October 26, 2008

A Race to the Finish

With only a few tournaments left before the year-end championships for both men and women, all eyes of the tennis world were this week turned to Europe. From Luxembourg to Linz, Basel to Lyon, and even as far east as St. Petersburg, players were making their last minute bids to qualify for a spot.

Switzerland is supposed to be a neutral country, but with native son Roger Federer seeded at the top of the draw in Basel, I'm sure the fans there were anything but. He was the winner here for the last two years and, after an early exit in Madrid last week, he was eager to defend his title. Despite dropping a set in the first round to twenty-six year old American Bobby Reynolds, Roger easily coasted through his next three matches to make it to the finals.

There he met former world #3 David Nalbandian, who's trying to make a late-season surge of his own. He's fallen to #8 after a couple of tough years and a solid performance in Switzerland would certainly help him secure a spot to play for the ATP Masters Cup. After early exits at all four Grand Slams this year, the Argentine began his comeback by winning in Stockholm and beating both Benjamin Becker and Juan Martin Del Potro for his right to play for the title here.

But Roger was not to be subdued. In two simple sets, he walked away with his third straight Swiss title.

In Linz, Austria, another former #1 was trying to regain some glory. Ana Ivanovic has had a less successful second half of the year, losing in the second round of the U.S. Open to a relatively unknown Julie Coin and then making early exits in Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow. She made it to the semis in Zurich, but lost in three long sets to Venus Williams. Linz held better prospects for Ana, though, as she made it past Zurich finalist Flavia Panetta and nineteen-year-old Aggie Radwanska to play in the finals.

There she faced Vera Zvonareva, the one Russian player that hasn't quite gotten the attention she deserves. The Olympic bronze medalist made her way into the top ten almost unnoticed this year and even won titles in Prague and Guangzhou.

But Ana emerged the victor in Austria, winning in straight sets. It was her first title since she took the French Open in June.

In St. Petersburg Andy Murray took his fifth ATP title of the year, but it should surprise no one that I don't want to spend much time on him.

The real story in Russia this week was the other finalist, Andrey Golubev. The twenty-one-year-old Kazakh is currently ranked #150 in the world and had never made it even to the semis of an ATP event. But this week the qualifier made it past four opponents, including Marat Safin, to reach the finals. His eventual loss to Murray wasn't surprising, but making it that far was certainly the highlight of his relatively short career.

Back to Luxembourg where the women were playing in the Tier III FORTIS Championships. I've alluded to my frustration with Elena Dementieva before. Like James Blake, she's one of my favorite players, and though she often makes her presence well known on the court, she can easily lose in the clutch. She made it to the fourth round in Australia but lost to eventual winner Maria Sharapova, the quarters at Roland Garros where she fell to Dinara Safina, the semis at Wimbledon and ceded to Williams, and the semis in Flushing Meadows where she lost to Jelena Jankovic. She's also posted losses to much lower seeded players: Agnes Szavay in Paris, Zvonareva in Charleston, Katarina Srebotnik in Tokyo, among others.

That's not to say Elena hasn't had some success this year. She won gold in Beijing and the title in Dubai. The fact that she advanced so far in so many tournaments helped bring her ranking from #11 in January to #5 now. But given her inconsistency, I couldn't help feeling anxious when she found herself facing Caroline Wozniacki in the finals in Luxembourg.

Wozniacki has been a real force in women's tennis this year, and she notched decisive wins over Anabel Medina Garrigues and Na Li on her way to the finals.

But my worries were calmed this week when Elena scored her second win over the Danish teenager, coming back from a first set loss to with the third in a tiebreak. And happily I was finally able to see my favorite earn a long-anticipated title.

And finally in Lyon a couple of lesser-known players were competing for the title at the Grand Prix de Tennis.

Sweden's Robin Soderling has not won an ATP singles title since 2005, though he's played in three finals this year. Nevertheless he's been able to bring his ranking from #53 to #27 since January with wins over Richard Gasquet, Andy Roddick and James Blake. In France he took out Roddick for the second time this year as well as rising star Gilles Simon.

His opponent in the finals was Frenchman Julien Benneteau who was looking for his first ATP singles title. Despite three career doubles championships, Benneteau has had twelve first-round exits in singles draws this year and only made one final in Casablanca, where he lost to Simon. But with wins over Tommy Robredo and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, it looked like Lyon might be his best opportunity to notch that first title.

Unfortunately for Julien that turned out not to be the case, and Robin won his first title in over three years.

So, congrats to all this week's winners, and good luck in your quests to make it to the championships! You've all shown you're up for the challenge!

And to everyone else, see you next time. As always, serve well and play hard!

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