June 29, 2011

Comfort in the Unfamiliar

It's not often that the draws at Wimbledon get turned so topsy-turvy.

Of course there's always an upset or two along the way, but over the last decade or so we've come to expect a few familiar faces still around by this time every year -- a Williams sister or two and probably Roger Federer. But this year none of the usual suspects are still around, and there's a very good chance we'll see two brand new champions at the All England Club.

And, somehow, that's oddly reassuring.

The four women remaining contest their semifinal matches tomorrow, kicked off by a replay of last year's third round. In 2010 then-#62 Petra Kvitova stunned Victoria Azarenka in a 7-5, 6-0 blowout. These days, both ladies are playing at the top of their game and have a real chance to make their first Major final. Kvitova has climbed to a career-high rank of #8 in the world on the heels of three titles and wins over players like Kim Clijsters, Sam Stosur and Vera Zvonareva. Azarenka, on the other hand, is newly inaugurated in the top five and, despite being one of the best hitters on Tour, enjoying her best ever run at a Slam.

There's no clear-cut winner in this semi -- Petra has a tendency to be erratic and can give up big leads as easy as she builds them up while Vika has infamously retired from seven matches in the past twelve months. They've, not surprisingly, split their previous four matches, with the Czech laying claim to the last two, so they are pretty well-paired. And with so much on the line for both these young talents, you know they'll both put up a fight for the championship slot.

In the other half of the draw, the only lady who has any experience winning Majors will take on a wildcard who is surely on the comeback trail. Maria Sharapova got her breakout here back in 2004 when she proved she wasn't just another pretty face, and now seven years later she's finally playing back at the top of her game. She'll next face my dark horse pick for this tournament, Sabine Lisicki, a talented German who's taken out two top-ten players on her way to the semi. Sharapova won the pair's only meeting handily, dropping only two games in the third round at Miami. But Lisicki's coming off a title in Birmingham and has all sorts of momentum on her side -- she should be able to put up a much better fight this time around.

The men's semifinal line-up was only decided today, and though three of the tournament's top seeds made good on expectations, there is nevertheless an air of oddness about the final four.

Last year's champion Rafael Nadal hasn't lost a match here since the 2007 final, yet if he doesn't defend his crown he can kiss his #1 ranking good-bye. He's played well through his first five matches, surviving a strange foot injury during his fourth round versus Juan Martin Del Potro and showing no signs of debilitation against last-American-standing Mardy Fish today. Nadal's not one to let the specter of losing his ranking weigh on his game, but I'm a little more worried about his prospects than I've been in the past.

On the other hand his opponent, UK-#1 Andy Murray, has played some of the most consistent tennis of the tournament. The two-time semifinalist has fallen to Nadal twice before at Wimbledon -- last year in just over two hours. But though he dropped sets to Ivan Ljubicic and Daniel Gimeno-Traver this past fortnight, he's fresh off a title at Queen's Club and has been cultivating his own win streak this past month. He's never been known to do well under pressure, and with the hopes of his country surely on his shoulders this Friday, he may falter again. But even I have to admit he's probably never had a better chance to make history.

Neither, I suspect, has Novak Djokovic. His near-record start to the year may have come to a quick end in Paris, but this time he is again a win away from ending the Nadal/Federer stranglehold on the #1 ranking and looks to have a much better chance of getting there. The Serb hasn't had the toughest test in London -- then again when you play as well as he does, you don't expect that many challenges -- but after holding his ground against young Aussie Bernard Tomic today, he's earned a spot in the semis for the third time in his career. In 2010 he was stalled by surprise runner-up Tomas Berdych, but this year his prospects of playing a Major final on something other than a hardcourt seem a lot brighter.

He still has to get past the biggest surprise on the men's side, though. Like Berdych before him, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did the previously unthinkable by sending six-time champion Roger Federer home in the quarters -- but he might have been ever-so-slightly more impressive in doing so. The Frenchman, who lost to Murray in the same round last year, was in danger of doing so again, down two sets to King Fed after just over an hour of play. But he finally converted a break chance in the third set and successfully served out the fourth before getting an early lead in the decider. He's notched big wins at the Majors before -- Nadal in Australia on the way to finals in 2008 and Djokovic in the quarters there last year -- but this, by far, was the biggest.

So with just eight players left battling it out for the Wimbledon crowns -- five of whom have never won a Slam before -- it sure looks like no one is a true favorite. I have my picks, sure, but the most excitement could come if the least-likely players are the ones holding the trophies at the end of the day.

And with so much talent in the remaining field, it sure paints a pretty picture for what's to come in this sport.

June 27, 2011

Not Just Another Manic Monday

They call the second Monday at Wimbledon the best day in tennis -- and with all Round of Sixteen singles matches scheduled for that day, it is often the case. But I'm not sure anyone expected the amount of excitement we actually got today.

It began with the ladies.

Some matches were quick -- 2004 champion Maria Sharapova survived upstart Shaui Peng in straight sets, while Victoria Azarenka got in such a one-sided win over former top five player Nadia Petrova that I forgot they'd even taken the court. The big surprises, though, came from much more unlikely sources.

Five-time titleist Venus Williams had made a successful return to Grand Slam play, staging a spectacular comeback against uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm in the second round and dropping only two games to advance to Week #2. But in a rematch against her vanquisher last year, Tsvetana Pironkova, she was similarly flummoxed. She got down an early break in the first set and traded serves in the second, but couldn't get back in the game. In little more than an hour, the Bulgarian -- who hasn't won more than one match at a tournament since Wimbledon 2010 -- came away with the win. Her third in a row against the former #1.

Things were even more interesting elsewhere in the bracket. Top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki will be forced to endure critics a little while longer after her loss today. Despite handily beating her first three opponents at the All England Club and running off with a 6-1 first set against Dominika Cibulkova today, she again fell victim to her Grand Slam curse. The pocket-rocket Slovak forced a second-set tiebreak, which she won, and fought back from a deficit in the decider. After trading breaks again, she finally secured a lead she never gave back, earning her first ever quarterfinal at Wimbledon. It was her second win over the world #1 this year, but her first at a Major and something tells me we should see even more.

