May 31, 2010

Time-Out: French Open Reassessment

I seem to be doing a little worse in my predictions this time around, but in my defense it is always hardest to telescope results at the French Open. And we've seen some strong players fall by the wayside over the first few rounds and a few surprisingly resilient champs prove they're not quite ready to be counted out.

So with less than a week of play left, I'll take a moment to look back at what we've seen and figure out who still or now has the best chance to make the illustrious final four among the men and women.

The top men's bracket turned out to be a lot less competitive than I'd thought. Ernests Gulbis retired during his first round while Albert Montanes was only able to take a set off last year's runner-up Robin Soderling. A couple other seeds -- Gael Monfils, Feliciano Lopez, for example -- also lost before the third round, allowing Roger Federer to make the quarters without dropping a set. That set up a rematch of last year's championship game which Federer won easily. And while Soderling is certainly a stronger player now, I'm standing by my call that Roger will advance.

Same with the bottom bracket, where four-time champion Rafael Nadal is once again playing at the top of his game. He's been challenged a bit, losing serve a few times in his last few matches, but he still hasn't dropped a set. And when he got past Thomaz Bellucci in the fourth round -- the same round in which he lost last year -- he successfully overcame the mental obstacle and got back to the quarters.

His next opponent took care of the biggest threat in the quarter for Rafa -- Nicolas Almagro, who is having some of his best success this year, simply rolled through Fernando Verdasco in two of their four sets and only allowed one break of his serve. The Spaniard has made the quarters once before, but with recent wins over the likes of Tomas Berdych, Lleyton Hewitt and Robin Soderling, this is certainly his best showing based on skill and talent. He did take a set off Nadal in Madrid, but beating him three-out-of-five is a whole different story. While Rafa may face his biggest test of the tournament, I think he'll back up my earlier prediction.

My next call was negated a few days ago. In a bracket I claimed from the start was pretty stacked I'm actually surprised third-seeded Novak Djokovic made it so far. Of course, his biggest threats had been eliminated for him by Robby Ginepri and his next challenger, Jurgen Melzer. Ginepri, the unlikely last American man standing, pulled off a stunning upset of world #18 Juan Carlos Ferrero while Melzer took care of my pick, David Ferrer, in a fairly routine three sets. Though Nole has beaten the twenty-nine year old veteran in their last two meetings, the way he played in the last round makes me think he might be a little tired. And if the man who beat my choice for this quarter makes it to the semis, I'll chalk it up as a win for me!

The last quarter is much more up in the air. I'd said we'd see a lot of upsets here, and it turns out that we did. I had big hopes for Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, but he was downed in the second round; John Isner, too, lost unnervingly easily to Tomas Berdych in the third, and Andy Murray, the top seed in the bracket, was two sets and a break down in the first round. Ultimately it was Berdych and Mikhail Youzhny who made the quarters, two men who've met ten times before. And though the Russian has the slight edge in their head-to-head, I feel like Berdych has been just slightly more impressive this spring, and I'm giving him the last men's ticket to the semis.

The top women's quarter was hard to call for the exact opposite reason as that last men's section. There was just so much talent, so many titles, such high quality play that several people said the winner of this bracket would win the whole thing. And after a week of play, that certainly looks to be the case. The top seeded Serena Williams is still alive and playing some of the best tennis in the women's draw. So is my pick Sam Stosur, who handed four-time champion Justine Henin her first French Open loss since 2004. I still think the Australian has a fighting chance to make the final four for the second consecutive year, but I'm a little worried about that call -- Serena's been much more impressive than I would have expected, given her three-month layoff post Melbourne. Sam did beat her once though, last year in Stanford, and she played some phenomenal ball to come back for the win against Henin. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

The bottom quarter of the women's draw was also one with a lot of strength, and I don't think I would've called for either of the two ladies left standing. Fifth seeded Elena Dementieva has had a couple of challenges on her way to the quarters, having lost a break lead to Anabel Medina Garrigues and coming from behind to beat Aleksandra Wozniak, but she hasn't faced any seeded players to advance. Meanwhile, Nadia Petrova took out my pick for the bracket, Venus Williams, in a surprising two sets after saving match points against another tournament favorite, Aravane Rezai. As much as I'd love to see Elena back in a Major semi -- and then some -- I think Nadia, who hasn't beaten her countrywoman in over three years, might be able to pull off another upset this time.

This section of the women's game is where I've been most surprised. Sure, I said the Italians would do well and predicted Francesca Schiavone would fight for the semi spot. But I have to hand it to Caroline Wozniacki, who so many people said should have sat out this French Open. But, boy has she proved us all liars. She's the third seed in Paris, so she hasn't yet played anyone who should beat her, but I thought for sure red-hot Alexandra Dulgheru would take her out, and of course Marbella champ would stick it to her. But props to Caro -- I'm so glad to see her looking healthy. That said, Schiavone hasn't dropped a set since the first round, and wins over a tough Na Li and Maria Kirilenko show just how strong she is. I would love Wozniacki to continue fighting, but I have a feeling her luck has to end sometime.

Not necessarily so for fourth seeded Jelena Jankovic who is not only playing beautfully, but has the least experienced quarterfinal opponent of the top players. Though Yaroslava Shvedova actually took out my choice for this section, Aggie Radwanska, and beat Jankovic in the second round of the U.S. Open last year, so she shouldn't be overlooked. But this is the first time the Kazakh has gotten past the third round of a Slam, while Jelena is looking for her third semi. If she keeps her cool I see no reason she shouldn't get back.

So I'm not going to bother giving myself a score for my forecasts this time -- there's still a chance I get a couple right, after all, and I'll find a way to justify my other calls! But one of my predictions has certainly come to fruition -- this year's French Open has been chock full of great tennis and some very exciting moments.

As for who I think can win the whole thing, well my money's still on Rafa. And, man would I love Stosur to bring it home for the women! But with only a few days of action left, you know it's only going to get better from here!

