June 30, 2010

Keeping the Streak Alive

There's something to be said about momentum -- sometimes when the tide turns, there's no way of turning it back.

That law of nature has never been more clear than during the last two days at Wimbledon, where a few players harnessed the energy they'd gained from recent wins and channeled it forward for even more impressive victories under quite unlikely circumstances.

Probably least surprising was the triumph of second-seeded Rafael Nadal earlier today. But though he was the clear on-paper favorite over Robin Soderling -- higher ranking, eight times as many titles, a better record at the Majors and the All England Club in particular -- the Swede had me a little worried. The world #6 had, after all, once upended Nadal on his home court in Paris and had looked exceptional over the last ten days in London. Nadal, on the other hand, had looked iffy since the middle of last week, needing five sets to close out two early rounds while the knee injury it looked like he'd overcome seemed to rear its ugly head.

Then again, Rafa had ended a couple-match losing streak to Soderling at the French Open finals a few weeks back, so he certainly knew he could beat him. It must've been that confidence he recalled when he found himself down a set early in today's quarterfinal match. Nadal held on to a break lead in the second to even up the score and wasn't discouraged after losing the advantage in the third -- he clinched the tiebreak and rolled through the fourth in about half an hour. And before you knew it, he'd reversed the trend that Robin had previously set up and brought himself to a two-match run.

Slightly more stunning was what happened in the women's bracket yesterday. Five-time champion Venus Williams had lost her last match against world #82 Tsvetana Pironkova four years ago at the Australian Open. Given the huge discrepancy in the resumes of these two ladies -- Venus is #2 in the world, has played in fourteen Slam finals, and has forty-three singles titles to the Bulgarian's zero -- you might think the deficit would spur the much more experienced Williams to mete out revenge on the twenty-two year old. But Pironkova had nothing to lose in her first Major quarterfinal -- she'd already beaten Marion Bartoli in the fourth round and came out swinging on Tuesday. She executed amazing drop shots and hit inspiring winners. She was able to regroup after dropping serve to start the second set and didn't falter when she got to serve it out. In less than ninety minutes, she'd dealt Venus the most one-sided loss she'd ever seen at Wimbledon. And with the win, she keeps her own winning streak against the usually intimidating star alive.

But the biggest shock of the tournament -- okay, the latest biggest shock -- came earlier today when top-seeded Roger Federer took the court against the man who'd ended the six-time champion's eight-match run back in Miami just a few months ago. Tomas Berdych has clearly established himself as a force this year, and many were talking about the potential of an upset here -- but somewhere, deep down, I think most of us knew that King Fed would ultimately prevail.

He did not. Berdych got the first break pretty early in the opening set and rolled through the third with the help of five aces, an eighty percent second serve win rate and solid ground strokes that left even Roger shaking his head. He was made to battle in the fourth, with a two-set-to-one lead, but fought off a handful of break chances in the sixth game and ultimately earned the go-ahead to take the match in about two and a half hours. With his second straight win over Federer, the Czech also ended a seven-year stretch of seeing Roger in the Wimbledon finals and, rumor has it, a six-plus year run as one of the top two players in the world.

Of course the world may think these wins don't mean much if any of the winners don't follow through over the next couple days, but we can't underestimate their importance, regardless. Rafa had been in a slump, but clearly has turned around his physical and mental wellness in the last few months. And Pironkova, who'd never won more than one match at a Slam, now has a legitimate chance to make the finals. And while overcoming these hurdles may not translate into immediate success at this tournament, it sure will help in the long run and make all these players ones to watch out for on Tour.

With so many stars knocked out, a lot of people have been complaining that this year's semis at the All England Club won't be as exciting as we've gotten used to -- but I disagree. I think it's a good sign that the fields are so wide open again -- and that players who've been slogging it out on the circuit for so long finally have a real opportunity to break through.

Sure I have my favorites -- the ones I'll always be rooting for. But wouldn't it be nice to see someone else on top for once?

June 28, 2010

Knocked Out

This is where things get interesting.

As the week began sixteen remained, but match-by-match, teams players were eliminated and now only a few remain contending for the Cup. Some who've advanced are those you'd expect, but a couple favorites have been unceremoniously dismissed as their shots sailed just a bit too long.

To my surprise, all four of the men's top seeds are still alive -- Novak Djokovic had the biggest scare, though, as he nearly fell apart with illness in the third set. But 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt, my pick for the tournament, failed to capitalize on his opponent's weakness and allowed the world #3 to get through in four sets.

The biggest surprise, of course, occurred just outside those leaders. Last year's runner-up and crowd favorite, Andy Roddick was taken to a fifth set by upstart Yen-Hsun Lu, a man who'd never made it past the third round of a Major before. In the second longest match of the year, the twenty-six year old from Taipei was only able to break Roddick once, but it was all that mattered. And though he's only ranked eighty-second in the world, I kind of like his chances against Nole after watching him play today.

The stunning dropouts weren't limited to the men's draw. Seventh seed and two time quarterfinalist Aggie Radwanska was barred from making three straight trips to the elite eight by Na Li who made the quarters for the third time in the past twelve months. And Jelena Jankovic, who had been playing some of the best tennis of her career, was forced to retire with a back injury while down a set and a break to Vera Zvonareva. Caroline Wozniacki, too, who'd exceeded my expectations for her, only won two games before world #62 Petra Kvitova ousted her in less than an hour.

But the biggest shocks came with the departure of two players who were not seeded quite as high. Marion Bartoli, the runner-up in 2007, had been impeccable all month, making the semis in Eastbourne and not dropping a set at the All England Club, but she was no match for Tsvetana Pironkova in the fourth round. And 's-Hertogenbosch champ Justine Henin, who'd made at least the semis here five times before, was summarily defeated when an elbow injury hampered her play against countrywoman Kim Clijsters in the third set.

For the remaining players, the stakes are just getting higher. With so few real contenders vying for the ultimate prize, this is no time to let your focus slip -- it's time to go for the big shots and keep up your defense. After all there's a lot of great tennis to be had before the final knock-out blow is delivered.

June 27, 2010

Time-Out: Middle Sunday Reassessment

After one of the most amazing weeks in tennis history, we're just about at the halfway mark of the Wimbledon fortnight. As usual, some things have played out according to plan, while some surprises continue to rock the draws. But with only sixteen players left both on the men's and women's side, all of the top seeds are still alive, and a few look good to go farther than they have before. And with just two rounds left before the final four are decided, the best, if you can believe it, is still to come.

The Men

Roger Federer has actually gotten better over the week, having survived a big scare in the first round and almost getting pushed to a fifth set in the second. But his biggest threats have also made it through their challenges, and both Jurgen Melzer and Tomas Berdych still loom large in coming matches. They've both fried some big fish this year -- Berdych even beating Federer handily in Miami -- so this is no time to rest if he's going to resurrect that semifinal steak.

Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, has had to struggle a bit more in more recent rounds, coming back from two sets to one down against both Robin Hasse and Philipp Petzschner. He might get a bit of a reprieve against Paul-Henri Mathieu, the man who beat the man who beat the man who made history on Thursday. More worrisome for my forecast are the two other men battling for that next spot in the semis -- David Ferrer has exceeded my expectations for him and Robin Soderling continues to improve year-by-year. Rafa will need to get his game back in check if he's going to reclaim the crown.

