July 30, 2010

The John Isner Conundrum

I love John Isner, I really do. I've been a fan of his since that first dramatic run he made to the Washington finals in 2007, beating Tim Henman, Gael Monfils and Tommy Haas in the process. Not a bad showing for only his second Tour event.

He's only gotten better since then, of course. Consistently one of the biggest servers on the circuit, he's been developing his all-court game in the past three years, becoming more comfortable at the net, throwing in some drop shots, and learning how to react when his opponent actually gets a ball back in play. He is certainly fit -- how many others could survive a three-day, eleven-hour slugfest? -- and is able to handle pressure situations -- he's saved sixty-seven percent of the break points he's faced this year, ninth best amongst the pros.

Yet he only has one title to his name.

Not that his trophy in Auckland is something to scoff at -- he beat once red-hot Tommy Robredo and fellow rising star Albert Montanes to do it. But at the same time that Isner can intimidate any player by firing off 140 mile-per-hour bombs, he can be tested by relative unknowns like Gilles Muller and Marco Chiudinelli -- either of whom had ample chances to stop him early in Atlanta and Paris respectively. He's played in three other finals this year, twice losing to Sam Querrey and just last Sunday dropping a tight one to another friend, Mardy Fish, each time after having won the first set. So what's he got to do to get to the next level -- and get that next championship?

Well first he's got to make some headway on his opponents' games. John's won just better than twenty percent of his return points on first serve and only twelve percent of his return games -- that compares to Rafael Nadal who wins better than one in three on return, and it's the lowest percentage of anyone in the top fifty. Incidentally, world #51 Ivo Karlovic, who is equally intimidating on his own serve, is just below Isner at ten percent -- I pray John doesn't fall into that realm of players who can serve and serve and serve, but just can't win.

He's also got to rely on more than just his ability to ace. We're not in college anymore, and the guys on the other side of the net are going to eventually get their racquets on the ball. After all, the fact that Isner has saved so many break points also means he's faced that many more. Luckily, though, he has certainly been improving on this front -- one big plus for Isner's game is the amount of time he's spending on the doubles court, and that's certainly helped him think and react more quickly. He cracked the top thirty this year and won his second title in that discipline with Querrey in Memphis. He even made the finals in Rome on a surface on which Americans so traditionally don't excel. And after his mini-marathon in the Atlanta semis, he got right back on court and suffered the narrowest of defeats to the eventual doubles champions with James Blake.

Now it's still relatively early in Isner's career, and I have no doubt he has the time and talent to win a handful or more titles. And the more time he spends on court, the more he seems to be learning about how to beat the big guys. He took this past week off before heading back to Washington, a good decision to get some rest before what's sure to be another hot week -- both in temperature and in action. He's got a bye in the first round, but could next face Thiemo De Bakker, the man who capitalized on John's fatigue in the second round at Wimbledon. It sure will be interesting to see if he can exact revenge.

I'll be cheering him on the whole way!

July 28, 2010

Back in Action

This week marks the return of some superstars to the tennis courts -- whether they'd been gone for weeks or for years, in body or in mind, many came out in the last couple days to begin their training for the year's next and last Grand Slam.

Some have met with less success than others -- Ashley Harkleroad, who left the Tour in 2008 to have a baby and pursue, um, other ventures, fizzled out of her first round in Stanford, losing to defending champ Marion Bartoli in straight sets. But others at the Bank of the West Classic have a chance to do a little more damage.

Elena Dementieva, who heart-breakingly retired from her semifinal match at the French Open, makes her return after that calf injury forced her to pull out of Wimbledon. She'll take on Kimiko Date Krumm in her opening round, a veteran fighter who's now beaten former #1 Dinara Safina twice in a row. She could give Elena a fight if she's not in top form yet.