May 29, 2010

A Perfect Run

A week into this year's French Open, and some things have happened as you might have predicted -- neither last year's champ Roger Federer nor the King of Clay Rafael Nadal has dropped a set in their first three matches. But a couple less obvious players have been progressing through the bracket just as flawlessly and certainly hope to continue their own runs.

Stanislas Wawrinka is probably the least surprising of that second tier. The world #24 won a title early this clay court season in Casablanca and had been ranked in the top ten just two years ago. He also beat Robin Soderling in the third round of Rome, so you know he's got game -- but maybe you didn't realize just how much. True, he's had a fairly easy road so far -- his first round opponent, Jan Hajek, is ranked #75 and Andreas Beck, whom he met in the second, is seventy-four. His biggest threat would have been Gael Monfils, but a little-known Italian took care of the hometown favorite for him. But Wawrinka will face his compatriot and friend Federer in the round of sixteen, so something tells me his clear scorecard may soon get a blemish or two.

Beating Roger isn't an insurmountable task, though, as Miami finalist Tomas Berdych certainly knows. And the fifteenth seed at Roland Garros is trying to parlay his early season luck into his best career showing in Paris. He's been perfect so far, too, this week, even having an easy time with John Isner, one of the best hopes the U.S. had for a deep run. And though he faces Andy Murray next, he might have the best chance of staying untarnished -- this is hardly Murray's best surface and if the Czech can get momentum on his side, he might be able to pull off the upset.

Russia's Teymuraz Gabashvili has already had to pull off the upset of his career to make the fourth round. On Saturday morning he defeated Andy Roddick in a surprisingly easy three sets, taking less than two hours to do so. And if it wasn't enough, sending home the highest ranked player on the men's side so far, the world #114 had to fight through three qualifying rounds just to make the main draw. By the way, he didn't lose a set in the quallies, either.

Of course, things are only going to get harder from here -- to get any further Teymuraz will have to beat Jurgen Melzer who just defeated a much tougher clay-court player in David Ferrer earlier today. But stranger things have certainly happened before.

And if nothing else, all these guys with their relatively low-drama, short-duration matches, should at least be strong enough to put up a fight!

May 27, 2010

The Skies Are Clearing

It's not unusual for bad weather to foul up action at the French Open. And this year the last two days have been filled with starts and stops, playing a bit with schedules in the early rounds. But the forecast for tomorrow claims it will be seventy and sunny in Paris, and a couple women will be hoping to show that the rain on their own parades has also stopped.

After making the fourth round of the Australian Open, Alona Bondarenko lost five matches in a row. She's gotten a couple wins since then, but she began to fall from her career high #24 ranking through the spring. While still seeded in the twenties in France, I wasn't sure how she'd do, and as I'd feared, the Ukraine found herself down a set to Vera Dushevina to kick off her campaign. But the older sister of Kateryna found a way to pull through and won her next four sets, making it to the third round of Roland Garros for the first time.

She has a tough road ahead of her, though, and faces fourth seeded Jelena Jankovic next. Alona should take heart though -- after losing to the former #1 nine times, she finally broke that trend with a straight-set win over the Serb in Melbourne. If she can recapture that form, she might be able to pull off an upset, but I have a feeling Jankovic will have a thing or two to say about that.

Elena Dementieva too had been having a rough couple months, most recently losing her opening match to Tsevtana Pironkova in Warsaw. In Paris she's had a pretty intimidating draw, facing a feisty Petra Martic and veteran Anabel Medina Guarrigues on her road to the third round. Though she seemed to stumble a bit when trying to close out her last match, I was encouraged to see her stay steady. Next up she faces Aleksandra Wozniak who she simply dismantled a few weeks back in Madrid, so she should like her chances. It would be great -- if not a bit of a long shot -- to see her back in a Major final.

Caroline Wozniacki played for her first Grand Slam championship less than a year ago, and although she's now ranked higher than she was back in September few are talking about her getting back this time around. Thanks to a devastating tumble in the Charleston semis, she hasn't been much of a force in the last month or so. But she's still been a trooper -- hopefully not to her own detriment -- playing every week since and winning her first two matches in Paris in straight sets.

Unfortunately for Caro, she'll run into red-hot Alexandra Dulgheru on Friday, the twenty-year-old -- her birthday is Sunday -- who repeated as champion in Poland last week, beating three seeds to do so. The Romanian has caused quite a few upsets this season, and she should be able to take advantage of a slower-moving Wozniacki to advance in her French Open debut. I'm just hoping Caroline doesn't do her body any more damage.

Serena Williams hasn't exactly been having a bad clay court run -- she did make the semis in Rome before losing a three-setter to Jankovic. But I'm sure she would have liked a few more "W"s by her name coming into France. She didn't have the best first round, needing a first round tiebreak before ousting world #76 Stefanie Voegele. Next up she'll face Julia Goerges who's never gotten past the second round of any Major. It should be a fairly routine day for the top women's player, but with such a stacked draw, she could use a few easy days at the office.

Then there's last year's champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, who stopped Serena's Paris run last year in the quarterfinals. The Russian had been playing some ugly tennis over the last few weeks, failing to repeat the success she had last year on the clay by losing her opening matches in Rome and Madrid. She started her defense strategy by getting down a break to Sorana Cirstea in the first round and then faced four match points against a strong Andrea Petkovic in the second before somehow finding a way to pull out the win.

But like the other ladies, her road to the title only gets more rocky from here. Maria Kirilenko, who most recently beat Svets in Italy, looms next and we've seen what kind of damage the fellow Russian can do. If Kuznetsova is going to make her seventh straight fourth round at the French, she will need to up her game to an even higher level.

So as the clouds part over the grounds these ladies will look to continue the runs they've had in the earlier part of the week. The prospects for some are brighter than for others, but whatever the case, it's reassuring to see them all playing like the champions we've known them to be!

May 25, 2010

Les Américans à Paris

You know the last time an American man made the quarterfinals in Paris? It's been almost seven years since Andre Agassi last got there, and after that no one has really come close. I'm not sure 2010 will be the year, either, but there are some signs of encouragement from the first few matches of the French Open.

