March 30, 2011

The Unlikely Heroes

It's been a rainy couple of days in Miami, and that has muddled more than just the grounds at the Sony Ericsson Open -- as the men and women battled for the last few semifinal spots at the top-tier event, it hasn't always been the ones you'd expect left standing after the clouds cleared.

Andrea Petkovic has been endearing herself to tennis fans around the world for a few months, and while she's been steadily climbing the rankings, it wasn't until earlier this week that she finally notched the breakthrough win. Facing world #1 Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round, she pulled out the stunning win in just under two and a half hours, somehow finding holes in the Dane's backboard style and barely outlasting her opponent in three sets.

You might have thought she'd be exhausted after the long day at work, but when she faced former top-dog Jelena Jankovic on Tuesday, the German certainly proved her mettle. She waited out a rain delay after losing the first set to even the score and rebounded from a 2-4 deficit in the decider, winning four games in a row to notch her second straight top-ten win, again displaying that adorable incredulity at having pulled off the upset. For her efforts she was rewarded the a spot in the semis -- the first time she's advanced this far at a Premier tournament -- where she'll get a rematch against Maria Sharapova. Of course it won't be an easy task, but having already vanquished her foe in Melbourne this year, I'm not sure anyone will be surprised if she did it again.

The first man into the semis faced a similarly tall task. Mardy Fish is sitting at a career-high ranking of #15 in the world, but hobbled by sickness in the early part of the year and getting a couple tough draws in recent weeks, he hasn't quite repeated his results from the second half of 2010.

But in Key Biscayne he seems more than renewed -- Fish easily dispatched a wily Richard Gasquet in the third round and followed it up with a grudge match defeat of his Delray Beach conqueror, the resurgent Juan Martin Del Potro. Then earlier today he squared off against Spanish #2 David Ferrer, winning all but three of his first serves and saving both break points he faced. And more important than securing a berth in his maiden Miami semi, he'll surpass veteran Andy Roddick as the top-ranked American man in the sport when the latest rankings are released on Monday, and could even break into the top ten for the first time in his career if he continues his run in the sun.

These players haven't seen opportunity quite like this before, and chances are good they'll be able to take advantage of it. It's too soon to tell if it will ultimately translate into a trophy, but it sure could change the landscape for tennis the rest of this year.

March 27, 2011

A Chance to Shine

The early rounds of play in Miami have generated more than a few interesting stories, but for some players they've created opportunities to break into ground they haven't seen in a long time -- or, for some, at all.

Maria Sharapova hasn't been a complete slouch since her return from shoulder surgery about two years ago, having won a handful of lower-tier titles along the way, but she's failed to make a dent at the big events and hasn't beaten a top-ten player all year. Though she reached the semis in Indian Wells last week, she was smacked by Caroline Wozniacki for the second time in a row and hasn't faced any big challenge from early opponents at the Sony Ericsson Open.

On Monday she'll have her first chance in a while to prove she can still hit with the big girls. In her Sweet Sixteen match-up she'll face Sam Stosur, currently ranked #4 in the world. Sharapova has won all six of their previous meetings, but they were all well before the Australian really broke through in the game. Still Stosur has been a little choppy in recent weeks, only reaching a quarterfinal round once this year, and dropping matches to players like Flavia Pennetta and Jarmila Groth. If Sharapova can extend her win streak, it could give her the confidence she needs to make a real run at this title and maybe get back into top-ten territory for the first time since 2008.

But looming large in her way could be a player in truly uncharted territory. Shuai Peng is just a shade off her career high ranking at #32 in the world, but she's arguably playing her best tennis this year. After stunning Jelena Jankovic at the Australian Open, she followed up with wins over Francesca Schiavone in Doha and Na Li in Indian Wells. This week, still unseeded, she trounced Aravane Rezai and Svetlana Kuznetsova to make the fourth round. Next up she'll face Alexandra Dulgheru, who's been largely on the sidelines recently thanks to illness and injury. If Peng can take advantage of a slightly debilitated opponent, she might just put herself on everyone's radar.