But the most shocking upset of the day may have come from the two-time defending champion Serena Williams. Sure she'd been out of the game for nearly a year, but most pundits still gave her more than a fighting chance to reclaim the title. And after she stormed back from deficits against Aravane Rezai and Simona Halep, her third round thrashing of Maria Kirilenko suggested momentum was truly on her side. But earlier today against Eastbourne champ Marion Bartoli she was caught quite wrong-footed. The Frenchwoman held on to her lead in the first set and despite failing to serve out the match in the second, stayed ever-so-slightly stronger in the tiebreak, converting her fifth match point and scoring her first ever win over the thirteen-time Slam winner.

The men weren't without their shocks either. Though Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all advanced with little drama, last year's winner Rafael Nadal didn't have quite as easy a road. Though he eventually advanced past 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, he suffered from some strange heel pain that will require an MRI. After a medical time out before the first set tiebreak, he battled through to take the early lead, and eventually toughed out the match in almost four hours. His future at the tournament is still in question though, and he's certainly got a lot riding on his performance -- anything less than a win and he loses the #1 ranking he's held for about a year. But if anyone can do it, it's Nadal.

His next opponent, though, may not be who he expected. Had seedings played out as they should have, he'd be in for a rematch of last year's championship -- but Mardy Fish had other plans for world #7 Tomas Berdych. After a tight first set Fish came away with the tiebreak and he finally converted a break opportunity late in the second. With two sets under his belt, the only American left in the draw was unstoppable. He won all but one point on his first serve in the third and pounced on his opponent. With the victory he scored his first Slam quarterfinal since 2008's U.S. Open and assured himself of his best ever Wimbledon performance.

So the action this Manic Monday was a little crazier than usual, but we sure came away with some interesting results and some even greater matches. Whether today's winners will be able to keep up their momentum remains to be seen.

But they've never had a better chance to make some magic happen -- and maybe that's the ultimate point of the greatest day in tennis.

June 26, 2011

A Day to Reflect

There is traditionally no play scheduled for the middle Sunday of the Wimbledon fortnight, and after all the rain-delayed and interrupted matches last week, it's kind of amazing the tournament was able to stick to that scheduled. And the athletes, many of whom didn't get the usual day between rounds to recuperate due to the weather, must have appreciated the respite.

But with all round of sixteen matches set for tomorrow, the stakes only get higher when the weekend ends -- and a couple players who didn't expect to be around in Week Two have a lot to think about.

Little-known Czech Petra Cetkovska has been pro for more than a decade, but has never made much of an impact outside the ITF tournaments. Ranked just outside the top eighty, the twenty-six year old came to her third Wimbledon without ever having won a match here -- in fact she's only made it out of the opener of a Grand Slam twice. But she seems to have come to the All England Club with a mission.

After battling past a suddenly-improved Kristina Barrois, she pulled off an impressive comeback to take out thirteenth seed Aggie Radwanska in the second round. She followed up that win by devastating former #1 Ana Ivanovic on Saturday, winning eighty-five percent of her first serves and never allowing the Serb an opportunity to break. Cetkovska has now matched her best performance at a Major and has a decent chance of improving further -- though she next faces my dark horse Sabine Lisicki, if she plays up to potential, she's certainly capable of causing another upset.

In the other half of the women's draw, young Tamira Paszek has finally started to live up to her potential again. Twice a Grand Slam runner-up as a Junior, she made a splash her first year playing with the big girls, but only won two matches at the Majors since 2008. She's earned a couple trophies in the last five years, but has only qualified for a handful of events in 2011, so I certainly didn't expect her to put up much of a fight at the All England Club.

The twenty-one year old Austrian had the benefit of a few easy first rounds -- opening opponent Ayumi Morita sports a ranking about half of Tamira's but is no huge threat to the bug talents, and young American Christina McHale had taken out a talented Ekaterina Makarova in her first round, precluding Paszek from meeting a seed. Her colors truly came out, though, on Saturday, when she faced world #7 Francesca Schiavone. After dropping the first set she evened the score against the marathon woman and prevented her from serving out the match in the third a few times. After nearly four hours of play, she finally took the win -- her first over a top-ten player since 2008. And with a fourth round date with Ksenia Pervak, her opportunity to make a real statement at Wimbledon this year couldn't be better.

The men, too, have seen more than a fair number of spoilers make it to the fourth round, but perhaps none is more shocking than eighteen-year-old Australian Bernard Tomic. Long considered one of the real upcoming talents in the sport, Tomic did his part to excite the hometown crowd down in Melbourne, but with just three Tour-level wins this year -- and six losses -- he has yet to break into the top hundred.

That day may soon be coming. The qualifier at Wimbledon opened his main draw with a straight-set win over former #3 Nikolay Davydenko and then came back from two sets down to Igor Andreev in his second round. If those victories weren't impressive enough, he came on the court against fifth seed Robin Soderling with more confidence than most elite players. He ran off to a 5-0 lead in the first set and never lagged in the match, advancing to his first Major fourth round in under two hours. With veteran Xavier Malisse waiting for him next, he might just be able to put together the best qualifier's run we've seen in some time.

And though Feliciano Lopez has been around for quite some time -- he's been pro about fourteen years now -- he never had the breakthrough many of his contemporaries did. He made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon two times before, but batting just over .500 in 2011, he's fallen back out of seeding territory at the Majors.

Lopez, too, was blessed with a fairly easy draw early. Michael Berrer proved to be a fairly easy first round opponent and 2008 semifinalist Rainer Schuettler took care of Thomaz Bellucci for him. But against Andy Roddick, a man who came into their third round match with an unspoiled 7-0 record against the Spaniard, he really showed his stuff. He took early leads in the first two tiebreaks and earned the only break of serve in the third set to get the win. Next up he'll face world #93 Lukasz Kubot, a player who's been impressive in his own right -- there will certainly be challenges here, but something tells me "Deliciano" will remind us all he's not just a pretty face.