Big John Isner was the first to make the next round after the second best man in the country used up just about ninety minutes to dismiss Andrey Golubev. Taylor Dent followed him soon after with a key win over fellow veteran Nicolas Lapentti, a man who had won three of his five titles on clay. Even Mardy Fish, who's been battling injuries for the better part of a year, rallied for a late night, five-set win over Germany's Michael Berrer. Today they were joined by two more compatriots whose performances show, if nothing else, they'll fight their hearts out to stay alive in Paris this year.

Robby Ginepri unfortunately had to face friend and countryman Sam Querrey in order to claim the third American spot. The world #98 had only advanced past to the first second of Roland Garros once in his career, and when the Belgrade champion rolled through the opening set in about half an hour, it didn't look like Ginepri would improve on that record. But finding himself down 0-3 in the second set tiebreak, Robby found a way to rally and took the next seven points from Sam to even up the score. He began the third set by breaking Querrey's serve and didn't look back -- he didn't even allow his opponent one break chance in the last three sets, and after just over two hours Ginepri earned only his second ticket out of the French Open first round.

More impressive was U.S. #1 Andy Roddick who put up his best ever performance in Paris when he made the fourth round of the Major. While Roddick has already won two titles this year and boasts an impressive 26-4 record, few considered him a force at this year's French. He had skipped the entire lead-up clay court season due to illness or injury, and with the record he has on dirt, it's hard to argue that this is his best surface.

Roddick had a pretty tough draw against Finland's Jarkko Nieminen in the first round. The twenty-eight year old has won a handful of Challenger events on clay and had beaten the likes of Agassi and Feliciano Lopez in Paris in the past. After dropping the first set, Nieminen found a way to get under Andy's skin and took the next two from the former world #1. Just when it looked like another American would pack their bags, Roddick went on a run in the fourth set tiebreak and then broke Jarkko twice in the decider to advance to the next round after almost three and a half hours of play.

Of course this tournament is far from over -- Dent will be rewarded with a date with 2009 runner-up Robin Soderling on Wednesday while Mardy faces Indian Wells champ Ivan Ljubicic. Roddick and Isner don't have the threat of a top seed looming any time soon, but that doesn't make their opponents any less intimidating. But though I know it's way too premature to call any of these guys a favorite on these grounds, it does seem that this crop of young Americans shows more promise than we've seen in a long time.

And if one of them should make their way into the quarters -- or better! -- I'd be cheering him all the way.

May 22, 2010

Semifinal Predictions: French Open

Maybe it's the elusive clay, maybe it's the magic of Paris, maybe it's funny accents. Je ne sais quoi, but for some reason, the French Open has a tendency to offer more upsets than any of the other Grand Slams -- but also the most opportunity for little-known players to make a name for themselves.

After all, Gustavo Kuerten was ranked sixty-sixth in the world when he won his first career title here in 1997. And then there were the likes of Gaston Gaudio (#44 when crowned champ in 2004) and Anastasia Myskina (the sixth seed the same year, but anyone know where she went off to?).

Since then, however, the grounds of Roland Garros have been dominated by two people: Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin. And while they were noticeably absent from the trophy presentations the last year or so, both are back in full force in 2010.

But they won't be the only ones fighting for glory in France. And with ATP Masters Cup winner Nikolay Davydenko, both U.S. Open champs Juan Martin Del Potro and Kim Clijsters, and a host of others all out this year, a couple of wily upstarts may be able to sneak through the brackets.

So let's get to it!

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Roger Federer of course highlights the men's draw this year. The defending champion has made the semis or better for the last twenty-three Majors, and I don't think he's willing to break that record any time soon. He hasn't won a title since Australia, though, and is showing a few chinks in the armor, so potential opponents may be a little more hopeful. Then again, King Fed always brings his best to the Slams, and with Nadal now holding claim to a record he doesn't own, Roger's probably got a fire lit underneath him again.

That being said, Federer might feel he's on an episode of "This is Your Life" ("C'est la vie"?). Ernests Gulbis, Albert Montanes and Robin Soderling are all in his quarter of the draw. Gulbis, you remember, shocked him -- and, frankly, the rest of the world -- in Rome, while Montanes did the same a week later in Portugal. And Soderling, well, we all know no one beats him ten, eleven, thirteen times in a row.

Marin Cilic is also in this section, but I'm less convinced of his authority on clay. Though he made the finals in Munich, he didn't have to beat a top-thirty player to do so. And some upsets in the Masters 1000 events have pushed him out of the top ten. While I don't doubt he'll become a force in the coming few years, the Croat might have to wait for the hard court season to roll back around.

Predicted Semifinalist: Challenges aside, few people can endure the wrath of Federer in a best-of-five situation. I think Roger will keep his streak going.

Second Quarter

He's ba-ack! And in grand style, Rafael Nadal has won the last three tournaments he's entered, beating Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer and Roger Federer in the respective finals -- by no means an easy feat. Not even twenty-four years old, he's already surpassed the Masters 1000 record it took Andre Agassi a decade more to achieve. Sure he still lags Roger in Grand Slams, but he's once again looking like the man I once claimed would far eclipse Federer when all is said and done.

Admittedly a few weeks ago, I was a little nervous about Rafa's prospects, even at the Major where he's so at home. And while it's too soon to gauge his prospects come grass or hard court season, he's certainly shown he can still beat pretty much anyone he faces on this surface. Even still, there are a mess of hopefuls who'll do their best to stop his inevitable run.

Former #1 Lleyton Hewitt could be the first challenge he faces in the third round -- the Australian has beaten him a few times, but not in the last four years. And Lleyton's viability remains in question as he continues to nurse a nagging hip injury. Nicolas Almagro had a solid run in Madrid and followed it up with a couple wins in Dusseldorf this past week. Fernando Gonzalez, who started the year with a couple solid results, has faltered a bit in recent months, including a opening round loss to a triple-digit player in Barcelona. He does have an impressive record on clay, though, and has won nine titles on the surface, so he can't be ignored. There's also Fernando Verdasco, who's been the unwitting victim of Nadal almost exclusively over the last eighteen months -- he's been a top-performer all season too, winning two titles and making the finals in Rome and Nice this year.

