May 31, 2009

You Cannot Be Serious!

If you can't remember the last time Rafael Nadal lost a match at the French Open, that's because he hasn't. Ever.

Since he first set foot on the red clay of Roland Garros in 2005 he's pulled together a record thirty-one straight victories and has become the only man to beat in Paris. A few weeks ago Justin Gimelstob tweeted:

"Rafa wins the French Open unless he breaks both ankles. If he breaks just one, he still wins."

Today, both ankles seemingly intact, he walked off the court in defeat at the hands of Robin Soderling.

That's right -- Robin Soderling. Not Roger Federer, not Andy Murray, not even Novak Djokovic was able to dethrone the king. But in a serious case of David slaying Goliath, the twenty-fifth ranked Swede notched his very first win over the world #1 in the grandest of styles.

Soderling delivered nine aces and sixty-one winners, nearly double that of Nadal and sailed to a 6-2 victory in the first set. Though Rafa was able to come back in the second, he couldn't quite get his footing and dropped the next two sets.

Among other firsts, it was the only time he's ever lost a best-of-five match on clay.

Once I got over the initial shock -- okay, I'm still not over it -- I began to wonder if Rafa's early exit could open the door for Federer to finally take his first French Open title and ultimately surpass Pete Sampras in number of Grand Slam titles. But I think a lot of people are breathing a little easier now.

Sure Roger is on something of a roll, having upset Rafa earlier this month in Madrid. But Nikolay Davydenko, who easily sent Fernando Verdasco packing, certainly has an easier road to the semifinals, and both Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro must like their chances if they make it to the final now.

There is a bigger implication to Rafa's loss though -- maybe the men's bracket is not quite as immovable as we thought. Nadal has such a huge lead over other opponents that losing in Paris early won't really affect his place at the top -- in fact he's already qualified for the year-end championships based on the points he's racked up this year. But there had been so much talk about Federer's game beginning to fall apart this year and Rafa's seeming indestructibility -- now on all surfaces. I don't think this turn of events is a signal that the tides are turning back, but surely other players now think they have a chance to make their own run for the top.

Incidentally it seemed to be a bad day for defending champs all around. Last year's women's titlist Ana Ivanovic also lost today, in straight sets to Victoria Azarenka who just earned her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Though, to be honest, I'm surprised Ana made it this far at all -- other than a final apperance at Indian Wells, she hasn't been able to put together three straight wins at all this year. But some strong shots in earlier rounds makes the case that we shouldn't quite write her off just yet.

In any case, all is not lost -- it's only a few weeks before Wimbledon!

And good luck to all those left in Paris! It's gonna be a great fight!

May 29, 2009

On the Other Hand...

A few days ago I commented on some of the players that have been having a hard time of things in Paris -- taking five sets what they no doubt wish they could do in three. Maria Sharapova, for instance, hasn't won any of her three matches in straight sense.

But there are some players that seem to be having an easy time on the red clay -- some doing much better than most critics gave them credit for.

Defending champion Rafael Nadal, of course, has been rolling. Though he allowed his first set of the tournament to get as close as 7-5, he hasn't dropped one set and took out former #1 and two-time titlist Lleyton Hewitt in three easy sets. Countryman and potential quarterfinal opponent Fernando Verdasco has also not dropped a set, though he did play two tiebreaks against Nicolas Almagro earlier today.

Even more impressive is women's top seed Dinara Safina, who coasted to her fourth straight fourth round at the French with a 6-2, 6-0 victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. In her first week of play she's only lost four games total. Her opponent (and conqueror) in last year's final, Ana Ivanovic, who was largely dismissed as a threat this year, has also had a clear road after her opening set tiebreak -- she won her next two matches by dropping only five games herself.

Then of course there's Agnes Szavay who today pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament so far. The thirty-first ranked Hungarian began the year with a handful of first round losses, but had more recently notched wins over Ivanovic in Miami and Victoria Azarenka in Madrid. Though she needed nearly two hours to advance past Italian Corinna Dentoni in the first round at Roland Garros, her next match against Elena Vesnina took half that time. And then today she simply devastated third seed Venus Williams, bageling her in the first set and earning her first fourth round in Paris.

Victor Hanescu delivered the other big blow at the French Open so far this fortnight. After a first round match against Steve Darcis which went to three straight tiebreaks followed by three 7-5 sets versus veteran Mikhail Youzhny, he must have wanted a break and might have been disappointed to face seventh seed Gilles Simon today. But Simon has been struggling recently, losing all three of his matches last week in Dusseldorf and making early exits at the four clay court tournaments he's played this year. In his shortest match in Paris, Victor had a relatively easy time getting past Gilles, 6-4, 6-4, 6-2.

