April 30, 2011

Back At It

It's been a while since either of the ladies who claimed trophies on clay this weekend were standing at the top of the champion's ring. But with one reclaiming a title that was all but stolen from her last year and another marking a pretty impressive record, both victories were more important than they might originally seem.

The draw at the Barcelona Ladies Open was opened at the get-go, with only two seeded players making it out of the second round. With little in her way then, 2009 champion and surprise 2010 runner-up Roberta Vinci was able to take advantage. Though she's lost every match she's played since Dubai in February, she found a way to turn around her luck and beat former top-thirty players like Virginie Razzano and Yaroslava Shvedova on her way to the finals.

There she met an impressive Lucie Hradecka who'd battled her way past more than a couple favorites to make her first final since 2009. But she must have been a little tired out by the time Saturday rolled around. After losing the first set to the unseeded Czech, Vinci won five games in a row to take the second and only dropped two more before finally claiming the title. It was her fourth on Tour, but the only one she's won twice, making the Italian a bit of a force in Spain.

A little further west in Portugal we saw a similar story unfold in the bracket, but in Estoril not a single seed got to the semis. More impressive, the two finalists -- veteran Anabel Medina Garrigues and journeywoman Kristina Barrois -- didn't drop a set on their road to Saturday's match. Anabel, an uber-decorated doubles champion, saw her ranking plummet last year and was close to falling into triple digits early in 2011 thanks to a ten-match losing streak. But with wins over eighth seeded Greta Arn and world #34 Klara Zakopalova in Portugal she finally seemed to be gaining her footing.

The German Barrois had been similarly unstoppable on the way to her second Tour final, ending the efforts of top seed Alisa Kleybanova in the quarters and Elena Vesnina the round before. But again the more experienced Spaniard was able to triumph when it counted -- winning nearly three of every four first serve points and breaking her opponent six times, Medina Garrigues claimed her tenth career title in just over an hour. More importantly it was her ninth on clay, tying her with Venus Williams for the most of any active player -- not bad for a player who'd been so under the radar for the better part of the last few years.

Of course these champions will only face tougher tests down the road as they make their way to Roland Garros, but they've made pretty loud statements this week, and a couple more matches in their favor and they certainly could cause some upsets in the next few weeks.

After all, this is the time of year when nothing is certain.

April 28, 2011

No Case for the Defense

The first couple days of action this week hasn't been all that encouraging for the players trying to defend titles on the European clay courts. Neither Sam Querrey nor Francesca Schiavone showed up to even try reclaiming crowns in Belgrade or Barcelona, respectively, and Albert Montanes traded up slightly from Estoril to play with some bigger guns in Serbia.

The few year-ago champions left who tried to extend their streaks didn't fare very well either -- Mikhail Youzhny, the top seed in Munich struggled in his first round before falling in a heart-breaker to Phillipp Petzschner in the third and Australian Open standout Anastasija Sevastova squandered her opening match lead in Portugal, making an early exit at the only event she's ever won.

So with last year's titleholders all out of the picture, those remaining might have a clearer shot at capturing the trophy, and a couple have a pretty good shot at causing a stir.

The absence of Querrey might not have too much meaning at the Serbian Open, where 2009 champion Novak Djokovic is the top seed. This is his tournament in so many ways -- he actually owns it -- and though he sat out the first two weeks of clay court season with knee troubles, he hit the dirt running with a straight set win over qualifier Adrian Unger in his second round. Now loss-less in his twenty-five matches this year, he's looking good to win an astounding fifth trophy in 2011, and that should remind everyone he's not just a hardcourt force.

The draw for the ladies in Barcelona has opened up quite a bit more -- with early defeats of Marion Bartoli and Alexandra Dulgheru, only two seeds made it to the quarterfinals. Lucie Hradecka, who fell out of the top hundred after a wrist injury last year, has been slowly clawing her way up the rankings. Her straight set victories over Iveta Benesova and Gisela Dulko prove she can hit, and her win earlier on Thursday earned her her first Tour semifinal since July. And Pattaya City finalist Sara Errani is one of those spunky players who's just screaming to break out -- she dropped just a handful of games in her first two rounds and on Thursday stopped Alberta Brianti's run dead in its tracks.