The third section of the men's bracket promised to hold more than a few surprises, but so far the biggest has been the ascent of Yen-Hsun Lu, who's made the first Major fourth round of his nine-year career. And though his progress has been impressive, he'll unfortunately meet Andy Roddick, last year's runner-up, next and seeing as how he hasn't met a seeded player yet this tournament, Lu's chances to go farther are slim. Just as intimidating are the two other men left in the quarter -- third seed Novak Djokovic and 2002 champ Lleyton Hewitt. Though I'm pleasantly surprised that Nole's made it so far, I have to admit that Hewitt has been even more solid this week, with only one hiccup in the first round. If he faces Roddick in the quarters it could be a good fight, and I would love for the American to disprove my forecast for this quarter.

The final section for the gentlemen has proven to be just as contentious as I predicted. Fourth-seeded Andy Murray has advanced easily while his three remaining colleagues have all progressed without facing another seeded player. His next match-up with Sam Querrey, the man who replaced him as the champion at Queen's Club, could be a battle and I know I'm calling for a big upset, but I still think it's possible the American makes it through -- if only to avenge the loss of his friend.

The Women

Defending ladies' champion Serena Williams has been unstoppable, only dropping serve once in her first three matches. She's set up a rematch of the 2004 title round with Maria Sharapova, in which she was definitively beaten by the rising star. And while I predicted the Russian would once again be victorious, I doubt it will be such a one-sided win if it happens this time around. But it's been more than two years since these two have met, so anything truly can happen.

Venus Williams has been just as impressive as her sister in the last week, but her section has had a few more upsets than the first. Tsvetana Pironkova has notched her best-ever Slam appearance, as has Jarmila Groth, who took out thirty-third seed Melanie Oudin in the second round. It looks good that we'll see another final rematch in the quarters, with Venus taking on the woman she beat to claim the 2007 crown, Marion Bartoli, and I stand by my original call for the five-time champ to once again prevail.

If you thought the second quarter was full of upsets, that's nothing compared to the third. Caroline Wozniacki has again made it through, once again reassuring me of her mental and physical ability, but she's the only seed to have survived. Petra Kvitova took out Jie Zheng and Eastbourne runner-up Victoria Azarenka, Klara Zakopalova ousted Madrid champ Aravane Rezai and tenth seed Flavia Pennetta, and qualifier Kaia Kanepi stunned everyone when she dismissed Roland Garros finalist Sam Stosur in the first round. I'd said this quarter was wide open, and stand by that prediction -- I see no reason why Kanepi or Klara won't shock us all by making the semis.

Then there was the super-stacked quarter which, not surprisingly, only the strong survived. Jelena Jankovic continues to look good while former top-ten player Vera Zvonareva is making the case for her return to the elite. But the real story is that of the Belgians, with Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters earning the right to meet for the third time this year. Kim has won both matches since they returned from retirement, but Henin's come to the All England Club with a mission -- twice a runner-up and three times a semifinalist, she's made it her goal to win. Given her amazing handling of Nadia Petrova in the previous round, I still think she'll be the one to survive this section.

We're less than a week away from crowning the newest -- or maybe not so new -- champions at Wimbledon, and with so much talent left, it sure looks like we're in for an exciting couple of rounds. If you can believe it, there's still a chance for more magic on the court, more surprises to come, and even more history to be made.

So stay tuned -- we've only just begun!

June 24, 2010

How Do You Top That?

Wimbledon has a way of outdoing itself.

Remember last year when Roger Federer and Andy Roddick went thirty games in the fifth set before a champion was crowned? Well that wasn't quite good enoughfor us, so this year we had to go 138 games in the decider of a first round match before we decided who would advance. And we're not even through the first week yet!

So how on earth can this fortnight get any better? Well here are a few possibilities that would make the Championships even more amazing than they already have been.

Fabio Fognini, the Comeback King

It wasn't long ago that the Italian's second round match against Gael Monfils was the most talked-about darkness-suspended match in tennis. After losing the first two sets, the then-#92 Fognini rallied to even the score against the hometown favorite, endured a much-maligned discussion about whether to continue play, and ultimately notched the upset 9-7 in the fifth. He didn't have to deal with darkness in London today, but he did again trail the U.S.'s Michael Russell after about ninety minutes of play and spent the next two hours fighting back. He was down a break to start the decider, but proved himself to be quite the five-set master when after another sixty minutes he pulled off another win.

So maybe that will be his "thing" -- letting his opponent get comfortable before plowing through from behind. At Roland Garros the hangover was apparently too much to handle, and Fabio lost in the next round, but maybe he's learned from that experience. Next up at Wimbledon he faces Julien Benneteau, a man who's already played two five-setters himself this week -- I wouldn't be surprised if he got the upset. And with either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who's never gotten past the fourth round here, or qualifier Tobias Kamke waiting for him next, this could be Fognini's opportunity to break out.

And if he happens to improve his five-set record on the way, all the better.

A Qualifier Wins the Trophy

I made a mistake earlier this week when I classified Goran Ivanisevic as a qualifier when he won the Wimbledon title back in 2001. As it turns out, he was simply the lowest ranked player ever to win at #125 in the world. Obviously it would be difficult for someone who already battled through three preliminary rounds to then endure another seven, but hey, it could happen. This year the women's draw boasts two ladies who might just have a chance -- if not to win, at least to cause more damage than they already have.

Thirty-one year old Greta Arn lost the first set of her final qualifying match but was able to force her way into the main draw for only the third time in her career. The Hungarian was originally supposed to play Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in the first round, but when the Spaniard pulled out she was replaced by a slightly less dangerous Kateryna Bondarenko. Arn, who'd only won a single match at Wimbledon before this year, took her first set in a decisive tiebreak and held tough after dropping the second to get the win. She then battled through a feisty Alicia Molik to notch her best ever appearance at the All England Club. It'll be a battle to get past former runner-up Marion Bartoli in the next round, but if she does she could have a clear road to at least the quarters.

On the top half of the bracket former top-twenty player Kaia Kanepi followed up on her #1 seeding in the qualifiers and stunned French Open runner-up Sam Stosur in the first round. She took a little more time to dispatch Romanian Edina Gallovits in the second, but ultimately set up a date with up-and-comer Alexandra Dulgheru. The two have never met, but Kanepi has got to like her chances better than she did a few days ago -- one more win gives her a ton of momentum in a quarter that's really wide open.

Sure, it's a long road from the third round to the final, but we've seen just how strange things can get.

Nicolas Mahut Wins the Doubles Crown

Actually the only titles the runner-up in the Best Match Ever -- you certainly can't call him a loser -- has won have been in doubles. Just a few hours after heart-breaking defeat, Mahut returned to Court 18 with partner Arnaud Clement to play his first round doubles match. And for the third straight day his play was suspended for darkness with the Frenchmen losing the first set tiebreak.

There's no reason the pair can't rally tomorrow to take out Colin Flemming and Kenneth Skupski, but their bigger challenge would come the following round when they would meet four-time finalists Bob and Mike Bryan. Still no one is invulnerable, and it would be a sort of poetic justice if Mahut came away from this tournament with a little bit more.

They Meet Again

Somewhere down the road, the paths of John Isner and Nicolas Mahut will cross again, so why shouldn't it be at the U.S. Open? Maybe even the first round?

