November 28, 2010


It's somewhat fitting that the World Tour Final championship has the initials it does -- so often in recent years the one to hoist the year-end tournament trophy over his head may not have been the one who's had the most successful year in the pros. That may be true this year as well, but that doesn't make Roger Federer's three set victory over long-time rival Rafael Nadal any less meaningful.

It had been an up-and-down year for the former world #1 and four-time winner of the Barclays event. Though he began by winning the Australian Open in fairly routine fashion, he had some interesting results after that. He lost early in Indian Wells to Marcos Baghdatis and then again in Miami to rising star Tomas Berdych. His twenty-three straight Major semi streak came to a crashing halt at the French Open and he failed to defend his Wimbledon crown with another quarterfinal loss. And, of course, a classic match against Novak Djokovic in New York kept him out of the U.S. Open finals -- making this his least successful Grand Slam year since 2003.

So that's the down part.

Since New York, however, it's been a straight line up -- Roger made the finals in Shanghai and then won titles in Stockholm and Basel. A semifinal run at the Paris Masters brought him to 16-2 during his fall season, not bad for a man who had been only 44-11 for the first nine months of the year. He came to London with a satchel full of momentum that it didn't seem anyone could stop.

Rightly so, it ended up being Rafael Nadal who would try to stop him. Nadal's year has been almost a mirror image of Fed's, beginning with a retirement in the Melbourne quarters and a drop out of the top three, but followed by a perfect clay court season, successful reclamation of titles at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and a miraculous run to the trophy in New York. Seven titles, three Slams, and only one finish earlier than a quarterfinal helped him lock in the year-end #1 for the second time in his career. After surviving a tough match on Saturday, Nadal had more than earned the right to play in his first ever World Tour Final.

Now when you look at the head-to-head record for these two men, you might think Nadal had the advantage. He had, after all, won fourteen of the pair's twenty-one meetings. He'd won six of their last seven matches, all in the last three years, and even held a respectable three-all score on hardcourts. Still I, and many of the commentators during today's final, gave Roger the edge.

He needed it more.

Nearing thirty years of age, and coming off such a roller coaster of a year, ending 2010 with a win in London would do loads for his confidence, loads for the future of his career. And from the start of the match, Federer played like he knew just what was on the line. He opened the match by holding at love, won every one of his first serve points in the first set, and converted a break point at 4-3 for the chance to serve out the opener. Nadal got and held on to the early lead in the second, but as true champions must, Roger raised his level of play in the decider, allowing only five points on his serve and breaking Rafa twice to seal up the win in short order.

Federer may not have put together the best year on Tour, but the way he's played in the past weeks proves that, not only does he deserve this title, but that he doesn't plan on going anywhere in the New Year. And if you're a little upset about the outcome of today's match -- as I, admittedly, am a bit -- both men's play shows something else.

We're sure to see a lot more of their always-inspiring battles in the year(s) to come.

November 26, 2010

The Final Four

Well it sure has been a crazy year, hasn't it?

So many upsets, so many shockers, so many surprises.

But here we are, with only two days left of pro Tour action, and suddenly everything seems right with the world. After six days of battling through the toughest opponents in the game, the four men left standing at the World Tour Finals are those who've been the most prolific champions in the past few years.

The first semi match on Saturday pits two men against each other who, despite their impressive resumés, have never reached the finals at the year-end championships. World #1 Rafael Nadal will face Andy Murray, a man who's beaten him in two of the three matches they've played this year. The Brit is clearly more comfortable on this surface and has the support of his hometown crowd, but Nadal has been unstoppable in his last three matches, more than making up for his dismal performance in London last year. It should be an exciting match, as so many of the match-ups between these two are, and while Murray might be the favorite given the circumstances, Rafa has a bit of a motivating factor that you just cannot ignore.

Four-time champion Roger Federer might just be waiting in the finals, but he still has a semi of his own to win. After sweeping his three round robin matches he returns to the final four for the eighth time in his career. He'll meet 2008 champ Novak Djokovic in the battle of former winners, both trying to regain glory. Of course Roger has the head-to-head edge over the Serb, but Nole does have that one amazing win at the U.S. Open to give him some hope. And while I'm sure the fans are hoping he doesn't again prevent the match everyone wants to see, you certainly can't count him out.

