May 31, 2011

The Wildcard Quarters

For a long time we've been saying that this year's French Open is truly up for grabs. With Novak Djokovic dominating every court this year, even the undisputed King of Clay Rafael Nadal isn't necessarily a favorite. And as seed after seed was upset in the women's draw, the eight ladies remaining all have a real chance to take home the title.

Some are obviously more experienced than others -- at the start of day, three on each side had won Majors before -- but in both draws there has emerged one section where neither contender has claimed a Grand Slam, and this could very well be their opportunity.

Li Na stunned the world when she powered through her draw in Melbourne to reach the Australian Open championship match. She even ran away with a set-and-break lead over Kim Clijsters before the veteran took charge of the match.

Li was flying under the radar again in Paris -- she won only one match in three months after Australia -- but seemed to get her footing back in Madrid and Rome, both of which yielded semifinal runs. And after losing the first set to Petra Kvitova on Monday and getting down a break in the third set, she showed just how resilient she can be, battling to her fifth Major quarterfinal in two years.

Next up she'll face fourth seeded Victoria Azarenka, one of my original favorites to win the title. She's disappointed me in the past, though, and susceptibility to injury and frequent retirements made me a little nervous she'd do so again.

But so far she's been solid, losing serve just a handful of times and winning more than seventy percent of her first serves. She has a surprisingly bad record against Li, only defeating her once last year in Montreal and getting fairly trampled in the fourth round at Melbourne. But if she can keep her head on Wednesday I expect she might reach her first Major semifinal.

On the men's side a couple unseeded players fought their way to the quarters, but veteran Juan Ignacio Chela really took advantage of his draw. The former world #15 had a rough start to the 2011 clay court season, but turned his luck around in Dusseldorf, winning all four of his matches for Argentina at the World Team Championships.

He hasn't had the biggest on-paper challenge in Paris, facing only one seed in his first four rounds. But he survived a nearly four-hour slugfest against fellow south American Alejandro Falla on Wednesday, and has the added benefit of having today off -- something his next opponent won't get.

Andy Murray was questionable when he came into the fourth round, having rolled his ankle pretty badly against Michael Berrer a few days earlier. And when he dug himself into a 0-5 hole against Viktor Troicki late in Monday's play, it looked like his Roland Garros campaign was soon to end. Troicki served out the first set on his third attempt and managed to hang onto a lead in the second, but it was quickly apparent that Murray had worked out his kinks.

He took just over an hour to even the set score before play was called for darkness, bringing all the momentum with him into today's continuation. He got down a break early, but came back again, stopping the Serb as he tried to serve it out and finally closing out another four-hour match -- the fourth time he's successfully rebounded from two sets down. You have to like Murray's chances against Chela in the next round, and whatever the result after that, he's more than shown he shouldn't be discounted on this surface.

Of course there is plenty of potential for other first-time Major winners to continue through the draws. Robin Soderling has a chance to again take out Rafael Nadal in their quarterfinal match. And both Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, currently in a third set with defending champion Francesca Schiavone, and Andrea Petkovic, who beat her next opponent Maria Sharapova in Melbourne, are legitimate contenders.

But for these four players in particular, their chances to bring home the big prize have never looked better.

May 29, 2011

French Fires

It's been a long time since any Frenchman or woman has made much of an impact at a Grand Slam, much less the one in their homeland. But this year, with thirty-two singles players in the draw, a couple were bound to stick around -- and they're not the ones you might have expected to set off the fireworks.

Gilles Simon was a top-ten player not so long ago, but some spotty results and knee injury pushed him into the low double-digits at the end of last year. A win in Sydney and a quarterfinal showing in Miami helped him get back within a stone's throw of the elite, but he's never done particularly well at Roland Garros -- a third round exit in 2009 is his best showing -- and has only amassed a slightly better than fifty percent record on clay. With three of his countrymen seeded higher than he, I didn't expect Simon would be the one still around.

But the twenty-six year old has been solid in Paris. He dropped sets to both Michael Russell and Jeremy Chardy, but was unstoppable against American Mardy Fish on Saturday. Dropping serve just once in that match, he earned his first ever fourth round at the French Open, where he'll meet two-time finalist Robin Soderling. Simon hasn't beaten the Swede since 2008, well before Soderling made a name for himself, but something tells me the crowd will do its part to make sure this match is a good one.

Top-ranked Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli made it as far as the fourth round in Paris once in ten previous appearances -- she's had more success in both Wimbledon, where she was a finalist in 2007, and Melbourne. And though she's hovered among the top-twenty for some time, she hasn't won a title in almost two years. She made the finals in Indian Wells in March and in Strasbourg last week, but retired with a thigh injury, so her success at Roland Garros could have been in doubt.

But something seems to have clicked for the tenth seed. She hasn't had an easy time of it, but she's pulled out the big guns when she needed to. She lost her first set to both Anna Tatishvili and Julia Goerges, and battled back after dropping a tiebreak to Olga Govortsova in the second round. Earlier today she received a bit of a gift when Gisela Dulko pulled out of their match early, giving Bartoli entrée into her first Major quarterfinal in over two years. She'll face '09 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova next, so it won't be an easy task to improve her run, but she's probably never had a better opportunity to do it.

Probably most surprising has been the success of French showman Gael Monfils. A semifinalist here in 2008, he's more known for his on-court antics than his consistent play. He hasn't played a lot this year, with a wrist injury limiting his matchplay, and retired from tournaments in Madrid and San Jose. And with a sixty-percent record on clay I didn't expect him to really perform in Paris either.

When he lost his opening set to world #145 Bjorn Phau, I thought we might be in for an early upset. But Monfils came back and bagelled the German in the fourth set. He took another two-and-a-half hours to dismiss compatriot Guillaume Rufin and finally had an easy time against Steve Darcis to make the fourth round. When he met up with clay court specialist David Ferrer, though, I was sure his luck had run out. But somehow he found himself up two breaks in the first set and came back from a deficit in the third to take a two set to one lead. Play was suspended for darkness with Ferrer up a break in the fourth, but the rest may well serve to reinvigorate the Frenchman, never known for dealing well with high-intensity matches.

The three remaining French in the draws have certainly done their part to excite the home crowd, whether their campaigns continue or not. It's not impossible for them to stick around a little longer, though, and cause a few more surprises. And if they can light a few more fires, it could further turn this tournament on its head.

May 27, 2011

The Sleepers

The top players have grabbed all the headlines in Paris this past week -- Rafael Nadal struggles in early rounds, Kim Clijsters stunned by a Dutch upstart, Nole keeps rolling.

But amid the high-profile stories at this year's French Open, some other contenders are quietly moving through their draws and could take us all by surprise in the second week.