One thing's for certain though -- should that happen, we're sure to get a slightly quicker resolution as there are fifth set tiebreaks at Flushing Meadows. Though maybe officials would suspend that rule for the rematch. Just the once.

Yes, I know these are all long shots, and I can't even pretend I expect any of them to happen. But in a world where Roger Federer is almost ousted on the first day, where the Queen of England graces Centre Court with her presence, and where one match lasts three sun-filled days, I won't count anything out.


By now you all know the story.

History was made and re-made yesterday at Wimbledon. Longest match? Almost nine hours. Longest set? More than six. Aces? A hundred and ninety-two. Total points? 877. Breaks of serve? Two. Duration? Two days.

And counting.

Twenty-fourth seed John Isner was taking on qualifier Nicolas Mahut in his first round match at the All England Club. He got off to a good start on Tuesday, winning the first set, but he was broken in the second and Mahut pulled even. The Frenchman also took the third in a tiebreak before Isner drew level again in the fourth. After about three hours and with the sun setting just after nine London time, play was suspended for darkness.

It was actually one of three matches that were called that day -- Thiemo De Bakker and Santiago Giraldo had also just finished their fourth set while Daniela Hantuchova and Vania King had battled through two tiebreaks themselves. And as play resumed Wednesday, one by one, we started to get resolutions. The ladies finished up fairly quickly as the Slovakian earned a 6-3 set. The first set of gentlemen took a little longer, needing thirty games before De Bakker earning the right to advance.

But of course it was the action on Court 18 that had everyone enraptured well into the evening. In a match with so few breaks of serve, both gentlemen continued their strong games. But as usual at Wimbledon, there are no tiebreaks in the fifth set, and when the men -- Mahut, the elder at twenty-eight -- reached six all, they kept on going.

I can remember the match in milestones. Isner was serving first, so ostensibly had the advantage of winning whenever -- if ever -- he broke his opponent. He had match point at 10-9, but Mahut survived. It was somewhere around that point that the U.S. scored its game-winning goal in its World Cup match against Alegeria -- I hoped somehow the win would telepathically insprie John to bring home another big win. But play continued. fifteen-all, twenty-all, Bob Bryan tweeted a prediction that the match would end at 30-28. At 33-32 Isner had two more match points, but again Mahut proved resilient. Suddenly it was forty-all -- that's not a deuce, that's forty games each. And it kept on going. At fifty-nine all the match was called for a second time due to darkness, sending it into a third day -- strange that the sun was the culprit at a tournament which is so often rain-delayed.

Neither man had many looks on the other's serve. A surprising amount of games were won at love or fifteen. Isner, in fact, only won seventeen percent of his receiving points in that set, Mahut about twenty-three, though the Frenchman ceded eleven double faults to John's three. Maybe a sign of exhaustion, maybe one that these guys were just that good.

Their colleagues certainly thought so -- Andy Roddick, Lindsay Davenport, Victoria Azarenka were among the many expressing their praise and awe of these two guys. It certainly is a shame that someone will lose -- a bigger shame that the winner may not advance much further. But at a time when all the sports world is focused elsewhere, it sure is nice to grab a little of that attention back.

The match resumes shortly -- resumes, I say, and not concludes. Who knows how much longer they'll go?

Or how much more history they'll make.

June 22, 2010

No One Said It Would Be Easy

It's not always that a strong clay court game can translate well to the much speedier grass, and in the first few days at Wimbledon this year we certainly saw a few players struggle with the shift. While some like Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and both Williams sisters all advanced in straight sets and barely had to break a sweat, the road was not as smooth for others.

Of course most famously, defending champion and five-time titleist Roger Federer was pushed to the limit by Alejandro Falla, who took the first two sets from the top seed and was serving for the match in the fourth before he finally succumbed to the power of the world #2. But he wasn't the only one -- Nikolay Davydenko, playing only his second tournament since a wrist injury took him out of contention for most of the spring, and Novak Djokovic both found themselves in precarious deficits before rallying for the over-time wins.

But if yesterday was a story of champions triumphing in the face of danger, today might have been just the opposite.

We started to see a shift in the momentum a day ago when French Open winner Francesca Schiavone tumbled out of her first round match with a three-set loss to Vera Dushevina, marking her winless since that big day about two weeks ago. She was quickly followed by the woman she beat, Sam Stosur, who on Tuesday was stunned by world #80 Kaia Kanepi in less than ninety minutes.

Andrea Petkovic, who didn't actually win a title in the spring, nevertheless proved what kind of force she is on clay this year. She beat Flavia Pennetta in Madrid, took a set from Serena Williams in Rome and held match points against Svetlana Kuznetsova in Paris. And though she made a run to the finals in 's-Hertogenbosch just last week, she found herself flummoxed just when she should have been making a statement on the Tour -- after taking the first set from former top-ten player Anna Chakvetadze, she somehow managed to lose the next two despite eleven aces and one more point than her opponent.

Barcelona champ Fernando Verdasco, on the other hand, found himself playing catch up all day. After a first set that lasted nearly an hour and consisted of no breaks of serve, Italian giant killer Fabio Fognini claimed an early lead, one he extended quickly when he took the second 6-2. Verdasco got his serve back on track in the third, and after another hour finally started to pull even, but he continued to struggle on his opponent's serve. In the fourth and final set, he was only able to win four of twenty-four receiving points and made his earliest exit at a Major since 2005.

Even more surprising was Juan Carlos Ferrero, a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year. He worked hard to stay even with Xavier Malisse in the early going, taking the second set tiebreak after dropping serve a few times in the first, and holding on to a break lead in the fourth after losing a tight breaker in the third. But with the sun setting on Court 2 as play was being suspended on other courts, Ferrero's game seemed to fall apart in the decider as Malisse, who hasn't made it past the second round of a Slam in more than three years, fired off aces and capitalized on his opponent's errors to win it in less than half an hour.

There were some survivors today, of course. Robin Soderling and David Ferrer both advanced in definitive straight set wins, and Aravane Rezai withstood losing a first set tiebreak before rallying to beat Magdalena Rybarikova in three. None have ever been real forces at Wimbledon though, so we have yet to see if they're able to keep their momentum going.

In the meantime, it seems, they may want to take some lessons from those who can move from the dirt to the lawn fairly seamlessly -- whether they pull off wins easily or know how to come back from the brink, these guys sure have the marks of true champions.

June 20, 2010

Semifinal Predictions: Wimbledon

The grass courts have been mown, the players' dress whites carefully pressed, bushels of strawberries and barrels of cream have been stocked.

It must be time for Wimbledon!

But even though the Championships always have an air of propriety about them, you can't deny that matches here can get the crowd going as much as those on the grittier hardcourts or the dirty clay. And all that excitement is bound to lead to some great matches.

For the past several years at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, we've been graced with some stalwart champions. But let's not forget that it was here that qualifier Goran Ivanisevic and upstart Maria Sharapova made their way to the champion's podium. Sure it'll be a tough road, but dozens of the sport's top stars have spent 2010 proving they aren't invulnerable to a well-placed shot here and there, so it's certainly possible we see more surprises than in years past. And after the crazy eight who made the semis in Paris, I don't think anyone is safe.

So let's see what could happen!