All four of these players not only have pulled off some stunning wins over their first weeks at Wimbledon, but they have legitimate chances to continue their runs at the most regal of Grand Slams. For some, it could be the start to a brilliant career, while for others it's an opportunity to finally back themselves up.

And as we approach the end of the line in London, everyone left in the field better take notice.

June 23, 2011

A Winning Return

There are more than just a couple comeback stories this year at Wimbledon. And while the headlines are all concentrated on the Williams sisters' return, there are a couple more under the radar that are worth mentioning.

That's not to say the early round performances from Venus and Serena haven't been impressive. The elder, and incidentally my early favorite to win the whole shebang, rallied from a two-break deficit against uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm yesterday and managed to pull off the win in probably the best match of the tournament so far. And Serena, who lost her first set to young talent Simona Halep on Thursday, brought out her champion spirit and scored her sixteenth straight victory at the All England Club.

But their success only scratches the surface.

Former top-five player Fernando Gonzalez has only played a handful of matches since undergoing hip surgery after last year's U.S. Open, and made his return to Grand Slam play this week. Well out of seeding territory -- he hasn't won more than two matches here since 2005 -- he was forced to take on world #24, rising star Alexandr Dolgopolov in the first round. But the veteran was unfazed, firing off twenty-five aces and only dropping serve once in the two-and-a-half hour victory, and he backed it up with a straightforward defeat of Rik de Voest on Thursday. Next up he'll face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a man he beat in their only previous meeting two years ago in New York -- and something tells me he's more than up to the challenge.

Almost as impressive this week has been Germany's Sabine Lisicki, a wildcard this year at Wimbledon. After a series of injuries kept her out of contention most of last year, she hadn't really had the match play considered critical to thriving at these events. But we all knew she has talent -- she probably should have beaten Vera Zvonareva at the French Open -- and so her performance to date shouldn't be too surprising. Against Roland Garros champion Li Na, she found herself down a set early but was able to push the match to a decider. Li had two chances to serve it out and held multiple match points, but not only did Lisicki battle through, she ultimately converted her own second chance to advance. And in reward she's been given a pretty pretty solid opportunity to go even further -- as I'd mentioned earlier this week, she could be a real spoiler in London this week.

Juan Martin Del Potro has been making waves again on Tour for a couple months, post-injury, but he hasn't played Wimbledon since 2009 when he lost in the second round to former champion Lleyton Hewitt. The Aussie's experience notwithstanding, DelPo has never had the best success at the All England Club, but he's making a turnaround this year. He made a solid start in his first round, and came back to a rain and darkness-interrupted second refreshed after dropping the first set in a tiebreak. He took less than an hour today to win the next two and closed out the match without ever dropping serve. It gets tougher from here, of course, but his next opponent Gilles Simon has only gotten past the third round here once. And the way the Argentine is slamming aces again, it seems momentum is back on his side.

It's always encouraging to see players succeed after they return from what could have been career-ending injuries, and all these guys and gals are more than showing us they're certainly back in contention -- a second win for each at Wimbledon should back up any luck that helped them with their first.

So future opponents should keep their eyes open -- they might just have their work cut out for them.

June 21, 2011

Young -- and Not-So-Young -- Americans

It's been a frequent topic of discussion the last couple years, that the state of U.S. tennis has deteriorated -- or at least found itself among some much stronger competition. Other than the Williams sisters, only one still-active player has won a Grand Slam this decade. And as the triumvirate are getting up there in age -- tennis-wise, only, of course -- the questions arise as to who will take over the mantle.

But Wimbledon, for whatever reason, has always been a place where Americans thrive. As we've been frequently reminded this year, Serena and Venus have combined to win nine of the last eleven women's titles, and the nineties were all but ruled by Pete Sampras on the men's side. Go back a bit further and you get legendary champions like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova -- admittedly a Czech by birth, but now quite American in practice. Something about the lawn sport certainly does seem to suit these players' game -- and the early matches this year at the All England Club have certainly proven that.

The veterans did their part to remind us of their prowess here. Venus made a successful return to the grass, winning her opener in just an hour, and though Serena was pushed a bit, she rolled through the third set to take out Aravane Rezai in an emotional victory Tuesday morning. Three-time finalist Andy Roddick, meanwhile, seemed to be back in form after an injury-laden spring, firing off thirty aces in his victory over world #156 Andreas Beck. Even Mardy Fish, who's only just come into his own this past year, pulled off a relatively easy win.

But the more impressive wins came from players still largely off the radar.

Houston champion Ryan Sweeting broke into the top hundred earlier this year, but since 2006 he's only won two matches at the Majors. After giving up a break lead in his first two sets against Spain's Pablo Andujar on Monday, it looked like he was in for another early exit. But he finally managed to hold onto a lead in the third and forced a decider by winning a fourth set tiebreak. After nearly four hours of play, the twenty-four year old walked away with the win. As a reward, he's earned a rematch against world #1 Rafael Nadal, who beat him handily in Melbourne. Still, pulling off the win bodes well for his future.

Similarly impressive in her Wimbledon debut was nineteen-year-old Christina McHale. Her name's been bandied about for several years as the next big thing in American women's tennis, but her coming out party was overshadowed by another U.S. upstart. But this year she's caused some trouble for her much-favored opponents -- the New Jersey native beat Daniela Hantuchova and Alisa Kleybanova in Charleston and stunned Svetlana Kuznetsova at Indian Wells. After losing her first set to rising star Ekaterina Makarova yesterday, she evened the score in just twenty-five minutes before grinding out a 8-6 win in the decider. She actually has a couple manageable rounds ahead of her, and if she stays tough McHale might be ready to breakthrough here -- albeit two years after we expected it from her.

Ryan Harrison was also making his Wimbledon debut, though he first started to get everyone's attention at last year's U.S. Open when he downed Ivan Ljubicic and came THISCLOSE to beating Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round. He's been hanging out on the Challenger's Tour this year, but might be about to break into the big leagues. Against one of my sleeper favorites, Ivan Dodig, he held serve to a first-set tiebreak and steamrolled his opponent in the second. Nearing quitting time in London, the pair exchanged breaks in the third before Harrison consolidated his lead and took the match -- his first straight-set victory yet at a Slam. It gets harder from here, of course, with a second round date with David Ferrer -- but this nineteen-year-old is also playing with confidence that belies his age.

