October 31, 2010

One, Two, Three?

When the next WTA rankings come out on Monday, as we now know, there will be a new world order.

Caroline Wozniacki, the most prolific woman on Tour this year, will be atop the polls, ahead of two-time Grand Slam finalist Vera Zvonareva in the second spot and U.S. Open champ Kim Clijsters in third. It might not be was we expected at the start of the year, and while we may not all completely agree with the outcome, it’s hard to argue after this past week’s action in Doha that they didn’t get it pretty darn close.

Vera Zvonareva is probably the biggest surprise of the season, but her success has been a long time coming. Pro since 2000, she’s been a staple in the sport’s elite for most of the last seven years, finishing in the top ten for the past two. And though she -- surprisingly -- only won one title early this year in Pattaya City, her breakthrough at Wimbledon really put her on the map.

She got off to an impressive start at the year-end championships, stopping short Victoria Azarenka's impressive win streak in their first round robin match and avenging her heartbreaking New York loss to Clijsters with a two set win. She was the only woman to emerge from the early rounds without a loss and made the semifinals for the second time in her career.

Unfortunately for Bepa, she ran into top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki on Saturday. The pair has literally traded off wins for the past two years, and coming into this tournament were tied at three wins apiece. And this time Caro kept the momentum on her side -- though Vera broke her serve twice in the first set, the young Dane held strong and bagelled her opponent in the second to make the finals in only her second appearance at the Championships.

It shouldn't be too shocking that Caro showed up this week. Since a one-sided loss in the fourth round of Wimbledon -- she won only two games against Petra Kvitova at the All England Club -- she's won the trophy at five of the seven events she's entered, beating heavyweights like Maria Sharapova, newly-retired Elena Dementieva and her good friend Victoria Azarenka along the way. But while she has certainly paid her dues on Tour this year, she may need a few more wins under her belt before she claims the big title.

Kim Clijsters was again the woman standing in her way. In a rematch of the 2008 2009 U.S. Open finals, the two-time year-ending champ was able to leverage her experience to her advantage, but she was in for a bit more of a battle this time around. After winning the first two games of the match, Clijsters allowed Wozniacki to get even before ultimately rolling to a 6-3, 4-1 lead. But the twenty-year old somehow found a way to turn on the juice and won seven of the next eight games to get her own lead in the deciding set.

Though Caroline's perseverance is certainly a good sign of her growing maturity and an indication of great things that are sure to come for her, it was Kim who stayed the slightest bit stronger, breaking back immediately and eventually getting ahead 4-2 in the third before running away with the championship. It was her fifth crown of 2010, the fortieth of her career and secured her best year-end finish since 2005.

It might be a little strange that for only the second time a year-end #1 hasn't already captured a Major trophy. Or that a woman whose only prize this year came at a relatively small tournament in February. Or that the most experienced and decorated of these ladies finishes behind both of them.

But it sure sets an interesting stage going into next year -- and I expect we'll see a lot more of all these women on the winner's podium then.

October 29, 2010

Goodbye, Elena

I know I'm not the only one who's sad that Elena Dementieva is retiring.

While I might have been a little late on the news, the twitterverse virtually exploded around noon today, when the current world #9 announced she'd just played her last professional match at the WTA Championships' against another veteran Francesca Schiavone. For a player casual tennis fans might never have heard of -- a former co-worker used to call her "Dementia" -- suddenly the Russian star was a trending topic, a real talk of the town. Of the globe, really.

Long my favorite player on the women's Tour, in recent years Dementieva has become known as the best athlete without a Grand Slam title -- she made the finals in Roland Garros and New York in 2004 and the semis of all the Majors another six seven times. But that's not to say she hasn't accomplished much in her twelve-plus year career. She cracked the top twenty in 2000 after a trip to the final four at the U.S. Open and has been a staple in the top ten for the better part of the decade. An instrumental part of the Russian Fed Cup team, she became the most consistent force from a country that has only emerged on the tennis scene in the last ten years. Though she counts Olympic gold in Beijing as the biggest accomplishment among her sixteen titles, she's had some unbelievably memorable matches -- I still count that '09 semi against Serena Williams as the savior of women's tennis -- that netted her nothing but a few minutes of coverage on Sports Center.