But Nadal has winning records against all those guys and he's looking healthy again. So I'm hoping he won't face any big troubles this time around.

Predicted Semifinalist: Rafa, mais oui.

Third Quarter

Novak Djokovic has a tendency of very quietly advancing well into draws without causing too much commotion. Having ceded his #2 ranking to Nadal a few weeks back, he's nevertheless a force on clay -- a semifinalist in Monte Carlo, he has four titles on the surface as well as a win over Roger Federer in Rome last year. But he can't be too happy with his draw in '10 -- Andy Roddick, David Ferrer and Juan Carlos Ferrero all live here for the next two weeks. Or at least they hope they do.

Roddick has been a little quiet this clay court season, most recently pulling out of Madrid because of nausea. He made the fourth round of Roland Garros last year, his best ever performance at the Slam, but without the same kind of practice as his opponents, I'm wary of his chances to improve on, or even repeat, those results.

Ferrer, on the other hand, has looked stellar this season. After dropping out of the top twenty for a few weeks last year, he won a title in Acapulco and made the finals in Barcelona and Rome already in 2010. And it's not as though he's had easy roads -- he's taken out the likes of Andy Murray (twice!), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Fernando Verdasco. And more importantly, he remains healthy -- healthier certainly than others in Paris -- and few should feel confident if David's in their way.

His countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero had also been on an upswing this year, claiming two trophies in a row then making the finals in another tournament back in February. He's been a little more under-the-radar in recent weeks, only making the quarters in Monte Carlo, but if he's rested in Paris, he should have an easy enough time making at least the fourth round.

Predicted Semifinalist: Even with so much talent in this section of the draw, David Ferrer has been unstoppable (by anyone not named Nadal) this season. I'm giving him the third spot.

Fourth Quarter

I know, I know. You're tired of hearing me talk down Andy Murray. But while even I have to admit he does have talent and probably will win a Major sooner or later, I just don't think it'll be this one, this year. Murray barely has a winning record on clay and only advanced past the third round of Roland Garros once in his career. And with a couple early losses on his resume in the last few months, 2010 doesn't look much more promising.

Fighting for his spot in the semis are a couple guys who've been a bit more successful on the dirt this season. Marcos Baghdatis has worked hard to resurrect his career in the new decade, shocking Federer in Indian Wells and even winning a title in Sydney. Though he lost in the quarters of Nice, he could give Murray a run for the money if they both make the third round. And Munich champ Mikhail Youznhy, dangerously close to the top ten again, is also in this quarter. I have a feeling the biggest surprise on the men's side of the draw will come out of this section.

Predicted Semifinalist: Guillermo Garcia-Lopez just barely earned seeding at Roland Garros and won his only title on clay last year. I think he's proven he can pull off an upset or two and may just be the one making it through this quarter.

The Women

First Quarter

We haven't seen much of top-seeded Serena Williams in the last few months -- a knee injury kept her out of commission for much of the early spring season. She did make the semis in Rome, but didn't face anyone too high up the rankings to get there. The next week Serena just barely got past Vera Dushevina in Madrid before falling to Nadia Petrova in the third round. So I'm not sure just how well she'll do this year in Paris -- the only Major in which she hasn't passed the quarters since 2003.

Add to that the fact that she is in probably the toughest section of the women's draw. Sam Stosur, Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin will all be vying for that semifinal spot -- and only one of them can get it.

It must ruffle some feathers that Justine Henin didn't get the top seed in her bracket, regardless of a ranking in the low twenties. The four-time French Open champion hasn't lost a set here since the Sweet Sixteen five years ago -- the last match she lost was in 2004. So far this year Henin beat both Jelena Jankovic and Stosur on her way to the title in Stuttgart and while she did lose in the first round of Madrid, it wasto eventual champion Aravane Rezai.

And Stosur shouldn't be overlooked either. After watching her trounce Vera Zvonareva in Charleston, I've seen just how well this girl can hit. This was, after all, the tournament where she kicked off her breakout performance last year, and her road to the Sweet Sixteen looks pretty clear.

Maria Sharapova hasn't played a lot of tennis this year, losing the first round in Madrid. But she did win a trophy in Memphis and staged a couple rallies to claim the title in Strasbourg earlier on Saturday. And -- since pundits like to make predictions based on totally useless statistics -- she has won a Slam in every even-numbered year since Wimbledon '04, so by extension...

Predicted Semifinalist: Weird handicapping aside, I think Stosur is playing most impressively in this section and I'm thinking she makes her second straight run to the Paris semis.

Second Quarter

Thanks partly to an amazing fifteen-match win streak earlier this year and partly due to her rivals' recent struggles, Venus Williams enters the second Grand Slam of the year with her highest ranking in seven years. She hasn't had the best luck in Paris, making it past the third round only once in the last five years, but after her run to the finals in Madrid, she probably has a better chance of living up to her seeding than does baby sister. She has a first round date with another veteran, Patty Schnyder, a woman she most recently beat in Rome -- her tenth win over the Swiss Miss in their twelve-plus year history.

Elena Dementieva is the other big name in this part of the draw, and she has the potential of a second round match with Melanie Oudin, possibly the only woman struggling more than she is this spring. And I would like Victoria Azarenka's chances if this were a different surface, and if she hadn't retired in three matches since April -- I'm not sure how healthy she is these days, but I'm hoping she gets back in top form soon.

Regardless, there are a few big spoilers in this section like Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, the champ in Rome, and Aravane Rezai, Venus's vanquisher in Spain, threatening to upset the balance here. And while nineteenth-seeded Nadia Petrova has seen her ranking drop a bit in the last twelve months, she's certainly one of those intimidating players who knows how to pull off an upset or two.

Predicted Semifinalist: Even though there are some possible upsets, I feel like at least one of the top women has to make the semis, and given the circumstances it will probably be Venus. Of the four, she's the healthiest and has the most experience on the big stage, and I'm giving her the edge here.

