March 31, 2010

Czech, Mate!

Sometimes I wonder how the Czechs keep doing so well in Davis Cup -- they were finalists last year and just dominated the Belgians in the 2010 first round. When I see how Tomas Berdych performed against Roger Federer last night in Miami, things become a little clearer.

The twenty-ranked Berdych was coming off a quarterfinal appearance in Indian Wells and had some easy early rounds this week. But he's always been a challenge for Roger, despite the seemingly one-sided 8-1 record the world #1 held over him. In their last meeting, in fact, at last year's Australian Open, Tomas had a two-set lead before ceding the match in a three-plus hour battle.

Tuesday night on Stadium court the twenty-four year old found himself down early when he lost his first service game. But somehow he was able to steel himself and ultimately broke Federer at love to take the set. Everyone held in the second, but Roger took the tiebreak with some effort -- both men extended points longer than they had any business lasting, stretching for drop shots and getting bullets back into play.

You would think, given the experience of both men, that momentum had shifted to the fifteen-time Major winner. And, as might be expected, even when Berdych got the break in the decider he failed to serve out the match. But Roger's serve -- so often a weapon for him -- was almost nonexistent in the third set. He only got slightly more than half of his first attempts in and only won forty percent of his second. With match point on his own racquet in the tiebreak, Berdych delivered an impressive cross court volley and won the next two points -- and the round -- after that.

His win, the Czech's first over Federer since the 2004 Olympics, earns Tomas a quarterfinal match-up against Fernando Verdasco, a man he beat in the third round of Indian Wells. He's actually won five of their eight previous matches, so he should like his chances. But a couple others might even be more excited -- as the highest remaining seed, Rafael Nadal must be breathing a sigh of relief, as should 2004 champion Andy Roddick, just a few points away from a spot in the semifinals. Both have solid winning records against Berdych.

Then again, so did Federer.

Of course, with the Czech Republic's top player Radek Stepanek taking some time off, the country has to be relieved that another one of its stars is showing the ability to step up to the plate. And while we await the next stage of Davis Cup, all others on Tour should certainly take notice.

March 29, 2010

Three Down, One to Go?

There's a strange parallel between NCAA basketball and what's going on in Miami this week. For only the third time since 1980 we were in danger of seeing all the top seeds in the mad March tournament eliminated before the Final Four. Similarly in Florida, where so many of the elite athletes pulled out even before play began, both of last year's men's finalists, runner-up Novak Djokovic and champion Andy Murray, were bounced in their opening rounds.

That leaves Victoria Azarenka as the lone defender still in the mix. In fact, she's the only winner -- man or woman -- from the last three years still alive at the Sony Ericsson Open, and with a fourth round match-up against Kim Clijsters later today, I'm not sure how much longer she will last.

Should we be worried about the performances this year? Perhaps a little. Vika is probably in the clear as she's proven to be a solid competitor these last few weeks, and a potential loss to Kim is certainly not something to be ashamed of. And Serena Williams, out with injury for the past several weeks, has always proven her ability to rebound, so I'm not too concerned about her yet.

But the men could be in more of a jam. Djokovic had chances in his loss to Olivier Rochus, taking the middle set tiebreak and successfully breaking serve a few times in the decider. But two straight defeats by players ranked out of the top twenty is not the best sign. And Murray has been in a bit of a funk ever since his drubbing in Australia. Since Melbourne, he's only amassed a three-and-three record, losing to Jankko Tipsarevic in Dubai, Robin Soderling in Indian Wells and Mardy Fish this week. He's got to find a way to keep upsets from, well, upsetting him if he's going to take home that first Slam.

What these exits do mean is that past titlists like Clijsters and Roger Federer, Andy Roddick and Venus Williams -- who, incidentally, is riding an amazing twelve-match win streak -- can breathe a little easier. And let's not forget the unseeded Justine Henin or two-time finalist Rafael Nadal, a man who has not won a single title since Rome last year. Who could possibly discount those threats?

