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!

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