Juan Martin Del Potro has been making his way back into the elite ranks of the sport the last few months, making a couple of semis and winning the title in Delray Beach. But he hasn't beaten a top-ten player since the World Tour Finals in 2009, so whether he was really in Grand Slam winning shape was still in question.

That is, until today. One of the most dangerous floaters in the draw, he'd already taken out twenty-ninth seed Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second round, but you'd think he'd face a much bigger fight from current world #4 Robin Soderling. But DelPo was unfazed this evening -- already leading the pair's head-to-head he had the confidence to come out swinging, and with twelve aces during the match he displayed all signs of the champion we know he is. It might be a few more tournaments before he reclaims his own top-ten status, but each win gets him a little closer and should at least provide some stars with relief that they won't have to face the Argentine in any more early rounds.

But before he moves any farther in Key Biscayne, he'll have to survive a rematch of his Delray semifinal against Mardy Fish, who has a chance to make his own history. Already at a career high ranking of #15 in the world, he's closing in on single digits and a few more wins here could help him supplant veteran Andy Roddick as the best player in American tennis -- man or woman. That's quite a coup for someone who's been on Tour for over ten years.

Of course it's too soon to call the championship for any of these players -- for some it's certainly a longer shot than for others. But a few more wins grants them each the chance to make a big jump in the rankings, and maybe more importantly in the minds of everyone else who faces them.

March 23, 2011

Follow Through

Virtually anybody can have one good tournament.

Mix together a few solid shots, a favorable draw and a little luck and you get Melanie Oudin at the 2009 U.S. Open or Gaston Gaudio at Roland Garros in '04. But the really great players are able to put together a string of wins, one tournament after another, and can repeat defeats the strongest opponents over the long haul -- and the action in March provides the opportunity to do just that.

Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina were playing just their third event as a doubles pair in Indian Wells and blew through some heavy favorites to claim the title -- it was the biggest success either has had on a tennis court in some time. They're entered as a team in Miami as well, but both kicked off singles main draw action today and faced some real challenges.

Vesnina took on #1 doubles player and Acapulco champ Gisela Dulko in her opener and simply destroyed the higher ranked Argentine. She won eighty-five percent of her opponent's second serve points and broke her four times. She defended well and played consistently, earning the victory in just over an hour. Mirza, who had to qualify for the big girls' bracket, was similarly impressive against Acapulco finalist Arantxa Parra Santonja. She played solid ball on her service games and was aggressive on the Spaniard's, scoring her first ever win at the Sony Ericsson. Hopefully both will be able to continue their momentum apart, as well as together.

Somdev Devvarman parlayed his fourth-round run in the desert to a career high ranking at the start of this week, and so far he hasn't let the adrenaline from that jump go to waste. In his opener against Potito Starace, he out-served, out-returned, and out-maneuvered his opponent, notching his fifth win over a higher-ranked player this year. Next up he'll face Milos Raonic, who's done nothing but prove his ability to follow through all year -- it won't be an easy task, but if Devvarman is going to really break out this year, this would be a good time to do it.

Of course, not everyone can prove themselves right away. Twenty-one year old Donald Young had the win of his career at the BNP Paribas Open when he stunned fifth-seeded Andy Murray in the second round. After qualifying for the main draw in Miami he faced Denis Istomin earlier on Wednesday, and wasn't able to keep up. Though he got ahead in the first set, he lost a slew of games in a row, eventually losing in straight sets. Looks like he'll have to wait a big longer to prove his Indian Wells Run wasn't a fluke.

Sure it's still early in the tournament, and in some of these players' careers, but it's reassuring that at least so far there hasn't been a letdown from their performances in California. And while they might not be riding the streak others are, I have hope we might see some big things from them this year.

So why not start now?

March 20, 2011

The Ones to Beat

The tennis landscape sure has been shifting over the past couple months. Once a sport dominated by a few big names, we're starting to see not necessarily new faces pop up at trophy ceremonies, but certainly a couple quite loudly asserting themselves as real powerhouses in the sport.

