August 30, 2009

U.S. Open Preview

Well it's finally here -- the last Grand Slam of 2009 begins tomorrow, and the hardcourt action leading up to the U.S. Open has set the stage for what's sure to be an amazing tournament.

I may be a little biased -- as a (sort-of) native New Yorker, this is my home court, so of course I prefer this to other Majors. But whether it's the rowdy crowds, the bright lights of night matches, or the colorful characters both on and off the court, there's an energy in Flushing Meadows that's just not there in Wimbledon or even the French.

And this year's tournament promises not to disappoint. At the Taste of Tennis event in Manhattan Thursday night, emcee Hannah Storm of ESPN said:
"I think the men's side is going to be amazing. It's real deep, it's real competitive. Roger Federer, of course, going for his sixth U.S. Open title. On the women's side you have equally great tennis and players with tremendous histories here in New York."

It's a story of comebacks this summer -- Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters are all playing their first professional tennis in weeks, months, even years. But it's not only them -- Jelena Jankovic, Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Carlos Ferrero are all making a run back into the big leagues.

As always, it's going to be an exciting couple of weeks!

Men's Draw

Defending champion Federer is clearly the favorite in New York, as he aims to win his sixth straight title in New York and his sixteenth Major trophy. It would be the third year in which he's reached at least the final of every Grand Slam and the third time he's won three consecutive titles. And, as so many like to point out, it would be the first Major he's won as a father! Talk about a big year.

Roger's first round opponent will be the U.S.'s teen phenom, Devin Britton, a semifinalist in the boys' tournament at Wimbledon this year. Though that should be an easy match, Federer has a potential third round date with Hewitt and a possible quarterfinal match-up with Roland Garros runner-up Robin Soderling, a man who has said no one ever beats him ten eleven twelve times in a row. That should make the multiple record-holder shake in his boots.

Tournament officials might have done a little maneuvering to allay one of fans' biggest fears when they announced draws on Thursday. In the weeks leading up to the Open, so many had been focused on the fact that, for the first time in years, Federer and recent #1 Rafael Nadal could meet before the finals of a Major. When Rafa failed to recapture his #2 ranking in Cincinnati a week ago, he was relegated to his lowest seeding in a Major since 2005's Wimbledon. Despite his third spot the powers that be nevertheless decided to keep the possibility of the big match-up alive, placing the two in separate halves of the bracket.

Nadal's got a tough first round against Richard Gasquet, just back on Tour after a two-month suspension for illeged cocaine use. That obstacle aside, Rafa should have a pretty easy time into the semis, with one exception -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. A few weeks ago I wouldn't have given the Frenchman much of a chance, but after that stunning comeback from being down 1-5 in the third set to defeat Federer, I can no longer discount him.

Oddly enough, if Nadal does win the title, he'll achieve a career Grand Slam, only the seventh man to do so, a short four months after Roger accomplished the same feat at Roland Garros. I'd speculated before that Nadal could have gained the honor before Federer, and still contend that he would have had he not gotten injured. And while I think he still will get there -- and soon -- he may have to wait a little longer. Of the admittedly few people who voted on my online poll, half believe Rafa will eventually win the Open, just not this year.

Instead, a ton of hype continues to swirl around Andy Murray, Nadal's potential semifinal opponent. My prejudices aside, I'm still not sure he has it in him. He blamed a grueling week in Montreal for his "early" loss in the Cincinnati semifinals (incidentally, the same excuse that led Juan Martin Del Potro to withdraw from the second Masters event).

While Murray had a week off to rest and train, he's got a couple of threats in his section of the draw. His opening round against Ernests Gulbis should be routine, but the Latvian has had some successes this year, beating Novak Djokovic and Sam Querrey. Big-serving Ivo Karlovic looms as a potential third-round opponent and, if he remains healthy, DelPo could be in search of revenge to keep Murray out of the semis. But, to be honest, I have to admit the Scot will likely get there.

For his spot in the final four, fourth seeded Novak Djokovic may have to face Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick, who has beaten him all three times they've met this year. I've never been particularly impressed by the Serb -- even though he's the only man other than Roger or Rafa to win a Major since Australia in 2005 -- but he really impressed me in Cincinnati last week, really working a struggling Nadal and holding his ground after being demolished by Federer in their first set.

Roddick for his part won his only title of the year in Memphis, but he did make two finals in a row this summer and he's the last one to win in New York since Roger began his reign. He's looked consistently strong all year and has had more than a week off to rest. Andy should also take comfort in the fact that Del Potro, his nemesis all summer, is in the other half of the draw. Roddick could face rising star John Isner in the third round, though, a man who gave him quite a run in D.C. and seems to be getting more and more confident on the big stage.

Speaking of up-and-coming Americans, let's not forget Querrey, who secured his spot at the top of the U.S. Open Series leaderboard when he beat Bjorn Phau in the third round at New Haven. He's got an extra million dollars riding on his performance in New York, and I can think of no better motivation to power through some tough draws. Sam could force a repeat of Thursday's quarterfinal with Nikolay Davydenko in the round of sixteen, a match he won in an exciting three sets.

Women's Draw

Defending U.S. Open champion Serena Williams is the second seed this week, behind Dinara Safina who's played in eight finals already this year. Of course Serena is always a contender at a Slam as she always brings her A-game to the big stage. Then again she was less than stellar in the lead-up to New York, notching losses to Sam Stosur and Sybille Bammer, either of whom she could meet before the quarters, and looking utterly defeated in her semifinal loss to Elena Dementieva in Toronto, someone she can only see in the final.

In order to get there though, she'd have to get through yet another challenge from her older sister. The draw masters were less kind to Serena and Venus than they were to Roger and Rafa -- if the brackets procede as intended, they would meet in the semis. Venus, of course the champ here in 2000 and 2001, has been struggling too during the summer. She lost in the L.A. finals to Marion Bartoli, who she might face in the fourth round, and didn't get in more than two match wins after that.

As for the #1 seed, I fear Safina will have a tough time in New York -- and you seem to agree. In the poll I conducted over the past week, only one person said she would win the Open this year. While she definitely has the ability to win a Major eventually, she seems to have a mental block when it comes to the big tournaments. Runner up in two French Opens and another Australian, she also choked in Cincinnati and Toronto, two premier events. She's got a quaterfinal date with last year's runner-up Jelena Jankovic, who crushed her a few weeks back in Ohio, and is in the same half as Svetlana Kuznetsova, her vanquisher in Paris. Dinara's going to need a little more than luck to make her third Major final this year.

The players that round out the top five should also not be forgotten. Jankovic herself proved in Cincinnati that she's still got the fight that earned her a #1 ranking last year -- she was magnificent in that defeat of Dinara Safina in the earlier this month. And Toronto champ Dementieva has had an incredible year -- like Querrey, she heads up the U.S. Open Series standings and will earn a nice little bonus if she advances well into this draw. Even Pam Shriver, who rarely concedes anything, suggested she was one of the favorites in New York.

