April 30, 2009

And She's Off!

Dinara Safina took the courts at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany this week for the first time since she wrested the #1 ranking from Serena Williams, and from the start she was out to show that she'd earned the position. She only lost one game against thirty-seventh ranked Sara Errani in the first round, not even spending an hour on the court.

But that didn't mean everything went as planned.

With so many of the best players entered in the event, the draws were terribly stacked, and there were bound to be some sparks. Former #1 Jelena Jankovic faced current #17 Dominika Cibulkova in the first round, and Flavia Pennetta took on fellow top twenty-fiver Anna Chakvetadze in her first match.

Neither had much trouble with the lower-ranked player, though three-time titlist Victoria Azarenka was upset by a strong Gisela Dulko. And Sabine Lisicki, who shocked the world earlier this month with a victory over Venus Williams on the way to her first career championship in Charleston, took out top-twenty veteran Patty Schnyder in straight sets.

There's still plenty of time for even more fireworks in Stuttgart today. Agnes Szavay, who struggled early in the year but beat Ana Ivanovic in Miami, could prove to be difficult for Elena Dementieva. And Marion Bartoli, who seems to be resurging this year, will provide a good matchup for Caroline Wozniacki.

But we know that the race to the finish isn't a sprint -- hopefully these strong starts in Stuttgart won't fade out before the semis.

It'll be nice to see a show.

April 29, 2009

If It's Not One Thing...

...Then it's certainly another.

Just as one trend becomes the norm, something happens to turn everything around.

Take for example early-round action at the Internazionali BNL d’Italia -- the ATP World Tour 1000 event being held in Rome this week -- where some recently struggling players pulled through and other stars faltered.

It's almost May and Roger Federer still hasn't won his first title of the year. Do you remember the last time that's happened? Since he won his first singles title in 2001, Federer has never taken so long to capture a championship. He came close last year, when he won Estoril in mid-April, but at nearly the half-way mark the former #1 seems to be in tough shape.

After his loss in the Australian Open final, Roger has suffered defeats not only to top players like Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, but also to the likes of Stanislas Wawrinka, who pulled out a straight-set upset in Monte Carlo last week. I'm sure he was nervous to face twenty-fourth ranked Ivo Karlovic in his first match in Rome.

But it took just over an hour for Roger to prevail, hopefully giving him the confidence he needs to advance in this tournament and finally break through in 2009.

Andy Murray, on the other hand, was not so lucky.

The man who's won three tournaments already this year and is just over a hundred points from a top three ranking took on qualifier Juan Monaco in the second round. Though he sailed through the first set, his struggled on serve in the second. He went from a first-serve percentage of 77% to 42% while Monaco upped his game. In the final set the Brit managed to break his opponent twice -- but apparently that wasn't enough, and Juan came away with his first career victory over Murray.

But while these two have seemed to -- at least temporarily -- reversed course, someone else continued on the road he's traveled all year.

On Monday my dear James Blake, seeded fourteenth in this tournament, lost to Romania's Victor Crivoi, who is ranked #112 in the world -- his fifth early-round loss of the year. Though he fought his way back from a 1-5 deficit in the first set, he squandered a 2-0 lead in the second and handed Crivoi his first tour win of the season.

It was another frustrating loss for Blake, but maybe more so for me as a die-hard fan. It's been over eighteen months since James won his last title in New Haven, and as much as I hate to say it, his best days might be behind him. Just a few months short of thirty, he's six years past the average age of the top ten players.

Sure, plenty of older players have won championships -- Pete Sampras was thirty-one when he won his last U.S. Open and Andre Agassi took home the Los Angeles title at thirty-five. But, I grudgingly fear, Blake might not ever be in the same category as these legends -- though I invite him to prove me wrong!

April 26, 2009

Talk About a Shocker

I feel terrible for ignoring the women all this week, but with the Fed Cup semifinals taking place over the weekend, there really wasn't a lot of action to speak of until Saturday.

But when they started, did they ever make up for an otherwise quiet week.

Defending champion Russia was the heavy favorite against the Italians. They claim five of the top ten rankings and have won four tournaments this year.

