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.

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