February 28, 2010

First Time's a Charm

For some this was a week of defending titles -- both Novak Djokovic and Venus Williams repeated as champions in Dubai and Acapulco, respectively -- but for others it was a week of firsts.

In Kuala Lumpur the story was all Russia's Alisa Kleybanova. The twenty-year-old had climbed into the top thirty last year with wins over player like Jelena Jankovic and Venus and even took a set from Justine Henin at the Australian Open.

She struggled early in Malaysia, going to three sets in her second and third rounds, but when she met Elena Dementieva in the finals she went on a roll. Alisa capitalized on her compatriot's notoriously weak serves and broke her opponent four times. She won seventy percent of her own first attempts and captured her first ever Tour title in just over ninety minutes -- not bad for a final debut.

Closer to home in Delray Beach Latvian Ernests Gulbis and Croat Ivo Karlovic battled through a slew of homegrown fan-favorites to contest the championship. The two had never met before, but the big server, seeded second, was clearly the favorite. Gulbis, on the other hand, is one of those very talented, but terribly inconsistent pros -- since peaking at #38 in the world two years ago, he's languished somewhere in the low double-digits.

This year, though, he's been on his own roll, beating two higher-ranked players in Melbourne and making the semis last week in Memphis. And today in Florida Ernests withstood fourteen aces from the more-experienced veteran and still managed to break him four times. And after two sets the twenty-one-year-old was also the victor in his first career final.

It's always nice to see new talent come to light, and both Kleybanova and Gulbis have finally shown they can put together a few wins in a row to capture the ultimate crown. If they're able to keep up the momentum, this could be a good year for both of them, and I'm looking forward to watching them succeed.

Hopefully now that they have the first -- and most difficult -- trophy under their belts, the rest will come easily!

February 26, 2010

Going for a Hat Trick

Hockey fans, anyone? Anyone? Well, me neither, but with the U.S. men's team playing Finland for a spot in the finals today in Vancouver, I can't help getting caught up in the excitement.

But in much warmer climes, last night in Acapulco two men were looking to achieve a different, but just as venerable feat -- a feisty Nicolas Almagro was in search of his third straight Mexican Open trophy while countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero, boasting his highest ranking in almost four years, was looking to capture his third championship in three weeks after taking home titles in Argentina and Brazil. When they met on the clay in the quarterfinals, obviously one's quest would end while the other's would live at least another day.

Former world #1 Ferrero is the fourth seed at the tournament, Almagro the sixth, but the one-time U.S. Open winner lost two of the pair's three previous meetings. Almagro, too, had proven his fortitude over the last few weeks, battling through three five-setters at the Australian Open with a broken wrist.

Juan Carlos rolled through his first set, breaking Almagro three times and winning more than eighty percent of his first serves. But the younger Nicolas fought back in the second, securing that set despite poor serving. Ultimately, though, it was the thirty-year-old vet who was victorious in the two-hour match, taking fifty-six percent of the points and converting five of thirteen break chances.

He's still a few wins away from getting his hat trick -- Argentina's Juan Monaco, a man he beat earlier this month in Buenos Aires, is his first obstacle in the semis. And two plucky opponents, Fernando Gonzalez and Costa Do Sauipe runner-up David Ferrer, are still battling in the bottom half of the draw. But after a long absence, it sure is nice to see JCF back at the top of his game.

And though it's probably still too early to get excited about Roland Garros, he's got a perfect record on clay this year, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him challenge in Paris. And I hope his success continues!

In the meantime, go Team U.S.A.!

February 24, 2010

Another One Bites the Dust

There seems to be a cloud hanging over the Barclays Dubai Tennis Tournament this week.

First there was Roger Federer who pulled out with a lung infection. Then U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro and Wimbledon finalist Andy Roddick withdrew due to nagging injuries that have plagued them the last few months.