Yet Dementieva always showed up on court ready to give 150% -- win or lose, she put up a fight in every match. And it was so often a fight. With one of the weakest serves on the Tour, Elena developed one of the best return games out there and could break the toughest opponents several times in a match just to stay on serve. Despite that apparent weakness, over her career she racked up an impressive 575-271 record and notched big wins over some of the winningest champions around. And she certainly didn't allow herself to float off into oblivion before leaving the game -- having won two titles and made two more finals this year, she qualified for the year-end WTA championships for the eighth consecutive time.

And while she may have ruffled a few feathers here and there, the friends she made on Tour far outnumbered the foes. The outpouring of sentiment, from journalists, fans, seasoned vets and up-and-comers alike, shows just what a class act Elena Dementieva really is.

And while I know she will be sorely missed on Tour, I have no doubt that we're all better because of her.

October 28, 2010

Back at Home

It's a long slog on the professional tennis Tour, so it should be no surprise that so many players opt to enter their home events, especially this time of year. Besides being close to family and friends, star athletes get the added benefit of almost unquestioned crowd support, while lesser-known, lower-ranked players are often able to secure wildcards for a chance to hit with the big boys.

It's not a perfect science, of course -- last week Elena Dementieva skipped the Kremlin Cup in her native Moscow to play in Luxembourg, and this week Nikolay Davydenko eschewed St. Petersburg in favor of the inaugural Montpellier tournament in France. But a quick look at the draws shows the vast majority of participants didn't have to travel far.

While Davydenko took the top seed at the Open Sud de France, moved from Lyon this year, he is closely followed by a couple hommes eager to show their stuff. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet lead the pack of twelve Frenchmen in the bracket, but qualifiers like Steve Darcis and Adrian Mannarino, both of whom won their first round matches, also are making a splash.

But some dark horse possibilities to take the title also lurk in the field -- though last year's runner-up Michael Llodra fell earlier on Thursday, there are still some threats left. Gilles Simon is coming off a win in Metz and pulled off a solid victory over marathon man Nicolas Mahut on Wednesday. Then there's 2006 champ Richard Gasquet who beat Fernando Verdasco in the Nice finals earlier this year. Now ranked back in the top thirty, you can't quite count him out.

Over in Vienna the biggest story, of course, was the return of forty-three year old Thomas Muster, a veteran champion who hadn't played a professional match since 1999. Though he lost his first round match to fellow Austrian Andreas Haider-Maurer, he certainly proved he can still keep up with kids nearly half his age.

But the hometown hero in the other half of the draw might hold better prospects. Top seeded Jurgen Melzer beat then-red hot Marin Cilic for the title in 2009 and began his defense with his highest career ranking of #12 in the world. Though he struggled against Lukasz Kubot, taking two tiebreaks and more than two hours, he survived the challenge and kept his campaign alive. With another potential battle against Cilic in the championship match, his run is certainly not clear and easy, but his chances look good.

Russians -- and former Russians -- are all over the draw in St. Petersburg, with 2004 champ Mikhail Youzhny leading the pack. But Dmitry Tursunov, once a top-twenty player, is continuing his own comeback after an ankle injury took him out of the top five hundred earlier this year. He made the quarters in Tokyo and survived a three setter against Michal Przysiezny in his opener in St. Petes. Earlier today he dismissed fourth seeded Yen-Hsun Lu and might have cleared his own path for a solid run here.

Maybe odds are stacked in the natives' favor, as they take up so many more of the slots in the field, but I'd look for these guys to make a nice dent in their home tournaments. Even if they can't bring back the ultimate trophy, they should be able to at least leverage their advantage for a few more wins.

And what better place for them to see such success.

October 25, 2010

The Power of Perseverance

Back in the spring I was astounded when Caroline Wozniacki got right back on court after a devastating fall in the Charleston semis and not only stayed entered in every event on her schedule, but made the quarterfinals in Paris.

A few months later Caro's good friend Victoria Azarenka suffered an even more frightening collapse on the tennis court when a combination of extreme heat and a possible mild concussion sent her out of the U.S. Open second round in a wheelchair. After previously having retired from four matches already this year, I have to admit, I again thought that would be the end of her season.

But all evidence to the contrary, Azarenka might just be tougher physically than she is mentally -- often one to vent her frustration when a match isn't going her way, she's been able to bounce back from injury and illness rather remarkably. One of my favorites to win the title in New York made the semis at her first tournament back in Tokyo and just yesterday took home her second title of the year in Moscow with a solid 6-3, 6-4 showing against her doubles partner Maria Kirilenko.

