August 29, 2010

Semifinal Predictions: U.S. Open

Maybe I'm a little biased, as the U.S. Open is my home tournament, but I just don't think you can beat the ambience and the excitement of Flushing Meadows in the late summer. And with both the men's and women's draws wide open this year, there's potential for even more fireworks than usual.

Of course the big news is that both Serena Williams and Juan Martin Del Potro have pulled out of the race. That might not mean too much on the men's side, but it sure changes things for the ladies. And with the five men atop the U.S. Open Series standings notching big wins over at least one of the others, well, upsets could come at any time.

And all the action gets started tomorrow.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Rafael Nadal claims the top seed at the tournament, even though he hasn't won a hardcourt title since Indian Wells last year, but some solid matches in both Toronto and Cincinnati show that you can't write him off as just a clay court player. He's made the semis here two years in a row, too, and with a career Grand Slam on the line, you know Rafa wants to prove himself in New York.

That said, the U.S. Open plays a lot faster than the courts of Australia, where he won the trophy in 2009, and so he might be ever-so-slightly less intimidating than he would be elsewhere. Add to that the fact that he's got a pretty rough section of the draw. First round opponent Teymuraz Gabashvili stunned Andy Roddick in Paris with a straight-set win over the top American, and he has a potential third round date with Philipp Kohlschreiber, who took a set from him in Toronto. A little further down the road looms Feliciano Lopez, the man who ousted him at Queen's Club, and unseeded players like New Haven finalists Sergiy Stakhovsky and Denis Istomin might rankle a few feathers.

Nadal's biggest threat, however, may come a few rounds later. Argentine David Nalbandian has put together a stellar hardcourt season, and notched a couple of upsets even after winning the title in DC. If they meet in the quarters, it will be a pretty solid match-up -- now much fitter than he was when he gave Rafa a scare in Miami, he should be able to keep up better these days.

Predicted Semifinalist: Oh, I hate myself for saying so, but I've been a big fan of Nalbandian during his comeback, and I think he might just use these grounds to prove he's here to stay.

Second Quarter

Despite a #2 seed, Roger Federer is still the odds-on favorite to win the title in New York for a sixth time, and man he must be hungry for it. After dropping in the quarters of his last two Majors, the King of Flushing Meadows ended a nearly seven-month title drought last week in Cincinnati, reminding us all that he still is the man to beat at the Slams.

His draw is actually pretty interesting. In the third round he should meet Lleyton Hewitt, a man who has a pretty decent record against him -- but though the Aussie won the pair's last meeting in Halle, he's never defeated Federer at a Major. Jurgen Melzer could also be a potential hiccup, but Roger easily handled him in their only meeting at Wimbledon.

The top half of the section is a little tighter. Robin Soderling could force a rematch of the 2009 quarterfinal and, though he's lost relatively early at recent Masters events, he's clearly playing even better tennis than he was last year. And Marin Cilic staged a coup the last time he was in New York, taking out Andy Murray in the fourth round. He's been fizzling recently, but if he gets re-energized, he could make another run. Fernando Gonzalez, too, has been spotty as he recovers from injury, but if he's in form the one-time Melbourne finalist might cause some damage.

All that being said, Federer hasn't played in a Slam semi since Australia, but he's made the finals here six years in row. I have a feeling that's one streak he won't easily allow to end.

Predicted Semifinalist: Roger, clearly.

Third Quarter

Novak Djokovic is one of those players who has the ability to advance deep into a draw without anyone taking notice -- I almost forgot he made the semis at Wimbledon and thought he'd lost much earlier than he did in Toronto. But he's also had fairly easy brackets all year, and has only played three top ten players in 2010 -- he hasn't beaten any of them.

For his efforts, the 2007 runner-up was handed a scary-looking bracket. Andy Roddick, who who his only Major here in 2003, beat him easily just a week ago in Cincinnati. Though he might not be a hundred percent, he's played a few long, hot matches and should be able to survive the early rounds. And Atlanta champion Mardy Fish, who Roddick himself deemed a real threat to the favorites, could be waiting in the fourth round, as could Washington runner-up Marcos Baghdatis. The way Nole's been playing recently, he's vulnerable to any one of those guys.

A little more upsetting are the prospects for the sixth seeded Nikolay Davydenko. At the start of the year, I'd had such high hopes for him, even choosing the Russian as a favorite at the Australian Open. But a wrist injury that's been naggingly persistent forced him out of Roland Garros, and he has only put together back-to-back wins at one tournament since February. He might get in a couple rounds in New York, but with such a strong bracket, I just don't see him going too much further.

Predicted Semifinalist: I would love to see a rematch between Andy and Mardy for this semifinal spot -- and I really do think it could happen. But Roddick has been here before and should know what it takes to make the final four.

Fourth Quarter

If anyone has a chance to win his first Major this year, I sadly have to admit it might be Andy Murray. The 2008 finalist in New York beat five -- okay, four and a half -- solid players on his way to the Toronto title, taking out both Roger and Rafa in straight sets. He was a little tired in Cincinnati, evidenced by three three-setters, but still found a way to keep himself in the game by getting to almost every ball that comes over the net. Honestly, the way he moves on court I’m sometimes surprised anyone can beat him -- and if you know how I feel about Murray, you know how hard that is for me to say!

