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.

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