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July 24, 2014

Asia Rising

For occupying almost a third of the world's land mass, Asia doesn't get a lot of love from the tennis world.

The Australian Open, technically on a whole different continent, is referred to as the Asian Slam, the first Chinese woman cracked the top ten barely four years ago, and just in May Kei Nishikori became the only man from Japan ranked in single digits.

But a relatively new series of WTA tournaments showcases the region and its players, many of whom don't qualify for main draws at Tour-level events and spend most of their time on the ITF circuit. This week in Nanchang, the first stop on this year's WTA 125K schedule, only one player is ranked in the top fifty and the eight seeds were rounded out by world #168 Yuliya Beygelzimer. And when you look at the slate of athletes still standing, you may notice something more than how few names you recognize -- every single one of the quarterfinalists hails from Asia itself, and any of them has an opportunity to put their continent on the map in a very big way.

Of course the seeds probably have the best shot at making at statement. Shuai Peng, well off her career high ranking of #14 in the world, opened the year with a run to the Shenzhen final and beat Maria Kirilenko to make the fourth round at Wimbledon, matching her best performance at a Major. And Misaki Doi may have added only one ITF title to her mantel in 2014, but she's quietly become the #2 ranked player in Japan and could parlay a nice run here into greater success on the WTA down the road.

But keep an eye out for even lesser known players in Nanchang too. Fangzhou Liu was up a set and a break on two-time Slam semifinalist Jie Zheng when her opponent retired, but backed up the free pass with a straight set win over Slovenia's Nastja Kolar a round later. And Thailand's Lusika Kumkhum was ranked just inside the top hundred when she pulled off the upset of her career this past January -- playing in just her second Australian Open, she took out sixth seed Petra Kvitova in her opening round. She hasn't matched the glory of that win yet this year, but the fourth seed this week might just be the most likely dark horse in the field.

Only one of the previous six WTA 125K events was won by an Asian -- Shuai Zhang took the title in Nanjing last October -- but this week we're guaranteed to add another to the list. Of course, it's not like any of these ladies would be the first from Asia to take home a WTA title, but success here could open the doors for them on much bigger stages. And in a truly global sport like tennis, we're all better served by sharing the love.

July 21, 2014

The Rebirth

I have to admit I was pretty impressed by the action we saw on the tennis courts last week.

Sure we still haven't hit the sweet spot of the summer hardcourt season and most of the sport's top athletes were not yet in action. But we saw more than a couple players carry success through from one week to the next, and a few players long missing from the winner's circle made triumphant returns to glory that could right their paths for the rest of the year.

Mona Barthel was one of the standouts of the 2012 season -- a qualifier in Hobart that year, she shocked four seeded players to claim her first career title and a year later she took out Marion Bartoli and Sara Errani in her trophy run at the Paris Indoors. She peaked at #23 in the world that March, but ended the season with four straight first round losses and fell out of the top eighty for most of this spring. It wasn't an easy road for her in Bastad either -- with all but one seed losing their opening matches, the young German upset just one favorite on her way to the final, but lost a set to qualifier Gabriela Dabrowski in her second round and had to come back from 2-4 down against Sylvia Soler-Espinosa in the semis. Against Chanelle Scheepers Sunday, another woman who'd been struggling before making the trip to Sweden, she was tested too, finding herself in a 3-5 hole in their second set. But Barthel was able to stay strong and ultimately closed out the match in straight sets, capturing her third career crown and reminding the field what she's capable of.

Bernard Tomic seems to have been missing from the spotlight a little longer. Once hailed as the Next Big Thing in the sport, he hadn't won more than two matches at any tournament since losing the Sydney final -- he'd won his only previous title there a year before -- and dropped out of the top hundred after a second round loss at Wimbledon, his lowest ranking in over three years. He was unseeded in Bogota, positioned behind little-known players like Alejandro Gonzalez and Victor Estrella Burgos, and just barely eked out a win over the latter in the semis, needing three tiebreaks and nearly three hours to score the win. He ran up against big-serving Ivo Karlovic on Sunday -- the Croat was playing his second final in as many weeks, and as the second seed was the on-paper favorite this time too -- but even without converting a break opportunity, Tomic was able to secure the win in tiebreaks. It was just his second career trophy, putting him a little behind expectations, but may have been just what the young Australian needed to kick him into gear.