It won't be a complete walk in Central Park, though. In what’s possibly the tallest quarter of the draw, tough-as-nails Tomas Berdych could meet Murray in the quarters, one round later than where the Czech ousted him at the French. And potential fourth-round opponent Sam Querrey was able to rally to take the Los Angeles title from him last month. The recent wins could give either opponent confidence to do it again.

Six-foot-nine John Isner is in this quarter too, happily not facing Nicolas Mahut -- who, ugh, failed to qualify for this tournament -- in his opener. This was, after all, the Grand Slam where he made his first real impact, taking a set from Federer in the third round of his 2007 debut and winning a long five-setter against Roddick last year. Playing better tennis than he was even when he lost to Murray in Australia, the potential rematch between these two could be a lot of fun to watch.

Predicted Semifinalist: Despite the challenges he'll surely face, Andy Murray wants to make a statement at this Slam, and he's never had a better chance to do it. I think he'll be the one to emerge, even if a little battered and bruised along the way.

The Women

First Quarter

Caroline Wozniacki has been pretty busy making the case that she deserves the top seed at the Open. The twenty year old, who finished runner-up last year, silenced some critics by winning her first Premier event in Montreal just this past Monday and followed it up by three-peating in New Haven. Rumor has it that a title in New York would boost her to #1 in the rankings as well. But that's still a long way off -- Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both former U.S. Open champions, are both in her bracket, as are super-feisty Maria Kirilenko and one of the spring's biggest stars, Aravane Rezai.

There are a couple reasons why she might not have to worry about those threats, though. Sharapova has a potentially frightening opening round against Australia's Jarmila Groth, the surprising fourth-rounder at Roland Garros who also gave Venus Williams a scare at Wimbledon. Kuznetsova, too, faces super-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, the oldest woman in quite a while to hold a top-fifty ranking. And dangerous floaters like Prague finalist Barbora Zahlavova Strycova or resurgent Anna Chakvetadze are both lurking in the wings.

But you have to believe that, as long as injuries or exhaustion don't play a part, most of the seeds should advance as expected, and that could lead to some amazing weekend matches.

Predicted Semifinalist: I would love to see Wozniacki make another run for the title, but after two long weeks of play -- and another title in Copenhagen to start the month -- she's got to be tired. Assuming Sharapova is fully recovered from that Cincinnati injury, I'll give her the first semi spot.

Second Quarter

Kind of paradoxically, the woman who beat Wozniacki last year is actually seeded just below her this time. Kim Clijsters' title run in Cincinnati earlier in the month helped her climb to her best ranking since 2006 and earned her the highest seeding she's had at a Major since that year's Wimbledon. She has added motivation to repeat in New York -- when a wrist injury kept her out of the U.S. Open draw four years ago, she was unable to defend the title she'd won there in 2005.

As should be expected, though, it won't be an easy run. Sam Stosur, who's been a little quiet over the last few months, could certainly make good on her fifth seed. And Elena Dementieva, ranked out of the top ten for the first time in years, made a glorious run in New Haven, just falling short of the finals and playing some top-notch tennis on the way. Marion Bartoli and unseeded Timea Bacsinszky could cause some problems for the very top seeds.

This bracket also includes one of the more interesting openers in the tournament. Former world #1 Dinara Safina will face Daniela Hantuchova, a rematch of the second round at the Pilot Pen. It took two tiebreaks for Safina to oust the on-paper favorite, so if the Slovak is out for revenge, she should know she is more than capable.

Predicted Semifinalist: Challenges aside, Kim is playing the best ball in this section and should be able to make in through.

Third Quarter

Two-time U.S. Open winner Venus Williams might still be in the draw, but a knee injury that forced her to withdraw from Montreal and Cincinnati could pose problems for her prospects in New York. Her opener against Roberta Vinci headlines Opening Night, but more entertaining would be the possible third round versus Tsvetana Pironkova, the woman who shocked her out of Wimbledon. Now the thirty-second seed in New York, the Bulgarian hasn't won a lot of matches in the hardcourt season, though, so if Venus's knee holds up, Pironkova might not have success a third time in a row.

But there are plenty of other formidable opponents in this section. Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone is certainly intimidating, but probably more so on other surfaces -- she's only once made the quarters here in her ten appearances. And the only seeded teenager at the Open, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, has been solid on the surface all year -- she beat Venus twice in 2009 and, if her hip injury doesn't continue to bug her, she could do it again.

The biggest worry for Venus, though, will probably come from Stanford champ Victoria Azarenka, who has been playing solid all summer, winning the doubles title in Cincinnati and making the semis in Montreal. She's the kind of big-hitter that doesn't get easily intimidated, and as long as she keeps her temper in check -- something she did amazingly well against Marion Bartoli and Sam Stosur at the Bank of the West -- she could make a deep run this year.

Predicted Semifinalist: I'm rooting for Vika, and the way she's been playing, I like her chances.

Fourth Quarter

At every Major, there's always a section in which anything can happen. At Flushing Meadows, this one is it. World #5 Jelena Jankovic admittedly surprised me when she powered into the Roland Garros semis this year with very little hoopla, but somehow I don't think she'll perform the same feat this time around. Failure to defend in Cincinnati probably cost her the second seed in New York, and she's retired from a few matches and lost a couple more blaming nagging injuries. Her first round match against former Junior champion Simona Halep could present some problems, but the bigger challenges will be further down the line.