And there are still a few spoilers quietly making their way through the draws. Australian Open semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hasn't dropped a set yet this tournament and took out a feisty Philipp Kohlschreiber in just about eighty minutes on Sunday. Then there's Vera Zvonareva, who fell out of the top twenty this week thanks to a failure to defend in Indian Wells. She has nevertheless powered through strong opponents like Melanie Oudin and Sara Errani to make the fourth round.

The field might not technically be wide open as there are plenty of champions still lurking out there. But a dark horse like ButlerTsonga or Zvonareva has got to like his or her chances a bit better now.

And if the NCAA tournament has taught us anything this year, it's that no one is really an underdog.

March 27, 2010

The Pending Rise of Polona Hercog

I think I've found a new favorite player on the WTA Tour.

The nineteen-year-old (her birthday if four days before mine, so I like her even more) from Slovenia is really beginning to hit her stride. Though she's won a handful of ITF Circuit titles over the past few years, she's only now making a splash in the big leagues, reaching the finals in Acapulco where she took a set from champion Venus Williams, and on Thursday getting past seeded Aleksandra Wozniak to make the third round in Miami.

Just about a year ago Hercog won her first match in the main draw of a Tour event, defeating Stephanie Cohen-Aloro in the first round of Marbella after making it through three qualifying rounds. Later that month she made the quarters in Fes by taking out seventh seeded Roberta Vinci. Then her first round win over Alisa Kleybanova at Roland Garros helped bring her into the top hundred.

A 13-7 record this year has propelled her to number fifty-one in the world, a position in which she keeps some good company -- Patty Schnyder is only a few steps ahead of her and Birmingham champ Magdalena Rybarikova is a spot below. Also close by is Polona's next opponent in Miami, Switzerland's Timea Bacsinszky, another youngster who pulled off an upset of eighth seeded Na Li to make the third round. Polona lost their only prior meeting last year in Istanbul, but she's clearly on the upswing -- there's no reason to believe she shouldn't get the win.

There is plenty to support Hercog's becoming a force in the women's sport. At six foot, 154 pounds, she's tall and svelte -- her height and strength make her fully capable of firing off a couple of rocket aces in a match. She's also developing a solid net game, rebounding from her Acapulco title loss to take the doubles championship with Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. By the time we get to the summer Slam season, she could shoot right up the rankings.

Polona takes the court today against Bacsinszky. If she wins she'll earn a fourth round spot against either Yanina Wickmayer or Petra Martic -- yet another pair of largely uninitiated -- or at least young -- talent. Advancing this far in a Premier event like Miami would easily be the highlight of her short career, but I feel she'll soon be a staple at these Tier 1 tournaments.

And with another win or two here, hopefully everyone will know it.

March 24, 2010

Miami's Vice

It's turned chilly again in New York, and I can think of nothing better than the sights, sounds and sands of South Beach to distract me from the sudden return of winter. And maybe it's the draw of all that nigthlife and entertainment that's keeping players out of the Sony Ericsson Open this year. For weeks, it seems, we've been hearing of withdrawals from the Premier event.

Two-time finalist Maria Sharapova and former world #1 Dinara Safina were both early drop-outs on the women's side while 2008 champ Nikolay Davydenko and U.S. Open titlist Juan Martin Del Potro pulled out of the men's bracket. And on Friday, five-time winner Serena Williams said her plaguing knee injury would keep her out of the tournament.

And while that might make some people feel the draw is wide open, let's not forget the slew of powerhouses that remain in the draws. Both Andy Murray and Victoria Azarenka will be back defending their trophies, and of course you can't discount the likes of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. With all these guys and gals in -- and out of -- the mix, the stakes are even higher, and the fields -- especially on the women's side -- are rife for surprises.