Caroline Wozniacki has held the #1 ranking almost exclusively since October, but has constantly contended with complaints that she's not in the same league as players like Kim Clijsters or Serena Williams. Maybe that's true -- she's never beaten either yet -- but watching her battle through one opponent after another in Indian Wells, you realize that she's pretty darn close.

Last year's runner-up made her way back to the finals on Sunday where this time she faced Marion Bartoli, the beneficiary of Clijsters' retirement in the fourth round. She barreled through the first set, breaking the Frenchwoman at nearly every turn and winning almost seventy percent of the total points. And though she suffered a minor brain cramp in the second, she regrouped nicely in the third. Both ladies withstood long rallies and chased down balls that neither had any business getting to. But in the end it was Wozniacki who found the smallest of holes in Bartoli's backboard. Taking advantage of Marion's fatigue and nerves, Caroline finally wrapped up the match in just over two hours, clinching her fourteenth career title and further solidifying her ranking.

Novak Djokovic went about his business in the desert in a slightly different manner. After stomping over his first three challengers, he pulled off yet another upset of Roger Federer in the semis to return to the championship match. And like at last year's U.S. Open, he would again face world #1 Rafael Nadal and again find himself down a set to start the match.

But after trading breaks in the second set against his familiar opponent, he rattled off six straight games, evening the score on the way and running off to a two-break lead in the decider. The usually calm and collected Nadal was visibly rattled in the third and couldn't make any headway in his own service games. Though both men were able to produce some stunning shots, it was eventually Djokovic that held stronger -- never allowing a break chance, he definitively sealed the deal with a love hold in the eighth game, and reminded us that he's got his sights set a little higher than the #2 ranking he'll regain on Monday.

Their wins bring Wozniacki to an impressive 19-3 record on the year and Djokovic to an astounding 20-0. We know that neither is bulletproof, but over the past few months, they've both done everything they can to put themselves on everyone's radar.

And the way they're playing, they might all be shaking in their boots.

Experience vs. Momentum

There was a lot of talent that stepped onto the courts semifinal Saturday at Indian Wells. Between the four of them, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro have won the past twenty four Grand Slam titles, so it was fitting that they were the last men standing. Since they've been at the top of the game for so long, it's not surprising they've accumulated long histories against each other, and in both match-ups it was the more decorated player looking to reverse recent trends, and some were more successful than others.

Nine-time Major winner Rafael Nadal took the court first against the surprise 2009 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro, a man who'd beaten him pretty handily in their last three meetings. But after wrist injury kept the big man out of contention most of last year, he was just climbing back into the top hundred and hadn't quite regained his original game. Though playing solid tennis from all objective perspectives, against the world #1 this time he was really no match -- after breaking Nadal to start the match, he was barely given another chance and the Spaniard was able to end his losing streak in just under two hours.

Roger Federer was not as fortunate. The record-holding Slam champion had dropped his last couple matches to two-time Melbourne titleist Novak Djokovic and arguably had two fewer Major trophies on his mantle because of him. Both had been playing well all week, but the Serb had been in dominant form, extending his record on the year to a perfect 17-0 -- twenty, if you count Hopman Cup play and going three matches in a row bagelling his opponents in the first set. You knew this match would be slightly closer, though, and even after Nole took the first set easily there was little doubt Fed would fight his way back. But in the third Djokovic was not troubled by the momentum Roger had gained and broke his opponent's serve twice more to keep his own streak alive and re-secure the #2 ranking come Monday.

So we're rewarded with yet another rematch -- this one of the 2010 U.S. Open championship, which Nadal won in four solid sets and followed up with another victory at the London year-ends. But Novak has a respectable 7-16 record against the two-time Indian Wells titleist, and the way he's been dismantling his opponents all year, I have a feeling he'll be able to reverse his own recent trend against Rafa.

If anyone can do it, it sure looks like it'll be Nole.

March 19, 2011

How to Treat a Gift Horse

Marion Bartoli should have gone home several days ago. The fifteenth seed in Indian Wells was down a set to Kim Clijsters in the fourth round when the Australian Open champion was forced to retire with a shoulder injury. And the feisty Frenchwoman was not about to let the opportunity pass her by.