Vera Zvonareva, back in the top ten, is fresh off a runner-up finish in Montreal, showing that her performance at Wimbledon was not a fluke. Her biggest threat in the early rounds might come a few days in when she could meet Alexandra Dulgheru, a tough young player, though one who is probably stronger on clay. And Aggie Radwanska, clearly not the heaviest hitter on Tour, has spent the summer displaying the smarts and stamina that's kept her in and around the elite for the last two years. I would love to see either storm through their week-one matches.

There are a couple of interesting early round match-ups in this bracket too. Last year's semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer is the fifteenth seed in New York, but she's been struggling of late, losing early in San Diego and Montreal and being upset by even younger Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Cincinnati. With a possible second round date with Bad Gastein champion Julia Goerges, the Belgian might have trouble repeating her run from last year. And New Haven finalist Nadia Petrova is pitted against Andrea Petkovic, just out of seeding range, in her opener. The German has made a couple of deep runs in tournaments this year, and might be able to take advantage of any erratic play on Petrova's side of the net. Kaia Kanepi plays Alize Cornet to start her campaign -- both are players that have had different degrees of success climbing back up the rankings, and you have to like Kanepi's chances to keep her run going.

Predicted Semifinalist: In a world where all the quarters seems wide open, this door seems the largest. I think the potential fourth round between Vera and Aggie will be a lot of fun, and the winner will probably also make the semis. I'm giving it to Radwanska, just because I so want to see her succeed.

So as you can tell, there's bound to be a lot of surprises in the coming weeks -- and there's no better place than New York for it to all go down. No one's had a better opportunity to excel in Flushing Meadows, and something tells me that the best performances could come from some unlikely candidates.

But what else would you expect from this city?

August 28, 2010

Blogcast: U.S. Open Preview

The year’s last Grand Slam could hold a couple surprises as the world’s top players try to either reclaim glory or establish it anew.

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

August 27, 2010

Blogcast: Just Whetting Your Appetite

With just a few days left before the start of the year's last Grand Slam, the brightest stars in tennis team with New York City's best chefs to support a great cause at the Taste of Tennis.

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

August 25, 2010

The Workhorse

Is it just me, or does Caroline Wozniacki play a lot of tennis?

Okay, that's a pretty obvious statement -- but remember back in the spring when she remained entered in every clay court tournament after that terrible tumble she took in Charleston? Admittedly I was surprised that she rebounded so quickly and made a run to the quarterfinals in Paris. But she hasn't missed a beat through the summer, and now with just a few days left until the U.S. Open begins, she stands to play six straight weeks without the smallest of breaks.

Ah, to be young!

To be sure, she's been solid so far during that run -- she won the title in her homeland at the start of the month and followed it up with her first Premiertop-tier event trophy in Montreal this past week. And tonight she begins a campaign to three-peat as champion at the Pilot Pen, displaying no signs of fatigue.

Why all the hard work? Rumor has it that if Caro wins in New Haven and, clearly the longer shot, New York, she would replace Serena Williams as the #1 women's tennis player in the world -- not bad for a few month's work.

It's a bit surprising for a girl who doesn't have any huge weapons. At five-foot-ten, she's not the biggest on Tour and she doesn't deliver an inordinate amount of aces. But she can stay with her much stronger opponents -- her counter-punching has gotten her past players like Svetlana Kuznetsova, Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta, and she's been able to take sets from even greater champions like Serena and Justine Henin. At only twenty years of age, it's clearly a good sign that she can keep up with physically stronger and more-experienced contemporaries.

Of course, the #1 ranking is still several weeks and many wins away. The Dane will first have to get through a tougher-than-normal draw in Connecticut which includes heavyweights like Elena Dementieva and Sam Stosur. And she'll have to go one better during her fortnight in Flushing than she did last year. But as the top seed in New York she certainly has the motivation to at least make a deep run.

And if the past month is any indication, she most definitely has the energy!

August 22, 2010

It's About Time

For most players it wouldn't be such a big deal, but it's hard to believe that Roger Federer hadn't won a title since the Australian Open.

Failure to defend either his French Open or Wimbledon crowns dropped him down to #3 in the world, a streak of twenty-three straight Slam semis came to an end. He had chances, but championship losses in Madrid and Toronto kept the rosters clear of his name all spring and summer.

Until today.

Clearly he was the favorite against American Mardy Fish on Sunday -- the two had played each other six times and Federer had won all but one of those matches. While Fish had endured some tight and long matches in the days leading up to the finals, Roger had an easy week, winning his opening round when Denis Istomin retired in the first set and his second after Philipp Kohlschreiber gave him the walkover. He spent only about an hour on court last night with Marcos Baghdatis before winning that match, 6-4, 6-3.

But for his first championship since February, it would not be an easy battle. Fish came out firing, serving ten aces in the first set and saving all four of Roger's break chances. Things stayed close in the tiebreak, but a couple big points went Mardy's way and the heavy underdog found himself with an early lead.

Things stayed close in the next set too. Fish actually raised the level of his game and didn't even allow the defending champion a look on his serve while earning his own break opportunity. But after about two hours of play, both players were still on serve and Roger had evened the score with some dominating tiebreak play.

At that point, you had like Swiss's chance to take home the title. Mardy stayed strong, though, and kept the match close, actually upping his return percentage on Federer's serve and making his second attempts a bit more formidable. But when Roger finally converted on his fifth break opportunity, you knew the jig was up.

