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.

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