September 14, 2014

A Sign of the Times

Davis Cup always seems a little strange to me -- so often top stars skip ties due to scheduling conflicts or training needs, leaving lower-ranked players to carry the mantle for their countries, or nations with just a few athletes in the elite ranks can't fill out the rest of their roster to guarantee reliable rubber wins. But more recently the tide has shifted to recognize both the strongest players and their homelands -- either Spain or Serbia, who've claimed the year-end #1 ranking in five of the last six seasons, has made the Davis Cup final every year since 2008. And while the Czechs beat them out the last two times, it was with a team led by top ten players like Tomas Berdych and doubles specialist Radek Stepanek.

And this year, maybe more than others in recent memory, the highest-flying players of the season have successfully shown they come from places where it's not just about one star player, but a deep cadre of top-notch talent.

The French had actually been flying a bit under the radar in 2014, picking up just two titles on the year. But they've really stepped up their game in recent months -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made his return to the top ten with a title in Toronto, while Gael Monfils, who picked up his first trophy in three years in February, very nearly defeated Roger Federer in New York, what would have been the biggest win of his career. And against the two-time defending Czech champions, even recently struggling Richard Gasquet, who couldn't defend semifinal points from his 2013 U.S. Open run, stepped up to the plate. The 2010 runners-up got off to an early lead and clinched the win with a doubles victory Saturday, adding some fresh blood to the finals -- but the real test is still to come.

The Swiss may have been playing in their first Davis Cup semifinal since 2003, but with a couple of individually dominant players leading the way, it's a little surprising it took so long to get there. Roger Federer picked up his twenty-second Masters crown in Cincinnati last month and fell just short of his eighteenth Major at Wimbledon earlier in the summer. And compatriot Stan Wawrinka stormed onto the scene with his first Slam in Melbourne, climbing to a career high #3 in the world after his win. While both fell short of expectations in New York, they rallied big time to create an early 2-0 lead over a strong Italian team this weekend and, though Wawrinka fell just short of securing the tie in a nearly four-hour doubles loss, Federer pulled off an east win over world #17 Fabio Fognini, granting his team entry to its first final since 1992.

From a ranking perspective the Swiss will certainly be at an advantage in November's tie, but this could be a tougher battle than we expect -- Federer, after all, lost to Tsonga in Canada and nearly, too, to Monfils in Flushing Meadows, while Wawrinka hasn't beaten a top ten player since April. But that's just the kind of drama we've come to expect on the tennis courts this year -- the world's best players being pushed to the limit from every angle imaginable. And whoever eventually goes home with this year's Davis Cup trophy will have cemented themselves -- and their entire team -- as the true force in this sport for the season.

September 11, 2014

Separated at Birth: U.S. Open & Summer Stars

It's been a while since my last "Separated at Birth" post, and with the surge of new talent emerging on the tennis scene in recent months, and especially at the U.S. Open, I thought it might be time for an update.

After all, while these players may be rising to new heights in the sport, you can't help but feel like you've seen them somewhere before.

In Mirjana Lucic-Baroni's case, that time came over a decade ago. The 1999 Wimbledon semifinalist and 1998 Australian doubles champ had been out of the game for years, battling personal and financial problems and contending with an abusive father. She returned to WTA plan in the late 2000s, but only won a handful of Slam matches since then and had lost eight straight matches coming into the U.S. Open. She was ranked just #121 in the world, but managed to qualify for the main draw and took out two of the biggest stars of the year in early rounds. And it wasn't just her high quality of play that served as a callback to nineties -- hopefully her Comeback is just starting.

Aleksandra Krunic is a little newer on the scene, but the U.S. Open qualifier -- her only WTA-level win before New York came in Bucharest over then-#131 Alexandra Panova -- had an amazing run of her own over the past two weeks. She held tough against twenty-seventh seed Madison Keys in the second round and then stunned New Haven and Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova a match later. In her first ever Major fourth round, she came back from a big deficit against two-time runner-up Victoria Azarenka and very nearly won the match. Her stealth performance was almost as impressive as certain girl with a dragon tattoo.

A couple other ladies who made a mark in Flushing Meadows bare resemblances less to Hollywood stars than to erstwhile tennis champions, some of whom are not at all far removed from the sport. Monica Puig, the highest ever ranked player from Puerto Rico, has certainly been making a name for herself this year, winning her first career title in Strasbourg last May and taking Andrea Petkovic to three tough sets at the Open. But even in the promo posters hanging all over the New York subways this week, I kept mistaking her for a recent Hall of Famer who actually made it all the way to this year's doubles final.