"I just think overall I was really consistent on my serve," Federer said after the match. "I had the upper hand from the baseline. You know, he had to start taking chances...I've been playing well the last couple weeks, and today was just proof that I'm playing really well."

The victory couldn't have come at a better time -- with the U.S. Open now just a week away, Federer must be glad he reasserted himself as the top contender. When asked if Federer was the man to beat in New York, Fish had this to say:

"He's just been there so many times -- clearly he loves the U.S. Open. He's made the finals there six times in a row and won five of those. His record is incredible in Grand Slams -- I feel like he's a different player even in Grand Slams as opposed to even Masters 1000 tournaments."

All evidence suggests that is certainly the case. With sixteen Majors to his name -- and now seventeen Masters -- it certainly looks like few will be able to get by him. And just in case you had started to discount him, his performance today should do a lot to set you straight

August 21, 2010

Turning the Tables

The first semifinal at the Cincinnati Masters today was one of the more inspirational ones I've seen.

Two-time winner Andy Roddick took on friend and wildcard Mardy Fish, a man who's experiencing quite a resurgence in his career this year. Roddick, who will return to the top ten next week thanks to his final four appearance in Ohio, was the on-paper favorite. But Mardy, a winner of back-to-back titles in Newport and Atlanta, won their last match up and had already eliminated Gilles Simon, Fernando Verdasco and Andy Murray during his run.

That's not to say Roddick hadn't been impressive this week too. Still struggling with a bout of mono, the 2009 Wimbledon finalist fell in the fourth round of the Slam and couldn't repeat his run in Washington. But in Cincinnati he seemed to find his game, beating Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic in successive matches. After the match, he had this to say about his game:

"To be honest, I came here and I had no expectations. For me to get in five really tough matches is more than I could've asked for going into the Open. Honestly, when I came here I was thinking maybe two matches...I think this week has been a complete positive considering how I felt and kind of where I was eleven or twelve days ago."

Today, though, Mardy had his number -- though it didn't look like that to start. While both men came out firing, belting big forehands across the net, an hour-long rain delay late in the first set seemed to upset the groove. Fish came out of the break a little sluggish and dropped serve at 4-5. A few games into the second set, he seemed to be in trouble again, finding himself down 1-3.

But that's when things turned around. With Mardy about to serve at 2-5 a raincloud opened overhead for the third time during the match. The delay this time was much shorter and within minutes both players were back on the court. Fish held serve, forcing Roddick to serve it out, but amazingly his much more decorated rival was not able to convert. Mardy evened the score and pushed to a tiebreak. With the help of six aces and a 89% win rate on first serves, the twenty-eight year old suddenly found himself in a third set.

"You can see in that situation that guys are going to get nervous," he said after the match. "I just tried to make him play as much as I could. I tried not to make too many errors on that game...I made him play four points."

In the decider it seemed Roddick had lost a bit of steam. Fish rolled off to a 4-0 start and in just about half an hour was serving for the match. With the win, he's earned the right to play his fourth final of the year and his second in Cincinnati -- incidentally he lost to Roddick in three long sets back in 2003.

He also sets up a meeting with Roger Federer, who won the second semifinal this evening in a much less dramatic two sets over Marcos Baghdatis. Fish doesn't have the best record against the newly-reminted world #2, but he did win their last meeting in Indian Wells about two years ago. So maybe Federer should look out -- Mardy seems to have found a way to repeat wins he's had against much-favored opponents.

And if he continues to play like he has been, Roger might just be his latest victim

August 19, 2010

Keep It Up!

It's been an interesting couple of weeks in women's tennis as several players have been able to advance deep into the draws of the U.S. Open Series tournaments, but so far none have repeated as champion.

It began in late July when Victoria Azarenka stunned Maria Sharapova at the Bank of the West Classic. A week later fallen French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova reasserted her power with an impressive win over Stanford semifinalist Aggie Radwanska. Sharapova made another run for the title in Cincinnati last week when she fell to Kim Clijsters in an emotional, rain-addled three-setter. Through today all those players, save Maria who injured her foot last Sunday, were still standing at the Rogers Cup.

It's a good sign in a world where the ladies' performances are often so spotty -- it seemed for most of the spring the champion at one tournament would fall early in the next. Paris victor Elena Dementieva retired during her first match in Dubai, Jelena Jankovic won just two matches in Miami the week after rolling to the title in Indian Wells and Francesca Schiavone has just a few "W"s since that magical run at Roland Garros.

But for the first time in a while, one of the top female players has a legitimate chance to capture a second trophy at a big event in less than a month. Radwanska, unfortunately, lost her third round match in Montreal today, but her vanquisher -- Sveta again -- Vika and Kim all have been playing solid ball.

If you go by the scoreboard alone, at first it looked like Kuznetsova was going the way of the others. She lost her opening match in Cincinnati, though in three sets and to the eventual finalist. Seeded again at the Rogers Cup, she still had a tough first round against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova but was able to survive. Her rematch with Radwanska was an even bigger scare as she dropped the middle set by a score of 6-1. But with the two-hour win she successfully put together only her third three-match win streak of the year and sets up a meeting with Jie Zheng, a woman she's never lost to before.

