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.

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