It was a great way to cap of a week that also saw Azarenka gain admission to the year-end Sony Ericsson championships which begins tomorrow -- her first round squeaker against Andrea Petkovic notched her enough points to take Serena Williams' place. It'll be her second consecutive appearance in Doha, and though she's ranked lower than she was last year she might actually have a better chance than in 2009 -- in the same group as Kim Clijsters, Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic, she's actually had decent results against her opponents in their recent match-ups. It's clearly the tougher round-robin group in Doha, but a couple good early results could yield some strong momentum for her.

Vika's victory in Moscow was important for another reason -- it was the first time she's been able to extend her win streak this late in the year, usually prospering in the late winter and early spring. Last year, for example, she only reached one quarterfinal after Wimbledon, and given her spotty stamina even before that fateful day in New York, it's nice to see her get back to being healthy at this point in the season.

In a year of ups and downs for Azarenka -- and more than a few scares -- maintaining form to win the Kremlin Cup and qualifying for the championships in Doha bodes well for this young talent. Sure she's still got a lot to learn but I wouldn't be surprised to see her make a dent in some Major draws next year.

After all, if she can bounce back from a such a defeat as she felt in New York, nothing should be able to stop her.

October 24, 2010

Does Size Matter?

It's easy to forget that the tennis season is comprised of much more than just the four Major tournaments that players plan their years around. But these smaller events at the end of the year can be just as important, not only for the potential purse they carry or additional ranking points, but also for the confidence they can bring a player as they round out their year.

Take Viktor Troicki, a talented Serb who's career was previously highlighted by a stunning comeback against Andy Roddick on his way to the 2008 Washington finals. But a gutsy five-setter against his friend Novak Djokovic in the first round of this year's U.S. Open made the tennis world sit up and take notice, and he's been eager to back up the hype. He played a solid semifinal against Rafael Nadal in Tokyo and soundly defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the second round in Moscow earlier this week. It took him two more matches, both of which he won without dropping a set, to make his third career championship round.

In today's final he met Marcos Baghdatis, a former Australian Open runner-up who's having his own comeback year. The Cypriot won their only previous meeting in Sydney this past January, and has scored wins over Nadal and Roger Federer already this year. The fourth seed had his path to the title match fairly cleared and didn't have to face any player ranked higher than him all week.

The on-paper favorite got off to a quick start, securing the only break in the first set, but Troicki raised his level in the second, winning every one of his second serve points and never allowing a break opportunity. In the third and deciding set, Viktor stayed strong, saving an early break opportunity and eventually converted against his opponent to secure the lead and his first career title. It might not have been the grandest stage on which to make a statement, but after plugging away all year, it certainly was a well-deserved payoff for all his work.

A little further west a man who is slightly more used to winning the big titles took the court in Stockholm for only the second time in his storied career. Roger Federer last played here at the turn of the century, in 2000 when he was ranked only twenty-ninth in the world and lost in the second round. He's accomplished quite a lot since then, of course, but has been struggling a bit this year, falling short of expectations at the last three Grand Slams he's played. And, for the first time since 2001, he's actually lost more finals than he won.

But in Sweden this week, he was in top form. He came from behind against compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinal and held off a tough Ivan Ljubicic in the semis. For the trophy he face Florian Mayer, a man he hadn't met since Australia in 2006. The twenty-seven year old German had dismissed a tough Feliciano Lopez in his opener and powered through hometown hero Robin Soderling a few rounds later. Having only played in two finals before, both on clay courts and both more than four years ago, he might have been a little out of his element today.

Mayer actually was the one with an early lead, however, breaker Federer early to lead 4-3 in the first set, but the all-time Major winner leader rattled off three straight games in response. He was slightly more solid in the second set, winning more than ninety percent of his first serves and never allowing his opponent to make a dent on his games. Roger only had one chance to break Mayer, but that was all he needed. Just slightly more than an hour after taking the court, he walked off with his third crown of the year and the sixty-fourth of his career. Of course, it might not be the most significant win, but in a year which saw his #1 ranking taken away from him, it certainly comes at an important time.