With fifteen titles between them this year, it's hard to argue that anyone else should be playing these last few matches of the year, so it's certainly nice to see all their hard work pay off. As for who stands the best chance of winning the whole thing, well you probably have to give the odds to the men who've been there before -- but I sure have learned better than to count anybody out!

November 22, 2010

Off and Running

With two days of play in the books, everyone's had a chance to get their feet wet in London, and while we haven't had any major surprises yet, there sure has been some excitement.

Andy Murray was the first out the gate for Group B and, looking dapper in argyle, he downed higher-seeded Robin Soderling in straight sets. Admittedly, I'd expected a bigger fight from the recent Masters winner, but the Brit was quick to show he would not be easily pushed aside. A semifinalist at the World Tour Championships in 2008, he's looking to do even better this year, and if his fairly one-sided, hour-long win is any indication, his chances are good.

Of course, he's in the same group as four-time winner Roger Federer, who was equally impressive in his opening round robin -- he only dropped five games against David Ferrer to extend his record against the Spaniard to 11-0. And though Fed is probably the favorite to win the whole thing, when he meets Murray on Tuesday, you know there will be sparks flying.

In the other half of the draw, Novak Djokovic kicked of Group A action by displaying some of the magic that got him to the finals of this year's U.S. Open. He withstood seven aces from first-time finalist Tomas Berdych and didn't allow a single break opportunity in their ninety minutes of play. He capitalized on weak second serving and pushed the Wimbledon finalist to 3-10 since New York. Djokovic is clearly taking advantage of his comfort on the hardcourts of London.

The only man -- well, the only favorite -- who's had any trouble in his opener was top seeded Rafael Nadal. After losing all three of his round robins last year in London, he was certainly out for revenge this year. Against Andy Roddick, a man who has a decent record against the world #1 on the surface, he found himself down a set early before evening the score with a second set breaker. He spent more than two and a half hours on the court before getting the win, and though he's not technically in a hole yet, he might have a tougher time than we originally anticipated.

Sure, we've only really just begun to see these men fight for the championship, so anything still can happen. But if these early matches have shown us anything, it's that the favorites are out and fighting, and that maybe a couple underdogs might be able to squeak through.

November 18, 2010

Eight Men Standing

At this point in time, there are eight men still in contention for the year-end championship. Most have been here before, some are making a return, and one is stepping into unchartered territory.

But in just over a week there will be only one left holding the trophy, and he'll have fought through a barrage of power in order to claim it. Only two of the men in London have won the title before, and last year's champion, Nikolay Davydenko, won't be back to defend, so things really could get interesting. Of course there are clear favorites, but if we've learned anything this year, it's that no one is safe.

So let's see how it may all shake out.

Andy Roddick
2010 titles: 2
Championships played: 5
Championships record: 8-8
Win % against Round Robin opponents: 60.9%

Roddick has qualified for the year-end tournament for the eighth straight year and has made the semis here three times. But as the last man to book his ticket to London, the lone American in the field may have a stuggle ahead of him. The most successful part of his year came in the winter when he won two titles and made another two finals, but he's only made a handful of semis since then.

But all is not lost -- grouped with world #1 Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych for the round robins, he stands a solid chance in the early rounds. Roddick has a combined 14-9 history against those opponents -- one of the best percentages among the eight -- and a winning record against all but Nadal. Still, early losses in this year's Majors and a couple of nagging injuries keep the question marks beside his name. At this point, I'm just hoping for a solid showing -- that he holds down the fort until the next generation of U.S. athletes is ready to make their mark.

David Ferrer
2010 titles: 2
Championships played: 1
Championships record: 4-1
Win % against Round Robin opponents: 26.9%

Ferrer is making a return to the championships, qualifying for the first time since making the title match in 2007, and he really put in quite a valiant effort this year. Trophies in Acapulco and Valencia coupled with three more second place finishes helped him chop his ranking to #7, his best in over two years. He's also notched wins over players like Fernando Verdasco, Andy Murray and Robin Soderling along the way.