Roland Garros finalist Sam Stosur has also been absent from the circuit of late -- after her defeat in Paris, she was stunned by then-world #100 Ekaterina Makarova in Eastbourne and lost in the first round at the All England Club. As the top seed in Stanford, she faces qualifier Christina McHale in her first match. It should be an easy day at the office, but she'll need to regain the momentum she'd harnessed all spring if she's going to be a contender in New York.

The woman who stopped Stosur dead in her tracks, of course, was Francesca Schiavone, who captured her first Major title at the French at twenty-nine. She hadn't won a match since then, however, until she came to Istanbul this week, handily beating Anne Keothavong in the first round. She should be able to advance at least a few rounds further, but with rising stars like Tsvetana Pironkova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the field, she could have a run for the money.

On the men's side it's been a story of long, hard slogs back from injury. Previously red-hot Nikolay Davydenko pulled out of Roland Garros with a wrist injury and has only won a handful of matches since returning in Halle. He's the top seed in Umag and faces a less-than-intimidating Stephane Robert in his opener. But the field only gets tougher from there, with Ivan Ljubicic, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Jurgen Melzer all in the way of an ultimate title.

Ernests Gulbis had climbed to his highest ever ranking after a stunning clay-court season which included wins over Mikhail Youzhny and Roger Federer. But he hasn't been on court since a hamstring strain forced him out at Paris. He survived his first round in Los Angeles, but with the likes of Alejandro Falla and Andy Murray in his near future, it could be difficult in the coming days.

In the same field is my dear James Blake, who's been battling physical and mental demons for a while now. Ranked outside the top hundred, he hadn't won a match since Miami and now has a losing record on the year. Happily, he was able to beat Leonardo Mayer, the man who took him out of the French first round last year -- are you seeing a pattern here? -- and maybe, maybe if he can keep his head in the game, he'll be able to get a few more wins in.

Over the last few weeks, as the top-most stars have taken a break from the game, we've seen emerging talent start to make a dent in the rankings. But now that hardcourt season is back in full swing, you can expect to see some reversion to the norm. Whether these guys will be able to resuscitate their successes immediately or even in time for the U.S. Open is stil to early to tell.

But it sure will be good to have them back!

July 25, 2010

The Return of Anna?

It's easy to forget that back in the day, Anna Chakvetadze was the number-five player in the world. In 2007 she'd earned herself four titles -- including two big ones in Cincinnati and Stanford -- beating the likes of Daniela Hantuchova, Jelena Jankovic and Venus Williams in the process. But if you happened to blink during that run, you might have missed her.

After making the finals in New Haven in 2008, Anna hasn't really been able to make a dent at another tournament. Last year she never won more than three matches at any event, and this year she's missed out on even qualifying for a number of others. She suffered a first round loss in Miami in March and subsequently fell out of the top hundred, her lowest ranking in nearly six years. At only twenty-three years of age, it looked like she was already well past the prime of her career.

But then came this week's action in Portoroz, Slovenia, a small tournament which nonetheless attracted top talent like Jankovic and feisty teenager Anatastia Pavlyuchenkova. Chakvetadze, now ranked #103 in the world, was not seeded and so was faced with the prospect of one opponent after another ranked higher than her. In the first round she made surprisingly quick work of Ekaterina Makarova, a fellow Russian who won her first career title in Eastbourne this year. She was similarly impressive against fourth-seeded Sara Errani, taking advantage of the Italian's pathetic service game -- she won barely one in three of her first attempts and one in five of her second -- for another straight-set win.

In the quarterfinals, Anna faced stiffer competition. She'd beaten Vera Dushevina in their only previous meeting, but that was four years ago, and she found herself down early when her compatriot took the first set 6-2. But Anna was able to steady herself and came back to take the next two, making her first semifinal since that run at the Pilot Pen. There she faced Polona Hercog, one of my favorite newcomers this year, who got off too a quick start, bagelling Anna to take the first set in twenty-four minutes. But again, signs of the Russian's champion self began to shine through, and she broke her opponent twice to even the score and got off to a quick lead in the decider.