Victoria Azarenka had a similar slump during the spring. A finalist in Dubai, she followed up with three first-match losses and retired from three tournaments in April and May. Though she withdrew from the San Diego event due to exhaustion and lost her opener at the Western & Southern, she teamed with Maria Kirilenko to take the doubles crown in Cincinnati. So far in her three rounds in Montreal she's lost only a handful of games, defeating her doubles partner on Wednesday and "upsetting" ninth seeded Na Li earlier this afternoon. For her quarterfinal, she'll face Marion Bartoli, the woman she dethroned in Stanford after being down a set and a break -- certainly not the easiest match, but she has to have a better confidence than she did back then.

Speaking of comebacks, Kim Clijsters also won her last title after saving match points. Now at her best ranking since retiring more than three years ago, she received a bye in the first round at the Rogers Cup, but faced an unexpected challenge yesterday from qualifier Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who won their first set and led in the second. It was a much easier day at the office Thursday, though, as the defending U.S. Open champion took less than an hour to advance to the quarters. Of the three recent titleists, she faces the biggest threat tomorrow from Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva, but something tells me she also has the best chance of avenging her recent loss.

With their recent solid performances it should be no surprise that these ladies all top the leaderboard for the U.S. Open Series. But more importantly, with the draw for the Slam so wide open this year, they're all among the contenders to win the big prize as well. They're each among the biggest hitters out there, and now with their confidence at near record highs, there's no reason for the momentum to end.

At least not until they meet each other!

August 15, 2010

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Oh what a difference a rain makes.

Some hot, humid and very damp weather certainly made a statement at the hardcourt finals being contested today, and the players might have had quite an effect on some of the players.

It started with the men up in Toronto, where defending champion Andy Murray met newly re-minted world #2 Roger Federer for the Rogers Cup Masters title. It was their first meeting since the Scot was demolished at the Australian Open championship match and their fourth meeting with a trophy on the line. Both had been playing some impressive ball all week, Roger surviving scares against Novak Djokovic and the recent thorn in his side, Tomas Berdych, in the previous two nights, and Murray stopping some impressive runs by David Nalbandian and Rafael Nadal in his recent matches. But with such a highly anticipated match on the line, the rain decided to have a little fun with the players.

It started before even a single shot was hit -- Federer and Andy had just finished their warm-ups when play was called and they retreated to the locker rooms. It was a short delay, but it might have rattled Roger a little -- he lost his first two service games, something I don't think I've ever seen him do, and gave his opponent a 3-0 lead. He was able to get one break back early and even saved the set when Murray was serving at 5-4, but that's when things started to get strange.

He served a horrendous game at five-all and finally lost the first set. Three games later play was called for a second time, and two games after that Murray had broken Roger for a fourth time in the match before play stopped yet again. Roger is nothing if not a champion though, and though he's not used to playing from behind, he's had to do it quite a lot this year. He broke right back when play resumed, and got the match to five all before ultimately dropping serve and finally allowing Murray to end the match.

It was Andy's fifth Masters 1000 title and his first trophy of the year, a nice way to end an unusually long drought for him. Now I don't mean to suggest that we'd have had a different result had the weather not caused so many delays -- I reluctantly admit that Murray was playing some of the best tennis in Canada this week, and rightly deserved the win. And it certainly puts him in the mix of people who could contend for the U.S. Open title in less than a month -- that's something I probably wouldn't have said a few weeks ago.

The rain might have been more of a factor in the women's final in Cincinnati where two former #1's, Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters were each making their bids for a third title of 2010. They're both comeback stories of a sort -- Clijsters made her return to professional play at the Western & Southern Financial Group Open just last year, and Sharapova, who ended a much shorter injury-related absence a few months before that, is making a case for her own return to the top ten.

For some reason, it seems to me that we hadn't seen a lot of Kim this year -- after winning the U.S. Open as a wildcard she hasn't been able to make much of a dent at the other Majors, most recently losing to Vera Zvonareva in the Wimbledon quarters. She hadn't dropped a set all week, only tested by Flavia Pennetta in the quarters, but still I felt I didn't have enough evidence of her strength this year. Maria, on the other hand, has been a little more visible on Tour recently, making the finals in Strasbourg, Birmingham and Stanford all in the last four months. On the hardcourt, the surface where she's been most consistent, she'd been nearly perfect all week, stopping the run of San Diego champion Svetlana Kuznetsova early and getting past challenges presented by players like Andrea Petkovic and rising star Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

The rain waited a while before wreaking havoc on this match. With the sun shining brightly in Ohio, Sharapova got off to a good start, winning the first set easily and getting a break lead in the second. The clouds started rolling in when Kim was serving at 3-5. Maria had earned a couple of match points then and it seemed that officials were hoping to close it out before the skies opened up. But when the Russian was unable to convert on any of her three chances, the chair umpire had to call play at deuce.

When the ladies came back an hour or so later, it was a totally different game. Clijsters was able to hold serve and broke her opponent in the next game. She was down in the tiebreak 0-3, but rattled of a couple of solid points of her own and forced a deciding set. Though Maria came out firing, shoot off aces and bullet-fast ground strokes, Kim was just a bit stronger and broke twice to build a 5-1 lead. Maria tried to regroup and saved three championship points against her, but when a reaching backhand sailed wide, it was Clijsters who raised her arms in victory.

Again Kim might very well have gotten the win had the rain not played with the schedule, though I'm slightly less confident with that statement. After the match she joked that she used the delay to run to her hotel and retrieve her serve, which had been letting her down the first set and a half. Once she was back on track, her play did the rest to remind us all how she's been able to succeed so much over the last twelve months. And the way she played -- especially after their delay, convinces me she could really repeat in Flushing Meadows.

