February 27, 2011

The Drought Is Over

It's been a long slog back from injury for former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro.

After making the fourth round of the Australian Open last year, he missed most of the season and couldn't grab a set when he returned in the fall. Though he finally began winning this year, it wasn't until he hit the hard courts of San Jose that we finally began seeing signs of his former self. Having lost all his points from Melbourne, the tall Argentine was ranked just inside the top five hundred, but powered through a tough draw, even taking out Lleyton Hewitt in the quarters before falling the next round. A week later in Memphis, DelPo took out last year's runner-up John Isner on his way to the semis for a second straight week. But this week in Delray Beach Juan Martin finally hit his stride. Facing one big server after another, he didn't drop a set against Kevin Anderson or Mardy Fish, and finally earned his first championship match since September, 2009.

There he faced an inspired Janko Tipsarevic. The talented Serb joined his country in their first Davis Cup win last December and was on the verge of defeating Fernando Verdasco in the second round in Melbourne. But though he's shown promise throughout his career, he hasn't won a title in his two final appearances, so you knew he'd be going for broke in Florida. He survived two challenges in the early rounds, but eventually got through a tough Ivan Dodig and a resurgent Kei Nishikori to play for the trophy. And despite his record and relative inexperience, you had to think he had a good shot at it.

Del Potro had played all his previous matches in the evening, under much cooler conditions, and finished his semi around eleven the previous night. He looked tired, physically and mentally, and moved without purpose most of Sunday -- it wasn't surprising when he found himself down a break early. But something switched on in the sixth game of the first set. Serving at 1-4, the six-foot-six found the talent that won him seven previous titles in two years. He won five games in a row to take the lead and broke again in the fifth game of the second set. Though he was outplayed for most of the match, he stayed ever so slightly tougher at the crucial moments and finally came away with the win -- his first since that breakthrough in New York over a year ago.

It kind makes you wonder just what 2010 would have looked like had Del Potro been a factor. Though the Argentine is far from playing at the top of his game, you got glimpses of that innate talent throughout today's final. Had be been in form last year, things might well have been vastly different now. DelPo had, after all, finally gotten the better of Roger Federer and had never lost to greats like Rafael Nadal and -- at that time -- Andy Roddick. And though it will surely be a while before he's back in that kind of shape, it does look like the tables are turning back in his favor.

And as they say, when it starts to rain, it really does pour.

February 26, 2011

The Birth of New Rivalries

Now don't get me wrong -- as long as they're still active the most exciting horse races of the current generation of tennis players will still be between Roger and Rafa on the men's side, and probably Serena and Venus and maybe Kim for the women. But as new stars emerge and as veterans begin to really hit their stride, we're starting to see repeated dogfights between some different names.

It's no surprise, of course, that Roger Federer still keeps his own name in the mix. But over the last couple months his biggest foil has become Novak Djokovic, who is quickly narrowing the gap in their head-to-head. The two met five times in 2010, and though Federer took four of those matches with relative ease, Djokovic did claim the impressive five set victory at the U.S. Open semis. He followed it up with another, much easier win last month, this time on route to the title in Melbourne.

When they came to Dubai this week as the first and second seeds, Roger still led their career history by a margin of 13-7, and despite the most recent loss he had to feel he had the advantage. He only lost serve twice in his first four matches, never dropping a set on the way to the finals. Nole, on the other hand, had a bit of a hiccup in his second round against Feliciano Lopez and survived what he deemed a "catastrophic" semi against Tomas Berdych.

But for the championship, it was a different story. The Serb broke his opponent's early and never looked back. He earned himself first set points in the ninth game, on Roger's serve, coming up with some beautiful shots and taking advantage of Federer's errors to gain the lead. He ceded a break early in the second and found himself down 2-3 before rattling off a string of four game wins to capture the title for the third year in a row and bring his record to 12-0 on the year. Now having won three matches against the Swiss on some of the biggest stages, Djokovic certainly seems to be creating the next great rivalry in the sport.