John Isner can't exactly claim to be a stranger to the spotlight -- his epic match last year against Nicolas Mahut set more records than I knew existed in tennis. But the three-day, eleven-hour slugfest seemed to wear him out for the rest of the year. He didn't seem to put up much of a fight in subsequent tournaments and, unable to defend points in the first half of this year, he dropped well out of seeding territory this year. When the draw revealed he was in for a rematch of last year's marathon, I worried nerves might get the best of him. But the big guy was calm and collected this year, relying on more than just his ability to ace to battle through. After just two hours -- less than twenty percent of his opener last year -- he came away an easy victor this time. There will of course be struggles ahead, but the maturity she showed today gives me hope he still has a shot at making my early prediction come true.

It's not all good news for the Americans, of course. Coco Vandeweghe, another lady carrying high hopes fell in straight sets to Eleni Daniilidou while Alison Riske wasn't able to convert after pushing last year's runner-up Vera Zvonareva to a third set. And my dear James Blake was able to come back from two sets down to Marcos Baghdatis, but surrendered a break lead in the fifth before succumbing.

Still the resilience of the Americans on foreign soil is certainly encouraging -- and as we look to the sport's future in this country, I'm finally excited to say it sure seems bright.

June 19, 2011

Blogcast: 2011 Wimbledon 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 at the All England Club, and see just how far we've come.

June 17, 2011

Wimbledon: First Round Matches to Watch

The grass court season, as it so often does, really snuck up on us this year, and just a couple weeks after the king and queen of the French Open were crowned, everyone's forced to quickly change gears and take to the lawn.

Maybe it's this lack of prep that allows for seeds to so widely diverge from actual rankings. It might seem a bit unfair -- rewarding those who have dropped out of the top spots with relatively easier draws. But with some tough-as-nails players having been out of the game so long, their potential opponents should actually breathe sighs of relief that they won't face the big guns too early in the draws.

But the seemingly mangled seedings still leave plenty of room for surprises in players' openers. And, as always, you know some will get an opportunity to break through, while others may be sent packing far sooner than they expected.

Let's start with the gentlemen.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

The pressure is on top seeded Rafael Nadal -- if he finishes anything less than champion, he'll lose his #1 ranking. And the draw is certainly working against him -- though his first couple rounds should be easy enough, with big servers like Juan Martin Del Potro and Milos Raonic in his section, he'll clearly have to battle later in the week.

But there are some interesting early matches here. Raonic, seeded below his ranking at #31, faces Fabio Fognini to start. The Canadian's serve-and-volley game should be well suited to this surface, certainly more so than the clay-court specialist's, and I want to see him come out firing from the get-go. And Fernando Verdasco, who's fallen a bit in the game, takes on former top-ten player Radek Stepanek. The Czech has a winning record against Nando -- and won their only meeting at Wimbledon five years ago. And if his game is up to snuff, he could cause an upset.

The late-round match-to-watch: Mardy Fish is playing at his best career ranking, and has spent the last year showing he's a contender on any surface. He could set up a fourth round first date with last year's runner-up Tomas Berdych. Two strong guys with great games could put on quite a show to kick off the second week.

Second Quarter

Novak Djokovic has another chance to grab the #1 ranking from Nadal in London, and after his legendary win streak ended in Paris, you know he'll be eager to take every opportunity he gets. He faces France's Jeremy Chardy in his first round, and so should be able to kick off his campaign in style.

But I'll be closely watching the return of my dear James Blake, playing his first Major since last year in New York. He's been spending a lot of time in the triple-digits recently, but a couple good results at Challenger events earned him entrée here. He'll face 's-Hertogenbosch semifinalist Marcos Baghdatis in his opener -- a wholly winnable match -- and could be the latest veteran to make a late push at a Slam.

Also keep an eye on Alejandro Falla -- a wildcard at Wimbledon, he nearly stunned Roger Federer in the first round last year. He'll meet Jurgen Melzer, who's been a little spotty recently, so could take a big step in improving his ranking. And the match up between Ernests Gulbis and Dmitry Tursunov should set the stage for players trying to pull off -- and, in the latter's case, actually succeeding in -- their comebacks.

The late-round match-to-watch: Robin Soderling is one of the favorites here, but is flying well below the radar compared to his contemporaries. He's slated to meet a rebuilding Nikolay Davydenko in the third round -- the two were foils in 2009, trading wins during their respective best years. If Davydenko can't put up a fight here, it might mean his time at the top is well past him.

Third Quarter

Roger Federer hasn't been seeded this low at Wimbledon since 2003 -- where, incidentally, he won his first Grand Slam. He had looked a bit soft early in the year, but a finals run at Roland Garros pushed the needle back in his direction. He shouldn't have as much trouble with Mikhail Kukushkin as he did with Falla last year, though we could always be surprised.

Eighteenth seed Mikhail Youzhny has been battling injuries lately and has made a couple quick exits during the spring. His volatility could open the door for Juan Monaco, a couple positions out of seeding range, to make a move. And former world #5 Fernando Gonzalez is playing his first Slam since hip surgery sidelined him for most of last year. He's taking on young standout Alexander Dolgopolov, who's lost early in both Halle and Eastbourne, so Gonzo's has a chance to work his way back into the mix.

But the most-watched match in this quarter should be the repeat of John Isner versus Nicolas Mahut. Isner was my original pick to win this whole deal, but that was before I thought this would ever happen. In any case, if he can stay mentally strong enough to get the win -- and, more importantly, do so in fewer than five sets -- it would do wonders for his confidence the rest of the tournament. And year.

The late-round match-to-watch: Federer is set to meet fellow veteran David Nalbandian in the third round. The two have a fairly close history, but the momentum has clearly been in Fed's favor more recently. I'd like to see a battle between these two -- you know they've got it in them.