As long as the rain doesn't work against her next time.

August 12, 2010

Misery Loves Company

There's a lot to be said about finding solace in colleagues who know what you've been through. And when two former #1 tennis players find themselves free-falling in the rankings, that's just what they did.

Now I won't be in Cincinnati until next week, but from what I gather from everyone's tweets over the last few hours, the blossoming friendship between 2008 French Open finalists Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina was a major topic of conversation at the ladies' press conferences yesterday.

"The first time we practiced together was in Wimbledon," Ivanovic said after her win on Wednesday. "After that, we practiced a couple times in San Diego and then Stanford as well as here. She's a really nice girl. We sort of hung out a little more, and talked a little about just stuff in general. We're like, 'Ah, come on, let's play a final again!' So it's good to inspire each other."

In fact, the last time they met in competition, ironically, was at that fateful championship match more than two years ago. Since then they've had strangely similar carreer paths -- Ana hasn't won a title since and has seen her ranking fall as far as #58 in the world while Safina, whose injury-related troubles only started more recently, hasn't won more than two matches at an event since Melbourne. A year ago at the Western & Southern Financial Group Women's Open, Ivanovic was just outside the top ten, and world #1 Dinara was made the finals with wins over Kim Clijsters and Flavia Pennetta -- this year, neither of them is even seeded.

If either of them has a hope of making a quick rebound to the sport's elite, it certainly looks like Ana has the more immediate hope. With her second round victory she's already bettered her performance from last year, and she soundly defeated her next opponent, Elena Vesnina, during her other somewhat successful run in Rome back in May.

Safina, on the other hand, crashed out of her rematch with Clijsters Wednesday night, a result that should send her tumbling to a ranking of seventy or lower. But she doesn't begrudge her accomplice any success: "I just wish her really good luck. I knew she's been going through tough moments, so that she comes back because she's really playing good."

It can't be easy to endure one loss after another, especially after you'd gotten so used to winning, so it certainly helps to have the support and well-wishes of those around you. Maybe each other's encouragement is what these girls need to make that push to the top. We'll see how well it works for Ana this week, and hopefully for Dinara at coming events.

And who knows, this time next year they could be laughing at us all for ever doubting them!

August 9, 2010

The Mental Game

There is something to be said for an athlete's ability not only to act on her feet, but also to think just as quickly.

Whether you're talking tennis, baseball, football, whatever, you've got to make snap decisions when you see a ball throttling at you at over a hundred miles per hour. "Should I hit a drop shot or aim for the wide open court?" "Is the more important play at first base or at home plate?" "Can I avoid the blitz or should I pass to my receiver?"

But sometimes, especially when you're on a court by yourself, you can find yourself thinking a bit too much. "I should have covered the ad court." "How did I lose a two-break advantage?" "Why are none of my forehands going in?" And it's the players who can silence these nagging demons who can really thrive -- at yesterday's final between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Aggie Radwanska at the Mercury Insurance Open, the Russian proved just how much mental toughness she has.

There's no reason Kuznetsova should have been confident in her game -- last year's champion at Roland Garros hadn't made a quarterfinal all year and fell early when trying to defend the titles she'd won in 2009. Starting the year at #3 in the world, she'd fallen out of the top twenty by the time she rolled up to San Diego, and with opponents like Sara Errani, Yanina Wickmayer and Flavia Pennetta in her path, her chances to advance here didn't look good.

But Svets is a solid champion -- she survived a second-set rally by Errani and closed out the match in three and completely dominated Pennetta in the semifinals, blanking the fifth-seeded Italian in the second set to reach her first final since October.

On Sunday she actually met the same woman she'd beaten for that Beijing trophy last fall, Aggie Radwanska, a smart player who displayed some flawless tennis the past two weeks, making the semis in Stanford and going one better down south. The top-ten Pole was the fourth seed at the event, but with a 3-6 record against Sveta, she was probably still the underdog.

It looked like Kuznetsova was heading for an easy victory on Sunday, running off with a two break lead in the first set with strong serves and powerful groundstrokes. But that's when things started to get interesting -- Svets was unable to close it out when serving at 5-2, the first display of nerves we'd see throughout the match. The next came an hour or so later, when she was serving with a set lead and at 5-4, but Aggie broke again, this time at love, and suddenly it was a match. Kuznetsova led again in the tiebreak, 4-0 and then earned a slew of championship points at 6-3, but Radwanska was too solid. She saved a fourth match point and eventually won the set at 9-7 in the breaker.

At that point it would have been easy to fold. I certainly would have -- but I guess that's why I've never won a Grand Slam.

To start Svetlana looked like she might have been running down that path when she let her opponent another break of serve. But somehow she was able to find the motivation to steady herself and won four games in a row to ultimately regain the lead she'd had so long ago. She didn't allow Aggie another look on her service game and, this time when serving for the title, she didn't collapse. After spending more than nine and a half hours on the singles court this week, she'd finally ended her losing streak to claim the San Diego trophy.

It might not have been the biggest win of her career, but it is still certainly an important one. To be able to survive so many scares and to remain strong in spite of them sends a clear message: "I will not give up!"

And if your opponent knows that she can't count on your losing -- that she has to actually win the match -- any advantage you have becomes that much stronger.