Runner-up in Toronto, Maria Sharapova, who won the Open in 2006, made her first final of the year a week ago after playing five straight days of high-intensity matches. While she looked wholly exhausted last Sunday, she's got to love the fact that, weather permitting, she should have a day to rest between her appearances in New York. And her performance up north helped her reach a #30 ranking, which blessed her with a much-coveted twenty-ninth seed for the fortnight. Her biggest challenge will be the potential rematch with Dementieva in the third round, but if she gets through it, no one will argue that she's not still a force in the game.

And of course Kim Clijsters makes her return to the stage on which she won her only Grand Slam four years ago. She's done decently well in the two tournaments since coming out of retirement, even defeating a couple top players, but as a wildcard, she wasn't given a seed in this tournament. Though early opponents like Bartoli and Spain's Anabel Medina Garrigues shouldn't present a big problem, she could see a bigger challenge in Venus or Victoria Azarenka, who gave her a quite a fight in Canada.

Things to Watch

Outside of the headliners there are of course a few other players who could pose a big threat in their draws.

Thanks to quarterfinal appearances in Wimbledon and Cincinnati, Lleyton Hewitt is at his highest ranking in over a year -- he even brought home his first trophy since 2007 with a big win in Houston. And another former #1, 2002 U.S. Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero is also back after a six-year title drought. He's had a busy summer, defeating Tommy Robredo in Washington and Gael Monfils in Montreal.

On the women's side, Sam Stosur and Flavia Pennetta are mounting their own runs of success in 2009. Stosur backed up a semifinal appearance in Paris with her defeat of Serena in Stanford and a final in Los Angeles, where she lost to Pennetta. For her part, the first Italian woman ranked in the top ten put together a string of fifteen wins on her way to two titles this summer. She also made the semis in New Haven, but fell short of topping the Open Series leaderboard when she lost to defending Pilot Pen champ Caroline Wozniacki. Both Flavia and the Danish teenager could pose a threat in New York.

And then there are the wildcards -- both actual and figurative -- a couple of young Americans playing their first couple of matches in the big leagues of a Slam. At the Taste of Tennis, veteran Chanda Rubin told me she's been scouting out some of the up-and-coming stars:

"Look at Melanie (Oudin) -- last year she was playing in the main draw, had gotten a wild card, but she was also still in Juniors. But then you talk about this year and some of the big wins she's had, in Fed Cup really helping to pull the team through...It's been great."

Seventeen-year-old Oudin shocked the world when she got to the second week at Wimbledon with a win over Jankovic, while University of Florida alum Jesse Levine scored his own upset of Marat Safin in the first round in London. And John Isner, Newport champ Rajeev Ram and Alexa Glatch have all had some of their best results this year.

As always there are plenty of opportunities for upsets and breakthrough performances across the draws. I'm sure the tournament will capture all the excitement of the city it calls home and, in the end, two very deserving competitors will hold the trophies high. But I can't wait to see the battles on the way!

August 27, 2009

One Taste Is Never Enough

With the U.S. Open just a few days away, some of the brightest stars in tennis showed up for another cause tonight -- the tenth annual Taste of Tennis was held at Manhattan's W Hotel, with proceeds from the event going to benefit the Food Bank of New York.

Current top-ten players like Andy Roddick, Victoria Azarenka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as well as legend Billie Jean King paired up with chefs at some of the city's prime restaurants to serve up some quality eats from citrus marinated hamachi to chilled summer corn soup, miso chocolate brownies to waffles with adult beer floats.

Puerto Rico's star chef Roberto Trevino of Budatai told me why he was so excited to be at the event:
"Other than it just being ultra fabulous, and it being in the absolute capital of the world, if you ask me, in New York City. It brings together people here at the W with great food. Chefs aren't usually paired with tennis players, so for me it's a great pleasure."

The "Green Carpet" rolled out on Forty-Ninth Street on one of the (thankfully) most beautiful nights of the summer so far as every manner of celebrity showed up. Melissa Joan Hart, promoting her run on this season's Dancing With the Stars, the Mets' Carlos Delgado and reigning beauty queens from Albania and Kosovo were all in attendance.

"Real" New York City housewife Bethenny Frankel (who is, by the way, not a housewife at all) was surprisingly refreshing and clear about what brought her to midtown:
"I'm bartending with Andy Roddick, so I have high priorities...I made all my Skinny Girl cocktails and Skinny Guy cocktails using the Rums of Puerto Rico. It's cool that all the tennis players are going to be cooking...with all the pressure of the tennis games coming up. It's a little light, a little fluid, a little eat, drink, and be merry."

As for the players themselves, they were excited not just about the Open, but about testing their chops in the kitchen. Newly domesticized Roddick said that married life didn't bring him any cooking skills, and seventh-seeded Vera Zvonareva confessed her affinty and longing for a cake her mother used to make while she was growing up.

And with the start of play only a few days away, the athletes were keeping their upcoming battles in perspective.

Charleston champ Sabine Lisicki faces Aravane Rezai in her debut match: "Every round is difficult. It's a Grand Slam, so nothing will be easy. Everybody wants to win, so I'll just focus on one round at a time and we'll see." Meanwhile, Aleksandra Wozniak reflected on her defeat of Svetlana Kuznetsova at Eastbourne: "It's definitely a life experience. You compete against the best players in the world every week, and each win makes you feel like you belong there. It makes you feel like you can achieve more, and it gives you more belief and confidence."

And for me the entire night just whet my appetite for what's to come in the next few weeks in Flushing Meadows. As always, the U.S. Open somehow becomes the most exciting Grand Slam of every year -- and I can't wait for the action to start!

By the way, thanks to the WTA for this much more extensive footage! (Yup, that's me in the background!)

August 23, 2009

By the Way...

Let me not forget to pay tribute to Elena Dementieva who was finally able to elevate herself from "bridesmaid" status earlier today when she won her third title of the year.

After gaining sweet, sweet revenge against Serena Williams in yesterday's semifinal match -- one in which she steamrolled over the reigning Wimbledon, Australian and U.S. Open champion in the second set -- she took on Maria Sharapova, who'd reached her first final since she took the title in Amelia Island last year.

The two had played ten times before, with Maria holding a decisive 8-2 advantage. Today both she and Dementieva started sloppily on serve. There were seven breaks in the first set, with Elena getting the key one for a 6-4 lead. She kept her cool in the second set, notching for herself the only break to take home her fourteenth championship -- a win that, if I did my math right, should get her back to #3 in the world.

Whether Dementieva will be able to translate her victory into a solid performance in New York is still a question. I worry about how often she can be broken, but the fact that she can power through opponents like Williams and Sharapova, both former #1s themselves, sure argues that maybe a strong serve isn't the most important thing in tennis. With the innate power and smarts she does possess, I don't think anyone would want to see her in their portion of the draw.

And I'm looking for her to go far, and hopefully end the year the same way she started it!

Sweet Sixteen

Today is an important day in tennis history.

