April 29, 2010

Welcome Back!

It's been a while since we saw Dinara Safina on a tennis court. The former world #1 has been MIA since the Australian Open as a nagging lower back injury forced her to withdraw from Dubai, Indian Wells and Miami. But she returns to the circuit this week in Stuttgart, a tournament in which she made the finals last year.

It's a precarious time for the Russian player -- she's entering a month-long stretch where she has a lot of points to defend. Last year at this time, she reached four straight championship matches, winning titles in Rome and Madrid and also finishing second at the French Open.

She's been a little more quiet this year. She's dropped a bit in the rankings, has put together a less-than-impressive 4-2 record on the year and has only defeated one top twenty-five player since Cincinnati.

On Thursday Dinara faces her first test against Agnes Szavay, a woman who actually beat her a few years back in Charleston. It's not an easy opening round by any means, and certainly not the way I'd want to be greeted upon my return. But Safina should be somewhat mollified that Szavay struggled a bit in her first round match, ceding a set to Andrea Petkovic.

There's also the fact that other seeds (Safina retained enough points to hold on to the #2 spot in Germany) are dropping like flies. Last year's champion -- and Dinara's foil for most of the spring -- Svetlana Kuznetova was ousted by Na Li in the second round and Caroline Wozniacki, possibly still suffering through her fall in Charleston a few weeks back, lost in straight sets to Lucie Safarova earlier today.

Regardless, there are plenty of threats even if Dinara makes it through today, and it'll be a tough road ahead, no doubt. It takes the best players a while to regain their footing after injury -- and I'm not sure I'd put her in the same class as, say, Rafael Nadal, who took nearly a year to win his first title after being sidelined. I can't do the math to figure out just how far out of the top tier she'll fall if she can't repeat her performance from last year, but I think it's safe to say 2010 will have to be a rebuilding year for her.

Of course she might surprise me and rush out the gate swinging -- but if she doesn't, you can bet that plenty of others will be eager to take her place.

April 26, 2010

Top Tier Performances on the Second Tier

Fed Cup action was not all about the demolishment of the Czechs by the Italians or the nail-biting comeback of the U.S. over the perennial Russian powerhouses. Some of the most interesting action came in the World Group Playoffs, those matches deciding the nations that would compete in next year's main draw.

First up were the Belgians, arguably one of the strongest countries in the WTA, with three players in the top twenty-five. They shoud have had an easy time with the Estonians, whose top competitor Kaia Kanepi has seen her ranking drop from world #18 less than a year ago to #124 now. But things were not so easy.

Kim Clijsters opened up the tie with a straight set win over Maret Ani, a twenty-eight year old challenger who peaked at #63 in 2006. Yanina Wickmayer struggled a bit more in her rubber, dropping the second set to Kanepi before rolling through 6-1 in the third.

Justine Henin had a chance to close things out early on Sunday, but she ran into a surprising wall against Kanepi, who was able to regroup. After losing the first set in a tight tiebreaker, the Estonian shocked the seven-time Grand Slam winner to win the match and save her country from elimination.

Victory was short-lived though, as the new Belgian star, twenty-year-old Yanina Wickmayer herself rebounded after losing the first set in the fourth rubber to Ani and took the next two quickly. Though the winners lost the next doubles match, they'd earned enough wins to secure their spot in the 2011 World Group and attempt to reclaim the title they last won in 2001.

There was another close call in Frankfurt where a German team led by Andrea Petkovic took on the madamoiselles of France. The countries traded wins throughout the weekend, as the Germans took the lead, but the French drew even. Aravane Rezai, who hasn't had the best luck since she cracked the top twenty, continued to struggle -- she dropped a set to Tatjana Malek before winning that rubber and lost in straights to Petkovic on Sunday.

The saving grace for France was instead two former stars -- Julie Coin and one-time world #11 Alize Cornet teamed up for a quick win over the German doubles pair, 6-3, 6-1, to get their country back in the World Group next year.