It's strange to think of former world #1 Jelena Jankovic as being under the radar, but after upsets in Stuttgart, Madrid and Brussels, she's at her lowest seed at a Major since the 2007 Australian Open. But maybe that's where she likes to be -- in three matches she hasn't lost a set and has the second best percentage of first serve points won in the women's field. Earlier today she cleanly dispatched a tough Bethanie Mattek-Sands, committing just ten unforced errors, to make her fifth straight fourth round at Roland Garros -- arguably the Slam where she's most consistently successful.

The road gets harder from here, of course -- Jankovic faces defending champion Francesca Schiavone in the next round. She'd been slightly more successful in the tournaments leading up to Paris, but she didn't beat anyone ranked in the top thirty and probable wasn't really considered a contender to repeat. But the Italian has been relentless in her campaign, dropping just five games in her first two matches before benefiting from Shuai Peng's retirement on Friday. She's only won one match in her previous four meetings with JJ, though, so we could very well see an upset here.

A little further down the rankings, Jarmila Gajdosova is making her own statement in Paris. A solid hardcourt player, she's had a decent run on clay coming into the French Open -- no huge upsets, but no big disappointments either. She's seeded at a Slam for the first time in her career, and so was spared the most intimidating opponents early. But a straight-set win over Estoril champion Anabel Medina Garrigues in the second round proves she can hit on the dirt. She'll next meet Andrea Petkovic, fresh off her own title in Strasbourg. The German is certainly a threat, but if Jarka can manage an upset, she could have even a few more wins in her.

On the men's side, David Ferrer has been quietly mincing his opponents, one by one -- and they've not been your typical pushovers. Veterans Jarkko Nieminen and Julien Benneteau have both pulled off some impressive upsets in the past, and Sergiy Stakhovsky is establishing himself as a real threat on Tour. Still Ferrer has battled through, winning a field-leading eighty-six percent of his first serves and saved all three of the break points he's faced. He'll meet the winner of the Gael Monfils/Steve Darcis match, but I don't expect either will be much of a challenge. And the win could clear the way for a few more wins.

A slightly longer shot for the title, Alejandro Falla finds himself in a pretty attractive section of the draw. The man that nearly ousted Roger Federer in the first round of Wimbledon last year had to qualify for Roland Garros, but knocked off Casablanca finalist Potito Starace, and my underdog favorite Florian Mayer in the main draw. There are no seeds left near him for at least two rounds, so he might be the biggest surprise quarterfinalist of this tournament in a few days time.

Any of these sleepers could sneak up on the top seeds in Paris -- clearly no one is invulnerable on the clay and a couple lucky shots could really make the difference. And with the way these guys are playing, it doesn't seem any of their opponents are safe.

May 25, 2011

Pushed to the Limit

A couple of the sport's biggest stars were put to the test in their early rounds in Paris, and while a couple -- like Tomas Berdych and Flavia Pennetta -- came out on the wrong end, some others eventually prevailed. But their toughest tests might be yet to come.

Former top-twenty player Xavier Malisse isn't seeded at the French Open, but he's one of those floaters no one wants to see in their section of the draw. Since wrist injury sidelined him for much of 2008 and dropped him out of a double-digit ranking, he's been clawing his way back among the contenders and has pulled off wins over the likes of John Isner, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic in the past year.

In his first round at Roland Garros, a tournament at which he's never passed the fourth round, he faced a tough test in Dmitry Tursunov, another player coming back from injury. They traded sets for about two-and-a-half hours before the Belgian was finally able to take hold and get the win. But with a second round date against Fernando Verdasco, he'll need to up his game even more. True, the Spaniard has had an up-and-down year, but he has won the pair's only meeting -- a Davis Cup rubber, in straight sets -- so Malisse can't afford to get too far behind in the count. But if he can pull it off, it could bode well for the rest of his year.

Dark horse Julia Goerges also found herself in trouble earlier today. Seeded at a Slam for the first time in her young career, the German came to Paris with a lot of pressure on her shoulders -- she'd beaten world #1 Caroline Wozniacki twice during the lead-up tournaments, once in the finals at Stuttgart, and was one of my favorite underdogs to take the title.

But in her second round against feisty Lucie Safarova, she found herself down a set and a break as the Czech's groundstrokes seemed to find all the lines. Goerges stayed strong, though, drawing even and finally getting a go-ahead break in the nearly hour-long second set. The momentum stayed on her side in the decider, as she won every one of her first serves and broke her opponent two more times to advance. Next up, she'll meet eleventh seed Marion Bartoli, a hometown favorite but certainly a beatable foe. If Julia can take advantage, she could set up an even deeper run at this Major.

Vera Zvonareva is used to the pressure of the later rounds at the Slams, but she was in for a surprise on Wednesday afternoon. Facing one-time world #22 Sabine Lisicki, she battled through one long set after another – the German pulled out some magical passing shots to break the third seed and take the first set and seemed to pull even whenever Vera took a lead in the second. The two traded breaks again in the third, but after an injury time-out, the Russian was able to secure a lead and the win.

It was heart-breaking to see Lisicki in so much pain, but you have to give Zvonareva credit for keeping her cool when she’s so often lost it in the past. She should have an easier third round against Anastasia Rodionova, the Australian who knocked out last year's quarterfinalist Nadia Petrova in the first round, and might be ready to put up his best-ever run in Roland Garros.

Of course the biggest story of this year's early rounds has been the ultimate test faced by five-time and defending champion Rafael Nadal in his first round. After taking the first set and a break from big-serving John Isner easily, the Spaniard found himself in trouble. Isner was able to force a tiebreaker and never squelched a lead in it. There were no breaks in the third set and when the American seized control of that breaker, we knew history was about to be made -- either the undisputed King of Clay would suffer his biggest upset, or he'd have to play his first ever five-setter in Paris.

Nadal's a fighter, though, and he was able to kick his game into high gear the second he found himself trailing. He didn't allow Isner another break chance in the next eighty-plus minutes, and after more than four hours of play he finally walked away the winner. For his efforts he'll meet rapidly improving Pablo Andujar, another Spaniard who won his first career title earlier this year in Casablanca. They've never met before, but Rafa should be sufficiently recovered to get the win. Even still, there could be some more unexpected fireworks in store for us Thursday.

Maybe it's a good thing all these guys were challenged so early in the tournament -- now that the tests are over, perhaps they'll see smooth sailing going forward.

Or else, it could be a sign that there's even more excitement down the road. And if these matches are any indication, you won't want to miss a beat.