Of course with the comparatively easier rounds behind them, all these players are going to have to work that much harded to keep up their successes -- whether they've gotten here by stunning upsets or by continued dominance. But suddenly there's a new crop of players to keep your eyes on.

And you know I'll be watching!

May 27, 2009

Going the Distance

It was quite a marathon day for some of the best players in Paris. Andy Murray took two and a half hours before dismissing Potito Starace, and while Victoria Azarenka may have gotten by in straight sets, she needed nearly two hours and more than a hundred and fifty points before sending Kristina Barrois home.

But others had even tougher times earning their right to advance.

David Ferrer faced former top five player Nicolas Kiefer in his second round match. The fourteenth seed seems to have gotten his game back on track this year after what must have been a frustrating 2008, while Kiefer has struggled. Though he's ranked 37th in the world, he hasn't put together back-to-back wins all year, even losing three first round matches on clay. Ferrer should have been confident coming into play.

The two split the first four sets, with Keifer easily being the more aggressive player -- he marked seventy-one winners during the match compared to Ferrer's fifty and whizzed fifteen aces by his opponent. When David was unable to capitalize on his two set to one lead, it looked like he might make his earliest French exit since 2004.

But his serve really came through in the final set. He won more than ninety percent of his first attempts and Nicolas could barely get his raquet on the ball. After more than two hours -- including a sixty-nine-minute third set -- it took barely thirty minutes for him to get through the fifth, earning the luxury of meeting Robin Soderling in the third round.

On the women's side all eyes were on the high-profile match-up between compatriots Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova. Though eleventh-seed Petrova came to the match as the technical favorite, Maria had won five of their last six meetings. Sure, she's still testing the waters after a nine-month absence, but Sharapova clearly wanted to win this match to prove her committal to her comeback.

The two traded breaks to start the match before Maria rallied to take the first set 6-2. Nadia retaliated with a quick 6-1 win in the second and took the early lead in the third, running to 5-2. But then Sharapova broke back and forced extra innings by getting to six all.

As we all know there are no tiebreaks in the final set at Roland Garros -- Maria had to hold on to a break lead to score the 8-6 victory. The seventy-one minute last set was ten minutes longer than the first two combined, and Sharapova's perseverance clearly showed that she had come to Paris to compete -- and that maybe she could be a contender in these games. Even still, while she may have a few easy rounds coming up, there's a long ways to go if she hopes to win her fourth and final Major.

As impressive as Maria's win was, though, certainly the biggest match of the day came when Marat Safin, playing his last French Open, took on wild card Josselin Ouanna. Veteran Safin was obviously the favorite, as Ouanna had only played one Grand Slam event in his career, losing in the first round in Paris last year.

But the first two sets both went to tiebreaks, both lasted over an hour each -- and both went to the #134 Frenchman. Marat dug deep though and fought back to level the match. By the time the fifth set began the casual observer would assume both momentum and experience were on the side of the Russian.

The crowd, however, which included eleventh seed Gael Monfils, was clearly behind their countryman, and the cheers must have done a lot to boost Ouanna's confidence. He struck the ball well, went after amazing shots and withstood twenty-four winners and six aces in the fifth set. After seventy-nine minutes Ouanna pulled off the biggest upset of his career, dealing an often-volatile Marat what must have been a devastating blow and prompting one commentator to point out:

"If you're gonna lose, you wanna lose to somebody high-ranked. He doesn't want to lose to a wildcard Frenchman"

It was Josselin's second straight five-set victory of the tournament. And though he must be tired, he's going to have to rest up and get back into focus if he's going to get past Fernando Gonzalez in the third round -- the twelfth-seeded Chilean will definitely be a tough nut to crack.

But I'm sure Ouanna has never been more sure of himself than he is today.

So here's hoping the action over the next week and a half is as exciting as it has been these last few days! With so many strong talents in Paris anything can happen!

And I, for one, can't wait to watch it!

May 25, 2009

In Memoriam

Here in the U.S. today, Memorial Day, marks the unofficial start to summer -- but the original intent, of course, was more somber, meant to honor our fallen war heroes. So I've chosen to dedicate today's post to those competitors who've already fallen in the opening days of Roland Garros.

Of course the stakes in Paris aren't quite as high as they are on a battlefield, but for some players defeat must have been hard to swallow.

