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.

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