Over in Istanbul another former champion -- albeit one who's got a little more hardware on her mantle -- took a huge step in putting herself back on the map. Caroline Wozniacki fell out of the top ten early this year and struggled with injury, etc., for most of the spring. She was somewhat redeemed by making the semis in Eastbourne and her fourth round showing at the All England Club, but she really proved she was back this past week at the reestablished Istanbul Cup. The top seed in Turkey, she opened with a double bagel against rising star Belinda Bencic, and though she dropped sets to early opponents, ultimately made her first final of the year with a straight set win over another of the year's standouts, Kristina Mladenovic. In the final against Roberta Vinci -- playing her second straight final despite her inauspiciousstart to the year -- she took control again, never dropping serve and taking five games off her challenger. It took just over an hour to win her twenty-second trophy, but after the year she's had, it sure seems like she put up an even bigger effort than that.

Things went down a little differently in Hamburg, where unseeded Leonardo Mayer was looking less for reawakening than for a first launch. The twenty-seven year old Argentine only made his first singles final in February and had spent most of the last five years in the low double-digit rankings. He did manage a win over world #16 Tommy Robredo in Viña Del Mar, but before last week -- even with a fourth round run at Wimbledon -- he was a whopping 0-16 against top ten players. He cracked that goose egg in Germany though -- after taking out tenth seed Guillermo Garcia Lopez, he battled past a couple young guns and earned the right to meet last year's French Open runner-up David Ferrer for the title. It didn't look like it would go his way at first -- the veteran Spaniard had ceded a total of three games in his quarter and semifinal matches and came back from breaks down to take the opening set on Sunday. But Mayer rebounded in grand style, finally scoring that elusive win over an elite player and taking home that all-important maiden trophy.

And while Mayer may have just broken the seal of tennis champions, he and the rest of this weekend's victors have all recaptured the feeling of being at the top of their game. And if they can keep it up there's no telling how much more success we'll see from them down the road.

July 17, 2014

Keep It Up

It's no surprise that tennis schedules can be grueling -- and unless you're part of the super-elite class of players, we often see athletes put up a big performance one week and then, whether because of physical fatigue or emotional letdown, fizzle out immediately after.

But something seems a little different on the courts this week, and many players who had breakthroughs just days ago -- not the ones we're used to succeeding one tournament after another -- have kept their momentum going. And while they might not walk away with the trophies this weekend, their recent consistency tells me there's a lot more to come from each of them.

Young American Grace Min has spent most of her time on the ITF circuit and only won her first Tour-level match last year. She hadn't done much this season, but last week easily ousted Karolina Pliskova in Bad Gastein and even took a set off eventual champion Andrea Petkovic in her first WTA semifinal match. This week in Bastad, she scored an even bigger win in her opener, ousting second seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in barley over an hour. Her run didn't last much longer, unfortunately -- she lost today to Alexandra Panova in straight sets -- but she is at a career high ranking of #114 in the world. And with this win over a top twenty-five player, it looks like she's poised to rise even higher.

Sixteen-year-old Ana Konjuh wasn't in action last week, but isn't much further removed from her surprising run to the Wimbledon third round. Ranked barely inside the top two-hundred before, the former top-ranked Junior battled through qualifying rounds and then dismissed one-time world #12 Yanina Wickmayer to notch her second straight win at the All England Club. This week in Istanbul, where she was also a qualifier, she came back after losing the first set to Magdalena Rybarikova and followed up with a win today over Japan's Misaki Doi. She'll face fellow teenager Elina Svitolina for a spot in the semis, but win or lose it looks like the young Croat is destined for even bigger wins.

Roberta Vinci, on the other hand, has seemed a little past her prime this year. Part of the world's best doubles team -- she and partner Sara Errani completed their own Grand Slam with a trophy at Wimbledon -- she was just outside the top ten in singles a year ago, but she went 0-6 to start the year and didn't get to the third round of any event until May. She's held onto a top thirty ranking, but even as the second seed last week in Bucharest I was surprised to see her make a run to the final -- she lost in straights to 2014 standout Simona Halep. She joined Konjuh -- incidentally, her first loss of the year in Auckland -- in Istanbul this week and will meet qualifier Alexandra Dulgheru later today. But now that she's got the monkey off her back, she stands a much better shot of living up to expectations than she did just a few weeks ago.