Hometown heroine Amelie Mauresmo has never made it past the quarterfinals at the French Open, but after winning her first title in two years this past February and making the semis in Madrid, she'd brought her ranking from #23 in the world to #16. In her first match she took on German Anna-Lena Groenefeld, a twenty-three year old who seems to have been around forever, but has only won one Tour title in 2006. The two had played five times before, and Amelie had only dropped one set -- she should have had an easy run to the second round. But Anne-Lena made quick work of the former #1. She served six aces, twice as many as Mauresmo, and won 87% of her first serves. In just over an hour she sent her opponent packing and earned the right to meet Gisela Dulko in the second round.

Flavia Pennetta must understand Mauresmo's frustration. She's had a decent year so far, making the finals in Acapulco and notching wins over Nadia Petrova and Jelena Jankovic at Stuttgart, she remains firmly in the top twenty. Her opening match against #116 Alexa Glatch, the surprising leading lady at the U.S.'s Fed Cup semifinal. Flavia clearly had the experience -- she's been pro since 2000 and made the fourth round here last year. Alexa on the other hand has only played in one Grand Slam event, the U.S. Open, and only won one match there, in 2005.

But the nineteen-year-old American dominated the clay court specialist. Flavia was out-served, out-hit and out-run. Though she did manage to convert one break point, Glatch never again ceded control of the match and won by an impressive 6-1, 6-1 margin.

The most remarkable upset however might not really be considered an "upset" at all. Most tennis fans are probably more familiar with Lleyton Hewitt than they are with Ivo Karlovic. The two-time Grand Slam winner was ranked #1 for almost a year and a half from 2001 to 2003, but plagued by a hip injury for the better part of 2008, he dropped to #108 earlier this year. A recent win in Houston and the defeat of James Blake in Memphis helped him gain some confidence, though -- even though he'd won their previous three meetings, Karlovic couldn't have been happy with the luck of his draw.

But the Croation was not going to go down quietly. He served an amazing fifty-five aces, a record in the Open era, and placed more than seventy percent of his first serves -- the fastest clocking in at 142 miles per hour. He played aggressively, scoring more winners and unforced errors than his opponent, and took an early lead, winning the first two sets in tiebreaks.

The one place Karlovic failed was in breaking Hewitt's serve -- in the nearly four hours and five sets they played, he only managed to convert on one opportunity. Lleyton on the other hand was able to return the favor four times and ultimately took the last set 6-3, sending the higher-ranked and twenty-sixth seeded player off.

Imagine. Being able to serve fifty-five aces and still not getting the win. My shoulder hurts just thinking about it.

And so I say good-bye to these great players -- at least for the next two weeks. At least they all have the opportunity to come back at the next tournament stronger and even more hungry for a win.

In the meantime, enjoy the start to your summer! Looks like it's gonna be a hot one!

May 23, 2009

French Open Preview

In less than twenty-four hours we'll be getting the first results from the year's second Grand Slam tournament. The draws are set, and it could be a fun ride for some of the world's top players.

Rafael Nadal is out to make history as he goes for his record fifth straight French Open title, but perrenial rival Roger Federer -- among others -- stands in his way. A win here would not only put the seventh major trophy on Rafa's shelf, but also gets him halfway to achieving a Grand Slam this year, something only two other men have done before.

On the women's side, defending champ Ana Ivanovic will surely want to repeat, but Dinara Safina, Elena Dementieva and Jelena Jankovic are all hungry for their first major title. And Serena Williams would just love to reiterate her case to reclaim the #1 spot.

But the red clay often proves to be a tricky surface for even the best players, and as always I'll be hoping for some exciting play!

Men's Draw

It's no surprise that four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal is the favorite to win in Paris, but now there may be a little chink in his armor. After taking home three consecutive titles in the lead-up clay-court season, Rafa was devastated by Roger Federer in the finals at Madrid.

Now in most instances, a straight-set defeat at the hands of the former #1 wouldn't be deemed "devastating" -- even after all his troubles Roger is clearly the favorite in most of his matches. But for him to win on clay, against Rafa, no less, is something of a coup, and might put him on the fast track to his nineteenth Grand Slam final.

To get there though, he's going to have to get past Novak Djokovic in the semis -- and he's lost his last two matches against the world #4. The Serbian has been quietly slugging away too -- he won the title in the inaugural Serbian Open after reaching three consecutive finals before that. And while Andy Murray has never won a tournament on clay, he did make the semis in Monte Carlo and the quarters in Madrid -- he has clearly improved his game on the surface.