May 23, 2011

No Signs of Fatigue

Sure, it's nice to be such a great tennis player that you can hang around 'til the end of a tournament, playing in the late rounds week after week. Of course you do run the risk of exhaustion, especially when you enter an event right before a Grand Slam.

But so far the men and women who played this past finals weekend have followed up on their success -- and those that still have their first rounds to play hope their luck also doesn't run out.

Both Brussels champion Caroline Wozniacki and runner-up Shaui Peng began their Paris campaigns today in style. Though taped up from a thigh injury -- one that caused her to take a medical time-out during Saturday's final -- the #1 seed had no trouble dispatching uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm. She made just nine errors and kept her opponent to under thirty percent on her return games. After just an hour, Wozniacki had advanced to the second round, proving she has plenty of steam left in her.

Peng was similarly impressive against Austria's Tamira Paszek -- though she needed just a few more minutes to get the win, she was never in trouble, saving all four break chances against her and winning nearly eighty percent of her first serves.

Strasbourg finalist Marion Bartoli struggled a bit more than the other ladies. After retiring from her championship match while trailing by a set and a game, the Frenchwoman found herself in trouble in Paris against the little-known Anna Tatishvili. The Georgian broke the eleventh seed in all of her service games during the first set, running off to a lead in just over half an hour. But ultimately experience prevailed -- Bartoli was able to get her game together and brought the momentum to her side of the court, winning the match 6-1 in the third set.

The woman who claimed the title in Strasbourg, Andrea Petkovic, will begin her Roland Garros campaign tomorrow against up-and-coming Serb Bojana Jovanovski. The two have never met before, but both had nice starts to the year, and ostensibly are better suited to hard courts. But Petko will do her best to back up her highest career ranking and, I expect, should come out on top.

Over in Nice, unseeded Victor Hanescu made a surprising run to the finals, kicking off that campaign with a one-sided defeat of Frenchman Benoit Paire. Ironically, he faced him again in his French Open first round earlier today and was in for a bigger fight this time around. After dropping the second set and rebounding with a breadstick in the third, Hanescu was forced to a tiebreak in the final set, eventually prospering in more than two-and-a-half hours. I'm not sure the result will completely mirror that of last week's event, but at least he's off to a good start.

Nicolas Almagro, who won the Nice title, will open tomorrow against Poland's Lukasz Kubot, a man against whom he's 3-0. I don't suspect he'll have much trouble this time around, either, but hopefully he'll use the match to make a statement on just how much he's contending for this championship.

All four of the men who played singles in the Dusseldorf final will play their openers on Tuesday. Florian Mayer and Philipp Kohlschreiber, who led the Germans to victory, will face Igor Kunitsyn and Sam Querrey respectively. Mayer, who's never lost to his opponent, should improve his streak, but Kohlschreiber, one-and-one against the American, will have to strike early. Querrey is hanging onto a seed in Paris by the slimmest of margins, and he's more than beatable, so look for the veteran German to force an upset.

The Argentines failed to defend their World Team Cup title over the weekend, so they'll be out for revenge. Juan Ignacio Chela meets young American Tim Smyczek, a man who's lost his only Tour-level clay court match, and should not have too much trouble. But Juan Monaco, ranked #43 in the world, faces a faltering Fernando Verdasco. The Argentine has a convincing 6-2 record against his opponent, so he should bring plenty of confidence into the match and could very well send the seed packing early.

It's a hectic and demanding life these athletes lead, but so far they're proving they have the strength and endurance to keep their campaigns going for at least a little while longer. Of course, not everyone can keep it up forever, but the ones that do will sure make for some exciting matches in the coming weeks.

May 21, 2011

Blogcast: 2011 French Open Preview

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

And check out my early predictions for the man and woman I picked at the start of the year to bring home the trophies in Paris to see just how far we've come.

May 20, 2011

French Open: First Round Matches to Watch

Well it's that time of year again -- the main draws for the French Open are out and everyone -- except, they say, the players themselves -- are scouring the brackets to see what potential match-ups lie ahead.

As always, there will surely be a few early upsets and a couple Cinderella stories, and while the most exciting tales are those that are the least expected, I've chosen to point out a few that are particularly ripe for surprises. And, as always, I'll start with the men.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

If recent losses in Madrid and Rome didn't do it, a quick look at his quarter should prove the gods have finally turned against Rafael Nadal. Since 2003 his first round opponent at the Slams has, on average, ranked 116 in the world. But this year he'll face big-serving John Isner in his opener. It's not the worst fate -- the clay clearly neutralizes the American's biggest weapon and the defending champion has won both their previous meetings -- but the bigger threats come later in the uber-stacked section. Rafa's best bet might be hoping the other early match-ups tire out the rest of the contenders.

Fernando Verdasco faces Juan Monaco in his first match, but it might not be the seeded Spaniard that emerges victorious. Monaco pulled off a nice win over Mardy Fish in Dusseldorf, helping his Argentina make the finals. And Verdasco is back in a funk, winning just one match since handily losing in the Estoril final. And unfortunately, the pairing of Pablo Andujar and Santiago Giraldo, both of whom have been making strides this seas, can only result in one winner.

More interesting could be the match-up of Ivan Ljubicic and Somdev Devvarman, neither of whom are seeded in Paris. The Indian is at his highest career ranking and has notched defeats over Marcos Baghdatis, Milos Raonic and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez this year. Clay may not be his best surface, but so early in his career it can't hurt to make a statement now. And Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who beat both Richard Gasquet and Jurgen Melzer in Madrid, will meet Robin Haase to kick off his campaign -- that could be a fun fight between next-generation stars.

The late-round match-to-watch: If they live up to their seedings, Nadal could meet Robin Soderling for a third straight year in Paris for a spot in the semis. He more than avenged his heart-wrenching defeat from 2009, but this year things might be a bit more up in the air.

Second Quarter

Novak Djokovic should have a much easier time in France as he looks to improve his already-impressive streak. In a quarter co-lead by Tomas Berdych, he doesn't have a lot of early threats, so look for a nice run from the Serb.

It won't be easy for everyone, though. Estoril champion Juan Martin Del Potro faces fellow big-man Ivo Karlovic in his first French Open match in two years. The Croat's actually won their only previous meeting, but that was several years ago, and DelPo has certainly adapted his service game to this surface. Still, I worry that if he's not completely recovered from that muscle tear in his leg, he may have a tough start to the tournament.

This section of the draw also boasts the return of two legends in the sport. Lleyton Hewitt, who we haven't seen since a first round loss in Indian Wells. Dealing with injuries for the better part of three years, he hasn't really been a consistent force in some time. He could have some trouble, then, against clay court specialist Albert Montanes in the first round -- though he leads the head-to-head, both meetings were a long time ago and on different surfaces. I'd expect Montanes to come out swinging.