Like Vinci Lukas Rosol has been around the block a few times and even picked up a title last year in Bucharest. He made it back to the final this year, but his single biggest win, of course, came on the grass of the All England Club two years ago. Still he's been a fixture in the top fifty for most of the last sixteen months and beat three higher ranked players on his way to the Stuttgart final last week. He ultimately lost in three sets to another of the season's breakthroughs, Roberto Bautista Agut, but he's rebouned well this week in Hamburg. Still unseeded at the bet-at-home Open, he's already caused two upsets during his campaign, ousting world #20 Tommy Robredo in straight sets today. He wouldn't have to face anyone ranked higher than that until at least the final, so there's no reason we can't see more from the Czech upstart.

A little more surprising has been the sudden rise of veteran Samuel Groth, who played his first Futures matches way back in 2005. He'd won a handful of Futures event during his career and one Challengers' title, but never cracked the top hundred until this week. That's thanks to a semifinal run in Newport, where he dethroned defending champion Nicolas Mahut on the way. This week he survived his Bogota opener against Juan Sebastian Cabal by the skin of his teeth, needing two tiebreaks and over two hours to get the win, so he's going to be stretched in his second round versus top seed Richard Gasquet. But the twenty-six year old Australian has more momentum than he's had before in his career and might just be ready to make a break for it.

These players are all at different parts of their careers, but by following up one successful week -- not just one successful match -- with another seems to show none of them are going anywhere anytime soon. And with the big summer hardcourt season just around the corner, there's no telling how much further their recently momentum can carry them.

July 14, 2014

Age Before Beauty

In a week which saw so many up-and-coming stars deliver breakthrough performances on the European clay -- I'm looking at you, Shelby Rogers -- it's fitting that two thirty-plus players were left battling it out for a title on the grounds meant to honor the rich history of tennis. But at the International Tennis Hall of Fame this past weekend, we saw a couple veterans -- not much younger than some of the inductees -- tough out the upstarts on their way to championship weekend. And the eventual winner may have made the case for his eventual inclusion among the legends a little stronger.

Of course it wasn't all about the tried-and-true. Samuel Groth, who'd only won two Tour-level matches all year, took out defending champion Nicolas Mahut in the quarterfinals, and Jack Sock, fresh off a stunning doubles title at Wimbledon -- where he and partner Vasek Pospisil defeated fifteen-time Major champions Bob and Mike Bryan in the final -- proved he was also a force on the singles circuit, ousting top seed and two-time titlest John Isner to make the semis.

But ultimately it was two long-slogging stars most comfortable on grass who made their way to Sunday's final -- appropriately the oldest ATP contest since 1977, just before either combatant was born. Big-serving Ivo Karlovic, thirty-five years young, did what he does best, firing off fifty-three aces in his first four matches -- he added twenty-six more in the championship game -- to earn his third chance of the year to play for a trophy. And former world #1 Lleyton Hewitt, who's more than a decade removed from his high ranking and a dozen-plus from his most recent Slam trophy, proved he's in no rush to slink off into the shadows. The Australian who'd won more than three of every four matches he's played on grass and picked up seven titles to boot, reached his third consecutive final in Newport with wins over three American upstarts along the way.


But this time Hewitt was able to come out on top -- in the two-and-a-half hour match, not surprisingly one that went three sets and two tiebreaks, the third seed was able to break his streak of final losses at the Hall of Fame and captured his thirtieth career trophy. He's just the fourth active player -- behind Grand Slam legends Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic -- to hit that mark, and he certainly seems to have the hunger to add even more to that number. At thirty-three, Hewitt's now been winning titles on Tour for over sixteen years. Whether he come back to Newport to defend this latest one or to be enshrined like other champions of the sport remains to be seen -- but something tells me it won't be long before we hear from him again.

July 10, 2014

Take a Step Back

It's that weird time in the tennis season again, where -- after a month of playing on grass and several weeks still before the final hardcourt Major of the year -- we're forced to turn the clocks back a few weeks and revisit the clay court action of the spring. And the change of scenery may have suited some more than others.