Over in Munich we saw a similar seed-dopping, but a few others still have managed to squeak through. Marin Cilic, whose efforts to climb into the top ten have come in fits and starts, reached the quarters with a win over Horacio Zeballos. And Nikolay Davydenko was able to continue his comeback with a three-set win over Julian Reister on Thursday. But perhaps the player with the best potential this week is Potito Starace -- after a disappointing runner-up finish in Casablanca, he might be ready to make a statement here.

Portugal has been the site of a few surprises as well, with the three top seeds all losing on Thursday. Jarmila Gajdosova (formerly Groth) proved she was too strong to let personal problems get in the way of her tennis, but ultimately surrendered a big lead in the quarters, and Klara Zakopalova, who'd battled a few challenges all week also fell. I've been most impressed by of Kristina Barrois, a quarterfinalist last week in Stuttgart. She took out Elena Vesnina earlier and today bested top seed Alisa Kleybanova to reach the final four -- with her next match against Johanna Larsson, I wouldn't be surprised to see her go even further.

The men in Estoril have had a little more luck so far -- Robin Soderling looked solid in his opener and even recently spotty Fernando Verdasco was impressive early. But Milos Raonic, trying to prove he's not just a hard-court player, seems to be getting his footing on clay, and Thomaz Bellucci, who often delivers his best performances on the surface, has fought his way to the quarters and should be able to keep it up at least a little while longer.

These guys and gals have a great opportunity to make a mark on their draws this week. They better take the chance now, as the road to a title will only get more difficult as we head to the next few Masters events of the season. But the way they're playing, they just might be able to cause some even bigger upsets down the road.

April 24, 2011

The Breakout and the Breakthrough

The ladies were out to impress as they took to the red clay courts of the tournaments held this week. A slew of top ten players and former #1s were in action as play really started heating up ahead of the second Grand Slam of the year, just four weeks away.

In Morocco the upsets started early and only one of the top four seeds made it safely out of the second round. One-time French Open runner-up Dinara Safina staged a valiant effort to make the semis -- her first since Cincinnati in 2009 -- but an unfortunate bout of food poisoning ended her run early, allowing world #94 into the finals -- her first since Guangzhou that same year. There she met rising star, nineteen-year-old Simona Halep, herself a finalist here last year. The two had met only once before, with the youngster trouncing the thirty-one year old veteran while qualifying for Montreal about nine months ago.

But it was a different story this time around. The unseeded Brianti, who hasn't been able to break into the top fifty in her eleven-plus years on the circuit, took control of the match early, running off to a 5-2 start before rain delayed play. She withstood a comeback by the seventh-seeded Halep and broke her opponent again to take the first set. Though they traded breaks in the second set, the Italian was able to remain ever so slightly stronger and eventually finished off the match in just an hour of play. It was her first career Tour title, and after nine ITF trophies, it couldn't have come at a better time. It might be too late to really put herself on the map at Roland Garros, but more than a few stars may find themselves on the wrong side of a Brianti upset in the coming weeks.

The elite in Stuttgart were served notice as well. With seven of the top eight women in the world coming out for the Premier event in Germany, there was plenty of talent on the court. But again the seeds fell early -- defending French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, 2008 U.S. Open runner-up Jelena Jankovic and Melbourne finalist Na Li all lost their second matches. World #1 Caroline Wozniacki was able to advance, but in the championship match she faced unseeded Julia Goerges, who'd beaten a tough Sam Stosur in the semis.

The twenty-one year old German has been causing players fits all year, taking a set from Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open and beating Shahar Peer en route to the Charleston quarters. She then pounded Melanie Oudin last weekend at the Fed Cup playoffs, confirming just how strong a force she is. But she was even more impressive this week in her home country -- though she was down a set to Victoria Azarenka in the second round before her opponent retired, she regrouped on her way to the final. Against the top seed on Sunday she held her ground, didn't drop serve once during the match and found angles on the court that frustrated the usually calm and collected Caroline. Goerges won the first set in a tiebreak and worked to a 3-0 lead in the second, then never looked back. At the end of the day she was holding the trophy, easily the biggest of her career -- so far.

