September 1, 2009

#2 in Their Countries, #1 in Our Hearts

Something amazing happened over the weekend without my even realizing it.

By virtue of a busy and largely successful summer, Sam Querrey became the second best tennis player in the United States. His final appearance in New Haven on Saturday not only cemented him atop the U.S. Open Series leaderboard, but also helped him climb to a career-high #22 ranking, a mere eighty points ahead of long-time top-tenner, and my personal favorite, James Blake.

This "upheaval" in the rankings got me thinking about some other #2's.

Fernando Verdasco captured our hearts in Melbourne this year when he virtually came out of nowhere to reach his first Major semifinal. His five hour-plus assault on eventual champion and compatriot Rafael Nadal was the longest match ever played at the Australian Open and earned Verdasco a #9 ranking, making him the second best player from Spain.

While he hasn't quite made the headlines since then, he's clearly been a breakthrough success -- Fernando was a quarterfinalist in five Masters tournaments in 2009 from Miami to Monte Carlo, showing he is a force on hard courts and clay. And just last week he won his first title of the year without dropping a set, taking out Querrey at the Pilot Pen. Though admittedly I was rooting for the American, it was satisfying to watch Verdasco hold the trophy over his head -- a well-deserved reward after a long year.

Today Fernando took the court at the U.S. Open, a tournament in which he's never advanced past the fourth round, where he faced German Benjamin Becker. No slouch, the 's-Hertogenbosch champ not only won the pair's last meeting on the way to that title, but also beat Andre Agassi in his farewell appearance in New York in 2006. This afternoon, however, Verdasco was aggressive from the start, serving twelve aces and winning eight of his ten net approaches. While they traded breaks throughout the match, the Spaniard capitalized when it counted and advanced in straight sets.

Of course Serbian women were all over the news last year when both Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic rose to #1, but the men were left with only Novak Djokovic who brought home the crown at the Australian Open last year. In 2009, however, twenty three-year-old Viktor Troicki has become another Serb to watch. Ranked thirty-first in the world, he's never won a title, but he made the finals in Washington last year, defeating Andy Roddick on his way. This year he's notched wins over Querrey, David Nalbandian and Victor Hanescu and led his country to the World Team Championship in Dusseldorf.

In New York he got #78 Peter Luczak in the first round and got off to a fast start. But after racking up a two-set lead, Troicki began to struggle, winning only three games in the next two sets as the Pole drew even. Thankfully he kept his cool, holding his opponent to less than thirty percent on his first serve and went on take the final set, 6-1. From here Viktor should have a fairly easy run to the quarters -- though Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is in his section, there aren't too many big threats. Troicki's never advanced past the third round of a Slam, but if ever he had a chance, this is it.

Facing a slightly bigger challenge today was yet another #2. With Roger Federer so dominant not only in the world of tennis, but in the much wider world of sports, it's not surprising if you didn't know that there's another top-twenty player that hails from Switzerland. Now ranked #20, Roger's Olympic doubles partner -- and co-gold medalist -- Stanislas Wawrinka got as high as #9 last year, when he made the finals in Rome. This year he even pulled off a stunning victory over his countryman with a straight-set win in Monte Carlo.

Wawrinka took on another former top-ten player, veteran Nicolas Lapentti, in the first round at Flushing Meadows. He began by losing his opening service game and dug himself into a 0-3 deficit, but he quickly rallied to take a two set to love lead. Lapentti steadied himself in the third set, though, to force and win the tiebreak and traded breaks through the fourth before getting back to six-all and eventually taking that one as well. After a forty-three minute deciding set, stretching the length of the entire match well over the four-hour mark, Nicolas broke Wawrinka for a seventh time, advancing to the second round at the Open for the first time since 2003. Hopefully the Swiss will be able to take the loss in stride.

All these guys are major athletes in their homeland, but could unfortunately be forgotten because of their much more successful contemporaries. But that shouldn't detract from their inherent talent. Of course I'd love to be the second best anything in my country, even if it means being overshadowed by someone so far superior. So let's give these runners-up some credit for what they've accomplished -- and wish the winners the best of luck this fortnight!

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