And former Junior #1 Belinda Bencic, the youngest teenager in the top hundred, made a big push into the women's circuit with a run to the quarters this fortnight. Wins over Angelique Kerber and Jelena Jankovic propelled her to #33 in the world, a stone's throw from being seeded during next year's Slam season. Perhaps the seventeen-year-old standout is well on her way to a career that rivals another young phenom, 2009's Newport inductee.

First time Slam semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova also put together the event of her career, first withstanding the blistering heat to take out seventh seed Genie Bouchard, the most consistent performer at the Majors this year, and then powering through former world #1 Victoria Azarenka in the quarters. Though she couldn't repeat her big upset of Serena in the final four, she did ride her momentum to a career-high #15 in the work and took home her second Slam doubles title to boot. Her performance isn't unlike another record-holding champion -- one who also excelled in both the singles and doubles games.

There were a couple almost-twins on the men's side as well. David Goffin had one of the best summers of his career, putting together a twenty-five match win streak after Wimbledon, picking up his maiden ATP trophy, and winning his first Major matches in over two years. He's probably more comfortable on the courts than on the red carpet, but he sure could pass for a younger version of a Parenthood and Six Feet Under star.

Nick Kyrgios has had a little more success at the Slams this year, stunning Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon and upsetting Mikhail Youzhny in his New York opener. He had a big lead on Tommy Robredo in the third round, too, ultimately falling short, but like another grass court specialist with a funky haircut, something tells me we've only just started to see what he can do.

Gael Monfils has really been mounting a comeback this season, winning his first title since 2011 in Montpellier and climbing to his highest ranking in two years after his U.S. Open run. He so very nearly reached the semifinals in Flushing Meadows, holding a two-set-to-love lead and match points against Roger Federer -- what would have been his best Slam showing since 2008. The question now is whether his look-alike will see a similar resurrection in his career.

While these guys all reached new highs in New York, 2011 champion Novak Djokovic fell a little short of expectations. Titleless since winning the Wimbledon crown to start the summer, the top seed got through the early rounds barely breaking a sweat, but was upset in the semis by an Energizer Bunny named Kei Nishikori. Still you can't ignore how much his game, and his look, has evolved since the first time he was featured here -- these days he reminds me much more of another newlywed.

Of course the big story at the U.S. Open was that of unlikely champion Marin Cilic, whose defeat of three favored players in a row -- including one five-time champion -- brought him his first career Major trophy. I've racked my brain for ages trying to figure out who he resembled -- I used to think it was contemporary ATP star Gilles Simon, then I kind of saw a likeness to his new coach Goran Ivanisevic. But it wasn't until I was watching an old episode of Jeopardy! that the true nerd in me came up with the answer -- or rather, the question.

If you want to share your favorite tennis look-alikes, send me a note, and be sure to check out my other "Separated at Birth" pairs here!

September 8, 2014

Breaking New Ground

Well who'da thought we'd be here on Championship Monday at the U.S. Open?

Before action got started in New York two weeks ago, oddsmakers gave Kei Nishikori a 50-1 chance at taking home the title. His opponent in the final, Croatia's Marin Cilic, was an even longer shot at 66-1. But the two men, both relatively untested in the back half of the Majors, took out five top ten players between them to make this evening's final -- putting together the first all-virgin men's Major championship since the 2005 French Open.

Both players had historic runs over the past two weeks. Nishikori, who'd pulled out of Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati with a toe injury, survived back-to-back five-set marathons in Flushing Meadows, logging more than eight-and-a-half hours on court in his victories over Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka; against top seeded Novak Djokovic on Saturday, he stayed tough after dropping an ugly second set to become the first Asian in a U.S. Open final. And Marin Cilic, who missed last year's U.S. Open -- and most of the fall events, for that matter -- because of a doping violation, roared back on the scene, notching his first career wins over the likes of Gilles Simon and heavy favorite, seventeen-time Slam titleist Roger Federer in the semis; with a 14-21 record against his seven opponents in New York, he was almost never considered a favorite. But ultimately they each rose to the occasion -- it wasn't the final we expected, but after the campaigns they'd each waged, you can't say they hadn't earned the right to play for the trophy.