Americans Andy Roddick and James Blake have surprisingly had some success on the surface while Juan Martin Del Potro and Fernando Verdasco are basically at home on the red dirt. Meanwhile players like Tommy Robredo and Thomas Berdych, both of whom have scored a few of their own trophies this year, could easily mark some upsets.

Women's Draw

Things are less cut-and-dry in the women's half of the tournament.

Ana Ivanovic won the title here last year as the second seed, claiming her first Grand Slam championship. Since then she's struggled a bit, taking home only one title in Linz and reaching one other final at Indian Wells. Her ranking has also slipped from #1 just after her victory to #8 now.

Ana's been quiet in the clay court season leading up to Roland Garros, making her only appearance in Rome, where she pulled out just one match win. And she's facing Sara Errani in the first round, and Italian would could easily prove to be a tough opponent. With such little practice, it's going to be hard for Ivanovic to repeat, especially with so many other strong players in the mix.

Last year's runner up and current world #1 Dinara Safina has had a pretty good run on clay, winning in Madrid and Rome and making the finals in Stuttgart. While she will certainly be the favorite as the top seed, there are plenty of opportunities for an upset. She's got an opening round match with Anne Keothavong who made the semis in Warsaw and a potential quarterfinal match with Victoria Azarenka, who beat her in Indian Wells.

At #2 and #3 in the world and having been at the top for so long, it's hard to believe that Serena has won the only Roland Garros title in the Williams family -- in 2002. It's always hard to count out the sisters especially when, on opposite sides of the draw, they could meet in the finals. Even still Serena hasn't yet won a match on clay this year, and Venus has a potential second round matchup against Sabine Lisicki, who ousted her in the third round at Charleston.

Then there's Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Svetlana Kuznetsova, all of whom have all had impressive clay court seasons, advancing well into draws and bringing home a few of their own titles. And of course all eyes will be on Maria Sharapova, who won two matches in her return to the tour last week -- she's in the same quarter as Venus, Vera Zvonareva and Gisela Dulko.

Elena Dementieva, who started the year with a bang but hasn't had much success since Australia, is in a section of the draw that could have her meet Melbourne dark horse Jelena Dokic, Estoril champ Yanina Wickmayer, and resurgent Daniela Hantuchova all before the round of sixteen. Her quarter of the bracket could spark the most fireworks.

Things to Watch

A couple people made their marks in the few weeks leading up to Roland Garros, and probably should not be overlooked. Albert Montanes, who denied James Blake his first title in over twenty months when he beat him in the finals at Estoril, could face Andy Murray in the third round. And Ekaterina Makarova made two finals in a row as she continues to go after her first Tour title -- her opening match will rehash the Fes championships, where she lost to Anabel Medina Garrigues, 6-0, 6-1.

In the comeback category, two former number ones are trying to reclaim their former glory. Juan Carlos Ferrero, winner in Casablanca, opens against Ivan Lubijcic while Houston champion Lleyton Hewitt faces Ivo Karlovic in the first and probably Nadal in the third rounds.

It's clear no one is coming to Paris unwilling to fight for the crown.

Clearly at a tournament where Gustavo Kuerten took home the trophy when ranked sixty-sixth in the world and a nineteen-year-old from Mallorca changed the face of the sport forever, stranger things have happened -- and this might be the year.

May 21, 2009

Round and Round We Go

Somewhere in Germany a tournament very similar to Davis Cup is being contested this week. Eight teams organized by country are vying in the ARAG ATP World Team Champions, and while ranking points may not be on the line, national pride surely is.

The tournament is organized similar to the year-end finals, with a Red Group and a Blue Group, in which four countries play in a Round Robin format. Last year's champion Sweden faced France, Germany and the U.S. while runner-up Russia battled Italy, Serbia and Argentina in the other half.

Over the course of the last few days there have been, of course, several big upsets, and some surprising outcomes. France, led by world #7 Gilles Simon and #9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is so far down 0-2, while Sweden, on the strength of Robin Soderling and Andreas Vinciguerra, is up by the same margin. Argentina -- with #5 Juan Martin Del Potro on its team -- fell to Serbia but leads Italy -- which beat Russia who, in turn, is losing to Serbia.


Sweden might not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of tennis powerhouses -- Soderling is ranked twenty-fifth in the world, but after that the next Swede doesn't show up until Thomas Johansson at #194. But apparently, Dusseldorf is the stage in which the country likes to shine -- last year Soderling swept his singles and doubles matches, and could repeat the feat in 2009. And so far, they're primed to head into the finals again.

