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.

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