Having already beating a tough Andrea Petkovic in the previous round -- on paper, the way things should have turned out, but given the way the German has been playing, kind of an upset -- she faced another scare in the quarters against Ana Ivanovic. Battling through heat, sickness and an opponent who actually controlled much of the match, Bartoli was somehow the first to hold serve in the fourth game. The two traded breaks throughout the second set, and when the 2007 Wimbledon finalist failed to serve it out, you might have expected momentum to shift, but after over two hours she was the one who came away with a straight-set win.

She had a somewhat easier task in the semis, steamrolling over Yanina Wickmayer in the first set and quickly rebounding after dropping serve to open the second. For her efforts she was the first to reach the championships match in the desert, her first final since 2009.

There she'll face world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who leads the pair's head-to-head 4-2. The runner-up here last year has had a similarly impressive run in Indian Wells, staying tough after losing a set to Alisa Kleybanova in the fourth round and walloping former champion Maria Sharapova in the semis. She broke the one-time ace-launcher six times in the match, while she herself only missed ten first serve attempts. After about eighty minutes she had earned the right to try going one better than her performance last year.

Bartoli may not have the best record against her Wozniacki -- she lost all three of her meetings before Caro even broke into the top twenty -- but she did get a solid straight-set victory over the then-#3 in Cincinnati last year. And she'a beaten players like Vera Zvonareva and Venus Williams for titles before. Given the luck she's having, I wouldn't be surprised if Marion found a way to get it done again.

After all when you receive a gift like she did, you shouldn't ask questions -- just accept it and take as much advantage of it as you can.

March 16, 2011

A Level Above

The early rounds at Indian Wells have been a story of triumph for young, new talent. And while you clearly can't discount the nascent ability of players like Ryan Harrison and Somdev Devvarman, both of whom have capitalized on their opportunities time and again in the desert, you just can't ignore the perennial powerhouses who've simply trampled their opponents, proving that they're still the alpha males in the sport.

Top seeded Rafael Nadal hadn't played a lot since Melbourne, having taken time off after the Australian Open to treat a tear in his thigh muscle. And though he won both of his Davis Cup rubbers, it wasn't until he arrived in California that we'd get a real idea of how back to form he really was. And the two-time winner here would not disappoint -- he blanked qualifier Rik De Voest in his opening set, dispatching the South African in barely an hour and dropped only four more games against American Ryan Sweeting in the third round. To make his sixth straight quarterfinal, he'll have to get past Devvarman tonight, but the way he's been playing, I wouldn't worry too much about his chances.

In similarly devastating form is world #2 Roger Federer, a two-time titleist himself, though he did face a slightly tougher battle to kick off his Indian Wells campaign. Pushed to the limit by Igor Andreev on Sunday -- he won 7-5, 7-6(4) -- he only needed fifty-eight minutes to take care of Juan Ignacio Chela yesterday. Having already improved on his performance from last year when he lost to Marcos Baghdatis in the third round, Roger can rest easily from here on out, but something tells me he's going to bring the power harder than ever. Eighteen-year-old Harrison will be his opponent tonight, and while I'd love the next-gen star to put up a fight, he might be easy pickins for the much more experienced vet.

And while the best two athletes in the sport are always the ones to beat at these tournaments, perhaps the most impressive play has come from the man who's just recently proven he belongs among their ranks. Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic is undefeated on the year, backing up his second Grand Slam with a trophy in Dubai last month. He's arguably had the toughest draw of the three at the Masters event, but has bagelled all three of his challengers in their first sets, from world #39 Andrey Golubev to sixteenth-seeded Viktor Troicki. And with a quarterfinal date against the winner of the Andy Roddick/Richard Gasquet match, you have to like his chances to rack up a few more wins in the coming days.

Sure it's nice to see emerging stars pull off these impressive victories and prove they can at least hit with the big boys, but when you look at the players who've really excelled in Indian Wells over the last week, there's no mistaking who the real powerhouses are. And until they're ready to hand over the mantle, this is really their tournament to lose.