August 7, 2010

An International Affair

It's strange that in the U.S. capital, not one American made it to the final weekend in the singles draw. What might be even stranger is that the two men playing the finals tomorrow, though both long-time veterans of the Tour, have never even played a championship match on American soil.

In the second semifinal match at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, wildcard David Nalbandian took on fourth seeded Marin Cilic. The Argentine, once #3 in the world, had won ten titles in his decade-long career, but hip surgery, which took him out of play for most of 2009, and a leg injury this past February kept him in and out of contention at the big events. He hasn't played in any of the Majors this year and looks to make his return at the end of the summer in Flushing Meadows. If his performance in D.C. is any indication, he might be able to impress.

Having lost a slew of points over the past eighteen months, Nalbandian has dropped into triple digits -- a little daunting for a man who just a year ago was in the top twenty. But he was on fire in Washington and didn't drop a set in his first three matches. Though he hiccuped early against Gilles Simon on Friday night, he rebounded well and broke the Frenchman's serve six times in the last two sets.

Cilic has been a little more consistent this year -- one of my favorites to break into the top five this year, the young Croat hadn't won much during the clay and grass court seasons, but had compiled a more-than-solid 21-5 record on the hard courts this year, complete with two trophies in his first three tournaments. This week he rolled through red-hot Mardy Fish in the third round and powered through a hard-hitting Janko Tipsarevic in the quarters.

But something was off his game this evening -- or rather, something was very on in Nalbandian's.

"I don't think I can count on one hand the number of points he missed today," Cilic said of the near-perfect shot making of Nalbandian. The Argentine felt similarly confident with his game, saying after the match: "Last night I needed a set (to warm up) -- today I needed a game."

Though Cilic broke his opponent to start, the usually-big server was held to one ace the entire match. He lost seven games in a row to a very clean David and ultimately doled out an unimpressive service game to end the match.

Nalbandian's first final in the U.S. is a reward after what's seemed like a long slog back for him. And as he takes on Marcos Baghdatis, another man who's had his greatest successes elsewhere in the world, he certainly looks like he'll be tough to beat. But tomorrow's final certainly sets the stage for what could be a very entertaining U.S. Open Series -- and with so many of the sport's greats having some roller coaster runs, the possibilities of making an even bigger dent in the States have never been so great.

Coming to America

It's been a strange, almost surreal year so far for Marcos Baghdatis.

The one-time top ten player kicked off 2010 having just regained a double-digit ranking and won the second tournament he played, a solid event in Sydney where he beat Mardy Fish and Lleyton Hewitt on the road to the title. His crowning moment, though, came two months later when he defeated Roger Federer in an amazing come-from-behind victory in Indian Wells. He lost his subsequent match, however, and hasn't beaten a top-twenty player since. Though he climbed his way back to #25 in the world, he nevertheless seemed like he'd lost some of that momentum.

That is, until he came to Washington.

It was his first trip to the U.S. capital, but Baghdatis appeared to fit in well. Consistently strongest on hard courts, he's won three of his four titles on the surface and boasts a sixty-plus win percentage on the surface. Back in his heyday he made the finals of the Austrailian Open, even taking a set from Roger there. But he'd never done too well in the States and has yet to pass the second round at the U.S. Open.

In D.C. he looked to change that record. As the eighth seed he received a bye in the first round, but faced a tough draw from the get-go. Horacio Zeballos, who's been strong all year, took the Cypriot to two tiebreaks in his opening match and Ilya Marchenko stole the second set before ceding in the third. Third seeded Fernando Verdasco should have presented a bigger problem in the quarters, but in a match with seven breaks of serve, Baghdatis was the ultimate winner.

His opponent today in the semis was an equally tested Xavier Malisse, a man who's been clawing his own way back from a precipitous drop out of the top two hundred. He'd racked up some big wins this year already -- Tommy Haas in Houston, John Isner in Memphis, Novak Djokovic at Queen's Club -- and he gave Andy Roddick quite a run in LA last week. Here on the eastern seaboard, Malisse beat three seeded players in a row, including Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych in the quarters. That's quite an accomplishment for someone who'd spent almost all of last year on the Challenger tour.

"It's tough to be on the sidelines watching everyone else play," Malisse said in the press conference after his match Saturday.

And you could see just how much both these guys missed the big events throughout their match. Malisse struggled on his serve early -- though with Baghdatis only getting thirty-six percent of his first attempts in during the opening set, neither man really served well. But Marcos broke his opponent in just the third game and got an insurance break a few games later to run off with the early lead in just over half an hour.

The second set was much more competitive and lasted over an hour as Xavier finally seemed to get into a rhythm on his own serve. With Baghdatis serving at 3-4, Malisse got some traction, playing smart shots and earning only his second break point of the match when his opponent twisted his ankle and fell to the floor. In a sweet moment, Malisse brought over a bag of ice, checked that Baghdatis was not severely injured and patiently endured the time-out. When Marcos won the next two points it was clear he would not be hampered by the fall.

"That was typical sportsmanship from Xavier. I would do the same thing -- I have done it before, but some guys don't. It doesn't happen every day," Baghdatis said after the match.

A few games later, he had the chance to serve out the match -- he'd converted on the third break opportunity he'd had in the second set -- but Malisse was finally able to find traction in his return game and forced a tiebreak. But from there it was smooth sailing for Baghdatis. After rolling off to a 5-1 lead, he let a couple points go but ultimately displayed some strong baseline hitting to reach his first final at an American tournament.

