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.

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