It's always encouraging to get that first big trophy -- whether it comes at the end of a career or sets the stage for many more to come. Both of these ladies have certainly put themselves on everyone's radar, and something tells me we haven't seen the last of either.

April 20, 2011

Back From the Dead

If you were thinking of giving up on the couple of players who've struggled to gain their footing post-injury, you might have to put your short bets on hold, at least a little while longer. Some have been back weeks or months, while others are setting foot on court for the first time in ages. But all are pulling off victories on clay that should get fans to take notice again.

Former world #1 Dinara Safina has been staging her comeback in fits and starts for a while now, and though she made a nice run to the fourth round in Indian Wells, it's been a long time since we've seen signs of the woman who made three Grand Slam finals in 2008 and '09. She's unseeded this week in Fes, but the Russian has managed to climb back into the top hundred over the course of the year. And given her drubbing of veteran Jill Craybas in the first round Tuesday -- she only dropped nine points on her own serve -- she might be climbing even further in the weeks to come. Next up she'll face Alize Cornet, another player who's fallen from elite status and one Safina has beaten in both their previous meetings. She should have plenty of confidence going into the match, and a win may set the stage for a much more successful clay court season.

Over in Stuttgart another player is trying to re-establish herself on Tour. Sabine Lisicki, who had risen into the top twenty-five less than two years ago, missed a big chunk of 2010 after an ankle injury she sustained at the BNP Paribas Open. She returned to the circuit in Cincinnati with minimal success, but finally started putting together back-to-back wins earlier this season, qualifying for Auckland and making the third round in Miami. This week in Germany, fresh off an impressive Fed Cup win over Christina McHale in the World Group Playoffs, she opened with a stunning win over feisty Dominika Cibulkova and followed it up with a straight set defeat of Australian Open finalist Na Li. It will get more difficult, of course, as a quarterfinal date with countrywoman Julia Goerges looms large on Thursday, but Lisicki is playing impressively again, and could make a legitimate run for this title.

On the men's side we've seen top-three player Nikolay Davydenko suffer all sorts of pain since a wrist injury reversed all the success he had in 2009. He made the finals in Doha this year, but still wasn't quite playing at his best and hasn't advanced past the second round of any tournament. He seems to have gotten back on track in Barcelona though -- after upsetting rising star Alexandr Dolgopolov in the first round, he survived a second set surge by Edouard Roger-Vasselin earlier today and has now made the quarterfinals, only his second of the year. He'll have a tough task against Nicolas Almagro, a man who could break the top ten with a win on Thursday, but the two familiar faces haven't played each other in almost four years, so Davydenko could take him by surprise.

Possibly even more impressive this week has been the run of uber-veteran Juan Carlos Ferrero, a one-time Roland Garros champion and former #1 who's launched so many comebacks that I've lost track. The Spaniard had been beyond lethal in the first half of last year, winning three clay court titles and clawing his way back into the top twenty before problems with his wrist and knee took him out of contention in August. Playing his first match since the U.S. Open in Barcelona this week, he quickly dismissed Xavier Malisse and then took care of Mischa Zverev on Wednesday. With a third round meeting against qualifier Simone Vagnozzi, you have to like JCF's chances to go further, and that may reiterate just how much he can still threaten through the spring.

Of course we can't expect all comebacks to proceed without a hitch, but the efforts all these guys and gals are putting forth sure gives me hope that they've caught their second -- and sometimes third -- wind. With a couple more victories under their belts they could not only put up a fight at their respective tournaments this week, but they might be able to change the course of the clay court season in their favor.

After all if we've learned anything it's that nothing is impossible this time of year.

April 17, 2011

Lucky #7

There are not a lot of athletes, or any type of sports franchise for that matter, that can claim seven-year winning streaks at the highest level of play. But earlier today Rafael Nadal's historic run in Monte Carlo earned him a record seventh trophy at the Rolex Masters and kept him undefeated at the event since 2003.

