November 29, 2009

Second Time's the Charm

It took quite an effort for Nikolay Davydenko to claim the biggest title of his career. The twenty-eight year old Russian had to beat not one, but three Grand Slam titleholders plus another runner-up in order to win the ATP World Tour Finals in London this week. But he certainly brought the goods when he needed it most.

Davydenko didn't qualify for the year-end championships until just two weeks ago at the Paris Masters where, ironically, it wasn't his stellar performance, but the mediocre showings from some other contenders that sealed the deal. In France he lost in the third round to Roland Garros finalist Robin Soderling -- a man he met again during the last of his round robin matches in London. Had Nikolay repeated the defeat his ride would have ended, but instead the two-hour, three-set rematch on Friday ended in victory and he made the semifinals for the third time.

Davydenko had already defeated a struggling Rafael Nadal in his first match of the week, and his win over Soderling must have given him that extra confidence he needed. In Saturday's semis he hung tough against Grand Slam record-holder Roger Federer, a man he'd never beaten in twelve previous tries, and after another long match made the finals for the second year in a row -- this time to face reigning U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro.

I have to admit I was giving DelPo the advantage on Sunday -- he'd beaten Roger again during his round robins and was impressive against a strong Soderling in the prior round. He's also been the golden child of the last half of 2009, making the finals in Montreal and taking the title in Washington before his coup in New York.

Davydenko, himself, has had a great fall. He won two titles in Asia, notching wins over Novak Djokovic and Nadal in Shanghai. But he's never had the best luck at major tournaments -- he's made the final four at the French and U.S. Opens a couple times, but never been able to convert. Last year in the finals against Djokovic, he was routed in the first set and in about a hundred minutes lost the match handily.

Today, however, Nikolay was in rare form. A man never comfortable at the net, he volleyed one shot after another past the six-foot-six Argentine, and seemed to get to everything that was tossed his way. He saved both break chances Del Potro had in the second set, never allowing him into the match, and closed out the championship with a 6-3, 6-4 win.

It was clearly a great moment for Davydenko, but the state of play in London this week may highlight further the shifting state of men's tennis. With only the best players qualifying for London, no match should be considered a walk in the park. Even still, take a look at a few of the results -- Nadal went 0-3 in the round robins! Federer lost for a second straight time to DelPo, and for the first ever time to Nikolay. Djokovic didn't get a chance to repeat his victory of last year and Andy Murray, well, I don't think many gave the hometown-hero too much of a shot here.

With just over a month before the sport's best players head Down Under, the stage has already been set for what could be a very interesting year.

November 25, 2009

Last In, First Out the Gate

Robin Soderling was the last man to qualify for the year-end Barclays ATP World Championships, getting the ticket only after Andy Roddick withdrew with an injury. But the Roland Garros runner-up, having climbed to a career-high #9 ranking, was off to a quick start during the round-robin matches in London this week.

First he pulled off a repeat of the French Open fourth round by downing Rafael Nadal in straight sets. Then he rolled over last year's champion, red-hot Novak Djokovic, 6-1 in the second. That clinched the Swede's spot in the semifinals -- quite an accomplishment for his first World Tour Finals. If he beats Nikolay Davydenko tomorrow, a task he last completed two weeks ago at the Paris Masters, he'll be the only one of the Elite Eight to amass a 3-0 record during the first stage of the tournament.

Soderling's quick run to the top of the tennis world is just another indication of how the sport is changing. Nadal, who ended last year as #1, hasn't yet won a match in London -- he'll get his last chance tomorrow against Djokovic, but I fear his chances are slim. And Juan Martin Del Potro, who beat Roger Federer for the second straight time earlier this evening, earned his own first appearance in the Championship semis. (Roger, of course, also made the semis for the seventh time, returning after a disappointing performance in Shanghai last year.

It might be too soon to say the reign of past champions is over -- after all, I've said that a few times this year only to be proven wrong. But there is a new crop of kids to watch out for, if not at this tournament, then certainly next year. Soderling might not be able to pull out the big win this week -- despite all the success he's had in 2009, he still has a dismal record against Roger -- but I'm sure every other player on Tour is beginning to see him as a real force.

Here's hoping he can keep it up!

November 22, 2009

Open and Shut?

As the ATP World Championships begin in London this week, I can't help but look back at the career of the winner here nearly twenty years ago, one who's been making news of a different kind in recent weeks.