Three tournaments into her comeback Justine Henin enters Miami with her first global ranking in almost two years. But at thirty-three in the world she falls just out of seeding territory and so will play veteran Jill Craybas in the first round. The fact that she's never won this tournament and that she lost so early in Indian Wells suggests she's going to bring it extra hard this week. But she has a rough draw, potentially facing a second-round rematch against Elena Dementieva -- and the runner-up in Kuala Lumpur will be looking for revenge.

In the same half of the draw, last week's champ Jelena Jankovic looms as a revived threat. She should have a much easier time advancing, though she might have to battle Azarenka for a spot in the quarters. Then again Vika has drawn another early match with Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, the woman who surprised her in the California desert, and could face 2005 champ Kim Clijsters one round later. Clearly nothing is certain here.

Then there's the lovely Ana Ivanovic, who held on to the twenty-fifth seed despite now being ranked fifty-eighth in the world. She wasn't rewarded for her luck either as Aggie Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta both live in her section. They're all in the same half of the bracket as two more former champs, Venus Williams and Svetlana Kuznetsova -- and if either of them play up to standard, it will be hard for anyone else to get through.

There may be less drama on the men's side, but that doesn't make it any less exciting. Defending Murray will have to avenge his loss last week to Robin Soderling if he's going to make the semis in Florida. And Federer, who admittedly has a much easier quarter, still could face perennial threat Marin Cilic or Indian Wells break-out Marcos Baghdatis before the final four.

In the other half of the draw, last week's finalists in Indian Wells could potentially meet much earlier than the chmapionship game as Andy Roddick and Ivan Ljubicic are both in the same eighth. Rafael Nadal, interestingly, probably has the easiest section for himself as he's already faced -- and beaten -- the "biggest" challenges of Ivo Karlovic and John Isner this year.

With so much on the line, the remaining players need to keep their heads in the game -- there's a huge opportunity for anyone who can advance well into their draws, an even bigger one if they can win!

March 21, 2010

The Underdog -- On Top

The BNP Paribas Open has the ability to attract some of the top players in the sport -- being the first Premier event of the year, it's not surprising that eight of the top ten men and seven of the top ten women graced the draws. Players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, sidelined for the last few months with injuries and illness, pegged this as their comeback tournament, planning their schedules around making their return in the desert.

But this year the upsets started from the get-go and seeds began falling in the early rounds. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Marin Cilic and David Ferrer were only some of the players who lost their opening rounds. And before you knew it, you saw some surprising names still on court late in the week.

Not long ago you wouldn't consider Jelena Jankovic an underdog. Once ranked #1 in the world, she won eight titles in 2007-08 and made the finals at the U.S. Open two years ago. But she struggled for much of last year and, though she retains a top-ten ranking, had only put together a mediocre 5-4 record in 2010 before this week.

In the third round of Indian Wells, she found herself in a spot of trouble against Italian Sara Errani who took the first set from her decisively and held steady for much of the second. Jelena somehow found a way to win the tiebreak before getting the lead in the third and taking the set after almost three hours of play. I figured she was wiped out and, having to face her next opponent the following day, assumed she'd crumble. But she took only fifty-seven minutes to dispatch Shahar Peer. She actually hasn't dropped another set since that Monday and will play her first ever championship match here this afternoon.

She's have a tough time against second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, the Danish teenager who herself surprised me with her run in Indian Wells -- not because of her game, necessarily, but due to injuries and retirements of her own. Wozniacki will rise to #2 in the world come Monday, win or lose today, and she'll put up a fight against Jelena. But the Serb should take comfort in the fact that she's won all three of their previous meetings, including a 6-2, 6-2 romping at the Tour Championships last year. This should be a good final.

The men's title could be just as much a battle. Thirty-one year old Ivan Ljubicic was ranked third way back in 2006 -- a stat that shocked me -- but he dropped out of the top fifty with back problems and has been clawing himself back into the elite over the past two years. This week the birthday boy made his way through the draw even more dramatically than Jankovic did. Seeded twentieth at this tournament, he got past world #2 Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the fourth round and stunned defending champion Nadal in the semis.