With two double-digit seeds battling it out Monday, the outcome was far from certain -- their previous two meetings in New York took nine sets and almost as many hours to complete, and each man claimed one victory. Nishikori might have been the slight favorite today, with a slightly better ranking and a healthy 5-2 record against the Croat. But ultimately, it seemed, the extra time on court finally got to the man from Japan -- though Kei earned a break chance in the opening game, Cilic steamrolled ahead, once giving back an insurance lead in the second set, but quickly regrouping to close it out and eventually sealing the win with his thirty-eighth winner of the match.

With the victory, Cilic becomes the lowest ranked men's champion since then-#44 Gaston Gaudio took the title in Paris in 2004. More importantly, though, he's become one of the few men to break the stranglehold Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have had on the Slams over the past decade. And while we'll see over the next few months and years whether he has what it takes to add trophies #2-and-beyond to his mantel, something tells me he's only just started his climb to the top. And I don't suspect this will be the last we hear from Nishikori either. For these two athletes to overcome such incredible odds against them on such a big stage, it seems only appropriate that they now begin to stack the odds in their own favor.

And once they do, there's no telling how far they can go.

One More in the Books

Serena Williams won her first Grand Slam championship in New York in 1999.

Fifteen years later she was hoisting Major trophy number eighteen, becoming only the fourth player in the Open Era -- man or woman -- to hit that mark.

Anticipation was high for this moment since last summer, when a fifth U.S. Open title brought her within a stone's throw of the milepost achieved by legends Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova a quarter century or longer ago. But while there may have been times this year when she showed she could be just as vulnerable as anyone on the biggest stages, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the long-time world #1, and arguably the most dominant player this century, got there eventually.

Serena's almost always the favorite at any tournament she enters -- on paper or not -- but players had gotten used to her bringing her best at the Slams. There was a stretch between early 2008 and mid-2011, in fact, where the only tournaments she won were Majors and year-end championships. Things changed a bit this year, though, and she was in danger of posting her first Major-free year -- of those in which she entered all four -- since 2001. After an easy win in Brisbane, she suffered her first career loss to Ana Ivanovic in the Australian Open fourth round; after her win in Rome, she was stunned early by upstart Garbiñe Muguruza in defense of her Roland Garros crown; and she failed to avenge her Dubai loss to Aliz&eactue; Cornet at the All England Club.

This year, somewhat uncharacteristically, it seemed a strong warm-up season was no indication of future results, so even with a 12-1 record since Wimbledon, Serena's prospects in Flushing Meadows were uncertain.

But Williams was able to regroup just in time. She began her New York campaign with some easy straight set wins, only facing her first real test in the quarterfinals when Flavia Pennetta ran off to a 3-0, two-break lead to start their match. But the task would be a little tougher in Sunday's final against a resurgent Caroline Wozniacki -- the 2009 runner-up was playing some of the best tennis of her career, taking out French Open champ Maria Sharapova in a gripping fourth round before totally demolishing thirteenth seed Sara Errani in the quarters. The former world #1 also took Serena to three sets in two matches over the summer, and having put together her best Major run in five years, she could have given Serena more than a little bit of trouble.

Serena, though, had other plans -- though the pair traded breaks early in the match, Williams was the aggressor from the start. She fired off fifteen winners in the first set compared to just one service ace from Wozniacki, and in the next actually cleaned up her game with twice as many winners as errors. She didn't allow a break opportunity in the second set and after just over an hour had wrapped up the win, officially making the U.S. Open her most successful Major.

Of course now the question becomes if and when Williams will match or surpass Steffi Graf's haul of twenty-two Slam singles titles. The way she played this fortnight, there's no reason to believe she can't get it done even next year. Still, plenty of others will be trying their best to start a record collection of their own -- but if Serena's performance in New York showed us anything, it's that she's not ready to go anywhere yet.

September 2, 2014

Diamonds in the Rough

Things sure got crazy over the weekend didn't they?

Only one of the top eight seeds on the women's side has made it to the quarterfinals and, though all the men who've won Majors over the last nine years -- at least those who were entered in the U.S. Open -- are still going strong, we nevertheless have some unfamiliar faces hanging around at the start of Week Two. And a couple players still standing have quite an opportunity to shine even brighter.

