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.

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