March 13, 2011

Losing Sleep

The night most Americans have to Spring Forward and turn their clocks up by an hour is always my least favorite night of the year. But some of tennis's top stars might be losing sleep for reasons that have nothing to do with the time change.

Surprisingly with two full rounds, and a bit more, completed for the ladies, there have been relatively few meltdowns. The top six seeds have all stayed in contention without losing a set, and though Australian Open finalist Na Li lost her opener in three, it was to a solid Shuai Peng who's pulled off quite a few upsets in the last few months.

But the one woman who might be left shaking her head today is Svetlana Kuznetsova. Clearly one of the most aggressive players on Tour, we know what she's capable of when playing at her best -- she took out Sam Stosur in Sydney and earned a stunning win over Justine Henin in Melbourne. But we also know just how spotty she can be: after blowing through three higher-ranked players in Dubai she withered before Caroline Wozniacki in the finals and dropped her very next match to Shahar Peer in Doha.

Facing young wildcard Christina McHale in her opener in Indian Wells, you might not think the Russian would have much trouble. But the two-time finalist here has lost in the second round the last two years and was about to suffer the same fate in 2011. Having earned the first break of the match, she quickly gave it back and was pushed to a tiebreak, where McHale took advantage. They traded serves throughout the second set and Kuznetsova ran out ahead in that breaker, but after nearly two and a half hours, it was the eighteen-year-old from New Jersey who scored her first outright win over a top twenty player.

So what's next for Kuznetsova? She'll certainly have to regroup before heading down to Miami -- she won the title in 2006 and made the semis two of the last three times she's played there, so there's a lot at stake for her. She'll have to find the power that's kept her at the top of this game for so long and bring it with the consistency needed to produce back-to-back wins. If she doesn't, it could be a long plane ride home before the clay court season.

On the men's side there have been plenty of stunning losses. David Ferrer swallowed a loss at the hands of big-serving Ivo Karlovic, but with titles in Auckland and Acapulco already this year, I'm not too worried about him. Marcos Baghdatis also suffered defeat, though while continuing to recover from injury, to developing talent Somdev Devvarma, while last year's surprise champion Ivan Ljubicic dropped a tough three setter to Juan Martin Del Potro, who is by no means a slouch.

But it's probably Andy Murray who should be most bothered by his performance in the desert. A finalist here just two years ago, the world #5 hadn't won a match since his disappointing showing in the Melbourne finals -- not much different from his follow-up performance last year.

Still, no one expected him to struggle against world #143 Donald Young. Once touted as the next big thing in American tennis, the twenty-one year old from Chicago has only played a handful of Tour matches over the past year. But he was in control against Murray, only the fourth top ten player he's faced. Though neither served particularly well, Young stayed strong in a first set tiebreak and rebounded after losing a break lead in the second. With Murray serving to stay in the match, Donald stayed aggressive, drew himself a lead and converted his match point, earning by far the biggest win in his nascent career.

It's clearly not a result that the Scot will look fondly upon. For a guy hailed as the next great threat to break the Roger/Rafa stranglehold on the Grand Slams, it doesn't look good to accumulate one loss after another. He'll have to find a way to get back on a winning streak in Miami -- after his opening round loss there last year it's imperative he turn around his luck soon.

Now I'm not saying hope is lost for any of these players -- they've all been around the top tiers of the sport for years, but their recent performances sure remind all their potential opponents that they're not invincible, and they might need to spend some time and effort figuring out what's missing from their game.

Just maybe not tonight -- tonight they should catch up on their sleep.

March 10, 2011

Early Challenges

A little less than one round is in the books for the players at Indian Wells, and though the seeds in both men's and women's draws were given the privilege of first-match byes, results already recorded suggest difficulties could be in store for some in their openers.