Of course it's nice to win the Majors, capture a Masters title or two. But the smaller tournaments that really make up the year's schedule can be just as rewarding. Troicki has finally let the world know he's a force to contend with, while Federer has reminded us all that he always will be.

After all, no matter how big the trophy, it sure feels good to bring one home.

October 21, 2010

How the Mighty Have Fallen

This seems to be a common theme in my posts recently -- that once-unstoppable stars seem to be struggling recent months -- and that trend has continued into this week's tournaments across Europe.

It started early in Stockholm, with the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds all losing their opening matches on Tuesday. And Tomas Berdych, who's only won a handful of matches since his stunning run to the Wimbledon finals back in July, followed up with his own first round exit on Wednesday.

Over in Luxembourg last year's most-improved player, Yanina Wickmayer saw her U.S. Open win over Patty Schnyder avenged, falling fairly quickly in her opener. And second seeded Aravane Rezai, a breakout during the clay court season, was trying to put together back-to-back wins for the first time since July. But after a tight win over qualifier Mona Barthel, she was smacked down by veteran Kirsten Flipkens yesterday, only winning one game in the forty-seven minute drubbing.

Then there's Moscow, where today former world #1 Jelena Jankovic, the surprise winner in Indian Wells in March, fell to seventeen-year-old qualifier Zarina Diyas -- ranked #268 -- in straight sets. After beating both Williams sisters on her way to the Rome finals, she hasn't lost to a player in the top twenty since the French Open and hasn't beaten one since May. Her exit comes a day after three-time champ Nikolay Davydenko, one of my favorites to win the Australian Open so early this year, lost two tiebreaks to Uruguay's Pablo Cuevas.

Now it's not all bad news for these players. We all know that tennis loves a comeback story -- ask recent Linz champion Ana Ivanovic, suddenly back in the top thirty, and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, at a career high ranking after following through on his Bangkok title. And with the 2010 season wrapping up, there plenty of time to reflect on what needs to be worked on and changed next year. None of these guys or girls are at the end of their careers, and they might just need to rework a few kinks.

And I sure look forward to their triumphant returns.

October 17, 2010

Here We Go Again

Some tennis stars have a way of coming through just when you've started to forget about them. Andy Murray, I begrudgingly admit, might be one of those players.

You might remember how he seemingly came out of nowhere to take the title in Toronto back in August. He'd done the same thing two years ago in Cincinnati, rebounding from a mediocre spring and early summer, to beat Novak Djokovic to capture his first Masters title.

These days, the world #4, just a stone's throw away from the top spot earlier this year, has been a little spotty. He entered the Australian and U.S. Opens as one of the favorites but failed to deliver on both counts, crashing out of the Melbourne finals without winning a set and dropping in the third round in New York thanks to a glorious performance by Stanislas Wawrinka. In recent weeks he's come dangerously close to ceding his position to Robin Soderling, a man who's arguably put up a better fight in his two Major finals, and a light post-Open schedule, highlighted only by an early loss in Beijing, had pushed him out of the headlines.

Then he came to Shanghai.

Another top-flight tournament which attracted all sixteen of the top men's players, the draw put Murray in the same half of the bracket as the newest Grand Slam winner, Rafael Nadal. But with the Beijing champ eliminated early, the Scot only faced one seed in his opening matches and was able to advance easily to the finals.

There he met Roger Federer who was going after his record-tying eighteenth Masters title. But though the former #1 had won the pair's first three championship match meetings, Murray had reversed that momentum in Canada, and kept the flow on his side today. Helped by his opponent's thirty unforced errors, Andy survived some sloppy serving on his side of the net and was able to break serve four times to capture the trophy, his second of the year and at the expense of King Fed.

Not a bad streak to have in your book.

With the win, Andy Murray claimed his sixth Masters trophy, quite a ways behind some of the current greats, but certainly enough to remind us all that he's a force to be reckoned with. And in a year where he's been so unpredictable, there's no better statement to make.

October 16, 2010

The Chance of a Lifetime

It's been over a year since any of the four ladies playing championship matches tomorrow have won a trophy, and boy must they all be hungry. And with just one win standing between them and the opportunity to put themselves back on the map, you can bet we're going to see some fierce fighting on Sunday.