Of course his best surface continues to be the clay and he might have a tougher time on London's hardcourts. He'll be pitted against Murray, Soderling and Roger Federer in his early rounds and, recent wins notwithstanding, he still holds a 7-19 record against them. He's also lost all ten of the matches he's played against Roger -- the only pairing in the field where the challenger has never beaten his rival. Ferrer's record against potential Group A opponents is better -- he's won a respectable 43% of those matches -- but he's going to have to get there first.

Tomas Berdych
2010 titles: None
Championships played: Zero
Championships record: N/A
Win % against Round Robin opponents: 26.1%

Making his ATP Championships debut, Wimbledon finalist Berdych could very well be overwhelmed by his settings. He's the only competitor who hasn't won a title this year. His 6-17 career mark against his Group-mates is the lowest of the contenders, and his record against the entire field is only slightly better.

The Czech superstar may also be suffering a bit of a hangover after his solid spring. Though he sits at his highest career ranking, he's also been slowing down a bit, winning just a handful of matches in the second half of the year. He's been upset by the likes of Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Michael Berrer and world #72 Tobias Kamke, all in early round matches. I'm sure he'll do his best to turn momentum back in his direction, but I fear his virgin experience in London might be just that -- an experience.

Andy Murray
2010 titles: 2
Championships played: 2
Championships record: 5-2
Win % against Round Robin opponents: 52.4%

This is where we start to get serious. A semifinalist in 2008, Murray is making his third appearance in London and is the hometown favorite. Though he crashed out of the Australian Open final in January, he's won two Masters titles in the last four months, beating Federer for both those crowns.

Murray has a solid record against his round robin group, oddly only having a losing head-to-head against Ferrer -- his three losses, though, all came on clay. And with Robin Soderling, the man who just usurped his #4 ranking, among his early matches, I expect him to display fireworks from the start. Given his more stacked bracket, getting back to the semis will be hard, but it should definitely be exciting.

Robin Soderling
2010 titles: 2
Championships played: 1
Championships record: 2-2
Win % against Round Robin opponents: 35.5%

The man who just overtook Murray to climb into the top four for the first time in his career has made it to the Tour finals for the second straight year. Soderling began the year with a title in Rotterdam and ended it with his maiden Masters in Paris. He repeated as runner-up at the French Open and racked up five solid wins over top ten players over the year.

Soderling has a decent history against his opponents in London, with overall losing records only against the players ranked higher than him. But, a point in his favor, he defeated both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic en route to the semis here last year, and he's only now playing at the top of his game. Ranked higher than Murray, the Swede is the on-paper favorite to make the final four, an he could really make this group one to watch.

Novak Djokovic
2010 titles: 2
Championships played: 3
Championships record: 6-5
Win % against Round Robin opponents: 36.4%

U.S. Open runner-up Djokovic won the championships back in 2008, but failed to make it out of the round robins last year. He's looking renewed in 2010, following up his New York run with a title in Beijing and a semi in Basel. Ranked #2 for several weeks during the year, he's a legitimate force at the championships -- after all, he's done it before.

Unfortunately for Nole, he has a pretty dismal record against his early round opponents. Roddick and Rafa have both beaten him twice as often as they've lost and he only leads Berdych 3-1. He's fifty-fifty against the Group B men, but like Ferrer, he'll have a hell of a fight to get there. That said, the Djok-er is playing in top form again, and we've watched him beat all of these guys more than once. Making a statement here would sure get people talking about him come Australia.

Roger Federer
2010 titles: 4
Championships played: 8
Championships record: 29-7
Win % against Round Robin opponents: 76.3%

Federer is the only other man in the field who has won the year-end championship, and boy has he won it! The four-time titleist has amassed a more-than-intimidating record at this tournament, and has made three runs to the trophy without dropping a match. By far the most experienced champion of this bunch, he's only been stopped in the round robins once in eight appearances.

But Roger arguably is in the tougher Group this year -- Soderling has put up a fight against him more than a few times and Murray even has a winning record against the King. He's also seen defeat at the hand of some new foes in recent months -- Berdych in Miami, Marcos Baghdatis in Indian Wells, Gael Monfils in Paris. Still, three years having passed since his last year-end trophy, he's going to be hungry to reclaim the crown.