The ladies were just as impressive in Doha this week. Playing on the same courts that hosted the year-end championships just a few months ago, it's no surprise that the top two seeds made it through this draw as well. World #1 Caroline Wozniacki dropped only nine games on her way to her second final in as many weeks, easily handling tough opponents like Nadia Petrova, Flavia Pennetta and Marion Bartoli. Vera Zvonareva, like Djokovic, struggled a bit more, coming back from 3-5 in the third against Daniela Hantuchova in the quarters and handing Jelena Jankovic the middle set in the semis.

These two have become more than familiar with each other over the past year, also meeting five times in 2010 and always in the last two rounds of a tournament. Wozniacki leads the head-to-head by the narrowest of margins, 4-3, but Vera had bragging rights at the Majors, dismantling her tired rival in New York and denying the Dane a second straight appearance at the U.S. Open's championship match.

Today's final was better contested than the scoreline might suggest. With three straight breaks of serve to open the match, Zvonareva took the early lead and stayed strong when it mattered. She won only one more point than her opponent, but was more aggressive on Wozniacki's second serve and employed smart angles and clever drop shots to take the set. She lost serve to begin the second but immediately broke back and came out the winner of a long fifth game, after which Caroline never recovered. Vera drew errors from her opponent, seeming to really get under the skin of the usually collected Wozniacki, and finished off the set actually winning more return points than she did on her own serve.

With the match Zvonareva not only drew even with the top woman in the sport, but she earned her first trophy in over a year, putting herself on a nice course going into the big U.S. hard court season. And it certainly gives me hope that she might be able to improve on her stellar performance from last year.

With these guys and gals playing as well as they are -- win or lose -- it looks like there's a lot of fight left in all of them, and that means they're sure to meet again and again. Who knows what their head-to-head records will look like at the end of the day, but I'm confident it will be a lot of fun watching them all fight it out.

February 24, 2011

Southern Charm

It's an interesting cast of characters that made its way down to picturesque Delray Beach this year. Maybe it's the warm sun or the beautiful shores that attracted them -- or maybe it's the opportunity they saw to capture all our hearts.

After all, defending champion Ernest Gulbis elected to forego the tournament in favor of Dubai and top seeded Andy Roddick pulled out with the flu. Couple that with early exits by Sam Querrey adn John Isner, and you have the exact recipe for some unexpected players to make a statement in this Southern town.

Sure second seed and 2009 winner Mardy Fish is still looking strong while Ivan Dodig and Kevin Anderson, both of whom won their first career titles earlier this year, are still in the mix. But I've got my eyes on some nascent talent.

Young American Ryan Sweeting was the first hometown boy to make the quarterfinals when he defeated Querrey in straight sets. The twenty-three year old first got people talking in DC last year when he beat James Blake and Michael Llodra to make the third round. This year he fought through the qualifiers in Melbourne and put up a nice fight against Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open second round, but he seems to be gaining traction this week. Next up he'll face a resurgent Kei Nishikori, the champion here in 2008, so Sweeting will be in for a fight, but if he continues to serve well -- he hit an impressive seven aces against Sam -- I think he could break out here.

In the other half of the draw are two more guys primed for a break out. Teymuraz Gabashvili hasn't racked up the best record this year, but made the fourth round at Roland Garros in 2010 with a stunning, straight-set win over Andy Roddick. After withstanding twenty-one aces from John Isner in the first round, he outlasted the big man in Florida, winning the third set 15-13 in a tiebreak. He'll face another former big-server next in Juan Martin Del Potro, but the Argentine seems to have lost some of his weapons recently, so I wouldn't be surprised if we saw an upset.

Maybe most promising in the bunch is eighth seeded Adrian Mannarino, a twenty-two year old Frenchman I admittedly hadn't even heard of before this year. He made a huge jump into the low triple-digits when he put up a couple solid showings at Challenger events last summer, but a run to the quarters in Auckland, almost defeating Nicolas Almagro to make the semis, really put him on the radar. Since then, Mannarino made the semis in Johannesburg and took Lleyton Hewitt to three sets in Memphis before scoring the win over Leonardo Mayer in his Delray debut. With a second round date against Alejandro Falla later today, I'd expect him to make an even deeper run here.