Fourth Quarter

Andy Murray is in the same half of the draw as Nadal, but the way he's playing recently, he shouldn't be intimidated -- especially by his opening opponent Daniel Gimeno-Traver. That's not to say the Spaniard won't pose any problems for the Queen's Club winner, but his game is much more suited to clay, and so the on-paper favorite should be able to make good.

More interesting is the pairing of countrymen Marin Cilic and unseeded Ivan Ljubicic. Both are well off their career high rankings, but have the potential to deliver big on the grass. And though Cilic has disappointed me in recent months, a nice run at Queen's makes me think he has at least this win in him.

One more Croat could cause a stir a bit further down the draw. Ivo Karlovic, the man who can ace, but barely breaks, meets Janko Tipsarevic, who'll play his Eastbourne semi on Saturday, in the first round. Tipsy is the seed here, and certainly has moments of brilliance -- but if Dr. Ivo can hold it together, he could make a move.

The late-round match-to-watch: The top seeded American in the draw, Andy Roddick, is usually at his best at the All England Club, and though he hasn't won a lot recently, he should be more comfortable here. But he could meet Gael Monfils in the fourth round, and the Frenchman has been playing surprisingly well in recent weeks. Hopefully Roddick will be able to turn around his recent slump.

The Women

First Quarter

All eyes will be on world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who's playing her fourth Slam as a top seed without having won a title. She's never made it past the fourth round here and didn't play a warm-up tournament on grass, so she certainly hasn't been tested yet. But against Arantxa Parra Santonja in the first round, she should make good on her ranking at least for a little while.

Nothing early in this quarter really stands out, but I'd love to see a good battle between 2004 champion Maria Sharapova and former top-five player Anna Chakvetadze. After finally gaining some traction last year, Anna has retired from three straight tournaments this year. But when she's playing well, she can be dangerous, and I'll continue rooting for her return to the elite.

Much lower on the radar, young Swede Johanna Larsson will take on my 2010 one-to-watch Polona Hercog. She's beaten Daniela Hantuchova, Ana Ivanovic and Li Na already this year, so she's certainly capable of making a statement. And in this quarter, she has more than a good chance to do so.

The late-round match-to-watch: Julia Goerges and Dominika Cibulkova are slated to meet in the third round. They've never played each other before, but are both little dynamos when they're healthy. And perhaps more interestingly, the inner could face Caro in the next round, which would just be fun all around.

Second Quarter

Vera Zvonareva had the best results of her career last year, and has been rewarded with a #2 seed here in exchange. She has a lot of points to defend, but a huge win over Serena Williams in Eastbourne gives me confidence she won't just fade away this year. And with some relatively easy early rounds, luck may also be on her side.

Former #1 Jelena Jankovic may not be so lucky. In her kick-off match, she faces unseeded Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, the woman who beat her in last year's Rome final. They've never met on grass, but the Spaniard holds a two-to-one career record over JJ, and could send her packing early if she's not careful. And Roberta Vinci, suddenly playing some very consistent ball, could make an impact too -- if her long week in 's-Hertogenbosch doesn't affect her first round against Vera Dushevina.

The late-round match-to-watch: If the seeds play out as expected, Petra Kvitova, who first made a mark on Tour at the All England Club last year, will face Svetlana Kuznetsova for the final. Though the Russian is clearly the more experienced of the two, Kvitova has found a way to beat some of the biggest names on the circuit all year. It should be a good match and may be rather prescient for what the future of tennis will look like.

Third Quarter

Li Na, fresh off her miraculous French Open win, has really improved an already-good game in the last six weeks. And now the pressure will be on. But some of the more interesting first rounds lie elsewhere in this quarter.

Defending champion Serena Williams, to the relief of many, is seeded eighth at Wimbledon, and so won't be a threat to most true contenders until later in the event. But her opening opponent, Aravane Rezai, who put together an amazing semifinal against the former #1 last year in Sydney, might be a little bummed at her bad luck. Still, we've seen Serena hasn't quite worked out all her kinks yet, and so Rezai could find some holes in the armor.

And Ana Ivanovic, who looked solid in the warm-up tournaments the last two weeks, drew one-time darling Melanie Oudin. She's won the pair's only previous meeting -- when the American was on the upswing -- but now that Oudin is an underdog again, perhaps she can surprise us. It'll be important for Ana to keep her cool, though, as she can't afford another disappointment just as she's regaining momentum.

The late-round match-to-watch: More than a few upsets would have to happen, but I would love to see Aggie Radwanska meet Marion Bartoli in the quarters. The Frenchwoman was a finalist here back in 2007 and she's been impressive in the big tournaments this year, while Aggie is one of those consistent players who really needs a breakthrough Slam. Maybe this is it.

Fourth Quarter

Victoria Azarenka was playing well in Eastbourne, before a leg injury forced her to retire. Again. But she stayed strong through five rounds in Paris after pulling out of , which encourages me somewhat. Hopefully she'll be in shape to take care of Rome Magdalena Rybarikova in her first round, or a whole other set of questions will start swirling around her.

Francesca Schiavone is another headliner in this section, but she might have drawn an even tougher first round. 's-Hertogenbosch finalist Jelena Dokic once made the semis at the All England Club and has scored wins here over legends like Martina Hingis and Mary Pierce. That was a long time ago, but after winning her first Tour title this year since 2002, she's certainly still in the game.

In a slightly lower-profile pairing Kaia Kanepi, who blasted her way to the quarters last year as a qualifier, will face always-feisty Sara Errani in her opener. Though she's now a shade off a career-high ranking, she hasn't been quite so solid this year, and if the Italian can take advantage, she might very well cause the upset.

The late-round match-to-watch: Andrea Petkovic and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova are both young and rising stars near the top of their games. Though they'd again each have to exact a couple upsets, it's very possible they meet for a spot in the semis. And it sure will be fun to watch.

In a land which has been so dominated by a select few in recent years, the 2011 draws at Wimbledon do suggest we could see more than a few surprises. And with so much on the line for everybody who takes the courts, it's imperative that they all bring their best.

But this has been the stage for some of the best matches we've seen. And I'm sure they'll all live up to expectations.