On Sunday Anna never had to look back -- against Sweden's Johanna Larsson, the seven-time titleist never let herself get behind. Larsson didn't get a break opportunity in the first set and couldn't convert on any of her three chances in the second. After just over an hour Chakvetadze had won her first title in more than two years, beating five better-ranked players in a row to do it.

Does this mean we can expect Anna to continue her momentum in the weeks leading up to the U.S. Open? It's probably too early to tell, but now on her strongest surface, it sure looks like she's back in form. Considering the amount of success she's had before during the American road trip, she's certainly capable of making an impact, but it'll take more than one title win to do it. I've always had a soft spot for Chakvetadze, so I'd love to see her making another run for the top-ten.

And now that she knows she still has it, she just needs to keep it going!

July 21, 2010

Fighting to Qualify

This week's action at the Atlanta Tennis Championships features more than your usual parade of stars from Andy Roddick to Lleyton Hewitt. This weekend will also be highlighted by the first ever U.S. Open National Playoff championships, where at the end of the day one player will be awarded an entry to the qualifying draw at the last Grand Slam of the year.

Sixteen men will take the courts of the Atlanta Athletic Club beginning tomorrow in a single-elimination draw. The athletes emerged from the regional tournaments that were held across the country this spring -- fourteen were winners, two runners-up -- and range from former pros like Cecil Mamiit, once ranked seventy-second in the world, to law student Ikaika Jobe of Hawaii, who played both at St. Louis University and Boise State.

Blake Strode is the top seed in the bracket, a twenty-three year old former All-American at the University of Arkansas who won his first Futures title last year in Missouri. He's gotten some invaluable experience on the Tour since, marking time on the court against the likes of Vincent Spadea, Kevin Kim and Devin Britton. Strode came out of the southwestern sectional tournament where he only lost two games on the way to the final. He was slightly less perfect against strong Junior Billy Pecor, but still got the win in straight sets.

The second seed in the championships is Mamiit, who you might -- or not -- remember as a finalist in San Jose eleven years ago. He'd beaten Mark Woodforde and Michael Chang on the way to that championship match and has notched wins over top players Todd Martin and Max Mirnyi in his previous Major appaearances. This would be the first Slam he's played since 2004's Australian Open.

The seeds are rounded out by Olivier Sajous, the winner in Florida where sixty hopefuls battled at the Bollettieri Academies in Bradenton, and twenty-eight year old Chris Wettengel, who beat his doubles partner in the Northern California regional finals. Twelve others will join them to compete for that one spot.

Make no mistake, this process is a long haul for these players. They've already won five or more matches to reach this point, and the eventual entrant still has to win four more just to make qualies which begin August 24th. It makes sense of course, as other potential qualifiers and certainly main draw contenders will have to put in as much if not more work on the main Tour, but it might be nice to award the playoff winner with a wildcard to the final 128. It will definitely be interesting to see how the structure evolves in the coming years

Incidentally, the women's championships will be held next week during the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, California. Among contenders there will be the youngest player in both brackets, Evangeline Repic of Canada, who just turned fifteen, and the highest ranked player in the playoffs, Alina Jidkova, currently #339 in the world.

For more on the playoffs check out my April blogcast, filmed at the New York regional finals.