Unfortunately none of the titlists are playing on the country's Fed Cup team -- they could have used them. Instead of relying on Elena Dementieva or Vera Zvonareva, the Russians' hopes rested on Svetlana Kuznetsova and Nadia Petrova. And these stars proved to be no match for the likes of Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone.

While Kuznetsova did manage to win one of her singles matches, the Italians capitalized on their homecourt advantage and Schiavone rolled through her matches, clinching the victory and advancing her team to just their second-ever Fed Cup final.

There they'll face another upstart team. Even though the U.S. hold two of the top five ranking positions, neither Serena nor Venus Williams are playing on the team. With up-and-comer Bethanie Mattek-Sands leading the American charge against the Czech Republic, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if the U.S. went home early.

But teenager Alexa Glatch pulled together two upsets of Iveta Benesova and Petra Kvitova and Bethanie rebounded from her singles losses to seal a victory in her doubles match, sending her team to their first final since 2003.

That sets up quite an interesting final for November, and I'm not sure who the favorite will be. It'll definitely be an intense summer season as the girls gear up for the title match. It may be a challenge, but I'm rooting for my compatriots to win another title -- crazier things have happened!

Congrats to all!

Rafa Rolls (Or Slides...)

It was a longer match than you might expect -- more than an hour and forty-five minutes -- but Rafael Nadal continued his dominance on clay in Barcelona with a 6-2, 7-5 victory over David Ferrer, bringing home his fifth consecutive title there.

It was his second championship in as many weeks and his twenty-fourth on the surface. With such strong performances, there's no reason to believe Nadal won't win his fifth trophy at Roland Garros next month. There are only a few tournaments left, and it certainly wouldn't surprise me if he swept the season.

So on the heels of his victory, I'm feeling inspired to get out on the clay myself! It's the first beautiful weekend of spring in New York, and I've got a date on the Central Park courts!

Hope to see you out there!

April 24, 2009

Don't Call It a Comeback...

...David Ferrer's been here for years.

In fact less than twelve months ago he was ranked fourth in the world. He'd hit a career high after reaching the semifinals at the 2007 U.S. Open and the finals at the Tennis Masters Cup. He followed it up with championship trophies in Valencia and the Netherlands.

But then a series of early round exits in Paris, Madrid and Beijing -- among others -- brought him down to #12 by year-end. A few months ago I would have argued he was on the way out -- I was livid that he held onto a top-ten ranking even as he faltered through the summer, losing matches to players barely ranked in the double-digits.

This year, however, we're beginning to see signs of the old Ferrer. Though he hasn't yet triumphed over a higher-ranked player, he has made it to the semis in Johannesburg and the finals in Dubai. So far in Barcelona, he's come within two matches of the championship -- he ended Potito Starace's best tournament run in two years and took out fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo, who's already taken home trophies in Brazil and Argentina this year.

In the semis David will face Chile's Fernando Gonzalez, who impressively took out the second-seeded Fernando Verdasco after more than two hours of play. With just forty ranking points separating them, it's sure to be a tough match -- Gonzalez holds a 4-2 margin over Ferrer, but you know both are going to be fighting on Saturday.

Whatever the results, it's going to make for a great battle on the clay!

April 22, 2009

Hot Potito

Half of the top eight seeds at this week's Barcelona Open were playing in their home country. Another two hail from South America -- clearly the Latin contingent fully intended to show their stuff on clay.

And two rounds into the tournament, it seems that they're well on their way.

World #1 Rafael Nadal sailed past Frederico Gil, winning his twenty-second straight match on the surface while Fernando Verdasco, followed through with his career-high #7 ranking with a win over veteran qualifier Nicolas Lapentti. David Ferrer and Tommy Robredo also advanced.

But perhaps the most impressive performance so far has come from a little-known Italian. Twenty-eight year old Potito Starace has been pro for over eight years and has played in an astonishing twelve tournaments already this year. Unfortunately for him, he's only gotten past the first round in four of them. He's been ranked in the top thirty as recently as 2007 when he won two teeny tiny titles in San Marino and Napoli.

In Barcelona though, he's poised for his best showing in years. He beat a plucky Ernests Gublis, the man who ousted Novak Djokovic in the first round at Brisbane, and fourteenth seed Robin Soderling, who won a challenger event in Sunrise, Florida last month.