But probably the closest match in the playoffs came between the Serbs and the Slovaks, two nations with a lot of talent but not a lot of follow-through. Former #1 Jelena Jankovic was missing her partner in crime as Ana Ivanovic lost both of her matches in their World Group first round against Russia. The Indian Wells champ was then left with eighteen-year-old Bojana Jovanovski, ranked #117 in the world.

The Slovaks were led by Daniela Hantuchova, a talented player who never seems to acheive quite as much as she should. The long-time Tour staple has done well this year, making the finals in Monterrey and getting ahead on Venus Williams in Miami before losing the heart-breaking three-setter.

On their opponents' courts, though, Daniela teamed with last year's Warsaw champ Magdalena Rybarikova to set the pace. She notched her second straight win over Jankovic to take the lead, two rubbers to one, and then partnered up to win the deciding doubles match. With the victory, the Slovaks return to the top tier of Fed Cup for the first time since 2004 and make the case for their position among the elite of women's tennis.

There was much less drama in the Ukraine, where visiting Australians swept their opponents. Sam Stosur, fresh off her win in Charleston, led her teammates to an easy win over the likes of Alona Bondarenko. We'll see the Aussies back in the World Group next year.

Sure, I'm ecstatic about the rematch of last year's final between the Americans and the Italians -- and especially how Bethanie Mattek-Sands was able to pull off two victories on Sunday to secure the win for the U.S. But as we've seen, there was plenty of other action to speak of. And if these ladies keep up the same level of play, we're in for a pretty exciting year.

April 25, 2010

Blogcast: Could This Be You? The U.S. Open National Playoffs

For the first time in its history, the USTA is allowing anyone to compete for a spot in the U.S. Open's qualifying draw. And that's drawing some new interest to the nation's biggest tennis tournament.

April 22, 2010

The Luckiest Winner

There were a lot of lucky losers in Barcelona this week as five-time defending champion Rafael Nadal elected to sit out the Masters 500 event and rest after his Monte Carlo win. Teimuraz Gabashvili took his place, but he wasn't the only one -- Ivan Navarro, Nicolas Lapentti and Mikhail Kukushkin all received entries after various seeds and invitees were forced to withdraw.

But, as it happened, only Navarro was able to make (a little) good on the opportunity -- he won his opener against Pablo Cuevas before falling to Eduardo Schwank in the second round. Instead, it seems, the real beneficiary of all these withdrawals might be one man who's been flying a bit under the radar this year, but now finds the road to a Barcelona title much more open.

Roland Garros finalist Robin Soderling was the second seed in Spain -- he's famously beaten Rafa on clay before, so it's no surprise he knows how to win. And Fernando Verdasco, the runner-up in Monte Carlo last week, has a couple of titles on the dirt himself -- it shouldn't be a surprise if he thrives.

No, I feel the one with the biggest opportunity this week might be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the third seed. He's pulled together a pretty successful year, making the semis Down Under and the quarters in Miami, but he hasn't really made the big splash that has won him five career titles. The Frenchman has never played in Barcelona before, and has only entered eight clay-court tourneys in his career -- two of those being his home-town Slam. He has a middling 13-8 record on the surface, no trophies, and actually struggled through two rounds in Monaco last week.

But in Spain, Tsonga seems to be getting his footing a little bit. He had a quick win over Jan Hajek and scored his third win of the year over Nicolas Almagro earlier today. After dropping the first set to the world #34, he sailed through the second and got a late break in the third to take the match. I admit, I was expecting a different result.

He further benefits from another upset that occured a bit later on Thursday -- Thiemo de Bakker shocked Juan Carlos Ferrero in their third round match after two and a half hours and a couple of tiebreaks. Tsonga won his previous match-up with the Dutchman in last year's Davis Cup playoffs, so he's gotta like his chances of getting to the semis.

If he does, and especially if he advances evenfurther, he'll certainly be on everyone's radar come Paris. And what better way to set the stage for your return home.