The last couple years have really seen some underdogs prevail down south, so I see no reason that trend should end now. And with the way these guys do -- and have been known to -- play, they could become major staples on Tour this year. So get ready for them to continue charming your socks off -- at the very least for the rest of this week.

February 20, 2011

In Defense of Caroline Wozniacki

Unless you've been living under a tennis rock the last week, you must have heard by now that come Monday Caroline Wozniacki will regain her #1 ranking. If you have been living under a tennis rock you might have missed the fact that she ever lost it. And the twenty year old will continue to be confronted with the same question that has been dogging her for months -- should you be ranked at the top of your sport if you have never won a Grand Slam title?

We've seen this phenomenon a few times recently, and maybe that's why the critics are so vocal. Players like Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina failed to deliver after they climbed the league tables, with the Russian falling out of the top hundred earlier this year. But go back a few more years, and you have an example that (ironically) supports the case for Caroline -- Kim Clijsters rose to #1 a full two years before her first U.S. Open title.

Still it's a tough position to be in. Wozniacki largely racked up the points that earned her position last summer when she claimed titles at Copenhagen, Montreal and New Haven on her way to New York, the first Major at which she was seeded #1 thanks of course to the withdrawal of an injured Serena Williams. Detractors complained she was only winning smaller tournaments, not standing up to the toughest players on the biggest stages, and when she finally climbed into the top spot a few weeks and two additional trophies later, those critics became even louder.

What they've failed to notice is how Caroline's game was improving steadily over the course of these tournaments. On her home soil in August the best player she had to beat was world #41 Julia Goerges. But even though she didn't repeat her run to the U.S. Open final, she did score an easy win over former champion Maria Sharapova on the way to the semis. She faced tough tests for the titles at premier evens in Tokyo -- Victoria Azarenka, Elena Dementieva -- and Beijing -- Ana Ivanovic, Vera Zvonareva -- too. She finally took a set from Kim Clijsters in the year-end championships in the Doha finals and had a solid run to the semis in Melbourne, now having made at least the fourth round of every Slam in almost two years -- not bad for a girl still unable to legally drink in the U.S. You can't deny that she gets more balls back than most of the women on Tour, and now as she develops her serve, her net game and her forehand, she's become more aggressive against the toughest players.

This week in Dubai, Wozniacki was able to put her new skills on display and added another feather to her cap. Though she was saved from an early round against Paris champ Petra Kvitova -- incidentally the woman who beat Clijsters in that final days after she regained the #1 ranking -- she did face challenges from talented Shahar Peer, who was out-powered start to finish in the quarters, and Jelena Jankovic, who led 5-2 in the first set of the semis before Caro hit her stride.

Against a resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova in the finals, I thought the Dane could face trouble. Wozniacki led the pair's head-to-head by the slimmest of margins, but the two-time Major champion who has never been ranked #1 in the world had been playing, as is often her style, well above her ranking. Kuznetsova was just seeded at the Championships but got revenge over Francesca Schiavone for that heartbreaking loss in the Australian Open fourth round and was solid against both Aggie Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta to make the finals.

But despite the potential challenge from the more experienced player -- Sveta's thirteen career championships was only one more than Caro's but she'd been in eleven more finals -- Wozniacki was unstoppable. She struck first in the match, getting a break in just the second game and didn't allow Kuznetsova to hold until midway through the second set. She took advantage of an inordinate number of errors from her opponent, and capitalized on weak serving to run off with an early lead. The last two games of the match probably featured the best quality tennis, but despite a late surge from the Russian, who denied Caroline a chance to serve for the title, after just over an hour, it was Wozniacki who held the trophy.

Though she retook the #1 position a few days back, following it up with a premier title in Dubai -- something Clijsters could not accomplish last week -- should go a ways in mollifying Wozniacki's critics. She's showing off her consistency and upping her game at the bigger events. At just twenty years of age, she has plenty of time to bring home the Major, and with a game suitable to most surfaces she has a couple choices of which one it will be.

I don't know if Caroline will get the big win this year -- I'll be happy if she just continues to advance in the draws for now -- but it will come sometime soon, I feel. And then hopefully she'll finally get the respect she deserves.

February 19, 2011

The Haves and the Have-Nots

This past week of tennis seems to highlight two things: players on a roll and players trying to get back on one.