Be sure to check back Sunday when I blogcast my full preview of the action at the All England Club and highlight a few more things you'll want to watch at the year's most royal Grand Slam.

June 15, 2011


The women's field is stacked in Eastbourne this year, with several of the sport's top players -- and a few more former #1s -- all in action just a week before Wimbledon. Somewhat surprisingly, though, there is only one among the remaining field who's won a Major before. But three others have played in a Slam final and the rest have proven they're true contenders for a title.

And that means any of them could get take a real step here towards becoming tennis royalty.

Venus Williams is clearly the most experienced of the bunch, with five of her seven big trophies coming at the All England Club. She made a successful post-injury return in Eastbourne by exacting revenge on Andrea Petkovic, who'd benefitted from her retirement back in Melbourne, and backed it up with a straight-set win over Birmingham semifinalist Ana Ivanovic. Her opponent in the quarters will be Daniela Hantuchova, who's belied her reputation for spotty play the last few weeks. The Slovak took top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki out of the French Open and made a solid run past Ivanovic last week. Dani and Venus put on one of my favorite matches of 2010, and though Williams is clearly the on-paper favorite, something tells me Hantuchova is slightly more sure-footed these days. And I'd love for her to pull off the "upset".

Last year's surprise runner-up at Wimbledon had her own shot at revenge this morning. Vera Zvonareva got a first-class drubbing at the hands of Serena Williams in the 2010 final, but turned the tables this time around. In a three-plus hour slugfest, the world #3 fired off an impressive six aces, found the mark on more than seventy-percent of her first serves, and came back from a set down to get the win. Hopefully she won't be too tired when she meets one-time French finalist Sam Stosur on Thursday. The Australian has dominated their meetings in the last four years, but if Vera's in form, this could be one of the best matches tomorrow.

Victoria Azarenka has been one of my favorites for a Major breakthrough for quite some time, but it wasn't until Paris this year when she finally showed the consistent spark I've been waiting for. She's played well so far in Eastbourne, but bigger challenges clearly lie ahead. Next she'll face 2007 Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli, who's also been raising her game this year. The Frenchwoman survived a tough first round against Copenhagen runner-up Lucie Safarova, but then glided to a relatively easy win on Wednesday. Vika hasn't lost to Bartoli in their previous six meetings, so she should go into this match with momentum and confidence on her side -- but the two should be able to put on a show.

In the least experienced quarter of the Eastbourne draw, we find two relative sleepers ready to make their move. Aggie Radwanska has been a consistent performer at Wimbledon, but has never had a real breakthrough at a Major. Unseeded this week, she stormed past a tough Jarmila Gajdosova and then defeated last year's Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone in her second round. Her next opponent, Petra Kvitova, made the semis in London last year while ranked #62 in the world -- now in the top ten, she's making a mission out of beating the sport's top players. The Czech has won her only other match against Radwanska, and is the favorite this time, too. But bigger surprises have been known to happen.

Of course, there's always a risk playing deep into a tournament just before the start of a Slam, but if any of these ladies carry their momentum with them to the All England Club, they could make a real play for that title too. And with the possibility of that maiden crown growing so much clearer, they have the incentive to bring their best.

After all, it sure looks like the throne is up for grabs!

June 12, 2011

In Opposite Corners

It's a crazy calendar professional tennis players endure.

With just two weeks between the French Open and Wimbledon, most players were eager to make the quick switch to grass courts and get whatever practice they could before the year's next Grand Slam. But others, for better or worse, skipped right past the lawn season and went straight to the hard courts. We'll see who got the better deal.

In Copenhagen, where the eBoks Sony Ericsson Open was contested several months earlier than it had been last year, players may have gotten some prep for New York rather than London, which might explain why reigning champion Caroline Wozniacki was the only top thirty player entered in the draw. Still she got through her matches without dropping a set on the way to the finals -- her seventh of the year.

There she met Lucie Safarova, one of my perennials favorites who can never seem to gain enough traction to make the jump into the highest levels of the sport. The Czech survived four straight three-set matches in Denmark, and might have been slightly exhausted by the time she reached Sunday's final. She won just four points on the world #1's serve in the first set, and got down on the count in just over twenty minutes. She put up a slightly better fight in the second set, but Wozniacki was just too much for her. After just over an hour of play, the hometown hero had gotten the win and reiterated her position at the top of the sport.

But did she get the preparation she needed? Over in Birmingham the ladies were put to the test on grass, and though a rain-soaked Sunday kept the ultimate winner from being determined yet, the two ladies who are going for the title have so far proven to have made the adjustment to the slicker lawn.

Fourth-seeded Daniela Hantuchova is fresh off a solid French Open, having dealt Caro a tough third round loss and putting up quite a fight against 2009 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova a few days later. But the Slovak, a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon way back in 2002, reminded us she shouldn't be discounted on this surface either. She dropped a handful of games in her first three rounds and stayed study after losing a first set tiebreak to Ana Ivanovic in the semis. She didn't drop serve again that match, and truly earned her second final of the year.

There she'll face former world #22 Sabine Lisicki, a surprise quarterfinalist at the All England Club two years ago. She lost a bit of ground last year when an ankle injury kept her out of contention for the better part of 2010. But she's shown signs of brilliance this year, nearly taking out Vera Zvonareva in Paris as a qualifier and battling past three seeds this week in Birmingham. Now certain of breaking well back into the double-digits rankings, she finally seems to in the shape to do real damage at the Majors.

We might not yet know whether Hantuchova and Lisicki's early statements on the lawn have served as proper warm-ups for Wimbledon, or if Wozniacki's seventeenth career title gives her the confidence she needs to finally make her Slam splash. They've all certainly made different arguments for their own cases. And which, if any, will ultimately prevail is still an open question.

But the title bout is about to begin

June 9, 2011

On Familiar Ground

The clay court season is officially over for 2011, and this week players -- against their will or not -- have been pushed onto the much slicker, much faster courts of grass. And while some may be a bit apprehensive making the switch, a couple others who've been less than prominent recently, should find the change of pace refreshing.

