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.

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