August 31, 2011

U.S. Open: First Round Matches I Wish I'd Watched

I've been on vacation since before the draws for this year's U.S. Open came out, and though I hoped to bring you the same first-round matches to watch I have for the other Grand Slams this quarter too, I'm a little late to the game.

But there sure has been some excitement in the first two-plus days of play, and the upsets, breakthroughs and clean games -- in both openers and some second round matches -- have set up what could be an interesting week. So, in a slight deviation from my previous posts, I'm going to take a quick look back at what's happened so far and what it means for the rest of the week. Maybe more.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

It's a little weird to see Novak Djokovic's name heading up the top quarter at a Slam, but that's where he is right now. He didn't seem to show many signs of trouble from that shoulder injury that forced him out of the final in Cincinnati in his first round match, only dropping a game before Conor Niland retired. His bigger tests will surely come further down the road. Gael Monfils, the second man in this part of the bracket, also had an easy opener against up-and-comer Grigor Dimitrov -- it should have been a tough match, but the Bulgarian dropped in straight sets.

More interesting were some wins by players trying to work themselves back in the game. Juan Carlos Ferrero, a runner-up in New York back in 2003, is somewhere in his tenth career and now ranked out of the top hundred. But the veteran stayed strong when trailing Pablo Andujar and took the five-set match in three and a half hours. And former world #3 Nikolay Davydenko, trying to climb back from a wrist injury that's made him a non-contender for almost two years now, forced just-seeded Ivan Dodig to the limit before sending the Croat home. Either has a chance to extend his streak, but with JCF next meeting Monfils and Kolya on track to face Djokovic in the third, it will only get harder.

The late-round match-to-watch: Djokovic could very well meet Tomas Berdych in the quarters. Remember the Czech, who stunned Nole last year at Wimbledon to make the finals, had to retire a few weeks back in the Cincy semis. I'd love to see that match to completion -- with both men healthy.

Second Quarter

Defending champion Rafael Nadal was pushed down a quarter and so headlines the #2 section again. He was a bit challenged last night by Andrey Golubev, but was able to make it through. And David Ferrer, after dropping the first set to Igor Andreev, battled back quickly to advance.

But there were a bunch of big upsets in this quarter as well. World #10 Nicolas Almagro, actually having one of the best years of his career, was upended in straight sets by Julien Benneteau, while Mikhail Youzhny, a semifinalist here last year, was taken down by Los Angeles champion Ernests Gulbis in less than two-and-a-half hours. I'm not sure the losses clear out the draw for the true contenders, but it certainly could open the road for some others along the way.

The late-round match-to-watch: Andy Roddick, the 2003 champion here, comes to New York with his lowest ranking at a Major in ten years. He could be the sleeper in the draw, and while I'd love to see a battle with his friend James Blake in the fourth round, it would be more fun to match him up with Rafa for a semi spot. It would do a lot to pump up the American as he looks to extend his career a little bit longer.

Third Quarter

Roger Federer has a #3 next to his name for the third Slam in a row, and it still seems strange. But with both Nole and Rafa in less-than-top form, he could sneak his way through and make a real statement. After his drubbing of Santiago Giraldo on Monday night, he's well on his way to do just that. And top-ranked American Mardy Fish keeps improving his game at the Majors. He knows how to beat the big guys, and with his section of the draw opening up nicely, he could make a big run here too.

Two of the most interesting early matches here are actually right next to each other on the draw sheet. Veteran Tommy Haas won only his third match of the year against qualifier Jonathan Dasnieres De Veigy on Monday and his first at a Slam since Australia 2010, after which hip surgery ended his season. And Alejandro Falla, who nearly beat Federer at Wimbledon last year, endured another five-setter against fifteenth-seed Viktor Troicki to earn only his second career win in New York. The two meet each other next, and with one likely exhausted and the other largely untested, there's no telling what sparks will fly. For sentimental reasons, I'm hoping for a Haas win.