For those top players remaining, the road was still not so easy. Gilles Simon has failed to live up to a stellar 2008 season and pulled out of the Australian Open with knee problems -- he was first out the door with a straight set loss to Marcos Baghdatis. Nikolay Davydenko, who began this year with a red-hot string of victories bowed out earlier this morning, retiring after losing his first set to world #56 Michael Berrer. And Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who'd been questionable coming into the tournament, was out-played start to finish by Croat Ivan Ljubicic.

But by far the biggest upset of the tournament came when third seed Andy Murray met Janko Tipsarevic in the second round earlier today. The Scot had won three of their five previous meetings and, ranked fourth in the world, was by far the favorite. Even though the Serb got the first break of the match, the more experienced, but younger, Murray evened the score quickly to force a first-set tiebreak. He lost that one, but regrouped to take the second set and, I tweeted he'd likely harness that momentum to bagel his opponent in the decider.

To my -- and everyone else's, it seems -- surprise, Tipsarevic took the first lead of the third, and foiled Andy on six early attempts to break back. But the two-time Major finalist proved he had mettle and saved match points when Janko was serving in the ninth game of the set. Undeterred, the underdog rallied on Murray's service game and made good on his next match opportunity.

So that leaves Novak Djokovic as the clear leader in the field -- though if the results from the past few days are any indication, he shouldn't breathe too easily. In the next round he'll face Ljubicic and uber-underrated Marin Cilic looms large as a potential finalist.

Certainly the draw has proved to be wide open, and with such a big title on the line, there's no telling who'll be next to get swept up in the sands in Dubai!

Play for Life

Whenever I'm on a tennis court I marvel at the broad range of players taking the stage -- from children barely as tall as the net to seniors hardly able to chase down a ball. It's one of the huge draws that, unlike other sports, amateurs and professionals alike can play well into -- and often past -- their prime, and that once you start, you never want to stop.

Check out, for example, the Champions Tour which kicked off in Delray Beach this week. The eleven-tournament program which culminates in London in December attracted the likes of 1987 Wimbledon champ Pat Cash, seven-time Major winner Mats Wilander and former top-ten player Aaron Krickstein. The participants ranged in age from thirty-seven to fifty-one and boasted more than a few trophies between them. And in some highly contentious -- though still friendly -- matches, we saw some great tennis this week.

Ultimately former bad-boy John McEnroe and two-time U.S. Open champ Patrick Rafter played for the championship. True to form, neither man was broken during the almost two-hour match -- they served a combined fifteen aces and showed that, years out of the pro Tour, they still got it. Eventually it was the handsome Australian who took home the trophy, sailing through the second set tiebreak, 7-1, and taking four hundred points with him to the next round of the Tour.

Next up is the BNP Paribas Zurich Open where long-time favorites like Michael Chang, Stefan Edberg and Goran Ivanisevic will slam a few balls around. But even more important than bringing so many stars back out for the fans, the Tour proves just how much of a lifetime love this sport is. The Old Guard is still as strong and fit as the Young Guns and, in some cases, can even teach the kids a thing or two about how to play -- and how to be a champion.

And what better teachers could you possibly have?!

February 21, 2010

Between Friends and Teammates

Strangely, for two men who came of tennis age in the same era, cracking into the sport's elite around the same time, facing challenges from the same players, Americans John Isner and Sam Querrey have never played each other on a singles court.

That's not to say they're strangers, by any means. They'll be leading the U.S. Davis Cup team this year and have paired together for more than a few doubles matches -- in fact, they're playing on the same side of the net for the championship in Memphis as I type. But one-on-one, their record was clear until this afternoon.

From the start the Regions Morgan Keegan final promised to be a great match-up. Isner, the sixth seed and now the second best player in the country behind Andy Roddick, had gotten past another big server in Ivo Karlovic and overcame a challenge presented by Philipp Petzschner in the semifinals. Querrey, for his part, avenged his loss to Roddick last week in San Jose on his way to his seventh career final.

For the first two sets neither man was able to break the other's serve -- not surprising when Sam, at six-foot-six, is the short one of the two. They split the tiebreaks and fittingly forced a third set with more than the scoreboard showing how even things were. They'd both scored seventy-three points, fired off fifteen aces, won an incredible percentage on first serves. It wasn't until early in the third that Querrey converted his first break point and, just for emphasis, broke one more time for a 6-3 score in the decider.