At the Copa Claro in Buenos Aires, the field was fraught with local stars and past champions with Nicolas Almagro leading the pack, fresh off a title in Costa do Sauipe. The Spaniard is probably one of the most under-rated guys in the game, outshone by compatriots Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco. Still he's been in and around the top thirty for almost four years and has racked up at least one title a year for the past six -- incidentally, all on clay. On the way to the quarters in Argentina, he's put together a solid 11-2 record on the year, and if he continues to play like he has, I wouldn't be surprised to see him improve it even further.

The 2009 champ here, Tommy Robredo is also trying to keep his momentum going. After a disappointing season last year, he finally seems to be turning things around. He defeated Mardy Fish in Melbourne and took a set from Roger Federer in the fourth round before winning the championship in Santiago. Back in seeding territory for the Majors, he hasn't lost a set yet in Buenos Aires. But with a third round date with David Nalbandian, things are only getting harder from here.

Less successful in recent months has been Albert Montanes. After scoring wins over Juan Carlos Ferrero, Nikolay Davydenko and Roger Federer last year, he'd gone just 1-3 before the Copa. He struggled through his second round versus a tough Fabio Fognini, but if he keeps his cool against Juan Ignacio Chela today, he could recapture his momentum.

The Marseille draw is headlined by Robin Soderling, ranked at a career high #4 in the world and having just successfully defended his title in Rotterdam. Though he was forced into two tiebreaks against marathon-man Nicolas Mahut in his opener, he's been flawless since and earlier today dismissed Dmitry Tursunov, himself a stunning comeback story, 6-1 in the second set, to make his second final in a row.

There he'll face one-time top-ten player Marin Cilic, once my favorite to take this sport by storm. After failing to three-peat titles in Chennai and Zagreb earlier this year, he dropped precipitously in the rankings and lost the seeding in France. But with wins over #7 Tomas Berdych in the quarters and third-seed Mikhail Youzhny in the semis, the Croat has reached his first final in almost a year. He's lost his only previous meeting with Soderling at last year's French Open, but he sure looks like he's playing back at the top of his game.

Things are a little backwards in Memphis, where the hot player is not the top seed, but the wildcard. Milos Raonic began the year ranked #250, but a fourth round run in Melbourne and his first career title in San Jose have vaulted him to #59. The twenty-year-old backed up his win over Fernando Verdasco in the SAP finals with a three-set victory in the first round this week and somewhat easily clawed his way to the semis where today he faces fourth seed Mardy Fish.

In the other Memphis semi it's a former Major champion trying to come back. Juan Martin Del Potro missed most of 2010 recovering from wrist surgery and failed to make a dent in any tournament when he returned last September. Now ranked back in the top three hundred -- his semifinal showing in San Jose boosted him 186 spots -- he's starting to show his stuff again. He's not quite the big server he was in the past, firing off just seven aces in his quarter against Michael Russell, but he is winning again, and if he can get past Andy Roddick today, it could make for a very interesting final.

Of course it's still early in the year, and we certainly don't know yet whether any of these guys will be able to continue their performances thus far in 2011. But things so far are looking promising for both the consistent players and the comebacks. And if they keep it up, those at the very top of the sport might have something to look out for.

February 16, 2011

Memphis Belles

There's an interesting phenomenon that occurs at tournaments where the top seed is ranked outside the top fifty -- with even the most favored players so spotty in their day-to-day performances, virtually anyone can turn her run into a Cinderella story.

And that's exactly what's been happening this week at the Cellular South Cup in Memphis, where neither of the two top seeds, Barbora Zahlavova Strycova or Sofia Arvidsson, made it out of the first round. That leaves one-time U.S. Open darling Melanie Oudin as the top-ranked player and while it certainly does give her a monster opportunity to shine, the bigger imact might be felt by those even more under-the-radar.

Qualifier Alexa Glatch has a handful of ITF titles to her name, but has only made a minor dent on Tour. She made the quarters in Quebec City last year, but maybe more impressively defeated both Iveta Benesova and a just-emerging Petra Kvitova in Fed Cup back in 2009. But this week she barreled through Beatrice Capra in her opener, and survived a close call against Michaella Krajicek. With no seeds left in her half of the draw, it might be smooth sailing for the twenty-one year old to finally break through.