In the next round Starace faces a resurgent Ferrer, who's made it to the finals in Dubai after a frustrating 2008. He hasn't beaten David in their two previous meetings, but Ferrer has been upset by lower-ranked players than Potito -- Kei Nishikori was ranked #126 when he beat the Spaniard at last year's U.S. Open.

It's going to be tough for Starace to take home the crown in Barcelona -- especially when he faces a bracket with such seasoned clay-courters. But a trip to the semis is not out of the question.

And with the world of tennis so clearly dominated by the likes of Nadal and Andy Murray this year, we will certainly appreciate some new faces in the mix.

Good luck!

April 19, 2009

Breaking the Seal

Now I've never won a professional tennis championship, but I like to believe that your first title is probably the hardest to bring home. Once you gather some momentum and establish yourself as someone to be reckoned with, numbers two, three and four should be much easier to come by.

Case(s) in point: Victoria Azarenka, who claimed her first WTA title in January and hasn't looked back, winning in both Memphis and Miami after that. And Caroline Wozniacki who broke through in Stockholm last year and has since won three more championships. And of course, on a grander scale, Rafael Nadal hasn't ceded the French Open crown since 2005, when he rose his first Grand Slam trophy over his head as the #5 seed.

Sabine Lisicki made her case to join that elite bunch this week in Charleston at the Family Circle Cup.

The nineteen-year-old German is currently ranked #63 in the world, just a hair off her career high of #49. She's had some success in the past, defeating Dinara Safina at last year's Australian Open and winning an ITF title in Jersey in 2007, where she notched victories over the six, three and one seeds.

But her career-high had to have come in her third round match in South Carolina this week, where she stunned world #5 Venus Williams in straight sets. More impressively, she didn't let the wind out of her sails and followed up with wins over Elena Vesnina and Marion Bartoli for her space in the finals. There she met Wozniacki, who was also running on the momentum from her win in Ponte Vedra Beach last week and a second consecutive win over top seed Elena Dementieva in the semis here.

But luck, strength and just a little persistance were with Sabine on Sunday. She let five match points slip by her in the second set, but eventually regrouped to bring home her first Tour title, 6-2, 6-4.

I'm hoping this is just the start of many good things to come for Sabine.

Across the ocean another group of women were battling in Barcelona where top seeds Alize Cornet, Flavia Pennetta and Kaia Kanepi all lost early. On the top half of the draw, Maria Kirilenko advanced to the finals only dropping sets to Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Carla Suárrez Navarro. On the bottom Roberta Vinci followed up her upset of Pennetta with a win over former #11 Francesca Schiavone to make her second WTA final match.

Kirilenko, ranked thirty-seventh in the world to Vinci's #61 and holding the sixth seed in Spain, should have been the favorite. But Roberta steamrolled through the first set, 6-0, and outserved her opponent to take the second 6-4. In just over an hour she'd won her second title, putting her in a good position as the French Open draws closer.

Incidentally Nadal took home his third title of the year, and his fifth straight championship in Monte Carlo, by defeating Novak Djokovic in the finals. But what did you expect? We're on clay -- it would be a surprise if he didn't hold the trophy at the end of the week.

Congrats to all!

April 16, 2009

Not Another Rematch

For the past three years those with tickets to the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters' final have seen basically the same match -- Rafael Nadal has battled Roger Federer for the first big title of the clay-court season every year since 2006, and each time he walked away with the championship.

In those three losses Roger has only taken one set from the King of Clay. And when he took a wild card entry to this year's Masters -- he originally was going to sit out but eventually decided it was too important to miss -- the newly-married, soon-to-be-father was probably hoping to exact revenge.

It didn't exactly happen that way.

Even though his home-life has been thriving, it's been a tough spring for the former #1 tennis player -- after he lost in the finals to Nadal, he suffered a loss in the semis to Andy Murray at Indian Wells and another defeat at the hands of Novak Djokovic in Miami.

It was the first time I remember ever seeing Federer lose his temper or show any signs of frustration in a match. And while he may have kept his cool today, his anxiety must've been running high as he dropped in straight sets to countryman Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round in Morocco.