Third Quarter

Caroline Wozniacki headlines this part of the draw, but largely in name only. Since that devastating stumble in Charleston a month ago, she continues to struggle with a sprained ankle, retiring after losing a set to Jie Zheng this past week in Warsaw. After seeing her face that day in South Carolina, I have to admit I was surprised she entered so many tournaments leading up to Paris and agree with some of my Twitter friends that she should have sat out the French, gotten better, and actually been a legitimate threat at Wimbledon. Instead she's awarded with a draw that's so wide open, I'm having trouble calling anyone a favorite.

Defending champ Svetlana Kuznetsova is in this part of the bracket, but I'm not sure she's the biggest worry. Teenaged Polona Hercog made her first Tour final in Acapulco, while Roberta Vinci made a valiant effort to defend her title in Barcelona. Lucie Safarova made a nice run to the Madrid semis while Alexandra Dulgheru claimed her second trophy in Warsaw with wins over Na Li and Kateryna Bondarenko.

But I think this quarter will be a story of the Italians -- Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone both have won trophies this year, and both have a bit of experience with the other ladies in their section. As the hopefuls in their quarter take care of potential challenges for them, I think these ladies could be the ones ultimately fighting for the semi spot.

Predicted Semifinalist: Schiavone has won more of the pair's meetings, but Flavia has been slightly more consistent of late. This could be her chance to make her first Major Final Four.

Fourth Quarter

Jelena Jankovic is once again looking like the #1 player she once was. After winning the title in Indian Wells and making the finals in Rome -- beating both Venus and Serena on the way -- she's earned herself the best seed she's had at a Major in over a year.

Still there are plenty of potential problems in this quarter. Former world #1 and 2009 runner-up Dinara Safina could surprise us all and rally this time around, though I doubt it. Vera Zvonareva knows her way around a clay court, if she can keep her temper in check, and '08 champ Ana Ivanovic has been reminding us she's still in the picture. And Carla Suarez-Navarro has continued to surprise me all year, even if she did retire from the last match she played.

Then there's Aggie Radwanska who made a stunning run to the semis in Indian Wells this past March. She hasn't won a championship since 2008, but she's remained solidly in the top ten thanks to wins over players like Dementieva and Ivanovic in the past year. I keep waiting for her to pull out a big girl's title and though she's probably not ready to take it all home yet, I think she might get in a couple wins this run.

Predicted Semifinalist: What the heck, let's give this one to Aggie, with Ana being my close second choice.

So we're just hours away from the first serves and strokes of the 2010 French Open. And, if I'm right, we could be in for a few surprises in both the men's and women's brackets. As I mentioned in my blogcast yesterday, it looks like Rafa is primed to reclaim the crown which is so rightfully his. For the ladies, a lot of people have commented that whoever comes out of that top quarter should win the whole thing -- so I guess that means this is Sam's year! But who knows -- we've seen so many crazy things happen recently that in two weeks time we might be hailing champions that are completely off the radar right now.

But isn't that what makes Roland Garros so much fun to watch?!

May 19, 2010

Out of Time

We're less than four days from the start of the French Open! Yay!

Well, "yay" for some people -- fans like me who've been yearning for something to watch other than guilty pleasure TV (Seriously, Ramona? Seriously?), and athletes like Rafael Nadal or Justine Henin just itching to get that next Major title.

For others, it may cause a bit of a knot in the stomach. While the lead-up clay court season has allowed some new names to shine, a few usual stalwarts haven't really gotten the match play they might have wanted before traveling to Paris. That could be why we saw some big names in action at some small tournaments this week -- and not all with good results.

Melanie Oudin, for example, so close to her all-time high ranking, has now lost in three straight first rounds, including a fifty-two minute drubbing by Magdalena Rybarikova in Warsaw this week. Though a quarterfinal appearance in Charleston and some strong Fed Cup results prove she can win on clay, I'm sure she'd rather have come to France with a few more wins under her belt.

Elena Dementieva has fared only slightly better. Often thought of the best player without a Major trophy, I reluctantly admit she's a bit off my radar this time around. A victim of bad luck earlier in the year, she'd been pitted against Henin in two second rounds and then got caught in the whirlwind run of Ana Ivanovic in Rome.

But a loss to Alexandra Dulgheru in Madrid and a three-set, three-hour smackdown by world #100 Tsvetana Pironkova in Warsaw today doesn't bode well for her chances next week. There is some hope -- she was, remember, a finalist at Roland Garros in 2004. But Dementieva tends to do best at Slams when she's riding a wave of positive momentum -- not so much the case this time.

Robin Soderling hasn't had as much bad luck as that. Though he got bumped in his opening round in Madrid, he did make the semis in Miami and the finals in Barcelona. Last year's finalist at Roland Garros is boasting his highest career ranking and had improved to a 54-44 record on the dirt.

But he hit a wall earlier today against Olivier Rochus, a man he hadn't lost to since 2005. After dropping the first set handily, the Belgian raised his service game and held onto a break-lead in the third to score the win. That's Robin's fourth loss to a player ranked out of the top-fifty this year. Then again, the Swede didn't do much better in the weeks before last year's Open, so maybe he has a little less to worry about.

Then there's Maria Sharapova who'll try to round out her own career Grand Slam this month -- but I have a feeling that goal is a bit of a long shot. She did win a title in Memphis early off but has only taken one match in two tournaments since then. Sharapova opened her campaign in Strasbourg with a come-from-behind win over Regina Kulikova and followed it up with a solid victory over a qualifier on Wednesday, so hope isn't entirely lost. I'd like to see her make good on her top seeding, though, just to get a that extra bit of practice in before Paris.

Of course, past results aren't always an indication of future performance. So hopefully these guys will be able to pull it together for the big show. Or maybe they're just readying themselves for a sneak attack! Otherwise, we may be in for a few more -- and earlier! -- surprises than normal.

May 16, 2010

A Rivalry Renewed

Do you realize it was exactly a year ago that Roger Federer last met Rafael Nadal on a tennis court?

