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July 27, 2015

Breakthroughs and Comebacks

It seems to be a common occurrence in the weeks right after a Major, where the pressure is a little off, that we see players who've been struggling with form come out swinging. And yesterday we saw a couple champions crowned after what seems like a long, long time out of the spotlight, and, in come cases, completely out of contention.

We've seen Bernard Tomic climb and fall in the rankings -- and in life -- for years, surging into the low twenties after a Cinderella run to the Wimbledon quarters four years ago, dropping well out of the top hundred at this time last year, and grabbing as many headlines for his off-court behavior as for his play. But despite all the distractions, the one-time Australian wünderkind came to Bogota to defend a title at near his highest career ranking. He wasn't without his challenges though -- the second seed dropped sets against little-known Adrian Menendez-Maceiras and triple-digit ranked Michael Berrer, and even was tested by underrated Adrian Mannarino in the final. The Frenchman, who'd avenged a loss to Newport champion Rajeev Ram in his opener and scored a huge win over big-serving Ivo Karlovic in the semis, was able to push Tomic to a third set, but ultimately succumbed. Tomic's win gives him his third career title but may have also proved he's an even bigger threat when he seems most down-and-out.

Sam Stosur had climbed even higher than her compatriot during her heyday, but the former Grand Slam champion has seemed well off her career best the last few months. She hadn't won more than three matches at any Major since 2012 and had spent most of this year ranked outside the top twenty. The thirty-one year old veteran had picked up a title in Strasbourg in May, but was pushed to a decider in her last three matches and didn't play a top-forty player during her campaign. On paper her draw in Bad Gastein may not have been much more intimidating, but she nevertheless did face off against some heavy-hitters -- she dropped just one game to recent star Klara Koukalova and ended Anna Schmiedlova's impressive run in the semis. In the final against Karin Knapp -- a woman who was playing her second double-header of the week, having taken out top seed Sara Errani earlier on Sunday -- she was arguably better rested, but nonetheless challenged again. The Italian won the first set and took the second to a tiebreak, but Stosur didn't give up -- she ploughed through the third set and come out the winner in the two and a half hour match. It earner her a eighth career title and pushed her back up to #21 in the world -- if she keeps it up on her favorite summer hard court season, the former U.S. Open titleist might just be able to make a case for another strong showing in New York.

Dominic Thiem is much earlier on in his career so doesn't have quite the same spoils to show for his efforts -- but the young Austrian is certainly coming into his own this year. He'd been a little quiet since breaking the title seal in Nice, winning just three matches between that and his trip to Umag last week, but the twenty-one year old was able to turn things around in Croatia. After winning his first two matches by retirement, he scored a solid comeback win against tournament favorite Gael Monfils, setting up a championship bout against barely unseeded Joao Sousa. The Portuguese workhorse had already taken out Andreas Seppi, Fabio Fognini and Roberto Bautista Agut on the way to his first final of the year and may have been a little spent by the time he met up against Thiem. The fourth seed powered through a tight first set, but then rolled over his opponent in the second for his third straight win over Sousa and his second crown of the year. Now at a career-high #24 in the world he may be in a position to really make a statement at the big events now -- and if he can put up the same kind of performances against the very top players, it won't be long before the more prestigious titles start coming too.

Elsewhere on Tour a couple players were trying to make their first big impressions on championship Sunday. Lesia Tsurenko had picked up a couple ITF titles during her career, but had never reached the final on the Big Girls' circuit. The twenty-six year old Ukrainian did make a great run to the Indian Wells quarterfinals with wins over Genie Bouchard and Andrea Petkovic to name a few, but only won three matches since then and was ranked outside the top seventy when she hit the courts in Istanbul. That didn't seem to phase her much, though -- after taking out a tough Daria Gavrilova in her opener, she trounced both Daniela Hantuchova and Kirsten Flipkens. Meanwhile Urszula Radwanska, well off her career best since dealing with a slew of injuries the last few seasons, was also going for her first title -- she'd made the final in Den Bosch three years ago -- and stood a pretty good shot at picking one up earlier in 2015 than her more decorated older sister. She'd taken out Jelena Jankovic to start and then powered past a strong Tsvetana Pironkova in the quarters. She put up a fight too on Sunday, but Tsurenko proved the more ready -- after a 7-5 first set, she ran away with the second, closing out the match in just over ninety minutes. The win rocketed her into the top fifty for the first time in her career may just make others sit up and take notice the next time she takes the court.