Rafael Nadal
2010 titles: 7
Championships played: 3
Championships record: 4-7
Win % against Round Robin opponents: 68.3%

Of the many titles Rafael Nadal has won, he's never seen the most success at the Tour finals. Having gone 0-3 last year, he hasn't even had a winning record in any of his three appearances. Of course, 2010 has been a breakout year of sorts for him -- he clawed back to the #1 ranking, he reclaimed championships at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, he won the career Grand Slam, all after various injuries caused many to write him off completely. And in the sixteen events he's played this year, he's only failed to make the quarterfinals once.

He has a solid record against his fellow contenders in London, winning more than 69% of his matches against the rest of the field. And that stat comes in a long history against these opponents -- he's played the other seven guys a staggering ninety-five times during his career, second only to Federer, who's been pro three years longer. Of course, Rafa could fall victim to the London hardcourts -- though he's improved his win percentage on the surface this year, all of his losses to his Group-mates have come on the concrete, and only against Berdych is he even on the surface. Now we've learned you can never count out Rafa, but if anyone has a chance against him, this is it.

Each of these guys have different prospects in London, and different goals -- for some this is one last shot for glory, while for others their careers are really just getting started. Some will undoubtedly be heavy favorites, while others will have to struggle a bit from the start.

But whatever the circumstances, all these guys have certainly earned the right to fight for the trophy this year. And whoever is left standing at the end will clearly deserve his reward.

November 14, 2010

At a New Level

It's no question that Robin Soderling has climbed his way into the tennis elite over the past eighteen months.

Twice a finalist at the French Open, he's steadily climbed up the rankings and has been firmly entrenched in the top ten all year long. Still, despite the fact that he's proven his ability against the biggest talents in the sport -- he's beaten Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray all this year -- his five titles to date had all been at second-tier tournaments, and he'd failed to reach even the finals of a Masters event.

But this past week in Paris, the twenty-six year old Swede had a breakthrough. As the fourth seed he was certainly one of the favorites, and he had most of his major obstacles eliminated for him -- Michael Llodra took care of Nikolay Davydenko and Novak Djokovic for him while, in the other half of the draw, Gael Monfils did the same to Murray and Federer. But that didn't mean his performance was any less impressive. He hadn't lost a set on the way to the semifinals and rebounded after dropping a tight first set to Llodra on Saturday.

For his part, Monfils put up quite a show himself on the way to the finals. Fresh off a win in Montpellier, the French #2 beat three favored opponents in a row to reach his fourth championship match of the year. But his nearly three hour marathon against Federer on Saturday might have worn him down somewhat -- he lost serve twice in the first set while Soderling won sixty-five percent of the total points. Monfils raised his level a bit in the second, but Robin stayed stronger, ultimately winning in a decisive tiebreak and earning the right to hoist his first ever Masters trophy.

The win couldn't have come at a better time for the newly appointed world #4. With the year-end championships in London getting underway in just a week, Soderling made a solid statement at the last Tour event of the year -- he's clearly capable of winning the big titles and I wouldn't be surprised if a major one came soon. So if the seven men who'll be waiting for him at the O2 Arena -- most of whom have a couple of Masters titles to their own names -- didn't already fear him, they certainly have a reason to now.

November 11, 2010

Nothing to Lose

I realize that most of my posts lately have been centered around last ditch efforts by the men to qualify for their year-end championships in London, but since the field was locked in earlier today, it's probably time to focus on a few others.

Last year's champ at the ATP finals, Nikolay Davydenko hasn't played a lot this year, and he's won even less. Though he precariously holds on to his #11 ranking, that will quickly change when he sheds the points he won here in 2009 -- after beating both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer during his Doha title run, he's only compiled a 23-18 record on the year and hasn't even played someone in the top ten since January.

But though his hopes of title defense are long gone, he's certainly not giving up on the year. In Paris he pounded a tough Thomaz Bellucci in less than an hour, losing only three service points in the second set, and earlier today he rebounded after finding himself behind first-time London qualifier Tomas Berdych and won the match with a bagel in the third set. The win got him back into the quarters of the tournament he won in 2006 -- his first Masters title -- and reminded us of the talent that I sure hope we get to see more of next year.