Tommy Haas has been out of the game slightly longer -- after hip surgery last February, he's played a tiny bit of doubles this year, but has no singles wins since San Jose in 2010. The gorgeous German will meet a qualifier in his return to Grand Slam play, so hopefully that's a stage on which he can be eased back into competition. As the fortnight wears on, it's only going to get harder.

The late-round match-to-watch: Nole and DelPo are slated to meet in a far-too-early third round. It should be the first big test Djokovic faces this tournament, and if Del Po plays to his ability, it could be a good one.

Third Quarter

Roger Federer hasn't been ranked this low at a Major since Wimbledon 2003 -- which he won, by the way. But he faces an early test from Feliciano Lopez, who took him to three tough tiebreak sets in Madrid a few weeks ago. That nearly three-hour match exposed some of Roger's shortcomings on clay and proved that the Spaniard is capable of hitting big. I'm hoping the rematch is just as exciting.

On the other side of the quarter, David Ferrer could get a struggle from veteran Jarkko Nieminen. They've met two times this year, splitting victories on hard courts, and the Finn is making his way back up the rankings, putting up a struggle in the third round of Rome. I give Ferrer this edge, based on his experience and strengths, but if the fever that took him out of Italy lingers at all, it could be a fight.

The late-round match-to-watch: Ivan Dodig, who got off to a strong start early in the year, also beat Robin Soderling in Barcelona and could face a second round test from Janko Tipsarevic, who served him a one-handed defeat in Delray. Look for the rising Croat to regain his footing on what should be a good surface for him.

Fourth Quarter

The top seeds in the last section of the bracket, Andy Murray and Jurgen Melzer, both get qualifiers in the first round, and should have a fairly easy time advancing early. But like the top quarter, this section is pretty heavily stacke with veterans Nicolas Almagro and Viktor Troicki dappled among some rising stars like Milos Raonic and Alexandr Dolgopolov.

The latter, who ended a five-match losing streak with a semifinal appearance in Nice this past week, will meet Rainer Schuettler in just his second French Open appearance. This is far from his best surface, but if he wants to keep the momentum he gained in Australia, he's going to want to make a deep run here, and getting past the more experienced German would be a good start.

I'll also watch the match-up between Ryan Sweeting and Andreas Haider-Maurer. The champion in Houston followed up with a semifinal showing at a Sarasota Challenger, making him one of the most successful American clay-courters we've seen in quite a while. Haider-Maurer doesn't have a lot of experience on any surface, but he did take Robin Soderling to five sets in New York last year, so we know he can put up a fight. But a win for Sweeting could put him back on the radar as a future force in the country's arsenal.

The late-round match-to-watch: Both would have to cause an upset or two on the way, but Raonic could face Dolgo in the fourth round, and it would be great to see the Australian Open Cinderellas take it to each other.

The Women

First Quarter

Caroline Wozniacki is the top seed for the third Slam in a row, and people continue to ask the question over when she'll win that maiden Major. She could be in for a challenge when she meets super-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm in her opener. The forty-year old Japanese has continued to pull off upsets during her second career, so Caro can't take her lightly, but she should be able to survive this test relatively unscathed.

More interesting in this section of the draw is the pairing of Aravane Rezai, out of seeding range this year, and Irina-Camilia Begu, the surprise finalist in Marbella last month. The young Romanian upset Klara Zakopalova and Svetlana Kuznetsova during that run, so you know she can hit. And against a struggling Rezai, she could very conceivably improve her year even more.

Then there's Tsvetana Pironkova, who hasn't passed a third round since miraculous semifinal run last year at Wimbledon. She's just barely holding onto a seed in Paris, but she won't have that luxury much longer and needs a few wins, stat. The Bulgarian will face Casey Dellacqua, a woman who's been pretty active since returning from injury in Estoril, in the first round, and a win would give a big boost to her confidence.

The late-round match-to-watch: I know most people are hoping for a quarterfinal rematch between Wozniacki and Stuttgart champion Julia Goerges, but I'll be watching a round earlier when the seventeenth seed could meet last year's Roland Garros runner-up Sam Stosur. The Australian was a victim in Stuttgart too and is more than susceptible to another loss.

Second Quarter

Kim Clijsters was given a bit of a pass in her first French Open since 2006 -- her first round date with Anastasiya Yakimova should present little trouble. And Maria Sharapova kicks off against Marjana Lucic, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 1999, trying to launch a comeback.

But keep an eye on Estoril finalist Kristina Barrois. Her game is particularly well-suited to clay, and she could be a spoiler. But opening opponent Sania Mirza has been winning again this year, and some improved doubles play could help her game here as well. And Andrea Petkovic finally started showing her stuff on clay in Strasbourg -- I want to see if she can keep it up against up-and-comer Bojana Jovanovski who started off the year so strong.

And in a sadly ironic pairing, newly-single Jarmila Gajdosova meets Virginie Razzano, who just suffered the heart-breaking loss of her fiancé. I can't root against either of these ladies, circumstances notwithstanding, but Jarmila has played solid ball since hitting the clay, and I don't expect her to stop now.

The late-round match-to-watch: If the seeds play out as expected, Clijsters should face Petko in the fourth round. She's beaten her they're only previous meeting, but that was well before the German became a real force, and something tells me this time things will be a lot more exciting.

Third Quarter

Third-seeded Vera Zvonareva could face a tough test against Lourdes Dominguez Lino, the Spaniard who won a title in Bogota back in February. But the Russian seemed to regain form this week in Brussels -- she dropped just one point on serve against Alexandra Dulgheru in the quarterfinals. She is spotty on clay, though, and could be taken by surprise, but I expect her to be relentless from the get-go.

Last year's champion Francesca Schiavone may have a hard time defending her title, and that trouble could start early. First round opponent Melanie Oudin has had trouble recapturing the magic she possessed a few years ago in New York, but she did score an all-important victory over the Italian in last year's Fed Cup final. I don't know that she'll be able to repeat, but it sure would be fun to see her try.

The late-round match-to-watch: Young champions Alisa Kleybanova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova are slated to meet in the third round. They've been trading wins over their history, and all of their matches have gone the distance, so you have to think this could be a good one.

Fourth Quarter

Victoria Azarenka carries her best Slam seeding to Paris, thanks to a very successful spring. She's been told she's fit to play after an elbow injury forced her to retire in Rome, but watch her first round match with Andrea Hlavackova for any signs of stress. And Petra Kvitova, who skipped Rome last week in favor of an ITF event in Prague, returns to Tour with a match against blossoming thirty-two year old Greta Arn, a quarterfinalist in Italy.

