July 18, 2011

An End to the Dry Spell

We're just about ready to make the full shift to the summer hardcourt season, and as the dust from the soon-to-be abandoned clay settles, a couple players brushed the cobwebs off themselves as they made the return to the winner's circle this weekend.

Two-time French Open finalist Robin Soderling has been a little quiet on Tour since the early part of the year, when he captured three titles in four events. And though he was the top seed in Bastad, he had a tough road with players like Potito Starace and Tomas Berdych in his path. Still he was able to advance to the final without dropping a set and made surprisingly quick work of David Ferrer in Sunday's championship. Only dropping three points on his first serve and limiting his opponent to less than thirty percent on the return, he was able to lift the trophy in his homeland for the second time and claim his first title since February -- not exactly a drought, but a bit of a relief given how absent he was from the winner's podium during his best part of the year.

Anabel Medina Garrigues had been mired in a slightly longer dry spell, losing a slew of first round matches over the last eighteen months, but she finally won her first title in almost two years this past April in Estoril. She's climbed her way back into the top forty since then and earned the fifth seed in Palermo, where she avenged a semifinal loss to Irina-Camelia Begu in the third round. With many of the higher-ranked players eliminated for her, she marched to the final without much drama and summarily ended Bastad champion Polona Hercog's nine-match win streak in about eighty minutes. The victory -- her fifth in Palermo -- made Anabel the winning-est clay court player still active on Tour, surpassing Venus Williams with her tenth title on the dirt. Not a bad way to remind us all she's still a force to be reckoned with.

The same can be said for the action in Stuttgart last week, where uber-veteran Juan Carlos Ferrero was trying to make his latest career comeback. Since knee and wrist surgery late last year, he's only played a handful of matches in 2011, making a nice run in Barcelona, but skipping the Majors, and has seen his ranking fall back out of the top eighty. JCF is not a man to be ignored, however, and though he was unseeded in Germany, he handled his biggest challenge in world #17 Mikhail Youzhny and never looked back. Against quickly rising Pablo Andujar in the final, Ferrero took advantage of weak serving and seven double faults, blanking his countryman in the second set. It was his first crown since last July and, at thirty-one years of age, the latest announcement that the Spaniard is still relevant.

A little further east in Bad Gastein, the draw had been opened early, but it was really some seasoned talent that made its way through the week. Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, who reached a career high rank of #19 in the world after a title in Rome last year, had struggled to rebound from a knee injury and didn't progress past a second round this year until Wimbledon. In Austria she battled through a close first round against qualifier Paula Ormaechea, but saw largely smooth sailing after that. In Sunday's final against Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, she fired off nine aces and, though she missed a bunch of first serves herself, she broke her opponent six times in nine return games, securing her first championship in over a year.

As these ladies and gentlemen next move to U.S. Open prep, it's encouraging to see them each show they can still make an impact. Whether that translates into more titles this year is yet to be seen. But a return to the spotlight for each at least ensures that no one will take them lightly.

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