Thirty-six years ago, on August 23, 1973, the very first ATP rankings were released with Romanian Ilie Nastase claiming the top spot. Since then twenty-four different men have held the position, and today one of them took the court on the road to claim his sixteenth Masters title.

In the finals of the Western & Southern tournament in Cincinnati, Roger Federer, who first became #1 in February of 2004 took on Serbia's Novak Djokovic, who achieved his career high ranking of #3 a little more than two years ago. Both players have been a regular fixture at Masters events in recent years -- Federer of course has won fifteen titles while Djokovic has quietly made his way to three finals already in 2009 (he lost twice to Rafael Nadal and once to Andy Murray).

From the get-go Roger looked like he was out to show the world why he's been #1 for so long. Nole was looking to win his first championship in Cincinnati, Roger his fourth, but after last night's trouncing of Rafael Nadal, the twenty-two year old got off to a slow start. His first service game was a marathon thirteen minutes long, comprised of eight deuces, two game points and seven break opportunities. Eventually Roger converted, helping him get off to a quick 5-0 lead in the set.

Djokovic seemed to regroup in the second, this time coming up the winner in another long second game. He took the early 3-0 lead, and I wondered, however briefly, if we were about to see a mirror image of the first few games. Though he did allow Roger to get back on serve, Novak held another set point at 5-4.

Instead Roger played like he almost always does when a title is on the line. With Novak serving at five-all, the best player in the world took advantage after his opponent's drop shot stopped short of the net and turned up the pressure on a second serve. Federer's fourth break of the match gave him the opportunity to close out the championship, a task he completed in just a few minutes, holding Djokovic at love in the next game.

Nole was given credit for his much improved level of play in the second set, but knew that he was just out-matched beginning to end. When the Western & Southern CEO accidentally presented him with the champion's cup, he very appropriately djok-ed, "the closest I was about to get to the first place trophy was now."

So with his sixteenth Masters trophy in hand, Roger sets off for New York and the U.S. Open, where he seeks to win his sixteenth Major title. It's already been a year of records for him, and now once again playing at his best, there's no reason to believe he won't set another one. Looking ahead to Flushing Meadows, Roger is confident and is hoping the fans of the great city get behind him again. At his post-match press conference he said:

"I was lucky enough that when I got to New York (last year), the fans were really there trying to push me back to #1 right away. They were great, you know. Like all the cab drivers and everybody was stopping to wish me luck. It was something that I've never really experienced before in New York. I think that really helped turn it around for me after having the disappointment at Wimbledon."

With support like that it's hard to believe that Roger's second sweet sixteen won't be long away.

August 22, 2009

The Quiet Killer

People don't give Novak Djokovic enough credit.

I'd never seen either him or Rafael Nadal play live before tonight at the second semifinal at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters in Cincinnati. But in the numerous matches I'd seen televised, he'd only impressed me maybe a handful of times.

Tonight was an exception.

Nadal and Djokovic had played each other eighteen times before tonight, with the Spaniard holding an impressive 14-4 lead. But though he had won their previous five matches, the last time Nole did pull off the victory was on this court in the semis last year. In fact all four of his wins have come on hard courts, the only surface on which he holds a lead against the newly-minted #3.

Djokovic is hardly a slouch -- ranked just below Nadal at #4 in the world, he's won 13 titles during his career, including two in Dubai and Belgrade in 2009. He's also made four other finals and three more semis, amassing a 52-15 record. But like other overshadowed stars, he's easy to forget.

But he's been in top form all this week in Ohio. After losing in the quarterfinals last Friday in Montreal to Andy Roddick, he hasn't lost a set here. Through the semis he held serve 30 of 33 games and let the final four in winning eighty-five percent of his first serves. And with an injured Nadal only playing his seventh match since the French Open, surely Djokovic had to know that this would be the best opportunity he'd had to beat Rafa in a long time. In his post match press conference he acknowledged his confidence:

"Hard court is my favorite surface and the surface where I achieved the biggest success so far in my career. I just feel comfortable playing on this surface. It just suits my game. I was aware that I would have to raise the level of my game tonight in order to win against Rafa."

And did he ever raise his level. He played some of the most graceful strokes I'd seen in a long time, getting eighty-one percent of his first serves in and converting his first two break point opportunities to take the first set 6-1, in less than a half-hour.

In the second set, too, Djokovic stayed strong. Though he lost three chances to break Rafa yet again in the opening set, he wasn't rattled and only ceded one point in his next game. After earning a break in the fifth game, Nole was tested a few times as Rafa got ahead on a few of the Serb's service games -- but his game was on point and after an hour-long second set, Djokovic earned his spot in the Cincy finals for the second straight year.

There he will meet Roger Federer, another man he has a surprisingly good record against. Though he still lags the current #1, he has notched victories in their last two meetings in Miami and Rome. He reflected on what awaits him tomorrow afternoon:

"He's a different kind of tennis than Rafa. Rafa runs more and gives you more time to do things that you like. But with Roger the points are shorter, so if he plays the way he was playing most of the year so far, it's going to be really difficult."

But if he continues to play at this same level, Djokovic has certainly shown that he's capable of doing it.

And while the semifinal loss may have been a disappointment to Nadal and his fans -- me included -- he was happy with his performance over the last two weeks, but knew he had some things to work on:

"This match is gonna be a good experience for me right now. These two weeks, winning three matches here and two matches there, five match wins and seven matches in total, it's enough matches I think…Djokovic played with very high intensity, and for me it was a little bit hard to keep at this intensity all the time. I can play some points, but I need to be ready to play at this level, to do something special, do a little bit more than usual."

And I know we'll be seeing him do just that in but a few week's time!

A Day of Firsts

Welcome to Ohio!

My trip this weekend to watch the semis & finals of the Western & Southern Financial Group's Masters Tournament in Cincinnati is one of many firsts for me: the first time I've been in the state since my parents moved me away in 1983, the first time I've taken a plane solely to watch a tennis tournament, the first time I sat in an actual press box (with A/C and shelter from the looming rainclouds!), the first time I ever watched the #1 and #2 players in the world play live.

And another first, at least of what I can remember -- they aren't doing so in the finals. Yes, this is the first time in a long time, if ever -- I'm sure some of my Twitter followers will let me know for sure! -- in which such a significant change in positioning happened just before such a big tournament. And with the draws announced late last week, that meant former third-ranked Andy Murray was put in the same half of the draw as current top dog Roger Federer.

Despite my prejudices I have to admit I was a little more excited to watch this battle than I thought I'd be. Though I've seen Murray in action once before -- at the quarterfinals of last year's U.S. Open -- this was actually my inaugural Federer performance, and one that I knew would showcase his best. It's not everyday the draws work out so you really do get to watch the highest quality tennis on the final weekend. And with the last Grand Slam of the year barely a week away, both had something to prove.

Murray of course had the weight and confidence of a new #2 ranking and Roger, the devastating memory of losing a match in which he had been ahead 5-1 in the third. And to further complicate things, Federer hadn't defeated Andy since last year in Flushing Meadows, losing their last four meetings in three sets each.

Today, however, Roger came out swinging. He took the early lead in the first set, breaking Murray in his second service game and got to a 0-40 lead in the sixth. In the first set he broke Andy twice while only allowing six points total on his own games, easily taking the set in thirty minutes.

But he was careful not to get ahead of himself. In three of his last four losses to Murray, Roger had run off to an early lead, only to fall apart in the end. In his post-match press conference, he was asked how his recent history against the Scot affected his game today.

"In the last few times I'd played against him, very often I won the first set and ended up losing the second set, then can't find my way back into the match in the third -- that's kind of how he started running away with it. To me it was always important, this time around, that the same doesn't happen again. I stayed aggressive, I was always looking to make the plays, and in the end I deserved to win because I wasn't scared to go after my shots."

While he certainly did let Murray back into the match again today -- the new #2 raised the level of his own game infinitely in the second set, serving eight aces and never allowing a break point -- Roger kept his level of play up as well. Murray never could get under Federer's skin and never scored more than two points on his opponent's service games.

The resulting tiebreak was surprisingly a nail-biter. Roger again took the early lead 4-1, but a barrage of power from Murray gave him the first set point at 5-6. The two stayed on serve for several more points until a tentative double fault at 9-8 gave the match to Roger and sends a frustrated Murray home to train for New York.

So Federer advances to his fifth final of the year -- he won the title in Madrid as well as, of course, Roland Garros and Wimbledon -- where he'll meet the winner of the Rafael Nadal/Novak Djokovic match being played later tonight. While Roger acknowledged that either would be a tough opponent, he admitted he'd like to see Rafa come through with the win, especially since he's coming back from an injury.

I'm "not that surprised that he's doing so well just because -- I mean the guy's only lost like six matches this year…Of course he's looking for his game. I hope he's feeling well now. At the end of the day, he's a great player and an unbelievable competitor. He's got that image, too, which the players know about. He's obviously going to make it hard for the opponent. It seems like things are coming back together for him, which is great to see."

For so long I had been waiting for the fated fight between a #1 Rafa and a #2 Roger. Now that we've been there and seen that, I'm aching to witness the first time a #1 Federer plays a #3 Nadal.

Interestingly, if Nadal does win the title tomorrow, he'll reclaim his previous ranking from Murray and enter the U.S. Open as the second seed.

And while that might not set up the first meeting between Rafa and Roger in a Grand Slam final -- I certainly hope it won't set up the last.

August 21, 2009

The Comeback Kids

Is it just me or do this week's tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati feel a little bit like 2007? (Well, with one big exception.)

Some of the biggest successes on the court are coming from one-time number ones like Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, and most notably Kim Clijsters, who was stopped just shy of making her second straight quarterfinal in as many weeks back on tour.

As should be expected the road back from recovery is often long and slow, and everyone was a little spotty out of the gate. But watching Rafael Nadal in his match last night against Paul-Henri Mathieu, I was reminded of the man who defeated Roger Federer on his home court in Wimbledon. After a shaky start, losing his serve early, Nadal rebounded quickly, taking the first set 7-5 and only allowing Mathieu five points on his service games in the second.

After the match he acknowledged it had been his best match since returning from a knee injury, but knew he'd face a strong competitor in Czech Tomas Berdych today. Nevertheless he has to like his chances for what's left of the draw -- because he only just lost his #2 ranking to Andy Murray this week, if he makes the semis he would face #4 Novak Djokovic, a man against whom he has an impressive 14-4 record. A final appearance at this Masters tournament would certainly put him on good ground heading to the U.S. Open.

Maria Sharapova is also looking better than she has in quite a while this week. Though she's made at least the quarters in all but one tournament she's played since she returned in Warsaw this past May, you still saw signs of weakness in her serve and her forehard. Last night though her A-game was back, or at least her B-plus game. She fired off four aces and won seventy percent of her first serve attempts. True, she was playing Vera Zvonareva who is nursing her own set of injuries, but even still it was an encouraging result.

And even though she didn't advance past the third round this week, you have to be impressed by Kim Clijsters, who came out of retirement last week in Cincinnati. There she made the quarters, taking out twelfth seed Marion Bartoli and Roland Garros champ Svetlana Kuznetsova on her way. This week in Toronto she triumphed over ninth seed Victoria Azarenka and took the first set triumphantly from Jelena Jankovic before falling in three.

Earlier today Clijsters tweeted:

"Disappointed and a little frustrated with the match last night, still shows how close I am to Top five level after a few matches back"

So she certainly knows she still has what it takes to compete against the best. Though it may some time for her to be the force she was when she left the game in 2007 -- she was ranked fourth in the world then -- it might not be as long as you'd think.

In any case the rebounds these three players have staged since returning to the scene have been nothing short of spectacular. They may not be quite at the top of their game, but their successes just reflect how much innate talent they possess. And I'm sure they'll cause more than a few sparks when they take the court in New York in a few weeks!

August 19, 2009

With Greatness Comes Great Responsibility

This week marks the start of a new era in men's tennis.

For the first time in over four years Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are not #1 and #2 in the world. After ceding the top spot back to Federer after withdrawing from Wimbledon, Nadal was so unceremoniously upended from second place by Andy Murray after the Scot made -- and won -- the finals in Montreal.

So as the men take the court in Cincinnati for the last Masters event before the U.S. Open, a tournament which drew nine of the top ten players -- Rogers Cup runner-up Juan Martin Del Potro withdrew with fatigue -- there's a lot of pressure on the new #2 to perform.

Today Murray set off to defend his position against twenty-three year old Nicolas Almagro, a man he had lost to at the French Open last year. The first set was close -- amazingly so. The Spaniard had the only break opportunity, but wasn't able to convert; the two served so well that Nicolas lost only nine points in his games -- Andy lost five. But once Murray took the tiebreak there was no looking back. In the second set he allowed Almagro two measly points during his service and quickly ran off with a 7-6, 6-2 win.

So Murray seems to be living up to his #2 ranking so far. As much as I hate to admit it, he certainly has been more impressive than those that surround him. And he hasn't been demure in his climb to the top either, notching victories over all his major competitors this year.

But his greatest test is yet to come. With the Open now less than two weeks away, Murray has to focus on the one accomplishment missing from his resume -- a Grand Slam title. He came close last year, making the finals after a stunning two-day battle in the semis, but despite of a lot of tough talk this year he remains the only player in the top five without the big prize.

Sure, at twenty-two, he's still got time to prove himself, and I'm in no rush to see him make it there. But from his perspective I'm sure he'd rather get it done sooner rather than later. And if he plays like he has over the last week and a half, he should be able to advance well into the bracket, both this week and in Flushing Meadows.

And he better, if he's going to live up to precedent set by the last two people who occupied the spot. With twenty-one Majors and nearly a hundred total titles between them, Roger and Rafa have raised the bar high and Murray has a lot to live up to.

At the very least, it's going to be great to watch these three battle for their own place at the top.

August 18, 2009

Always a Bridesmaid

You might not have noticed, but if you won a major tournament on the WTA Tour this year, you probably had to beat Elena Dementieva to do it.