To be fair, Phillipp Kohlscreiber's bad luck in Stuttgart wasn't entirely his fault -- the hometown favorite was the victim of a schedule marred by nearly two days of rain and had to play back to back matches today to start his Mercedes Cup campaign. After completing his opener against Jan-Lennard Struff, he fell in two tight sets to giant-killer Lukas Rosol. Some lower seeds have made a better transition back to dirt, though. Barcelona runner-up Santiago Giraldo, who beat both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray in Rome, fell quickly to Roger Federer at Wimbledon. He seems to have gotten back on track this week -- after an easy win over qualifier Mate Delic in his opener he stayed tough after dropping a second set tiebreak today to ultimately set up a quarterfinal against top seed Fabio Fognini. And Federico Delbonis, who hadn't won a match since his Cinderella run to the Nice final, turned his luck around too. After ousting veteran Juan Monaco in his first round, he came back from a set down against Benjamin Becker, and will now face a struggling Mikhail Youzhny for a spot in the semis. And with some big wins in both their pockets already this year, either could make a real run for this title.

Over in Sweden it's some less-surprising names that most benefit from the switch of surfaces. Last year's French Open finalist David Ferrer suffered an inglorious defeat at the hands of then-#118 Andrey Kuznetsov in his Wimbledon second round and needed to rebound on the clay of Bastad, and he's off to a good start. He needed just over an hour to dispatch Victor Hanescu earlier today and though Carlos Berlocq will certainly present a bigger challenge in next, the Argentine has lost opening sets in his last two matches and should be easily handled. And countryman Fernando Verdasco, almost a semifinalist last year at the All England Club, fell quite a bit earlier this time around. But the Spaniard has won four of his six titles on clay, and after taking out Albert Ramos-Viñolas Thursday, he shouldn't face any real challenge until the final. Meanwhile last year's Wimbledon standout Jerzy Janowicz has had a little more trouble -- he played three five-set matches this year at the All England Club and only won two of them. Now out of the top fifty, he didn't make a strong case to move back up the rankings this week and lost his opener to one of this season's up-and-comers Dusan Lajovic. He'll need to pull his game together a bit better once he hits the hardcourts if he wants to show he belongs among the elite.

Slightly more consistent this year, Simona Halep didn't exactly have a disappointing Wimbledon, but with a 5-1 record against the other semifinalists she arguably blew her best recent chance at claiming that first Grand Slam crown -- and it's a bit of a let-down since her stellar run in Paris. She seems to have her groove back in Bucharest -- she's needed about two and a half hours to dismiss her first two opponents and with many of the other seeds falling early, she's the heavy favorite in the field. Petra Cetkovska has a little more heavy lifting to do -- the one time fourth-rounder at the All England Club has almost tripled her all-time high ranking of #25 in the world, but she's had some well-fought wins this week in Romania. And as one of the few seeds left in the draw, she has a real shot at making it to the final. I originally thought Silvia Soler-Espinosa did too -- the twenty-three year old Spaniard reached the final in Strasbourg as a qualifier and defeated Yanina Wickmayer to make the third round in Paris. Against still-struggling Roberta Vinci today, I figured her as the favorite, but after taking the opening set she eventually succumbed to the second seed -- maybe not an on-paper upset, but certainly a squandered opportunity.

Perhaps, though, the most surprising loss by a clay court specialist this week was that of my Roland Garros dark horse Carla Suarez Navarro. Having finally won her maiden title on the dirt at the start of May, she seemed to have broken the seal and, though she experienced an understandable loss early at Wimbledon, I expected her to do a bit better in Bad Gastein. But after being pushed to three sets by qualifier Laura Siegemund, she lost quickly today to world #147 Shelby Rogers. Other seeds have been performing a little better in Austria. Camila Giorgi, who's taking out big names like Maria Sharapova in Indian Wells and Victoria Azarenka in Eastbourne, is the most immediate beneficiary of CSN's early exit and might finally be able to put a loner string of wins together. And Sara Errani, who's cut her teeth on this surface with seven titles on clay, may be able to end his year-long trophy-less streak -- she hasn't dropped a set yet in her first two matches here, and with so much of the draw cleared out for her, she's by far the favorite left in the field. And if she can capitalize on that status she might just be able to make a move back into the top ten.

Of course, we should expect that the players who've seen their best results on clay to be most successful this week too -- but clearly it takes a little something extra to shift as seamlessly as these guys and gals have done. Whether they can ride their momentum to titles this weekend remains to be seen -- but more importantly, hopefully it bodes well for what we'll see from them in the weeks and months to come.

July 6, 2014

On Top of the World

It's not that it's been so long since Novak Djokovic has made an impact at the Majors.