But there are more intriguing pairings out there. One of two resurgent Italians, Alberta Brianti or Roberta Vinci, will have to step aside early -- unfortunate after the last few months they've had. And one-time Cinderella Sorana Cirstea could face a stumbling block as she runs into veteran Patty Schnyder in her first match. Meanwhile 2009 semifinalist Dominika Cibulkova, who beat Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova in Madrid, is on the verge of breaking into the elite -- I'd like to see her really show her stuff against doubles ace Vania King.

The late-round match-to-watch: 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic and barely unseeded Ekaterina Makarova could meet in the second round -- Ana soundly beat her in New York and the Russian returned the favor in Melbourne and rode the momentum to her best Major performance. It'll be interesting to see how these two fare on a different surface.

I'm not sure if it's particularly bad luck for the favorites this year, or a field of underdogs who've shown their mettle all season, but it certainly seems like this year's draws have plenty of room for surprises. If Nadal does, in fact, get that Open-era record sixth title in Paris or if Wozniacki manages to silence her critics by finally claiming a Major crown, you know they'll have earned it.

And hopefully, there will be plenty of excitement in the meantime.

Be sure to check back tomorrow when I blogcast my full preview of the action at Roland Garros and highlight a few more things you'll want to watch at the year's second Grand Slam.

May 18, 2011

Last -Minute Cramming

Remember when you were in college and, despite all your good intentions, you would somehow find yourself pulling an all-nighter to finish up a paper or reading up on all the assignments you ignored before a final? Heck, a decade removed from that reality, I still have nightmares of being unprepared for the big day.

Maybe it's a similar lack of preparation that's prompted so many of the tennis elite to spend the last week before the French Open, not resting up after the recent flight of Premier and Masters events, but hitting the ground hard for even more match play.

The field in Brussels is surprisingly loaded, with four top-ten ladies in attendance. World #1 Caroline Wozniacki leads the pack, fresh off a semifinal finish in Rome. She hasn't won a ton of titles this clay court season, but she has hung around the draws a while, only losing in a third round once. And frankly that makes me a little worried for her this week. Set to go up against some top talent in Belgium, she will by no means have an easy ride to the title. She already survived a tough opener against Varvara Lepchenko, and with Yanina Wickmayer in the next round, things are just getting harder.

Leading the other half of the draw is Vera Zvonareva, who'll be seeded third in Paris now that Kim Clijsters has confirmed. Her presence in Brussels makes a little more sense to me, since unlike workhorse Caroline, the Russian hasn't gotten in a many successful workouts on the clay. She was pushed to three sets in four consecutive matches, and the only straight-setter was a loss to Petra Kvitova in the Madrid third round. Not exactly the kind of record she would have wanted going into her least successful Slam. Vera faces a strangely more accomplished Alexandra Dulgheru on Thursday, and if she can get in a few more wins after that, her chances next week might certainly get better.

Reigning French Open champ Francesca Schiavone will have a ton of points coming off her ranking in a few weeks, and she's doing what she can to rack up a bit of padding before that happens. She's only won a handful of matches this season and didn't try to defend her title in Barcelona, so there's a lot of ground to make up. But two wins to her name in Brussels is a good start, and if last year is any indication, it might be all she needs to go for the gold at Roland Garros.

Over in Dusseldorf, where individual performances are less important than team scores, Robin Soderling heads up the otherwise sparse Swedish team. Still, as he tries to go one better than his previous showings in Paris, it's probably a good choice. So far, he's won both his matches against Sam Querrey and Maximo Gonzalez, and though his county may not be able to advance out of the round robins, this Robin may have gotten his confidence back up after quarterfinal exits in Madrid and Rome.

A little closer to the action in Paris, David Ferrer is hoping to make up for missing last week's event in Italy -- where he had finished runner-up last year -- due to fever. He should be confident enough, having won a title in Acapulco and reaching two clay court finals already this year. But a trophy in Nice this week could bode well for his French Open chances -- after all, he took the crown in Auckland last January just before making his best-ever run in Melbourne.

Whether these guys have been procrastinating in notching their clay court wins, or are diligent students over-prepping for a Major test isn't entirely clear, but I have my suspicions. Hopefully they won't wear themselves out this week -- the challenges ahead only get tougher.

May 15, 2011

The Virtue of Patience

More than three years ago Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova stood atop the victory blocks in Melbourne, both just crowned champions at the 2008 Australian Open. Some thought the pair would be constant fixtures at the top of tennis, but for various reasons both had been pushed to the sidelines for some time. It's been long, very different roads since then for the two, but now just a few days from the start of another Grand Slam and they've both been rewarded and are finally king and queen of the same tournament again.

Sharapova had struggled after capturing her third Major title -- though she added a few trophies to her mantle that year, a shoulder injury hampered her play at Wimbledon and caused her to withdraw before the third round in Montreal. She came back to the game in mid-2009, and though she won a couple smaller titles here and there, she didn't really regain her footing until this year. A semifinal run in Indian Wells and runner-up finish in Miami pushed her back into the top ten, but she really turned on the heat in Rome.

Seeded seventh at the tournament, she got a big break in the quarterfinals, when Victoria Azarenka had to retire while up a break. Sharapova was quick to take advantage of the gift and followed up with a dominating straight-set win over world #1 Caroline Wozniacki. But against Sam Stosur in Sunday's final she was truly impressive -- the Russian ran off to a 4-0 lead against last year's second place finisher at Roland Garros, and after trading breaks to start the next set, took control of the match. In just under ninety minutes, Maria had improved to 8-0 against the big-hitting Aussie and reminded us all she's still hungry for the big titles.

Novak Djokovic, of course, came back into the spotlight much earlier in 2011. Though he'd spent much of the last three years playing third fiddle to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, he erased any doubts that he should be considered part of the sport's elite when he reclaimed the title in Australia. And ever since then he's been on a roll, racking up a 32-0 record before coming to Rome, one of history's best starts to a season. Most of us thought that streak would end last week in Madrid, when he finally met Rafa on the surface he'd dominated for more than half a decade -- but even then, the surging Serb was unstoppable as he downed the previously undisputed King of Clay in straight sets. But surely lightning couldn't strike twice, right?

Well, by now we should know better than to count Djokovic out of anything. After easily dismissing two-time French Open finalist Robin Soderling in the quarters, he put on one of the greatest battles of the year to date against Andy Murray on Saturday night. He somehow surrendered the second set and gave back a break lead in the third. Murray even had a chance to serve for the match, but the relentless Nole wouldn't give up -- forced to a tiebreak, he got an early lead and didn't look back. After three hours, and probably the biggest scare he's had all year, Djokovic made the finals where he displayed no signs of exhaustion. There were three straight breaks in the first set to give Novak the early lead and he earned three championship points on Nadal's serve in the second -- finally converting on the fourth try and proving there might just be another man to beat on the dirt.

