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?

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