Last year's surprise finalist at Wimbledon Tomas Berdych will try to make up for a dismal showing at Roland Garros. He'd finally begun gaining some traction late in the spring, making the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome and the semis in Nice. But squandering a two-set lead to Stephane Robert in his Paris opener could have stopped him cold.

So far he's made good on his #2 seeding in Halle. After dropping his first set to Ruben Bemelmans, he stayed tough against Jan Henrych on Wednesday to reach the final eight. Of course there's no rest from here -- world #12 Viktor Troicki, at his highest career ranking, will be next on his plate, and he's clearly no pushover. The two have split their previous two meetings, both on hardcourts, so Berdych will need to pounce early if he's going to make a statement.

Defending Halle champion Lleyton Hewitt doesn't get the luxury of a seed in Germany this year and has been absent from Tour since Indian Wells. But the 2002 Wimbledon titleist should take comfort in his eighty-plus percent win record on this surface -- easily his best.

He had his way cleared for him somewhat this week -- originally slated to open against Roger Federer in a rematch of last year's final, he instead barreled through lucky loser Leonardo Mayer when the French Open runner-up pulled out of the event. The Australian has a second round date with world #51 Andreas Seppi, actually ranked higher than him. It won't be easy, but Hewitt's experience should help him make it through the day.

Over at Queen's Club, three time Wimbledon finalist Andy Roddick is playing his first match since Rome, where he sustained a shoulder injury before the doubles championship. The last American man to have a legitimate shot at a Grand Slam title, he should feel more at home on the courts where he's already won four trophies.

To kick off his week in London, Roddick faced a feisty Feliciano Lopez to start. After two sets with no breaks, he finally took control in the third, winning more than eighty percent of his first serves and holding his opponent to just a quarter of his return points. He was similarly impressive against big-serving Kevin Anderson earlier today, withstanding thirteen aces from his opponent and winning the match in straight sets.

Roddick might have had a much tougher road forward, as he probably should have met '02 Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian in the third round. The ninth seed at Queen's had been working his way back into the elite, but after enduring leg surgery in March he might not have been quite up to snuff yet.

The Argentine got through his early matches easily, dropping serve only once through the first two matches, but ran into an unusually strong Fernando Verdasco on Thursday. Though the Spaniard had won their previous two meetings and is the higher ranked player, I would have given the edge to Nalbandian, the more successful lawn tennis athlete. Instead, the struggling Verdasco got the better of the veteran, earning the right to meet Roddick in the next round.

So far the change in surface seems to suit the players who're so used to winning on grass. And with the next Grand Slam less than two weeks away, it's encouraging to see them having success so early.

And if they keep it up, I wouldn't be surprised to see any of them make a deep run at the All England Club.

June 6, 2011

The Good Ol' Days

It's kind of been a weird year for Rafael Nadal -- and tennis, in general.

Despite the fact that, even before the French Open began, he was the reigning champion at three Grand Slams and had played six straight final matches, he was dangerously close to losing his spot at the top of the tennis rankings, one he has held now for fifty-three consecutive weeks. It isn't completely secure for much longer -- even though Novak Djokovic's amazing run, one which, for a time, called into question Nadal's dominance on the dirt, came to an end in the Roland Garros semis, as of Monday's tally he's just forty-five ranking points behind Rafa.

But one more time at least, we were treated to the consummate match-up that's been the highlight of tennis courts for the better part of the last decade.

Prior to yesterday's final Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had met each other twenty-four times -- eight of those at Majors, and seven with championships on the line. The Spaniard had ruled those meetings, leading Roger 6-2 overall, 4-0 on clay. But they hadn't met at a Slam since Australia 2009, and as others began creeping in as more-than-legitimate contenders for the big titles, I began to feel that the possibility of another Rafa/Roger battle was growing slimmer and slimmer.

So I was appreciably excited when the French Open championship came down to these two heavyweights. Nadal, the defender going after a record-tying sixth crown in Paris, had been tested early, getting down two sets to one against John Isner in his opening match, and was pushed by Casablanca winner Pablo Andujar a few days later. Roger had sailed through his early rounds without dropping a set, and was ultimately -- and so appropriately -- the man to end Novak Djokovic's historic streak on Friday. It was his first Grand Slam final since he won in Melbourne last year.

And happily the legends did not disappoint.

Roger broke Nadal in the second game of the match and ran off to a 5-2 lead with set points. He tried to serve out the set a game later, but Rafa produced the spectacular shot-making that's helped him win this event five times. As Federer's serve began to falter, the twenty-five year old rattled off one game after another and built up a set-and-break lead. After a short rain delay, he eventually took the hour-plus set in a tiebreak and built up another lead in the third. But this time it was the Swiss's turn to shine -- seemingly down-and-out, Federer's improved serve and soft drop shots all found their marks, and he was able to push the match to a fourth set.

It was quick work from there, though. Nadal saved three straight break points in the first game of the fourth set, and seemed to be a changed man. He held his opponent to just fifty percent on his first serve, broke him in the fourth game and then once more for good measure, and after over three and a half hours, Rafael Nadal was once again holding the Roland Garros trophy.

The win solidified Nadal as the King of Clay -- his record at this event now stands at a staggering 45-1 -- but more importantly reminded us of just how great things were not that long ago. It seems inevitable Djokovic will catch up to Rafa in the next few months and break the stranglehold he and Federer have had on the top spot in the sport for over seven years. But for now, we can take comfort in the familiarity of having watched those two phenomenal players present their best stuff for us one more time.

Will they do it again? Who knows. But it sure will be fun watching them try.

June 4, 2011

Better With Age

For a professional tennis player, at least for the ladies, it used to be that your golden years came before the age of twenty.

Chris Evert won her first Grand Slam at the ripe old age of nineteen. Tracy Austin was seventeen. Then Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, the Williams sisters, Maria Sharapova all added to the record books as they set the champion's age bar lower and lower.

But it's no big revelation that the game has changed since then. As women became stronger and the game got faster, it became harder for the youngsters to handle the big strokes of the veterans -- the last teen to win a Major was Sharapova in 2006 and the last six Slams have had both finalists over the age of twenty-five.