We'll see if luck -- and skill -- stays with them through the week. And until then, it will certainly be an exciting fight for the trophy!

May 18, 2009

The Weight of the World on Her (Right) Shoulder

The Warsaw Open wouldn't traditionally be one most tennis fans watch closely. In fact it wasn't even played last year -- Justine Henin last won in 2007 over Alona Bondarenko.

But this year the thirty-two main draw tournament is sure to attract some added interest -- it marks the return of Maria Sharapova to the singles circuit after a nagging shoulder injury sidelined her for nine-months.

Her reemergence couldn't have come sooner. She'd attempted to get back in the doubles game in March, but lost the opening round. As of the latest rankings, she'd fallen out of the top 100 for the first time since 2003, when she was sixteen years old.

And in her 2009 singles debut, she showed signs of the brilliance that has won her three Grand Slam titles -- along with indications that she may not have yet fully recovered.

In the first round she faced Italian Tathiana Garbin, who won her only tour title in Budapest at the turn of the century. Though Garbin had climbed to a career-high ranking of #22 a few years back, she's now hanging around the mid-sixties, ironically where Maria was just last week. In her prime Sharapova should have handled the Italian easily.

The match began just as it should have -- Maria's first serve was on fire, landing in 83% of the time during the opening set. She broke her opponent four times and ran off with an early 6-1 lead. But things unravelled a bit in the second, and it looked like her comeback might have been premature -- the former #1 double-faulted five times and, despite being down a break to start, Garbin evened things up to force a close tiebreak and a deciding set.

By the time she was down 0-2 in the final I feared Maria's injury had been further aggravated and that maybe she should have taken a few more weeks to heal. But then, behind 1-3, she rattled off five straight games to win her first singles match since August.

In a tough draw, she'll likely face Caroline Wozniacki -- who climbed to a career-high #10 ranking this week -- in the second round. It's a hard match to call, but I'm hoping a little chip (of ice) on her shoulder tonight will get her in shape to face and advance past the teenager. Not that I have anything against Caroline, but the tennis world is aching for Maria to get on the court in top form, and bring some much-need spark back to the women's game!

And I think now is just the time for her to do it!

May 17, 2009

Oh for Two!

I'm not the best at picking winners, which is why I usually stay away from the horsetrack, the roulette table, and any sort of gambling venue in general. (Except for poker -- I love the poker.)

But I thought my predictions for the winners at the Mutua Madrilena Open in Madrid were a fairly safe bet -- on my week-old Twitter page (thanks to all my followers!) I not-so-brazenly declared on Friday that hometown favorite Rafael Nadal would claim the men's crown while surging starlet Carolina Wozniacki would take the women's title.

And I was fairly on track.

Rafa had only lost one set in the tournament to Novak Djokovic in the semis, stringing together a 33-match win streak on red clay. His opponent in the finals, nemesis Roger Federer, had lost his last five matches against the current #1 and hadn't beaten him on the surface since 2007. He'd gone almost seven months without winning a title, while Rafa had won the last three tournaments he'd played.

Of course Nadal would take home another.

On the women's side, my forecast was a little more up in the air. Dinara Safina was playing in her third final since taking the #1 spot from Serena Williams and was going for her second trophy this year. She was easily the favorite over the Danish teen who, earlier this week, climbed into the top ten for the first time in her career.

Even still I went with the underdog.

But somehow things got all messed up and I lost on both counts.

Federer looked stronger than he had in months, out-acing Rafael six-to-one and keeping his second serve percentage well above his opponent's. In less than ninety minutes he earned the right to hold up a silver plate for the first time since October. Safina was similarly impressive, not dropping serve once in the two sets of their first-ever meeting. Caroline was weaker on serve and return, and unfortunately couldn't quite keep up with the more-experienced champ.

Now I don't know if today's results make a big difference in the overall standings -- I still think it's clear Nadal's going to win his fifth French Open in a couple weeks and maybe Safina will finally bring home her first slam. But some stellar performances in Madrid will certainly make the action much more interesting.

Will I go out on a limb to make my predictions now? I told you I'm not a betting girl.

But my money's still on Rafa and, just for the heck of it, let's say Jelena Jankovic -- she lost here in the quarters but did win her only title of the year on the Marbella clay.

Be sure to check back to see if I'm right!

May 14, 2009

Reverting to the Norm

The countdown to the second Grand Slam of the 2009 season is well underway and the lead-up has been full of surprises -- Sabine Lisicki won her first career title in Charleston by beating three seeded players in her path and Albert Montanes claimed the championship in Estoril after ousting top-seed Gilles Simon.

