July 21, 2011

Familiar Faces

The past twelve months have seen some new stars of tennis really break out, and you can't help but applaud the efforts made by those who've reached new milestones or finally made a name for themselves. As some rise, though, others must inevitably fall -- but those who have struggled recently seem to be turning the tables back in their favor this week in Hamburg, and it sure is good to see them back.

I once thought Marin Cilic had the best potential to break into the very top ranks of the sport. In 2009 he'd recorded wins over Andy Murray at the U.S. Open, Rafael Nadal in Beijing and built up enough points to reach a career high ranking of #9 in the world. Since then he's struggled, though, failing to defend two titles early in 2011 -- both of which he'd held for two straight years -- and losing first rounds at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

The Croat held on to the twelfth seed in Germany and benefited from early exits from potential opponents like Juan Ignacio Chela and Ivan Dodig. Earlier today he found himself down a set to wildcard Tobias Kamke, ranked just inside the top hundred in the sport, but was able to hold strong and ground out the win in over two hours. His bigger tests are still ahead, of course, but I'm somewhat encouraged by his resolve so far this week.

Fernando Verdasco has had a similar, if slightly less precipitous, slide out of the spotlight. Since really bursting onto the scene two years ago with one of the best Australian Open matches I've ever seen, he climbed to a career-high #7, won three titles and claimed Davis Cup victory. But he lost a shocking seven opening matches this year and, frankly, seemed to choke in the two finals he's played.

He seems to have his game together in Hamburg, though. After avenging his Miami loss to countryman Pablo Andujar on Wednesday despite weak serving statistics, Verdasco upped his game today against up-and-comer Cedrik-Marcel Stebe. Capitalizing on five of seven break chances, he put together a decisive win to reach the quarters for the third time in his career. He's never made it past this round, but if he can make it through a tough remaining field, it could bode well for the rest of his season.

Mikhail Youzhny struggled with a back injury during the spring, and though he's been back on Tour for a while, he has nevertheless notched some surprising losses to Olivier Rochus and Philipp Kohlschreiber. Having failed to defend points from Munich in May, he fell out of spitting distance of the top ten and came to Germany with a #17 rank and fourth seed.

Like Cilic, Youzhny hasn't had the toughest draw, but he did come back from a break down against a developing Carlos Berlocq to survive a tiebreak in a two-plus hour, straight set match. His third round against Julian Reister was much more straight forward, as he allowed no break points and dropped just ten points on serve. The Russian can clearly be volatile, so there's no telling what happens from here -- but if he keeps calm he could capture his first title in over a year.

Second seeded Jurgen Melzer hasn't fallen from grace yet, but last year's runner-up in Hamburg could start to see points come off his ranking quickly if he doesn't repeat. He's already lost some ground with a second-round defeat in Paris, and only made one clay court quarter this year.

The Austrian might have had the roughest road of these favorites, first facing feisty Daniel Gimeno-Traver -- a man who beat him in Madrid -- and then taking on tricky Fabio Fognini on Thursday. He'll get another dirt specialist next with Verdasco, so clearly there's no room to breathe just yet. But with the clean, aggressive game he's been playing, the odds might be in his favor this time.

It's a bit of a shame that all these guys will meet each other in the next round, so only two runs will be able to continue. But the wins they've put together this week, even if on a surface they won't see again for quite some time, should put momentum back on their side. And as they're all about to make the shift to hard courts, there's no better time to come out swinging again.

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