With just a week left before the French Open, it's encouraging to see both these athletes still playing at their best on a surface that's never been their favorite. On courts where the rallies can last so much longer, they've both shown they have the patience to ride out the toughest opponents -- and that maybe they'll be standing on top a few more times this year.

May 13, 2011

The Little Engines That Could

It's been a long time since there's been any confusion over who was going to win on clay.

For the past several years tournaments on the dirt -- especially the Major -- have been dominated by Rafael Nadal and, admittedly to a lesser extent, Justine Henin. But in 2011 we've realized there are many other contenders out there, and a couple are out to prove they more than just think they can win in Rome.

Sam Stosur took her first steps into the elite last year as she made her way to the French Open final, but she's been a little spotty in recent months, making just one quarterfinal through mid-April and failing to defend her Charleston title. She seems to have found her footing in Italy, though, at a tournament where she's never had much success before. The Australian opened with a solid victory over Iveta Benesova and earlier today exacted revenge for her crushing Roland Garros loss. Next she'll meet Australian Open finalist Na Li, a woman she's beaten handily in their previous two meetings, and the way the draw's opened up I like her chances to go even further.

But in the other half of the bracket lies a sleeping giant. Maria Sharapova hasn't been the force she once was at the big tournaments and though she has clawed her way back into the top ten, she hasn't won a premier trophy since 2008. But she was flawless against Ekaterina Makarova in her Rome opener and had a surprisingly easy time against veteran Shahar Peer on Thursday. She clearly got a huge break in her quarterfinal match when developing powerhouse Victoria Azarenka had to retire up a set, but something tells me MaSha is not one to squander the opportunity. Though her semifinal opponent, world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, has won their last two meetings, the Russian could take advantage of her weaknesses on the surface and make a real play for what would be just her second third clay court title.

The progression in the men's draw has been even more interesting -- though three of the top four seeds have made it to the semis, the one outlier has left quite a trail of champions in his wake. Richard Gasquet, who was ranked #82 in the world at this time last year, has really blossomed in 2011, highlighting his run with an upset of Andy Roddick back at Indian Wells. But his run in Rome has been even more impressive -- after stunning Roger Federer on Thursday in a two-hour plus marathon, he backed it up with a come-from-behind win against Wimbledon finalist this afternoon. He'll face Rafael Nadal tomorrow, clearly no easy task especially given that the Frenchman has never beaten the world #1 -- but this has been a year of firsts and I'm beginning to think anything is possible.

Speaking of doing the impossible, Novak Djokovic continues his stellar streak in the other half of the men's draw. Now 35-0 on the year, the momentum-ful Serb has a chance to make history within the month. I thought he's be in for at least a bit of a fight against two-time French Open finalist Robin Soderling, but after some early trading of breaks he quickly took control and blanked the Swede in the second set. A few more wins and not only will he set a record for the best start of the year (John McEnroe won forty-two matches to kick off the 1984 season) but he's within reach of becoming the first non-Roger, non-Rafa #1 since 2004. Andy Murray will be his most immediate obstacle, and though a few months ago I might have been a little nervous about his chances, I'm far more confident in his ability now.

Sure there are still big mountains to climb for all these guys and girls, but each have proven they're forces to contend with in Rome -- and if they pull off another win or two, it could be much smoother trucking ahead.

May 11, 2011

When In Rome...

The Italians are out in full force in their homeland this week, but so far it's been the visitors who've been more comfortable at the last big tournament before the French Open.

That's not to say the locals haven't been putting up a good fight -- Potito Starace pulled off a nice upset of fifteenth seeded Viktor Troicki earlier today and defending French Open champion Francesca Schiavone won her opener in decisive form Tuesday. But some others, after promising starts, ultimately succumbed to more experienced athletes making themselves at home in Rome.

Alberta Brianti, whose win in Fes seemed to give her a bit of momentum -- she followed it up with a quarterfinal run in Barcelona -- started her run in impressive form. She pulled off a straight set victory over former top-twenty play Jie Zheng in her opener, winning almost half the points on her opponent's serve. But on Wednesday she ran up against fellow veteran Greta Arn who, at thirty-two years of age, is having the most success of her career. Despite a dismal second serve percentage, the Hungarian was able to convert when needed and stopped the hometown girl's campaign in just under ninety minutes. Next up she faces a wholly beatable Elena Vesnina, so she just might be able to extend her run.

Filippo Volandri tells a similar story -- having climbed to his highest ranking in about three years on the heels of a semifinal run in Belgrade, he pulled off a one-sided victory over Thiemo de Bakker on Sunday, dropping just three games in the win. He looked good against Stanislas Wawrinka today, too, taking advantage of the fact that the fourteenth seed had already withstood a long three-setter against another Italian Fabio Fognini on Tuesday. But the Swiss steadied himself after losing the second set and though he didn't deliver a terribly noteworthy performance, he adapted long enough to capitalize on break chances, eventually earning the win and the right to mean white-hot Novak Djokovic on Thursday. I'm not sure Stan will be the one to end Nole's streak, but he's got to at least feel more comfortable after a shaky start.

Romina Oprandi was just starting to turn her year around when she got the wildcard in Rome. Having started 2011 with a 0-7 record, she finally notched a win in Estoril before making the semis at an ITF event in Prague. A surprise three-set defeat of world #19 Kaia Kanepi in her first round should have given her a bit of confidence, but she couldn't quite get her footing against Daniela Hantuchova. After keeping things close in the first set, the Slovak got a late break and powered through the second, dropping just nine points on her serve. Though Hantuchova has been on a bit of a roller coaster the last year or so, her decisive win today could give her the edge as she progresses -- she'll need whatever she can get against second-seeded Schiavone, who she'll face next.

If any Italian was going to make an unexpected run, though, I'd have put my money on Sara Errani, a semifinalist in both Marbella and Barcelona. She was handily beating compatriot Roberta Vinci in their first round Tuesday when her opponent retired, and I would have thought she'd be well rested today. But Victoria Azarenka, playing some of the best ball on the women's Tourthese days, had other ideas. She made good on a career-high ranking by forcing sixteen break chances during the match and converting six of them. Vika allowed Errani just three points on her second serve and closed out the match in just over an hour, proving she could push her disappointing loss on Sunday out of her mind. The road will certainly get harder here on out, but Azarenka's proven she's not just a hardcourt hitter and could still cause a few more surprises this week.

