June 29, 2009

Sneaking Into The Home Stretch

There are only sixteen players left in the singles draw after today's electric fourth round at Wimbledon -- some you'd expect to see and others' names you may have forgotten long ago. And on both the men's and women's sides there are a couple who have gotten to this point with very little fanfare.

Former world #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero is a wildcard in his ninth appearance at the All England Club, and he's very quietly made it to the quarterfinals for the second time. He's had an up-and-down year so far, falling out of the top 100 for a few weeks here and there, but also taking home the trophy in Casablanca -- his first title since 2003! But in London he's beaten four players ranked higher than him, including fan favorite Fabrice Santoro and eighth seed Gilles Simon who, frankly, I didn't expect to make it as far as he did. Next up he's got Andy Murray, who played an amazing match today under the shiny new roof on Centre Court. Juan Carlos lost their only previous meeting a few weeks ago at Queen's Club, but if he can elevate his play to its former level he could stand a chance -- though I don't think he'll be able to do so quite as anonymously as he has so far this tournament!

In the women's bracket it's easy to have missed the ascendancy of Francesca Schiavone. The lowest ranked player still left in that draw hasn't beaten any big names yet, but she has managed to upset three seeded players plus Michelle Larcher De Brito, a Portuguese teenager who had her breakout performance last month at Roland Garros. Schiavone has suffered a couple of early-round losses this year, but did manage a semifinal appearance at 's-Hertogenbosch, where she beat fifth seed Alona Bondarenko. Her win today earns her the right to meet Elena Dementieva, who's playing some of her best tennis at Wimbledon, but the two have evenly split their previous eight meetings. Schiavone has already notched her best appearance at Wimbledon -- one more win would send her to a Grand Slam semi for the first time in her career.

With all the attention being concentrated on a handful of big names and a few small Goliath-killers, both Ferrero and Schiavone might be grateful that they haven't had to deal with too much media pressure -- look what it did to poor Melanie Oudin! But in the last few days of Wimbledon, there's no more hope of avoiding the spotlight. Can't wait to see if these guys do as well on the big stage!

Good luck to them!

By the way, notice my brand new site! I've got all the same great articles at a cool -- and, need I say, very appropriate -- address:! And thanks for sticking with me!

June 28, 2009

A Day of Rest

As is tradition at the All England Club, today, the first Sunday during the Wimbledon fortnight, is not meant to be a day of battle. So at this halfway point I've decided to sit back and reflect on the biggest matches of the past few days and speculate on what's just ahead.

The Surprises

Now I have to admit I didn't expect either Ana Ivanovic or Gilles Simon to make the second week at Wimbledon -- I'd even called for Simon to be upset early and quickly by American Robert Kendrick. Yet somehow, round after round, they've been able to advance, with Ana suggesting she's playing the best tennis of her career.

Former #1 and last year's French Open champ hasn't exactly been having a banner 2009. She made early exits at Miami and Eastbourne and was stoped in her Roland Garros title defense by a strong Victoria Azarenka. She's seen her ranking drop to twelfth in the world and commands an even lower seed in the Wimbledon draw.

But so far at the All England Club, we're seeing signs of the old Ana. Though she lost her very first set to Lucie Hradecka, she quickly rebounded and even survived a long third set, which lasted nearly an hour. Since then, however, she made quick work of strong players like Sara Errani and even this year's French Open standout Samantha Stosur. Her next test, Venus Williams, will clearly be her toughest, but if she plays her best she may be able to pull off the upset.

Simon too had been having a tough year. Though he's largely maintained the ranking he began the year with, he's failed to impress me in recent weeks. He's been defeated by some surprising players -- #44 Mikhail Youzhny at Queen's Club, #54 Ivan Ljubicic in Madrid, #76 Mischa Zverev in Rome -- just to name a few.

But this week he only got behind briefly to Brazil's Thiago Alves and avenged his Roland Garros loss to Victor Hanescu in three easy sets. Next up for him is Juan Carlos Ferrero who's launching his own comeback of sorts. The former #1 was impressive at Queen's Club and even won a title in Casablanca, helping him rebound from his lowest ranking in years. If Simon can get past him he'll mark his best Wimbledon appearance and get himself back on track for the year.

The BIG Surprises

Of course these performances more examples of living up to expectations. There have clearly been some more stunning results.

Fresh off her huge victory at Roland Garros, Svetlana Kuznetsova came to London having one of her best years in quite a while. Yet despite her #5 ranking and two championship titles this year, she couldn't have felt too confident playing on her worst surface. Less than two weeks ago she lost in the first round of Eastbourne against Aleksandra Wozniak and she was taken to a tie break in her opening match here against Akiko Morigami.

Even still no one expected her to lose in the third round to German teenager Sabine Lisicki. While the match was somewhat shaky -- both women traded breaks in the first set and Lisicki lost her serve when she had the chance to take the match -- it was clearly one of the biggest wins in the forty-first ranked player's career. Though she'd beaten Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki on her way to her first title in Charleston, she's never made it past the third round at any Grand Slam -- even losing in the first round at the French. She'll have to win again against Caroline if she wants to move forward, but at least she knows that it's a challenge well within her reach.

Ivo Karlovic is another player you might be surprised to see in the fourth round -- but all evidence suggests you shouldn't be. Though the thirty-sixth ranked Croat has been sent home after just one match for the past four years, he's probably one of the most intimidating players in the draw. At 6'10" he's got a bullet of a serve, averaging 141 miles per hour, and has notched more than a hundred aces in his first three matches.