April 18, 2010

Playing at Her Prime

It took a while for Sam Stosur to win her first title -- the twenty-six year old had been pro for about a decade before claiming that inaugural trophy in Osaka last year, but seeing her play in the Charleston finals today makes you wonder why it took so long. Now ranked #11 in the world, the Australian is playing some of the best tennis in her life. She made the semis in Indian Wells and the quarters in Miami before she took the South Carolina clay by storm.

Sam developed a lead early in most of her matches this week, and today got off to a quick start against Vera Zvonareva in the finals. In about twenty minutes she had captured the first set, bageling her more-decorated opponent and seeming to get under the Russian's skin just a bit. But while Vera threw racquets, (presumably) cussed loudly and took the opportunity to consult her coach on changeovers, Sam remained calm even after dropping back on serve in the second set. She bombed aces that kissed the corners, delivered winners that Zvonareva could barely get her racquet on, and immediately broke back and clinched her second title in the shortest-ever final at this tournament.

At her post-match press conference Stosur opined on her dominant play:

"You have a handful of matches where everything you hit is a good shot or winner and you just kind of can't miss, and they're the days that everyone talks about you're in a zone. It's just a great feeling, and you wish that you could do that every day, but it's not that easy. To be able to do it in a final is all the more pleasing."

It was a nice way to end a successful week. Stosur, the fourth seed here, had never made it past the second round at the Family Circle Cup, but with dominating performances both today and in the semifinals against Daniela Hantuchova on Saturday, she's certainly established herself as a threat for the French Open, where she made the final four last year.

"Whenever you win a title, you want to go into the rest of the season feeling like you can achieve more and win more titles ... If you can win a title in April, that's better than winning it in the last week of the year like I did last year."

And with just a few weeks left before the year's second Grand Slam, you can bet that a few others will be putting Samantha Stosur on their radar now.

April 17, 2010

No Way to Win -- or Lose

The first semifinal at the Family Circle Cup ended abruptly on Saturday when top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki was forced to retire from her match against Vera Zvonareva with what looked like a very painful ankle injury.

Last week's winner in Ponte Vedra hadn't dropped a set in Charleston, looking in top form against Patty Schnyder in the third round and battling through a feisty Nadia Petrova last night. She had gotten herself down a break to start the match, but we've seen in the past how capable she is of coming back. I wasn't worried.

But with Zvonareva serving at 40-30 in the sixth game of the match, we watched one of the best points of the tournament. The nineteen-year-old was able to get to one drop shot, but couldn't put away a volley to end the point. Instead both ladies got back to the baseline and traded a few strong forehands. Vera tried another short ball, but this time Caroline couldn't quite reach it, and when she tried to stop short she twisted her ankle and fell to the ground as a collective gasp rose from the watching crowds.

Wozniacki was carried off court, where she sat a few minutes icing her foot and trying to tape it in place. I have to admit I was surprised when she tried to come back and play. When I asked her about it in her press conference later, she said:

"I wanted to see if it was possible, and I was surprised that I could stand on my leg, which was very positive actually. But as soon as I was moving to the sides, it was impossible, so I couldn't play."

She retired while trailing the Russian 2-5. But as she pointed out, she was able to walk off the court -- hopefully a good sign for a speedy recovery.

Vera couldn't have felt good about the sequence off events -- it was, after all, just last year when she tore two ligaments in her own ankle when chasing down a ball at this very tournament. That injury caused her to pull out of the French Open and forced her to miss almost two months of play. In her press conference she said that watching Caroline gave her flashbacks and made her think she was having pain in her ankle again.

But Vera will have to push that out of her mind tomorrow when she plays the winner of the Sam Stosur/Daniela Hanutchova match that's going on now -- as she said, "It's great to be in the finals, but it's not great to be in the finals this way...I'll try to just come back on the court tomorrow and do my best."

And hopefully for Caroline, the runner-up here last year, recovery will be quick. She'll be getting an MRI tomorrow and then reassess the rest of the clay court season and her prospects for the French Open. I know fans will want to see her back soon.

