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.

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