It was certainly a great result for Sam -- after a strong start to last summer, he struggled when playing for the title, only winning once in four attempts. Isner, who won his first title in Auckland this year, was certainly on more of a roll, racking up a nice 8-1 record before this tournament. But it was a better result for a country that has been struggling to find its next generation of stars. Clearly both John and Sam proved that there is plenty of talent still to come out of the U.S.

Meanwhile in Buenos Aires two other Davis Cup teammates were battling for the Copa Telmex title. David Ferrer and former world #1 Juan Carlos Ferrer hadn't met since the 2008 Australian Open, but with JCF clearly on the comeback trail while Ferrer continues to falter, you had to give the second seed the advantage, despite David's higher ranking and better head-to-head record.

Ferrer did in fact take the first set, but Ferrero came back to take the second set and ultimately broke his compatriot in the final game of the third to take his second title of the year -- he'd won the Brazil Open just last week. It was a solid victory for a man who, a year ago, had fallen out of the top hundred. You certainly can't count him out as a threat going forward.

What's great about today's title matches is that, results aside, before long all these guys are going to find themselves on the same side -- some sooner than others -- fighting for the same cause. It's nice to see that kind of camaraderie in a sport, especially when you're talking about some of the most talented athletes in the field.

And it certainly makes for great games to watch!

February 19, 2010

Dubai in Debt

It may have become one of the big celebrity vacation destinations in the past few years, with its grand hotels and man-made tropical islands, but Dubai has made news more recently for its financial troubles. And in the tennis world, it's been even better known for a controversial decision last year to deny Israel's Shahar Peer a visa to compete in the Barclays Championships.

The tournament was forced to pay for its transgression, basically being put on probation by the WTA, and this week Peer, visa in hand, made an emotional -- and quite successful -- debut. Unseeded, she opened by avenging a semifinal loss in Auckland by beating Yanina Wickmayer in a three-set first round. She followed it up with a victory over top-seed Caroline Wozniacki and advanced past surprise Australian Open star Na Li in the quarters.

When Peer ultimately met defending champion -- and, to her credit, out-spoken Shahar supporter -- Venus Williams in today's first semifinal, it's not surprising that she had run out of steam. Neither served particularly well, but a couple extra aces by the American and a few more faults from the underdog led to fairly routine win for Venus.

Sure it would have been a great story if she'd come back to take the title, but the run she's had this week certainly does something to stick it to the city that owes her so much. Of course, things aren't perfect -- Shahar still constantly faces jeers from unruly fans and poltical tensions between her homeland and the U.A.E. haven't eased in the least. But the cool she keeps under such pressure shows just how strong a player -- and person -- she is.

And maybe when she returns next year, she'll be able to squeeze out a few more wins -- and another trophy!

February 16, 2010

Gimme a Break!

Only six weeks into the 2010 tennis season, it's no surprise that Ivo Karlovic sits atop the ace-count leaderboard. In the eleven matches he's played this year, he's already fired off 217 bombs, two more than Andy Roddick, who's played five more matches. In his first round match in Memphis today alone, the Croat shot thirty-two serves that his opponent couldn't return -- it's a figure I'd love to boast for myself. So what's the problem?

For some reason, the six-foot-ten Dr. Ivo hasn't really been able to capitalize on that otherwise imposing statistic. Even winning eighty-four percent of his first serves today (only seventeen points did not result from an ace), he wasn't able to break Germany's Benjamin Becker. He made it through, eventually, in a little less than a hundred minutes, but this was not the first time this has happened -- a few weeks back in his hometown of Zagreb, Karlovic got by Alexandre Sidorenko in two tight tiebreaks, unable to convert on any of his nine break chances.