Surprisingly it's the ladies in Japan who have gone the least time without a tournament win. Forty year old Kimiko Date Krumm, a titleist in Seoul last year, will meet thirty-three year old fellow veteran Tamarine Tanasugarn, the 2009 victor in 's-Hertogenbosch will contest the oldest final in Tour history Sunday, proving that age really isn't an issue on the tennis court.

Both have had magnificent runs in Osaka -- the sixth-seeded Date Krumm, ranked #4 in the world nearly fifteen years ago, knocked off French Open finalist Sam Stosur and top-fifteen player Shahar Peer in consecutive matches, while the Thai star survived two three-set matches before dismissing second seeded Marion Bartoli in under two hours. They've played twice before, both times on carpet, and each time took all three sets to decide the outcome -- they've split the wins, but Tanasugarn won the only final they played together.

But something tells me this time might be different.

As the hometown favorite, Kimiko has already used the crowd to her advantage all week, but wins over teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and former #1's Maria Sharapova and Dinara Safina all this year alone, she's more than shown she can still hit with the youngsters. With an impressive 8-6 career record in finals compared to Tamarine's 3-7, she continues to prove she can handle the pressure. And if making history one time this weekend wasn't enough, she has the chance to become the oldest Tour champion ever, trumping Billie Jean King who has held the record since 1983.

On the other side of the world are two women who are going on two-years without that once common championship trophy. In Linz Austria, where Serena Williams had been planning to make her comeback, 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic took her place as a wildcard and stormed through her early rounds, beating Sorana Cirstea and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in just over two hours combined. Meanwhile, thirty-one year old Patty Schnyder took out three seeds -- Klara Zakopalova, Andrea Petkovic and top-seeded Daniela Hantuchova to make her second final of the year.

The pair have split their last eight meetings, but Ivanovic has won the last four, including a straight set win on her way to the '08 French Open trophy. But since then, she's had quite a hard time of things since then, and it's hard to count out Schnyder who, a veteran herself, still wins more matches than she loses on Tour. And making the finals here after that heart-breaking third-round loss at the U.S. Open, it's nice to see her on this side of things. I really don't know who's going to win this match, but the trophy would certainly put a well-deserved end to two very long droughts.

And at this point in all of their careers, they couldn't have asked for a better chance to make an impact.

October 14, 2010

Where'd They Go?

It's that time of year again, when the world's top players are vying for the last few spots at the year-end championships being contested in London at the end of next month. But with just a few events left in 2010, a couple players who started the year with such gusto may have chosen a bad time to fall off the radar.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were the first to make the cut, and Novak Djokovic's run in Beijing last week helped him to the third spot. Andy Murray, who won his third round match against Jeremy Chardy in Shanghai on Wednesday, followed up as number four. If the remaining qualifiers were decided by today's rankings, we'd see a veteran, a resurgent and a newbie fill out the mix -- but things are far from certain.

Fernando Verdasco had a dismal debut in London in 2009 -- he lost all three of his round robin matches -- but thanks to a title in San Jose and a finals appearance in Monte Carlo, he's a stone's throw from qualifying for a second straight year. Unfortunately a winless run in Asia has knocked him back a few spots, and I wouldn't be surprised if he accepted a few wildcard entries just to boost his point total.

In slightly better shape, but still at risk, is American #1 Andy Roddick. He began the year with a 9-0 record, taking the trophy in Brisbane before falling in the quarters in Australia. But he rebounded nicely to make the championship match in three of his next four tournaments, ultimately winning in Miami. These days things are a little more shaky for Roddick -- a second round loss in New York and an injury-caused retirement in Shanghai puts the rest of the year in question. He still plans on returning in Basel next month, but the lack of action could be worrisome for some die-hard fans.

Having just as hard a time of things recently is Tomas Berdych, also at a career high ranking a few spots below Robin. After his breakthrough in Miami and a magnificent run to the finals at the All England Club -- during which he beat both Djokovic and Federer -- the Czech star hasn't put together back-to-back wins since Toronto. He exited the U.S. Open in a straight-set, first-round loss and dropped both his Davis Cup semifinal matches. A good run in Shanghai could have sealed the deal for him, but the seventh seed fell earlier today in straight sets to red-hot Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, a titlist a few weeks back in Bangkok. He'll need to manage the rest of the season well to keep his spot intact.