For the title Ljubicic will face Andy Roddick, a man who's beaten him seven out of ten times in the past. The seventh-seed has had a much easier road to the finals, only facing one player ranked higher than him -- Robin Soderling in the semis. Struggling with injuries of his own, Roddick might not be at the top of his game, but he's certainly a threat to anyone he faces. If the Croat is going to beat him today, he'll need to harness all the momentum he's had in Indian Wells and find a way to battle the rocketing serve of the American. It won't be impossible, but it won't be a walk in the park either.

Like in any great tournament full of upsets, we might not see the top-most seeds fighting for the championship this afternoon, but after the tests these four have endured over the last ten days, we can be sure we'll see some of the most deserving talent of the week. And whatever the outcome, we can be sure that whoever holds the trophies at the end of the day certainly earned it!

March 18, 2010

Turning Doubles Talent into Singles Strength

For years women have seemed to understand that playing doubles can, in fact, improve your singles game. Martina Navratilova, Lindsey Davenport and Kim Clijsters are just a few of the ladies who've been ranked #1 in both disciplines. It might make sense that a talented singles player could easily translate his or her ability onto the doubles court. But these days, pairs specialists are finding their stride all on their own.

Take Sam Stosur, ranked #1 for sixty-one weeks in 2006-07 -- she reached a career high #11 singles ranking in February. Though she's won two Major doubles titles and finished runner-up a handful of times, she just took home her maiden singles trophy last year. Despite some disappointing results to start the year -- she lost in the first round of her hometown Slam, the Australian Open -- this week at the BNP Paribas Open she's been in top form. Through her first three matches she hasn't dropped a set, last beating defending champion Vera Zvonareva in less than ninety minutes.

In the quarterfinals she'll meet Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, currently half of the #3 doubles team on Tour. She's only ranked thirty-third in singles, but she's been mighty impressive in Indian Wells, taking out world #6 Victoria Azarenka and #15 Yanina Wickmayer, both in straight sets. She's probably still a long-shot for the title, but it's certainly been a good week for her solo game.

In the meantime the men are beginning to take their cue from the ladies. While the only gentleman to my knowledge to hold the top spot in both singles and doubles was John McEnroe, we're starting to see a few more of the sport's elite try out the wider court.

The pair of John Isner and Sam Querrey, who played the singles and doubles finals on the same day in Memphis last month, have also made the semis in California. They'll face their first seeded team of the tournament next, but regardless of the result their performance already surpasses what either did in the singles bracket. Even Rafael Nadal, who held a doubles ranking of #26 way back before you knew who he was, has teamed up with Marc Lopez as a wildcard entry in the desert. They opened with a victory over third seeds and perennial powerhouses Leander Paes and Lukas Dlouhy.

Sure there's the argument that spending so much time on court can tire out the men's singles players who already face longer yearly schedules than the women and have to withstand best-of-five set matches at the Majors. But there is clearly something -- net work, quick reflexes, discipline -- learned on a doubles court that serves a purpose to players on their own, and there are plenty of guys out there who can use the benefits.

And, if nothing else, it sure is fun for us all to watch!

March 15, 2010

Not Everyone Is a Comedian

To some people the jokes come easily. Timing, as they say, is everything -- and apparently at the Hit for Haiti exhibition in Indian Wells, the timing was all off.

When tennis legends Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi took the court on Friday night with current superstars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, playful banter quickly devolved into personal jabs between the long-time rivals. Pete mocked his opponent's mannerisms and Agassi referenced a passage in his autobiography which depicted Sampras as a stingy tipper, an impersonation that seemed to genuinely irritate Pete. The former #1 has since apologized for his behavior, conceding that his "whole book is about living and learning, and I guess you never frickin' stop."