Montpellier titleist Gael Monfils has shown sporadic bursts of that same talent, often concerned more with entertaining or just plain showing off for the crowd than with actually winning a match. Still he's spent most of the last two years among the top twenty men in the world, and is inching ever closer to that final eight.

He missed it again this year, but he sure is playing like he still has a chance. After squeaking by Benjamin Becker in his Paris opener -- the qualifier led by two breaks in the first set -- he downed London hopeful Fernando Verdasco while he was trailing by a set and a break. The runner-up in 2009 will have a hard time repeating that run, but if he comes close we might start to take the jokester a little more seriously.

But the man really giving his all in Paris this week is a different hometown hero whose name hasn't ever entered the London discussion. World #34 Michael Llodra is just a shade off his career high ranking and is probably best known for crashing into a ballgirl last year at Wimbledon. And though he has five titles to his name -- two, in fact, this year -- at thirty years of age he's probably past his tennis prime.

But this week he played a solid first round against Potito Starace and actually out-aced John Isner in the second round. Earlier today he survived a tight tiebreak in the first set before rolling through the second against defending champion Novak Djokovic. It was his third win against a top ten player this year, but probably his most impressive, and helped him to what's easily his best performance at a Masters event. While it's too late to dream of making a London push, Llodra has certainly given the French Davis Cup coach a reason to reconsider his options for that final.

It's not unusual to see players put up their best performances when all the pressure is off -- when you have nothing on the line, it's a lot easier to go for broke. And though plenty of big hitters still remain in the Paris field, making it difficult to dub any of these guys a trophy favorite quite yet, they sure have given us all something to think about -- and a couple of people something to fear.

November 8, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Paris

When I went on vacation a week ago there were three spots left for the men's year-end championship. Today, they're all still available, and while no one has locked anything in, things do look a little different now.

Tomas Berdych still leads the field, but a first round loss in Basel allowed David Ferrer, who won in his hometown of Valencia, to jump a spot and narrow gap between them. Andy Roddick, a semifinalist in Switzerland, clung to eighth place, the last possible entry to London, while Fernando Verdasco, who's won only a single match since the U.S. Open, is only a few spots behind him. The barely five hundred points that separate these four guys -- and the one thousand that differentiate current #6 from #11 -- make this week's action in Paris all the more important.

The remaining contenders all received byes in the first round of the BNP Masters and so will begin their final campaigns in the next few days. And while no one's fate is certain, I feel like the momentum might have shifted a bit. Berdych, of course, started the year with a bang -- the winner here in 2005 had a stellar run to the Miami finals before making his Grand Slam championship match debut. But though he's at his highest career ranking, he has won barely a handful of matches since that All England Club feat. Facing an opening round against Florent Serra, a man who took him to three sets in Indian Wells, I fear for his immediate future.

Roddick's prospects, too, worry me a bit. Though he was solid in Switzerland, he might have some trouble against his first opponent in Paris -- Jarkko Nieminen has cut his ranking from triple digits in January to #39 in the world now. If he does survive that test, he could take on an even tougher opponent in Mikhail Youzhny, a finalist a few weeks back in St. Petersburg. Currently tenth in the race for London, the Russian could lock in his spot with a run to the finals, and though he withdrew from Valencia, the rest he got for his sore back might be just what the doctor ordered.

Ferrer might be able to harness the momentum from his win in Valencia to secure his own spot at the championships. The Spaniard takes on qualifier Fabio Fognini, who he's beaten in their last two meetings, in Paris, and as long as exhaustion doesn't set in, I like his chances. But he could face a big threat from Jurgen Melzer in his quarter of the BNP draw -- the repeat winner in Vienna needs to win the whole enchilada to earn his entreé to London, but it's not out of the question. Melzer did win their last meeting at Roland Garros just this year.

And while I would love to see Verdasco rally for a big win here -- he has a chance if he makes the semis -- the possibility of a third round meeting with Gael Monfils, who won the title in Montpellier just over a week ago, might not go the way I hope. All is not lost, though -- with a chance to redeem himself after a somewhat dismal performance in London last year, he has the motivation and the talent to make his second appearance at the championships.