The pretty Russian star began 2009 with a bang, amassing a perfect 15-0 record in January and capturing two titles in Auckland and Sydney. And while she hasn't won a trophy since then, she did make the finals in Paris plus six more semis, four times losing to the eventual champion -- at least twice in matches that could easily be considered the biggest highlight of their tournament.

Most famously, she gave Serena Williams a stunning run for the money at Wimbledon, taking the first set and even holding match point late in the third. In a match that lasted just short of three hours, Elena proved that she can be a powerhouse, despite her thin frame and comparatively lackluster serve. Of course we know Serena went on to win the match and the tournament, her eleventh major, easily downing her sister in straight sets in the final -- and making me wish I'd been watching the previous match in the finals. (Incidentally Dementieva also lost to Serena in the Melbourne semis, just days before Williams won that title.)

This weekend too Elena played an exceptional semifinal match. Against Jelena Jankovic on Saturday in Cincinnati, Dementieva bageled her opponent in the second set to level the score and even held a 6-2 lead in the deciding tiebreak, but still failed to close. Not surprisingly, she double faulted seventeen times and barely won forty percent of her second serves -- but she did win more points than Jelena, 116 to 108. To her credit, though, the Serb rebounded nicely from the exhausting match to demolish her opponent for the championship the next day.

I guess you can argue that if you can't perform under pressure, you don't deserve to play for the title (ahem, Dinara Safina), but without garnering a ton of attention, Elena has become the best tennis player no one knows about. (During the Wimbledon match my co-worker kept calling her "Dementia".) Sure she's won thirteen trophies, including Olympic gold, climbed to a career-high #3 ranking earlier this year, and has beaten players like Williams and Safina on multiple occasions. But most commentators continue to write her off, instead concentrating on players who are far less consistent but perhaps riding a good wave of momentum.

This week Elena is in action in Toronto as the fourth seed at the Rogers Cup. She'll get a bye in the first round but, if she's going to make her tenth Final Four of the year, could face Roland Garros champ Svetlana Kuznetsova -- the only Major champion this year who didn't face Elena on her road to the title. With all top ten players in the draw, she'll have to work to make it any farther, but she's proven she's a fighter.

And hopefully when she puts on a great show, it'll be in the championship match -- and maybe this time she'll come out the winner!

August 16, 2009

Renewing My Interest

After yesterday's semifinals took out some of my favorite players in both Montreal and Cincinnati, I didn't think I really cared about today's championship matches.

Of course Andy Roddick suffered his third straight heart-breaking loss to Juan Martin Del Potro and fell just short of his third final in a row, and if you know me at all yout know I never want Andy Murray to win anything.

On the women's side I'm forever a fan of Elena Dementieva and was slightly annoyed that Jelena Jankovic won that marathon match despite earning fewer points and being blanked in the second set. I was also rooting for LA champ Flavia Pennetta, who was running on a fifteen match winning streak as she broke into the top ten for the first time in her career.

Needless to say, none of my picks were playing on Sunday. But somehow I found myself more invested than I thought I'd be while watching the finals.

In Montreal DelPo took on Murray in their sixth career meeting, with the Scot being the obvious favorite. In a huge reversal on the men's tour, Andy's win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga yesterday earned him enough points to surpass Rafael Nadal in the rankings and made him #2 in the world -- I'm so upset, that's all I can say on that subject. But with Juan Martin's performance last week in D.C. and his sequential drubbings of both Nadal and Roddick, I gave him a slight edge in the match.

And for the first hour and a half of today's match, he looked like he might capitalize. DelPo, who's been front-and-center this summer, edged Murray in the first set tiebreak and even broke back immediately after losing his serve to start the second. But after calling for the trainer late in the set, you got the feeling that Murray, who's been in training since Wimbledon, was the one in better shape. The new #2 won the next tiebreak and got off to a 4-0 start in the third as Juan Martin quickly unraveled. He closed it out quickly and captured his fifth title of the year, an outcome most expected -- and a surprising number were hoping for!

The bigger shock came in Cincinnati where a struggling Jankovic faced Dinara Safina for the championship. Safina has had a lot of trouble in finals in 2009, but that pales in comparison to the year Jelena has been having. Ranked #1 in the world a year ago, she's dropped four spots thanks to upsets by players like Sorana Cirstea, Melanie Oudin and Anna Chakvetadze. Dinara had won the pair's last two meetings, and now at the top of the women's Tour, she was clearly the favorite.

But I was amazed by how aggressive Jelena was from the get-go today. Never really known as a big server, she kept Dinara on the offensive almost the entire match, winning seventy-seven percent of her first attempts to Safina's fifty-nine. Though she gave back one break in the second set, she took it right back and remained so powerful that Safina was caught screaming at herself in frustration more than a few times. In spectacular fashion, Jankovic reminded us why she was once the best tennis player in the world and why she might just make her way back there. And I'll certainly be rooting for her come the U.S. Open!

So with the last major of the year just two weeks away, a few players are throwing their hats back in the ring and making sure we all keep watching.

If they continue playing like this, I certainly will!

August 13, 2009

Riding the Roller Coaster

Ohio is known for housing some of the greatest amusement park rides in the country, but for two weeks, not far from the thrilling twists and turns of these world-class roller coasters, is the similarly exciting action of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters and Women's tournament in Cincinnati. While I'll be there next weekend to watch the men's final, this week's ladies play has proven to be hugely exhilerating.

With all of the top fourteen players on the WTA Tour entering the draw, along with former #1 Kim Clijsters, making her post-retirement comeback, you knew the quality of play would be high, but I'm not sure anyone was expecting quite so many surprises.

Top-ranked Dinara Safina has been on the mother of all roller coasters this year, winning three titles (the ups), making and losing two Grand Slam finals (the plateaus), and falling to players like Jie Zheng, Tamarine Tanasugarn and Virginie Razzano (the downs). She's got a lot of ranking points coming off this season, and after she failed to defend in Los Angeles I wondered if she had the strength and mentality to pull through. But so far in Cincy she's looked in top form, dropping a set to Roberta Vinci, but making the quarters with a decisive win over Shuai Peng.

Less lucky was the number two seed and Dinara's nemesis all year Serena Williams, who was shocked in her third round by Sybille Bammer. The twenty-ninth ranked Austrian was aggressive the entire match, winning seventy percent of her service points and breaking Serena three times. It was just the latest in a year that's been just as up-and-down for Williams -- while ostensibly she's had a much more successful year than Safina, winning three of the last four Grand Slams, one of my Twitter followers correctly points out that Serena hasn't won a non-Major even since last April in Charleston. In fact she lost in three straight semifinals and three straight first rounds. It's not a career-ender by any means, but it's got to be frustrating to be so inconsisent in matches where she's so clearly the favorite.

Incidentally Serena's older sister also lost today to LA champion Flavia Pennetta. That gives the Italian a 4-3 lifetime record over the third-ranked Venus. She's clearly climbing on her own roller coaster track, and I'm certainly hoping there's no crash on the other end.