Another player to watch is former Junior champ Coco Vandeweghe, one of the ladies I had my eye on back at her first U.S. Open in 2008. She's played well against in the big leagues before, beating Vera Zvonareva last year in San Diego, but now just a smidge off a double-digit ranking, this could be her best chance. Coco notched a solid win over Alexandra Stevenson on Wednesday, avenging a first round loss to the one-time Wimbledon semifinalist from just last week. With some streaky players in her path, she could make a good case for changing the meaning of "Team Coco".

Of course no one can rise to the top of the sport without consistently beating the best players out there. But with the path in Memphis relatively clear for these potential Cinderellas, it looks like they have a good chance to dance at the ball when all is done.

February 13, 2011

Taking Back the Spotlight

Most of the talk this tennis season has centered around a few big stories -- Novak Djokovic reclaiming the title in Australia, Kim Clijsters returning to #1, the rise of a couple emerging talents who've found a way to prosper this year on the big stage. But amid all that hype, a few other players have chosen this past week to remind us that they're not ones to be forgotten quite yet.

Of course we can't ignore the great runs from Alexandr Dolgopolov and Milos Raonic, both of whom have followed up well on their performances in Melbourne. The Ukrainian didn't drop a set on the way to his first career final, but eventually dropped to veteran Nicolas Almagro in Costa Do Sauipe, while the transplanted Canadian continued to impress on his way to the championship match in San Jose.

Tonight he'll face defending titleist Fernando Verdasco, who claims the top seed, but hasn't had the most success in recent months. He went winless during his post-U.S. Open Asia circuit and took only two matches when he returned to Europe. Though he made the fourth round at the Australian, it was not without drama, as he found himself down two sets to love against Janko Tipsarevic in the second round.

But he's been near flawless at the SAP Open this year, surviving fourteen aces by big-serving Ivo Karlovic on Thursday and dismantling Denis Istomin in the quarters. Last night against former #4 Juan Martin Del Potro, he could have been tested -- maybe he was, dropping serve for the first and only time this week -- but he fired off one forehand after another to even his head-to-head against the big man. His experience on championship court may be enough for him tonight against Raonic -- the third serving specialist Verdasco will face this tournament -- but even if it isn't, he should take some comfort in knowing he's at least turned the tide back in his favor.

Daniela Hantuchova had also been having a pretty tough year, winning only one match at Fed Cup, but her struggles have persisted even longer than that -- she played her first final in three years last March in Monterrey, but hadn't won a title since Linz in 2007, not the kind of record you want to have as a top tier player.

But when she came to Pattaya City as the fourth seed, something must have switched in her. Against super-strong veteran Kimiko Date Krumm in the second round, she reversed a three-match losing streak and only dropped another two games to make the semis. That's where she had her biggest threat, world #3 and two-time defending champion Vera Zvonareva had won four of their past five meetings and was arguably playing the best tennis of her career. But Hantuchova, who has often shown signs of brilliance, finally proved it wasn't all an act. She stuck with her opponent through long rallies, found every angle, utilized beautiful drop shots and only lost serve once to make her eleventh career final after over two hours of play. After that ordeal, you might have thought the Slovak would be worn out, but she made relatively easy work of Sara Errani on Sunday, winning almost two-thirds of the points to claim the title.

Nineteen-year-old Petra Kvitova hasn't exactly been having a bad year -- she claimed a title in Brisbane, beat hometown favorite Sam Stosur on the way to the Melbourne quarters and went two-for-two in earning her Czech mates a first round Fed Cup win. Her efforts have earned her a career high #18 ranking, but her presence in Paris was nevertheless overshadowed by that of red-hot Kim Clijsters.

Kvitova didn't have the easiest road to her second final of the year. She faced match points against Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in the second round and survived a tense third-set tiebreak against Yanina Wickmayer in the quarters. But she struck first against Clijsters, breaking the world #1 in the opening game. She gave it right back, but strong serving -- ten aces to Kim's one -- aggressiveness on her return games, and some smart play in the clutch won her a third top-ten victory in the past twelve months.

