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!

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