This year's path to the finals was not without drama. After progressing easily though the early rounds, Nadal suffered a set's worth of distraction in the semis against Andy Murray. The pair traded breaks early in the match, but Rafa eventually got the lead before his level of play began to slump. His first serve percentage dropped and he missed several of the dramatic shots that usually come so easily for him. But the loss of the second set served to incite his drive and everything seemed to improve in the decider. Nadal rushed off to a 4-0 lead before finally closing out the match in three hours.

The unexpected struggle must have prepared Rafa well for the finals, where he met countryman David Ferrer playing only his second Masters championship match. Again the two traded service games early in the first set before Nadal took control and the lead, and after a similar start to the second set, he secured the decisive break late in the match to claim the title yet again.

Monte Carlo has been an important stepping stone for Rafa for years -- his first crown in 2005 set off a career that now includes nine Majors, nineteen Masters, Olympic gold and nearly two years ranked at the top spot in the sport. And while all the talk has centered around Novak Djokovic's success this year, this latest prize in Monaco reminds us all that Rafael Nadal is the only man to beat on clay. As we head into what's so often the most prolific part of his year, I expect to see no immediate signs of slowdown in his game.

And the way he's been playing, I wouldn't be surprised to see some much larger numbers become lucky for him as well.

April 15, 2011

A Taxing Weekend

It's not the specter of the IRS that'll be on the minds of the ladies taking the court in Russia and Belgium this weekend. But as they fight to make the finals of the 2011 Fed Cup there will nevertheless be pressure to pay up.

Last year's Italian champions handily beat a tough Australian team in the quarters to get here, but with French Open titleist Francesca Schiavone sitting out to focus on defending that title, they're not bringing their best. Roberta Vinci looked like she was gaining traction to start the year, but hasn't won a match since Dubai. World #43 Sara Errani is actually the second ranked player on the team, but she's proven how feisty she can be and could be the better bet to get on the board.

It won't be easy though, as Italy faces four-time winners Russia, helmed by stalwarts Vera Zvonareva and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Sure there's opportunity for upsets -- Bepa has battled through some matches recently and Sveta struggled with injury in Marbella; but both have solid winning records against their opponents and should be able to even improve upon them. Possibly the more interesting match, though, is the doubles rubber teaming together rising stars Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Ekaterina Makarova, both of whom have had success all year. On their own turf in Moscow, they may have more than homecourt advantage on their side.

Like the Italians, Team Belgium is missing its biggest striker -- Kim Clijsters' unfortunate ankle accident puts her play in question for several weeks even after this weekend's tie. They're not at a complete loss, of course, with world #23 Yanina Wickmayer leading the charge. She hasn't had as good a start to the year as she has previously, but some standout performances in Indian Wells and Charleston give me hope. Plus An-Sophie Marach, the Juniors champ in Australia, will get another chance to play with the big girls. She might not win, but she could begin laying the foundation for her future.

Of course it will be a tough battle against a solid Czech squad. They too are missing one of their perennial powerhouses in Lucie Safarova, but young star Petra Kvitova should more than make up for any shortcomings. The surprise winner in Paris has struggled a bit recently, but if she gets herself back together it could be a problem for her opponents. The Czechs are rounded out by accomplished doubles player Iveta Benesova and recent climbers Barbora Zahlavova Strycova and Lucie Hradecka. A couple weeks ago I might not given them a chance, but their play the last few weeks has been pretty impressive.

We all know that no matter how much you audit the stats going into Fed Cup weekend, anything really can happen, so no one can tell whether favorites will survive or upsets abound. Whatever the case, all these ladies better bring their A-games to the semifinals -- after all, the resulting losses are deductions no one wants to take.

April 12, 2011

Where Things Get Serious

While last week served as a nice amuse bouche for the clay court season, the men are really hunkering down for the spring this week in Monte Carlo, the first Masters 1000 event on the surface. Most of the big guns are out to make a statement, but with year-to-date #1 Novak Djokovic and two-time French Open finalist Robin Soderling both withdrawing due to injury, the pressure is on to see who fires the first shot.

Six-time defending champion Rafael Nadal will be looking to claim his first title of the year and is the on-paper and sentimental favorite here again. I'm not worried that he hasn't yet broken through in 2011 -- the Monte Carlo trophy kicked off his most prolific years in '10 and '08, so he could very well be saving his best stuff. But all good things have to end eventually, and if there are any chinks in the armor, we might see a new champion break through.