So while most of us are preoccupied with the headlines, we shouldn't discount the performances all these guys and gals have given us over the past week or more. Hopefully they'll keep the momentum going -- we all know how the supporting cast so often steals the show, and the sport would be a lot less fun without them.

February 9, 2011

Deferred Compensation

It's a funny thing about tennis rankings -- like Wall Street bonuses, they don't always reflect how well a player is doing at a particular moment in time.

Those familiar with the system know players accumulate points at every tournament they enter on a fifty-two week rolling basis, earning more at larger events and the deeper they go into draws. Since the athletes retain credit for wins up to a year -- and are held accountable for long-ago losses -- they arguably get a sort of grace/waiting period before being paid for their most recent results.

That means a severe underdog can beat a heavy favorite at a given tournament, but if she happened to advance farther last time, even if via a much easier draw, she could lose ground despite improved play. Furthermore, as we've seen so often recently, a player can climb the ranks by entering events week after week, building himself insurance if he should be beaten early at the Majors.

Perhaps that irony is best represented in the ascent of Sam Querrey, currently a career high #17 in the world despite having won only one match since the U.S. Open -- and losing to players like Santiago Giraldo and Lucasz Kubot. This week in San Jose, the American boasted a #3 seed, but still couldn't get out the gates and fell in straight sets to Lukas Lacko, ranked out of the top hundred.

What's propping him up? Titles in Belgrade, Queen's Club and Los Angeles over the spring and summer have a few more months of shelf-life, but the five hundred points he earned fifty-one weeks ago in Memphis are about ready to walk out the door unless he ups his game fast. Otherwise, it sure looks like Sam is about to reap the pain of some sloppy recent play.

Vera Zvonareva is in a slightly different, but steadier, boat. Arguably coming off the best year of her career, making final appearances at her first two Slams, she actually doesn't have the hardware to back it up. The only trophy she won in 2010 was in Pattaya City, a smaller tournament in Thailand where she's defending this week, and if she doesn't make good on her top seeding she'll have no titles to show for all the progress she's made. But though her ranking may come into jeopardy later in the year, I feel she's got the potential for a strong spring and summer, and could come out swinging even harder when its time to defend her points.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, it looks like Kim Clijsters' patience and six months of hard work is about to be rewarded. The winner in New York, Doha and Melbourne has been inching her way back toward the #1 position -- a spot she last held before she ever won a Major trophy. But now she's one win away from reclaiming the spot from Caroline Wozniacki, and if she makes the semifinals in Paris this week we'll see current dominance finally reflected in the rankings.

At the end of the day, everything probably works out -- stale points eventually drop off and fresh ones get added on, allowing standings to represent where the strength in the sport is, and both the ATP and WTA championships use a calendar year race to determine their qualifiers. But maybe it's time to re-evaluate the system, give more weight to recent results, so that rankings are more reflective of the current environment.

After all, wouldn't we all be better served if only true merit was rewarded?

February 6, 2011

Homecourt Advantage

In most sports you often give the edge to the team playing on their own territory. It's not a guaranteed success, of course, but even the 2-14 Carolina Panthers scored both their wins in Charlotte.

The same is not always true in tennis -- the last Brit to win Wimbledon, after all, was Fred Perry back in 1936 -- but at some smaller tournaments, like those that took place over the last week, we saw a couple of hometown heroes get a chance to shine, and some made a real breakthrough.

Santiago Giraldo isn't from Chile, but his Colombia is not far away. And playing in a town that bears his name, I imagine the crowds were on his side at the Movistar Open. South Americans dominated the draw in Santiago with three Argentines and a Brazilian making the quarters along with Giraldo. But the twenty-three year old from Bogota pulled off upsets over Juan Ignacio Chela and Potito Starace to make his first ever championship match.

There he met Spain's Tommy Robredo, a man who'd racked up nine titles in his career but lost their only previous meeting at the Australian Open just last month. Robredo's been in something of a slump recently, so it wasn't out of the question to see the technical upset, but after he got off to a set lead in the match I began to lose hope. Giraldo came back to even the score and even got a break lead in the decider, but when he failed to serve it out Robredo didn't look back. He converted his second match point in the tiebreak, denying the ultimate championship to the Colombian, but at least giving him hope for his next attempt.