Of course the big story this week has been the return of Belgium's Clijsters who announced in March that she was requesting a wild card entry to the U.S. Open after a two-year absense -- and so far she's been playing like she never left. Her success isn't that surprising, as she was ranked fourth in the world when she retired, but she's been impressive in her wins over Stanford winner Marion Bartoli and French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova. Next up she faces her biggest test against Safina, but if her ride this week is any indication, the ladies will have a lot to fear when they get to Flushing Meadows.

We all know the laws of gravity dictate that what goes up must come down, and all of these women have experienced both highs and lows akin to the most heart-stopping of roller coasters.

But, thankfully for us fans, the longer the ride lasts, the more fun we all have!

August 11, 2009

The Next Big Thing

It's easy to get blindsided in life -- when you're so focused on a few big events, big names, big personalities, a couple of smaller victories are easy to miss. And while everyone is focused this week on the return of players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, I feel there's another player waiting in the wings, just primed to make his big statement.

I've talked a lot about John Isner in recent weeks -- actually, I've been following his success closely over the last two years since he impressed every tennis fan at the 2007 Legg Mason Tennis Classic. While his performance at this year's tournament was just as inspiring -- it helped him climb to a career-high #55 ranking -- this week he crosses international borders for the first time since January, earning what he said on Saturday was a surprise entry to the Rogers Cup:

"I just found out this morning I was in the draw -- I was planning to go back home to Florida after this. My coach didn't bring his passport -- he has to fly to Florida and then fly to Montreal. Luckily for me I always keep my passport in my bookbag."

And in his first Masters event of the year, Isner was in good form. Playing countryman and fellow college star Jesse Levine, he won almost eighty percent of his second serves, fired off twice as many aces as his opponent and defended all three break opportunities. He's got a tough second round match against Mikhail Youzhny ahead of him, but I'm confident he has the goods to pull it off.

What's more interesting to me is the potential Isner still has to become one of the greats. At twenty-four John isn't exactly a youngster on Tour, but he came to the scene much later than a lot of guys ranked in the top ten, including twenty-two year olds Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic and D.C. winner Juan Martin Del Potro, who'll be twenty-one next month.

Instead of turning pro early, Isner enjoyed a successful college career at the University of Georgia, where he won the NCAA doubles title as a sophmore (he was runner-up the year before). He was the #1 ranked singles player in the NCAA for most of his senior year, leading his team to the 2007 championship and only losing one match in his final two years at school -- incidentally to the University of Florida's Levine.

As a pro he hasn't yet won any trophies -- his second place finish in D.C. is so far his best performance -- but he's learning the ropes pretty quickly. He's won a handful of challenger and futures titles and had beaten players like Gael Monfils, Tommy Haas, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in major tournaments. Plus he's got that one weapon few opponents want to face -- a huge serve. In twenty-eight matches he's shot 382 aces, winning more than three-quarters of his first serve points, and has saved more break points than anyone else this year.

And now he's playing smarter and with more confidence. After his loss to Andy Roddick in the Legg Mason semis, Isner was asked to compare his performance to his debut at the tournament.

"I feel like I'm a better player now, that's for sure. I was just kind of riding a wave of momentum in '07, and now I feel like I truly belong at this level. Maybe in '07 I didn't really think I could win that match -- I thought all along I could win today."

So maybe John took a bit of a detour on his way to the big leagues, a route that very few professional athletes take, but you can't fault him for that. And maybe in the end it will work to his advantage. If his recent performances are any indication, he's going to have a lot of success in the next few years and, I think, could get himself into the top tier before very long.

I will certainly be cheering for him all the way!

August 9, 2009

Misplaced Attention

I wasn't planning on writing a post today.

I mean, after last night's fantastic semifinal, I felt like I'd already watched the match of the tournament in D.C. I figured Andy Roddick would roll to his twenty-eighth career title easily this afternoon and decided I'd rather get back home early than stay for a relative non-event.

Apparently I was concentrating on the wrong match.

While Roddick played and won an easy first set at the Legg Mason final, his opponent, defending champion Juan Martin Del Potro, got his game back in sync in the second. He broke Roddick's serve to take a 5-3 lead, but was unable to close out and let Andy level the set. But DelPo was able to refocus and broke Roddick again in the twelfth game to even the match at a set apiece.

The two traded breaks early in the deciding set, eventually forcing a tiebreak in which the tall Argentine took a 4-1 lead. He quickly earned himself three match points, but again Roddick was able to get even -- but he didn't stay that way for long. Juan Martin fired off an ace, his ninteenth of the match, followed by a forehand winner to repeat as champion and claim his sixth career title.

It was an amazing match, and one which frankly took me a bit by surprise. Of course Del Potro is a great player, but he's been pretty quiet lately, slugging away under the radar without making much of a fuss. He hasn't had a bad year by any means, but he also hasn't garnered the attention or the following he had last year -- I was shocked at the first semifinal yesterday how pro-Gonzalez the crowd seemed to be. Andy, on the other hand, always has the media and the crowd behind him, and I thought for sure he would parlay that into victory today.

I guess I was wrong.

Incidentally I miscalled the LA women's final just as badly. In similar fashion, so much attention has been paid to the rapid and consistent ascent of Austalia's Sam Stosur this summer, I don't think anyone even noticed Italian Flavia Pennetta, who beat the Russian trifecta of Nadia Petrova, Vera Zvonareva and Maria Sharapova on her way to the final.

But Pennetta was in top form today, winning four and three in less than ninety minutes. It was her eighth career title, and easily the most important -- the win could get her pretty darn close to the top ten and make her a real force as we inch closer to the U.S. Open.

While I congratulate both Juan Martin and Flavia on their wins this week, I hope both Andy and Sam were able to learn something from their performances and their losses. I know I've certainly learned something.

I will never dismiss a final again!

August 8, 2009

From South Americans to All-American

There was more than a difference in hemispheres separating the two semifinal matches in D.C. tonight.

While Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro and Chilean Fernando Gonzalez were stymied by sweltering heat which both players admitted hampered their game, compatriots Andy Roddick and John Isner were blessed with much milder temperatures. The on-court action was similarly disparate, with both players exhibiting moments of greatness and pulling off some shots that sent the crowd wild.

As I discussed earlier today, these uber tall guys like Isner have a distinct advantage when it comes to their serve, and in tonight's match the twenty-four year old did not disappoint. He served an impressive twenty aces, clocking some in well over 130 miles per hour, and looked solid in the first set tiebreak, which he won at 7-3.

But Roddick is nothing if not a competitor. If he learned anything from that classic Wimbledon final last month, it was that anyone can launch a comeback. Not surprisingly he was even stronger on serve than John, winning eighty-nine percent of his first serves and only allowing fourteen points to his opponent. Andy rebounded from the tiebreak and opened the second set by breaking Isner, the first time either player had conceded a game, and bounded onto the court after the changeover. With that you knew he was back in the game. He broke again at 4-2 in the second and won the set in half the time it took John to win the first.