The last time so much time passed before the two faced each other was between their very first two meetings: Rafa beat Roger in the third round of Miami in 2004 -- Fed avenged that loss in the '05 finals in an amazing, 3-plus hour five-setter which would set the stage for the next half-decade of back and forth, and back again.

Today in the Madrid finals, Rafael Nadal had a couple goals in mind -- a win would give him a record Masters 1000 titles and his first in Madrid. He would also get revenge after last year's heart-breaking loss which ended his long undefeated streak on clay. Of course, Roger had his own agenda -- he hadn't won a tournament since Melbourne and had lost to some surprising opponents over the last few months. Defending the title he won so solidly last year would certainly give him some confidence going into Paris.

The match was a long two sets, spanning more than two hours, with the storied rivals trading breaks early and fairly often. Nadal gave up leads twice and ultimately needed a second set tiebreak to seal the deal. With it, he won his twenty-eighth trophy on clay and kept his year-to-date record on the surface perfect at 15-0. More importantly, he turns the momentum back in his favor -- last year's loss ended a five-match win streak over Federer and preceded a multi-month span riddled with injuries and early(ish) losses.

And it couldn't come at a better time -- it's been almost sixteen months since Roger and Rafa have faced each other at a Grand Slam, and now just a week away from the start of the French Open, it's good to know we're probably not that far away from seeing the next epic battle. Whatever the score line reads, you know these two always put on a show -- and as they continue to go after each other's records it stands to reason it's only gonna get better from here.

And I can't wait to watch it!

May 15, 2010

Back on Top

Well, at least close to the top.

This week in Madrid Venus Williams secured her position as the #2 player in women's tennis when she beat Francesca Schiavone in the third round of the Mutua Madrileña Open, a spot she last held more than seven years ago. And like a true champion, she did not rest on her laurels, but instead proceeded to power through tough opponents like Charleston winner Sam Stosur and Shahar Peer, who'd beaten Svetlana Kuznetsova in her opening match.

Now I know I haven't always been the biggest Williams supporter, but even I have to admit I've been wondering what took her so long to come back. You might remember she began the year with a quarterfinal appearance in Melbourne and followed that up with an amazing fifteen match, two-title win streak that ended in the Miami finals. She may not play quite as many tournaments as the other pros, but those she does enter, she really shows up for -- Venus hasn't lost before the round of eight since last October.

Tomorrow, Williams plays in her seventieth career final -- she's already won forty-three of them, and she has to like her chances against world #24 Aravane Rezai. But the Frenchwoman should not be overlooked -- the two have actually split their previous meetings, both on clay and both several years ago. Rezai also made good after upsetting Justine Henin in the first round of Madrid and put together a solid victory over Jelena Jankovic to make the semis. The champion in Bali last year knows how to put together more than a few wins in a row.

Still Venus the more experienced, considerably more consistent player, should be able to make it through. And if she does, we might start talking about her as a threat at another Major which just happens to be around the corner.

Incidentally, Rafael Nadal's win over Nicolas Almagro this morning helped him reclaim the #2 ranking on the men's side too. He hasn't been gone quite as long as Venus was, but when he plays in the final tomorrow, he'll have another goal in mind -- a title in Rome, amazingly a clay-court tourney he has never won, would give him a record eighteen Masters 1000 titles, surpassing Andre Agassi who won his seventeenth at Cincinnati in 2004.

And if he makes it, wouldn't that make for an interesting French Open?

May 12, 2010

Looking to Gain Traction

Things are getting a little tense on the pro tennis tour these days -- with only two weeks left before the next Grand Slam, players who aren't used to losing much are doing just that.

Roger Federer has lost four straight times to players who, on average, would only barely get a seeding at a Major. Andy Murray, who spent a couple weeks last year at #2 in the world, has only won one match since March -- he hasn't made it past the quarters since Melbourne. And Robin Soderling, the surprise finalist at Roland Garros last year, hasn't put up quite the fight I expected in the last couple months.

All these guys, and a few more, came to Madrid this week to try and recapture the momentum that so suddenly shifted back to the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal. Some have so far been successful, others not so much.

Roger, by virtue of three Slam titles in the last four events, is so far ahead of everyone else you might not realize how much each match he plays has at stake. Anything less than a trophy at any tournament he plays for the next seven will result in thousands of points coming off his ranking. And since he won the Madrid championship last year -- only his second clay-court victory over Rafa -- the first of many big tests comes this week in Madrid.

So far he's done well -- a straight set victory over Benjamin Becker got him to the third round for the seventh time. Next he'll face countryman Stanislas Wawrinka, a man who actually did beat him last year in Monte Carlo, but if Federer does get the win he could give himself some momentum going into Paris.

Murray meanwhile has kind of gone off into oblivion since losing the Melbourne. He lost to Janko Tipsarevic in Dubai and Mardy Fish in Miami and hasn't successfully defended any of the three titles he'd won by this time last year. A championhere in 2008, he certainly is capable of winning a big title, though he hasn't been able to follow through on his most recent attempts.

In his opening round Wednesday, we finally began to see signs of the talent that had made so many think Murray would be the next big winner -- he got through veteran clay court champion Juan Ignacio Chela in straight sets and about seventy-five minutes. From here, he should have a pretty easy ride to at least the quarters where a potential match-up between David Ferrer, who beat him in Rome, or Marin Cilic, who ousted him from the U.S. Open last year, will challenge just how much he really is a threat at the French.

Soderling, who'd used that tournament to establish himself in the sport's elite in 2009, got off to a rough start this year, but a title in Rotterdam and a final appearance in Barcelona put him back on the map for the clay-court season. Today, though, he was less than spectacular as a somewhat spotty Nicolas Almagro pulled off a straight set upset of the world #7. He only has one more week to reset his ship on the right course.

Next week in Nice Robin will be seeded second behind previously red-hot Nikolay Davydenko, a man who had won four trophies in less than four months before a wrist injury took him out of action for the last several tournaments. He, along with Juan Martin Del Potro, out with his own wrist injury, and Andy Roddick, who withdrew from Rome for personal reasons and from Madrid due to nausea, should be back in action soon after longer-than-ideal absences. I, for one, certainly look forward to their return -- but they'll all need to rebound, and rebound fast, if they're going to have a shot at advancing at Roland Garros.

