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!

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