Up in Bastad a one-time top-thirty player was trying to prove he's still worth paying attention to. Benoit Paire had topped out at #24 in the world early last year but since dropping into the triple digits spent a lot of time this season on the Challengers' and Futures circuit. He did manage a win over Fabio Fognini at the French Open and over Mikhail Youzhny at Wimbledon, but he came to the Swedish Open an unseeded #62. Still, he impressively stopped David Goffin, who was coming off quite a successful Davis Cup showing over the weekend, and then took out an often overlooked Pablo Cuevas in the semis. His biggest test waited for him in the final, though, where veteran Tommy Robredo was seeking his third crown at this event. With a much lower ranking and having lost the pair's only previous meeting -- and, not unimportantly, playing his first career championship match -- Paire was a heavy underdog. But he didn't let that trouble him -- after eking out the opening set in a tight tiebreak, he scored the only break of the match in the second and clinched the first really big win of his career. Now back in the top fifty, he's still well off his best. But after seeing him finally power through a draw like he did last week, he might finally be able to push his way higher.

July 21, 2015

Some Strong Statements: Davis Cup Quarterfinal Recap

I was admittedly a little behind the eight ball last week and almost entirely missed the action as a couple countries vied for the semifinal spots in this year's Davis Cup World Group. But despite my lack of attention, there was a ton to talk about this weekend -- from stunning comebacks to one-sided drubbings we saw heavy favorites be shown the exit and some long counted out emerge as real forces. And the teams left standing at the end may not have been the ones you expected.

France vs. Great Britain

Despite its long history and legendary athletes, Great Britain hasn't been much of a force in the World Group for a while -- they'd been relegated to regional play for years, and after finally winning a playoff tie in 2013, they lost in the quarterfinals to Italy last season. And while they faced an intimidating opponent over the weekend -- three top fifteen players, including Wimbledon semifinalist Richard Gasquet, helmed the French squad -- they brought some firepower of their own. After Gilles Simon gave France an early lead, world #3 Andy Murray came out swinging against an always-tough Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, narrowly winning the first two sets before running away with the third. Murray then teamed with his older brother Jamie in the doubles rubber to give the Brits a 2-1 lead going into the final day of play. And while Simon put up a fight in the first reverse singles match, the two-time Grand Slam champion proved the stronger, rebounding after dropping the opening set and clinching the win in four. It sends the team to their first World Group semi since 1981, and maybe makes them a real favorite to take home the Cup.

Australia vs. Kazakhstan

Of course there are a couple ties left before the trophy is handed out, and if this weekend's performance is any indication, the ever-persistent Aussies continue to be a force. But somewhat surprisingly, despite a host of hot young stars, it was the veterans who ultimately delivered. Nineteen year old Thanasi Kokkinakis, who made his way to the Roland Garros third round, and 2014 upstart Nick Kyrgios, who stunned Milos Raonic this year at the All England Club, both lost their singles matches, putting the boys from Down Under at a 0-2 deficit to the Kazakhs by the end of Friday. But then the older guys stepped up to the plate -- big-serving Sam Groth and Lleyton Hewitt, likely playing his last few matches in Davis Cup, teamed up to get Australia on the board. And each dominated their singles turns, cementing an unlikely comeback late on Sunday. Whether they'll be able to repeat against Britain in the semis -- or whether the young guns will be able to step up to the plate this time -- remains to be seen. But it sure serves notice that the team can never be counted out.

Argentina vs. Serbia

Argentina, three times a runner-up for the Davis Cup crown in the last decade, was never in quite so precarious a situation this weekend, despite facing off against a tough Serbian team, themselves champions a few years ago. A couple of under-the-radar players -- Leonardo Mayer, barely in the top forty, and Federico Delbonis, ranked sixty-sixth in the world -- took advantage of an absent Novak Djokovic to give their country a 2-0 advantage heading into the weekend. And, maybe more impressively, Mayer teamed with Carlos Berlocq -- ranked now well in the triple digits -- to pull off a stunning defeat of 2014 comeback kid Viktor Troicki and doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic and clinch the win on Saturday. Young Dusan Lajovic was able to get the Serbs on the board, avoiding a total shut-out, but it was too little, too late, and the South Americans were able to earn a trip back to the semifinals. And with decidedly more experience than their next opponents, they have a solid shot at continuing their run.

Canada vs. Belgium

But maybe the hugely underrated Belgians will put up a bigger fight than we expect. Playing in their first World Group quarterfinal in eight years, the team, which had dethroned the reigning champion Swiss in the first round, pulled no punches against the Canadians this weekend either. Giant-killer Steve Darcis came back after dropping the first set to give his country an early lead, while 2014 standout David Goffin easily handled Filip Peliwo in three sets. Without their top player Milos Raonic, Canada was certainly at a disadvantage, but even with the help of their own star veteran Daniel Nestor, a doubles titleist in Dubai and Sydney so far this year, they weren't able to make an impact and the Belgians swept over them with an astounding 5-0 score. Interestingly the Europeans do hold an edge over the Argentines in Davis Cup play -- they won the only tie the pair's ever contested way back in 1948 -- but with homefield advantage for September's semifinal tie, they might be able to ride their underdog status to a win again.