So if Nadal does in fact make it to his fifth straight final in Monte Carlo, he won't be seeing his arch-nemesis there. Novak is the highest of the remaining seeds, but I have a feeling we could see a rematch of the Melbourne semis. Fernando Verdasco, who plays Nole in the quarters, has won his two career titles on clay and could be making a play for his next trophy.

And if it wasn't already clear it's obvious now that this year's race for men's elite is wide open.

April 15, 2009

Clay Court Kickoff

It's the last stop in the U.S. before women begin the 2009 European clay court season in earnest, and the Family Circle Cup has not only attracted the top talent, but also has so far proven to be a good opportunity for the stars to shine.

Unlike recent tournaments where top seeds have struggled early, all but one of the top eight seeds, who received byes in the first round, have made it to their second match -- most of them did so in straight sets.

Number one seed Elena Dementieva, with a shiny new career-high ranking, barely broke a sweat in her fifty-minute match against American Julie Ditty. Venus Williams gave up a one-break lead in her second set against India's Sania Mirza, but eventually rolled 6-2 in the third. Only Patty Schnyder had any trouble, though I can't say I would have favored the former top-ten player against Elena Vesnina, who made it to the finals in Auckland and the semis in Ponte Vedra Beach last week.

More impressive was Ditty's Fed Cup teammate, Melanie Oudin. The former juniors phenom has only won one match in the main draw of a WTA tournament this year -- she had to qualify for the Australian Open and then lost to Akgul Amanmuradova. (Yeah, I'd never heard of her either.)

But today Melanie was able to pull it together for a win over ninth seed, Aleksandra Wozniak, only her second win over a top-fifty player. After a close first set, she blanked Wozniak in the second, winning nearly ninety percent of her first serves and all of her three break points

It's a good omen for the remaining women. With just over a month left before Roland Garros, a couple of big wins in the next few weeks could be very important for these players -- both the elite and the up-and-comers.

Of course I'm hoping Dementieva can get back on track, but it sure would be nice to see an American succeed on clay!

April 11, 2009

A Blast From the Past

After almost a month of high-intensity matches in Indian Wells and Miami, dominated by current all-stars and rising talent, this week some smaller tournaments were able to bring some not-so-new names to back into the spotlight.

Early exits by top seeds in Houston could have allowed players like Jurgen Meltzer and Jeremy Chardy get into their own groove. Instead, it was even lesser-known players like Bjorn Phau and Wayne Odesnik who made it to the semifinals. The #100-ranked American triumphed over the German Phau in straight set to make his first ever ATP final.

There he'll face the winner of a match that pits twenty-one year old Evgeny Korolev against former #1 Lleyton Hewitt, who's trying to recapture his one-time success in Houston. So far, he seems to be on a roll and hasn't dropped a set on his way to the semis. A win later today would earn him his first final round match since Las Vegas in 2007.

A little further east in Marbella, Spain, where Serena Williams lost her #1 ranking and her #1 round in the same day, a struggling Jelena Jankovic was able to get back on track. She lost her first match at her last two tournaments and has been upset by players like Kaia Kanepi, Marion Bartoli and Amelie Mauresmo, all of whom she should be able to beat. With Serena gone, though, she might have been able to pull together the confidence she needed to make her first final this year.

There she'll face Carla Suárez Navarro, who famously defeated Venus Williams in the second round of this year's Australian Open. Since Melbourne she hasn't been able to put together back-to-back wins and has lost to players ranked #71, #134 and #136 in the world. But this week she gained entry to the first WTA final of her career with a win over Sorana Cirstea. A title in Spain could give either woman the momentum she needs to start the clay-court season off strongly.

But some of the biggest comebacks were in Casablanca, where 22nd-ranked Igor Andreev claimed the top seed. He was ousted this morning by former world #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero who, six years later, is now in the triple-digits. Ferrero pulled off upsets of Christophe Rochus, Victor Hanescu and Andreev all in straight sets. As a prize, he gets to meet France's Florent Serra, a man who hasn't won a title since Adelaide in 2006, but also hasn't dropped a set this week in Morocco.