As for her opponent, who made the final whether by default or not, she had some nice things to say.

"She's definitely a good player. She's been playing well this week, and Vera's going to be a tough opponent to beat tomorrow. "

Having watched those first few gamed, I'd have to agree.

Just Like Old Times

It's nice to see things back to normal.

While there were, of course, some upsets along the way, the semifinals at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters brought together four men with some of the best clay court results out there: top-seeded Novak Djokovic who has four titles on the surface including the 2008 Rome Masters, five-time and defending champRafael Nadal, who'd dropped only a handful of games in his first three matches here, Fernando Verdasco with titles in Umag and Valencia, and David Ferrer who has an impressive 162-81 record on the dirt. Three Spaniards and a Serb, all of whom were pretty familiar with each other.

Rafa and Ferrer took the court first, two men whose history runs deep. Not surprisingly, the Davis Cup teammates have met twelve times over the past six years, with Rafa holding a 9-3 edge. The last time Ferrer beat him was at the 2007 Tennis Masters Cup, but since then Nadal hadn't dropped even a set.

In Monte Carlo, I suppose there were reasons to believe the older Ferrer might have a chance -- he'd been stellar in his matches up to the semis, tested slightly by Ivan Ljubicic and Philipp Kohlschreiber, but otherwise looking on point. And if the injuries that have plagued Nadal over the past twelve months resurfaced, David could hold out hope. But this week, Rafa only dropped two games total in his first two matches. He traded a few breaks with Juan Carlos Ferrero in a rain-delayed quarter, but looked completely comfortable as he knocked off one player after another.

On Saturday Ferrer had a chance to break early, but instead crumbled in the first set. After just over half an hour, Nadal had broken his opponent twice and taken the first set. The second was a bit closer as three successive games that went to the receiver kept things fairly even. But finally Rafa pulled ahead and was able to save one more break opportunity to reach his forty-ninth career final and his second of the year.

Shortly after that match, Nole and Verdasco took the court with the Serb holding a 5-2 record over the sixth seed in Monaco. Djokovic, playing in his first Masters as a #1 seed, had lived up to his ranking all week, getting past Stanislas Wawrinka, last week's champ in Casablanca, and comeback story David Nalbandian fairly easily. Verdasco had been challenged a bit more, dropping sets to both Miami giant-killer Tomas Berdych and this week's Cinderella story Albert Montanes.

But it was a tumultuous couple of weeks for Novak -- he'd suffered a few upsets in Indian Wells and Miami, battled allergies, and had just announced that he'd split from coach Todd Martin. And Verdasco was able to take advantage of that. It had been four years since he was able to notch a "W" over last year's runner-up, but after a sloppy start to the match, he allowed the world #2 only four games -- the second fewest Novak has won in his career.

So that sets up the tenth career meeting for Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco, and their third since that epic semifinal in Australia in '09. And somewhat surprisingly, since that day last January, Fernando hasn't been able to take one set from Rafa. I have a feeling it will be hard for him to do so on Sunday either -- after all, Monte Carlo is Nadal's second home -- after Roland Garros. And as the former #1 tries to win his first title in almost a year, he's not only playing some of his best tennis, but he's looking hungrier than I've ever seen him.

And I for one can't wait to see him back in the winner's circle!

April 14, 2010

An Open Window

It's not often that a defending champion doesn't get the courtesy of a seed when she attempts to reclaim a title. But that's what happened this week to Roberta Vinci, titlist in Barcelona last year. Now ranked fifty-fourth in the world, she faced a tough draw with a first round match against second seed Aravane Rezai.

But Vinci wasn't flustered. She'd beaten Rezai in Palermo four years ago and she did it again this week in a surprisingly uneventful two sets. She even faced a test in her second round match against wildcard Laura Pous Tio, a woman who beat her earlier this year in Acapulco. After dropping the first set to the Spaniard, she bagelled her in the second and closed it out with nearly an eighty percent first serve percentage in the closing set.

