January 23, 2011

A Different Story

It's often said that real tennis champions always bring their best to the Majors -- Roger, Rafa, Serena even Venus back in the day can all lose match after match at smaller, lead-up tournaments, but somehow they manage to become unstoppable once they hit the courts at the Slams. But a couple performances in Melbourne this past week prove that the same attitude can be seen in other players too.

Flavia Pennetta had once become the first Italian woman to be ranked in the top ten, but over the past year or so she's become much more dominant on the doubles circuit. She lost a couple first rounds in singles late in 2010 and though she defeated Vera Zvonareva a week ago in Sydney, she fell to then-world #77 Bojana Jovanovski the next round in.

But once she arrived in Melbourne, Pennetta turned up the heat -- seeded twenty-second, her lowest in almost three years, she was flawless in her first two rounds and survived a tough Shahar Peer in her third match. She's broken her opponents' serve an intimidating fifteen times and has maintained a solid winner-to-error record. She has never made it to the fourth round here, but with her next match against Petra Kvitova -- a women she's beaten in three of their last four meetings -- she might have earned herself a golden opportunity.

But some players had been a little more in the weeds leading up to this tournament.

Marin Cilic, who'd won two of three tournaments to start off last year and was one of my favorites to close out 2010 at the top of the sport, hadn't put together back-to-back wins since August. The two-time defending champion Chennai not only couldn't reclaim the title earlier in the month, but he lost in the first round.

In Melbourne, though, where he reached the semifinals last year, he's transformed into his old self. He handled Donald Young and a tough Santiago Giraldo to open, and took big-serving John Isner to 9-7 in the fifth set, serving twenty-two aces and three times as many winners. He's got a fourth round date with top-seeded Rafael Nadal, who he beat in their only other meeting. It certainly won't be a walk in the park, but if he's in better shape than the flu-plagued champion, he might be able to pounce again.

Francesca Schiavone has tasted victory, of course, thanks to her unlikely run to the title in Paris almost a year ago. But since then she's struggled to really shine, beating a top ten player only once and having her Roland Garros win over Sam Stosur summarily avenged in Doha. At twenty-nine years of age, I'm not sure anyone gave her a chance in Melbourne.

Of course, Schiavone is the #6 seed, and so hasn't faced the most formidable of opponents -- she was even pushed to three sets in her first two match-ups and needed sixteen games in the decider against Rebecca Marino to get the win. It wasn't until her fourth round against 2009 French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova that we saw the kind of mettle that makes her a champions. Saving six match points she emerged the winner in the longest women's match ever at the Australian Open -- four and three-quarters hours -- and made her first ever quarterfinal here. Of course, facing world #1 Caroline Wozniacki won't be easy if she's at all worn out, but Francesca has certainly shown he can hang in against all the odds.

Tomas Berdych had also been struggling since his break-out last year. His amazing run in Miami was topped only by his stellar showing at Wimbledon, where he dismissed Roger Federer in the quarters. But though the Czech is at a career-high ranking, he's only won a handful of matches since the second half of last year, even notching a first round loss at the U.S. Open.

But Berdych seems reinvigorated in Melbourne. He rebounded from a set down against Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second round, and stayed tough against Richard Gasquet a match later. I have to admit I didn't know what to expect when he faced off against similarly struggling Fernando Verdasco on Sunday -- he just barely leads the career head-to-head, 6-4. But Tomas was surprisingly clean, committing only eight unforced errors while winning every one of his net approaches. I would never have guessed the match would be so one-sided, but after less than two hours, Berdych had earned the right to meet Novak Djokovic in the quarters. He's actually won their only meeting at a Major -- last year at the All England Club -- so you know he's got what it takes to give the former champ some trouble.

It's nice to see these guys, some seasoned veterans, others still-emerging talent, up their game when they get to the big leagues, and it certainly shows how much damage they can cause to their opponents during a fortnight. There are still a couple of even tougher matches left for them to win, but if they keep their fortitude, any of them just might be around come next weekend.

No comments: