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.

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