After all, with Nadal, Roger and Murray back in the swing, there's sure to be a lot of fireworks in Paris.

May 9, 2010

Something in the Water

I'm not sure what's going on in Madrid. Maybe it's a bit of nerves -- with eighteen of the top twenty women's players in the draw, the stakes are clearly high. Maybe it's that some players are a bit rusty -- we haven't seen a lot of Serena, Dinara or Maria this year. Maybe it's just the stress of the pending Grand Slam.

Who knows, but before an entire round has even been played we've already seen some shocking results.

The first came on Saturday when last year's French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova suffered her third early exit in as many weeks, this time in a tough three-set loss to Shahar Peer. Then on Sunday, the odds-on favorite to reclaim her Roland Garros crown, Justin Henin, gave up a bagel in the third set to Aravan Rezai. And Lucie Safarova, finally finding her footing after a volatile few months, dismissed Maria Sharapova in about ninety minutes.

Of course there are plenty of other tough players left in the bracket -- Serena Williams made the semis in Rome last week before Jelena Jankovic sent her packing. And defending champ Dinara Safina won't take the court until Monday -- but after her loss last week, also to Peer, she's not exactly playing at the top of her game.

And the last few weeks have certainly added a few new -- or sort of new -- names into the mix. Charleston runner-up Vera Zvonareva dealt Melanie Oudin her third loss since Miami in their first round, and could make a play to get back into the top ten within a few months. And after her inspiring run to the Rome semis, Ana Ivanovic has reminded us why she won a Major not even two years ago. Then there's Estoril finalist Arantxa Parra Santonja, who faces wildcard veteran Virginia Ruano Pascual in her first round Monday -- she has a pretty decent section in the draw and could get through a few rounds herself.

For the top seeds to have a chance they're going to have to bring it -- last year's runner-up Caroline Wozniacki has won a match or two since that devastating fall at the Family Circle Cup, but she's going to need to be healthy and hard-hitting to make it back to the championship round. And sixth-seeded Elena Dementieva, who's probably one of the best all-surface players on the Tour, could face Serena for a spot in the semis, but should be mollified by the fact that she's won six of their nine meetings since 2007.

But they'll all have to be careful to avoid the fate of those that have already gone home. With so much on the line, we really don't want to see anyone deserving get upset.

Time to Shine

The beauty of a boutique tournament like Estoril is that a few unknown players really have a chance to advance well into a bracket without the concern of a major force stopping them early. The problem with a boutique tournament like Estoril is that every now and then one of those major forces finds his way into the draw and threatens to mess up everything for everyone else.

And that's almost what happened this year, when top-ranked and top-seeded Roger Federer entered the fray. After a series of early upsets since winning the Australian Open title in January -- he hadn't made a quarterfinal since -- it must have looked promising when no other player in the top twenty made the first round. Roger began the tournament as he should have, beating Bjorn Phau in straight sets and being challenged slightly by Arnaud Clement in the third round, needing a first set tiebreak before eventually succeeding.

He must also, surely, have felt comfortable against Albert Montanes in his semifinal match. The two had met three times before, with Roger only ceding one set at Roland Garros in 2008 -- he proceeded to win the next two sets, one and zero. The twenty-nine year old Spaniard is actually strong on clay, as he's won all three of his titles on the surface, including Estoril last year, but he had lost in the opening round of the last two tournaments he's played. It should have been an easy match for King Fed.

But Montanes was determined to support the major selling point of these tournaments -- he would not be intimidated by the multiple record-holding Federer. After rain delayed their match for more than two hours, the Montanes got the early break and never looked back. After less than ninety minutes, the world #34 had handed the long-time #1 his fourth big upset of the season.

In the finals he met Frederico Gil, another man who benefited from a boutique draw. After taking out sixth-seed (and forty-eighth ranked) Florian Mayer in the first round he had an easy road to the finals, challenged again only by fifth-seeded Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the semis. Gil, the #2 player from Portugal -- both are ranked in the triple digits -- had never played in a final before. Estoril certainly was turning out to be a great opportunity for him as well.

Montanes started the championship match swinging, undaunted by the man he'd beaten last year in Casablanca. He was serving for the trophy in the second set when Gil finally got a break back to even things up. The two traded serves again to force a tiebreak which Frederico ultimately won, pushing the game to a deciding third.

Gil began the third set by taking two service games away from his opponent, but Montanes won three games in a row to get back on serve. Finally after more than two and a half hours of play, he broke Gil again to capture his fourth career title, eventually cementing himself as a real force on the dirt -- maybe not quite as strong as Rafael Nadal, but surely someone not to be ignored.

Incidentally, a similar pattern played out on the women's side in Estoril. Twenty-year-old Anastasija Sevastova opened her run by upsetting top-seeded Agnes Szavay in the first round while her final opponent Arantxa Parra Santonja waited a bit longer before dismissed #2 Sorana Cirstea in the semis. The two, both ranked in the low double-digits had never played in a final before, so clearly they were taking advantage of the opportunity in Portugal.

There was plenty of sloppy serving on both sides of the net on Saturday -- the Latvian got just over half of her first attempts in, and Arantxa won forty percent of her second attempts. But Sevastova was able to break her opponent six times and held on for the win in about seventy minutes of play.

So now, just two weeks away from the start of the French Open, we have a slew of new players to keep in mind. While it's probably premature to call any of them favorites to win the Major, they certainly could cause more than a little turmoil in the draws. After all, if they could pull off upsets like these in Paris, it doesn't look like anyone is safe.

May 5, 2010

Where'd That Come From?

If you'd written off Ana Ivanovic from the top tiers of women's tennis recently, you probably weren't alone.

The former world #1, '08 Roland Garros champ, hadn't put together back-to-back wins since Brisbane in January. The last time she beat a top-twenty player was at Wimbledon, she's been title-less since Linz two years ago and watched her ranking drop into the high double-digits after a disappointing showing in Indian Wells. Ana has done some things to get back in form, hiring Steffi Graf's former coach among them, but it hasn't seemed to do much good.

