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.

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