Andre Agassi defeated Stefan Edberg at the Frankfurt tournament in 1990 when he was ranked fourth in the world. It was still pretty early in his career, when he'd only won a single Masters title (in Miami earlier that year), but he had already made the finals at both the French and U.S. Opens. He was still more than four years away from his #1 ranking and seven from his career low which was laced with depression, premature hair loss, an unhappy marriage and more than a few episodes of drug-use -- all detailed thoroughly, if you hadn't heard, in his new autobiography Open.

Now I haven't read the book, but I've read enough of the reviews and seen enough of the reaction. Martina Navratalova likened him to Roger Clemens, Marat Safin said he should return all his trophies. Andy Roddick, though, supported him as one of the great ambassadors of the sport and a few days ago, the ATP said it could not reopen the doping case against him.

All this comes during a year rife with accusations of or injunctions against drug use in the tennis world. Richard Gasquet was punished with what could have been a two-year ban after he tested positive for cocaine in March -- he was allowed to return to play in July after it was determined that a "contaminated kiss" was the actual culprit. Martina Hingis, whose own suspension ended in September, said she would not return to the sport. And now former top-twenty player Xavier Malisse and U.S. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer face the prospect of sitting on the sidelines for twelve months for failing to report their whereabouts when the authorities were looking for them -- I'm still not sure I understand what they did wrong.

So what were the consequences?

Gasquet was ranked in the mid-twenties this past spring -- the once-formidable player has now fallen to #53. Hingis, who was in the middle of her first comeback in 2007, had climbed herself back to #18 in the world before permanently retiring. Wickmayer, after winning her second tour title and qualifying for Bali, had reached a career-high ranking -- one year off the circuit, she fears, could derail all the work she's done this year -- after all, not everyone can pull off a comeback of any significant magnitude.

For Agassi, of course, he presumably "got away with it". Twelve years after the fact, he's now remembered not for the slump of the late-nineties -- even if we didn't know what caused it at the time -- but for his resurrgence since. He won the career Grand Slam two years after hitting rock-bottom, regained his #1 ranking a day before his thirty-third birthday, married a fellow super star and started schools in Las Vegas to help the underprivileged. Drugs and baldness aside, turns out he's not that bad a guy.

Now of course I don't support the use of drugs, performance-enhancing or otherwise -- in or outside of sports. It does seem that officials are trying to retroactively make up for the oversight of Andre by being overly punitive now. Or maybe they're just trying to avoid the mistake they made back then. But what would the sport look like if Agassi hadn't played for those two years? What would he look like?

I don't know what the right answer is, don't know whether these players should be maligned or revered. But maybe you shouldn't be judged at your worst -- but by what you do after it.

November 15, 2009

With the Help of a Master

Back in August Novak Djokovic announced that he had recruited former world #4 Todd Martin to be part of his coaching staff. Today he received further proof of just what a great decision that was.

Martin was one of those great American players in an era dominated by Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. In a career that spanned fourteen years, Todd won eight titles and played in the finals at both the U.S. and Australian Opens. He also racked up a handful of doubles championships, most recently with James Blake in the 2002 Cincinnati Masters. While he was never able to break into the top spot of the sport, he's hoping to help Novak do just that.

It wasn't that Djokovic was having a particularly bad year before Martin came on board. He made the finals at three straight Masters events during the spring, defeating Roger Federer twice on the way, and won a couple of titles in Dubai and Belgrade. But the winner of the 2008 title in Melbourne and the year-end championship last year failed to dominate in January. He retired during the quarters in Australia and dropped in straight sets in the third round at Roland Garros. He just couldn't seem to get it done in the big tournaments.

But there's something different in Nole's step in the months since Todd came on. He got to the semis in New York, his best Slam performance all year, and followed up a month later with a title in Beijing where he only lost one set. That helped bring him back up to #3 in the world, a ranking Andy Murray took away from him in May. Then, of course, was his phenomenal victory last week in Basel, where he dethroned three-time defending champion Roger Federer in his homeland.

This week in Paris, the last Masters 1000 event of the year, Djokovic faced a field just as intimidating as at any slam. But after a long quarterfinal match against French Open finalist Robin Soderling, he absolutely dominated Rafael Nadal in the semis.

In today's match Novak faced another hometown favorite in Gael Monfils, another formidable opponent looking to make a name for himself on the big stage. But despite being outserved -- the six-foot-four Frenchman shot off twelve aces to Djokovic's two -- and squandering a 3-0 lead in the second set, Novak kept his cool in a third set tiebreak, claiming his fifth title of the year after nearly three hours on the court.