So maybe we shouldn't be surprised that the two ladies who played the French Open final on Saturday have a combined age of sixty years and almost three months. But unlike some of the veterans who've been playing and winning for the better part of the last decade, Francesca Schiavone and Li Na have practically just emerged on the tennis scene and are really playing the best ball at what used to be considered their twilight years.

The defending champion has been around the game for over a dozen years, but just won her first title the week of her twenty-seventh birthday -- a smallish tournament in Bad Gastein where she was the top seed at #31 in the world. Last year was the only multi-trophy year of Schiavone's career, as she won the championship in Barcelona just before her breakthrough in Paris. She hasn't made a final since then, but with a win over former #1 Jelena Jankovic and a stunning comeback against the youngest player in the top fifty, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, she was certainly getting her footing back on the terre battue.

Her opponent Saturday was similarly inexperienced in the title rounds. Having played her first Grand Slam final just four months ago in Australia at the age of twenty-eight, Li Na was another journeywoman on Tour. She'd won a tournament here and there, one in her native China in 2004, but the real coups came last year when she stunned Venus Williams in Melbourne and rocketed through Maria Sharapova in the Birmingham finals. She backed it all up when she rebounded from 0-5 down to Kim Clijsters in the Sydney championships and pulled out that win. Though she went a long stretch in the spring without winning a match, in Paris she notched three consecutive wins over players who'd had stunning clay court seasons.

So after decades on the circuit these two had certainly earned the right to play for this Major crown. It was just the second title match each had contested, and neither had been considered a favorite to get here. But as the match progressed you could see the fight in both of them. Li had a break chance in the first game, and converted four games later to secure the first set. She kicked off the second by winning two straight games, but was a persistent Schiavone drew even and nearly turned the momentum entirely in her favor. But Li stayed calm -- something she had not been able to do in Melbourne -- and took control of the tiebreak with some of the most impressive tennis I've seen. In less than two hours, she'd become the French Open champion and the first Asian to ever win a Major singles title.

You might worry that these players may be peaking too late in their careers -- with so much young talent out there, surely they won't be able to keep up forever. But both ladies have proven just how tough us older folk can be. Like a fine French wine, they age well. And it makes me optimistic not only about the state of tennis today, but about what it will be for years to come.

June 2, 2011

Where Dreams Come True

Paris is a magical city, one which can turn the most unlikely commoners into kings and queens. And a quick look at the late-stage draws at this year's French Open serves as the latest proof of just how true that is.

Four very different ladies fought their way to the semifinals on Thursday, some decorated champions, others tested journeywomen. And the ones who emerged victorious may not have been the ones you expected.

Maria Sharapova had established herself as one of the favorites at Roland Garros, thanks to a title in Rome and a reclaimed top-ten ranking. And as the prospect of a career Grand Slam drew nearer, she began playing her most impressive ball.

But surprise Australian Open finalist Na Li was not intimidated by her more experienced opponent. After breaking the big-server early, the top-ranked Chinese woman never lost her control of the match. She got into a small hole to start the second set, but broke again a few games later, converting on the Russian's tenth double fault of the day to ultimately get the win.

It was Li's sixth top-ten win of the year, and possibly her most important. At twenty-nine years of age, she's reached her second straight Grand Slam final -- on two very different surfaces -- something few others would be able to do. And now slightly more accustomed to the pressure of the big stage, she might just be ready to take the next step.

The road won't be easy, however -- in the other half of the draw two others were busy making a case for themselves in Paris.

Hometown standout Marion Bartoli had worked her way to only her second Grand Slam semi with wins over a tough Julia Goerges and 2009 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova. Though injury had forced her to retire from the Strasbourg final just under two weeks ago, she was showing no signs of residual pain and had far surpassed her previous best showing at Roland Garros.

But defending winner Francesca Schiavone had other plans. The woman who was barely discussed as a threat to reclaim her crown defeated former world #1 Jelena Jankovic in the fourth round and came back from a set-and-break down to beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to return to the final four. After a close start against Bartoli, she secured a late break and took the first set in forty minutes, and she overcame a 0-2 deficit and won the second in another fifty.

And so Schiavone, never expected to win a Major title, is suddenly in a really good position to win another. She last met Li in the third round here last year, but they've split their four prior meetings. Whether it's the Chinese winning her first Slam -- and the first for her country -- on Saturday, or the thirty-year old pulling off the most unlikely repeat, someone is certainly going to have her greatest wish granted.

The men will contest their semifinal matches tomorrow, and for the first time since 2006 all four top seeds have made good on their positions. And though there is a bit more experience present in this draw, there is nonetheless a new excitement in the air.

Defending champion Rafael Nadal survived some early round scares and has since not dropped a set. He'll meet first-time Roland Garros semifinalist Andy Murray for a place in his sixth French Open final, and this match promises to deliver on the drama.

Never much of a force on clay the Scot really has turned his record around this year. He nearly ended Novak Djokovic's win streak in Rome and found a way to battle back from two sets down against Viktor Troicki -- on a bad ankle. He's never won a set off Rafa on the surface, but his resolve makes me slightly nervous. Still, he hasn't had much of a challenge this fortnight, and if Nadal brings the momentum he gained from his win over Robin Soderling in the semis, I see him making another return to this championship match.

The more interesting match, though, may be one that holds greater implications than just another Grand Slam title. Novak Djokovic will take on Roger Federer for the third Major in a row -- and a win would grant him the #1 world ranking. Already having won forty-one matches and seven titles this year, it seems a formality to officially take over the ranking, but one that has certainly been well earned and would change the landscape of men's tennis significantly.

Of course, the top spot isn't his yet, and Federer, incidentally the last man Nole lost too more than six months ago, is no pushover. After that epic match at last year's U.S. Open, he rebounded to beat Djokovic in Shanghai, Basel and London. And having progressed through the draw without dropping a set and winning no less than seventy-seven percent of his first serves, he could be the ultimate sleeper in a field of big-hitters.

For the first time in a long time, there are huge implications in this year's men's semifinal matches. I'm not sure who I want to see make the finals or win, for that matter. But I am sure that whoever gets there will have earned it.