But this week in Madrid things seem to be going back to normal.

Now I admit that's not exactly true. Venus Williams lost her first match since reclaiming the #3 ranking while her sister retired in the second set against
Francesca Schiavone, recording her third straight defeat since being upset in the finals at Miami. But let's face it -- neither have ever really been a force on the red clay.

But the true powers on clay have been going strong this week.

Roger Federer scored his first victory over a top-twenty player in months, avenging a loss to James Blake at last year's Olympic Games. Novak Djokovic, who's won four of his thirteen titles on the surface, rolled over Andreas Seppi. Even Jelena Jankovic, with her up-and-down year, made short work of Elena Vesnina to make it to the final sixteen.

While some players were out to prove themselves, others were happy to simply reassert their dominance on a surface they're so comfortable on. Rafael Nadal barely needed an hour to post his thirty-first consecutive win on clay and fellow world #1 Dinara Safina fought her way back after a week second set to pass Lucie Safarova. Meanwhile Fernando Verdasco, who impressively has made it to at least the quarters of every tournament he's played this year, advanced again with only his second-ever victory over Juan Monaco.

Who knows if we're going to see another upset, or if perennial champs will continue their winning ways. But it sure will be an exciting couple of days in Spain!

May 12, 2009

Something's Been Missing

I've said it before, but it's been a rough ride in women's tennis over the last several months.

When we began the year Jelena Jankovic held the top spot, but when she lost at the Australian Open she quickly ceded the position to Serena Williams. Then through a strange series of point-tallying, Dinara Safina climbed her way to becoming the nineteenth woman to be #1.

At first the statistics seemed wrong -- Serena had won the last two Grand Slams, even beating Dinara in the finals of Melbourne. But then she was demolished in the championship round in Miami, lost her next two matches and pulled out of Madrid. Dinara on the other hand followed up second place in Stuttgart with a trophy in Rome.

In the meantime Elena Dementieva grabbed a career high third place for five weeks, but as of Monday gave it up to Venus Williams, who's at her highest post since 2003 despite losing her first match in Spain today. Defending French Open champ Ana Ivanovic has been title-free since October and a couple of teenage newbies keep popping in and around the top ten.

What we need is a dominating force back in the game -- someone who can get to the top and stay there for more than a few weeks at a time. And it may take a while, but we could get the beginnings of an answer next week.

After a disappointing doubles showing in Indian Wells in March, Maria Sharapova announced on her website yesterday that she'd be back on the singles circuit in Warsaw -- her first solo match since August. The triple-Slam winner left the tour with a shoulder injury last summer and has seen her ranking fall from #3 to #65 in the nine months since. But I'm sure she -- as well as a slew of fans -- is happy to be back, and eager to slice her way to the top.

Her post made no mention of whether she was still planning to play at Roland Garros the week after -- I'm sure she's planning to take it one step at a time. But a solid performance could make the draw in Paris all the more interesting.

And I can't wait to watch!

May 10, 2009

So Close!

I had a whole other headline planned out this morning.

After I heard that James Blake had won his two-day semifinal match against Nikolay Davydenko, I started picturing a world in which an American would become a force on clay -- or at least win a title or two on the elusive surface.

And he almost did it.

He had two championship points against Spain's Albert Montanes, who had won his only previous title at the International Series event in Amersfoort. But after he lost the second set James fell apart in the third, double faulting four times and winning less than a quarter of his second serves.

Regardless of the loss, it was a good showing for Blake, who hadn't made a final since Houston last year. He played strong all week, and with Roland Garros only two weeks away, he could reestablish himself as a force.

Meanwhile at the inaugural Serbian Open being held in Belgrade, world #3 Novak Djokovic made his hometown proud. For the title he faced lucky loser Lukasz Kubot, the 179th-ranked Pole who beat Igor Andreev and Ivo Karlovic on his way to his first career singles final.

It was Novak's second championship of the year, and his latest argument in favor of a higher ranking. Hard to believe, but with the 250 points he earned this week, he's slowly inching toward Roger Federer. If he continues his roll next week in Madrid, we could see him unseed the former #1.

Victory is just a stone's throw away!

May 9, 2009

Revenge Is Sweet

Less than a week ago world #1 Dinara Safina was playing in her first championship match since she claimed the top spot from Serena Williams. It was a huge opportunity to prove her worth, since Serena, having won both the U.S. and Australian Opens while Safina had lost the only two Grand Slam finals she'd ever played. What better opportunity than to win the first tournament she played with the ranking?