The South Africa Open in Johannesburg saw more than a few of its own stars pull off upsets. Wildcard Rik de Voest made the quarters while Izak Van Der Merwe won his first Tour level matches on his way to the semis. But it was fourth-seeded Kevin Anderson who ultimately made the biggest impression. I've often wondered why the strong server hasn't made more of a dent in the pros -- currently ranked at #59, he's hovered in the low double-digits for about a year. He gave Sam Querrey a run for the money in Los Angeles last summer and took revenge on him two weeks later in Toronto. Yet he hadn't really broken through main draws.

That is, until this week. The six-foot-eight former star at the University of Illinois rattled off fifty-three aces on his way to his second career final where he met Somdev Devvarman. After losing the first set to his college rival, Anderson rebounded to win the next two in about an hour more. The title was the first won by a South African since Wesley Moodie took Tokyo in 2005 and should push Kevin to a career-high ranking. Having now improved to a 8-3 record on the year, it could be his turn to crack into the top tiers of the sport.

A little further north in Croatia, many of the locals were stopped right out of the gate. Still the top two seeds reflected how strong the country has been in recent months -- two-time defending champ Marin Cilic and world #16 Ivan Ljubicic lead the pack, but were both defeated in the quarters. Instead compatriot Ivan Dodig, who broke into the top hundred at the end of last year, came out firing. The only man to take a set from Australian Open champ Novak Djokovic in Melbourne beat one seed after another in the city where he lives.

For his efforts, Dodig earned the right to meet world #61 Michael Berrer in his first Tour final. They'd never played each other before, but with five more years in the pros and a couple big wins of his own under his belt, the German was probably still the favorite. But Ivan was unstoppable from the start. At just six-feet tall, he was the shorter of the two, but fired off sixteen aces and won more than eighty percent of his first serves. He denied Berrer seven break chances and eventually won the match in straight sets, taking just over ninety minutes to capture his maiden trophy.

Of course the hometown edge benefits some more than others, but with these guys making a real statement on their own turf, there's really no telling what they'll be able to do in other stadiums.

And now that they have that added bit of confidence, I'm betting we'll see a lot more of all of them.

February 4, 2011

The Stars Come Out

I have to admit, I've never been a real ardent follower of Fed Cup. But this year's first round action pits such talent against each other that you can't help but take notice.

Italy vs. Australia, Hobart

The two-time defending champion Italian team is back in full force, boasting a top-five singles player and #1 doubles "specialist". Francesca Schiavone is coming off her best ever showing in Melbourne while Flavia Pennetta just won her maiden Major paired title. Teamed with a feisty Sara Errani and a resurgent Roberta Vinci, it'll be hard to dethrone the queens.

Then again, they are facing a tough Australian team, making their first World Group appearance since an early exit in 2004. Led by Sam Stosur and veteran Rennae Stubbs, there's a lot of firepower in these girls. On most days you have to like Stosur's chances on any court, and if the often underappreciated Jarmila Groth is able to gain footing on home soil, I like the Aussies' chances to cause the upset.

Belgium vs. U.S., Antwerp

The 2010 runners-up to Italy might have an even harder time advancing. A Williams-less U.S. team is up against Belgians led by Kim Clijsters, on a fourteen-match Major win streak, and big-hitting Yanina Wickmayer. They've also got Aussie Open Juniors champ An-Sophie Mestach, someone who must be unfamiliar to most of the relatively veteran team, and could catch a couple players off guard.

The Americans' best hope probably lies in Bethanie Mattek-Sands, the standout last month at Hopman Cup and a truly developing doubles talent. She's now the highest-ranked woman in the U.S., other than Venus and Serena, and can certainly give fits to technically favored opponents. And Melanie Oudin will look to make up for a disappointing 2010 on Tour -- if she's able to pull off the kinds of upsets we know she's capable of, the team might stand a chance.

