July 31, 2011

Let the Trumpets Sound!

Man, it feels like ages since we've been here! And though some of this week's winners have been missing from the game longer than others, when each announced their returns in championship fashion, you almost expected a full parade.

They all deserved it.

Nadia Petrova hadn't won a title in almost three years. The former world #3 once made at least the quarterfinals of four straight Grand Slams, but some very spotty play pushed her out of the top thirty and sent her home after five opening matches this year. Though she was seeded second at the inaugural Citi Open in College Park, Maryland, it's been so long since I saw her make an impact at any event I largely wrote her off from the start.

But despite her unpredictability, the Russian is clearly a strong hitter -- something she reminded us of early this past week. The twenty-nine year old dropped literally a handful of points on first serve in her opening two rounds and rebounded strongly from a set down to Irina Falconi in her semi to dominate the next two, advancing to her first final since New Haven last year. Against top seeded Shahar Peer on Sunday, she fired off seven aces and broke her opponent five times. After about an hour and a half, she was the one hoisting the trophy above her head, the tenth of her career, and putting herself back on the radar this season.

Over on the west coast, plenty of talent made its way to the Farmers Classic in Los Angeles, with top seeded Mardy Fish looking to extend his hard-court win streak a bit longer. And though he slugged his way to a second straight final, he ran into a resurgent Ernests Gulbis on Sunday, and was in for quite a ride. The titleist in Delray Beach last year was just starting to make a name for himself when an injury he sustained at Roland Garros a few months later effectively took him out of contention for a year. He regained a little bit of traction early in 2011, but came to LA with five straight losses since mid-May.

Things turned a corner for him this week, though, as he came back after losing his opening set to Xavier Malisse and then pulled off a one-sided victory over 2009 U.S. Open champion in the quarters, losing just three points on serve in the first set. Against the heavy favored Fish today, he raised his game even higher and survived the nearly three-hour marathon to notch his first top-ten win since he stunned Roger Federer in Rome last year. The victory may have only put a second trophy on his mantle, but the resolve he's shown in his rebuilding phase shows he might live up to the expectations we've all had for him for a long time.

Serena Williams has no expectations to live up to -- she's exceeded them all a hundred times over. Still, since injury, illness and a terrible health scare kept her out of the game for almost a year, dropping her ranking out of the top 150, we were forced to accept the possibility of tennis without her.

But Serena is nothing if not a fighter -- she took less than fifty minutes to dispatch Anastasia Rodionova in her Stanford opener, and though she had a mild hiccup against Maria Kirilenko a round later, she proceeded to the final in the days following with little drama. And though she found herself down a break early to Marion Bartoli on Sunday, she quickly rebounded for a straight set win -- her first non-Slam victory since 2008. But judging by the look in her eyes, it certainly meant just as much to her.

It sure is nice to see all these players back on top of the winner's podium. Whether they're new to it or decorated pros, whether it's been a few months or a few years, their victories herald the return of a new season.

And the future sure looks bright.

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