Perhaps the biggest shock from the Italian underdogs, though, came from qualifier Paolo Lorenzi, ranked just inside the top 150. He'd only played two Tour-level matches this year, winning just one of them, but scored a huge win over Madrid semifinalist Thomaz Bellucci in his opening round. Most probably assumed his luck would end there, but when he won the first set tiebreaker from heavy favorite Rafael Nadal earlier today, the hometown crowd went wild. But Rafa is the king of upping his game when the chips are down, and he quickly broke serve to begin the second set. After finally drawing even, he was able to take control and blanked the far less experienced Lorenzi in the third set, narrowly escaping what would have been his biggest upset on clay.

Clearly some of these guys have a better chance of continuing their runs than others, but so far they've all proven they can certainly do as the Romans do -- and sometimes, they do even better.

May 8, 2011

Make or Break

Let's talk for a minute about just how important the Mutua Madrid Open has become to the course of the tennis year.

Since the tournament shifted to clay two years ago there has seemed to be a shift in its significance. Now held in the first half of the year, before the second Major -- as opposed to the hardcourt event that had been contested in October -- there's now a lot more game to be played before the season is up. And even if the surface accounts for a relatively small portion of the year, past winners have really kicked themselves into high gear after tasting victory here.

In 2009 Roger Federer had been having an unusually non-prolific year. Though he had made at least the semis of four of the five tournaments he'd played, he hadn't won a title, losing a grueling final in Melbourne to Rafael Nadal. But once he stunned the Clay Court King in the Madrid things began to look up -- he completed a career Grand Slam a few weeks later with a victory in Paris, broke the record for Major titles and reclaimed the #1 ranking he'd given up for nearly a year. Not a bad way to turn things around.

Nadal pulled off a similar feat last year. After spending the first few months of the year recovering from injury, he finally got back his mojo on the clay and dethroned the defending champion in Madrid with a first class performance. He followed up his own Masters-title record setting by taking back the title in Roland Garros, extending his run at Wimbledon and shocking the world when he completed his own Grand Slam in New York. Back at the top of the rankings he'd set the stage to be the man to beat in 2011.

Of course, that was before Novak Djokovic came along. Famously undefeated this year, I think most of us expected his miraculous streak would end this week when he was slated to finally meet Nadal on clay. Both advanced with little drama to the final -- the third time they were meeting with a championship on the line this year -- but most predicted a different result. Novak had never beaten Rafa on the dirt, much less in a clay court title bout, and surely the Spaniard would show him who was boss, especially in his homeland.

But before we could blink an eye, Djokovic was off to a 4-0 lead. Rafa got one break back, even denying the Serb when he tried to serve out the set and pulling even. But when Nadal was serving for a tiebreak, Nole broke him at love and never looked back. Despite being broken to start the second set -- thanks in part to a fabulous between-the-legs lob that just fell inside Djokovic's court -- he quickly regained composure, won the next game and broke again a few later to stun the crowd and claim his astonishing sixth crown of the year.

So with all the talk over just how long Djokovic's streak can last, past precedent seems to suggest there are a couple more wins left in him. And if/when he does lose a match along the way, he shouldn't be worried -- he certainly looks on track to take home another Major or two this year. And several more in the years to come.

Ironically, the Madrid Open has not set the same precedent for the women. Since coming here in 2009, both winners Dinara Safina and Aravane Rezai have subsequently faltered in the months that followed. Safina put on a dismal showing at the '09 French Open final and has since been largely sidelined or ineffective due to injury. Rezai, who'd shocked Venus Williams in last year's final, hasn't won more than a single match at any event since last July.

I certainly hope the same fate doesn't befall Petra Kvitova, who earlier today smashed her way to the biggest title of her young career. Barely seeded at the event, the top-ranked Czech woman followed a win over world #2 Vera Zvonareva by beating Australian Open finalist Na Li in the semis. On Sunday against Victoria Azarenka -- who's been more than impressive in securing two titles of her own this year -- she was similarly impressive. After losing a three game lead in the first set, she held strong in the breaker to get the lead. The pair traded serves in the second, but Kvitova finally secured a lead at 4-3 she never surrendered. Firing off forty aces to just ten from Vika, the brand new world #10 certainly has what it takes to be at the top -- and I'm confident she even has what it takes to stay there.

The two new champions in Madrid this week have created huge opportunities for themselves over the last few days -- having now beaten some of the strongest and most dominant players on a very tricky surface, they have clearly set the stage not just for Roland Garros, but for the rest of the year. Whether their streaks end or their fortunes turn of course has yet to be determined, but if they can keep it up, we'll be talking about them both for a long time to come.

May 5, 2011

The New Guard

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that turnover in the ranks of women tennis players has been growing. With Serena Williams out for the time being and Kim Clijsters touch-and-go for most of the spring, we're not seeing much consistency from the athletes that should be dominating recent tournaments -- and the players who, at this time last year, were all over the late rounds have stepped aside to make way for a few others.

Top seeded Caroline Wozniacki fell in three sets Thursday in Madrid, marking her earliest exit since January, and both last year's champion and runner-up at Roland Garros followed suit soon after. And like with many of the draws we've seen in recent weeks, that's allowed a few others to capitalize on their own recent strength.

Julia Goerges, who not only defeated the world #1 today but also in the Stuttgart final a few weeks back, continues to improve her game. She's defeated some seriously experienced players in her first three rounds, albeit all went three sets, but that she can handle the pressure of the big stage bodes well for a player who just cracked the top fifty last year.

It's a bit of a pity the German next faces fellow rising star Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The nineteen-year-old has a handful of smaller titles to her name, but has spent the last eight months in and around the top twenty. She narrowly missed a seeding in Spain, but blew through Marion Bartoli on Tuesday and followed it up with a straight set victory of 2010 breakout Sam Stosur. With additional wins this year over players like Jelena Jankovic and Petra Kvitova, her resumé is certainly getting more impressive every day.

Speaking of the Czech, Kvitova started the year with a bang, upsetting heavy favorite Kim Clijsters in the Paris championships before injuries crippled her ascent the next few months. But playing solid ball again in Madrid she's already taken out second seed Vera Zvonareva, her third top-ten victory of the year.

And for her efforts she gets to meet fellow giant-killer, Dominika Cibulkova -- certainly an easier on-paper foe than potential opponents Svetlana Kuznetsova or Maria Sharapova, both of whom the diminutive Slovak took out in straight sets this week, but not one to be overlooked. A semifinalist at the French Open in 2009, she's most comfortable on the clay and seems primed for her own breakout. If she can handle Kvitova, I'm not sure there's a limit on how far she goes here.