With a couple new faces getting themselves in the mix this year at Davis Cup, things really could get shaken up a bit as we come down to the wire. Whether highly-decorated stars add a long-missing honor to their resumé, or emerging talent makes a big statement for their country, it seems like we're in for a little more excitement than usual.

And whoever takes the opportunity to shine now could reap some big rewards.

July 20, 2015

When the Pressure's Off

Of course it's not that little known names or rising stars can never make a splash at the Grand Slams, but sometimes it helps when the spotlight's turned slightly away, allowing players who might have buckled a bit on the big stages a chance to redeem themselves. And this weekend, just seven days removed from the end of the latest Major, we saw a couple champions seem to easily shake off some less-than-stellar results from the previous fortnight.

Young Anna Schmiedlova has had some success at the high-profile events, and even picked up her maiden title in Katowice a few months ago. And though she did get a big upset over Timea Bacsinszky in Marrakech, this year she seemed to struggle when it really counted -- she dropped her opener in Roland Garros and at Wimbledon fell in straight sets to Cinderella Coco Vandeweghe. But she seemed to regroup on the clay of Bucharest -- still ranked outside the top sixty she managed a low seventh seed and, with Roberta Vinci and Julia Goerges both handed early exits, didn't have to face another favorite until the final. And even against top seed and former French Open runner-up Sara Errani in Sunday's championship she was unintimidated -- having lost to the world #19 earlier this year in Rio, the twenty-year-old this time got the upper hand in the tight two sets. Despite solid serving from her opponent and losing serve herself three times, Schmiedlova was able to close out the match in just over two hours, scoring her second career title and pushing herself up to her best yet ranking at #44. And if she can keep her confidence up, might just be poised to climb even higher.

Sweden's Johanna Larsson was a little farther off her best game when she took the court in Bastad. A finalist here twice before, she was still looking for the first trophy of her career. She'd made some nice runs this year, stunning Lucie Safarova in Miami and reaching the semis in Rio, but she'd also dropped a bunch of first rounds -- Daria Gavrilova in Paris, Christina McHale at the All England Club -- and came to her homeland's tournament at a #73 ranking. But that didn't stop her either -- she got a bit of a break with Serena Williams, the woman who beat her here in 2013, pulling out with an elbow injury and second seed Sam Stosur getting drubbed early, but she did get a solid win over last year's comeback kid Barbora Strycova on her way to the final. She was the underdog there, too, but again didn't let that get to her -- on Sunday against fourth seed Mona Barthel, a woman who'd won all three of their previous meetings, she grabbed the opening set and didn't look back. And to add to Larsson's success this weekend, not only did she break the seal on the singles' circuit, she picked up a doubles crown in Bastad as well. And at #46 in the world now, perhaps she can add more to that total.

Off the radar American Rajeev Ram, meanwhile, has had most of his success on the doubles tour, picking up eight titles with partners like Scott Lipsky and, most recently Raven Klassen. But he's struggled a bit more on his own -- since picking up his only previous trophy in Newport a full six years ago, he's spent most of his time in the triple-digit rankings and has only won three main draw matches at the Majors. This season, he's had some success on the Challenger's Tour, but was 0-0 when playing with the big boys and was down at a ranking of #161 in the world. A flip must've switched when he came back to the Hall of Fame tournament, though -- after taking out top seed John Isner in his opener, he scored big wins over Adrian Mannarino and Aussie upstart John-Patrick Smith. In the final against another big-server, last year's runner-up Ivo Karlovic, he was again the clear underdog, and even though he was the only one of the pair to drop serve during the match, after holding tough in both the first and third set tiebreaks, he was the one eventually crowned the winner. The win helped Ram nearly halve his ranking, but maybe more importantly proved he could still hit with the top dogs in this sport. And if he's planning to stay relevant past thirty-one years of age, making a statement like that could be huge.

Of course there's only a so much time before this weekend's winners are joined on the courts by the brightest stars, and only a few more weeks before the stakes are raised even higher. But hopefully their momentum will continue when the pressure gets turned up. Winning in the shadows of a Grand Slam event may do a little to boost confidence, but if they keep it up they might be able to accomplish so much more.

July 13, 2015

Wimbledon Wrap-Up: From Start to Finish

I'm back! And what a couple of weeks of tennis I missed, right? While the two champions at Wimbledon were just crowned over the weekend, plenty of others also showed us what they're made over over the past fortnight. We saw new stars emerge, a couple reaffirm their place in the elite, and -- not surprisingly -- a few stumble along the way. And while I can't hope to cover everything in this post, hopefully I'll be able to hit the highlights.

But since I've been gone a while, there's a lot to cover. So let's get right into it.

Early Upsets

Over the last couple years Wimbledon has become even more of a graveyard than Roland Garros, with even the super favorites being dealt amazing defeats way earlier than expected. And 2015 was no exception.

