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.

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