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.

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