Now I know I've defended Andre's revelations in the past but this, though innocuous compared to others, still seems out of line -- especially at a charity event. It appeared from the start of the night that Agassi was trying not just to entertain, but to ruffle Pete's feathers. Sampras, once thought to be good friends with Andre, has said previously that he was disappointed in the comments Agassi had made in Open and was having none of it in the desert.

If not inappropriate, the goings on Friday were certainly awkward. And while Federer and Nadal tried to stay out of it like gentlemen, Agassi actually made himself look like kind of a jerk. Sure he was always the bad boy of tennis, but there was still something lovable about him. I'm less enamored now -- a feeling, ironically, I didn't have after his book was published. And I can't help but feel that, if he hates the sport so much, then why is he still on the court causing such trouble?

Of course I'll try to keep an open mind and reserve judgement on a man who has done a lot of good for the sport. But, come on -- when are these guys going to remember to play nice?!

And in case you haven't seen it yet, take a look for yourself. For what it's worth, my favorite moment comes 2:57 into the clip when Pete serves square into Andre's body and both Rafa and Roger double over in unison -- either in hysterics or in shame, who can tell?

March 12, 2010

Things Are Heating Up

There were signs of spring in the New York air this week, but a little further west the action is getting really hot.

The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells is the first Masters event of the year and, more importantly, marks the return of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. After injury-induced absences they'll both be back in action in tonight's Hit for Haiti charity exhibition before getting ready for their main draws. And they've chosen quite the stage on which to make their debuts. Eight of the top ten men pepper the field and some are coming off big wins in the last few weeks. And that could be a bit intimidating for someone a little out of practice.

Rafa is the defending champion here, but he seems like a whole other person than he did in 2009. Last year's trophy came in the middle of a five-title run, but the now-#3 hasn't won another tournament since that streak ended. He tumbled out of the Australian Open quaterfinals after re-aggravating his knee and hasn't yet been back on court. Though he still hits hard as always, when I watch him now I often find myself wincing in anticipation of pain.

Roger, on the other hand, should be a a bit fitter, though a lung infection late in the winter caused him to pull out of Dubai. But he's got some hot players in his section -- Marcos Baghdatis, Gael Monfils and Janko Tipsarevic have all put together a string of wins in the time since Melbourne and any could face Roger before the semis.

The women's draw is no less formidable. Though missing Serena & Venus Williams as well as Dinara Safina, past champions like Vera Zvonareva, Maria Sharapova and a still-unseeded Justine Henin pose real threats. A different woman has won Indian Wells in each of the past six years, though, so the tournament is really wide open. While there is, again, the possibility of a Henin-Kim Clijsters final, this time I won't hold my breath. In fact I wouldn't be surprised to see someone like Victoria Azarenka or even Alona Bondarenko advance far into the bracket.

Of course, you don't have to win to make a statement at Indian Wells. With such an impressive field, this tournament is a great opportunity for players like James Blake or Anna Chakvetadze -- both in action today -- to turn their spate of bad luck around. And newbies like sixteen-year-old Sloane Stephens and Ryan Harrison, just a year her senior, can both put their names on the map if they can follow up on the upsets they scored in their first rounds.

And with more than a week of play left, it certainly looks like just about anything can happen!

March 9, 2010

Under Construction

Hey guys!

Just a quick note to let you know about some of the new features I'm adding to Tennis Spin. Check out the tabs above where you'll find useful information about what's happening on Tour.

Check back in the next few days -- I'll be adding links to some of my favorite tennis sites and blogs and, when action in Indian Wells starts heating up, I'll highlight some featured matches of the day. I hope to bring you more content over the next few months. And if you have any suggestions of what you'd like to see, well let me know!

I can't wait to make Tennis Spin a more fun and informative destination for everyone!

March 7, 2010

A Double Header

With the baseball preseason just getting underway it seems appropriate that the Monterrey Open held this week culminated in a two-for-one situation. When the second semifinal was postponed on Saturday, third seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was forced to start her day early, and after getting past Anastasija Sevastova in the morning, she found herself contesting her first Tour final just a few hours later.