In spite of his size and strength though, he hasn't had the easiest road to the second week. In his third round match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, he didn't allow the Frenchman one opportunity to break him, but he also had trouble converting on his own. Three of the four sets went to tiebreaks, none of which were runaways. Ivo was able to earn the one break of the match in the third set, and thankfully for him that was all he needed. After nearly three hours he sent home the ninth seed and matched his best Major appearance. If he wants to continue he still has to get past Fernando Verdasco, a man he has managed to beat twice. But in what will surely be a battle of big servers, this match-up will surely be one to watch.

The Downright Shocker

The most amazing performance of the Championships so far, though, has to have come from a young American who's making her Wimbledon debut.

Seventeen-year-old Melanie Oudin had to make in through three qualifying rounds -- even faced a match point in the second set against her first opponent -- to make the main draw at the All England Club. She was rewarded by an opening round match-up with twenty-ninth seed Sybille Bammer. But her best performance was clearly against world #6 Jelena Jankovic in the third round.

It's not that I expected Jankovic, who's been struggling herself this year, to advance much farther in the tournament, but I didn't think she'd lose to the 124th ranked player in such dramatic style. Oudin came back from a one-set deficit after losing a tight tiebreak and waited out a thirteen-minute medical timeout to earn the biggest win of her young career. Though she's played some strong Fed Cup matches and even won a handful of challenger tournaments, the second week of a Major was certainly not yet on her radar. It is now.

I just hope that all the attention and press she's gotten over the last twenty-four hours doesn't unnerve her. She's got a decent chance to win her next match against Aggie Radwanska as long as she stays focus and isn't distracted by her new-found glory.

I wish her the best!

Still to Come

There are of course other matches that will be attracting all our eyes, especially on Monday when all thirty-two remaining singles players will be in action.

Roger Federer and Robin Soderling will reprise their French Open final and, I think, with pretty much the same result. While Soderling is much stronger on grass than on clay, I can't imagine Roger bowing out quite yet.

Andy Roddick's match against Tomas Berdych could also get interesting -- I don't think a lot of people have paid much attention to the twentieth seed, even as he's easily progressed through the draw. Roddick will probably prevail, but there's no reason this match couldn't go four or five long sets.

On the women's side I'll be watching the all Russian pairing of two Elenas -- Dementieva and Vesnina. The fourth seed has been impressive in her first three matches, dropping only twelve games, and this after what must have been a long and frustrating spring. A win on Monday, I hope, will propel her well into the second week.

And of course top seed Dinara Safina will face former champion Amelie Mauresmo. If there's any match that could produce an upset tomorrow, I think this will be it. Dinara's played a couple of close sets and she hasn't been spectacular enough this tournament to make us take notice of her. And Mauresmo is a powerhouse -- she could easily advance at least one more round.

It's going to be an exciting Monday at the All England Club, as it always is -- and I can't wait to watch it!

June 25, 2009

The Biggest Beneficiary

Over the last several days a lot of ink has been spilled (and many pixels lit) discussing who was most thankful for Rafael Nadal's pulling out of Wimbledon.

Roger Federer, who so famously lost his place at the top here a year ago, was the obvious first choice -- his win at Roland Garros put him back on the road to acheiving legend, and Rafa's absence here certainly takes some of the pressure off as he goes for his record fifteenth Grand Slam.

Andy Murray also has had a lot of build-up coming into the greatest tournament of the year. Having made the finals at the U.S. Open last year and acheiving his highest career ranking, he's playing some of the best tennis of his life, and after he took home the trophy at Queen's Club a few weeks ago, his first title on a grass court, he reiterated that he was finally ready to win a Major. Rafa was in his half of the draw -- if everything went as predicted by seeds, Murray would have been stalled at the semis. Now he doesn't have to worry about that.

But today it became clear that the one who benefited most from Nadal's withdrawal was Lleyton Hewitt.

The former #1 has been trying to launch a comeback after a hip injury sidelined him for much of 2008 but has been supremely frustrated along the way. He lost in the quarterfinals in Sydney, his hometown, and bowed out in the first round at the Australian Open. While he did manage to win a title in Houston -- his first since 2007 -- he didn't have to beat a single player ranked in the top seventy to do it. In Paris he had the bad luck of meeting Rafa in the third round. What should have been an exciting match turned into a walk in the park -- for Nadal. Hewitt only won five games during the demolition and was sent home after less than two hours. He couldn't have been too happy when the Wimbledon draws were released last Friday morning and showed that he was lined up to face Rafael again, but this time in the second round.

When Nadal pulled out later that afternoon, though, the entire bracket had to be redrawn. And suddenly Hewitt found himself facing the prospect of Juan Martin Del Potro in his second match. DelPo's no slouch, of course -- the twenty-year-old has an impressive resume, ranked fifth in the world, owner of five singles trophies, and he's beaten some serious competitors this year, including Nadal and Murray. Even still, Lleyton had to like his chances against the Argentine, who's much more of a contender on hard or clay courts -- Juan Martin's never made it past the second round at the All England Club.

And his relief proved to be well-justified. DelPo played well, serving bullets at an average of 123 miles per hour (a benefit of being 6'6" -- man, if I just had a couple more inches...), but ultimately fell to the more experienced Hewitt. It wasn't a short match, almost three hours, but taking only three sets, it could be a good omen for Lleyton.