Czech Republic vs. Slovakia, Bratislava

It can get even more interesting than that -- the formerly united Czechs and Slovakians will battle each other again, this time on the tennis courts. They met three times in the last decade, with the Czechs holding a perfect record, and with the slate they boast this year their streak should continue. Petra Kvitova has jumped to her best ever ranking on the heels of a title in Brisbane and a quarterfinal run at the Open, and Lucie Safarova put up an inspiring fight against Vera Zvonareva in her third round. I'd expect they'd both bring that momentum with them as the visiting team.

The Slovaks aren't at a complete loss, though, as their top-ranked Dominika Cibulkova has been having a successful year, beating both Maria Kirilenko and Caroline Wozniacki in Sydney. After a disappointing loss in Melbourne, I'd look for her to step up her game even more. And Daniela Hantuchova, a ten-plus year staple on the team, won all her rubbers last year, improving to an overall Fed Cup record of 29-10. They might not have quite the strength in doubles, but if they put up a fight during their solo matches it could be a close one.

Russia vs. France, Moscow

The final tie in this year's quarterfinals has the potential to be the biggest runaway. It pits recent champion Russia against a slightly decimated French team. With both Marion Bartoli and Aravane Rezai unable to play -- for admittedly different reasons -- the best they can offer is a rebuilding Alize Cornet. She put up a fight against Kim Clijsters Down Under, but she hasn't made a meaningful dent in a Tour even since 2008. Virginie Razzano is the only other player in the top hundred, though she seems to not yet be back in full form, and veteran Julie Coin has fallen out of the top two hundred.

The Russians on the other hand, two years removed from their last Cup, have brought their best. Maria Sharapova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova have done well so far this year, and Svetlana Kuznetsova's record-setting fourth round in Melbourne proves she's climbing back into form. The only question remains Dinara Safina who continues to struggle in her comeback from injury -- but she's been dealt some ridiculously skewed draws, so her lack of success can't be considered all her fault. And with support from her teammates, this could be her chance to shine.

With so much high-quality talent on board for the Fed Cup's first round, you might think you were watching the late stages of a Major. Hopefully these matches live up to their potential -- it could lay the groundwork for top top-tier battles down the road.

February 2, 2011

Separated at Birth: Australian Open Edition

Well it's happened again -- after two weeks of watching some fresh young faces emerge on the tennis scene, I've been left scratching my head and wondering, "Where have I seen them before?"

While the guys and gals who fared best at the Australian Open have been fixtures on Tour for years, we might have felt a somewhat inexplicable familiarity with the newest additions to the later rounds. But make no mistake -- we've actually seen them somewhere else.

Germany's Julia Goerges has been a staple on the Challenger circuit, winning a handful of trophies there, but her real breakout came last summer with a title run in Bad Gastein. She put in her best-yet Major performance in Melbourne, and though she was stopped by Maria Sharapova in just the third round, something tells me more than her TV-star looks will keep her around for much longer.

Big Milos Raonic also made quite a name for himself in his week-long stay at the Open. With a serve that belied his #152 ranking, he out-aced everyone in just four matches -- surpassing record-holding John Isner and both finalists, who each fired off about thirty fewer bombs over three more rounds. Maybe it was his crafty play that made it difficult to nail down one doppelgänger, so I had to go with two -- the romantic poet of Gossip Girl and the wily thief from Slumdog Millionaire.

I've been watching Petra Kvitova since her stellar run last year at Wimbledon, and for so long I couldn't place her likeness. Then it suddenly came to me, like an omen for whether it's already raining -- perhaps because the Czech's consistent presence at tournaments from Brisbane to Melbourne reminded me of an actress who's been just as prevalent in Hollywood these days.

The last newcomer at this year's Australian Open seemed oddly at home on center stage in Melbourne. Alexandr Dolgopolov rebounded from a two-set-to-one deficit against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and withstood a late rally from fourth-seeded Robin Soderling to earn his biggest win in five sets. Maybe he was so comfortable because he was able to channel a former Grand Slam champion who made her own mark on these grounds years ago.

So there you have it -- my latest selection of tennis two (and three) -somes. Hopefully my picks will entertain you as much as the players themselves did over the last fortnight!

If you want to share your favorite look-alikes, send me a note, and be sure to check out my other "Separated at Birth" pairs here!