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Tournament officials really had a field day with the men's seedings this year -- some make sense, others less so. Appropriately, Roger Federer headlines the top half of the draw for the sixth time in his career despite his current #2 world rank. Clearly those in charge felt he deserves credit for the many titles he's already won here.

But Roger is riding a momentum wave we haven't seen from him in a while -- it's been nearly five months since he won his last title back in Australia, and he's only played two finals in the interim. Of course just last month he famously ended his Major semi streak at twenty-three consecutive appearances in Paris but, as he good-naturedly pointed out, he now has an even longer running quarterfinal streak, and he won't make it easy for anyone to end that.

Encouragingly, he actually has a fairly smooth section of the draw -- certainly smoother than what he faced in France. Nikolay Davydenko is his biggest threat, and although the hard-hitting Russian posed quite a threat to Roger late last year, a wrist injury that's nagged him since Melbourne kept him off the circuit until just two weeks ago. I once called for the #5 player in the world to pull off the upset -- not this time.

There are a few other tricky players in this quarter, though. Tomas Berdych shocked Federer in Miami back in March and carried his momentum all the way to the finals. Feliciano Lopez beat Rafael Nadal at Queen's Club and gave Andy Roddick a little bit of trouble in Australia -- he's seeded twenty-third at the All England Club, seven spots higher than his ranking. Plus Jurgen Melzer, a breakthrough semifinalist in Paris is currently at a career high ranking and could cause some troubles.

Challenges aside, though, few people are able to get under Roger's skin on grass, and I don't see him having too much trouble that first week.

Predicted Semifinalist: Federer, duh.

Second Quarter

As big a fan as I am of Rafael Nadal, I can't really take umbrage with the fact that he was knocked down to the #2 seed at Wimbledon -- the 2008 champion has a couple titles on grass, but he's clearly more likely to do damage on other surfaces. That said, Rafa has made the finals here the last three times he's played, and coming off that spectacular run at Roland Garros, he's going to do his best to defend the title he couldn't last year.

Unfortunately, he's going to have to knock out a handful of my favorites to do it -- James Blake, who has traditionally been good on grass, is a potential second round opponent, and John Isner looms very tall in the fourth.

The bigger threats, though, are in the top half of this section. Ninth-seeded David Ferrer has never gotten to the quarters at Wimbledon, but he's playing some good ball these days and may surprise us. Marcos Baghdatis made the semis in 2006, and though he didn't quite capitalize on his #2 seed in 's-Hertogenbosch, he could get in a few wins. And Thomaz Bellucci, seeded just below the Cypriot, has good things in his future. He's actually only won one match at this tournament, but this might be his breakout year.

Most intimidating, of course is that man seeded sixth -- Robin Soderling, now a two-time finalist in Paris, seems to learn something new every time you see him. But grass isn't his best surface, as he's just better than even on the lawn over his career. I certainly don't think he's ready to bring home the big prize just yet, but he should be able to improve on his fourth round run from last year.

Predicted Semifinalist: Rafa simply has more experience in this bracket than anyone else. It might not be the perfect run he had at Roland Garros, but I think he'll get through.

Third Quarter

Poor Novak Djokovic is kind of the forgotten man these days, but remember he's the only man at Wimbledon other than Roger and Rafa who's won a Slam in the past five years. He's never won a singles title on grass, but he did make the quarters at Wimbledon last year and the semis in 2007, and he teamed with Jonathan Erlich to take the doubles crown at Queen's Club.

That said, Nole has probably the toughest draw on the men's side. Last year's runner-up Andy Roddick was blessed with a seeding two spots ahead of his rank, and 2002 champ Lleyton Hewitt got an eleven position boost thanks in part to his win over Federer in Halle last week.

This section might hold the best opportunity for a long shot to make it through the cracks in the bracket -- Mardy Fish beat a few top players in London, and really put up a fight in the finals. Plus Marin Cilic, who I really do believe is on the verge of a breakout, claims the eleventh seed. His deepest run at the All England Club was the fourth round a few years back, but like Bellucci, maybe this is his year.

Predicted Semifinalist: This is a tough one to call, and I'd love Roddick to make the semis a fifth time. But Hewitt's been a little more solid in 2010, and his recent title followed by a week of rest allows me to give him the edge.

Fourth Quarter

It's a very strange relationship the tennis world has with Andy Murray. A year ago he was touted as the dark horse favorite to bring home Great Britain's first Major since Fred Perry did it in the 1930s. But even though he made the finals in Australia this year, no one seems to be talking about him at Wimbledon, his home Slam. It might be because he failed to defend his title at Queen's Club, or because he's lost fairly early at some recent tournaments, but the hype that's surrounded him for the past eighteen months seems to have dissipated a bit.

But maybe flying under the radar will serve him well this year -- though he's got a quarter full of tough players, most of his biggests threats are most lethal on clay. Former world #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero made the quarters here last year when ranked all the way down at #70 and Nicolas Almagro has been surprisingly consistent lately. Fernando Verdasco, who stunned Murray at the Australian Open in 2009, has been fairly steady at Wimbledon too.

Also in this section is Sam Querrey, who supplanted Murray as the champion at Queen's Club. He was given the eighteenth seed at the Slam, better than the current #2 American John Isner who was pushed down to #24. He's actually only made the second round once last year, but America is trying to find its next big tennis star, and Querrey could fit the bill.

Predicted Semifinalist: But if I'm giving the previous quarter to a veteran, I feel this one should go to a member of the next generation. I realize this call might be a bit premature, but it might be Sam's time to shine. At least I hope it is.

The Women

First Quarter

Strangely the women's bracket was seeded fairly routinely, with only a slight shift because of Elena Dementieva's unfortunate withdrawal and a couple lucky winners and losers who moved around after Dinara Safina and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez dropped out on Saturday. Defending champion and current world #1 Serena Williams leads the top quarter, though she hasn't played a lot this year, and we haven't seen her on the lawn at all since she hoisted that trophy in 2009. And she's going to have to battle to make a sixth run to the finals.

Her potential second round opponent, Andrea Petkovic, is just out of seeding territory, and we've seen the damage she can do. The German had multiple match points against Svetlana Kuznetsova -- also in this section -- at the French Open and even put up a fight in the finals at the Unicef Open just this past week. And neither Dominika Cibulkova or Lucie Safarova are far away -- either could present a problem for Serena in her third match.

Then there's 2004 champion Maria Sharapova, who made the finals in Birmingham a week ago -- she originally had a first round date with feisty Kateryna Bondarenko, a quarterfinalist in Flushing Meadows last year. But the younger of the sport's other sister-pair, who's been battling injuries herself this year, got bumped up to a thirty-fourth seed, pitting Anastasia Pivovarova against MaSha instead. Cue sigh of relief. But lest she get too comfortable, Maria's road gets no easier as Daniela Hantuchova will probably be waiting for her in the third round.

On the bottom half of the section, two-time quarterfinalist Aggie Radwanska headlines. She's a tough cookie, and though she fell in the first round at Eastbourne, it was to eventual runner-up Victoria Azarenka. I keep waiting for her to cause some real damage at a Slam, and though she has a couple easy matches to start, she might have to fight Kuznetsova or Birmingham champ Na Li to make that third trip to the elite eight. And with the top of the quarter as stacked as it is, I'm not sure she'll make it any farther.