Now technically John Isner didn't suffer an upset at the All England Club -- ranked #17 in the world heading to London, his third round showing was just as well as he was expected to do -- still the top American may have squandered a big opportunity. After making a solid run to the quarterfinals at Queen's Club, he had a promising start to the event, winning his first two matches in straight sets -- breaks and everything. And though the first seed he faced was defending U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic, a man he'd lost to in all four of their previous meetings, he really had a chance to take advantage of the Croat's recent struggles. Clearly a fan of long matches, Isner fought back after losing the first and third sets and, in an eighty-three minute, twenty-two game decider, still managed to fire off fifteen aces and keep a seventy-plus first serve percentage. He did ultimately lose, of course, cutting short his hopes of reaching the second week of a Slam yet again, but perhaps he will be able to recover as he heads to home territory.

Feliciano Lopez's performance at Wimbledon may have been a bit more surprising. The traditionally strong grass court player was twice a quarterfinalist here and last year, on the heels of a final at the Aegon Championships and a title in Eastbourne, he managed to make his way to the fourth round and climb to a career-high ranking at thirty-two years of age. This year, though, he couldn't quite keep momentum going -- he only won two matches at lead-up lawn events and, despite pulling off a win over one-time giant-killer Steve Darcis in his opener, ran into a bit of trouble against unknown qualifier Nikoloz Basilashvili in the second round. The eastern European Georgian, ranked #153 at the time and playing his first ever Major main draw, took the first set off the veteran Spaniard and kept his cool after being pushed to a fifth. Lopez, despite thirty-two aces, a blistering first serve percentage and, actually, more total points won, couldn't close out the match and put his chances of holing onto a spot in the sport's elite a little more at risk.

It might be a little too early to write off Rafael Nadal in the same way, but there can be no doubt the long-time world #1 has had some trouble playing at his best this season. Two times a champion at the All England Club, the Spaniard's showing here recently has been marked more by early exits than by big triumphs. And after losing his grip on the tournament he's owned for the past decade, you had to think -- even with a nice little title in Stuttgart to kick off the grass season -- it would be hard for him to make a big dent here. And the draw did not shake out in his favor -- while David Ferrer pulled out of the event with an elbow injury and third seed Andy Murray wouldn't loom until the quarterfinals, his biggest threat actually came much earlier than that. German qualifier Dustin Brown, who'd trounced Nadal last year in Halle, had little more trouble this time around, dropping a set, but still breaking four times for his second straight win. Heading into the summer hardcourt season, Rafa is just barely holding on to a top ten ranking, but if he doesn't get his game together soon, he may see an even bigger drop from here.

Maybe not too surprisingly the women's draw saw a few more higher-profile losses in the early days of the tournament. Simona Halep was one of my picks to take the whole event, and with five wins over top ten players in the last year it wasn't really a big ask for her do it. But the world #3 hasn't quite had the same momentum she did last summer -- after falling well short of last year's French Open performance, the 2015 Wimbledon semifinalist was stunned again in Birmingham by underrated Kristina Mladenovic. And she didn't seem to regroup in time for her next Slam campaign -- after taking a tight first set of Slovakia's Jana Cepelova, ranked in triple digits but certainly a capable, Halep couldn't quite hold on. In a match that consisted of fifteen service breaks, she made seven double faults, won just thirty percent of her second serves and committed thirty-four unforced errors. It was the young Romanian's first opening round loss at a Major in over two years, and while she certainly has plenty of time to recover over the coming weeks, pressure will certainly be on for her to repeat some of the stellar results we know she's capable of.

Genie Bouchard must be feeling even more pressure. The Canadian breakout star was riding high at this time last year, coming off her first Grand Slam final and a meteoric rise to #6 in the world. But she's struggled even more than Halep to keep her momentum going. A semifinalist at the first three Majors of 2014, she's gotten no more than one win at all but two of the events she's played this season. She came to Wimbledon on precarious ground, no doubt, but nevertheless few would have expected the showing we got. Against qualifier Ying-ying Duan, who'd never won a main draw match on a big stage before, Bouchard struggled on serve, barely getting half of her first attempts in and double faulting ten times. It was the ninth time this year she couldn't pull off a single win during a week, and at the tournament where she's seen her biggest successes, it might be a little more than problematic. Now out of the top twenty, she'll need to pull herself together quick if she's going to prove last season's results were no fluke.