World #3 Roger Federer will certainly try to take his crack at that -- the Grand Slam record holder has somewhat surprisingly never won a title here, coming in second to Nadal three years in a row. It's hard to say a year which already includes a title in Doha and no event exits earlier than a semi is unsuccessful, but for a champion like Fed, it's not the season he's used to. We know he can play on clay, and his opening round drubbing of Philipp Kohlschreiber on Tuesday proves he's still hungry.

But if any of the super-elite needs to rethink his strategy, it has to be Andy Murray who, as has been repeatedly noted, hasn't won a match since his devastating Australian Open championship rout. Clay is by far his worst surface -- he's barely batting 0.500 on the dirt -- and with early round match-ups against specialists like Radek Stepanek and either Albert Montanes or Gilles Simon in the following round, he might not be able to improve his record much in Monaco.

Rounding out the top four seeds in Monte Carlo is journeyman David Ferrer, a seasoned clay-court player who's never really broken through on the big stage. But he made the semis here last year and went one better in Rome, so he seems to be gaining traction. Already this year he's won two titles, more than anyone else seeded above him, and had the benefit of momentum on his side. If he can get through early challenges from countryman Feliciano Lopez and young gun Milos Raonic, who's already made the third round, he could be a force to reckon with this week.

Sure there's plenty of opportunity for new talent to make their own run in Monte Carlo, but with all else equal you gotta put your money on the favorites. Some, of course, have better chances than others, but with just a few weeks left before we hit the red clay of Roland Garros, now's as good a time as any to get out of the starting blocks.

April 10, 2011

Adding to, or Starting, the Trophy Case

There are a select few players who really thrive on clay -- champions like Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin have the ability to intimidate their opponents on the surface, but when they're out of the picture anything really can happen. And as we kick off the 2011 clay court season it was both some relative veterans and a few brand new names that made the first statements.

As the youngest of this week's victors, it's a little strange to think of Caroline Wozniacki as the most accomplished of the four. But ranked #1 in the world and already owning fourteen career singles titles before arriving in Charleston, that's exactly what she is. The twenty-year-old Dane didn't play the best tennis during the week, but she'd done what she needed to make her fourth final of the year, surviving scares from Barbora Zahlavova Strycova and Yanina Wickmayer on the way. But she was able to raise her game on Sunday against Russian Elena Vesnina, firing off six aces and denying her opponent on all four break opportunities. After about ninety minutes, she was the one lifting the trophy, her third of the year.

On the European courts it was Caro's good friend Victoria Azarenka who prevailed. Fresh off her second title run in Miami, the top seed in Marbella began her clay court campaign in impressive style. She only dropped serve three times in her first four matches, reaching her first final on the surface since 2006. Against qualifier Irina-Camelia Begu in the championship match, she was able to take advantage of her challenger's inexperience. Though her service games were a little more spotty, Vika only allowed the Romanian -- who, over the week, had out-toughed players like Klara Zakopalova and '09 French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova -- to hold serve once during the match, and with the scoreline decisively in her favor, the Belarusian won her first ever title on the dirt.

While the ladies were adding to their trophy collections this weekend, the men were just out to capture that maiden title. The Casablanca final boasted two players who'd lost all four of the finals they'd played before -- Potito Starace, the fifth seed, took on world #69 Pablo Andujar, who'd beaten Jeremy Chardy and tournament favorite Albert Montanes on the way to the championship. The Italian had won both of the pair's two prior matches, most recently on the Santiago clay this year, and though Starace had pulled off a few comebacks this week, Andujar proved to be too much for him today. The twenty-five year old won more than eighty percent of his first serve points and stayed aggressive on return to get the win and put his clay court season on the right track.