The late-round match-to-watch: Though he'd have to get past Fish to do it, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could set up another quarterfinal match with Federer. He's won their last two meetings -- at a Slam and a Masters event -- so momentum is on his side. It would be fun to watch Roger try to turn the tables.

Fourth Quarter

Andy Murray comes to New York with momentum on his side, having won in Cincinnati and putting up his best Major performances all year -- a final and two semis. His win over Somdev Devvarman earlier today was fairly routine, and with sixth-seeded Robin Soderling withdrawing from the tournament with illness, the road to the final four has never been clearer.

But that holds true for a couple others in the mix. Juan Martin Del Potro, champion here in 2009, reminded us what a force he can be with a sub-ninety minute drubbing of Filippo Volandri earlier today. And John Isner, who just beat Marcos Baghdatis in four sets, worked his way back into seeding territory with a successful summer run. In fact...

The late-round match-to-watch: The two big servers have played three times in their careers with all those matches -- all those sets actually -- going to the Argentine. But if they meet in the fourth round this time around, it could be a battle.

The Women

First Quarter

Caroline Wozniacki is back on the winning track after four-peating in New Haven, and she should bring some of that confidence with her to New York. It only took her eighty minutes to dismiss doubles specialist Nuria Llagostera Vives on Tuesday. But the other favorite in the top quarter, French Open champion Na Li, did not fare so well, falling in straight sets to tough teenager Simona Halep. The young Romanian is one to watch, too, and might get a few more wins out of this fortnight.

I'm a little disappointed by the performance of Tamira Paszek, though -- the Wimbledon quarterfinalist had been having a decent year before Akgul Amanmuradova stopped her run short. And Sara Errani, who often has sparks of brilliance, probably had a good shot at breaking 2004 winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, but she too lost in less than an hour-and-a-half. What could have been a great opportunity for either ended up sending both home far earlier than necessary.

The late-round match-to-watch: The top two seeds left in the bottom half of this quarter, Andrea Petkovic and Roberta Vinci, are slated to meet in the third round. Both are having the best years of their careers and it's a shame one will be sent packing before the week is up, but Petko is on the verge of the elite and could make her biggest argument with a win.

Second Quarter

Last year's runner-up Vera Zvonareva isn't playing the best tennis on Tour these days, but she's held on to the #2 seed and fought past her first two opponents in New York. And with eighth-seed Marion Bartoli losing her second-round match to Christina McHale today, Bepa is facing a much easier draw.

Of course there are still obstacles left. Veteran Anabel Medina Garrigues, consistently ranked in the top thirty for the past seven years -- a small blip in 2010 notwithstanding, will be next up, and after losing her first set to Karin Knapp she's been playing well again. And Sam Stosur's one-sided wins over Sofia Arvidsson and Coco Vandeweghe show she's not one to be counted out. And we can't forget Maria Kirilenko who made the quarters here in 2009. She survived a tough match against feisty Ekaterina Makarova to open her campaign and could make a deep run here as the seeds continue falling.

The late-round match-to-watch: Sabine Lisicki got a big break today when two-time titleist Venus Williams sadly had to withdraw from their second rounder. With that challenge lifted, she should meet Zvonareva in the fourth round, a rematch of Roland Garros, where the German very nearly caused the upset. Now it much better physical shape, and coming off a trophy in Dallas, she might be my favorite in this section of the bracket.

Third Quarter

Maria Sharapova leads this quarter and is playing the best tennis she has in years. She was tested by Heather Watson on Tuesday, but has a much easier outlook since her Wimbledon vanquisher Petra Kvitova lost early. The young Czech was handled on Monday by former top-thirty player Alexandra Dulgheru who, in turn, was handled today by Monica Niculescu.

I was impressed by Flavia Pennetta's win over Aravane Rezai in their first round. The Italian hasn't won a lot of matches recently and that she could turn things around bodes well for her tournament. She further followed it up with a straight set dispatching of Romina Oprandi earlier on Wednesday and is certainly on a bit of a roll. Julia Goerges, too, who'd started the year off with so much promise, only won two matches since Wimbledon. But she had impressive wins over both Kristina Barrois and Laura Pous-Tio to reach her first U.S. Open third round. Playing well again, she could cause damage further down the line.