It must have been frustrating when she lost in straight sets to Svetlana Kuznetsova, who hadn't won a title since New Haven in 2007.

This week, however, Dinara was out for revenge.

In Rome she came close to early elimination several times. Jie Zheng was two points away from a third round upset when Dinara rallied back and unseeded María José Martínez Sánchez was up 6-4, 3-1 in the quarters before losing the next eleven games.

It seemed only fitting that Safina should meet Kuznetsova again in the finals. The fourth best Russian had beaten Daniela Hantuchova, Flavia Pennetta, Jelena Jankovic and red-hot Victoria Azarenka consecutively for her second straight final.

But Dinara was too much to handle two weeks in a row. She got more than seventy percent of her first serves in and absolutely dominated her opponent, winning 71% of Svetlanta's second attempts. Ninety minutes after they took the court, Dinara walked away with her first trophy of the year. And with Serena losing in her first match of the tournament, Dinara may have gotten revenge against two competitors.

Meanwhile in Portugal, James Blake continued his quest to make his first final in over a year -- in fact, like Kuznetsova, his last title came in Connecticut nearly two years ago. Maybe he didn't want Svetlana to get all the glory.

At the semifinals of the Estoril Open, he took on Nikolay Davydenko, whom he has beaten in their six previous meetings. Blake squandered several breaks in the first set, eventually falling in a tiebreak, but held a 4-2 advantage in the second when play was called for darkness. (Come on, kids! It's 2009 -- get some lights!)

Anyway, here's hoping he comes back tomorrow. If he wins, he'll take on seventh seed Albert Montanes, who ousted Gilles Simon in the quarters -- and, fingers crossed, could win his first ever title on clay!

I'll be cheering for him all the way!

May 7, 2009

Could This Be It?

James Blake hasn't had the most successful year so far.

After a decent showing in Melbourne and a trip to the semis in San Jose, he's suffered one early round loss after another, culminating last week with a straight-set defeat at the hands of Victor Crivoi in Rome.

Who would've thought that he'd find his biggest success on clay?

In Estoril, Portugal, though, he's put together back-to-back wins for the first time since February, first beating Frederico Gil in his homeland and then France's Marc Gicquel -- this on a surface where he's won less than fifty percent of his matches.

Now I know better than to get my hopes up too much -- it has been nearly two years since Blake won his last title in New Haven in August of 2007. His first test will be Casablanca runner-up Florent Serra, followed by a potential semifinal meeting with his friend Mardy Fish who, despite the lower ranking, has won the pair's last two meetings.

But I can't think of anything that would give my dear James the confidence he so sorely needs, except a title on the surface that continues to mystify the best Americans.

And what a perfect time to stage a comeback!

May 5, 2009

Setting the Course

The women are following up last week's exciting men's tournament in Rome with their own round of battles at the Internazionali BNL D'Italia, and it could prove to be a solid test for some of the sport's best athletes.

Defending champion Jelena Jankovic faced a bit of a scare in her second round match when Gisela Dulko took her to a tiebreak, but eventually advanced in straight sets. But a rematch of last year's final was precluded when 2008 runner-up Alize Cornet, who's had trouble gaining her footing this year, was demolished by Kateryna Bondarenko.

The tournament also marks the return of Ana Ivanovic as she seeks to defend her French Open crown later this month. She's been pretty quiet so far this year, making it to the finals in Indian Wells, but then losing in the third round in Miami. Current #1 Dinara Safina took nearly two hours to get past Virginie Razzano, and Serena Williams, out to prove she's a force to be reckoned with on clay, hopes to imporove on her first round exit in Marbella last month.

Former top-ten player Anna Chakvetadze put together back-to-back wins for the first time this year as she followed up an upset of sixteenth seen Anabel Medina Garrigues with a tight three-setter against Ponte Vedra Beach finalist Aleksandra Wozniak. And though Elena Vesnina tried to stage her second comeback of the tournament, she ultimately succumbed to China's Jie Zheng, who's finanlly broken into the top twenty.

It's obviously important for all these players to have a strong showing in Rome -- with just a few weeks left until Roland Garros, everyone is trying to make a case for themselves. As it stands, the door leading to the top spot is as wide open as it has been for some time and a couple of big wins could shake up the top-five pretty substantially.

And for those trying to make their first mark of the season, there's never any better time to score an upset than on the red clay of Europe!