Two-time French Open runner-up Robin Soderling is probably most assured of making the Tour finals for the second time in his career. The world #5 has been staunchly at his best-ever ranking throughout the summer, helped by quarterfinal runs at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. He's fallen early in a couple recent tournaments, but after exacting revenge for his Beijing loss to David Ferrer in Shanghai, he looks to be reminding us all of his strength. I doubt he'll lose his ticket to London at this rate, but he might want to put together a few more wins -- just to be safe.

But for all these guys it's important not to disappear into the night -- after all there are plenty of others in the wings ready to take their place.

October 11, 2010

Once the Clouds Cleared...

Rain delayed the singles championships at the China Open in Beijing this weekend, forcing both the men's and women's finals to be played Monday. But the matches were certainly worth the wait.

There were plenty of upsets in the men's draw from the get-go. Tomas Berdych and Fernando Verdasco were dropped in their opening matches, while second-seeded Andy Murray and #3 Robin Soderling lost two rounds later. That paved the way for defending champion Novak Djokovic and world #11 David Ferrer to advance to the title round.

I admit I'd almost written of Nole earlier in the year -- even though he'd notched a decent record, after a win in Dubai, he suffered early losses in Miami and Queen's Club and had to retire in the quarters of his home tournament in Belgrade. It wasn't until his magnificent run in New York that I started to take note of him again. Now firmly entrenched in the #2 spot, he qualified for the London championships with his semifinal win in China.

Ferrer has been slightly less on the radar this year, though he's really only had one bad loss -- to triple-digit ranked Stephane Robert in Johannesburg. He made the finals in Rome and Buenos Aires and took the title in Acapulco, and notched wins over Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych at previous tournaments before knocking out Soderling in Beijing.

But asking him to go up against a man on as good a roll as Djokovic is might have been too much. The two got in a couple games on Sunday before the storms rolled in, but Novak got off to an early lead before play was halted. He converted another break when play resumed on Monday and took the first set 6-2. Though play was closer in the second, ultimately the top seeded Serb was able to defend his title in straight sets and improved to 5-4 against Ferrer. It was the second time this year he successfully defended a title.

The ladies' final was slightly more dramatic with the two contenders poised to take their highest ever rankings once the latest rankings are released. Caroline Wozniacki secured her #1 ranking a few days ago when she defeated Petra Kvitova in Beijing while Vera Zvonareva's victory over French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in the quarters, pushed her up to #3. As the top two seeds in China, neither had to pull off any major coups to make the championship round, but pitting them against each other in a rematch of the U.S. Open semis seemed somehow appropriate. Vera had won that one in less than ninety minutes, rebounding nicely after losing to Wozniacki in the Montreal finals just a few weeks earlier.

But this time it was Caro's chance to rebound -- down a break early in the first set, she got back even and rattled off five straight games to take the lead. Though she allowed the Russian to get back in the match in the second set, she got the only break in the third, and held serve the rest of the match to win her sixth title of the year. Not a bad way to wrap up an Asian run in which she captured two straight titles at events where she'd never even won a match before this year.

With all the hype around the year's Grand Slams put to bed, it's nice to see the world's top players put in such big efforts at the remaining tournaments. And for Nole and Caro, it's even more impressive that they can follow through after reaching major milestones in their careers.

And what a great opportunity to really let their talent shine.

October 10, 2010

A Pretty Good Year

Wasn't it just a few months ago that critics were blasting Rafael Nadal's eleven-month title drought, claiming his run among the tennis elite was over?

Oh, how things have changed.

Earlier Sunday, the world #1 captured his seventh trophy of the year when he defeated Gael Monfils at the Japan Open. In his Tokyo debut, Rafa saved two match points in the semis against Victor Troicki, but ultimately battled through Monfils in straight sets, winning in about eighty minutes. And while that makes him the winningest player on Tour in 2010, it only marks the third most prolific yearsince turning pro -- he won eight championships in 2008, when he captured even Olympic gold, and a staggering eleven in 2005, when he was just starting to make a name for himself.

Even still, one could argue that this might be the best year of Rafa's career. Of course, after sweeping the clay court season, he made a more-than-successful return at Wimbledon earlier in the summer and his win in New York earned him a historic Grand Slam last month. He's sealed in the year-end top spot for the second time and was the first to qualify for the London championships next month. And he's won Majors on three different surfaces in the same year -- a feat even long-time rival Roger Federer has not accomplished.