Both players began the deciding set in spectacular fashion. Roddick got a couple of break chances early, but they remained on serve until the eleventh game when he broke John at fifteen. He won the next four points easily, and after more than two and a half hours he earned his fourth final in Washington.

He's never lost the championship match.

Even still he's got a tough match tomorrow -- Juan Martin did beat Roddick in L.A. last year, their only career meeting, and after two straight evening matches, playing in the high sun could be a scorcher for Andy. In his press conference after the win he admitted it would be difficult, but had some thoughts on what he had to do:

"He was just playing a lot better than me last year at this time -- there's no way around it. I was struggling to find form, dealing with injuries, and he was on a four tournament winning streak, so I certainly didn't go in there thinking I was favored by any means...It'll be tough tomorrow, you never know what you're going to get from him. He plays at a high level every day and that's why he's number six in the world. That's why he's been in the top five for the majority of the past year. He hits the ball well through the court. I'm gonna have to hit the ball pretty well from the baseline and make the adjustment from night tennis to day tennis. It always reacts a bit differently, so I'm going to have to try to get a pretty good grip on that early."

And you have to like his chances. The way he's been playing all week -- heck, all year! -- he's certainly proven himself, even switching ranking positions with DelPo after Wimbledon. A win in D.C. would put him at the top of the U.S. Open Series standings and give him some great momentum going into the final Grand Slam of the year.

And I'll be rooting for him all the way!

Attack of the 50-Foot Men

Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but as I watched the first set of semifinals at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in D.C. today it became abundantly clear just how much of an advantage height is in tennis.

Last night after Andy Roddick defeated the 6'10" Ivo Karlovic, he reminisced about the days when he was considered one of the big guys. He won't get any relief today -- opponent John Isner is only an inch shorter than Doctor Ivo, and if he makes it to the finals, Andy will face defending champion Juan Martin Del Potro, relatively a munchkin at only 6'6".

It's no surprise that the taller you are, the more athletic you can be. You can cover more ground with one stride and have a lot more leverage to fire off a powerful serve -- Karlovic notched forty-five aces in his first three matches this tournament and Isner had only one less through the quarters. Of course a fast serve doesn't make you invincible -- after all, neither of these bullet-throwers has won a single title this year and Ivo infamously served fifty-nine aces in his first round at Roland Garros only to lose the match.

But add a little finesse to your game, and you'll be hard to beat -- Sam Querrey, who's served 574 aces this year (behind only Ivo and Andy) is sitting at a career high #26 ranking on the heels of three consecutive final appearances. And Del Potro capitalized on his strength to win four titles last year, marking wins over David Ferrer and Roddick on his way to the top ten.

Today in the D.C. semis, he faced Fernando Gonzalez, a man he surprisingly had never beaten before. Then again, they haven't met since DelPo cracked the top fifty. Though Juan Martin was somewhat sloppy in the first set, once he won the tiebreak he was in top form. He rolled to a quick 5-0 lead in the second and stumbled only slightly before taking the match, 6-3. He wasn't perfect by any means -- though he served ten aces to Gonzo's five, DelPo didn't even get half of his first attempts in and won only sixty-three percent of his serves in total. Nevertheless, it was all he needed to make his seventh career final.

So as I anxiously await tonight's second semifinal match I wonder if Andy Roddick will be able to take down not one or two, but three giants in one blow. It'll be a task, but watching his match last night gives me hope that he'll be able to pull it off.

Whatever the outcome though, you know it will be one fun championship to watch!

August 6, 2009

On the Defensive

Today Dinara Safina became the first woman to qualify for the year-end Sony Ericsson championships in Doha.

Now I know I've complained a bit about her #1 ranking -- though she's earned three titles this year, she's also lost in four finals, including two Grand Slams, indicating that maybe she can't perform in the big leagues. But as we proceed through the hardcourt season, Dinara has the opportunity to prove herself to me.

Most of the reason she's climbed to the top spot has to do with her performance last year during the U.S. Open Series. She took titles in Los Angeles and Montreal in 2008, taking the lead in the race up to the final Major of the year. And so as she looks to repeat the success of last summer, she's got a lot of ranking points to defend -- a task she begins this week in southern California.

So far she's been strong, beating a resurgent Daniela Hantuchova 6-2, 6-4 in the second round, and you have to favor her in her match against Jie Zheng later tonight. But there are a lot of women out to take the trophy away from her, and they've been playing some spectacular tennis this week as well.

Australian Samantha Stosur reached a career high #18 ranking in June thanks to a semifinal appearance at Roland Garros, and proved she wasn't a flash-in-the-pan when she beat Serena Williams last week in Stanford. Though she has won a Tour title yet, she's playing at the top of her game this year, proving it with an easy win today over sixth seed Ana Ivanovic.

Flavia Pennetta is also playing well. A few weeks back she won the title in Palermo, never losing a set and dropping only five games in her last two matches. In LA she outlasted American teenager Coco Vandeweghe in the second round and today was spectacular against fifth seed Nadia Petrova. Next up for her is Vera Zvonareva, a player she's only met once before, about seven years ago when neither was ranked in the top fifty. Vera, too, has been struggling with an ankle injury the last few months, so the Italian has to like her chances.

A little under the radar has been Urszula Radwanska, the eighteen-year-old younger sister of Wimbledon quarterfinalist Aggie. Even though she's ranked much lower at #71, she'd had some nice results this year -- Urszula defeated sixth seeded Aleksandra Wozniak in Hobart and French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova in Indian Wells. Yesterday in LA she took out Dominika Cibulkova, firing off five aces and breaking serve nine times, and later today will have to play Na Li for the right to make the quartes.

Then, of course, there's Maria Sharapova. She's always been a force on this surface, winning the big prize in New York in 2006 and in Australia last year. Yes, she's still battling through an injury and yes, she was much less of match for Venus Williams last week at the Bank of the West Classic than I expected -- but she is a fighter.

Her serve has been spotty, to say the least -- she was broken six times by Victoria Azarenka in the second round in LA and today gave up a break lead and dropped the first set to Alona Bondarenko. But when she's in charge, she stays that way -- as I write this, she's serving at 5-0 in the second. If she holds on, it'll be her fifth quarterfinal in the six tournaments she's played since returning to the Tour -- not a bad way to begin a comeback.

So Dinara certainly has her work cut out for her. After all, when you're at the top, everyone is out to get you!

August 4, 2009

Separated at Birth Part Three -- Stars of the Summer

Several months ago I brought you my first "Look-alikes" post, pointing out some uncanny resemblances between ATP tour players and Hollywood's leading men. That one didn't quite cover all the bases though, so later in the year I reprised the article for some of the top women in the sport.

But the similarities hardly end there, and as we move deeper into the summer's hardcourt season a couple of pairs have definitely stood out.

Indianapolis proved to be a great arena for American Robby Ginepri to launch his comeback -- and not so long ago an actor named Patrick Dempsey was staging his own revolution as he took the halls of Seattle Grace by storm. Their stories are not that different -- and neither are they.

And while one man resurges another retires -- in his last season on the circuit Marat Safin is holding something of a farewell tour, but he is far from a senior citizen. During his match with Tommy Haas in Los Angeles last week, John McEnroe referred to Marat as a "specimen" -- it's only fitting that he should look so much like Derek Shepard's best frenemy, Doctor McSteamy himself, Eric Dane.

Then there's Marion Bartoli who shocked the world on Sunday when she played so impressively against third seeded Venus Williams in Stanford. Maybe her alter ego, Meadow Soprano, was peaking through a little, intimidating her opponent just a bit and helping Marion take the trophy.

And this week tennis fans are anxiously awaiting the return of Wimbledon finalist Andy Roddick in Washington, D.C. Always the entertainer, Andy definitely can put on a show, though I'm not sure he'll ever be quite as...well, aggressive as Seann-William Scott's infamous Stifler.

Got more ideas for look-alikes? E-mail me, and I'll post them all later this summer!

In the meantime, enjoy!

August 2, 2009

Under the Radar

It's easy to overlook some of the tournaments going on in Europe over the last couple weeks -- they seem so two months ago, forcing players to get back on the red clay ages after the French Open and just weeks away from Flushing Meadows. But nevertheless they've provided some much needed experience -- and a few trophies -- to players that might not have otherwise been ready for the hard court season.

In Gstaad, Switzerland the top seeds were eliminated early, allowing qualifier Thomaz Bellucci and fifty-first ranked Andreas Beck to advance to the final. Neither had ever won a title, though Bellucci came close in his native Brazil earlier this year, getting up a set but then falling to Tommy Robredo. And Beck has become something of a fixture on the men's tour, playing eleven tournaments and five challenger events already this year -- his best result was a quarterfinal appearance in Monte Carlo.

The road to the final was quite different for these two players -- Thomaz upset heavy favorite Stanislas Wawrinka and Igor Andreev on his way to the championship match while Andreas benefited from a draw opened up by his opponents. And maybe the easier week made Beck a bit complacent -- while the match was tight, ultimately decided by only one break of serve, Andreas had a first serve percentage of only fifty-six while Bellucci fired seven aces. In the end it was the twenty-one year old Brazilian who got to bring home his first title -- with a definitive second set tiebreak, Bellucci made the case to climb into the top one hundred for the first time in his career.

The players in Umag, Croatia might be a little more recognizable than those in Switzerland. Between them, Nikolay Davydenko and Juan Carlos Ferrero have twenty-seven titles, including a U.S. Open win for the Spaniard. But both have had their troubles recently. Plagued by a heel injury, Davydenko fell out of the top five for the first time since 2005 earlier this year, and Ferrero even dropped into triple-digits.

Both are surging through the summer, though -- Nikolay won his first title of 2009 last week in Hamburg and Juan Carlos made the quarters in Wimbledon, beating two top-ten players to get there. Having split their previous four meetings, this should have been a tough match.

But Davydenko has been in prime form all week -- his only "stumble" was a first set tiebreak in the quarters, where he needed twenty-two points to overcome Simon Bolelli, but then he rolled over Jurgen Melzer 6-1, 6-1. Ferrero on the other hand has dropped a couple sets here and there, and while he's certainly on the upswing, he continued to struggle today against the higher-ranked Russian. He only won thirty-six percent of his first serves and was broken six times, giving Nikolay his second trophy in as many weeks.

While this week's European winners may not be grabbing quite as much attention as the players on this side of the Atlantic, their victories certainly are garnering them some momentum as they head stateside.

And who knows? Maybe that's all they need to pull off a couple of much bigger wins here!

August 1, 2009

Stacked Brackets

It's not really anyone's fault.

Draws are set up so that #1 can meet #2 in the finals and so the top four players should battle in the semis. It's only in the opening rounds where it's possible that bad luck can pit two closely-ranked opponents against each other, inevitably denying one of them to advance deep into the tournament. For example at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, California this week, #13 Aggie Radwanska ousted #29 Sorana Cirstea on Monday, and #12 Dominika Cibulkova was defeated by #20 Samantha Stosur shortly after.

Of course upsets occur, as they should, and it's not often we see action progress exactly as it should. That's what makes sports so interesting, right?

Even still by the time we get to a final, we want to see the best and most exciting game we can. Imagine if, by some stroke of luck, the Orioles played the Nationals in the World Series? Yawn.

And that's what seems to be happening in California this week, both on the men's and women's tours.

First in Los Angeles, the top half of the draw has gone largely according to plan. Top seeded Tommy Haas played a tough first set against Marat Safin, but eventually made the semis pretty easily. He'll meet a strong Sam Querrey, who pulled off a win over higher-ranked Dudi Sela on Friday, but given his performance so far this summer, he's not exactly an underdog.

Only one gets to make the finals.

And there they'll face one of two players who've never played for a title before. Argentina's Leonardo Mayer has had a breakout year, beating James Blake in the first round at Roland Garros and making the quarters in Eastbourne. Though he defeated Igor Kunitsyn in the second round, he reached the semis thanks to a walkover when second seed Mardy Fish withdrew with an injury. There he'll play Australia's Carsten Ball -- a man ranked #205 in the world, he lost the only Tour-level match he's played this year. But this week he benefited from a retirement by third seed Dmitry Tursunov and an injured John Isner in the quarters.

Gotta say, I'd rather see Haas and Querrey play for the title.

On the women's side in Stanford things aren't quite so disparate, but there were still a bunch of surprises in the final four. Top ranked Serena Williams was toppled by unseeded Stosur, who for all intents and purposes should never have made it past Monday. But Sam's been playing some masterful tennis this year, making the quarters and the semis in Paris -- she probably deserved a higher ranking.

Tonight she's going to take on Marion Bartoli, who's having her own comeback year -- the one-time Wimbledon finalist practically fell into obscurity last year, losing early in a ton of matches and allowing a few up-and-comers like Caroline Wozniacki and Vera Zvonareva walk all over her. But in 2009 she seems back in form -- she got to the finals in Brisbane, the quarters in Australia, and even took home the trophy in Monterrey. In Stanford she looked solid against fourth seed Jelena Jankovic and could put on a good match against Stosur.

Imagine that that might be the better of the two semis.

Venus Williams and Elena Dementieva, seeded second and third respectively, filled out the bottom half of the bracket in what I thought should have been an excellent final, given the way Elena took on Venus's sister in Wimbledon. But in California this afternoon, Dementieva practically rolled over. Despite earning a handful of break opportunities, she was never able to convert and her serve seemed to fall apart. She won a quarter of her first serve points and only thirty-eight percent of her total service points. In just over an hour, she was only able to put one hash mark on her side of the scoreboard.

So Venus will either reprise her 2007 Wimbledon final against Bartoli or the first round of the U.S. Open last year, when she was no match for Stosur. Though the women's final certainly has more promise than the one in L.A., I can't help but think the semi might be more exciting.

In either case, the suspense is what keeps the game so interesting! Good luck to all!