Petra Kvitova's situation isn't quite so dire, but that doesn't make the exit of last year's ladies' champ any less surprising. The #2 seed is the only player all year to beat Serena Williams and, despite skipping the warm-up grass court season, had high hopes to win her third Wimbledon crown. And she looked good early too, losing just three games in her first two matches against tough players like Kurumi Nara and Kiki Bertens. Against a largely under-the-radar Jelena Jankovic in the third round, then, she should have had little problem -- the long-ago world #1 had gone three sets in both her matches so far at the All England Club, and without a single win over a top-ten player in over a year, should have posed little threat. But the Czech was caught a little off guard -- after rolling through the first set in under a half-hour, she started to falter. Jankovic cleaned up her game, making just two errors in the second and scoring the only break in the decisive third for her biggest win in quite some time. Kvitova's loss marked the third of last year's semifinalists to fall in the first week -- the only other one, French Open runner-up Lucie Safarfova, would go just one round later -- and while she's sure to come out swinging again on the hardcourts, you can't help but notice how much things have changed in the last year.

Week-Two Standouts

Of course it wasn't all bad news for the seeds at Wimbledon this year, and even those who didn't ultimately walk away with the trophies stirred things up pretty good after middle Sunday.

Kevin Anderson has long been part of the sport's upper tiers, but he's always seemed to struggle on the big stages. In the top forty for four years and possessing one of the biggest serves on Tour, it's been a couple years since his last title and has never made it out of a Major fourth round in twenty-five previous tries. But he's gotten some big wins in his career -- he's won his last four meetings against surprise Roland Garros champ Stan Wawrinka -- and certainly has the talent to get a few more. The South African had a relatively easy draw early at the All England Club, facing off against twenty-fourth seed Leonardo Mayer in the third round. But a match later was when he really was able to shine -- against world #1 Novak Djokovic to start the second week, he grabbed the first two sets in tiebreaks, but it wasn't until the heavy favorite pushed him to a decider that he finally scored his first and only break of the match. Like Isner, Anderson would not be able to pull off the upset, but getting as close as he's ever been to making a Slam quarter -- and facing off against the best player in the sport to do it -- he might just have set himself up for a few more surprises down the road.

Coco Vandeweghe took a little longer to realize her potential than I thought it would, but the twenty-three year old American may finally be ready for her breakthrough. Just a shade out of seeding territory at the French Open, she lost a bit of ground heading into Wimbledon after failing to defend title points from Den Bosch, but seemed unfazed when she hit the grass in 2015 -- she opened with a straight-set win over always tough Anna Schmiedlova and then stunned eleventh seed Karolina Pliskova in the second round. The upsets didn't stop there -- Coco lost just two games former Grand Slam champion Sam Stosur and then stopped last year's Cinderella Lucie Safarova a couple rounds short of her dream run from last year. In her first ever Major quarterfinal, Vandeweghe even took a set off Maria Sharapova before finally falling in the nearly three-hour match. The streak was enough to bring her back to her career high ranking of #32, but if she takes the momentum with her into the late summer season, there's no reason to believe she can't finish the year much higher still.

France's Richard Gasquet, on the other hand, was only trying to claw his way back into the sport's elite. The former world #7 has quietly been putting together a pretty successful season, picking up titles in Montpellier and Estoril and climbing back into the top twenty at the start of this tournament. Still it had been quite a while since his last deep run at the All England Club -- though he did make the semis at the U.S. Open a few years back, his last trip to the Final Four in London came way back in 2007. But he didn't let that get in the way of his performance this year -- after easily dismissing one-time wunderkind Grigor Dimitrov in the third round, he took out 2014 standout Nick Kyrgios and then pushed Roland Garros winner Stan Wawrinka to twenty games in their final set before eking out the win. After that battle he might not have had a lot of gas left against Novak Djokovic in the semis -- he lost in straight sets in a barely two hour match -- but with those couple upsets Gasquet certainly showed us he's still more than relevant at the Slams and might just be able to refuel in time for the next one.

But perhaps the player who gained the most these past two weeks was one who was nearly counted out entirely. Former Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska rose to a career-high #2 in the world after her performance here three years ago, but seemed to be struggling mightily in 2015. With early exits at Indian Wells and Roland Garros and a surprising defeat at the hands of young Belinda Bencic in the Eastbourne final just ahead of this tournament, she'd dropped out of the top ten for the first time in years. She did recover ground though -- with defending champion Petra Kvitova taken out of her section of the draw she didn't face a higher ranked player during her run. With a semifinal encounter against twentieth-seed Garbiñe Muguruza, she should have been the favorite to set a rematch of the 2012 final, but while she did notch her third straight loss to the talented Spaniard in three sets, she should take comfort in the fight she did display. Now back at #7, Aga will need to be careful not to lose her momentum -- but hopefully she was able to scrounge up a bit of confidence to pull her through the rest of the year.

The Finals

And while all of these athletes put on some impressive shows for us over the last fortnight, ultimately it all comes down to the two champions crowned this weekend. And while maybe we shouldn't be surprised by the results, what each of these titleists accomplished may be even more important than the new hardware they gained.