Predicted Semifinalist: I know Serena's a fighter and she'll make things hard for her opponents. But I feel like we have to see a shake up this year, and with the new draw I think Maria has a good shot at advancing.

Second Quarter

Fans of the top two women in the sport will be happy to know that if Serena does meet her sister at Wimbledon, it will have to be in the finals. Venus Williams is at her highest ranking at this Major since 2002, but ironically she's won three of her five titles since then. In fact, in her thirteen appearances at the All England Club, she's played in eight championship matches and only lost before the quarters three times -- not exactly a résumé that inspires confidence in her opponents.

But she does have a couple ladies in her draw that might draw inspiration from recent wins over the five-time champ. Agnes Szavay ousted Venus from Roland Garros last year and could face her again in the second round. The other option is Ekaterina Makarova, who won her first Tour title in Eastbourne just yesterday -- she may never have played Venus, but she did beat Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sam Stosur and Azarenka to claim the trophy. And should Williams pass that test, there's no time to rest -- Alisa Kleybanova, her potential challenger just two matches later, beat her in Madrid in 2009.

Up on top of this quarter is newly minted French Open champ Francesca Schiavone, who took Elena's place as the fifth seed. But this isn't her best surface, and with players like Yaroslava Shvedova and 2007 runner-up Marion Bartoli in her way, I don't see her improving on past results. And Melanie Oudin, who got a bump up to the thirty-third seed on Dinara's withdrawal, is also in this section. You might remember she made her first statement at Wimbledon last year, way before she became the darling of the U.S. Open. She's lost in two Major first rounds this year, though, and actually hasn't won a match since April. I hope she'll break that trend in London, but she's got a pretty rough draw to make a serious run.

Predicted Semifinalist: I would love to see something different in this quarter, but I have to say Venus will battle Bartoli for the semi spot and she'll ultimately get through.

Third Quarter

Caroline Wozniacki surprised everyone -- well, at least me -- when she made the quarters in Paris on an ankle that still isn't quite up to snuff. And though she fell in the first round while trying to defend her Eastbourne title, it was to Aravane Rezai, a strong player who incidentally is also in this quarter. So Caroline might just exceed my expectations this time too and get in a couple wins before facing a real threat on her campaign.

Rezai really made a name for herself during the clay court season, but there's no reason she can't have success too on the lawn. It might be tricky though, as she faces a first round against Magdalena Rybarikova, a woman who won her only career title on the surface last year. And though Victoria Azarenka crashed out of the first round at Roland Garros, she made an impressive run to the finals in Eastbourne, beating Radwanska, Bartoli and Kim Clijsters on the way. I might not have liked her a week ago, but the tide might be turning in Vika's favor this days.

The biggest on-paper power in this quarter, though, is probably French Open runner-up Sam Stosur, seeded sixth. Though she's made the finals here in the doubles draw a couple times, she's never made it past the third round in singles. I have a feeling she'll do a little better this year, but maybe not as much as we expect.

Predicted Semifinalist: This could be the quarter where we see the biggest surprise. I'd love to see Vika make it, but I'm going to go with someone out of left field and give it to Argentina's Gisela Dulko, who actually beat Sharapova here last year.

Fourth Quarter

Every tournament has one -- the quarter that is just so stacked you have no idea who'll survive it. In Australia it was the women's third, in Paris the ladies' first. This time around, they've literally saved the best for last.

Jelena Jankovic is the top seed in this part of the bracket. The former world #1 has been playing well this year, taking the trophy in Indian Wells and making the finals in Rome. She was also impressive in Paris, defying my predictions to make the semis before being steamrolled by Stosur in the penultimate round. She's done okay at Wimbledon in the past, but still hasn't gotten past the fourth match here.

In a quarter full of Belgians, Jankovic could meet Yanina Wickmayer in the fourth round. Though the current world #16 got off to a fast start this year by winning her third career title in Auckland, she's been a little quiet since the spring and actually has never won a match at the All England Club. She's got a tricky first opponent too -- U.S. teenager Alison Riske, who made the semis in Birmingham a week ago. And whoever makes it through the early matches probably has a third round meeting with yet another former top-ten player, Vera Zvonareva.

Battling through the top half of this section is Justine Henin, who's made winning Wimbledon the goal of her second career. She claimed the champion's trophy in the Netherlands on Saturday, so she's certainly got a fighting chance. But she's projected to face another clay court specialist, Anastasija Sevastova, in the first round, giant-slayer Nadia Petrova in the third and yet another Belgian, Kim Clijsters, twice a semifinalist here herself, in the fourth. Certainly not an easy week's worth of work.

Predicted Semifinalist: Had we seen a different result in the Netherlands, I might not have picked her for this quarter, but I'll put my money on Justine this time. And I think it'll be a fight to get there.

I feel like we've become too complacent at Wimbledon over the last few years -- Roger and Rafa, Serena and Venus, year in and year out. Eventually things have to change, and my gut is telling me this is the year.

Over the past several months we've watched stars struggle and supreme underdogs emerge as some of the brightest hopes for the future -- what better stage can you imagine for the next generation of players to rise in triumph. If nothing else we are at least due for a shake up.

After all, it sure is fun to get our crisp, clean whites good and messy!

June 16, 2010

What I've Learned From the World Cup

A friend suggested a couple weeks ago that I start writing about soccer, as it's easy enough to follow and it shouldn't take long to get up to speed on the players. And with the rest of the world focused on the action in South Africa this month, it would obviously be hard to ignore the headlines.

Now I know the learning curve is much steeper than he assumes, and I don't even pretend to understand all that's happening on the field. But in the short time I've spent watching these athletes pour their hearts out in these stadiums, I have come away with a few lessons.

#1: I'm so happy I play on a small court

Think it's hard to come back from a swing in momentum after losing serve? Try doing the same when a ball is suddenly launched a hundred-plus yards in the opposite direction. My lungs hurt just thinking about it.

#2: Home field advantage may give you an early boost, but that might be all

The South African team may have scored the first goal of the tournament, but they ended their game tied with Mexico.

Similarly at the AEGON International in Eastbourne, teenager Heather Watson of Great Britain harnessed the crowd's support to beat Aleksandra Wozniak in the first round, but dropped quickly to Victoria Azarenka in the second. And in the Netherlands, world #159 Igor Sijsling rallied past countryman Thiemo De Bakker to win only the second Tour match of his career. Unfortunately Sergiy Stakhovsky took care of him in the subsequent match.

#3: The grass may be soft, but winning is hard

With the first group of round robin matches in the books, six of the sixteen soccer games played so far have resulted in ties. Can you imagine? Two teams go after each other nonstop for more than ninety minutes and no resolution is reached. I've never been more thankful for tiebreaks.

But even though we're guaranteed a winner, that doesn't mean the advancing player didn't expend more than his or her fair share of energy getting there. Svetlana Kuznetsova has already spent nearly five hours on court in her first two matches at the UNICEF Open while fifth-seeded Alexandra Dulgheru has survived six sets herself to make the Eastbourne quarters. For the men, Alexandr Dolgopolov battled through two tight opening sets before closing out his opponents decisively in the third and wildcard Gilles Simon squandered two one-set leads before rallying to avoid elimination.

#4: Past performance is not an indication of future results

Sure, perennial powerhouses like Brazil and Germany got off to quick leads this year, but both defending Cup champion Italy and runner-up France drew in their first games, and the French didn't even score a goal. That's not to say they won't rebound, of course, but they're both starting out at a deficit.