The win sets up a third round meeting with Philipp Petzschner, a doubles specialist who nevertheless pulled off a win over Fernando Verdasco in Halle a few weeks back. If Lleyton survives, as he should, there are a few more obstacles in his path -- David Ferrer, Andy Roddick, and Andy Murray to name a few. Then again, Hewitt was the last man to win at Wimbledon before the tsunami of Federer and Nadal took over in 2003. I don't think he'll be able to pull off the ultimate victory, but he's in much better shape to advance than he was just a week ago -- and through no fault of his own.

We'll see if he's able to harness this momentum -- but in any case, the men's draw definitely became a bit more interesting!

June 23, 2009

A Final Bow & a Final Blow

Most of the headlines covering today's action at Wimbledon focused on the fact that defending champion Venus Williams sailed through her first round in an easy seventy-eight minutes while Britain's best hope for a title, Andy Murray, himself survived a tough four-setter against American Robert Kendrick.

But there were some other results that merited just as much attention -- including a few performances that marked, or could mark, the end of some storied careers.

Former world #1 Marat Safin announced earlier that this would be his last year as a professional tennis player, and so of course, this would be his last Wimbledon. Though he is currently ranked twenty-fourth in the world he was given a generous fourteenth seed, thanks in part to his semifinal appearance here in 2008, and should have had a clear road to at least the fourth round.

His farewell tour hopes, however, were dashed when he met qualifier Jesse Levine in his first round. The twenty-one year old has only played in two non-challenger events this year, failing to make the main draws at Roland Garros or this month's Queen's Club, and had to win three matches just for the right to play Marat at Wimbledon. But that didn't stop him from bringing his A-game today. He kept his first serve percentage high and dominated the veteran Safin in winners. After four sets, Levine had sent the Russian home, his earliest exit since 2004 when he lost to Dmitry Tursonov.

Guess the Safin family's Wimbledon title hopes will have to rest with the younger sister.

Kimiko Date Krumm is another player who's no stranger to the grandeur of the All England Club. She's played in seven Wimbledons during her career -- the last one in 1996. The thirty-eight year old, once ranked fourth in the world, first made headlines this year when she survived three qualifying rounds in Melbourne to make the Grand Slam down under. In London she was pitted against Caroline Wozniacki, a girl who wasn't even born when Kimiko went pro.

Date Krumm held her own against Caroline, less than half her age, even taking the first set, 7-5 and grabbing an early break to lead in the second. But Wozniacki, who's already proven she's no slouch this year, rebounded in the clutch, winning the next five games and ceding only one more in the final set. After less than two hours, Kimiko's Wimbledon comeback was over.

She hasn't made any formal announcement about whether this will be her last appearance at the tournament, and given her obvious perseverance there's no need to believe she won't be back. But at the same time, you can't help but feel she walked off Court 2 for the last time this afternoon.

I worry that wonder if the same might be true of James Blake.

Of course you must know how it pains me to say so, but I fear the best is over for Blake. Yesterday's loss to Andreas Seppi marks his second straight opening round exit at a Grand Slam, and while he keeps raising my hopes by making the finals at Estoril and even advancing to the championship match at Queen's, he hasn't been able to convert where it counts.

It's now been nearly two years since his last title in New Haven. And just a few months away from turning thirty Blake's no spring chicken -- four of the top five players in the world are twenty-three or younger, and James is easily the oldest man in the top twenty, which admittedly says a lot about his staying power. Of course I hope he sticks around much longer and stays a healthy, competitive player. But as for being one of the best and hoping he captures his first Major title -- well, that might be asking too much.

Then again, if Kimiko's story doesn't inspire him to stick around, I don't know what will -- and as we all know, tennis is one sport in which anyone can mount a comeback!

June 21, 2009

Wimbledon Preview

There may be four official Grand Slam events in tennis, but across the world there's only one we call "The Championships".

It's no wonder, then, that a Wimbledon trophy carries a caché that even other Majors do not -- and that players and fans alike hold the games here in such high regard. There's something dignified, even regal, about this tournament -- and winners can truly be thought of as kings and queens of their sport.

In a tale not unlike the wending history of a European monarchy, last year we witnessed something of an uprising as one long-time ruler was unceremoniously dethroned by a foreign upstart and another staunchly pushed off advances by her wily sister.

But this year's tournament already promises an even more intriguing coup. Last year's king Rafael Nadal, officially -- and very disappointingly -- pulled out of Wimbledon on Friday afternoon, leaving the line of succession all twisted. You might think you know who's next in line, but like in any good revolution, there are bound to be surprises.

Women's Draw

Something seems to take over defending champion Venus Williams at Wimbledon. No matter what she's looked like all year, when she steps on the grass at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club she becomes a different player. She went straight from a third-round loss at the French Open last year to a victory here as the seventh seed. She won in 2007 while ranked thirty-first in the world, pulling off "upsets" over Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova on her way.

This year she's trying to win her sixth title with a #3 ranking, the highest she's had in the tournament since 2002. And though she's suffered some upsets in recent weeks -- including another third round loss in Paris -- we all should know better than to count her out. Same with sister Sererna, runner-up last year and the number two seed in 2009. In fact there has only been one year this decade when neither of the two played in the final.

But there are plenty of others who want to make this the year the ruling family is unseated.

Top-ranked Dinara Safina has played in two straight Grand Slam championship matches and still hasn't come away with a title, which has to be frustrating. In the Netherlands this past week, she made her way to the semis before falling to veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn. She should have a few easy rounds at Wimbledon, but is lined up to meet former champion Amelie Mauresmo in the quarters fourth round. With her unfortunate tendency to fold under pressure -- sorry, but it's true -- I'm not sure she'll get too much farther.