And while his title count might be lower in 2010, that's less a function of his performance on Tour than of his smart scheduling choices, ones that will hopefully keep him off the disabled list for some time. Well rested and even better-trained, Nadal has put together a fantastic 66-8 record this year and hasn't lost before the quarters at any tournament, despite facing some tough opponents even in early rounds. He didn't play a single tournament between Australia and Indian Wells while he recovered from that nagging knee injury, and skipped Barcelona, where he was the five-time defending champion, back in the spring. He only played two hard court events leading up to the U.S. Open, and is actually putting in the most face time on the Asian leg of the Tour.

Rafa heads to China this week where he'll play the Shanghai Masters -- it's the first time all year he's put together three back-to-back events. And though he has a bye in the first round, he'll be forced to get right back to work, facing either Stanislas Wawrinka or a resurgent Gilles Simon in the second round.

Hopefully his body will be able to handle it -- I'd certainly want to see this year end on a high note.

October 6, 2010

One Win Away

We're still a bit away, but Monday could be the dawn of a new era: if Caroline Wozniacki wins her match against Petra Kvitova today in Beijing, she'll become #1 in the world, only the twentieth woman to achieve that feat in the Open Era and supplanting Serena Williams, who's held that spot since last November.

Some might argue that, after the year the Dane has had, it should have happened sooner, but these days no one can say she doesn't deserve it. Sure, Serena has been sidelined with a foot injury since Wimbledon and sister Venus, who played only the U.S. Open in the same period, will skip the rest of the year with a knee injury -- you might think Wozniacki hasn't faced the very best.

But here's a telling statistic: the twenty-year-old has compiled a 4-2 record against top-ten players this year. That compares to a 1-3 mark for Serena, who only beat Victoria Azarenka in Melbourne. She's also won five titles to Williams' two -- albeit, both were Majors. They haven't played each other since the Tour championships last year, though, so a true comparison is nearly impossible, but based solely on performance this year, it's hard to make a case against Caro.

Of course the #1 honor isn't hers quite yet -- the last time she met Kvitova at Wimbledon this year, Wozniacki was smacked, 6-2, 6-0 in just forty-six minutes. She is on a better run these days, though -- four of her trophies have come since that loss in July -- so I have a feeling the one-sidedness might be on the opposite side this time.

Players are so often reluctant to discuss the possibility of climbing to the top spot in the rankings, just as they are to talk about any match further in the future than their next one. But you have to think it's been a goal of Wozniacki's all year -- and it can never have felt so close.

October 3, 2010

From Out of the Ashes

It's been an interesting year for Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. After losing five matches in a row to start the year, the twenty-seven year old Spaniard seemed to be coming into his own during the spring, running over Marin Cilic in Indian Wells, dropping only five games to Lleyton Hewitt in Rome and fighting to the finals in Eastbourne.

But in the last few months, he's been less than impressive. Though he was my pick to make the semifinals at Roland Garros, the barely seeded Garcia-Lopez lost in the second round to Thiemo De Bakker and, other than Eastbourne, only won three matches since. He hadn't beaten a top twenty player since March and fell from a career-high ranking out of the top fifty.

Then he came to Bangkok. In his Thailand debut he faced a tough road from the start. He opened with a straight-set win over eighth seeded Michael Berrer -- his only two-setter the entire tournament. He had to fight much harder against Florent Serra and Ernests Gulbis, but put up his biggest win when he saved twenty-four of twenty-six break points against world #1 Rafael Nadal in the semis -- it was the only time he'd even won a set from his countryman.

In the finals against Finn Jarkko Nieminen, Guillermo had the early lead, but allowed his opponent back in the game after holding the 3-1 advantage in the third set. He stayed strong after squandering a few match points in the tenth game and ultimately closed out the championships almost two hours after the match ended.

It was Garcia-Lopez's second career title -- he'd beaten Julien Benneteau in the Kitzbühel final last year, and certainly a solid victory as he travels to Tokyo this week. Still unseeded at the Japan Open, he faces a potential second round against '09 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro or just-as-intimidating sixth seed Feliciano Lopez. It will certainly be a tough task to repeat his run from Bangkok, but his wins this week should give him an additional boost of confidence when he touches down.

And like the phoenix before him, he might just be able to fly from the ashes of his disappointing summer into a much more successful fall.