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.

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