That's a frustrating result, and one Ivo is going to have to reverse if he's ever going to be a real force in tennis -- and at thirty years old, he doesn't have a lot of time left. He's only won four titles, none since 2008, and his best ever result at a Major was a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon last year. His five-set record is even more dismal than James Blake's used to be -- according to my latest count, he's only won twice in thirteen tries when going the distance. Sure he's beaten his fair share of top-ten players over the years, but when even his monster serve isn't enough to guarantee an easy (okay, easier) win, and when he can't convert on his opponents' (relative) weakness, it might be time to regroup.

Next up in Memphis, Karlovic will face either Tommy Haas or Xavier Malisse, either of whom would be a formidable foe. And if Ivo is going to advance further -- at this tournament or at all this year -- he's going to have to figure out a way to do what he was unable to today.

He just needs to get a break!

February 14, 2010

Back on Track

It wasn't the most exciting final on record -- at less than an hour and not quite two full sets, Robin Soderling was the eventual winner in what was a pretty tough draw in Rotterdam, winning his fifth career title at the ABN Amro World Tennis Tournament.

The third seed hadn't had the best year to date, and with first round exits at both Chennai and the Australian Open, I was beginning to think Soderling had hit his peak last year. But this week, surprisingly, he faced his biggest challenge in the opening round, when Florent Serra took the first set of their match, and that's saying a lot when the field included brand new world #2 Novak Djokovic and red-hot Nikolay Davydenko. After a fairly routine semifinal against the latter on Saturday, last year's French Open runner-up found himself facing a resurgent Mikhail Youzhny for the title.

The Russian had proven himself to be quite the giant-killer this week. He dispatched fourth-seed Gael Monfils in the quarters and spent a grueling two hours on court with Djokovic in the semis before reaching his fifth final in twelve months. But a nagging back injury forced him to retire while down a set and a break on Sunday. Unable to serve well at all, Youzhny retired after just over fifty minutes of play.

It was Soderling's first championship on a hard court, an important breakthrough for a man now solidly within the top ten, and as he heads to Marseille next week, it certainly reminds his opponents of the force he brings.

In Paris, too, Elena Dementieva sought to prove she is still a champion. Australian Open results notwithstanding, Elena nicely proved why she's largely considered the best player without a Grand Slam title, coming back from a set down against Lucie Safarova to claim her second title of the year. With a 10-1 record in 2010 now, she's riding the same wave of momentum that she began last year with, when she was on her way to a career-high #3 ranking.

Later today Andy Roddick will do his part to show that he too is back on track for a successful year. The champion in Brisbane has been plagued by hip and knee injuries and pulled out of Davis Cup action in order not to endanger his fitness further. This week he made it through a rough semifinal against compatriot Sam Querrey in San Jose, one in which he didn't have one break opportunity on his opponent's serve, for a chance to battle Fernando Verdasco for his fourth SAP Open title. He hasn't lost to the Spaniard since 2005, but a win tonight would clearly have broader implications for his chances to make an impact this year. I'm giving him the slight edge, but I have a feeling this could be a battle!

But it sure is great to see everyone playing at their best again -- it may be early, but if these results are any indication of what's to come, it's shaping up to be a pretty good year!

February 12, 2010

Avenging the Draw

In the first Premier event since the Australian Open, some top-flight ladies are trying to make up for some bad luck in Melbourne this week.

Elena Dementieva and Flavia Pennetta earned the #1 & #2 spots at the Open GDF Suez being held in Paris. Both, you might remember, were in the uber-stacked third quarter Down Under, and faced unseeded but ultimately lethal opponents in the second round -- Dementieva drew eventual finalist Justine Henin, while Pennetta got the recently reinstated world #16 Yanina Wickmayer.

Neither "favorite" advanced.

This year the Paris event attracted an imposing field -- Wickmayer again arrived as a potential spoiler, as did Fed Cup heroine Francesca Schiavone. And lurking among the unseeded players were feisty Alisa Kleybanova and U.S. Open darling Melanie Oudin. And there were no shortage of upsets -- heading into the quarters, only three seeds were left standing.