She's by no means out of the woods though. Top seeded Francesca Schiavone, last year's runner-up, powered through her first two rounds and could force a rematch of the 2009 title game. Fancesca, who hadn't won back-to-back matches since Melbourne until this week, may not be the biggest threat.

Carla Suarez Navarro continues to improve on her year, having defeated Flavia Pennetta on her way to the Marbella finals last week and stunning Svetlana Kuznetsova in Indian Wells. The twenty-year-old has won all three of her previous matches with Vinci, so Roberta can't be looking forward to that potential meeting.

Still, plenty of seeds are falling in Spain. Previously red-hot Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, feisty Maria Kirilenko and on-and-off Sorana Cirstea all exited in the second round earlier today, leaving a crack which Roberta is more than capable of floating through. If she's able to win her third career title, it may not move her too far up the rankings -- but it should garner her a little respect.

And with just a month left before the French Open, there really is nothing better.

April 11, 2010

Back in the Swing

No one can say Caroline Wozniacki is having a bad year -- anyone who finds herself ranked #2 in her sport has certainly seen some deal of success. But as a legitimate favorite in most of her matches these days, dealing with loss can be that much harder.

She dropped two straight rounds to Na Li to start the year and was the huge favorite in her loss to Jelena Jankovic in Indian Wells. To make matters worse, she suffered her second loss to a Belgian comeback story when Justine Henin came back from a set down to dismiss her in the Miami quarters.

But this week Caroline was back in Florida looking to defend the title she won in Ponte Vedra Beach last year. The #1 seed, she advanced through her early rounds without much to-do, keeping her record against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova unblemished and rebounding to keep Elena Vesnina from avenging her semifinal loss to the Dane last year. In doing so, she earned her twelfth Tour final -- not bad for a nineteen-year-old.

This afternoon she met Olga Govortsova, two years her senior. The Belarusian had slain a few big guns -- second seed Alona Bondarenko in the first round and third Dominika Cibulkova in the semis -- to make her third Tour championship match. She'd obviously proven she couldn't be ignored. Wozniacki got off to a good start, breaking her opponent twice in the opening set, but then found herself down a couple games in the second. Govortsova was in position to serve for the set and even up the match, but that was just when Caroline's championship spirit shone brightest. Olga was serving to force a tiebreak, but couldn't get the better of her opponent. In straight sets, Wozniacki had won her seventh trophy, and her second straight at the MPS Group Championships.

Meanwhile in Houston, another player who'd been on a bit more of a slump was trying to re-right his own career. Juan Ignacio Chela had been on a three year title drought and was coming back from a herniated disc injury that sidelined him for much of 2008. Before this week, he hadn't put together back-to-back main bracket wins all year. But in Texas he took out three seeds in a row, including defending champ Lleyton Hewitt, before meeting Sam Querrey in the finals.

For his part, Querrey had done well to prove that Americans can win -- at least a little -- on clay. He got through veteran Nicolas Massu and scored a personal victory be defeating Wayne Odesnik in the semis. He even took the first set from Chela on Sunday.

In a surprisingly close match, though, the Argentine withstood eleven aces and kept his own serving percentage high. He scored a late break in the second set to draw even and immediately retaliated when Querrey broke his serve in the first game of the last set. After two and a half hours, Chela had won his fifth career championship, and his first since 2007.

It's always good to begin a new season with a win, and for both Wozniacki and Chela it's got to be nice to put an end to their recent string of losses, whether at the end or at the beginning of a tournament. And as we get closer and closer to the French Open, it'll be great to see what these guys can do!

April 10, 2010

Looking Out for #1

Neither the defending champion in Casablanca nor Marbella was back on the clay courts this week, and that's allowed some surprising -- or at least interesting -- results in the first few tournaments of the new surface season. And some of those that have made this week's finals already are chasing after that ever-elusive first title of the year.