There are only a few days left, though, so time is running out. And there is the possibility that we see a very unusual field fighting it out for the year-end trophy. But that's what makes the sport so exciting, and with a new year looming, there's no better way to end this one.

A New Era

A quick look at the record books in Fed Cup history shows a slew of American power. The U.S. leads all in number of titles (seventeen), most consecutive titles (seven, from 1976 to 1982), tie wins, rubber wins, and on and on. But if you look at what's happened the past couple years, things are a little different.

Italy has played in the championships for five straight years and won three of those titles, including successfully defending this past weekend in the finals held in San Diego. The ladies from Europe took on the United States for a second year in a row and, though they ceded one rubber this time, they came away victorious yet again.

Of course you could argue that the Americans didn't send their A-team to California -- both Serena and Venus Williams had to bow out and Melanie Oudin, once considered the country's greatest prospect for the future, has since fallen out of the top fifty and wasn't even the highest ranked singles player on this year's squad.

But you still can't ignore how much the Italians have improved. Francesca Schiavone made a huge mark for the country, of course, when she became the first woman from the peninsula to not only make a Grand Slam final, but to also win one back in Paris. And though Flavia Pennetta beat her countrywoman into the top ten of the sport last year, her bigger accomplishment might have been her ascent to become half of the top-ranked doubles team in the world -- she and Argentine Gisela Dulko have won seven titles this year, including the year-end championships in Doha. Flavia and Francesca each took wins in their first two singles rubbers this past weekend, and Pennetta sealed the victory when she defeated CoCo Vandeweghe in the fourth. With a 3-1 lead -- Oudin was able to defeat Schiavone on Sunday -- the doubles round was skipped, and the Italian ladies hoisted the Fed Cup trophy again.

It might be hard to count the four women who played this weekend -- Schiavone and Pennetta were joined by Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci -- as the most consistent threats on Tour, but with the highest ranks of women's tennis so diverse it's hard to pick any other country that could possibly have won this prize. And though we may not have officially entered a period of total Italian domination on the tennis courts, it sure looks like the tide is turning in that direction.

And as for any country that wants to beat them next year, well she'll really have to bring her best to the table.

Bali High

Well it sure has been an interesting year for Ana Ivanovic.

After a second round loss at the Australian Open and a failure to come even close to repeating her run to the Indian Wells finals, the former world #1 dropped out of the top fifty for the first time in about five years. She had more than a couple public meltdowns on court, openly sobbing when she lost matches and seemed to lose some of the spunk that helped her win the 2008 French Open.

But a switch seemed to flip in the Serb sometime around the spring. She made a solid run to the semis in Rome, beating three seeded players along the way. She then followed up on two of those wins by downing Victoria Azarenka in Cincinnati and Elena Dementieva in Beijing before finally claiming the trophy in Linz, her first in two years.

Her efforts earned her an entry to the Tournament of Champions in Bali. Sort of a consolation prize for those who didn't quite qualify for the year-end championships in Doha, the event this year pitted six ladies who'd won crowns this year against a couple of wildcards who'd shown their strengths all year long. World #11 and Australian Open semifinalist Na Li and last year's titleist Aravane Rezai claimed the top two seeds, but it was the four unseeded players who made it to the final four. Ana faced off against veteran Kimiko Date Krumm while wildcard Daniela Hantuchova met Alisa Kleybanova.

In probably the closest match of the tournament, Ivanovic survived a nail-biter against Kimiko -- though she barely got half of her first serves in during the opening set, she won seventy-five percent of those attempts and finally scored a late break to get the early lead. She lost the second in a tiebreak, but didn't allow her opponent to get a look in the decider, winning all but four points on her own serve and securing her spot in the finals after nearly two-and-a-half hours of play.