The late-round match-to-watch: If seeds play out, Sharapova should play Shuai Peng in the fourth round. The Chinese woman is sitting at her highest-ever ranking and has pulled off upsets at Slams already this year. I'm not sure she's completely back in top form, but she could put up quite a challenge if the favorite's going to advance.

Fourth Quarter

Victoria Azarenka is just aching for a big Grand Slam result -- she has the talent to do it, but something always gets in the way. In 2010 she had a frightening collapse in the middle of her match with Gisela Dulko -- surprise, her second round opponent this year -- and twice at the Australian Open she's squandered leads to Serena Williams -- surprise, probably her third round opponent here. Sorry, Vika. And Francesca Schiavone, never known for her hard court prowess, was already tested by Galina Voskoboeva in her opener. I'm not sure how much further she'll go.

But there's plenty other stuff to talk about here. U.S. Open Series winner Serena was unstoppable against Bojana Jovanovski in their late night match yesterday, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova seems to cleaned up her serve a bit, taking out rising star Anna Tatishvili in straight sets. Plus former #1's Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic droped a total of eight games between them in their first round matches. It would be nice to see either make a stab for this quarter.

The late-round match-to-watch: You can't avoid it. Vika and Serena always put on a great show and if they meet in the third round, I expect nothing less.

Seeds have fallen, underdogs have emerged, and in just about three days of action we've learned that just about anything can happen. I'm not sure I've picked my favorites to bring home the titles quite yet, but it's clear some old champions and new have the chance to get it done.

And it'll sure be fun to watch it all happen.

August 24, 2011

Blogcast: 2011 U.S. Open Preview

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

And check out my early predictions for the man and woman I picked at the start of the year to bring home the trophies in New York, and see just how far we've come.

August 21, 2011

Final Arguments

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I would like to remind you of some pieces of evidence crucial to the outcome of this case.

Er, something like that.

There may still be a few more titles to hand out before the start of the U.S. Open, but it was really the men's and women's events at Cincinnati where players made their final statements before heading to New York. And the four that worked their way to finals Sunday did what they could to plead their cases.

The men's final was shorter than you might expect. Red-hot Novak Djokovic, fresh off a title in Montreal (and Wimbledon, and Rome, and...), made his way to his tenth final of the year with some continually impressive play. But a shoulder injury that had been nagging him for over a week and nearly caused him to withdraw from his semi against Tomas Berdych eventually got the better of him. Down a set and two breaks today, he ultimately retired, slightly sullying his record to a dismal 57-2. I'm sure it's not the last memory he wants before heading east, but he's certainly built up enough of a defense to keep the jury in his favor.

Of course, I begrudgingly admit, we cannot discount the efforts of his vanquisher in Cincinnati. Andy Murray, a winner here in 2008, came to Ohio with some bizarre results -- despite a runner-up showing in Melbourne and making the semis at the two other Majors, the world #4 had only compiled a middling 29-10 record on the year and failed to defend his Rogers Cup title, falling in his opener. But he was in much better shape this week and fought of real challenges from David Nalbandian, Gilles Simon and Mardy Fish -- who'd trounced him in their last three meetings. He may not have had a full match against Djokovic today, but he's shown he's able to throw his name in the ring with all the big guys.

The ladies' final held a little more drama with two former #1's colliding for the Cincinnati title. The 2009 winner, Jelena Jankovic, hadn't won a match since the French Open and had seen her ranking drop out of the top ten for the first time in more than four years. But she seemed to find her game again at the Western & Southern Open, coming back against Jie Zheng in the second round and surviving a nearly three hour slugfest against Francesca Schiavone a round later. She then held strong against a feisty but ailing Andrea Petkovic in Saturday's semi to make her second final of the year. And when she came back from two breaks down to take the first set in the championship match, she reminded us of the damage she can do when she's on her game.