For the ladies Victoria Azarenka drew the top seed in Spain, though you have to think Kim Clijsters, fresh off her win in Miami, would be the sentimental favorite. But the new #10 struggled early and lost to a qualifier in the second round, while Vika suffered a leg injury and withdrew while leading her quarterfinal match 4-0 in the first set.

And so Flavia Pennetta was able to take her second seed to the final round -- a series of straight set wins got her to the championship match in her Andalucia debut. There she'll meet Carla Suarez Navarro, a finalist here last year. Suarez has some of her best results on clay, having also made the semis in Barcelona and the quarters at Roland Garros in 2008. This could be a great chance to win her first ever title.

But I have a feeling the experience of Pennetta will prevail this time -- it's been a couple of months since she put together back-to-back wins in Palermo and LA. Though she's far from having tumbled out of the top ten, she's a feisty one and I don't think she's too happy with having fallen even a few spots to #16. While Carla should be able to put up a fight, I think it's still a bit too early for her and Flavia should be able to score the trophy.

Over in Morocco the seedings played out a little more according to plan -- top seeded Stanislas Wawrinka hasn't had a lot of play this year, and after making the finals in Chennai hasn't really amounted to much. He struggled in his opening round match against qualifier Martin Klizan, allowing the twenty-year-old to bagel him in the second set, and even dropped the middle set to Potito Starace before closing out the semis. He's looking for his first title since 2006 at Umag, where he won after Novak Djokovic retired before the first set tiebreak.

His opponent tomorrow will be Victor Hanescu, trophy-less since Gstaad in 2008. The Romanian #3 seed has had some scares in Casablanca, dropping sets to Jarkko Nieminen and Richard Gasquet, but after a slew of second-round losses this year, it's nice to see him pull off more than one win in a row.

Both of these guys wants a win to set their years off on a better foot. Wawrinka has to want a championship that he actually won, not one he simply defaulted into. And Hanescu certainly wants to get his ranking back on the upswing. He's actually won the pair's two previous meetings, both on clay, so he has to like his chances in tomorrow's final. And having seen his opponent take a few missteps this week, he must have figured a way to get under Stan's skin.

As the clay court season gets into full swing, whoever takes home trophies this week will certainly establish themselves as big threats as we near the French Open. And we all know how that first title of the year can lead to so much more.

April 7, 2010

Winds of Change

SpringSummer is in the air in New York as temperatures went from the mid-fifties to nearly ninety in the blink of an eye. There's been a similarly abrupt shift on the tennis courts as the world's top players moved from hard courts to the (sometimes) elusive clay in a matter of days -- and a couple will face their first big tests on the surface ahead of the year's next Grand Slam.

I admit that I was a little terrified when I first played on a clay court. If Pete Sampras, the greatest player of all-time, in my opinion, couldn't win on the surface, how could I? And in fact, most American men struggle on the red dust. Andre Agassi and Jim Courier were able to take a couple of French Open titles between them, but before that you have to go all the way back to 1955 and Tony Trabert to find the last U.S. champion at Roland Garros. Even Andy Roddick, who's been a staple in the top-ten for almost a decade, has only made it as far as the fourth round -- once.

This week the next generation of American men are in action in Houston, seeking to prove that they might be able to succeed on the surface. So far they haven't had the best luck. Jesse Levine and Donald Young both lost their first round matches while Taylor Dent and Rajeev Ram each retired from their openers.

It's not all bad news, though -- twenty-two year old Ryan Sweeting made it through qualifying rounds and defeated fifth seed Evgeny Korolev before falling in a three-and-a-half hour battle to Nicolas Massu in his second main draw match. And two Americans hold big seeds -- John Isner and Sam Querrey, likely the best hopes our country has to bring home a few Major titles this decade.

Querrey, the #3 seed in Houston, will be tested first as he faces Blaz Kavcic, a man who just misses having a double-digit ranking. Sam was able to pull off a nice win over Viktor Troicki in the first round of Davis Cup -- his only win on clay this year. Overall, he has a lackluster 7-17 record on the surface. He shouldn't have a hard time making the quarters, but when he meets Massu there, well, that could be a different story.