A couple women find themselves in similar positions on the courts. Tamarine Tanasugarn and Caroline Wozniacki were the champions at 's-Hertogenbosch and Eastbourne last year -- both fell in the first round this year, which doesn't lay the best groundwork heading into Wimbledon. Then again, both ladies can take comfort in knowing the lesson works in the opposite direction too. Caroline translated her win into a fourth round appearance at the All England Club in 2009, while the vet got ousted early -- there's no reason they can't better those results this year.

#5: Everyone needs Uncle Toni!

Spain lost to Switzerland. Spain lost to Switzerland. In soccer!

Apparently there's only one man in sports who knows how to consistently beat the Swiss, and that man should be coaching the Spanish team -- that is, while he's not busy coaching his nephew.

I'm not sure I'll ever really understand fútbol entirely -- after all, it seems like a lot of work which ultimately results in very little scoring. But I certainly appreciate the passion it brings out of its fans, and watching the games over the past few days I can't help but wish to be part of the excitement.

But we're only a few days away from our world cup, and I have no doubt our athletes will do everything they can to recreate that atmosphere on their turf.

June 13, 2010

Switzerland 1, Australia 2

If we were talking World Cup that score might make sense -- though now that the Germans are leading Australia 4-0, maybe not. But while the rest of the globe is focused on a different kind of grass field, the two countries' best were also taking a shot at each other on the tennis courts, and the result was not what you'd expect.

Roger Federer has been a staple in Halle for most of the past decade, having won the trophy five times, and even signed a lifetime agreement to play every year until he retires. As the top seed, he progressed without challenge all week, surviving a few tiebreaks but never dropping a set on the surface on which he's won eleven titles.

In the finals he faced Lleyton Hewitt, another former #1 who is pretty comfortable on the lawn himself. The 2002 Wimbledon champ was playing in his first Gerry Weber Open after years of participating -- and winning -- at Queen's Club. As the eighth seed in Germany he also had a fairly easy run, as his opponents often took care of the other top contenders for him. In fact Roger and Lleyton were the only seeds to make the third round, so neither faced a big hitter until that championship round.

As two men who've been around for more than a decade each, Federer and Hewitt have played each other a lot, and often when the stakes were high. Before today, they'd played in three finals and eight semis. Twice they'd played in Davis Cup, three times at the year-end championships, and eight times each at Masters events and Grand Slams. And of those twenty-four total match-ups, Roger has won seventeen times -- in fact, the last fifteen straight. It looked like the streak would continue, but Hewitt was primed to turn the tables.

Federer got himself off to a quick start, breaking the Australian in the middle of the first set and running off to a 0-40 lead in the ninth game of the second. But Hewitt held strong and rallied to take the game and force a tiebreak, which he won. He broke Roger to kick off the decider and picked up his second serve percentage while his opponent began committing more errors. Federer had a chance to break again and draw even, but a strong forehand from Hewitt kept him ahead. Finally, after a little less than two-and-a-half hours, Lleyton had won his twenty-eighth title, his seventh on grass, and his first since Houston last year.

With only a week left before the start of the Championships, Hewitt certainly scored the win at an opportune time. Having spent the balance of the last two years recovering from hip surgery and various other injuries, he hasn't really been a force at the Slams in some time and only reached the quarterfinals once in the past four years. If he brings his momentum -- and the knowledge that he can still beat top players -- he might stand a chance at Wimbledon this year. This is, after all, one of his best surfaces, and today's victory will surely give his opponents in London a bit to worry about.

Sure, it's probably too soon to claim Hewitt is a favorite to win the big trophy in a few weeks, but the odds are certainly more in his favor now. After all, if you can beat Federer, who can't you beat...?

June 12, 2010

Seeking the Mini Slam

Today I played tennis on a hard court for the first time since college. Man, was it ugly -- ironic, too, since I spent so much of my childhood playing on the surface. But it certainly gave me a greater appreciation for the pros who shift so seamlessly from one to another and for how amazing it is for one man or woman to achieve that elusive career Grand Slam.

And while most of the focus is rightfully on winning the Majors, Sam Querrey will be going for his own slam of sorts tomorrow -- playing in his first final at the prestigious Queen's Club, he has the chance to become the first player this year to win a title on all three courts this year. Already owning trophies from Memphis and Belgrade -- ironically both times beating his friend and countryman John Isner -- he's now looking to prove himself on grass.

Sam has done well on the surface before -- he made the finals last year in Newport and even took then-#13 Marin Cilic to five sets at Wimbledon in 2009. To make the championship match in London, the seventh-seed hasn't had to work terribly hard. In his opening match he faced his professional foil Robby Ginepri, a man who beat him for the '09 title in Indianapolis and stunned him early at Roland Garros during his spectacular run to the fourth round there. But since then, Sam's been unstoppable -- he played a couple of close matches, but didn't drop a set until a tiebreak gave Rainer Schuettler the early lead in the semis. But the American rallied through a tight second set and ended up with the win to reach his fourth final of the year.

To claim the title, though, Sam will have to get past another friend who's had to do a little more work this past week. Mardy Fish, who's been recovering from injuries on and off over the past year, reprised his Miami win over defending champ Andy Murray and followed it up by trouncing eighth seed Feliciano Lopez in the semis. In fact, the world #90 has beaten four seeds in a row in London, so he can't exactly be discounted. And, though it was almost three years ago, he has won his only previous meeting with Sam.

Needless to say, a win would be a big boost for Querrey who, ranked twenty-third in the world, is currently the third-best American man in the game. He's been trailing his buddy Isner for the better part of the year, even though he has more titles to his name and leads their head-to-head 2-1. Not that he needs any validation -- pundits have said he has a more well-rounded game and probably more longevity than his uber-tall compatriot. And while Andy Roddick might not be ready to cede his position at the top just yet, Sam sure looks like he's in good shape to hold on to it for a while when it does eventually become his turn.

More importantly, proving just how strong of an all-court player he is would show the world -- not just Americans -- that Sam Querrey is a force to be reckoned with.

June 10, 2010

A Return to Normalcy?

It's no surprise that the clay court season was dominated by two story lines: the reemergence of Rafael Nadal as the #1 man in tennis and the return of the four-time French Open champ Justine Henin.

Now that we've moved on, we enter a period where a few almost-forgotten names are trying to remind us exactly why they're forces in tennis -- some will be successful, some less so.

Andy Roddick was, unfortunately, part of the latter group. One half of probably the best match contested last year, he has his best win percentage on grass -- an impressive 82% versus 77% on hard courts. He's also won four titles on the surface -- not bad when you consider how short this part of the season is -- and made the semis or better at Queen's Club every year since 2002. But the story this year was a bit different -- in about an hour and forty-five minutes, the world #7 was ousted in the third round today by Israel's Dudi Sela, a man who's only now broken even on the lawn. Here's hoping Roddick gets it together before traveling to Wimbledon.

Britain's Andy Murray is hoping to avoid the same fate. After a mediocre clay court season in which he only advanced to the quarterfinals of a tournament once, he returns to London to defend his crown. England's best hope at a Major only has the one title on the surface, but with thirty-four wins and just nine losses he does promise to deliver eventually. He does still have to get past Mardy Fish, though -- after splitting their first two sets on Thursday, the two retired on serve at three-all in the decider when the lights went down. Murray is clearly the favorite to pull out the win, but the American did stun him in Miami back in March, so the outcome is far from certain. Murray's going to want to rally big, though, or else people may stop talking about him for a while.