So how much of Nole's recent performance is due to his innate talent and how much to the watchful eyes of Todd Martin? It's hard to say -- at least so soon. But you can certainly see the improvement in the Serb's groundstrokes and his power, and is ability not to linger on lost opportunities is a testament to a better on-court attitude. When he travels to London next week to defend his year-end title -- and to try for his third championship in a row -- we could see just how much Martin is helping his fitness and strength.

And if he can bring that momentum into next year, well, then we'll really have something to talk about!

November 11, 2009

Who Is This Guy?!

France's Julien Benneteau has had a few big wins in his nearly ten-year career. A couple years ago he beat Andy Roddick and Fernando Gonzalez, and even scored a win over James Blake back when he was in the top ten. Last year he beat countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a handful of times and made the finals of two singles tournaments. And earlier in 2009 he notched a nice victory over fifth-ranked Nikolay Davydenko in Rotterdam before losing in the quarters.

But without a doubt, his biggest win came tonight when he shocked the tennis world by trouncing #1-ranked, top-seeded, Grand Slam record holder Roger Federer in the second round of the Paris Masters.

To be fair, of course, it wasn't exactly a trouncing. After all, Roger did take the first set in less than thirty minutes. But after that, the forty-ninth ranked twenty-seven year old had the champion running -- he won the second set in a tiebreak and then took an early lead in the third and never looked back. In just under two hours he scored the biggest upset of the tournament so far and handed Federer his earliest exit since July, 2008.

So who exactly is this man who came out of nowhere to beat the great Roger?

Julien Benneteau hasn't had a terribly notable career, having acheived a middling record of 115-140 and losing all three of the ATP finals he's played. He's probably a better doubles player, having won five titles in that discipline, but he did reach a high singles ranking of #33 this past October. He's never had the best of luck in the Majors -- he lost in the first round of the first three this year, but did make the third round in New York, his best performance there. The only surface on which he's won more matches than he's lost is carpet.

A few more wins in Paris would give Benneteau his best showing at a Masters event, but he has a long ways to go. Next up he'll face another Frenchman, Gael Monfils -- who's beaten him in three of their last four meetings. But with the favorite already taken care of, there's no reason to believe he can't pull off another win -- and any future opponent has to feel much less intimidating now.

After all, no matter who Benneteau is any other day of the year, today he is the man who beat Roger Federer.

Incidentally, the other three top seeds must be breathing their own sighs of relief. Both Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray endured long three-setters today, and Novak Djokovic, who beat Roger in Basel last week, was down 2-5 in the second set to Juan Monaco before rallying for the win. Any one of them could see a nice little jump in their ranking if they last much longer in France.

As long as they don't run into their own Julien Benneteau first!

November 8, 2009

A French Revolution

It was a battle of the French this week in Bali, where the first ever Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Championships took place. The new tournament showcased the talent of new and established stars of the sport, inviting the ten highest-ranked women who'd won an international tournament this year -- and who didn't qualify for the season-ending championships in Doha -- plus two wild cards to compete for as much as a million dollars in prize money.

The headliners for the inaugural tournament didn't disappoint. Marion Bartoli and Sam Stosur claimed the top seeds while Sabine Lisicki, a finalist in Luxembourg and winner in Charleston, and veteran Kimiko Date Krumm accepted the final two spots. And right from the get-go there was quite a bit of drama to speak of. Two-time titlist Yanina Wickmayer voluntarily withdrew after word spread of her twelve-month suspension from the Tour (for not showing up for drug tests -- and in the week after Andre Agassi's confessions, it seems the authorities are just trying to make a point). Both Lisicki and Stosur were upset in their groups, and Bartoli was the only top seed to advance to the semis and ultimately to the finals.

There she met Aravane Rezai, the twenty-two year old who captured her first championship trophy when she beat Lucie Hradecka in Stasbourg last May. The rest of the year has been filled with ups and downs for her, though, as she lost a couple of tournaments in the early rounds and only barely qualified for Linz and Luxembourg to end the year. She'd lost her last two meetings with Bartoli, most recently in Tokyo this past September.

On Sunday afternoon in Bali, though, she fought her way back from being down set point at 3-5 to take the first 7-5. When Bartoli had to retire with a quadricep injury, Aravane held up the biggest trophy of her career thus far.

It's not quite enough to shoot Rezai into the top-most rankings, but it does make a case for French tennis on the women's Tour. The men already have Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, they have Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils. The women are struggling a bit with Amelie Mauresmo speaking of retirement and Virginie Razzano losing most of her matches against the top players.

But maybe with a little less than three months left before the first Grand Slam of next year, it might be time to start looking at another country to be a force on the courts.