So as one-time stars try to make another play for tennis's elite, current #1's might be getting a little nervous. The last few weeks have done nothing if not shown just how tenuous the grip on the top spot is.

April 8, 2009

A New #1?

Current world #1 Serena Williams made it to the finals in Miami last week, while #2 Dinara Safina didn't get past the third round. The two battled in the Australian Open finals in early February, when Serena rolled over the Russian in less than an hour to claim her fourth title in Melbourne. It was Williams' tenth major win -- while Safina, in two final appearances, hasn't yet brought home a Slam. She also hasn't won a championship since Tokyo last year.

Apparently, all that history doesn't matter.

In a little more than a week, Dinara will take over the #1 ranking, becoming only the nineteenth woman -- and second Russian -- to hold the spot. She also is part of the only brother-sister duo to claim the position -- twenty-nine year old Marat Safin was at the top of his game for nine weeks in 2000 and 2001.

To add insult to injury, Williams suffered a tough first-round loss to 95th-ranked Klara Zakopalova in Andalucia earlier today -- a tournament Safina, incidentally, didn't even enter.

I don't mean to imply that Safina doesn't deserve the #1 ranking -- she had a stellar 2008, winning four titles and Olympic silver. She rose from #15 in the world at the start of last year to #2 now, and has notched wins over Williams, Jelena Jankovic, Elena Dementieva and Vera Zvonareva all in the past twelve months. Obviously, and somewhat hearteningly, that success counts for something.

Even if Serena's had the more successful year so far -- hard work does, it seems, pay off.

April 7, 2009

Houston, We Have a Problem

I can't remember the last time when the top seeds were ousted in the very first round of a tournament. But at Houston's U.S. Men's Clay Court Championship, which kicked off the road to the French Open, that's exactly what happened.

American men have never really been a force on the slippery surface -- remember in Pete Sampras's record fourteen Grand Slam titles, the only one that eluded him was Roland Garros. Even still James Blake and Mardy Fish were given the #1 and #2 seeds respectively -- and it was apparently a lot to live up to.

Neither man has had the most success this year. A frustrated Blake hasn't won a title since New Haven in 2007 and, as he deals with an ankle injury, has seen his ranking steadily slip from #10 at the start of the year to #17 as of Monday. Fish, on the other hand, was able to pull out a victory in Delray Beach last month, but also suffered first-match exits in Miami and Indian Wells, not to mention two tournaments in Australia.

However the high billing in Houston should have given them some support, if only psychological. James, with the top spot, faced Argentina's Guillermo Canas while his friend took on Germany's Bjorn Phau. Mardy was able to capture the second set before falling in the third to the 77th-ranked Phau, while Blake was practically decimated by the former top-ten player, now ranked #113 -- Canas only ceded four of his first serves.

Of course the losses are rough. My personal bias toward my countrymen, and my particular love of Blake, aside, it's hard to see these guys lose time and again. The resurgence of Andy Roddick and wins this week by two younger players, John Isner and Scoville Jenkins, are reassuring, but far from the widespread success that brought home the titles and the Davis Cup in 2007. If these early results are any indication, this could be a rough year.

Thankfully it wasn't a total loss for the American men. Blake and Fish did team up in the doubles draw and did manage a win over wildcard entrants Amer Delic and Robert Kendrick.

Here's hoping they see more success in that bracket!

April 5, 2009

The Battle For #3

It may not seem like the most coveted prize, but in the realm of men's tennis the #3 world ranking is probably the best that anyone can hope for.

Rafael Nadal is so far ahead of the pack, and Roger Federer had amassed so many points over his career, that there only seems to be any wiggle room in the rest of the rankings.

And that was certainly on the minds of both Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray as they took the courts in Miami today. Murray, technically #4, has been arguably one of the best players so far this year, winning titles in both Doha and Rotterdam already, while a struggling Djokovic holds tenuously onto his #3 ranking with a championship in Dubai and an admittedly impressive semifinal win over Federer on Friday.

The winner of the Sony Ericsson Open would surely make his case for a big move in the standings ahead of the ever-imminent French Open.

