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!


Paula Vergara said...

Great article! It is weird to think of Jankovic as the underdog, but hopefully she'll be able to regain her "title contender" status as the season moves on. Should be a great match. Still not sure who will end up holding the trophy.

Kavitha said...

And at the end of the day, BOTH underdogs got to hold the championship trophies. What a crazy day in the desert, but Jelena Jankovic and Ivan Ljubicic are Indian Wells champions