Speaking of folding, the woman Dinara fell to in Paris -- Kuznetsova -- is in the same quarter of the draw. She was runner up here in 2005, when she lost to Lindsey Davenport, and has an easy first round against the #713 woman in the world, Akiko Morigami. But she could face Eastbourne champ Caroline Wozniacki for the quarters, and it's not easy to look past that Danish teenager.

For her part, Caroline has proven she can be a force on grass and clay, defeating some real competitors in the meantime. Her first opponent in London will be thirty-eight year old Kimiko Date Krumm, who made it all the way to the semifinal round in her last Wimbledon appearance -- in 1996. If Wozniacki survives she could face Safina or Kuznetsova before the semis.

Then there's Maria Sharapova who won her first of three Major titles here in 2004. After a nine-month absence she's proven to be a resilient competitor, making the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the semis at Birmingham. Despite the fact that she hasn't yet made her way back into the top fifty, she was granted the benefit of a 24th seed at Wimbledon. She's set to meet either Anastasiya Yakimova or Nadia Petrova in the third round, but that shouldn't be a problem -- she beat both in Paris. Her biggest threat would come from Serena, runner-up in 2004, who she might have to battle for a spot in the semis.

Men's Draw

As exciting as the women's bracket could get, I think the real fireworks will be reserved for the men.

By now we all know the story about how Rafael Nadal, once largely -- and unfairly -- criticized for being a force only on clay, dethroned Roger Federer, who was going for his sixth straight title at Wimbledon last year. When he followed that up with a victory in Melbourne, we all -- well, I -- started talking about how Rafa was destined to be the new King of Tennis. But then the unthinkable happened in Paris, followed by Nadal's decision to bow out here. (*Tear!*)

(Incidentally, did anyone notice how Rafa's had those four flames on his sneakers in Paris, one for each title he'd won there? Roger had something similar last year at the AELTC. Both lost on their respective homefields. Coincidence?)

It seems now that the path is clear for Roger to reclaim his spot at the top. But with the balance of men's tennis all upset, there's no telling what could happen in 2009. This could be the year Federer puts his record fifteenth Major trophy on his mantle, but it could just as easily be the year someone brand new gets crowned as champion.

Andy Murray is certainly one of the possible contenders. His win at Queen's Club a week ago ended a seventy-one British drought at the event, and gave him his first grass court title. Grudgingly I admit he's probably the best player -- man or woman -- without a Grand Slam title, and playing at home should be to his advantage. At the same time he's got a decent draw, but there could be some thorns in his side. He's got a potential fourth round matchup with Stanislas Wawrinka, who has a decent 3-4 record against Murray. And if he makes the semis, Juan Martin Del Potro -- who pulled off a major upset over the Brit in Madrid just last month -- could be waiting for him.

The other Andy -- Roddick -- could be the other man to watch. He started this year with a lot of hype, having lost some fifteen pounds, getting himself in better shape and getting to at least the quarters of every tournament he's played, except for Roland Garros. Even still he did have his best showing there, advancing to the second week on the clay court tourney for the first time in his career -- and Wimbledon is a surface he's much more comfortable on, making the finals twice before. Unfortunately he did suffer an ankle sprain during the semis in Queen's Club so might not be fully up to form to face Jeremy Chardy in the first round. The Frenchman's no slouch -- he's scored upsets over David Ferrer, Radek Stepanek and Mardy Fish all this year -- so Andy's going to have to be in good shape

Things to Watch

As with any Grand Slam tournament, there are always a few surprise stars who battle their way through to the second week. Dominika Cibulkova and Samantha Stosur did it at the French, but given some of their missteps on grass this past week, they may have to wait 'til clay court season rolls around again before they can make their mark.

On the other hand there have been a couple winners in the last few weeks that could make an impact. Tommy Haas, who took Federer's place as champion at Halle, took out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic on his way to the title. Seeded just below him at #25 is Eastbourne champ Dmitry Tursunov. Both should have easy first rounds, but Haas could face Nole again for the semis while Tursunov potentially has DelPo or even Lleyton Hewitt in the third round.

I'm also rooting for some youngsters to show their metal. Slovakian teenager Magdelena Rybarikova took her first title in Birmingham and French Open standout Sorana Cirstea will receive her first ever seeding at a major. But Maggie pulled out of 's-Hertogenbosch with a thigh strain and Sorana lost early to eventual finalist Yanina Wickmayer. It'll definitely be a struggle, but I can't wait to watch them try to pull it off!

And just hours from the start of the greatest tournament in tennis, I'm hoping for a fantastic two weeks as we watch the battle to crown this year's king and queen!

Stay tuned!

June 20, 2009

The Last Leg

Now that we've all had time to digest the Big News from yesterday, it's time to look past our supreme disappointment that we won't see a repeat of last year's greatest game and remember that there are some people who actually had a thing of two to celebrate this week.

In only the second week of grass court warm-ups before Wimbledon kicks off on Monday, a slew of players turned up at the AEGON International and Ordina Open. While a ton of seeds were eliminated early, a couple did manage to fight their way into the latter part of the week, joined by a couple of newcomers looking to make their names known.

In Eastbourne the Canadian qualifier who took out top-seeded Igor Andreev in the first round, backed up his strong start by making it all the way to the finals. Frank Dancevic made his second career final by beating Fabrice Santoro in the semis on Friday. There he faced the second seed, twenty-seventh ranked Dmitry Tursunov, who'd put together back-to-back wins for only the second time this season. Though the younger Dancevic held his own, he wasn't able to earn himself even one break point on the Russian's serve, and allowed Dmitry his first grass court title.