Her opponent, Maria Sharapova, has been trying to remind us of her power all year too. Having started the year just in the top twenty, she broke back into single digits with a runner-up finish in Miami and a title in Rome. She didn't quite live up to expectations at Wimbledon, but her one-sided defeats of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur, and a solid comeback against world #2 Vera Zvonareva last year, got her season back on track. That confidence and experience must have helped her when she found herself in a deficit -- she fought back from a break down in the second set, won the tiebreak, and stayed steady through six straight breaks of serve before finally securing the hold and winning the trophy. It's not a bad stretch of momentum to take with her as she tries to win her first Major since 2008.

Of course it's not a given that any of these four players will ultimately hoist the crown in New York, but any opponents they face in their upcoming trials will have more than reasonable doubt when they step up to the service line. And the strong offensive each have put up in Cincinnati sure do a lot to make their cases for them.

August 18, 2011

Luck of the Draw

The often frustrating truth about these Masters and Premier events, which attract the cream of the tennis crop, is that top seeds -- not all of whom are granted first round byes -- are often dealt some tough early matches, ones that we might typically expect in the semis or finals of the Majors.

The iniquity, of course, is that this can lead to some disappointing exits -- world #13 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was upended by barely unseeded Flavia Pennetta in her opener -- or stop a huge opportunity short, as was the case when Roger Federer avenged his 2009 U.S. Open loss to Juan Martin Del Potro on Tuesday. And with these close calls getting rid of some heavy competition, the biggest surprise winners at the Western & Southern Open could find an opportunity to break through.

Philipp Kohlschreiber was a stone's throw from the top twenty not too long ago, but has fallen a bit since his peak. He's a talented player, though, and has notched wins over Robin Soderling and Mikhail Youzhny already this year. In Cincinnati he came back from a set down against Andy Roddick on Monday to send last year's semifinalist home much earlier than expected and followed it up with a sixty-seven minute victory over Feliciano Lopez a round later. Next up he'll meet a recently consistent Gael Monfils, incidentally a man he beat on the way to his title in Halle two months ago. It won't be easy, but there's plenty of opportunity for the German here if he's on his game.

Petra Martic hasn't made quite the strides yet in her career, having peaked in the low sixties a year ago, but every now and then she shows up in the later rounds at smaller events. She was a semifinalist in Bogota, beating second-seeded Polona Hercog on the way, and again in Copenhagen, where she took Lucie Safarova to three sets before eventually succumbing to defeat. This week she was challenged by Elena Vesnina in her opener, and was able to come back against 2009 U.S. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer yesterday for the upset. She has no history against Vera Zvonareva, her next opponent, but if she stays steady the Croat could take advantage of any lapses in the often volatile #2's game.

Thirty-two year old Radek Stepanek had to qualify for the main draw in Cincinnati despite his title in Washington earlier this month, and so he must be extra motivated to prove his worth this week. He spent almost three hours on court with John Isner in his first round, but got a bit of a bye against Andrey Golubev, who ousted Stanislas Wawrinka for him, a day later. He faces the toughest task of the group, meeting again red-hot Novak Djokovic later today. He's only beaten him once before, more than five years ago in Rotterdam, but if he's able to break the streak it could really turn the rest of his year on its head.

Perhaps the biggest shock this week came from young American Christina McHale, securely ranked in double digits for the first time in her career. She's had some nice wins already in 2011 -- Svetlana Kuznetsova in Indian Wells, Alisa Kleybanova and Daniela Hantuchova in Charleston -- and picked up a couple ITF titles to book. But her straight-set stunner against world #1 Caroline Wozniacki really set the tone for her week. She'll next have a rematch against Nadia Petrova -- a woman she beat here a year ago -- and with her improved game and added experience, she has a real shot at making the quarters.

There's no such thing as a free lunch for any of these guys and gals, of course, so each will have to follow through on the wins already racked up. But with much of the path getting cleared -- and themselves doing a lot of that clearing -- they could prove their early successes were more than just luck.