The eighteen-year-old may be new to the sport's elite, but Pavlyuchenkova has amassed quite a resume over the last few months. She made her first semi last year at Indian Wells and capped off 2009 with back-to-back wins over Venus Williams in Tokyo and Beijing. In Monterrey this week, she hadn't dropped a set until this morning, spending barely three hours on court in her first three rounds.

For her efforts she met Daniela Hantuchova for the title. The more experienced Slovak has been mounting a comeback story of her own, of late -- having dropped out of the top forty last year, she hasn't won a championship since Indian Wells in 2007. But she's been on the rebound and made the finals in Mexico on the heels of two decisive come-from-behind victories over American Vania King and compatriot Dominika Cibulkova.

The match started off looking as though Pavlyuchenkova was spent -- in a quick first set she was broken twice and won less than thirty percent of her second serves. But the one-time top-ranked junior player was relentless -- after losing the first set 1-6, she came back to mirror that score in the second and tied it up with a 6-1 set of her own where she won every one of her first serves. The third set was another quick one, and the Russian only allowed Daniela two points in her service games. She held her opponent at love and in less than two hours, Anastasia had won her first title.

Apparently the three sets she played early on Sunday were just a warm-up -- after a small hiccup in the evening Pavlyuchenkova seldom looked back in her first championship match. And at eighteen she's already showing signs that she could be one to watch in the coming years. She certainly knows how to perform against the top players, and with just a little more time, something tells me she'll become a force at the Majors as well.

And I look forward to watching her succeed!

March 6, 2010

Take the Lead

With two days of Davis Cup play in the books, the results so far aren't entirely unexpected. France, Croatia and the Czech Republic have won all their rubbers, giving them passes to the quarterfinals in July. Other countries still have a bit of a mountain to climb -- and the U.S., it seems, could see its reign of the longest uninterrupted run in the World Group* come to an end if it loses either of its next two matches to Serbia.

Of those ties left to be decided, most interesting could be the dual between Switzerland and Spain, ironically a match-up that has dominated the tennis world for most of the last five years. Though neither team's best player entered Davis Cup, there was plenty of talent on the courts. Nicolas Almagro and Stanislas Wawrinka took their first match to five long sets -- just short of four hours -- before the Swiss took the early lead. But David Ferrer, winner last week in Acapulco, made quick work of Marco Chiudinelli and Tommy Robredo teamed with Marcel Granollers to take the doubles match. One more win and the two-time defending champions will be in the second round.

Russia's dominance of India early on in their tie shouldn't be that surprising. But Igor Kunitsyn did struggle through his first two sets before beating world #128 Somdev Devvarman in four. The Russians took an easy two-rubber lead and looked to be on a roll until running into the legendary doubles team of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. It was good to see the two together again -- they haven't been regular season doubles partners for year, though they both remain at the top of their game and have captured more than a few Major titles separately. Of course it's unlikely that the underdogs will be able to stage a comeback against such a strong team, but it's nice to know they won't get blanked.

There's an interesting battle brewing in Sweden, where one of the hottest players on Tour last year, Robin Soderling, is trying to lead his country against the Argentines. With their star Juan Martin Del Potro still recovering from injury and former top-five player David Nalbandian still on the mend, it didn't look good for the 2008 runners-up, and Soderling won his first match to give the hometown team the early lead. But somewhat surprisingly Leonardo Mayer was able to rebound from a one-set deficit to tie up the singles score and Nalbandian paired with twenty-four year old Horacio Zeballos to give the visitors a 2-1 lead.

