July 25, 2011

The Also-Rans

The summer hardcourt season kicked off with a bang this past week, with the first events of the season not only rewarding the champions, but also showing the potential of some rising stars that could very well cause some trouble for the favorites in the coming weeks.

At the inaugural Baku Cup in Azerbaijan, eventual champion Vera Zvonareva got momentum back on her side after some disappointing losses in recent weeks. Her victory over Ksenia Pervak in the final scored her a twelfth career trophy and her second of the year. But more importantly, it put her back on the radar as she looks to improve on her U.S. Open run from last year. It wasn't the toughest draw, of course -- she never faced an opponent ranked in the top fifty -- but you can never discount the confidence another title brings with it.

But the better stories out of Baku may have come from the ladies who didn't ultimately walk home with the title. Pervak has been climbing her way up the WTA rankings all year and is coming off her best ever showing at a Slam after making the fourth round at Wimbledon. This past week she notched a one-sided win over former top-twenty player Aravane Rezai on her way to her first Tour final, and though she wasn't able to get a real grip on her match versus Zvonareva, she certainly reiterated that she can hang with the big girls.

Anna Tatishvili didn't make as deep a run as these other ladies, but the young Georgian continues to improve her game. After beating Maria Kirilenko in Charleston and giving Yanina Wickmayer a run for the money at the All England Club, she seems to be hitting her stride now. She came back from a break down in the second against Vera in their quarterfinal match and managed to force a third -- dealing the only set lost by the Russian all week. She may not be that far into double digit rankings, but if she remains consistent she could be a real force soon.

A little closer to the U.S. Open, the men began their hardcourt prep in Atlanta. In a rematch of last year's final Mardy Fish once again prevailed over John Isner, further cementing himself as the top-ranked American in the sport. After dropping the first set and finding himself down a break early in the second, he came back from 1-5 in a tiebreak and saved two championship points -- one on Isner's serve -- to force a decider. With momentum back on his side, he finished off the match, winning all but six points on his first serve and firing off thirteen aces. It was his first title in a year and comes at an opportune time, as he looks to keep the momentum of what's been his most successful year on Tour. If he keeps it up, he could very well be a real contender at the next Major.

But a couple other hopefuls will be doing their part to dash his hopes, and their performances down south go a long way to proving that. Nineteen-year-old Ryan Harrison, long-touted as the next great thing in American tennis, continues to improve his game on the big stage. After breaking out at the U.S. Open last year, he claimed a set from Robin Soderling at Roland Garros, and forced David Ferrer to a fifth at Wimbledon. He hasn't yet beaten a top ten player, but by making the semis in Atlanta he's shown his resolve to put up a fight. And something tells me things are going to turn in his favor pretty soon.

India's Somdev Devvarman may not have made as big a splash on Tour, but quietly plodding away he's been able to increase his ranking well into the top hundred. He beat Marcos Baghdatis and Xavier Malisse in Indian Wells and stunned Milos Raonic a week later in Miami. He's lost the only two finals he's played -- most recently to fellow college star Kevin Anderson in Johannesburg -- but he's really getting a strong foothold against the biggest threats in the game. Now at his highest career ranking, he may be in a position to cause some real damage in New York.

It's of course too early to pick the real contenders for the year's last Grand Slam, but even if some of these guys didn't come away with trophies this past week, they each made the case for themselves as potential favorites -- and spoilers -- over the next month and a half. And everyone else should truly sit up and take notice.

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