The top two men in the world both know what it's like to win at the All England Club, and in their fortieth career meeting both showed they were more than hungry to return to the Winner's Circle. Defending champ Novak Djokovic and seven-time titleist Roger Federer had both been challenged during the fortnight -- Nole coming back from a two-set deficit in his two-day fourth round against Kevin Anderson and Fed having a minor hiccup against a monstrous Sam Groth in his third -- but by the time they both made it to the final, you knew we were in for another great battle. The pair had traded wins over most of the last two years, but with wins in the Indian Wells and Rome Masters championships, the Serb had pulled within one victory of tying their all-time head-to-head record. And after a heartbreaking loss in the French Open final last month, he might have had a little extra motivation driving him on Sunday -- after getting down the first break in the opening set, Djokovic quickly regrouped and stormed through the tiebreak. He narrowly lost the second but seemed little perturbed, either by his opponent or by a crowd rooting loudly against him, and rebounded to take the next two sets in just about an hour. The win gave Novak his third Wimbledon trophy and his ninth Grand Slam, breaking the six-way tie he'd been in for eighth on the all-time list. He may still lag a couple of his contemporaries, but showing no signs of slowing down, the unquestioned #1 may have a lot more left in him.

The same might be said for Serena Williams, who made her own history at Wimbledon on Saturday. Coming straight off a surprisingly tricky win at Roland Garros, the top seed had a chance to win the first three Majors of a season for the first time in her storied career. And she was tested more than a few times during her campaign -- young Brit Heather Watson managed to push her to a decider and long-time rival Victoria Azarenka yet again took the opener before finally falling in three. Serena's opponent in the final was considerably less comfortable on the big stages -- twenty-two year old Garbiñe Muguruza, who'd shocked the world #1 last year at Roland Garros, was one of the breakthrough stars of 2014, but had only won one match before in her short Wimbledon career. Still she'd been more than impressive in her first final run at a Slam -- she took out Timea Bacsinszky, Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki, all ranked higher than her, before upsetting Aga Radwanska in the semis. She even got the first break on Serena in the championship match and rallied from a 1-5 deficit in the second. But experience won out in the end -- after two sets it was Serena holding the crown -- her twenty-first career Major, just one short of Steffi Graf's Open Era record. The win also makes her the current holder of all four Slams, and gives her the chance to capture all of them in one calendar year for the first time since Graf did it in 1988. That might mean even more pressure than usual when she heads to New York, but something tells me she might be able to handle it.


Of course there was a lot more action over the past two weeks which I just couldn't get to here. But rest assured that, whether the current top dogs continue their reigns or some new talent breaks out on the scene, there will be more than enough to talk about in the coming months.

And if the show we got at Wimbledon is any indication, it's going to be an exciting end of the season.

June 25, 2015

Blogcast: 2015 Wimbledon Preview


After a French Open that saw kings dethroned and champions struggle, who knows what can happen this year at Wimbledon? While the favorites will be battling to keep -- or reclaim -- their spots at the top, a few upstarts will be clamoring to make a name for themselves too.

June 23, 2015

2015 Wimbledon: Ten to Watch

Even with that extra week between the end of the French Open and the start of Wimbledon, it still doesn't quite feel like enough time to really prep for another Major. But here we are on the verge of perhaps the biggest fortnight in tennis and you know all the stars will be out swinging.

But as always, it's not just about the players who ultimately walk away with the trophies -- some who seem far removed from their career bests and even those who haven't yet come close to their peaks also have a lot on the line at the All England Club. And whether they're out to recapture former glory or shake up the draws with some of their first big wins, all of these guys and gals might deserve a little extra notice over the next few weeks.

And maybe a couple will defy expectations in London and surprise us all.


The Women


Eugenie Bouchard

Oh, Genie, Genie, Genie. How high our hopes were for you! Last year's breakthrough runner-up at the All England Club was riding a massive wave of success on the way to her first Grand Slam final, but has slowed down significantly since. Already this season she's lost her opening match at seven events, including a stunning defeat by Kristina Mladenovic in her Roland Garros first round. On grass where she should be more comfortable -- the young Canadian won the Juniors championship here in 2012 -- she hasn't fared much better. As the top seed in Den Bosch, she couldn't win a match, dropping to an admittedly tough Yaroslava Shvedova in three sets and lost her opener again to giant-killer Kristina Mladenovic in Birmingham. She did win her opener in Eastbourne this week, but if she manages to keep going, it'll mean a lot of match play before she makes a similar run in London. Now ranked #12 in the world, ironically not far from where she was at this time last year, she has a decidedly different momentum profile than she had in 2014. While an even further fall after this event might be her most measurable problem, it seems even more important she gets her game back together soon and proves her meteoric rise last year was no fluke.