As the match started it seemed the momentum that has been with Murray since January would continue. He broke Novak twice in a row and ran off to a 4-0 lead before taking the set in a half hour. He even started the second set by breaking Nole again, making an easy victory seem inevitable. But somehow Djokovic was able to turn things around. He evened up the set and even went ahead 4-1 before he earned his first set point at 5-3. What could have been a runaway suddenly turned into a real match, with both players looking hungry for the title.

Ultimately Murray was able to regroup and broke Novak two more times. It was the outcome you'd expect, given each man's performance so far in 2009. The 1000 points he earns from the second top-tier tournament of the year brings Murray within one more championship of the #3 ranking, and must make Djokovic a little nervous.

In fact, I think a couple of people should be nervous -- Federer has certainly proven his fallibility at the hands of other top players, and Nikolay Davydenko could see his position plummet as he sits on the sidelines with a heel injury. Now I'm going to make a pretty bold prediction, but given the way the men have played over the last few weeks, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a shake-up in the broader standings.

By year-end, I forecast a new top five.

  1. Rafael Nadal
  2. Andy Murray
  3. Roger Federer
  4. Andy Roddick
  5. Novak Djokovic

Make sure to check back in December to see if I'm right!

A Tale of Two Cities

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times...

About two months ago Victoria Azarenka, ranked fourteenth in the world, met Serena Williams in the fourth round of the Australian Open in Melbourne.

It was the middle of the day during one of the hottest summer's in the country's history. Temperatures reached well above the 100-degree mark, while on the court reports suggested that it got as high as 120.

Yes, it was hot -- but so was Victoria. She'd just won her first WTA title in Brisbane, where she hadn't dropped a single set. She'd defeated two wily opponents, Lucie Safarova and Sara Errani, both of whom have given top players a tough battle, and then a resurging Marion Bartoli to take the championship. In Melbourne Azarenka soared over former #1 Amelie Mauresmo in under ninety minutes.

Against the top seed Victoria started in top form, breaking Serena not once, but twice in the first set. It looked like she was poised for a major upset, and about to win the biggest match of her career.

But then the teenager succumbed to the elements, swaying and listing in the heat, as Williams took advantage and a 4-2 lead in the second set. As I watched Victoria, ironically from a hotel room in Miami, I feared she'd collapse on the court -- she didn't, but did retire the match early, visibly shaken and convulsing in tears. Her opponent comforted her on the side and, to her credit, seemed genuinely concerned over Victoria's health.

Fast forward to the finals at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami this weekend, where Victoria and Serena faced each other for only the third time in their careers. Since Australia both had continued their successes -- Serena of course won her fourth title in Melbourne and was looking to claim her third straight crown here, while Azarenka had added another champion to her resume with a win in Memphis.

But this time, things were quite different.

Victoria had climbed into the top ten for the first time, and she was clearly on a mission. Serena was fighting a soar ankle and quad and her serve was weaker than it had been in years -- fewer than half of her first tries went in, and barely a quarter of her second serves resulted in points for her. Azarenka capitalized, and broke her opponent's serve an incredible five times.

It took just over an hour for the Belarusian to triumph, beating the best women's player in straight sets, 6-3, 6-1, and denying Serena her record sixth title in Miami. Victoria, meanwhile, becomes the sixth teenage champion of the tournament, and rises to a career-high #8 ranking in the WTA. Not bad for ten day's work, and quite a different outcome from their last meeting in a city on the other side of the globe.

In the meantime the men are getting ready for this afternoon's final, where Andy Murray will take on Novak Djokovic. I'm sure it's no surprise that I'm hoping for a similar "upset" in that match as well.

April 3, 2009

Saving the Best For Last

Apparently the men saved all the shockers -- and their best stuff -- for when it really counted.

While the highest seeded women in Miami could barely get past the second or third rounds, seven of the top eight men were playing in the quarterfinals.

Then last night, in the first big upset of the men's draw, Juan Martin Del Potro scored his first victory over Rafael Nadal. And earlier today third-seeded Novak Djokovic marked only his third victory over Roger Federer in ten tries, earning him his second final of the year.

He'll battle the winner of the Andy Murray-DelPo semi which, at the moment, is tied at one set apiece. While Nole has a winning record against both players and does claim the better ranking, it's hard to say he'd be the favorite in either match-up -- he's certainly seemed to struggle more than both potential opponents this year.

