January 9, 2011

The Princes & The Cinderellas

The first week of tournament play of the new year has certainly yielded some interesting results -- while so many of the top women in the sport fell early in their events making way for a couple fairy tale runs, the men brought their game all week and several of the sport's best advanced all the way to the championship rounds.

The first men's trophy of 2011 went, not surprisingly, to Roger Federer who ousted a resurgent Nikolay Davydenko in Doha. It was the world #2's third title in the desert after a five-year drought but, more importantly, it was his fourth title in his last five tournaments -- his fifth since Wimbledon. If the rest of the field didn't already have reason to fear Fed in Melbourne, they certainly do now.

But some no-less-important statements were made a little further east.

Over in Chennai, India, two-time defending champ Marin Cilic was dismissed early, but most of the other seeds advanced without too much drama. Sixth-ranked Tomas Berdych, who hadn't played very well to end the year, finally put together back-to-back wins again to reach the semifinals where he was eventually dismissed by Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets. In the other half of the draw, a tough Xavier Malisse, who's been climbing his way back after a wrist injury that largely kept him out of contention for the last three years, advanced easily, only dropping one set in the semis to Janko Tipsarevic before making his first final since 2007.

Third-seeded Wawrinka found himself in a deficit early on Sunday, though, down 2-4 in the first set before knocking of wins in five of the next six games to capture the lead. But the Belgian raised his level in the second, winning every one of his first serve points, and only dropping two of his second attempts. He made good on his only break opportunity and was able to force the match into a decider.

But the third was all about the Swiss -- this time it was Wawrinka who displayed the superior serves, ceding only one receiving point to Malisse, and breaking his opponent twice to run off with the championship after more than two hours of play. It was Stan's third career title, and his first on a hardcourt -- certainly a good result as the world #21 tries to make a big mark at the Majors.

A little closer to Melbourne it was the very top seeds that made it to the finals at the Brisbane International. Defending champ Andy Roddick looked to be playing near his prime, surviving tough opponents in fifth seeded Marcos Baghdatis and big-serving Kevin Anderson to make the title match again. Meanwhile Robin Soderling, who'd only dropped serve once in his first four matches made good on his top billing and advanced to his seventeenth career final.

The Swede got off to a good start, breaking Andy early and winning the first set in just over half an hour. Things were tighter in the second, as the American saved a handful of break points early and kept his cool after a scuffle with officials over the rain. Eventually though, serving his sixteenth ace of the match, it was the tournament favorite -- now ranked fourth in the world -- who captured the crown. He won an amazing ninety percent of his first serves during the match and never faced a break point, securing his best-ever seeding at a Grand Slam.

But while the higher seeds lived up to expectations on the men's side, it was anything but for the ladies. In Brisbane none of the top three seeds made it out of the second round and the two eventual finalists took care of numbers four and five in the semis. Unseeded Andrea Petkovic made it through the top half of the draw without losing a set while Petra Kvitova, ranked just two spots below the German, took out big threats including Nadia Petrova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Dominika Cibulkova on the way to her third career final.

The two unlikely opponents had faced each other four times before, splitting their meetings, with Petkovic winning the last two. But Kvitova, a surprise semifinalist at Wimbledon last year, came out firing and broke Andrea in the first game of the match. She took advantage of weak serving from Petkovic -- both actually won more returning points than service points in the first set -- and took the opener in just over half an hour. Petko climbed out of an early hole in the second set, but the twenty-year-old Czech came back roaring and broke right back to close out her title.

And while it was a story of youth in Australia, it was a thirty-one year old veteran who triumphed down in New Zealand. Greta Arn took out three seeds in a row, including 2008 Australian Open champ Maria Sharapova, to make her first final since 2007. She earned the right to meet defending champion Yanina Wickmayer for the title, the only seeded woman to make a final this weekend.

But here again, the results were not to be expected. Arn who wasn't supposed to play in Auckland at all -- she only made it in the main draw after a couple higher-ranked players withdrew and saved five match points against Sophie Arvidsson in the second round -- was the better server all match, winning a much higher percent of her first serves and saving both break points she faced. Wickmayer, who struggled in Tour play at the end of last year, was out-maneuvered by the more experienced Hungarian and failed to defend her title after less than ninety minutes of play.

They were obviously solid wins for all players involved -- the top men re-established themselves as ones to watch Down Under, while some new faces emerged on the women's side as potential spoilers. Of course it's too early to tell how long these Cinderella runs and princely reigns will last, but if the action this week is any indication, we're in for a year of some great and exciting tennis.

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