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.

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