Serena Williams, not surprisingly, continues to dominate the top half of the ladies' draw, but she's joined by a couple players you might not have expected to see still hanging around. Two-time runner-up Victoria Azarenka has been struggling with injury all year, and has only played in a handful of events this season. With early losses in Stanford and Montreal, and a withdrawal from Cincinnati, which she won last year, the sixteenth seed was a long shot at best. But she powered through early matches and last night, withstood a first set meltdown against Serbian Cinderella Aleksandra Krunic, sneaking out a win in over two-and-a-half hours of play. But perhaps the biggest story here is Ekaterina Makarova, a highly underrated Russian who quietly came to New York at her highest ever ranking -- she beat Aga Radwanska on her way to the Wimbledon quarters, beat Petra Kvitova in Montreal, and perhaps most importantly, is the only woman standing who's beaten Serena at a Slam. In yesterday's sweltering heat she outlasted a struggling Genie Bouchard, ending the Canadian's streak of three Major semis. She has a decent record against Vika, having won two of their five meetings, and with the relatively easier road so far, she might be able to even the score.

The bottom half of the bracket is a little more open with only two of the four remaining having ever even played in a Major final -- they both lost. Meanwhile, Shuai Peng is riding high after her second round upset of Aga Radwanska, taking out Roberta Vinci and Wimbledon semifinalist Lucie Safarova to make her first Slam quarter. She'll take on former Junior #1, seventeen-year old Belinda Bencic, who's playing her first year's worth of Major main draws. The youngest player in the top hundred, she's already beaten Angelique Kerber and my dark horse pick Jelena Jankovic -- there's no reason she can't pull off another upset today. But perhaps the player with the clearest path to the final is former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who's put together quite a successful summer -- she won her twenty-second career title in Istanbul and took sets off Serena in both Montreal and Cincinnati. Sunday she scored a huge upset over Maria Sharapova to reach her first Slam quarterfinal since 2012 -- she'll take on Sara Errani for a spot in the semis, avoiding potential match-ups with Simona Halep or Venus Williams, and could easily go on further.

On the men's side, the brackets are still stacked with three former Grand Slam champions occupying four of the spots in the top half of the draw. Novak Djokovic, despite a questionable performance during the summer, has yet to lose a set in New York, and Stan Wawrinka, the newest member of the Major Winners club, survived a bit of a scare against veteran Tommy Robredo last night, but is in good shape to make it back to the semis. Meanwhile 2012 champion Andy Murray, who shockingly hasn't won a title yet this year, seems to have finally found his game again and scored his first top-ten win of the season with a straight set win yesterday over Toronto champ Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But of course the big story in this half is that of Kei Nishikori, whose five-set, four-plus hour marathon against fifth seeded Milos Raonic last night earned him his first U.S. Open quarterfinal. The man from Japan had already notched wins over Gael Monfils, David Ferrer and Roger Federer this year, and while he'll have a little more to recover from, he might just be able to add one more scalp to his trophy case.

Of course, the biggest question marks remain in the bottom half of the bracket, where three top ten seeds -- including one five-time champion -- are still standing, but it's the lower-ranked players that are making the biggest waves. Spain's Roberto-Bautista Agut continues his breakthrough year with a run to the fourth round -- he'll take on second seeded Roger Federer for a spot in his first Major quarterfinal in tonight's late match. Perhaps, though, France's Gilles Simon has a slightly better chance at advancing -- the former top ten player crushed David Ferrer in their third round on Sunday, and though he'll be the on-paper underdog against Marin Cilic today, he has a decisive 4-0 record against the Croat. But the biggest opportunity in this half lies with this year's ATP standout Dominic Thiem, who's climbed from a ranking of #139 to start the year to #45 now. The young Austrian beat Simon at Indian Wells, Wawrinka in Madrid, and got to the final in Kitzbühel. He's already taken out two seeds so far in New York, and with a fourth round date with a recently struggling Tomas Berdych today, he could add one more to that list. Thiem turns twenty-one tomorrow, after all, so he might as well give himself something to celebrate.

There's still a lot of play left to go at the U.S. Open, of course, and while the tried-and-true champions have stayed on top of their game so far this fortnight, it might just be dark horses that take the second week of the tournament by storm. Whether they're shaking off the cobwebs or just finding their footing on the big stage, these stars seem to have really tapped into their potential in New York. And it sure would be great to see them really shine.