Qualifier Alize Cornet, once ranked as high as #11 in the world, got past veteran Patty Schnyder on Wednesday and will face Tsvetana Pironkova next. The surprise semifinalist at Wimbledon last year will be the on-paper favorite, but she hasn't gotten past the second round at any tournament since -- I might expect her to suffer another upset if Cornet plays to her potential. And Lucie Hradecka, who's been playing a lot of tennis recently and has cut her ranking by about thirty spots this year, took out Kirsten Flipkens in straight sets earlier today. She might just have enough momentum to take out Alexandra Dulgheru in the next round -- though certainly talented, the young Romanian is out of practice, missing much of the fall's action with injury and illness and only winning a single match in 2011.

But the one star most at risk could be former #1 Ana Ivanovic. Having successfully clawed her way back from the brink at the end of last year, she suffered an abdominal injury at Hopman Cup and hasn't been playing at the top of her game since. And with a second round date with uber-vet Kimiko Date Krumm, she must be nervous. The perennially young forty-year-old may not be having the best year, but she's had wins over Dinara Safina, Maria Sharapova and Sam Stosur in the last twelve months and took Ivanovic to three exciting sets in the Bali semis. Kimiko is one of those players you can't help but root for -- combine that with her sheer determination, and she could cause some fireworks.

The men just began their first rounds on Thursday, so far fewer have reserved their spaces in the second round as of yet. But qualifier Somdev Devvarman, just a week off his career high ranking, made a strong statement in his Indian Wells Debut. After advancing to the finals in Johannesburg and notching India it's only point in their first round of Davis Cup play, he followed up with a solid win over recent standout Adrian Mannarino. Next up he'll face Marcos Baghdatis, who's been battling niggling injuries all year. The Cypriot has the win in the pair's only previous meeting, but if he's not fully recovered, there could be trouble.

But the more explosive second round may come in the form of a rematch of last year's Los Angeles semifinal. Janko Tipsarevic was pretty vocal about his loss to eventual champion Sam Querrey that summer, begrudging the fact that he should have won that match -- he got revenge, of course, a few weeks later in Washington, and Querrey has never played the same again. These days it's the colorful Serb that's having more success, and after he earned the right to face his rival again he could keep momentum on his side.

Having a high seeding at the big tournaments is never a guarantee of success, and all these guys may be in danger given the way their early opponents are playing. That's not to say that all of them will be on the next plane out of the desert, but it could mean some very exciting matches in the days before things get really serious!

March 6, 2011

Youth in Revolution

The pressure to defend a title can sometimes be a lot for an up-and-coming player to handle, especially when it's the very first professional trophy she's ever won. But this week in Monterrey, teen sensation Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova proved that her championship run in Mexico last year was no fluke, and that maybe she's got the talent to ruffle some feathers among the top ranks of the sport.

Currently the youngest player in the top fifty, the nineteen-year-old Russian is coming off her best year ever, following up her maiden title with another in Istanbul and reaching a career high ranking of #14 in the world at the start of 2011. But she fell relatively early in Melbourne and got dealt a tough -- and losing -- draw in Dubai, where she faced fifteenth seed Alisa Kleybanova in the first round.

Back in the stadium where she experienced her first breakthrough, Pavlyuchenkova struggled at the start, needing three sets to get through qualifier Eleni Daniilidou in her opener and was pushed to tiebreaks against both Melanie Oudin and veteran Greta Arn. She was much cleaner against last week's Acapulco champ Gisela Dulko in the semis, but given the amount of time she spent on court this week I worried she might be a little tired by the time she reached the finals.

On the opposite side of the court today was a resurgent Jelena Jankovic, a woman whose recent troubles have been no secret, but just days away from defending the biggest trophy she's won recently, she was finally putting together impressive wins over much more consistent players. As the top seed in Monterrey she dumped serve just a handful of times and didn't drop a set on her way to Sunday's match. I admit I was starting to have my faith in the former #1 restored.

Jankovic got off to a solid start against her young opponent, handily outserving Pavlyuchenkova in the first set and only allowing three points on her own serve. But the Russian rebounded in the second as the more experienced Jelena began to lose control on her service games. By the time the set score was evened, you had to think momentum had shifted to the teen. Though they stayed close to start the third, Anastasia rattled off four games in a row, eventually winning the match in just over two hours, and keeping her record in finals a perfect 3-0.