Americans' best chance is probably with second seeded Isner, who'll open tomorrow against Xavier Malisse -- but that's also far from a sure thing. The #2 U.S. player has even less experience on clay, a 3-7 career history, and his biggest weapon -- a rocket-fast serve -- is largely neutralized on the slower surface. The Belgian is certainly more experienced, having been on the pro Tour for twelve years or so, but he is having trouble putting together big wins of late. A win for Isner would give him an easier road to the semis and could put the U.S. at large on the map during the clay court season.

We're a long way from being a real threat in Paris, but we're certainly making our way there. If either of these guys can pull off a few wins or -- dare I say it? -- a title in Houston, it could be the start of a new era in American men's tennis.

After all, if I can learn to play on clay, anyone can.

April 4, 2010

Rule #76: No Excuses, Play Like a Champion!

Tennis is as much a mental game as it is a physical one.

How many times have you watched an uninitiated player come out of the cages swinging only to ultimately crash out, unable to maintain his or her early power? And it's not just the newcomers -- plenty of battle-tested pros have the ability to let their nerves get to them when trying to take a big match. Take for example Shuai Peng who bageled eventual semifinalist Jie Zheng in the first set of her Australian Open, only to lose the next two handily. Or Andy Murray, who still hasn't won a set in the two Grand Slam finals he's played.

But champions -- real champions -- know how to control the voices inside their head and how to keep the down days from getting to them on the good ones.

That's exactly what Andy Roddick was able to do in Miami this week, even though it couldn't have been easy. He suffered a painful defeat just two weeks ago in the Indian Wells final -- more than two hours on court, winning eighty-two percent of his first serves and saving all three break points against him, and he still ceded the trophy to Ivan Ljubicic, a player he'd beaten seven times before. A lesser man might have brought that tough loss with him to Miami and left after the first or second round.

Not Roddick.

Truth be told, he had a fairly easy draw with his biggest early challenge coming in the fourth round, where Ben Becker took him to a first set tiebreak before laying down in the second. Andy had the benefit of watching the seeds fall all around him, first Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, then Roger Federer. He took care of the last big threat himself, dropping the opening set to Rafael Nadal before winning eight straight points to take the second and eventually the match. A lesser man might have rested on his laurels and not prepared for a fight in the finals.

Not Roddick.

Instead he took his opponent, Tomas Berdych, quite seriously. As well he should have -- the Czech not only stunned Roger Federer in the fourth round, but followed up that win with solid defeats of Fernando Verdasco and Robin Soderling. But Andy didn't assume his foe would fold after such a grueling schedule. It took a while, but he eventually broke Berdych's serve late in the first set and then took an early lead in the second. He squandered a couple of championship points late in the set, but finally secured his second title of the year as his challenger's backhand return floated into the net.

Roddick didn't seem to react much to the win -- he didn't jump in the air or fall to the ground in tears. Instead, he threw his head back, then unassumingly walked to the net to congratulate the runner-up and accept his title. But there is no mistaking that this was a big win for the veteran -- his fifth Masters title and his first since 2006. It certainly puts him in a good place for the rest of the season.

And like all champions, you can be sure Roddick will take this win in stride and hopefully use it as a stepping-stone to even bigger wins in the future.

April 3, 2010

It's Good to Be Back

A lot of things can change in three years.

That's how long it's been since Kim Clijsters has been ranked in the top ten of women's tennis. Not since she retired after Warsaw in 2007 has she reached that elite position. But come Monday morning, she'll be right back in a place where she's so at home, thanks to winning her second title at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.

The 2005 champ had played some spectacular tennis all week, only losing one set to countrywoman Justine Henin in the semifinals. But she was even cleaner and crisper today against three-time winner Venus Williams, a woman who was riding a fifteen-match, two-trophy streak. I had even given Williams the advantage, arguing that her momentum and her Miami following would push her to victory.