The women's draw was upset even more, as neither Elena Dementieva nor French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova made it out of the second round. Dementieva's vanquisher, Virginie Razzano, continued her success by subsequently taking out Aggie Radwanska and Marion Bartoli, while Aleksandra Wozniak, who'd defeated Svets, succumbed to sort-of namesake Caroline Wozniacki. The Danish teenager, who's already won one title and made three finals this year, continued her very successful run and took home championship #4, despite dropping her serve three times.

A little further west in the Netherlands, it looked like last year's winner David Ferrer might have had an easy road to repeat when both Fernando Verdasco and Tommy Robredo lost in the first few rounds. But when he lost in the quarters, it seemed the title was up for grabs. Eventually qualifier Benjamin Becker and wildcard Raemon Sluiter made it to the finals, neither of whom had ever won a tournament. Becker, who originally made a name for himself and distinguished himself from the more-famous Boris when he ousted Andre Agassi from the 2006 U.S. Open, hadn't been able to capitalize on his early success -- until today, when he won his first trophy in straight sets over Sluiter.

The women's final at the Ordina Open was also populated by some surprising names. Though world #1 Dinara Safina advanced easily in her first two rounds, she was shocked by Tamarine Tanasugarn in the semis -- incidentally the same woman who'd beaten her in the finals last year. On the bottom half Estoril champion Yanina Wickmayer, who's had a great two-month run, defeated Roland Garros stand-out Sorana Cirstea and former top-twenty player Francesca Schiavone on her way to the finals. But the more experienced Tanasugarn was too much for Yanina, and she claimed her third career title in straight sets.

All this week's winners will have a tough road at Wimbledon, Rafa or no Rafa. But their break-through wins on grass certainly could give them a lot of encouragement. These days, it doesn't seem anyone's really a favorite -- and anything really can happen.

Congrats to all, and good luck!

June 17, 2009

Trippin' Up & Steppin' Up

Today I spent the afternoon on a different kind of grass court, the grounds of the U.S. Open golf tournament, which only served to get me more excited for Wimbledon! But I wasn't quite expecting the kind of action we've seen this week -- in the last warm-up tournaments before The Championships begin on Monday, more seeds have dropped than during a windstorm in a field full of dandelions.

First there's the Ordina Open, being held in that place in the Netherlands no one can pronounce -- 's-Hertogenbosch. Clay court specialists Fernando Verdasco and Tommy Robredo took the top spots in the men's draw, but they were respectively defeated by Benjamin Becker and Marcos Baghdatis, both of whom are just barely ranked in double-digits. While the women had slightly better luck -- Dinara Safina and Flavia Pennetta are still alive -- French Open quarterfinalist Sorana Cirstea and semifinalist Dominika Cibulkova weren't as lucky. In Eastbourne top seed Elena Dementieva, Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and former #1 Jelena Jankovic were all eliminated in the first two rounds while Igor Andreev and Paul-Henri Mathieu were both ousted early in the men's draw -- it's just a disappointment after such a disappointing start.

While we could write off some of these performances to nerves leading up to the biggest tournament of the year, others are slightly more disturbing. I'm a huge fan of Dementieva, but after a perfect start to the year and three final appearances in her first four tournaments, she's struggled recently, sneaking past Jelena Dokic in Paris before losing to Samantha Stosur. Jelena Jankovic may have earned a title in Marbella, Spain, but she's also been upset by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Gisela Dulko, and most recently Sorana Cirstea. And after Verdasco's breakthrough performance in Melbourne, he's now only won one match on grass.

I don't mean to say that these stars' careers are over -- far from it! But the pains of these top players will certainly open the door for others who wish to advance at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club. The two top seeds at Wimbledon, announced earlier today, Rafael Nadal and Dinara Safina are surely feeling a little relieved. Both obviously were disappointed with the outcome in Paris, and any leeway they might be able to secure will surely be appreciated. Rafa certainly wants to make up for the loss on his home turf while Dinara, well, just wants to win one!

Then there's Maria Sharapova, who's climbed her way back to #59 in the world after a nine-month injury-induced absense. Her past performances in London have granted her the twenty-fourth seed in the draw. And Dinara's brother Marat, who's finally announced that this will be his last year on tour, was rewarded with the fifteenth fourteenth seed, eight spots above his ranking. Both of them must be happy with the way things are shaping up.

There are just a few more days before The Championships start, and things are sure to get even more interesting. Be sure to come back to find out my picks to take it all home!

June 14, 2009

Mowing Down the Grass

Is it just me or does this year's grass court season seem shorter than normal?

Given the apparently compressed schedule, it's no wonder so many players are on the courts during the two weeks between the French Open and Wimbledon -- and this week's tournaments across Europe truly attracted the top talent.

Of course Rafael Nadal had pulled out of the warm-up at Queen's Club while Roger Federer withdrew from Halle -- but there was certainly no shortage of star power. Andy Murray and Andy Roddick led the way in London while Novak Djokovic and Fernando Verdasco took top billing in Germany.

Murray took the top seed at the AEGON Championships and he definitely came to his adopted country with a mission. Despite an impressive 24-8 record on grass, the twenty-two year old has never won a title on the surface he should feel at home on. But this year was different, and he made it to the finals without dropping a set, beating sixth-seeded Mardy Fish and former #1 Juan Carlos Fererro.