And because I hate when guys double fault on match point, here's a look at the amazing (twenty-six stroke) point that won it for Baghdatis:

He'll take on the winner of tonight's semifinal between David Nalbandian and fourth seed Marin Cilic, another couple of guys who've been on the comeback trail this year. He leads David in their head-to-heads, but hasn't beaten Cilic in their previous two matches. But if he continues to play as smart as he did today, he has more than a fighting chance to finally make an impression on American soil.

August 4, 2010

A Long Road Home

Losing is now something Grand Slam champions and world #1s are used to, but on the beautiful shores of San Diego this week, a couple former shining stars continued their struggles to return to the sport's elite.

Probably the longest lasting slide has been that of 2008 Roland Garros champion Ana Ivanovic who's spent most of the last four months out of the top fifty. Though she had a brief shining moment in Rome back in May, she's suffered a slew of early round losses since then. This week at the Mercury Insurance Open, she translated her wildcard entry into a straight set defeat at the hands of Shahar Peer, the same woman who took her out of Wimbledon in the first round. She has a big opportunity though this summer, as she didn't accumulate many points leading up to last year's U.S. Open, so a couple big wins could still boost her ranking significantly.

Melanie Oudin has the opposite problem -- after all, she became the darling of Flushing Meadows when she made the quarterfinals in New York, and so has a ton of points to defend this summer. So far she hasn't been following through -- she's playing a lot less than she did last year, mostly because she no longer has to qualify for the big events, but still hasn't advanced deep into a draw since April. After a second-round loss in Stanford last week, she opened her campaign in SoCal by beating her potential doubles partner Jamie Hampton in straight sets, but earlier today suffered a ninety-minute loss to French Open finalist Sam Stosur.

Last year's runner-up in Paris also had a shade of hope dashed earlier today. Dinara Safina, who was ranked #1 in the world less than a year ago has tumbled into the mid-thirties after a nagging back injury kept her from repeating any of the successes she had in the first half of 2009. She ended a six-match losing streak on Monday when she beat Alona Bondarenko in San Diego, but faced a tougher test against Aggie Radwanska today. Though she had never lost a set to her in their previous two meetings, last week's semifinalist at the Bank of the West Classic got revenge and needed just more than an hour to take out the three-time Major finalist. The 2008 U.S. Open Series winner now hasn't put together back-to-back wins since January, and she's going to have to pull it together if she wants to make any impact in New York this year.

The woman who had been Safina's nemesis last spring is the only one still alive in California. Svetlana Kuznetsova lost early in her bid to defend at Roland Garros and has been upset by players like world #74 Anastasia Rodionova, #99 Regina Kulikova and #100 Ekaterina Makarova all season. She squeaked by her first round opponent, eighth seeded Yanina Wickmayer, but next faces a tough Sara Errani, a woman who's pulled off a few upsets of her own this year. But it certainly looks like Svets has the best hope of making a quick return to the top tiers of the sport.

Of course anything can happen in the next few weeks -- maybe these ladies are just waiting for an opportunity to catch everyone off guard before making their run back to the top. But from where we stand now, it sure looks like it will be a tough battle back. But, man, would it be great to see the fight!

August 1, 2010

The Teenybopper

While most of us American tennis fans turned our focus to the series of tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open this week, there's still a bunch of action going on in Europe, and this week the world's top-ranked teenaged tennis player made us all aware that she's still one to beat out on the courts.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova began making a name for herself at the end of last year when she beat Venus Williams in back-to-back tournaments, once as a qualifier in Tokyo. This year she made her first Tour championship in Monterrey, winning two matches on that final Sunday to claim the crown. Earlier today she won her second trophy, rallying from a set and two breaks down to beat compatriot Elena Vesnina for the Istanbul title. Now ranked twenty-ninth in the world at just nineteen years of age, Pavlyuchenkova is easily the youngest woman in the top thirty and she seems like she's only going to get better from here.

It's funny when you think of it, that there are so few teens in the top echelons of tennis these days. I remember being somewhat shocked about all the hype around Melanie Oudin received during her run at the U.S. Open last year -- then seventeen years old, she was almost a full year older than Maria Sharapova when she won Wimbledon in 2004 and two years senior to Martina Hingis who won the Australian at just sixteen.

It's no question that the game has changed from even those relatively recent days. There are certainly some young standouts -- Caroline Wozniacki is just out of teen territory and Victoria Azarenka, whose impressive performance in Stanford today won her a fourth career title, took her first three when she was still nineteen. But by and large its the veterans -- Serena and Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Sam Stosur -- who are really dominating. It could be the age limits, restricting the number of tournaments a Pro plays until she turns eighteen, or it could be that the established players are so strong that "kids" can no longer keep up with them like they could just fifteen years ago.

But the Juniors circuit certainly provides some clues as to who might be a future star. Pavlyuchenkova won three Major girls' titles in 2006 and 2007. More recently, players like Laura Robson and Sloane Stephens are beginning to make strides in the main draws of tournaments after already making names for themselves in the ITF events. Some go off to great things -- Azarenka and Wozniacki were also Junior champions just a few years ago -- some you might not hear of again -- anyone remember Angelique Widjaja who won Roland Garros and Wimbledon in her day?

And if Pavlyuchenkova's performance on Tour so far is any indication, she could be one that comes out on top. With plenty of years left in her career, she's certainly already established herself as a contender, and today's come-from-behind victory just confirms that fact.