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!

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