By the way, the country you think is most likely to dominate in 2010, according to my admittedly unscientific poll, is Russia. Only one person voted for Belgium, something that shocked me. But even though the polls are closed, I still want to know what you think! Leave your comments below!

November 6, 2009

The Most Underrated Man in Tennis

Okay, of course that statement is a bit of an exaggeration -- but still, it's easy enough to have never heard of Marin Cilic.

The twenty-one year old Croat first started grabbing attention last year when, after a rough spring, he finally started putting together back-to-back wins during the grass court season. His win in New Haven at the expense of Mardy Fish capped off a great 2008.

This year he bested himself, quietly plugging away this year to reach a career high #13 ranking. But even though he began 2009 by capturing two tiles in Chennai and Zagreb, he didn't really make a splash until September when he shocked Andy Murray at the U.S. Open. Since then, he's put together a string of impressive wins, even beating red-hot Nikolay Davydenko and Rafael Nadal in Beijing.

This week Cilic hopes to follow up two straight second place finishes with the big prize at the Swiss Indoors in Basel. With the tournament attracting some top talent, though, he hasn't faced an easy field so far. In the first round he drew a feisty Philipp Petzschner who reached a career-high ranking of #35 just two months ago, and next suffered a battle royal against Viktor Troicki which lasted over three hours and three tiebreaks.

He doesn't have much time to rest -- today Marin faces Davis Cup opponent, Czech Radek Stepanek. They've split their previous two meetings, with Marin last winning in straight sets at Roland Garros earlier this year. But Radek has improved his own play over the last several months and is himself ranked #14, just behind Cilic. And while he was also tested in his second round match, he's had that all-important extra day of rest.

It might be too much to hope for a win this afternoon for Cilic, and even if he does advance there's a long road ahead with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer both potential opponents. In any case, though, Marin has proven he's someone to pay attention to -- if not yet as a title-contender, at least as a dark horse.

And if he can pull the momentum he's accumulated this year into 2010, there's no reason we won't see him atop a few more winner's podiums soon!

November 3, 2009

The Jury's Still Out

This week I'm doing my civic duty and serving on a jury -- or at least sitting around waiting to see if I'll be selected to serve on a jury -- to decide another's fate. Meanwhile the fates of a couple men playing on a different kind of court are similarly undecided.

For all that's been said about how open the women's field is this year, there's been plenty of movement on the men's side too. Rafael Nadal started 2009 at #1 and dropped unceremoniously to #3 for a couple weeks in August. Roger Federer reclaimed his top spot and set a mass of records, but then fell in the finals of the one tournament he hasn't lost since 2003. Andy Murray himself got within one Grand Slam win of a #1 ranking but, due to a persistent wrist injury, is now fourth. And a strong back half of the year has brought Novak Djokovic back securely into the third spot.

And while the Majors might be over, there are still a chunk of points up for grabs -- sure, not everyone can hope to end the year as #1, but a couple of wins in the next few tournaments can bring with them a lot of momentum into 2010.

This week marks the return of Roger and Andy, neither of whom have played since the U.S. Open, both facing some tough fields in Europe.

In Basel Roger Federer had an easy time with Stockholm runner-up Olivier Rochus, but with Djokovic, who's already beaten him twice this year, Fernando Gonzalez and Marin Cilic all in the mix, a title in his homeland is not exactly a given. He may be a bit rusty after his time off, but even still, you have to believe the case for Roger to end the year with some big wins is strongest.

A little further west and south in Valencia, Murray could face Fernando Verdasco, Nikolay Davydenko and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, all of whom have impressive wins in their head-to-heads. And he's probably the most in need of some irrefutable evidence to prove his case as a Slam contender -- everyone likes to point out how Dinara Safina folds under the pressure of the Majors, but Andy Murray doesn't have a terribly solid history himself.

As for Rafa, well, I'm still waiting for him to bring the force I know he can. It's not that he's done badly since returning from the knee injury that forced him to skip Wimbledon -- he's made at least the quarters of every tournament he's played, and the finals in Shanghai. But a couple of doubters seems to fear his best is behind him.

I don't believe them. I think Nadal has clearly shown his prowess on all court surfaces. Maybe he hasn't played his best in recent months, but he certainly hasn't lost to no-name players, and his injuries haven't seemed to plague him too badly. He'll have had almost a month off by the time he gets to Paris next week, and with everyone in the hunt for that title, we'll know beyond a reasonable doubt whether Rafa's back on top of his game soon enough. The motive for him to do well is certainly there -- he's probably the only one with a chance to take #1 from Roger.

It'll be a few weeks before the final verdict on this year's ATP season is in, but I have a feeling these closing arguments could get very interesting!