August 14, 2011

The Streak Resumes

It's been a while since we've seen the biggest stars in tennis all take to the courts. And though not all of them made it through the early rounds at the Rogers Cup, the ones who did quickly picked up the momentum that's been with them either since the start of the year or since the beginning of their careers.

Novak Djokovic came to Montreal to play his first tournament since taking over the #1 ranking post Wimbledon. And he was dealt a tough draw too, tested early by former top-three player Nikolay Davydenko and running into a rebuilding Marin Cilic a round later. But with most of his toughest competition taken care of for him, he eventually progressed to his ninth final of the year without dropping a set.

There he faced a challenge from recent U.S.-circuit stalwart Mardy Fish. The top-ranked American has been having a more-than-successful thirteen months, reaching a career-high ranking and notching wins over the likes of Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and Andy Murray, to name a few. He had a slightly bumpier road to Sunday's championship, but avenged his LA loss to Ernests Gulbis and withstood a second-set challenge from Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth round. For a man who'd never won a match in Canada before, making the final was quite a statement.

Djokovic got off to a good start, saving five break chances in the first set to take the lead. He stumbled a bit in the second, though, as Fish upped his serving percentage from a dismal one-for-three and broke his opponent at love to even the score. The two hard-hitters kept it close in the decider, but the American wasn't able to make much of a dent on Nole's serve. After almost two and a half hours Djokovic claimed his tenth Masters 1000 title, a record fifth this year, and became the first man in three decades to win the first tournament he played after climbing to the #1 spot. With just one match loss on his docket for 2011, he could be poised to restart the streak that got him so much attention to start the year.

A little further west another champion was trying to continue a streak she'd re-kicked off a bit more recently. Since returning to competition in June, Serena Williams won the third event she played two weeks ago in Stanford, and though she was still unseeded in Toronto she played like she'd never been gone. After dominating Julia Goerges in her opener, she survived scares from both Jie Zheng and Lucie Safarova to make the semis. Against world #4 Victoria Azarenka, a woman who'd given her fits in several of their previous meetings, she was convincing in victory.

On the other half of the draw a recently struggling Sam Stosur worked her way through the bracket. Since riding a victory over Serena at last year's French Open to the final, she hasn't seemed to have her feet under her. She'd failed to defend many of the points she'd racked up last year and had lost two first rounds coming to Canada. But she was in good form through Sunday's final, beating this year's Roland Garros champ Li Na in the third round and dismissing Carlsbad winner Aggie Radwanska in the semis.

But Serena was in control from the start against the Australian today. After a fairly close first set she turned up the juice in the second, firing off seven aces and winning all but one point on first serve. Allowing her opponent just one chance to break during the match -- one that was not converted, incidentally -- the former #1 claimed her first Rogers Cup since 2001 and guaranteed her ranking would climb even further out of the doldrums.

Both Serena and Novak have spent the week proving they are not challenges to be taken lightly, as if we didn't already know as much. And as they pick up the runs that were interrupted -- whether for minutes or for months -- they'll be bringing some serious momentum with them to the fast-approaching U.S. Open.

And if anyone else stands a chance against them, they'll need to bring something very special.

August 11, 2011

Seize the Reins

Well things sure got interesting at the Rogers Cup the last couple days.

As many of the sport's top players make their first appearances on court since Wimbledon -- or longer -- it's understandable that they'd be a bit out of practice. But I'm not sure anyone expected the routs we've seen, and some of those left standing may have been given the chance of their lifetime.

They just need to capitalize.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Kim Cljisters has been most out of practice, struggling with various injuries since the spring. She was leading Jie Zheng by a set in Toronto when a stomach injury forced her to retire -- not the best result so close to New York. This is the one case, though, where the victor may not reap too many spoils. Even though the #2 seed is out, Zheng doesn't face any easier a road -- next up for her is Serena Williams who's already won a title since returning to the game a month ago and looks to be in as good a form as when she left. What could have been a firework-filled section of the draw has suddenly turned into a much tamer quarter.