Agnieszka Radwanska

The former world #2 has been struggling herself the last few months. Also a finalist at the All England Club, what seems like ages ago now, the long-time fan favorite is at her lowest ranking in years. Though she started off the year with a huge win over Serena Williams in Hobart -- her only one in nine meetings -- she's really struggled since, dropping points from Indian Wells and falling in the first round of the French Open, notching her earliest Slam exit since 2009. Aga started to get her game back together on grass though, riding her top seed to the semis in Nottingham, losing to a strong Monica Niculescu, and dropping just two games in her Eastbourne opener. She's under slightly less pressure than Genie this fortnight in London, having been ousted relatively early in the fourth round last year. But at the Major where she's seen by far her biggest success, this could be the best opportunity she has to put herself back on the map.

Dominika Cibulkova

The former top ten player has fallen a bit since reaching her only Grand Slam final to date, falling early in Brisbane and Sydney and just reaching the quarters this time in Melbourne. She missed a lot of action in the spring, undergoing foot surgery in March, and skipped the French Open which pushed her ranking well out of seeding territory. But she made a winning start in Eastbourne, dropping just four games in her opening round and then stunning French Open finalist Lucie Safarova on Tuesday. Domi's had success at Wimbledon in the past, too -- in 2011 she beat then top seed Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round -- and though at her (hopefully temporarily) depressed ranking she could face a big favorite earlier during her run at the All England Club, she's more than capable of holding her own against the sport's elite and, if she gets a good draw, could end up dealing out more than a few on-paper upsets.

Ana Konjuh

It's not just about those looking for redemption, of course, and the much more interesting stories at any Major are of those players who're able to outshine expectations. Perhaps this year, it's Konjuh's turn. The seventeen-year-old Croat hasn't had a lot of experience on Tour, but has had some of her best results on these grounds -- she made it all the way to the Girls' final a few years back before losing to Bouchard and, as a qualifier in 2014, managed two tough wins en route to the Ladies' third round. Now ranked #55 in the world, she's playing just her second Slam without having to qualify but is coming off her first WTA title on the grass of Nottingham, where she beat two seeds -- Casey Dellacqua and lawn specialist Alison Riske. One of my players to watch this year, young Konjuh may have the best opportunity to make a statement here than she has on any other big stage, and with the momentum she's got now, she could just do it.

Katerina Siniakova

The nineteen-year-old Czech hasn't had as much experience on the big stages -- after all this will only be her fourth Major main draw, and she's only won one match so far. But the nineteen year old has scored some impressive wins over the last year, reaching the semis in Moscow last year as a qualifier, and beating 2014 Wimbledon Cinderella Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in Prague and always tough Kristina Maldenovic in Rome. Most recently she pulled off a solid win over recent Roland Garros semifinalist Andrea Petkovic in Birmingham, losing to eventual champion Angelique Kerber in the quarters. Just off a career high ranking at #67, she's still got plenty of room -- and time -- to grow, but everyone has to have that first breakthrough and there's no reason this can't be hers.


The Men


Milos Raonic

Bouchard isn't the only Canadian with a lot on the line at the All England Club. The world #8, who arguably got a slightly earlier start in his rise to the sport's elite, made his only Grand Slam semifinal to-date here last year and earned his first non-alternate ticket to the ATP World Tour Finals. He started this year off strong too, barely losing to Roger Federer in the Brisbane final and then putting up a fight against eventual Melbourne champ Novak Djokovic Down Under. Raonic had to take a little break in the late spring, though -- foot surgery kept him out of the French Open -- but he got back on court last week and, though he dropped sets in early rounds, did manage to make the quarterfinals at Queen's Club. It might not be quite the result he wanted heading back to the Major where he's had the most success, but we know better than to count him out. Last year, after all, he lost the only match he played on grass before heading to London and got right back to work at the All England Club. It might be a little tougher this time, on the recovery trail and all, but he could still pull off a few surprises.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

It's been a few more years since the fiery Frenchman reached the semis at Wimbledon, but it might not be that big an ask to see him get back. He is, after all, coming off a surprise final four showing at Roland Garros where, at #15 in the world, he beat two top five players and managed to take a set off eventual champion Stan Wawrinka in the process. That's quite impressive for a man who'd only played five events so far this year -- sidelined with an arm injury, he'd skipped the Australian Open and didn't get started on the season until late March. He's scored some big wins here, too, notching an upset over David Ferrer and stunning Roger Federer in five sets in 2011. Of course, he'll have some challenges -- an abdominal strain he suffered in Paris forced him out of Nottingham this week -- but he seems to do his best when little is expected of him. Ranked just inside the top twenty during that miracle year, and at #12 now, if he is recovered he could certainly catch a couple of the favorites off guard again.

Nicolas Mahut

Tsonga's compatriot hasn't had quite as much success during his long history at the All England Club, but despite a losing record at this event he's probably spent more time on court than many others out there. And even though he's only made it out of the second round in London once in his last nine appearance, he's actually done better on this surface than he has anywhere else -- all three of his titles, each won after his thirtieth birthday, have come on grass and he has an impressive sixty-three percent win rate overall. Just a few weeks ago as a qualifier in 's-Hertogenbosch, he scored wins over 2014 breakout Roberto Bautista Agut and comeback star David Goffin to pick up his latest trophy. He's now back at a respectable #65 in the world, significantly better than the triple digit ranking he had at the start of the year, but could be in a position to outperform his position. And maybe, even at this late stage of his career, he could finally make his first big run at a Slam.