July 18, 2010

A Weekend of Surprises

Four finals were contested today in Europe, and all four yielded some unlikely champion. It started in Prague, where both top seeds withdrew early due to injury -- Lucie Safarova with a hamstring pain and Alexandra Dulgheru with a knee problems. Two more early drop-outs by Klara Zakopalova and Gisela Dulko further thinned the draws out -- all those walkovers certainly opened the field for some lesser-known players to advance. But ultimately, Budapest champ Agnes Szavay fought her way to her second straight final against eight-time ITF titleist Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. It wasn't quite as cut-and-dry as you might expect. The Czech didn't seem to have stage-fright in her first Tour final and rebounded nicely to take the second set from Szavay, 6-1. Neither were particularly aggressive on serve -- there were no aces and no double faults, and each won just about half of their first attempts. Finally, after about two hours of play, the more-experienced Agnes was able to pull out the win, her second title in a row, and extend her win streak to ten straight matches. The results in Palermo might have been a little more shocking. Top seed and defending champ Flavia Pennetta had been playing solid ball all week and hadn't dropped a set in her first four matches. Kaia Kanepi, who'd made the quarters at Wimbledon as a qualifier just a few weeks back, had been similarly impressive, taking out Sara Errani easily in the third round and the woman who'd ended Aravane Rezai's run after that. The one-time top twenty player had clawed herself out of triple digits and had a decent 2-3 record against the tough Italian, but Flavia had the crowd and momentum on her side. The match began as you might expect with Pennetta getting off to quick lead by breaking her opponent on her first service game, but Kanepi was able to square up and even the score. She took advantage of a weak serve, winning more than sixty percent of Flavia's first attempts, and stayed aggressive herself. Though both traded breaks throughout the match, Kanepi never again found herself at a deficit and after a strong week sealed off her first Tour championship with a 6-4, 6-3 win over the heavy favorite -- not a bad way to enter the hard court season. The surprises didn't stop on the men's side. A still-questionable Nikolay Davydenko headlined the men's draw in Stuttgart, but lost early after putting up a fight against Daniel Gimeno-Traver. And Roland Garros semifinalist Jurgen Melzer was just overpowered in the third round by eventual finalist Albert Montanes. I have to admit I was a bit surprised that the Spaniard met Gael Monfils for the title -- the Frenchman has been ranked within the top ten, but even in spite of his valiant performance at Davis Cup last weekend, I don't give him a lot of credit. I was impressed, though, when he fought his way though consecutive three-setters to make the championship match. But ultimately, my doubts about his fitness proved correct as the third seed folded to Montanes after losing the first set -- an ankle injury forced Monfils to retire after less than an hour of play. It was certainly a nice way to avenge Spain's drubbing in Paris at the hands of the French last week. The Spanish victory parade continued a little further north in Sweden where Nicolas Almagro took on world #5 Robin Soderling in Bastad. The man with home field advantage had been battling from behind all week and had played a couple three-setters himself. Almagro, though ranked a few spots below the two-time French Open finalist has been solid all spring, making the semis in Madrid and the semis in Paris. He had a bit of a brain-freeze against qualifier Franco Skugor in the third round, losing the first set, but was otherwise clean on his way to his eighth career final. Even though Almagro had won two of the pair's previous meetings on clay, I thought the more consistent Soderling was easily the favorite for this match. And though the Spaniard ran off with a lead by breaking his opponent late in the first set, when Robin tied up the score in the second -- winning all of his first serves -- I assume he'd take that momentum with him to the crown. But Nicolas wasn't intimidated by the defending champ. After staying on serve early in the third, Almagro won four straight games to take the match and his sixth career title. With this weekend's wins, two champions were upended and one brand new champion was crowned. And it certainly looks like momentum is shifting a bit -- I look forward to seeing more of not only the winners in the coming weeks, but also some of the new faces that are just beginning to make an impact on the Tour. And, as we've seen this year, even heavy favorites can be beaten once in a while!

July 16, 2010

Making a Comeback

It had been a rough couple weeks for a couple stars on the ATP Tour.

Gael Monfils had been ranked in the top ten just over a year ago, but a wrist injury that caused him to miss two months of action last summer caused him to fall to #20 as of just a month ago. He'd done okay recently, but a second-round loss at the French Open, an opening match exit at Queen's Club and another first-week showing at Wimbledon left me wondering just how fit the six-foot-four Frenchman really was.

But then he started to show signs of life. In Davis Cup action this past weekend he faced a solid clay court player in David Ferrer, ranked twelfth in the world, and ran off to a two set lead quickly in the first rubber. But unlike his epic performance against Fabio Fognini in Paris this past May, he did not succumb when his opponent pulled even and ultimately upended the favorite, 6-4 in the fifth.

He's been even more solid this week in Stuttgart where, as the third seed he's just made his first semi since February. Monfils has had to fight though -- he dropped the middle set to #125 Pablo Andujar and rallied after finding himself in a deficit to a feisty Florian Mayer in the quarters. He's fired off eighteen aces in his two rounds, and has won more than seventy percent of his first serves. If he keeps up his form, he should be able advance past Daniel Gimeno-Traver on Saturday without too much trouble. And his successful run could signal him a real force to contend with as we enter the hard court season.

Spaniard Tommy Robredo had been in a bigger slump. The one-time #5 had lost his first match at four straight tournaments -- to players ranked outside the top forty. He wasn't able to defend either of the two titles he'd won last spring and only made any impact this year when he made the quarters at Indian Wells. By Wimbledon he was at his lowest Major seeding since 2003.

But Robredo ended his losing streak this week in Bastad when he beat Michal Przysiezny in his first round. More impressively he took out world #10 Fernando Verdasco on Friday -- it was his first win over his countryman in more than four years. Next up Tommy faces Nicolas Almagro, a man who's been pretty solid the last few months, and if he's able to follow up on his quarterfinal performance, it could get his momentum flowing back in the right direction.

It's definitely good to see both these guys putting together back-to-back wins again -- it sure has seemed like something's been missing on Tour without them. And as we hit the road leading up to the last Grand Slam of the year, they couldn't have picked a better time to do it!

July 13, 2010

Blogcast: The Year of Doubles

This year's inductees to the International Tennis Hall of Fame highlight the importance of the doubles game to the sport.

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

July 11, 2010

Ladies, to Your Corners

Patty Schynder and Agnes Szavay began the week on the same side of the court, paired in doubles at the GDF SUEZ Grand Prix in Budapest. But I'm not sure either thought they'd end the week on opposite sides of the net. It's been a rough couple months for both ladies on the singles Tour, and since they last met in the finals here in 2009, neither has advanced deep into their brackets.

Szavay had beaten Venus Williams in the third round of the French Open last year, but hadn't progressed past a quarterfinal in 2010. She lost in the first round of three tournaments, including Wimbledon and saw her ranking drop to #49 -- she'd been thirteenth in the world only two years ago. Veteran Schnyder has fallen even farther. Once in the top ten she's now in the low fifties and hasn't made it past the second round of a Major in two years.

But when they returned to Budapest, they once again looked like their old selves. The championship round last year was the only full match they'd ever contested -- Szavay had to retire while trailing in the first set in Madrid this past May -- and the Hungarian had rallied from a set down to beat Schnyder for her third career title. But this year after dismissing top seeded Alisa Kleybanova in the second round, Patty looked good to get revenge on her vanquisher's home turf. She dropped a couple sets -- one to up-and-comer Polona Hercog and qualifier Zuzana Ondraskova -- but was playing solid tennis. Szavay had also been doing well on her side of the draw though, staying perfect until she dropped the second set to Alexandra Dulgheru in the semis, but holding strong to take the match in three and earning the right to defend her title.

Agnes might have learned a thing or two during her court time with Patty -- she didn't need time to get her bearings this go-around and rolled through the first set, 6-2. Schnyder picked up her game in the second set, trading breaks with the seventh seed early. But ultimately she just couldn't make much impact on Szavay's serve, winning less than a third of the points on return. After less than ninety minutes the hometown girl was able to clinch her second straight title in Budapest and add one more trophy to the mantle.

But it was a good showing from the ladies, both of whom had lost a bit of their punch recently. And if they can keep up the momentum, it could make for an interesting summer!

July 8, 2010

The World Cup of Tennis

Over the next few days a lot of things will be decided. Spain has a chance to win its very first World Cup when it takes on the Netherlands on Sunday -- it also will be playing for its third consecutive Davis Cup when it takes on rival France in the quarterfinals. But that's only one for four ties that will be contested this weekend, and no outcome is certain.

Spain vs. France

The battle between perennial fútbol greats can translate well on the tennis court. Though the two-time defending champions will be missing star Rafael Nadal, they still look good to advance. Gael Monfils and David Ferrer kick off the action in what could be a tight match between two top-twenty players, and Fernando Verdasco follows it up against Michael Llodra, who's now at his highest ranking in years.

Spain has won the match-up five times in their six meetings, but they've never played France on a hardcourt, so things could get tricky. Players like Monfils and Gilles Simon are more comfortable on this surface than clay or grass and could exploit the quicker game. Still none of the Spanish players are ranked outside the top twenty-five, so catching them off hard will take a bit of work.

Russia vs. Argentina

The opening rubber between these two nations could be the most exciting. Current world #6 Nikolay Davydenko, who had been so red-hot at the beginning of the year has been a bit out of contention over the last six months. And former top-five player David Nalbandian has fallen well into triple digits thanks to a hip injury. They've met eleven time and the Argentine has the slightest edge -- the match will certainly give a clear indication of how healthy these guys are and could set the tone for the entire tie.

When you add to that the fact that players like Russia's Mikhail Youzhny and Teimuraz Gabashvili along with Argentine Leonardo Mayer and Horacio Zeballos have been having such strong years, the play between these two countries could be top-notch. But Russia just has a more solid team this time around, and with Juan Martin Del Potro, Jose Acasuso and Juan Monaco all unable to support the country, I find it hard to call for the South Americans to win.

Croatia vs. Serbia

In a match-up that shouldn't spark any political tension, Serbia takes on its former countrymen in Croatia in their first ever Davis Cup meeting. Missing big-serving Ivo Karlovic, the man who survived yet another long five-setter in the play-offs, the latter country is led by world #13 Marin Cilic. And Indian Wells champ Ivan Ljubicic beat his first rubber opponent, Novak Djokovic, on the way to that title in March.

Still, with Nole and top doubles player Nenad Zimonjic leading the Serbs, it will be hard to make a major dent. Djokovic has winning records against both his opponents and Zimonjic, in sixteen years playing for his country, has only lost six times in his discipline. Though the early matches might provide some close calls, most of the drama might take place among the fans as Serbia should make the semis.

Chile vs. Czech Republic

This tie could be the closest of the quarterfinals contested this week, mostly because both teams are without their biggest stars. Though another doubles specialist Lukas Dlouhy is the top-ranked player on the Czech team, paired tennis only accounts for one rubber. Their best singles chance lies with Jan Hajek, now ranked ninety-fourth in the world, but he's only beaten one top fifty player this year. For Chile, down one Fernando Gonzalez, Nicolas Massu leads the pack. Once ranked #9 in the world, he's now dropped out of double-digits and has only won a handful of matches in 2010. Jorge Aguilar and Paul Capdeville aren't much better.

But this is a great opportunity for these players -- with a semifinal spot on the line, a stellar performance here and there could really make any one of these contenders stand out. And while this could be anyone's game, the Czechs who last year played Spain for the Cup are having a pretty good couple months and should be able to follow through.

So Spain might be just a game away from capturing glory on the soccer field, but there are just a few matches more before they can also claim Davis Cup triumph. And what a coup it would be if one country were to dominate this year on both courts!

July 4, 2010

Time For Something Different?

Now I love Rafael Nadal, and I greatly admire the champion Roger Federer is. But after watching the 2008 Wimbledon titleist somersault his way to his second trophy at the All England Club I found myself wondering if it might be time for someone else to claim the honor.

In the past five years, we've only seen one Grand Slam where neither Roger nor Rafa played for the title. But we might be getting a little closer to seeing their historic streaks end -- though they've combined to win twenty of the last twenty-two Majors, it's been eighteen months since they've played each other in the final. And a little bit of new blood has come up just short of the ultimate prize.

I'm actually a bit surprised that Tomas Berdych wasn't able to get in a few more shots today against Nadal. The tall Czech has a powerful serve and smart ground strokes. Having beaten Roger Federer twice in a row and making at least the semis of two straight Slams, the twenty-four year old is clearly hitting his stride. By the time hardcourt season rolls around he could be a real contender for the U.S. Open.

Robin Soderling also has a good shot at a big title in the near future. He's been improving his performances steadily at the Majors, reaching the finals twice in a row in Paris and making the quarters in London this past week. He made the final eight in New York last year, and now at his highest career ranking, it looks like he might be able to get farther this year.

There are, of course, a couple stars I hope will have a chance to capture their second Major, either because their first was so long ago or because it is fairly easily forgotten. Novak Djokovic, you might remember, won his only Slam at the 2008 Australian Open -- not long ago, but it sure seems far away. He's had a couple of good runs recently, even making the semis this past week, so it's not yet time to write him off. And Andy Roddick, so close to achieving glory last year, has been upset early in recent tournaments, but the move to his best surface might be his best opportunity to step back up.

Of course, we're far from a time when we can count either Federer or Nadal out of contention -- the tide may be shifting, but it hasn't quite turned yet. But tiny windows may open here and there, and it's up to the next generation of tennis stars to jump on any chances they get.

July 3, 2010

"Like Federer...Without a Nadal"

It's not often that I agree with Mary Carillo. But during today's women's title match between defending champion Serena Williams and first-time finalist Vera Zvonareva, she came up with a very appropriate analogy, comparing Serena's dominance in tennis to Roger Federer's, if there were no Rafael Nadal. Not to belittle Fed's accomplishments by any means, but just think of how many more Majors he'd have won if Nadal hadn't been in the way -- since 2005 Roger has lost five times in the finals to the Spaniard and one more time in the semis.

That realization got me thinking if there really is anyone out there who can challenge Serena's spot at the top. In her thirteen Slam championships, she has never had a foil quite like Nadal. Sure, older sister Venus can sometimes get under her skin, but in the past five years, she's only lost one Major title at the hands of Venus. And there are players who can have moments of brilliance against her -- Jelena Jankovic, Nadia Petrova and Sam Stosur have all outlasted her in recent three-set matches. It's hard to be consistently on top of Williams -- the way she served at the All England Club, opponents rarely got a shot to break. And when she's healthy and focused, her shots always seem to find their mark.

But there are a couple players out there who've had a bit more luck.

In her first career Kim Clijsters surprisingly only got the better of Williams once, at the Tour Championships in 2002. They didn't meet in more than six years before that fateful U.S. Open semi last year, but from what I saw of the Belgian, she'd certainly figured something out in the interim. If they play again, which I'm sure they will during the upcoming hardcourt season, Kim might be able to improve her win percentage.

Countrywoman Justine Henin had a bit better luck against Serena before she retired, beating her four times at a Major and another two when a title was on the line. Despite her diminutive frame and lackluster serve, she kept things fairly level throughout their history, even taking a set from her at the Australian Open this year.

Then there's Elena Dementieva, the only woman other than her sister to take a set from Williams at Wimbledon in the last three years. The Russian actually has a stunning 5-3 record over Serena in the last five years, beating her once on the way to Olympic Gold and twice when another championship was on the line, and she's done so decisively -- her last three wins have been in straight sets. There is some cause for concern, though, as a calf injury forced her to withdraw from the Championships this year and ended her streak of forty-six straight Grand Slam appearances.

But though these ladies might all know what it takes to beat Serena time and time again, the problem is that they can be much less consistent against other players, which makes their chances of reaching the round in which they face the world #1 a lot slimmer. So for the time being, as if we didn't know, it's going to take a lot to dethrone the current queen. And until a solid "Nadal" presents herself, it might be a while before anyone gets a crack at the top.

Why Vera Has a Chance

Okay, it's a slim chance. A very, very slim chance.

But of all the women who made the semis this year at Wimbledon, Vera Zvonareva is the only one who'd ever beaten Serena Williams before -- it was in Cincinnati in 2006, when the Russian was ranked fiftieth in the world and Serena, you might remember, was #139. Things have changed since then, of course. Williams has won nine more titles, including a handful of Grand Slams. Vera went on to capture the trophy at the Western & Southern that year and soon after cracked the top ten.

Vera has been struggling with injuries in the past year and does have a tendency to let her temper get the best of her -- she was, after all, the other player dealt a fine for profanity at the 2009 U.S. Open. But when she's good, she's good -- she's had one of the strongest return games of the tournament and a great percentage at the net. Against Kim Clijsters in the quarters, a woman she had never before beaten, she only committed nineteen errors to her opponent's thirty-six and won seventy-five percent of her first serves. And she hasn't gotten down on herself -- after losing sets to Kim and Tsvetana Pironkoa she was able to regroup without throwing racquets and smack the ball back at her adversaries harder than ever.

This is the first Major final in which Zvonareva has played -- after twenty-nine tries she's finally made her break out. Yes, it's a stage which often can flummox unexperienced players, but as a pro for almost ten years and with titles at Cincy and Indian Wells under her belt, Vera is no stranger to the spotlight. She also has the confidence of having beaten Serena on the doubles court a few days back -- she'll be battling for the dubs trophy a few hours after her singles match. If she's able to harness her strength at the net and get in more than a couple points on Serena's serve early, she might be able to catch Williams off-guard.

Make no mistake, it's not going to be an easy task. But Serena has gotten tripped up here before, and it wouldn't be unheard of to see someone as aggressive and as volatile as Vera get under her skin.

But mostly, if Vera's going to win the title, she's just going to have to bring it. There are no excuses on Centre Court at the All England Club -- especially against a three-time champion. And with a trophy on the line, we don't expect anything less

July 2, 2010

Does It Mean As Much?

About a year ago, many people wondered whether Roger Federer's winning his historic Grand Slam was quite as significant since he didn't have to beat long-time rival Rafael Nadal to get it. This year we might ask the same question, as Nadal now has the chance to win the Wimbledon title without having to face Federer on his road.

Of course, the circumstances are a bit different -- Rafa did win the title once before, beating Roger in one of the most spectacular matches of 2008, while the one-time King of the All England Club still has not prevailed over the Master of Clay at Roland Garros. And there is no major record on the line this time around. But some factors are surprisingly similar.

During his run in Paris last year, Federer came shockingly close to elimination twice -- in the fourth round Tommy Haas won the first two sets before Roger came roaring back, and again in the semis the Swiss found himself down two sets-to-one to Juan Martin Del Potro, but still secured his spot in the finals. Early in this London fortnight, too, Nadal was shooting from behind against both Robin Hasse and Philipp Petzschner and somehow pulled out the wins. And for the title, the current world #1 will have to face the man who knocked out his adversary, just as Fed met Rafa's vanquisher, Robin Soderling in 2009.

It'll also be Tomas Berdych's first time playing in a Grand Slam final, just as the Swede made his debut at the French last year. But, unlike last year, I feel he might be a slightly more intimidating opponent for Rafa. The Czech has been slowly building his resume all year, taking a set from Andy Roddick in Brisbane, making the finals in Miami, and taking out Andy Murray in Paris on his way to the semis. Though still a few spots off his career high ranking of #9 in the world, he's been playing some of the most solid tennis at the All England Club. The twenty-four year old proved his endurance by beating Dennis Istomin in a long five sets and followed up his defeat of Federer with a decisive straight-set win over Novak Djokovic on Friday. He still holds a losing 3-7 record against Nadal, but he's certainly now looking in better shape than he ever has before.

We're still at least three sets away from crowning a champion at this surprise-filled Wimbledon, and while the final might not be the one we expected or even wished for, it certainly will feature two men who've fought tooth-and-nail to get here. And however that last match progresses, you can be sure that for whoever eventually wins the trophy, it will be one of the most meaningful events of his career.