It's not often you see someone so young and relatively under-the-radar prove she has the strength and courage to fight her way through some big opponents time and again. And though she's just a hair off her career high ranking, something tells me Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova may find a way to make this year even better than the last.

And heading into some of the biggest tournaments of the season, there's no better time to show us all just what she's got.

March 5, 2011

On the Verge

It's been a while since either of the two ladies contesting the title in Kuala Lumpur Sunday had such a legitimate chance at winning a trophy. And though both have already caused their share of upsets over the course of the past week, I have a feeling we might be in for one more.

Lucie Safarova has been around for some time and has made a couple of valiant efforts to break into the elite. During her breakout year in 2007, after having won some small titles in Estoril and Forest Hills, she beat Amelie Mauresmo at the Australian and French Opens and Justine Henin at the Paris Indoors.She reached a career high of #22 in the world that year, but has been up and down since. Last year, even when she finally seemed to be stabilizing, she dropped the first round of an ITF tournament in Poitiers at the end of the season.

You might not think that such a spotty player would be as hard-hitting as Safarova is, but if you watched her courageous performance against Vera Zvonareva in the Melbourne third round, you know how talented she is. But it wasn't until this week in Malaysia when she really hit her stride. She survived a struggle against former #1 Dinara Safina in the first round and rolled over second-seeded Marion Bartoli in the next round. By the time she reached the semis, you almost had to consider her the favorite.

That's especially true when you consider all the seeds had been eliminated in the top half of the draw, but that doesn't make the other remaining player any less intimidating. When twenty-seven year old Jelena Dokic first burst on the scene over a decade ago, she was touted as a real star to watch. As a qualifier at Wimbledon, she destroyed top seed Martina Hingis in the first round, and rode that momentum all the way to the quarters -- a year later she made the semis. We all know the story after that -- injuries and family troubles forced her out of the elite and out of the sport. We didn't see her again until several years later when, again the underdog, she made the quarters in Melbourne in 2009.

Dokic has hung around since then, winning a few titles on the ITF circuit and winning a couple matches here and there on Tour. But this week at the BMW Open she came out swinging hard, rebounding after losing the first set to Francesca Schiavone to cause the upset of the top seed. A few days later she took out up-and-comer Bojana Jovanovski and, in her first semifinal in seven years, handily beat Michaella Krajicek to make the finals.

The two ladies have split their last two meetings, with Dokic outlasting Lucie in a long three sets in Paris. But something tells me not to underestimate this girl -- she seems to do best when she's not expected to win, and the way she's playing recently she may very well have her second breakthrough a full dozen years after her first one.

And something tells me a win now would be so much sweeter than the ones that came before.

March 3, 2011

Davis Cup Preview: What to Watch

There's a lot at stake for the countries and players contesting the first round of Davis Cup this weekend -- national pride, vengeance for recent losses, validation of new coaches, to name a few. Some are bringing out the big guns while others will battle challenges from all sorts of elements.

And while the final rubber scores will of course ultimately determine the winners, there are a couple under-the-radar stories that could matter just as much, no matter what the outcome.

Serbia vs. India

Defending champions Serbia are riding pretty high these days, what with Novak Djokovic’s second Major title and Janko Tipsarevic’s run to the Delray Beach finals. They’re rounded out by tricky Viktor Troicki and a doubles extraordinaire Nenad Zimonjic. With such a stacked team I doubt they’ll have trouble advancing.

And while their prospects for this tie might be dim, I’ll be watching the Indian team closely – newly reunited Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi made their way to the Australian Open finals in their first Slam together since 2002. And Rohan Bopanna, who’s established himself well in the paired discipline, has had some success on the singles side when playing for his country. It might be too much to ask for a win, but if they put up a fight, I’ll be happy.