So far Maria Sharapova has been doing her part to show us just how ready she is to win another Slam. After a disappointingly close third-round loss in Paris, she's looked unstoppable in a rain-soaked Birmingham. This week she's powered through Bethanie Mattek-Sands and destroyed Alla Kudryavtseva in about an hour each. With a quarterfinal date against qualifier Sesil Karatantcheva, it looks good that she'll make the semis and maybe go further, all of which bodes well as she returns to the site of her first Major win.

It's not quite certain yet whether these players will return to their winning ways, but over the next few weeks we'll start to see whether they can cause some damage now that they're on a turf with which they're more comfortable. If they can I can't wait to see the fireworks -- if not, well, it might just be time to step aside for some new talent.

June 6, 2010

Not Revenge, Just Redemption

Just like Francesca Schiavone yesterday, Rafael Nadal would meet the man who so unceremoniously dismissed him at last year's French Open in the championship match. And just like Schiavone yesterday, Nadal would turn the tables on his previous vanquisher and prove that he really is the man to beat on clay.

In the days heading into this year's finals, all talk was around that -- how important was gaining revenge on the only man who's ever defeated him at Roland Garros? Nadal was quick to deny that that was what he was after. "I never think about revenges," he said after beating Nicolas Almagro in the quarters. "When I go on court, I don't think if I lost last time is gonna be revenge. I never go by this way. I think if you think that, your mind is not 100 percent calm to think what you have to do."

Whether that is wholly true or not, I'll never know, but as Rafa played in his fifth title match in Paris on Sunday it certainly looked like there was only one thing on his mind -- winning.

And it wasn't an easy task. His opponent, Robin Soderling, had not only found a way to conquer Nadal last year, but he'd avenged his own loss in the '09 finals by shocking defending champ Roger Federer in this year's quarters. He'd actually gotten through four tough seeds in a row, only looking to be slight trouble against Tomas Berdych in the semifinals -- he survived the three-and-a-half hour five-setter by breaking the feisty Czech in the decider.

The first set lived up to expectations. Soderling had the first break opportunity early, but Nadal held on and actually broke the Swede on his next service game. Robin held tough to save several more opportunities for Rafa to gain an even bigger lead and had a chance to level the score later in the first set, but the Spaniard stayed just a bit stronger. The world #7 was trying to be aggressive, but it seemed there was no shot the four-time champion couldn't get to, and after two weeks of playing some of the cleanest tennis of the tournament, Soderling sprayed an amazing twenty-one errors to Nadal's eight.

By the second set it seemed some of the spring had been taken out of Soderling's step. Whether he realized the inevitable or was just tired, he simply wasn't playing at his best. He failed to convert on any of the four break chances he had while Rafa fired off winner after winner, dabbled with some nice net work and shot three aces past his opponent. With a two-set lead, Nadal must have known the trophy was in his sights and when he got the break in the third, there really was no looking back. He had won his fifth title at Roland Garros, second only to the legendary Bjorn Borg, and his seventh Major trophy, second only to Roger Federer among active men players.

There was so much more riding on this win than just the trophy. Of course Nadal returns to the #1 spot he'd held for forty weeks; he also became the first man to qualify for the year-end championships in London. But most importantly, he's silenced all those critics who claimed he was no longer a force in tennis.

And, let's be honest, it's not just clay court tennis he could dominate -- with eleven of his forty titles, two of them Majors, coming on other surfaces, he is certainly trying to make himself an all-court player. As he mentioned to John McEnroe at the end of his match today, he can't wait to see us all at the U.S. Open, the only Slam he has yet to win. With the hardcourt season just about a month away, we'll soon get an idea of whether Rafael Nadal stands a chance to achieve the career Grand Slam just a year after Federer did it. And suddenly no one dares say he doesn't have the stuff to do it.

So Nadal's performance today in Paris proved that there is something better than revenge, and that's sweet, sweet redemption.

June 5, 2010

From First to Final

What a difference a year makes!

At the 2009 French Open Sam Stosur met Francesca Schiavone in the first round and rolled through in straight sets on her way to the semis. This year, they met a little bit later -- in the championship match, each playing her first Major final, each looking for her maiden Slam title after more than a decade on Tour.

The two were unlikely finalists in Paris this year. Sam had battled through one of the toughest quarters I'd ever seen, scoring wins over three former and current #1 players, while Francesca emerged from a section that was wide open. After a wearing two weeks both had certainly earned the privilege of playing for this trophy, and they did not disappoint.

Those who don't follow tennis regularly might not be familiar with these two ladies -- between them they'd only captured five singles titles before the French, one each this year. Still, Stosur was the odds-on favorite to win the title. She'd cracked into the top ten in March, beaten players like Jelena Jankovic, Daniela Hantuchova and Vera Zvonareva and made at least the quarters of the last five tournaments she'd played. Add to that the fact that she'd slain a few giants on her way to the championship match, she was looking good.

Thats not to say Schiavone, once ranked as high as #11 in the world, hasn't been impressive. The Italian avenged her 2009 loss to Roberta Vinci in Barcelona and beat third-seeded Caroline Wozniacki in Paris on the way to the finals. She seemed to benefit a bit from her opponent's injuries, though, leaving some -- and admittedly, me -- believing she wouldn't be able to take the power of Stosur on Saturday.

But the twenty-nine year old came to the court with a game plan. Only five-foot-five, she was shockingly strong on her serve, out-acing the Australian six to three. She won fourteen of fifteen net approaches and was able to catch her opponent off-balance more than a few times. While Sam won her first eight service points, it was Schiavone who got the first break at four-all. She held serve again and, before you knew it, the underdog had run off with a one-set lead.

Stosur seemed to regroup in the second, breaking Francesca early and finding herself up 4-1. It looked like she might be able to rally and get to a third, but Schiavone was resilient -- the feisty lady continued her aggressive play, forcing Sam to play her less powerful backhand, and winning three games in a row to get back on serve. She had gotten momentum back on her side and made it to a tiebreak where she really began to shine. She kissed the lines with her returns and kept Stosur so far off the ad-court that Francesca really could put the ball wherever she wanted. She cranked out one powerful shot after another and won five points in a row to claim by far the biggest trophy of her life.

It was a high-quality match from the start, in spite of the relatively short duration and the one-sided scoreline -- exciting rallies, smart hitting, and powerful shot-making. She may not have played the most amazing tennis on her way to the final, but her performance today certainly earned Francesca Schiavone that first Major title of her career.

Sure, I feel bad for Sam, who was so impressive in the last two weeks -- two months, even. But she's a fighter and I don't doubt that she will be playing in more Slam finals in her career. At twenty-six, nearly four years younger than her vanquisher, she's got plenty of time to shine. As for Schiavone, the second oldest first-time champion, this might have been the last legitimate chance she had to win a crown, but given her play and the outpouring of emotion when she ultimately won, I don't think she's going to stop trying for numbers two, three and four. And it will be fun to watch her go.