This morning Flavia became the first player into the semis with a 6-1, 6-3 win over countrywoman Tathiana Garbin -- she'll have a date tomorrow with Lucie Safarova, who earlier dismissed sixth seeded Shahar Peer. Elena will try to follow her colleagues later today when she takes on German Andrea Petkovic, a twenty-two year old who won her first Tour title in Bad Gastein last year. If she makes it, by the way, Dementieva could create a rematch of her U.S. Open round two with Oudin, another loss I'm sure she's eager to avenge.

Getting a win in Paris would be a great ego-boost for either lady -- Dementieva was the runner-up here in 2009 and Pennetta, who hadn't won a match in Paris before this year, needs to show just how good a player she has become. More importantly, both want to prove they can rebound quickly from the hits they took in Melbourne. And if they make it to the finals, it will be a fun one to watch -- surprisingly, the two have never met before, and what better stage to do so than at a Premier event?

I, for one, can't wait to watch!

February 8, 2010

Making a Statement

A couple weeks ago when wrapping up the 2009 tennis season for the men, I made a few predictions as to what the top ten would look like by the end of the year. Now I know we're still a good ways from 2011, but some of the shifts so far look pretty ominous -- and more than a few players are making their runs for the top.

I've already mentioned how saddened I am by Rafael Nadal's recent stumblings, but the fate of others looks a little better. Marin Cilic holds on to his spot in the top ten thanks to his win in Zagreb last week. Only three tournaments into the year and he's already defended two titles and made the semis at a Major. Not bad for a twenty-one year old no one really knows -- yet. Cilic didn't face the toughest draw in his home country, with his biggest competition coming from world #32 Jurgen Melzer, but there can still be a lot of pressure on a kid to repeat not once, but twice in a row. In any case, he looks primed to work well into the sport's elite throughout the year.

In the southern hemisphere a couple of men were doing their part to include their names in the same bunch.

Spain's Feliciano Lopez has been around a while -- the twenty-eight year old turned pro in 1997 and peaked at #20 in the world five years ago. After that, though, he's struggled a bit, bouncing around the rankings and being unable to capture his sophomore title -- until this week, he'd only won a single trophy in Vienna in 2004.

But in Johannesburg he was back in form. Lopez seemed comforted by the one set he'd been able to take from Andy Roddick in the third round of Melbourne and sailed through players like Rajeev Ram and top-seeded Gael Monfils. By the time he took on Stephane Robert in the finals, he barely broke a sweat. In just over an hour he'd secured his second career title, and a six-point jump in the rankings to #33.

Brazilian Thomaz Bellucci hadn't been title-free for quite so long -- he'd won his maiden trophy last year in Gstaad. Even still, with some early exits from the other tournaments he'd played in 2010, winning number two might not have seemed within reach.

But the twenty-two year old withstood two three-setters in his opening rounds and powered through the twice-defending champion, Fernando Gonzalez, in the semis, overcoming a one-set deficit. He even was able to rally from being bagelled in the second set of the finals by Juan Monaco to pull out the win, and with it he brings home his best-ever ranking -- #28 in the world.

So sure, the statements made over the last week by various players were quite a bit different: Cilic wants the world to know he's a force to be reckoned with, while Lopez is trying to make sure we don't forget about him. Bellucci, meanwhile, might become the next next big thing. In any case, I'm sticking by my calls for the year-end top-ten.

But I'm sure some of these guys will do what they can to prove me wrong!

February 7, 2010

A Battle of Powerhouses

Okay, I'm not talking about the Super Bowl, which is clearly a battle of the two best teams this year. But rather, at least for now, I'm talking about the first round of Fed Cup action, where last year's finalists -- the U.S. and eventual winners Italy -- have been performing up to the high standards they set for themselves in 2009.

Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone led their country to an easy 4-1 win over the Ukraine while U.S. Open darling Melanie Oudin teamed with Bethanie Mattek-Sands for the same score against France. It was much closer in the Czech Republic where the rubbers were tied before Lucie Hradecka secured the win over Anna-Lena Groenefeld and her German doubles partner.

But what was probably the closest match-up came between two big-hitting teams, with a couple of Grand Slam crowns and former #1 players fighting for their country -- some are on the upswing, some are trying to regain former glory, but both were hungry to advance. Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova and Alisa Kleybanova sought to reclaim their 2008 title in a first round meeting against a Serbian team helmed by Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic.

Now we all know how Ivanovic has been struggling in recent years -- after winning the French Open two years back, she's only won one title at a small-ish tournament in Linz, and has seen her ranking tumble out of the top ten thanks to a series of disappointing showings at the Majors. Jankovic has had a bit more success, winning a few tournaments last year and still, more or less, showing she still has some power in her swing.

On the other side of the court, Kuznetsova, who won in Paris last year, has carried through with that success for the last several months. And Kleybanova, just twenty years old, has beaten Venus Williams, Vera Zvonareva and Jankovic all in the last twelve months. On paper the Russians would clearly be the favorites.

But the score wasn't as much of a run-away as you might expect. Jankovic won both her singles matches and Kleybanova rolled over Ivanovic. So it came down to the deciding doubles rubber -- four women, all of whom are singles specialists, vying for the last spot in the Fed Cup semis.

As it turned out the eventual outcome was as we should have predicted -- Kuznetsova and Kleybanova were nearly flawless in their 6-1, 6-4 victory, reaching the semis for the fourth straight year. They'll meet the U.S. in April for the right to go further, but considering they probably faced the toughest opponent of any of the other three teams to advance, I'd say their chances look pretty good.

In the meantime, I'll turn my attention back to the other grass court. Go Colts!!

February 3, 2010

The State of the World Is Changing!

So it's been a couple of days now since the last ball was hit at the Australian Open, but it sure feels a lot longer than that. Or maybe it's just that things seem so different. Okay, sure, Roger Federer and Serena Williams are still the top players in the sport, but some others shifts portend a whole new era.

Most notably Rafael Nadal, whose quarterfinal exit ended his campaign to win a second title in Melbourne, dropped to #4 in the world -- obviously still among the elite, but his lowest ranking since May 2005, just before he won his first French Open. More disturbing is the news that the re-aggravated knee injury he sustained during that match with Andy Murray will keep him out of play for another four weeks; hopefully he'll return in time to defend his title at Indian Wells -- but an absence any longer will start to make me nervous.

Dinara Safina was able to keep her #2 ranking this week but holds onto it by just a hair. Last year's runner up at two Majors doesn't look at all like the player she was then. Nagging back problems that forced her to retire in the fourth round combined with a lackluster performance in Sydney suggests she won't be in top form for some time, and if she can't mimic her performance from Spring '09 -- which brought her trophies in Rome and Madrid -- she'll be giving up her spot near the top soon.

Of course when some lose others must win. Both Novak Djokovic and Caroline Wozniacki converted their Aussie Open runs into their highest career rankings, while Marin Cilic and Na Li cracked the top ten for the first time.

But there were, certainly, even bigger movers than that. Maria Kirilenko put her name back on the map by downing Maria Sharapova on her way to the quarters -- she jumped twenty-one spots to #37. Jie Zheng, who ultimately vanquished the Russian, popped fifteen places to #20. On the men's side Lukasz Kubot, who advanced to the fourth round for the first time at a Slam, made the biggest jump among the men to #61.

And, moving in the opposite direction, Jelena Dokic, who had just began to stage a comeback here last year, wasn't able to repear her success and toppled precipitously close to triple digits. Meanwhile not-so-retired Fabrice Santoro, playing in his forty-sixth consecutive Major (spanning four decades), fell victim to Cilic in the first round and forfeited enough points to send him to his lowest ranking since -- get this -- 1997!

We all know the stakes are high at the Grand Slams, so it shouldn't be surprising that players can rise and fall so drastically with just one performance -- one match even. But more so than after any other tournament I can remember, we're seeing a different landscape -- one in which Rafael Nadal and Dinara Safina may not be considered the threats they once were, and though the former certainly upsets me more than the latter, I'm not sure I like it!

Of course, it's premature to call for an end to anyone's career, but here's hoping the new era that's ushered in will be just as exciting as the last one!