Sweden vs. Russia

The Russians are the seeded team in this tie, but without their top player Mikhail Youzhny they could be headed for an early exit. Sweden may be resting its hopes on only one player, but if they’re going to put all their eggs in one basket, Robin Soderling is not a bad one to have.

The more interesting story here might be the return of Joachim Johansson, a one-time top-ten player who hasn’t played a lot of Tour matches the last few years. But the Swede, a semifinalist at the U.S. Open in 2004, is still young and powerful -- if he puts in a good showing we might see a lot more of him this season.

Czech Republic vs. Kazakhstan

The Czech’s suffered a close loss to Serbia in last year’s semifinals, so you know they’ll be out to prove something, and against a middle-of-the road Kazakh team they shouldn’t have too much trouble. But that doesn’t mean their star Tomas Berdych will be off the hook -- he's finally started putting together wins again, but he has a ton of points coming off in the next few months. If he doesn’t start performing up to his ranking soon, his top ten ranking may be pretty short-lived.

Argentina vs. Romania

The 2008 runners-up might be missing their theoretic top player in Juan Martin Del Potro, but they should still be heavily favored over the Romanians, whose best hope may be in relatively unknown doubles specialist Horia Tecau.

But a couple of Argentine veterans will be using this as a platform to prove they’re still around. David Nalbandian put up one of the most exciting first rounds at the Australian Open, but retired from the following match -- he'll need to prove he’s not too old to be a factor in the long matches. And thirty-one year old Juan Ignacio Chela made the semis in Costa Do Sauipe and the finals in Buenos Aires -- I'd love to see him show those were not just flukes and that he is capable of putting up even bigger fights.

Chile vs. U.S.

With new coach Jim Courier comes big expectations for the seeded U.S. team, but the players, recovering from sickness and injury might not be in the shape he’d hoped. Andy Roddick played well in Memphis, but withdrew from Delray with the flu while the often unstoppable Bryan brothers haven’t played since winning in Melbourne. Couple that with John Isner's failing to defend most of the points he racked up in the first two months of last year and things may not be as easy as it seems. They may have gotten a bit of a respite as their Chilean opponents boast no one ranked in the top 150, so this will be a good opportunity to test themselves in a relatively safe environment.

Belgium vs. Spain

The Spaniards suffered a surprisingly early exit at last year's Davis Cup, being blanked by France in the quarterfinals after winning the whole enchilada the prior two years. That could explain why they’re bringing their biggest weapons to face a fairly innocuous Belgian team.

There shouldn’t be too much drama in this match, but I’ll still be watching a few players closely. Rafael Nadal hasn’t seen any action since the Australian Open when he suffered a hamstring injury and Fernando Verdasco, who finally seemed to be turning his career back in the right direction, hasn’t won a match since that disappointing loss in the San Jose finals. If he’s not over that defeat, it could take a while before he regains any confidence.

Croatia vs. Germany

Croatia has built itself into a strong team too, but certain players have struggled of late. One of my personal favorites Marin Cilic had a tough start to the year and only recently began winning back-to-back matches again, while big serving Ivo Karlovic continues to out-ace opponents without ever breaking their serve.

It might be strange to say the Croats' best hope may lie with one of its least known players. World #57 Ivan Dodig is having a standout year, being the only player to take a set from Novak Djokovic in Australia and then following it up with his first career title in Zagreb. If he puts in a few wins on the homecourt, it could mean a changing of the guard for the country.

Austria vs. France

Last year's second place French team is missing some of its biggest stars with both Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga out of the mix, so it could be time for some new stars to shine. I’m not talking about Gilles Simon, who is admittedly clawing his way back up the ranks after being the leading athlete in the country just a few years back. Instead, I’ll be watching Michael Llodra who, at thirty years of age has just now established himself as a legitimate singles and doubles threat. If he puts up the kind of showing he did in 2010, it could be a long weekend for the Austrians.

Clearly individual performances aren't the biggest concern during Davis Cup play, but certain team members certainly have a chance to shine during their ties. It might mean a turnaround in their careers or the establishment of a new streak of success. Either way, the opportunities could be enormous -- and they'll all have their entire countries rooting them on.