The most nerve-racking result so far, as I alluded to, is the hole the U.S. team finds themselves in. It's not wholly unexpected as top player Andy Roddick and veteran James Blake bowed out of play -- but with current, though uninitiated, stars like John Isner and Sam Querrey leading the pack, I'd have liked to see some more spark. Though both singles players were able to take one set apiece from Viktor Troicki and Novak Djokovic respectively, they weren't able to do much else. John did team with Bob Bryan to win their doubles match, so hope is not lost -- and the team has clearly put together a string of upsets over the last year, so they certainly shouldn't be counted out quite yet. Sadly, though, I won't hold my breath.

In the last tie of the first round, Chile finds itself up two matches against a nascent Israeli team. They have yet to play their doubles match, but so far Nicolas Massu and Fernando Gonzalez look to be in top form. I expect they'll be into the next round pretty easily.

We all know that in sports like tennis, there's no such thing as an insurmountable lead -- I'd especially love to see the U.S. and India pull off the rally and make the quarterfinals. But the play of their opponents over the last few days has proven to be top-quality and could make for a lot of fun Davis Cup matches this year. And if we see a new champion come December, at least we'll know they deserved it!

* The U.S. has played in the elite group every year since 1989, but a first round loss this year would force them to compete in the play-offs for the 2011 draw.

March 2, 2010

Not Bad for Two Weeks' Work

It's been a pleasant couple days for Venus Williams.

She began her post-Australian run by defending titles in both Dubai and Acapulco and then returning to New York in an attempt to improve her runner-up showing at last year's Showdown for the Billie Jean King Cup.

This was the second year Madison Square Garden hosted the exhibition, featuring four of the best female athletes in the sport -- seven-time Major winner Williams, reigning French Open champ and world #3 Svetlana Kuznetsova, last year's comeback queen Kim Clijsters, and '08 Roland Garros titlist Ana Ivanovic, a replacement for the younger Williams who withdrew with a leg injury.

This was the second tournament I've had the chance to watch at the Garden, and I can honestly say that this city really does bring the best out of these players -- I was immediately amazed by the quality of tennis last night.

Ivanovic, who hasn't been a major force in the sport for quite some time, kicked the night off against Clijsters by breaking the former #1 in her first service game. She even held match point before being forced to a tiebreak, and though she struggled on serve, she certainly showed more than glimpses of the champion she once was. Even still Kim ran away quickly with the decider -- after a much more competitive set than I would have thought -- gaining the first entry to the final.

The next match-up featured Kuznetsova and Williams, a pair who'd split their last eight meetings. Here again the ladies traded breaks to start, but for the next several games both Svets and Venus displayed the kind of tennis that champions are made of -- phenomenal rallies, awesome court coverage and bullet-fast shots that sent the crowd to their feet more than a few times. Ultimately, with a double fault by the Russian that didn't do the set justice, Venus advanced to set up her twelfth career match against Kim.

The final was played in a traditional, best-of-three format and, if I hadn't known better, I'd never have guessed this was "just" an exhibition. Venus got off to a quick start, breaking early in the first and never looking back. She seemed to get in a little trouble with the net, though, and some brilliant shot-making from Kim evened things up in the second.

It looked like momentum had shifted to the Belgian, but the New York fans got behind their girl. With Clijsters leading 4-2, Williams pulled even and had a chance to break for the tournament. Finally after three hard-fought sets, Venus captured the Billie Jean King Cup, her third trophy in as many weeks.

From start to finish it was a tournament that lived up to the hype -- the crowd, the players, everyone got into the matches and was rooting boisterously for their favorite. And other than seeing Venus eventually take the title, there was a lot to be proud of -- I was impressed by Ivanovic's ability to stick it to her opponent again, I was heartened by the quality of points and that no return was allowed to go unpunished. And I was thrilled to see championship tennis back in Manhattan.

In the meantime, Venus goes home with another trophy, silencing critics -- including myself -- who'd thought she may have passed her prime. But now securely back in the top five, she's a legitimate threat at any tournament, which bodes well going into the spring season.

And if last night's matches are any indication, any one of these ladies could give her another challenge as well!