Lucie Safarova first broke into the top twenty-five a couple years ago, and though she's failed to regain those rankings, she can still pose a threat to the top-tier players. She had championship points in Kuala Lumpur a few months back and gave Vera Zvonareva quite a scare in Melbourne. But she seems to do best on these courts -- she made the Madrid semis in 2010 and this year stopped Anabel Medina Garrigues's hot streak cold before then upsetting former #1 Jelena Jankovic in the second round. Her win over Jarmila Gajdosova today confirms just how big a threat she can be.

In a slightly different tier than these ladies is Victoria Azarenka, who kicked off the clay court season by winning a title in Marbella, just after reclaiming the Miami crown. Never before considered a big threat on the surface, she sure has changed my mind about her strengths, dropping less than two games a match on average so far in Spain. She's the highest seed left in the draw and could easily make a fast break for the title the way she's playing -- and a breakthrough here sets a very solid stage for the rest of the spring.

All of these ladies are on the verge of breaking new ground in their careers. Having toed the line between being just good and really great for some time, none has had a better opportunity to make the big leap over. And with those inhabiting the top spots for the better part of the year seeming so willing to step aside, I'm hoping one of them seizes the chance to make her mark now.

May 3, 2011

Could This Be It?

One long winning streak is going to end this week in Madrid -- that I can guarantee.

Novak Djokovic, of course, is riding a wave of twenty-nine consecutive victories when you count his Davis Cup wins that capped off 2010. That's led to five trophies on the year -- one Major and two Masters -- and sparked speculation that he's the favorite to end the year at #1. It certainly seems like the Serb is unbeatable -- he quieted critics who contend he's just a one-surface player by taking the trophy in Belgrade last week, his fifth on clay, and he gets right back to work this week in Madrid, where he made the semis in his last appearance two years ago.

Not surprisingly, he lost that match to world #1 and Clay Court King Rafael Nadal. He comes to his country's capital with a thirty-two match, six title streak on the surface -- one which saw him claim a record eighteenth (now twenty) Masters crown. He has an intimidating 93% record on the dirt and thirty-one trophies as proof of his dominance. But only one of those came in Madrid when it was played on clay -- his devastating loss to Roger Federer in the 2009 final was one of only two losses on the surface that year.

And so we've come to the first clay court tournament of the year with both Rafa and Nole in the draw -- and at least one has to lose.

They're, of course, slated to meet in the final, but there are a couple threats to their both getting there. Nadal faces a stacked draw that includes unseeded Estoril champion Juan Martin Del Potro in his quarter. And his 2009 French Open vanquisher Robin Soderling and Roger Federer, never to be discounted, loom in the same half. Djokovic could face a fourth round match-up with suddenly surging David Ferrer, runner-up to Nadal at their last two tournaments -- he's riding a wave of momentum that shows no signs yet of subsiding.

But if the latest "match everyone wants to see" does come to fruition, it might not be the blowout we all expect -- though Rafa remains unbeaten by Nole on clay, he was pushed to three sets in all but one of their last seven meetings. And Djokovic notched his first finals victory against Nadal in Indian Wells. I'm not quite ready to predict an end to the Spaniard's streak, but if anyone's going to put a stop to it, it seems appropriate it should be the man who's already foiled two attempts this year to add to his trophy case.

And whichever stretch ends this week, we can be sure it will soon be replaced by a new one.

May 1, 2011

The Masters

Okay, so the tournaments contested this week may not boast the highest level grade, but that didn't mean the players holding the trophies at the end of the day weren't the best quality. With the early rounds of an actual Masters event underway a few hundred miles away, we saw the same quality play -- or better -- at the championship matches of 250s in the rest of Europe.

At the BMW Open in Munich, defending champion Mikhail Youzhny lost early and the man he beat last year, Marin Cilic, exited a round later. And that allowed 2004 winner Nikolay Davydenko to power through the draw and earn his first title in more than a year. Seeded seventh at the tournament thanks to a long climb back from an injury-addled 2010, the former world #3 saw his biggest challenge in the second round, finding himself just two points from a loss to Julian Reister. But he was back in form after that and didn't lose another set on his way to the final.

There he met hometown favorite Florian Mayer, a talented right-hander who was playing in his third career clay-court final. He'd made a nice run a few weeks back to the fourth round in Miami, but didn't face a single player ranked higher than him in Munich. He must not have been up to the challenge posed by his twenty-title opponent on Sunday. Though Mayer was able to even the score in the second set, converting his one break point opportunity, Davydenko came through in the decider, winning nearly seventy-five percent of his service points and never giving the German a look at the lead. And after just under two hours it was Nikolay holding the crown and reminding us all that he's still a force to contend with.

Speaking of forces, red-hot Novak Djokovic proved he was in no hurry to end his winning streak when he took to the courts in his own homeland of Serbia. He was clearly the favorite at the tournament he owns and was barely challenged on the way to his fifth championship match of the year.

On the other side of the draw a resurgent Feliciano Lopez finally began looking comfortable again on clay -- it was only the second tournament of the year in which he'd advanced past the second round. In Belgrade, though, he fought his way through three tough opponents to start his campaign -- veteran Juan Monaco, Fernando Gonzalez, making his own comeback, and fourth seeded Albert Montanes. But Djokovic was too much to handle in the final -- the world #1 was within arm's reach during the first set, squeaking out a win in a tiebreak, but took control in the second, winning all but one of his first serve points and eventually improving his record on the year to 27-0 -- exactly the kind of mark he'd want before making his way to Madrid.

But perhaps the biggest statement was made in Estoril, where two A-listers clawed their way to the final. Second seeded Fernando Verdasco, whose play has been lackluster most of the year, found a way to win early in Portugal, and got a huge reprieve in the semis when, after a rain-induded double-header, Milos Raonic -- already twice his vanquisher this year -- retired with a back injury. In the bracket's top half, 2009 U.S. Open winner Juan Martin was playing his first clay court event in almost two years and showed his comeback was for real when he took out top seed Robin Soderling on his way to Sunday's match.

And he didn't slow down a notch when playing for the title -- though he was broken in his first game of the match, DelPo didn't look back again. He only allowed Verdasco to hold serve once in the opening set and took control early in the second. After just over an hour he'd claimed his ninth career crown and, somewhat surprising for an Argentine, only his third on clay. If you were writing him off as a threat for Roland Garros, you just might want to think again.

It was quite a rewarding week for all these guys -- Nole continues to close the gap between himself and the top spot in the sport, which both Nikolay and Juan Martin got themselves back into seeding territory for the upcoming Major. But more than that, they've re-established themselves as real powers on a surface where they haven't necessarily been forces before. And it should make a couple others out there sit up and take notice.