At least not until this week.

For months we watched Ana put up a fight -- she actually had several leads over Kim Clijsters at the Billie Jean King exhibition match in March and kept things close against Aggie Radwanska at two straight tournaments -- but never quite pull off the win. So when she got past Elena Vesnina in the first round in Rome on Monday, I thought it was a fluke. A straight set win over ninth seed Victoria Azarenka yesterday, I considered encouraging.

But I never gave her a chance against Elena Dementieva in the third round. The Russian had won all four of their previous matches -- at least one on every surface -- and ceded only two sets. Sure, Elena has one of the weaker serves on the Tour but, if possible, Ana's is usually worse. But all the new coaching seems to have successfully, and suddenly, paid off. Ivanovic has dished out eleven aces already this week, outnumbering her double faults almost two-to-one.

Today she won seventy percent of her first serve attempts and held Dementieva to only a third of the points in the first set. She rolled through the first half with a 6-1 win. The ladies traded breaks in the next set and ultimately forced a tiebreak, which Ana won, 7-5. After less than a hundred minutes, she's made only her second quarterfinal in the past twelve months.

Of course, by virtue of a low rank and no seeding, the road ahead will be tough. Ivanovic faces a feisty Nadia Petrova in the next round, a woman she hasn't beaten since 2007, and a third straight match with Radwanska looms in the semis should she make it. Then again, in a tournament which has already seen so many casualties -- Sam Stosur withdrew, while Caroline Wozniacki, Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova all lost early -- there's plenty of room for surprises.

And it may just be Ana's strategy to catch the whole tennis world by surprise.

May 2, 2010

Master Class

It wasn't long ago that detractors were saying Rafael Nadal's fifteen minutes at the top of the tennis world were up. He had lost ignominiously in the fourth round of the Grand Slam that had come to be his second home. A knee injury kept him from defending his 2008 Wimbledon title. Before Monte Carlo he hadn't won a championship since Rome last year> And even though he'd made at least the quarters of every tournament he played since Paris, he was clearly suffering a major downturn.

To them, I say, "Ha!" (accompanied by a gesture that's not befitting of a lady).

Nadal began to silence some naysayers when he did recapture the trophy in Monaco, becoming the only player in the Open era to win the Rolex championship in six consecutive years. But it wasn't until this week, when at twenty-three he surpassed Roger Federer by winning his record-tying seventeenth Masters 1000 title, that Rafa really showed he was back.

All week he was in top form, dismantling tough players in Philipp Kohlschreiber, Victor Hanescu and Stanislas Wawrinka in back-to-back matches. He struggled a bit against Ernests Gulbis in the semis, dropping his only set of this clay court season, but handily earned the right to meet countryman David Ferrer in the title match on Sunday. The pair endured two rain delays, but ultimately it was the more experienced Nadal, playing in his twenty-third Masters final, who was victorious. He was strong on serve, getting eighty percent of his first shots in and denying David the only break opportunity he had.

It was an impressive victory, and one that draws him even with Andre Agassi who captured his seventeenth Masters trophy in 2004 at the age of thirty-four. And I know I jinxed myself by saying this before, but if Rafa stays healthy there's room for him to win many more before his time is up. Of course Roger Federer, who won his sixteenth in Cincinnati last year, is clearly hot on his tail.

But more importantly, Rafa's latest championship proves he's still in the game and, hopefully, will jumpstart the rivalry between two of the greatest in the sport. It's been a while since he and Fed have met, and these days it looks like -- if Roger can make it far enough -- it will be a fun fight to watch!

May 1, 2010

Best. Week. Ever.

Two young ladies went home from tournaments in Europe today without the trophies they were ultimately after, but that certainly doesn't mean they were unsuccessful.

Russia's Anna Lapushchenkova is not the most familiar name on the circuit. The current world #140 once broke into double digits in 2008, but didn't play any more that year and finished at #106. Though she has earned trophies at a number of ITF events, Anna had never advanced past the second round of the main draw in a Tour-level event. That all changed this week in Stuttgart though -- after battling through three qualifying rounds, she stunned Victoria Azarenka in her second match and didn't allow herself to get flustered in the quarters when Lucie Safarova came back in the second to even the score with a 6-1 set.

In the semis she met red-hot player Sam Stosur, who was running on a ten-match win streak. The twenty-three year old actually got up a break in the first and had the opportunity to serve out the set, but Sam rallied to earn the early lead. Lapushchenkova even started out ahead in the second, but continued to struggle on serve. She got less than half of her first attempts in and dealt out twice as many doubles as Stosur had aces. After about eighty minutes, Anna's Cinderella run in Germany came to and end, and she was sent home.

It's by no means an inglorious end to the week though -- the youngster had never won back-to-back matches at an event like this, and a semifinal appearance is nothing to scoff at.

Neither was Simona Halep's showing in Fes. The 2008 French Open juniors champion is clearly comfortable on clay, but the eighteen-year-old is better known for certain other assets. She's only been pro for a short time, but shocked us all when she made the quarters in Marbella -- her first tournament on the main Tour.

This week in Fes, Halep also had to fight through qualifying rounds, but she really started taking names when she hit the main draw. Simona opened with an upset of eighth seed Lucie Hradecka and then defeated world #47 Patty Schnyder in straight sets. On Saturday she played the first final of her nascent career, impressively in only her third big-girl event.

I had high hopes for the Romanian, as she'd already defeated opponent Iveta Benesova this year, but it seems the pressure might have gotten to her a bit. While she did dole out the only two aces of the match, she had trouble winning points on her serve and ultimately fell to the Czech, 6-4, 6-2. But you have to give her credit for putting on a show all week.

It certainly seems that these ladies are beginning to show the skills that will make them threats to the top players. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw them -- and Halep, especially -- become a real force at the Majors in the coming years. And while I'm sure there are many more victories awaiting them, I hope they can both be happy with the performances they put on in the last few days.

They've certainly been their best results so far -- until next time!