February 19, 2009

In the Home of Elvis

The political maelstrom continues to swirl in Dubai, but elsewhere this week tennis matches are being contended without the same shroud of controversy.

In Memphis, the land of grace -- or at least Graceland -- some of the best names on the men's tour are in action this week. Andy Roddick, Juan Martin Del Potro and James Blake led the draw for the ATP World 500 tournament where a purse of $300k awaits the winner. Radek Stepanek has a relatively paltry fifth seed, but he seems to be on a roll, having already won two tournaments this year.

There were some surprises early in the week. Most upsetting for me was Lleyton Hewitt's defeat of Blake, only his third match win in a year when he's lost in the first round in his last two tournaments. And Kei Nishikori, who stunned the world last year with his meteoric rise, failed to convert again and lost in straight sets to Marcos Baghdatis. Mardy Fish, who'd made it to the finals in San Jose last week, got through his first match but faltered against 72nd-ranked Christophe Rochus.

At this early stage, if I had to put my money on a final showdown, I'd have to say we could see a rematch of the San Jose semis with Roddick and Radek taking center stage this weekend. Sure Stepanek still has to get past Del Potro, but the Argentine hasn't really been showing his best stuff this year. And Andy's biggest threat in his half of the draw is probably Sam Querrey, who he could face in the quarters -- though I'm sure Lleyton will want to make his own stab at his first final since 2007. Ultimately I hope Andy will be able to win his first title since Beijing last year and help bring American tennis back to the forefront, but I admit I am a bit worried that the momentum is with Stepanek.

It's not just the men playing their hearts out in Memphis this week. But with the very top players wrapped up in the political and climactic heat of Dubai, Caroline Wozniacki took the top seed in the women's draw, followed by Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who's already won one title so far this year -- not to mention a set from Serena Williams in Melbourne.

Early round action was more predictable here -- only one seed, 62nd-ranked Alla Kudryavtseva, didn't make it to the quarterfinals. The biggest shock, I feel, was Lucie Safarova losing her third round match to Germany's Sabine Lisicki. Less than two years ago Lucie was ranked 22nd in the world and already this year she's notched victories over Sybille Bammer and Samantha Stosur. Her exit will, I feel, clear the way for Azarenka to make it to her sixth career WTA final.

On the top half, Wozniacki is in good form. She avenged her loss to Jelena Dokic in the third round of the Australian Open with a straight set win in Memphis. If she can make it through two more matches she'll set up only the second meeting with Victoria -- the Danish teenager won their only previous contest at last year's U.S. Open -- and be fighting for her fourth WTA title.

So there's a lot at stake in the home of Elvis this week. And you can be sure everyone's gonna be shaking their stuff as fast as they can to capture the prize.

Good luck to all!

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