By the way, in tomorrow's men's final Rafael Nadal will also be looking to avenge the loss Robin Soderling dealt him last year. Here's hoping he takes some inspiration from Francesca's run and is able to also reverse 2009's results!

June 4, 2010

And Now For Something Sorta Different

It's kind of amazing, when you think about it. Of the eight men and women who made the semifinals at Roland Garros this year, only one had ever won a Major title before. And though it's clear we'll crown a first-time winner on the ladies' side, the same cannot be ruled out for the men. While one very familiar face remains among the final four gentlemen, the three others are playing at a level that could certainly cause some surprises.

Rafael Nadal, of course, has been the favorite for this championship since he began trouncing his opponents in Monte Carlo, where he won his first trophy in almost a year, and captured two more Masters titles since. He's won this tournament four times already and has amassed a brilliant 36-1 record at Roland Garros.

Rafa certainly has the motivation to bring home another prize -- reclaiming the crown that shot him to fame five years ago would not only get him back to #1 in the world, but it would put him among the illustrious company of John McEnroe, Mats Wilander and Bill Renshaw, all of whom have seven Slams on their mantles. Nadal has been playing like he wants the win, not droppinh a set yet in five matches, and with his long-time rival now out of contention, his chances have never looked better.

But there are a few men who'll be doing their best to derail the King of Clay's seemingly unstoppable train.

First up will be Jurgen Melzer, who has been on the pro Tour for eleven years. The twenty-nine year old Austrian has claimed a couple titles, most recently in Vienna last year, but had never won more than two matches at a Major before coming to Paris. When he beat David Ferrer, my pick to take his quarter, I wrote it off to exhaustion on his opponent's part. When he beat Teimuraz Gabashvili next, he proved he would not fold under the pressure of reaching the second week at a Slam. When he beat Novak Djokovic in the quarters, well then I sat up and started to take notice.

Melzer got off to a slow start against the world #3, and in about an hour found himself down two sets to love. But he hung onto a break in the third and fought through a tiebreak in the fourth to force a deciding set. The pair held serve early in the fifth and even seemed to raise their level of play when the stakes got higher, prompting the crowd to get that much more voluble in their cheers. Finally at four-all, Melzer was able to get the first break in almost three hours of play and after a controversial call went his way in the next game, he was the ultimate victor in the last men's quarterfinal. The win earned Jurgen his best result at any Major and a date with Rafa in the semis, and he could put up a bigger fight than we'd expect. He has, after all, proven he's capable of keeping up with the big guys.

So too has Tomas Berdych, the surprise finalist in Miami who beat Fernando Verdasco, Robin Soderling, and Roger Federer to get there. His demolition of Mikhail Youzhny on Tuesday earned him his own best Slam ever. The Czech has been even more impressive than that, though, with five straight set wins, including one over fourth-seeded Andy Murray two rounds back.

If you think Nadal and Melzer have been impressive this fortnight, consider that Berdych has only played one tiebreak and just lost serve six times. He's fired off forty-nine aces, better than any of the remaining men, and has had the fastest serve of the four this tournament. He has a decent record against Rafa too, should they meet in the finals -- three to seven, though none of those were on clay and the most recent was back in 2006. Even still, with wins over so many top ten players this year, it's got to be intimidating to see him in the finals.

He would have to get past Robin Soderling again, though. Last year's runner-up is clearly beatable, but you'd hardly know that if you'd watched him dismantle Roger Federer in the quarters, avenging the twelve previous losses he'd suffered at the hands of the current world #1. Though now staunchly in the top ten of the sport, he's hardly familiar with this environment -- he's playing in only his second Major semi, but ultimately aims to go one better than his 2009 performance. But he sure looks comfortable here.

So far in Roland Garros, Soderling has only dropped two sets and won well over seventy percent of his first serves. Rafa certainly won't be happy to meet him in the finals -- Robin is, after all, the only man who has beaten him on these courts. And though he still trails the Spaniard in their head-to-heads, a couple of breaks and he might be able to get under his skin.

Of course, we're still three long matches away from crowning a men's champion in Paris, and as the semis get underway in just a few hours there is certainly a hint of something old and something new. In my mind, Nadal is still the favorite to win the whole thing, but with some of the best play coming from some unlikely sources, there's also never been a better chance to see something you'd never have expected two weeks ago.

June 2, 2010

The Ascent of Samantha Stosur

For those who don't regularly follow tennis, it might be hard to believe that Sam Stosur has been a staple on the pro Tour for more than a decade. The twenty-six year old Australian played her first qualifying rounds at her hometown Major back in 2000 and cracked the top one hundred about four years later.

While she started to have success on the doubles court and even rose to #1 in the standings, she was having a hard time by herself -- though she'd won a handful of titles on the ITF circuit she'd never won a WTA trophy, and when a viral illness sidelined her for the back half of 2007 she saw her ranking tumble. But Sam's a workhorse, and about a year ago she started to gain some traction and quietly became the best tennis player, man or woman, Down Under.

But it wasn't until Paris when she really began to hit her stride -- just barely seeded at her sixth appearance at Roland Garros, she knocked out a tough Francesca Schiavone in the first round and fourth-ranked Elena Dementieva in the third. It wasn't until the semifinals that eventual champ Svetlana Kuznetsova could figure her out -- and that not without losing a set.

Sam's showing vaulted her into the top twenty for the first time, but she still hadn't captured that maiden title. A couple big wins in Stanford and Los Angeles proved her run in France wasn't a fluke, but she continued to falter when playing for a title. It wasn't until October when she finally had her breakthrough, battling past top seed Caroline Wozniacki on her way to the Osaka title at nearly the last tournament of 2009. It took her a bit less time this year to earn the gold -- I watched the fourth seed in Charleston drub Vera Zvonareva in the finals at the Family Circle Cup.

And as impressive as that win was, Stosur was even more amazing today when she defied the odds and crushed balls past world #1 Serena Williams in the French Open quarterfinals. Though I had picked her as my favorite in the top part of the women's bracket, I was a bit nervous as she took the court. Somewhat surprisingly, Sam rushed off with the first set in about half an hour. She had a chance to serve for the match in the second, but was broken and eventually lost the tiebreak to Serena. A normal girl would've bowed under pressure and resigned herself to defeat -- but Stosur got even more tough, breaking Williams in the first game of the third. Though she allowed herself to get back on serve immediately, the Australian remained positive, ultimately creating two amazing points to break Serena at six-all. After another hour of play, she held on to earn only her second win over the American.

I said ten days ago that the woman who made it out of this part of the draw would be a favorite to win the title in Paris -- but I don't know that I believed it until today. Truth be told, I was a bit worried that fighting through players like Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova and, of course, Serena, would take a toll on the one who eventually emerged. But watching Sam play today, she's showing no signs of letting up. If beating two players with nineteen Slam titles between them isn't evidence enough, she leads the remaining contenders in aces, firing off fourteen in her second round match alone. She's won more than sixty percent of her first serves in all five of her matches and only committed twenty-four errors in her last match.

Next up for Sam is Jelena Jankovic, a woman she's only beaten once in their previous four meetings -- but that win came just over two months ago in Miami. If she makes her first Major final, she'll face either Elena Dementieva or Francesca Schiavone -- both players, you remember, she defeated last year in Paris. Given that line up, Stosur's chances to take home her first big trophy have never looked better.

And to have come from nothing just a year ago -- what a rise it would be!