Alexander Zverev

The eighteen-year-old German, on the other hand, is making his first ever appearance in a Major main draw, having lost during qualifying rounds in his last three attempts. He did reach the Boys' final at the French Open in 2013 back and he took the Juniors' title in Melbourne last year, though, and at his best ever ranking, he'll finally get his shot to play with the big guys. While he's mostly clocked time on the Challengers' circuit in his short career, he has been able to get in a few punches on the main Tour over the last few weeks -- he took sets off Viktor Troicki and Ivo Karlovic at warm-up events and finally scored a true upset this week with a win over veteran Thomaz Bellucci in the Nottingham second round. Still ranked well outside the top fifty, he could very well get dealt an unlucky draw from the get-go, but like with any young buck looking for his first big break, he'll have to start somewhere. And, as they say, there's no time like the present to do exactly that.

Lleyton Hewitt

On the very other end of the spectrum is a man who, far from playing his first Wimbledon, is actually playing his last. The veteran Australian, who will retire next year in Melbourne, received a wildcard entry into the main draw as part of his farewell tour. With just one win on the year and a drop out of the double-digit rankings, it's hard to expect him to do too much damage this year. Still he carries quite a legacy at the All England Club -- the 2002 champion is the only man in the field outside the Big Four who's ever made a dent at the All England Club. And, even though he hasn't made it past a Major fourth round since 2009, you can never count him out -- on his third shot in the Newport final, last year he finally walked away with the title, and earlier in the season defeated Roger Federer for the Brisbane crown. Besides, champions like Hewitt seem to get a second wind at the end of their careers -- Andy Roddick, you may remember, put up a more than admirable performance when he announced his retirement at the 2012 U.S. Open. And I expect the former world #1 will make a similarly valiant attempt to savor his last moments on these courts.



Of course the top seeds will be out in full force at the All England Club over the next two weeks looking to squash any potential these guys have. Be sure to check back in a few days for my full preview of what to expect in London this year -- something tells me that it could be even more exciting than usual!

June 21, 2015

Time and Again

The last few weeks -- whether at warm up events like Den Bosch or on the big stage of Paris, we've seen some unlikely players break through the ranks and make a name for themselves on court. But this weekend a couple of repeat champions reminded us that not everyone is willing to cede control of a tournament to the upstarts -- and showed us why they're still at the top of their games.

Roger Federer was making his thirteenth appearance at the Gerry Weber Open in Halle and going for a record eighth title there. But as formidable as the world #2 always is, at this point in his career, he's more than capable of notching some surprising losses. He did drop a set to Philipp Kohlschreiber in his opener and got pushed to two tiebreaks by big-serving Ivo Karlovic in the semis, after all. And meanwhile, Andreas Seppi, the man who'd stunned Fed just a few months ago in their Australian Open third round, was way more rested coming into Sunday's final. The veteran Italian, down at #45 in the world now, had seen both Gael Monfils and Kei Nishikori retire in his last two rounds, so he hadn't played a full match since Thursday. Perhaps, then, he was a little rusty in this weekend's championship -- though he kept it tight in the first set, saving all three break opportunities he faced, he was dominated in the tiebreak. And Federer came out swinging in the second, firing off another seven aces, dropping just two points on his first serve, and closing out the match in two sets. Roger's trophy is just the latest in a long list of records he already holds, but as he heads to the place where he first started racking them up, he might just have the momentum to pick up one more.

As usual, there was plenty of talent on the field in London too, but not everyone fared too well. Defending champion Grigor Dimtrov, struggling a bit over the last few months, only managed one win before falling to Gilles Muller in his second round. And second seed Stan Wawrinka, fresh off a historic win at the French Open, fell to familiar foe Kevin Anderson in two tiebreaks. Anderson would ride that win all the way to the final, but would ultimately run into the force that is Andy Murray. His tenure at the Aegon Championships may not be quite as long as Federer's in Germany, but going for his fourth title at the Queen's Club, the Scot has nevertheless established himself as something of a force. And he didn't seem too troubled by his heartbreaking loss in the Roland Garros semis either; despite facing a double header on Sunday -- rain suspended his match versus Viktor Troicki after six games -- he withstood ten aces from his opponent and broke serve on both opportunities he was given. The win earned the twenty-eight year old his third title of the year, but could have set an even more important precedent -- if he's as relentless as he was in reclaiming this crown, imagine how he'll be when he goes back after the slightly more illustrious one he got at the All England Club a few years back.