On the other side of the draw my dear James Blake let his opponents clear the road for him. Mikhail Youzhny took out third seed Gilles Simon while Roddick dispatched Lleyton Hewitt in a match where no one was able to break the other's serve. Andy unfortunately suffered an ankle injury in their semifinal match, though, and allowed James to reach his second final of the year.

For both personal and patriotic reasons I of course would have liked the American to win. But Murray eventually claimed his fourth title of the year, out-acing Blake 7-1 and converting all three of his break opportunities.

But on the bright side I was impressed by the performance of my countrymen in London, with all three entrants making at least the quarters. If they remain -- or get -- healthy, it could bode well for their performance at Wimbledon.

The men who played in Halle, however, might have something to say about that.

Though Verdasco lost early on to German Phllipp Petzschner, Nole made it to the finals despite facing five match points against Florent Serra in the second round. There he faced an unseeded Tommy Haas, who had already eliminated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Haas has been launching a comeback this year after more than a twenty-four month title drought followed by being allegedly poisoned at the 2007 Davis Cup. Although Novak was clearly the favorite, Tommy didn't seem to be too bothered, taking the first set 6-3 while winning 92% of his first serves. Djokovic took the second in a tiebreak, but Haas wasn't deterred. He made quick work of the top-five player in the final set, winning 6-1 and earning his very first grass court title.

On the women's side Maria Sharapova continued her quest to get in some match play before Wimbledon begins. She looked good in her third straight tournament since returning to the Tour in Warsaw and made it to the semifinals in Birmingham -- unfortunately she lost to eventual runner-up Na Li.

Ultimately Slovakian twenty-year-old Magdelena Rybarikova claimed her first career trophy, defeating Li easily, 6-0, 7-6. The win doesn't quite earn the fifty-eighth ranked beauty a seed at next week's Ordina Open in the Netherlands, where she faces Alona Bondarenko in the first round. But it certainly marks a breakthough in her career -- in this tournament alone she notched big wins over top seed Jie Zheng and Sania Mirza, who she'd lost to in Pattaya City. She could be one to watch at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club.

The countdown to Wimbledon has definitely begun!

June 10, 2009

Little Rest for the Weary

The French Open has barely been put to bed and already players are back in action as they gear up for the next leg of the tennis season.

With Wimbledon less than two weeks away, there's not a lot of time to warm up for the grass-court stretch, so it's no surprise that the tournaments this week boast some of the top talent -- Andy Murray is the #1 seed at Queen's Club in London and Novak Djokovic leads the pack in Halle, Germany.

But there are some notable absences this week -- and one that might be a little alarming.

Roger Federer, physically and emotionally drained after his historic victory in Paris, won't be seeking a sixth trophy in Halle. He announced on his website yesterday that he needs a little extra time to rest and recuperate after his run at Roland Garros.

More disturbing was the fact that reigning Wimbledon champ Rafael Nadal wouldn't be defending his title at Queen's Club due to a mysterious knee injury. He's been having trouble for some time, retiring from his quaterfinal match at the ATP Masters Series in Paris last year and subsequently pulling out of the year-end championships in Shanghai.

Nadal says he still plans to compete at the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club and will fly to London next week. After his disappointment at the French Open I imagine that sheer pride will force him to show up, though he concedes he may have to withdraw if he doesn't feel he can give his best. On his homepage this week, he said:

"I am going to give my 200% to be ready for the most important tournament in the world. The tournament that I always dream about. I will not go out and play, especially on the Wimbledon Centre Court, if I am not 100% ready to play. I have two difficult weeks ahead of me, especially because I won't be doing what I like doing most, which is to play tennis."

Of course I wish him a speedy recovery, but -- a little bit selfishly -- I hope he's able to return in top form to defend his Wimbledon title. You have to admit there was something missing from last weekend's final, and I think it can only be cured with another Rafa-Roger showdown.

As we know, when they're playing their best, there's no greater show in sports. And this tournament won't be the same without them!

June 7, 2009

For the History Books

They both had a lot riding on this one match -- but in the end more experience, stronger nerves and unbridled talent helped the great Roger Federer prevail.

Roger, for one, was looking to win his fourteenth Major trophy, matching the six and a half year old record set by Pete Sampras and completing a career Grand Slam. His opponent, twenty-three seeded Robin Soderling, wanted to claim his first big championship by doing something no one had ever done -- defeating both Roger and Rafael Nadal in a Slam.

I have to admit I was torn in my loyalties today. On the one hand I knew that Federer would eventually go down in history as the greatest tennis player of all time, and I didn't begrudge him any victory. But at the same time I wanted Sampras, my all-time favorite, to hold on to the record he set for as long as possible.

But once long-time rival Nadal was so handily eliminated last Sunday, all the pundits seemed to realize this was Roger's year. And even though he struggled the following day, falling behind two sets to none against Tommy Haas, and was almost eliminated in the semis by Juan Martin Del Potro, in the finals he was all business. In a relatively easy match where the most exciting moment came when a crazy fan rushed the court early in the second set, Roger reminded us why he's been on top for so long.

It was a moment a long time coming, and one achieved on the unlikeliest of stages. Of course we know Roger had three title opportunities in Paris before this and was each time denied the crown by Nadal. And less than a year ago his journey was prolonged even further when Rafa stunned him on the court he'd come to call home. After he broke down in Australia, losing there to his nemesis for the thirteenth time, he seemed to have trouble finding his footing and I began to wonder if he'd be able to get it back together this year.