And in another case of first-time victory, we saw American Ryan Sweeting make good on a wildcard entry in Houston to claim his premier Tour trophy. After taking out second seed, and last-year's runner up, Sam Querrey in the second round, he'd been impressive against a tough Teymuraz Gabashvili and outlasted big-serving Ivo Karlovic to make his first final. On the top half of the draw, a resurrected Kei Nishikori backed up a win over U.S. #1 Mardy Fish in the quarters by taking out clay-court specialist Pablo Cuevas in the semis. But Sweeting was solid on Sunday, holding strong after losing a break lead in the second set and ultimately earning the victory, 7-3 in the tiebreak. If nothing else, it's encouraging to see an American win on this surface again.

With just a few weeks left before the French Open, we've started setting the stage for what's to come. Of course we've come to know that almost nothing is certain on the red clay of Paris, but all four of this weekend's champions have certainly gotten off on the right foot. And whether their success came from experience or beginner's luck, if it continues we might have some new favorites to talk about at Roland Garros.

April 7, 2011

A Change of Season

Here in New York we've been teased with signs of spring for several weeks, but there hasn't yet been a definitive shift to the brighter, warmer weather we in the Northeast have been longing for.

Similarly in tennis after a sprinkling of "Golden Swing" events on the Latin American clay, the real shift to dirt only officially took place this week -- and it could be time for some new players to take center stage. The winter hard court season was all about Novak Djokovic, Kim Clijsters, and Caroline Wozniacki. Notwithstanding Kim's injury-induced hiatus, I wouldn't expect any of them to completely disappear in the weeks leading up to Roland Garros, but they might not have the week-after-week success they've become accustomed to.

The men in Houston are helmed by new American #1 Mardy Fish, whose gutsy Davis Cup wins late last year proved that boys from the States do not always crumble on the dirt. Still third-seeded Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, one of my dark-horse favorites at last year's French Open, and Teymuraz Gabashvili, who shocked Andy Roddick in Paris, might be the bigger threats. And Pablo Cuevas, a six-time Challenger titleist on the surface, might be ready to make his own breakthrough on the main Tour.

There are even more specialists over in Casablanca, where the seeds have ten trophies and another twelve finals to their names. Albert Montanes, who beat players like Marin Cilic, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Roger Federer on the surface, is hoping to go one better than his runner-up finish here in 2007. He hasn't had the best record this year, but on the courts which make him most comfortable, I expect that to change. And Fabio Fognini, whose French Open second round made my list of best matches of 2010, could easily turn around his year with a few more wins this week.

But if anyone is going to make a big statement in Morocco, it could be former top-ten Frenchman Gilles Simon, the champion here four years ago. He's been climbing his way back into the elite all year, winning a title in Sydney and taking Federer to five sets in the Australian Open second round. It's been a while since he's claimed a clay-court trophy, but with his game back on the right track this could be a good opportunity.

Over in Marbella the ladies draw is stacked with players who've seen most of their success on the dirt. French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and finalist Dinara Safina spent much of the 2009 season battling each other on this surface, and they very well could meet in the final again, but it might not be that easy. Alexandra Dulgheru has won her only two titles on the Warsaw clay and will be looking to branch out, while feisty Sara Errani has been known to cause some higher ranked players some trouble too.

But we might get a better idea of the real threats this season in Charleston where four top-ten players, including world #1 Wozniacki and Roland Garros runner-up Sam Stosur. Last year's champion at this tournament hasn't had a real deep run at any event in 2011, but now on the courts where she really hit her stride, I would expect her style of play to really shine.

Of course, with the clay court season really just getting started, there's plenty of time for some hopefuls to upend the status quo. But in the next few weeks, don't be surprised if we see a few new faces on the championship blocks -- after all, some previously latent talent is bound to wake up after the winter thaw.

April 3, 2011

Where It All Began

It's easy to forget that the men's and women's champions in Miami both kicked off their successful careers at this tournament just a few years back, so it's only appropriate that they both returned here to reclaim that glory -- and proved they may have grown a bit in the meantime.

Victoria Azarenka had begun to make a splash on the WTA Tour in 2009, claiming titles in Brisbane and Memphis before really breaking out on the hard courts in Key Biscayne. That year she dropped only one set in the semis to Svetlana Kuznetsova before downing five-time champion Serena Williams in the finals to capture her first premier trophy. Since then she's been a staple in the top ten, giving the sport's elite agita here and there, but never really making the same impact at the big events -- until this year.

