estoril shook out even less predictably, with both top seeds falling in their opening rounds. Instead Richard Gasquet, a little quiet this year despite a title in Montpellier, took out an on-the-rebound Nicolas Almagro and finally ended the impressive win streak of Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the semis. And young Australian Nick Kyrgios, this year's Cinderella in Melbourne, managed his way to the first ATP final of his career. He hasn't had to face any real challenge though -- both Feliciano Lopez and Gilles Muller were eliminated before he had to meet them -- so tomorrow's match will be his be the first test he has all week. And with the specter of his maiden trophy looming over him the pressure will surely be on -- but I wouldn't be surprised to see him come out on top this time, and there's no telling what that could lead to for the rest of his season.

There's a little more experience on the court in Istanbul, though, where world #2 Roger Federer will be going for his awe-inspiring eighty-fifth career title. Having already picked up two crowns this year, he's rebounded nicely from an early loss in Monte Carlo and, despite challenges from Daniel Gimeno Traver and even Challenger heavyweight Diego Schwartzman, made good on his top spot in Turkey. The bigger surprise happened in the bottom half of the draw where wholly under-appreciated Pablo Cuevas stunned second seed Grigor Dimitrov in Saturday's semi. The Uruguayan my be flying way under the radar, but he has won the last three finals he's contested, and with an impressive 10-4 record on clay this year, he might be more at home on this surface than his opponent. It's always a tough ask to try to beat Roger, of course, but Cuevas has been slowly making a name for himself too and might just have the motivation to pull off what would easily be the biggest win of his career.

The ladies, meanwhile, have already crowned their champions, but even these favorites were given some unexpected challenges. At the reinstated Prague Open the upsets started early and kept going all week long -- second seed Lucie Safarova was eliminated by world #65 Tereza Smitkova in her opener while Svetlana Kuznetsova, Alizé Cornet and Belinda Bencic all fell quickly after. Only Karolina Pliskova was able to live up to expectations, surviving some early challenges to make her eighth final in eighteen months. The big surprise though was the performance of Lucie Hradecka, mostly known as a doubles star, but after stunning Ana Ivanovic in Melbourne, really making a name for herself on the singles circuit too. She ousted former stars like Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Klara Koukalova on her way to the final, and even took the opening set off Pliskova in the championship match. She did lose eventually, but may have given herself the confidence she needs to really break out in the solo game this year.

There were surprises too in Marrakech where top seed Garbiñe Muguruza and red-hot Timea Bacsinszky both lost earlier than they would have liked. Instead a different Timea -- Hungary's Babos, who made a stellar run to a title in Monterrey more than three year ago -- took out Mona Barthel, Flavia Pennetta and giant-killer Kristina Mladenovic, marking the first time all year she'd won more than one main draw match at a single event. She would ultimately face off against fourth seed Elina Svitolina -- the former French Open Girls' champion has been slogging through the WTA Tour, picking up a couple titles in Baku and even taking a set off Serena Williams Down Under. Babos put up a fight against the heavy favorite, too, dropping the first set in a squeaker and pushing the Ukranian to a tiebreak for the second. It may not have been the result she wanted, but after years spent languishing in the rankings, it might finally be the push she needs to make a real move into the elite.

Not all of this weekend's finalists will come out as winners, of course, but for the underdogs, especially, who were able to deliver a couple big blows to their opponents all week long, they might have just put themselves on the road to bigger and better things the rest of the season. And maybe sometime soon they'll be the ones handing out the knock out punches.

April 28, 2015

Back from the Brink

Okay, I realize I'm late in posting again, but that shouldn't suggest that the results from this weekend are any less important than others. And for the couple winners who'd seemed to have been long missing from the podiums, in fact, their performances may herald something even more notable.

The favorites seemed totally in charge during the early rounds in Bucharest, with only one seed falling before the quarterfinals. But things got pretty interesting pretty quickly after that -- three-time champion Gilles Simon was stunned by a surging Daniel Gimeno Traver, while big-serving Ivo Karlovic was taken out by young Jiri Vesely in the semis. And red-hot Gael Monfils, fresh off a huge win over Roger Federer in Monte Carlo, fell in a squeaker that same round to veteran Guillermo Garcia Lopez. The thirty-one year old Spaniard, who's scored wins over the likes of Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka in the past, had fallen a bit off his game the past few years, only ending a four-year trophy-less streak last April in Casablanca. But even with a trophy this year in Zagreb he was flying well under the radar in Romania, and against Vesely in the final he was pushed to the limit. The pair went two very long sets, each going to a long tiebreak, before the elder Garcia-Lopez was able to finish off the match. It was only his fifth career title, but coming so late in his career, it might just suggest there are a few more to come.

Angelique Kerber hadn't fallen quite so far down the rankings, but the two-time Major semifinalist seemed to have a few cobwebs on her at the start of the year -- with four first round losses in the first three months of the year, she'd dropped well out of the top ten by the start of the month. She's turned it around since then, though, picking up a title in Charleston and drubbing former world #13 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova during the Fed Cup semis. This past week in Stuttgart -- where favorites like Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic, and Aga Radwanska all lost early -- the still unseeded German started off with an impressive win over top seeded Maria Sharapova and followed up with another upset of eighth-ranked Ekaterina Makarova. In the final against U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki she started off a little slow, dropping the first set, but rebounded quickly to force a decider and closing out her third top-ten win of the week. It was Kerber's second title of the year, but arguably the most significant of her career. And with a win streak now eleven matches long, you have to think she's making a pretty good case for herself to be a real force at the year's next Major.

This weekend's champions may have been clawing their way back into the spotlight for some time, but their titles on Sunday may have finally cemented their returns. And as the clay court season really gets into full swing over the next couple weeks, there may never have been a better time for them to make such strong statements.

April 23, 2015

Stumbling Blocks

Okay, first of all, everyone calm down.

This isn't the first time Rafael Nadal has lost on clay.

Just last year, in fact, he lost in the quarterfinals in Barcelona and Monte Carlo and even ceded the top spot in Rome back to Novak Djokovic. He still did just fine though, picking up a Masters crown in Madrid and, of course, that historic ninth trophy at Roland Garros.

Still, you have to admit something feels a little different this time around.

The former world #1 has had a tough time coming back from his most recent injury -- he failed to defend titles in Doha and Rio. He's only picked up one title this year, and didn't have to beat a top-fifty player to do it.

And earlier today he suffered his second straight loss to an also-struggling Fabio Fognini -- the Italian, off his best game at #30 in the world, took out the second seed in Barcelona in straight sets, needing less than an hour to notch the upset and handing the clay court king his earliest loss on the surface in nearly three years.

Fognini is now only the second player on Tour to beat Rafa more than once on dirt in the same season. One guess as to who the other man is?

Sure, Novak Djokovic has gotten the better of Nadal a couple times now, most recently taking him out in the Monte Carlo semis. He's even had chances at the French Open, the one place where Rafa's remained relatively unbeatable. But this seems like the biggest opportunity he's had to unseat the legend in Paris. And with just a few weeks left before the next Grand Slam, he might just be chomping at the bit.

Still, Nadal always has a way of surprising us -- especially this time of year -- and if he's able to learn something from these early losses, he might just be able to regroup in time.

But one things for sure -- the race for the title in Roland Garros this year might just be the tightest we've seen in over a decade.