With this win he certainly put everyone's doubts and concerns to rest -- and put himself back on the course to well surpass the record he now shares. At twenty-seven, he's almost four years younger than Sampras was when he won lucky number fourteen. And with the career Grand Slam in the bag all the pressure is off -- he can now sit back, relax and play for the fun of it.

And we all know how fun it is to watch him play!

By the way, lest we forget, it all started in 2003 with a straight-set victory over Mark Philippousis at Wimbledon, when the twenty-one year old Federer was incredibly ranked fifth in the world. It's hard to remember a time before he was #1, isn't it? If he keeps it up, he could be back there soon!

Where There Is No Norm

It's easy to forget, given recent history, that the French Open is one where upsets are the norm. Unheard of players have the opportunity win here, but then tend to go quietly into the night.

Remember Gaston Gaudio, the Argentine who won here in 2004 as the fourty-fourth ranked man -- incidentally, the last man to win before Rafael Nadal began his reign? He won a couple titles the next year, but nothing to write home about.

Or Gustavo Kuerten who took home his first of three trophies in 1997, ranked sixty-sixth? He got to #1 in the world, but never was able to cause any real damage on other surfaces.

The women's draws have had similar results -- Anastasia Myskina, Iva Majoli, and even Ana Ivanovic never made a big dent after winning here.

So given that backdrop, we shouldn't be that shocked that Robin Soderling made it to the finals in Paris. And I'm sure he's hoping desperately to, not only be the next major vanquisher of giants, but to keep his name in the headlines for years to come.

Roger Federer is clearly the favorite to win his first French Open title today, and tie Pete Sampras's record fourteen Major titles. Five games into the first set, it looks like he's on track to do just that. We'll see if Soderling is able to pull out another huge upset -- beating both Rafa and Roger in one Slam would be a feat beyond compare.

Whatever the results, I'm hoping it's a good fight!

June 6, 2009

Another Rematch

At least someone took my New Year's resolution for them seriously!

Of course that means that someone else has to wait at least a few more weeks before she can do the same.

Dinara Safina came to the French Open ranked #1 in the world for the first time at a Grand Slam. She'd won two titles in the weeks leading up to Paris and played an exemplary tournament, losing just five games in the first four rounds. She was only tested once during the fortnight, dropping one set to Victoria Azarenka before rallying through the quarterfinals.

On the other hand Svetlana Kuznetsova hadn't been having the most successful year before the clay court season began. Though she held firmly to her spot in the top ten by advancing well into tournaments, she hadn't won a title since New Haven in 2007. Though she had ended that year at a career-high #2 ranking, she'd since let compatriots like Dinara, Elena Dementieva and Vera Zvonareva all climb ahead of her. In a time when Russian women were dominating women's tennis, she'd become the lesser-known also-ran.

But when the 2009 European season began, both players seemed to hit their stride. Svetlana ended a long losing streak in tournament finals with a win over Safina in Stuttgart. That championship match was reprised in Rome, but this time went in favor of Safina.

It was only fitting that these two should meet for the title at Roland Garros.

It's not exactly the same caliber of the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but it is shaping up to be rather interesting. Both were playing in their second final in Paris, and Dinara clearly had the added pressure of trying to win her first Grand Slam trophy. She seemed determined to finally prove that she deserved the #1 ranking she'd claimed in April -- maybe too determined.

Svetlana had the harder road to the finals, having to beat three seeded players, including Serena Williams, in a row while Safina's only threat came from Azarenka. But though the top seed opened the match by breaking her opponents serve, she seemed to have trouble after that. Midway through the second set she showed signs that she might be buckling under the stress. Meanwhile Dinara's seven double faults -- the last coming on championship point -- certainly helped her opponent keep her cool.

After just over an hour, Svetlana Kuznetsova earned her second major title and reaffirmed her place among tennis's strongest women. It'll be interesting to see if she can keep up the momentum through the summer -- and if Safina will be able to regroup and get back on track to acheive her/my resolution!

Incidentally during her Paris run, Svetlana not only beat the #1 player in Safina, but also #2 Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. The last time that's happened was when Justine Henin took the crown here in 2003 after beating Serena and Kim Clijsters.

But Robin Soderling hopes it will happen again tomorrow as he faces second-seed Federer in the men's final. After taking out world #1 Nadal last Sunday, a win here would not only be Soderling's first Grand Slam title, but also one of the biggest coups in sports history.

Both players faced long semifinal matches to get here -- it took each of them five sets to dismiss their opponents, so neither is particularly well-rested. And while Roger has never lost to Soderling, the Swede seems to be playing a wholly different game these days.

You know tomorrow will be a match for the history books!

June 5, 2009

Doing Their Dirty Work

As much as I love a really good fight on the battlefield, I have a tendency -- for my favorites -- to root for an easy road to victory.

Don't get me wrong -- I love the excitement of overtime or extra innings and a fifth set with match points on either side of the net. But, like a protective mother, I often hope that my team is never in danger of losing.

Take, for example, Wimbledon, 1995.

My all-time favorite Pete Sampras, ranked and seeded #2 in the world, was out for his third straight title in England. But in his way was top dog and long-time rival Andre Agassi. Though at that point, Pete had the slight 8-7 record against his friend, Andre was playing some of the best tennis of his life -- having beaten Sampras in the finals at Melbourne and Miami earlier that year.

Their matches were always phenomenal and put on a show unlike many others. Even still I was worried that Andre's hard hitting and obvious tenacity would be too much for Pete, who had already lost sets to unknown players like Karsten Braasch and Shuzo Matsuoka during the tournament. Sampras had a lot on the line at Wimbledon and Agassi was a huge threat. So I prayed for someone else to clear the way for him and get rid of Agassi before Pete had to face him.

