May 9, 2010

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.

No comments: