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!

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