And that's just what Boris Becker did.

In one of the best matches I've ever seen, the fourth-seeded German took Agassi to four sets in their semifinal match, out-aced him twenty-two to four, and scored the upset in just under three hours. But just as I expected Becker wasn't able to maintain his dominance when he met Pete in the finals. After getting Andre out of the way, he made it pretty easy for Pete to, well, three-peat.

Okay, maybe the world was denied a great matchup in the final, but I didn't care. The win put Pete on his way to acheiving tennis history -- a legend that has endured to this day.

I wonder if that's how Roger Federer and Dinara Safina feel this year.

Now I've been as loud as anyone hoping for another Roger-Rafa Slam final, but Federer had to know that if he was going to win the French Open, someone else would have to take out Rafael Nadal. They've met here four times before and Federer has only taken three sets -- none of them in the same match.

Of course I wondered whether winning here would mean as much if he didn't get to face Nadal. Assuming Roger even makes the final, we probably won't get the championship match we've become accustomed to here. But hell, the road to a record-tying fourteen Majors and a career Grand Slam -- something Pete never acheived -- must seem a lot less bumpy now that Robin Soderling was able to do what Federer seemingly could not.

Dinara Safina is on the same boat, though her goal is ever-so-slightly less lofty. She's been to two Grand Slam finals, but never won a title. She claimed the world #1 ranking even though she'd lost her last three matches to the woman she took it from, Serena Williams . She's won eleven Tour titles, just a third of her biggest rival's. Of course she's been successful -- she's just looking to prove herself on a bigger scale.

So Dinara has to be happy that she won't have to meet her nemesis in Paris -- countrywoman Svetlana Kuznetsova took care of that for her in the quarterfinals. Even though she earned two titles on clay in the weeks leading up to Roland Garros, the prospect of her first Grand Slam championship is probably a lot brighter today.

In any case, Roger and Dinara certainly owe a big debt of gratitude to their fellow competitors in Paris -- it could have been a lot harder for them to acheive their ends here. And while the matchups may not be what we wished to see, I'm hoping that they all put on a show that is deserving of the title!

June 2, 2009

Bracket Busters

Yesterday I tweeted my predictions for who would make the semifinals in Roland Garros.

I should've know better.

After years and years of starting out strong in my March Madness pools only to fumble the ball at the one-yard line ( about your mixed metaphor), I've come to expect I won't fare well in my forecasts. And with Day 1 of the quarterfinals put to bed, I've been reminded why I don't buy lottery tickets.

Four of the eight quarterfinal matches took place today and I chose exactly none of the winners.

I figured Robin Soderling would have been wiped out, both physically and emotionally, after he scored the upset of the decade, and I hoped that four straight three-set victories for Maria Sharapova over some feisty opponents would well prepare her to handle a comparatively inexperienced twenty-year-old. I've never been a big believer in Andy Murray, especially since he's never won a title on clay, but pundits kept insisting this was his tournament. And Victoria Azarenka was looking good this fortnight, and I chose her to notch the upset over the current world #1.

Of course Soderling proved he had more mettle than I gave him credit for and handed Nikolay Davydenko a quick loss, and Maria's good luck came to an end as she won only two games against Dominika Cibulkova. Andy Murray put up a bit of a fight in the second set but ultimately lost 4-6 to Fernando Gonzalez in the fourth, and despite a solid 6-1 lead in the first set, Azarenka had trouble breaking Dinara Safina again and also went out 4-6 in the third.

That leaves me with four more chances to redeem myself.

I feel my best chance is with Roger Federer and Gael Monfils, in which I put my money on the former #1 who's going for his record-tying fourteenth Grand Slam title. The two have played four times before and Roger has only dropped one set -- incidentally at Roland Garros last year. But then again Monfils has the French crowd behind him, and if he can rattle Federer like he did Andy Roddick yesterday, I can see my pick wither in the heat.

And then there's the battle of former #1 Serena Williams and former #2 Svetlana Kuznetsova. Serena won their last three meetings, but neverthe less I picked the Russian, who put up quite a fight in Melbourne last January. Besides, Svetlana has only lost one set in Paris and made two straight finals in Stuttgart and Rome. Then again, Serena is Serena and she seems to find a way to pull out wins no matter how far down she gets.

The matchup between Tommy Robredo and Juan Martin Del Potro should be a good one -- two powerful clay court players that have had amazing years. Robredo has won two titles already in 2009 while DelPo took the crown in Auckland and scored his first career victory over Rafael Nadal in Miami. While I gave Robredo the nod based on his experience and his dominating record on the surface, Juan Martin has sailed through his bracket, losing only one set in a tiebreak to home-grown hero Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

The biggest wildcard is the final women's match between Australian hotshot Samantha Stosur and Hungarian upstart Sorana Cirstea. Stosur, relatively a veteran, has had a break-out year, beating players like Aggie Radwanska, Amelie Mauresmo and even Safina. But nineteen-year-old Cirstea has had an amazing tournament, beating three seeded players in a row, including Jelena Jankovic, my original pick to win the whole enchilada (crepe??), in the Round of Sixteen. Here again I'm going for the upset -- after watching Sorana play I think she's clearly on her way to being a big force in this sport.

So will I mount a comeback like Dinara did today? Probably not. In any case, I'm now taking bets on whether I get any of my semifinal picks right.