There Ana met Kleybanova who had had a much easier time with Hantuchova in her semi, dropping only four games in the hour or so they played. The two had split their previous six meetings, though Ivanovic had beaten the Seoul and Kuala Lumpur champion in their two most recent bouts. In the final, just a day after her twenty-third birthday, Ivanovic got off to a good start, converting on two of her four break chances to get out ahead. Though the scoreline stayed a bit closer in the second, she raised the level of her serving, firing off six aces and ultimately winning, 7-5 in the breaker.

The win not only grants Ivanovic her second title of the year -- the most prolific she's been since that breakout year in 2008 -- but it gets her back in the top twenty. As of this morning, she's ranked seventeenth in the world, ahead of Rezai and Grand Slam champions Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Not a bad place to end a year which started off so shakily. With the momentum she's gained over the past month, and now well back into seeding territory, Ivanovic might even be a legitimate contender in Melbourne. She's made the finals there before and has shown that she's still able to beat some of the big guns -- with a few months off, who knows how much stronger she can get?

After all, she might not quite be at the top of her game, but she sure seems to be heading that way.

November 1, 2010

A Quick Shout Out

I know most of the attention over the weekend was being paid to the women's championships in Doha, but I just wanted to take a minute to congratulate the men who put up just as good a fight in their respective tournaments over the last several days. And as I've pointed out, some of the men were a bit surprising.

Though the ultimate result at the Bank Austria tournament wasn't such a surprise -- defending champion and world #12 Jurgen Melzer successfully reclaimed the title -- his opponent in the final got there under some interesting circumstances. Twenty-three year old Andreas Haider-Maurer had only one a single Tour-level match all year, but made a bit of a name for himself when he took two-time French Open finalist Robin Soderling to five sets in New York. Still, ranked only 157th in the world, he had to fight through the qualifying rounds and then wait for Ernests Gulbis to pull out of the main draw before earning entrée -- he'd actually retired from his last match in the qualies against Marsel Ilhan.

But something came over the Austrian when he hit the big boys' bracket. Pitted against veteran Thomas Muster in the first round, he was surprisingly unphased, beating the decorated champion in straight sets. He followed that up with a two-set, hundred-minute drubbing of second seeded Marin Cilic in the quarters and split the first two sets in tiebreaks to Melzer before ultimately losing the nearly three hour final. In addition to the $75,000 prize money he earned for the feat -- the purse more than doubled his year-to-date earnings -- he jumped forty two spots in the rankings and certainly put his name on the map as a real spoiler. Not bad for a week's work.

Over in St. Petersburg the top seed didn't fair quite as well in the finals. Mikhail Youzhny, the champion in 2004, was trying to caputre his third title of the year, but he was tested at almost every step along the way. He was down sets to both qualifier Evgeny Donskoy and eighth seed Victor Hanescu and saved several match points against a resurgent Dmitry Tursunov for the right to play Sunday.

Meanwhile his opponent, world #88 Mikhail Kukushkin, had a relatively easier time. After a tight first set against Jeremy Chardy in the first round he only dropped one game in the next two. He survived tests from Teymuraz Gabashvili and Janko Tipsarevic and eventually made his way to his first career final. And though he had been demolished in their only previous meeting, winning only three games in the 2009 Moscow semis, he virtually turned the tables this time around. Though he lagged top-ten Youzhny in first serve points and lost his own games twice, Kukushkin was able to break back four times and claimed his first trophy in his very first try.

With a far less impressive record is Gael Monfils who, despite his long run among the sport's top stars, had only won two titles in eleven final appearances. Admittedly after two tough rounds in a row -- he went three sets against both John Isner and countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Montpellier last week -- I didn't give him much of a chance against a relatively better-rested Ivan Ljubicic, a man with ten career crowns and one amazing run in Indian Wells this past March.

But Monfils surprised me in the championship match. Known more as a showman than an athlete who can actually perform under pressure, he finally showed the mental toughness he needs to win the big events -- up a set and a break, he allowed the thirty-one year old Ljubicic to even the score, but kept his service game strong and never allowed the Croat to get back in the match. In less than two hours he'd claimed the title, his second in his native country, and certainly showed that, if he keeps the antics to a minimum, he might be a real force.

A couple surprises and a couple surprise finalists this weekend, but some solid performances across the board. It's always nice to see that push so late in the season and it sure will be fun to watch them keep it up next year.