But this win over Federer could give him the boost he needs, and makes the battle in the men's game all the more exciting.

Can't wait to watch it!

April 2, 2009

I'm Sorry, What Now?

Okay, so Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin Del Potro don't exactly have the long history that Rafa and Roger Federer have, or the ten-plus year rivalry of the Williams sisters. That's probably because it hasn't been that long since DelPo became a real force in the tennis world -- a year ago he was #81 in the world, he'd never gotten past the second round at a Grand Slam, he hadn't won a single singles title.

Now he's securely in the top ten, a quarterfinalist at the U.S. and Australian Opens, a five-time tournament champion -- including titles in Los Angeles and Washington.

Still, it would seem that, in a match-up between the two, Rafa clearly had the advantage. During their careers Nadal and Del Potro had met only four times and the world #1 had never lost a set. But three of those matches were in 2007, before the Argentine hit his stride, and today in Miami he was clearly in top form.

In what is -- in my humble opinion -- the biggest upset of the Sony Ericsson Open so far, Juan Martin rallied from a 0-3, two-break deficit in the third set to force a tiebreak. In total Nadal actually won two more points than his opponent, but we know that's not what counts in tennis, and DelPo was the one that walked away triumphant.

I admit that I'd almost forgotten about Juan Martin this year. Even though he'd made it to at least the quarters in every tournament he'd played -- and took the crown in Auckland -- Rafa seemed to be the one with the momentum. That ended tonight, and Juan Martin now faces Andy Murray in the semis, another player he's never beaten before.

But as he's already proven, history means nothing in this sport -- and he's surely eager to make a new mark.

Good luck!

It's Been a While...

...Since Novak Djokovic triumphed over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

In fact, it's been nearly fourteen months. Sure it was a big win -- 2008's Australian Open final, Nole's first, and so far only, Grand Slam win. But since then Tsonga has put together four consecutive victories over the world #3, most recently in the Marseille semifinals on his way to the title. It made some -- okay, me -- wonder if Djokovic really deserved his major.

But in the quarters in Miami, Novak got redemption. It wasn't easy, but in straight sets and over two hours he took the match, 6-3, 6-4. Neither player served well, each making about one out of every two first serves, but the Serb converted where it counted and broke Tsonga twice for his right to advance.

...Since Andy Roddick was at the top of his game.

Sure, he's consistently been in the top ten for more than six year -- save a short blip in 2006 -- but he's taken new form in 2009. He won the title in Memphis and made the finals in Doha.

And on Wednesday he got the late-night (well, sort-of-late-night -- this is Miami, after all!) crowd behind him as he tried to notch his second consective win over former #1 Roger Federer at the Sony Ericsson Open. He rallied from a one-set deficit and saved three straight break points in one game to break Roger and take the second. Amazingly Andy didn't concede a single point on his first three service games in the last set.

Ultimately though, Roger prevailed. He took advantage of the only break opportunity in the set and scored his seventeenth win in nineteen tries over the top American player. But it wasn't a total disappointment for Roddick. The twenty-six year old has the best record on the tour this year, 26-5, and is playing much better than his self-admittedly low #6 ranking. I don't think -- at least I hope it won't be long before he reclaims his spot among the uber-elite.

...Since Serena and Venus have clashed in a big match.

Okay, that's not really true. Over the past eleven years they've matched up twenty times, most recently at the 2008 Tour Championships in Doha and in Dubai in February -- both times Venus won.

But it has been a while since both players held such high rankings during their battle -- Serena at #1 and Venus at #5. The last time things were so close was when they were one and two at the 2003 Australian Open finals.

Today the two will meet in the second women's semifinal in Miami, and there's quite a lot at stake. The last five times the sisters fought, the victor also won the tournament, and with $700K on the line, you can be sure that both will go all-out tonight. The winner would face either Svetlana Kuznetsova or Victoria Azarenka in the finals -- both of whom, you may remember, gave Serena quite a scare in Melbourne this year.

But shouldn't any victory be well-earned? And with such top talent in action, you can be sure that it will be.