With semifinal showings or better at all but one of the last sixteen Slams, he'd become the most consistent performer on the ATP's biggest stages -- and in that time picked up five trophies to boot. But an old rival had turned the tables on Nole in recent finals and a couple upstarts thwarted his attempts at a few others. And despite three Masters titles this year, he'd gone eighteen months since claiming his last Major crown and was clearly eager to change that.

Djokovic came to Wimbledon fresh off a heart-breaking loss in the French Open final -- what many, including myself, thought was his best chance to-date to complete the career Grand Slam -- but garnered the top seed at the All England Club anyway, ahead of Rafael Nadal, who'd famously lost super early here the last two years. He was tested, though, taking a big spill against Gilles Simon in the third round and requiring treatment mid-game, coming back from a two-set-to-one deficit against Marin Cilic in the quarters, and surviving a testy four-setter against an equally hungry Grigor Dimitrov in the semis. By the time he reached the final, he'd spent a full five hours longer on court than his opponent, seven-time champion Roger Federer.

But Djokovic proved resilient. After losing a tight opening set in a tiebreak, he scored the first break of the match -- and the only one we'd see for quite some time -- early in the second and built a lead after taking the third in another breaker. It was then that both players began struggling on serve -- after one of just four break chances were converted in the first three sets, the players combined for eleven opportunities in the fourth with Nole getting and ceding the lead twice. Federer even saved championship point before ultimately taking the set and forcing a decider. It was the first five-set final at Wimbledon since Roger's record breaking run in 2009 and this pair's third marathon at a Major.

And like in the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Open semifinals, Novak Djokovic would come out ahead again. Though Federer dominated on serve early -- he didn't drop a point in the first several games -- Nole fought hard at the end and, though he missed a few opportunities, that would have let him serve out the match, ultimately he didn't need them. He broke Roger in a uncharacteristically sloppy tenth game, ending the nearly four-hour battle, the longest in the two's history, to claim his second Wimbledon and seventh Slam.


The win pushed Djokovic back to the #1 ranking, a spot he'd relinquished to Rafael Nadal last fall, and puts the cherry on top of a season that had flown way under the radar. And while he may not be putting up the numbers he did during his stellar 2011 run, he's certainly re-established himself as the man to beat at the Majors -- after all at every big event over the last three years, he either walked away champion or lost to the man who did.

And the way he's playing these days, something tells me he's going to keep that reputation going -- and will add more than a few additional crowns to his mantle along the way.

July 5, 2014

No Contest

Petra Kvitova came into Wimbledon flying way under most people's radar.

The former world #2 had fallen a bit down the rankings since her breakthrough year in 2011, and though she's remained a staple in the top ten since, she hadn't reached a final all season and even pulled out of her Eastbourne quarter with thigh injury. And after dropping her opening set to five-time champion Venus Williams in her third round at the All England Club, she came within two points of being sent home from London in the first week -- what would have been her earliest exit here since 2009.

But the still-young Czech dug deep once the scare passed and, with one favorite after another falling in the rounds that followed, by the time we reached the quarters, one-Slam Kvitova was somehow the most experienced player left standing.

And that experience showed Saturday against quickly-rising Genie Bouchard, who'd definitively backed up her performances in Melbourne and Paris with her first two career top ten victories this fortnight. But while the 2012 Girls' champion didn't seem too overwhelmed by the implications of her Grand Slam final debut -- she only committed four unforced errors and never lost her cool on the big stage -- she was far outplayed by Kvitova, who dropped just five points on first serve and fired of twenty-eight winners compared to only eight from her opponent. In just under an hour the rock-solid Petra had added Wimbledon trophy #2 to her resumé.


The 6-3, 6-0 win was the most one-sided women's final at the All England Club since Steffi Graf beat Monica Seles in 1992, and was reminiscent of the dominating show Kvitova put on three years ago against a far more decorated foe. But while she was the on-paper favorite this time around, the victory was no less impressive and hopefully paves the road for even more success this year.

Something tells me, though, that tomorrow's final between Novak Djokovic and seven-time champion Roger Federer will be a little closer to call. Of course, Nole's only title here came the same year as first one Kvitova's did, but Roger's playing some of the best tennis we've seen from him in a long time -- and he's certainly going to do his best to make sure we don't have déjà vu again.

And, truth be told, I hope he does just that.