The eighth seed in Miami struggled most through her early rounds, but had progressed through the strongest names later in the tournament. When she met Maria Sharapova, whom she had beaten for the Stanford title last year, in the final all momentum was on her side. She took the first set easily, breaking the once-dominant server in each of her service game and ran off to a 4-0 lead in the second before the three-time Grand Slam champion came roaring back. The twenty-one year old from Belarus got a chance to serve out the match and was broken again, but instead of combusting like she used to just a few months back, she held strong to win just enough points to take the title, her biggest in two years.

Novak Djokovic also cut his teeth on the courts of Miami, winning the title here four years back while ranked #10 in the world. It was only his fourth career title, but his first Masters 1000 crown and he had to beat Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray to claim that trophy. Of course, he's sprung to even greater heights in the years that followed, but it wasn't until the start of 2011 that we really saw how much he's matured.

Coming to Miami with a stellar 18-0 record on the year, everyone was talking about the new #2's win streak, but few thought it would continue quite as far as it has. He battled his way to his fourth final of the year, dropping only eight games in his first three rounds. In a rematch of the Indian Wells championship against Nadal just two weeks ago, Nole found himself down a set playing some understandably lethargic ball in the early goings. But he quickly reinvigorated himself, forced a third and served to a tiebreak. After nearly three and a half hours of play, he was again the one holding the trophy, clearly reminding us that he's not just the joker he once was.

It's been a long time since both Vika and Nole emerged as next-generation stars in tennis, and now that they've established themselves as this generation's stars it's nice to see them return to their roots. All that remains to be seen is whether they'll continue their success in the coming weeks.

April 1, 2011

All April, No Fools

In the spirit of the pseudo-holiday, we should all expect to see some slight of racquet as we head into the last weekend of play in Miami. And after the seasonally obligatory showers rolled through Friday afternoon, it's only appropriate that the (D)jokers left standing were the ones able to come up with the magic all tournament long.

On the way to her third final in Key Biscayne, Maria Sharapova has put together one of her most impressive runs since coming back from shoulder surgery almost two years ago. Not that she hasn't been tested this week -- the Russian spent three and a half hours on court Tuesday before besting Alexandra Dulgheru in the quarters. Still, she was able to take advantage of the favored Sam Stosur in the fourth round and rebounded solidly after losing the first set to Andrea Petkovic yesterday. Over the last few days she's certainly played with more confidence than I've seen out of her in a while, and now she just might be able to walk away with her biggest title since 2008.

Of course, she'll have to make it through 2009 Miami champion Victoria Azarenka who's made a remarkable comeback after retiring in the Indian Wells quarters just two weeks ago. The young Belarusian faced an arguably more difficult road to the final in Miami, battling through three consecutive three-set matches to kick off her run. But she was able to take advantage of a sluggish Kim Clijsters, who ended her attempt at defense here last year, before steamrolling Vera Zvonareva in the semis. She beat MaSha convincingly in the last final they played, so she certainly has history on her side, and if she remains collected, she could easily make it two in a row.

On the men's side of the draw, the three players we've become so accustomed to seeing on finals weekend progressed as expected, with the most dominant athlete of the year continuing his success. At this point no one should be surprised to see Novak Djokovic follow one win with another (and another), but I was expecting a bit more fight out of Mardy Fish in the first semifinal of the day. But Nole made quick work out of the new American #1, dropping just four games in the match to make his fourth straight championship round.

To win yet another trophy on Sunday he'll have to repeat his win over Rafael Nadal, the man he beat just two weeks ago in Indian Wells. But the Spaniard has also been in rarefied form in Florida. His biggest test came Thursday, when he was forced to go three sets against last year's finalist Tomas Berdych -- comparatively his 6-3, 6-2 drubbing of Roger Federer Friday evening was a walk in the park. The way he's playing, it's no wonder you all said a Rafa/Nole final was most likely!

They might have pulled off quite a few tricks over the course of this event, but the way all four of these guys and girls are playing, it's clear they haven't fooled their way into the finals. And if they continue playing to their potential, it sure is going to be an exciting weekend!