But Clijsters was just too good on Saturday. The fourteenth seed needed less than an hour to watch her opponent spray thirty errors and win fewer than half her service points. With a decisive 6-2, 6-1 score, Kim won her second championship of the year, and her third since returning from early retirement.

Not bad for a few months' work.

When she returns she'll be in familiar company -- more than a couple players have remained forces on Tour while Kim was gone. Williams and her sister Serena had actually dropped out of the top ten at the time of her retirement but weren't too far out of the mix, and Svetlana Kuznetzova and Elena Dementieva were forces then as they are now. And of course Henin, newly back to the rankings herself, was #1 then and will likely be making her own run at the top shortly.

But there are also a couple of newbies in the mix -- nineteen-year-old Caroline Wozniacki took her spot as the #2 woman in the world with her performance at Indian Wells. And youngsters like Victoria Azarenka and Aggie Radwanska have scored their share of big wins in the last year. So it's not entirely familiar territory for Kim. She'll face a lot of challenges from fresh talent with different kinds of games. Then again, she's already faced her first test on the grandest of courts and passed with flying colors.

Something tells me Kim's got what it takes to stick it out in this largely untested environment. Healthier and fitter than I remember her, I wouldn't be surprised if she claws her way back to #1 in the world the way she's playing.

And if she does, the other girls -- both the ones on the comeback trail and the ones on the rise -- are going to have to watch out!

April 2, 2010

April Fool!

It seemed like an ordinary day on the tennis courts. Sure Marion Bartoli tried to put up a fight on Thursday, breaking Venus Williams to begin the second set and even up their semifinal match in Miami. But the three-time winner here proved she had what it took to avenge her loss in the Stanford finals, and things seemed to be playing out according to plan.

But then giant-killer Tomas Berdych took the court against Fernando Verdasco, a man he beat just two weeks ago in Indian Wells. The higher-seeded Spaniard took the opening set, but failed to close it out in the next tiebreak, allowing the sixteenth seed back in the game. After nearly three hours, Berdych was the victor, having earned a spot in the semis where he'll face Robin Soderling for the chance to play for the championship.

Things didn't end there, this April Fools' Day. When long-time rivals Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin took the court a little after nine p.m. I thought the match would go fairly routinely to the 2009 U.S. Open champ. Not that Justine is pushover in any sense -- she actually lead their head-to-head 12-11 -- but she didn't seem to be playing quite as well as we were used to. Sure she made the finals in Brisbane and the Australian Open, but she just didn't seem to have the spark Kim's had since she returned last year.

This, of course, was the first tournament since Henin's comeback in which she was ranked -- a but her #33 position was just out of seeding territory, meaning she had to battle her way through five straight seeded rounds, including a quarterfinal with newly-minted world #2 Caroline Wozniacki and a rematch with Elena Dementieva. She was certainly more challenged than her semifinal opponent during this ten-day span.

So when Clijsters took the first set 6-2 and got off to a 3-0 lead in the second, I thought she'd run away with it -- she was winning a good percent on her first serve and breaking Henin when she needed to. But Henin saved break point and battled back, even earning the chance to close out the second set. They ended up in a tiebreak, though, which Justine won pretty soundly, and fans were left wondering if maybe they'd been tricked into thinking this would be a quick match.

The third set was one break after another, with both ladies losing serve three times. Clijsters found herself down in the tiebreak too, but somehow found a way to win six of the next seven point to serve with a 6-3 lead. But Henin was not quite ready to give up -- she took both of Kim's next two service points and drew even at six all, reminding us all of why these two have such a storied rivalry. In the end, though, it was Clijsters who pulled out the next two points, first with some dazzling net work and then with a beautiful forehand winner to seal her spot in the final.

So at the end of the day, we had some scares, got fooled a few times, but we still made it through relatively unscathed. And maybe we learned not to be too complacent, 'cuz you never really know when the next prankster will get you!