July 15, 2011

Time Warp

I've never understood the rationale, these few weeks after the end of Wimbledon, of taking players directly from the super-short grass court season, just weeks away from the hard court U.S. Open, and sticking them back on the red clay, a surface on which they won't be chasing any big titles again for another eight months.

It's a jarring shift for the athletes, I'd wager, but one which suits some significantly more than others -- and it's not necessarily the ones who'd been favored to win.

There were very few surprises in Palermo, Italy, where a struggling Flavia Pennetta took the top seed here. She'd only won a handful of matches since Dubai and fell in four straight openers during the spring. But she seems to have regained her footing in her hometown, reaching the quarters along with six other seeds. She'll next face Tsvetana Pironkova, another semi-elite player trying to rebuild her year -- and though the Bulgarian has more recent success, I feel Pennetta's prowess on the surface should help her through.

The only big surprise of the tournament so far has been the loss of red-hot (okay, maybe just pink-hot) Roberta Vinci. A three-time titleist already this year, the twenty-eight year old was sitting on a career-best ranking of #23 in the world. But in a rematch of last Sunday's final in Budapest -- which she won -- Vinci didn't have many answers to rising star Irina-Camelia Begu this time, getting less than half her first serves in and only making a slight dent in her return games. Begu's recently beaten her next opponent, too, but Anabel Medina Garrigues could easily avenge that loss and further make the case for the veterans in Italy.

The seeds have had similar luck in Sweden where two-time French Open runner-up Robin Soderling looks to reverse some of his recent luck. After kicking off the year winning three trophies in four tournaments, he lost in the quarters at Roland Garros and was summarily upset in the third round of Wimbledon. He only lost one game in his opener in Bastad, and didn't allow Potito Starace a break chance in the quarters. From here it'll be difficult for someone else to wrest the crown in his homeland from the world #5.

But that's not to say it can't be done. David Ferrer is coming off a solid Davis Cup showing last week, and had one of his best clay court seasons this year. And Nicolas Almagro, a winner of three titles on dirt himself in 2011, should have a fairly easy road until at least the semis. And with so much talent left in the field, we should see at the very least some high-quality matches the next few days.

Things have been a little more surprising elsewhere this week. In Bad Gastein only one seed made it out of the first round -- defending champion Julia Goerges and top-thirty player Jarmila Gajdosova, among others all lost their openers, leaving world #61 Ksenia Pervak as the on-paper favorite. The twenty-year-old has won a couple ITF titles and has wins over Goerges and Andrea Petkovic already this year. But though her future road is less bumpy thanks to her colleagues' losses, some with more experience may win out in the end.

Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez has been climbing her way back from injury after a stellar start to 2010. Last year's champion in Rome, MJM hasn't won more than two matches at one event all year, but as a former top-twenty player, she's probably the most accomplished of the field. And Carla Suarez Navarro, who lost most of last season with an ankle injury, has been marking time this year at ITF events. She still hasn't won a Tour title, but with wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams on her record, she certainly has the ability to make her mark.

It was just as hard a road for the favorites in Stuttgart. Mikhail Youzhny and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez both won their first round matches, but that was as far as either made it. In their place qualifier Federico Del Bonis and wildcard Cedrik-Marcel Stebe have emerged as the big spoilers. But here, again, it might be the journeymen who are standing at the end of the day.

Juan Carlos Ferrero, making his umpteenth career comeback, took out Youzhny on Thursday and has fought back from breaks down against Marcel Granollers to get the win in his quarterfinal. And twenty-nine year old Lukasz Kubot, who caused upsets this year at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, seems to be putting out his best career performances these days. With a battle against Santiago Giraldo for a spot in the semis, he has a more-than-likely shot at getting the win.

The return to clay has proven something of a comfort for these players as they get back to their winning ways. Hopefully it won't be too tough a transition when they begin their U.S. Open prep in earnest, but with the wins they've accumulated, they should at least bring the confidence they need when they come back to the present.

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