May 3, 2009

Primed for a Sweep

Now I don't want to jinx anything, but Rafael Nadal looks ready to win every clay court tournament this year.

He'd already taken the crowns in Monte Carlo and Barcelona -- the fifth straight time he's won both -- and this weekend he became the record four-time champion in Rome when he defeated last year's victor Novak Djokovic in straight sets.

It was an important showing for both players, Nadal reclaiming the title and solidifying his spot at the top, and Djokovic showing that he is a force to be reckoned with on clay -- he upset Roger Federer on his way to the final. Unfortunately for Novak, because he didn't win he's going to lose his #3 ranking to Andy Murray, even though the Brit lost in the first round to Juan Monaco. It's a system which makes me further question the validity of the ranking system -- maybe Murray is the better player this year, but it just seems that the timing is off.

Nadal is taking this next week off, but will be back in action in Madrid the week after. While he will no doubt be the favortie there, it's a tournament he has surprisingly never won! Last year he was ousted in the semis by Gilles Simon and the year before by eventual champion David Nalbandian in the quarters.

But things are different this year. In the past twelve months Rafa has won three of the four majors and the Olympics. So far this year he's only lost three matches, and you have to think that's just bolstering the confidence he already has on clay. Here's hoping he's able to keep up his success.

Incidentally in Stuttgart, where brand new #1 Dinara Safina started off with a bang, the final turned out to be a little more exciting than she'd bargained for. She took on compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has neither won a championship nor managed a victory over Safina since 2007.

But Kuznetsova improved her game in Rome. Going into the semifinals, she'd lost her previous eight matches against top-ten players. When she beat Elena Dementieva, though, she harnessed her momentum and brought her A-game against Safina, winning 6-4, 6-3 and never dropping serve. While it may not be exactly the type of dominance Nadal is enjoying, it can't hurt to reestablish her strength.

Congrats to all!

May 2, 2009

Reaching a Milestone

I have a confession to make.

I have this really bad habit of starting something with a bang and then letting my interest fizzle out and eventually dropping the project entirely. I've started multiple novels but haven't finished one; I took up surfing after a trip to Mexico in 2005 but my board's been sitting idle in my front hallway for over a year.

But here I am, just about eight months into my latest endeavor, and I've reached my landmark 100th posting!

Yay, me!

Don't worry, I'm not going to celebrate by running through my top 100 moments in tennis or anything crazy like that -- obviously I don't have that kind of patience. Instead I choose to look at a couple players who are poised to make their own jump over the #100 line -- though for them, the lower the number the better.

Within a stone's throw of the top hundred is Kazakhstan's Andrey Golubev, who reached his first tour final in St. Petersburg last year before losing to Andy Murray. That performance brought him to a career-high ranking of eighty-ninth in the world, but some early round losses in 2009 have pushed him down again. Andrey lost trying to qualify for Rome this week, but a turnaround in the coming weeks could get him back on track.

Currently ranked #112 Victor Crivoi was slightly more successful in Italy. After reaching the quarterfinals in a challenger event here last week, he made it through the qualifying rounds of the Masters tourney and then unceremoniously outsed James Blake in his first main round match. Though he was subsequently dismissed by Robin Soderling he did put up a fight and took the second set in a tiebreak. If he keeps it up, his first week in the top hundred isn't that far away.

On the women's side the low single digits are dominated by a group of American girls who are trying to prove there are more players in the country than the Williams sisters. Julie Ditty, Alexa Glatch and Melanie Oudin are all coming off a busy Fed Cup weekend where Glatch helped secure the team's first final appearance since 2003. She and Melanie are actually both in the double digits when it comes to race points thanks to recent strong showings, but still have a ways to go in the broader rankings. As clay court season is traditionally difficult for the Americans, it may take some doing, but there's no reason these youngsters couldn't rack up some points over the summer.

Of course as some rise, others must fall and there are inevitably some names that are dangerously close to falling out of the top one hundred.

Despite the fact that former #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero broke his five-year title drought last month in Casablanca, he fell back thirty ranking points to #100 with early exits in Barcelona and Rome. Even more shocking, the eight-plus month absense of Maria Sharapova from the Tour has brought her down to #64. According to the WTA she's not planning to return for at least two weeks, which will shave almost two hundred points from her twelve-month score -- and could drop her to her lowest ranking in six years.

So good luck to all these players as they fight to retain their place or break into a whole level of talent. There are thousands of players just dying to take their spot among the tennis elite.

And just like me, a hundred articles in, once you make it this far the pressure to keep it up is that much more!