Things are a bit different in the other half of the bracket. World #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who won this title in Montreal last year, was dealt a devastating blow after her first round bye. Roberta Vinci, sitting at a career-high ranking at twenty-eight years of age, remained the cooler player during the nearly two-hour match and scored her first win over a top-five player in eighteen tries. Already the holder of three titles this year, she's showing she's more than able to hit with the big girls, and in a third round date with spotty Ana Ivanovic sparks could fly. It won't be completely smooth sailing, but the Italian could very well take advantage.

The men in Montreal have told a similar story. Two-time defending champion Andy Murray had put together a surprisingly strong spring after some disappointing results to start the year. But he was no match for world #35 Kevin Anderson on Tuesday. The South African took advantage of weak serving and a bounty of errors to break the Brit four times in the match, notching the win in under seventy minutes. His next opponent, Stanislas Wawrinka, has won their only meeting over a year ago, but if he can play at the level we know he's capable of, we could be in for another upset.

Probably most surprising, though, was the result that came out of last night's late match between Rafael Nadal and Ivan Dodig. The recent #1 has made at least the quarters at the Rogers Cup the last four times he's played and has won his opening match at every tournament since 2008. He ran away with the first set but squandered a lead in the second, allowing Dodig to pull even. And after more than three hours it was the Croat holding his arms up in victory. The twenty-six year old could stand to take real advantage of this win too. After a strong start to the year, he's lost his last three first rounds, but momentum is now clearly on his side. If he's recovered sufficiently he should be able to get past Janko Tipsarevic -- himself an upset winner over Fernando Verdasco last night -- on Thursday and really take Toronto by storm.

As always, some of these players are better primed to seize the opportunity they've been dealt. Whether they can take advantage remains to be seen, but the way things have been going in the Great White North, they may never have had a better chance.

August 8, 2011

A Long Time Coming

The last few years have been a long slog for a couple players on Tour. Whether they've had flashes of brilliance, fought to stay among the elite or battled back from injury, the trophy shelf remained fairly empty. But with some hard hitting performances over the last week, that all changed.

Robin Haase has really come a long way over the last year. He began 2010 ranked just inside the top five hundred, but put together some nice wins to rise into the double digits by December. In the course of twelve months, he took Nicolas Almagro to five sets at Roland Garros and built a two-to-one set lead on Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, but it wasn't until this year that the twenty-four year old began to really hit his stride. He made the third round at two Majors and was within a few spots of his career high ranking before he even came to Kitzbuhel, Austria.

Unseeded at the Bet-at-Home Cup, the Dutchman wasn't dealt the easiest draw, facing red-hot Feliciano Lopez in the second round and sixth-seeded Andreas Seppi a match later. Though he was spared the ordeal of meeting veteran champion Juan Ignacio Chela in his first ever final, he nevertheless got a challenge from former #22 Albert Montanes in the championship match. The Spaniard had won all five of his previous titles on clay and, though he'd struggled in recent months, was clearly the more experienced player on Saturday.

But it didn't faze Haase. After allowing his opponent to draw even and force a third set, the underdog came up with the goods in the decider to secure the win in just over two hours. Now in the top fifty, he'll start his summer hardcourt season on a high note, and if he harnesses his momentum well, we could see big things from him.

Radek Stepanek was a little more used to the limelight. Ranked in the top ten more than five years ago, he'd fallen into the low double digits when illness kept him out of play most of the year. He hadn't played a final since Brisbane last year and hadn't won one for almost a year before that. He'd showed some signs of getting back on track this year, beating Mardy Fish Down Under and taking a set from Nadal at Queen's Club, but he was still titleless until he came to Washington, DC.

Though he'd received first round byes in the U.S. capital the last three times he'd appeared, he'd never gotten out of the third round. This year, however, he was unseeded, and apparently it served him well. Most of his road was cleared for him -- would-be second round opponent Fish pulled out of the tournament with a heel injury and last year's runner-up Marcos Baghdatis was eliminated on Friday -- but he was impressive against Fernando Verdasco in the quarters and never faced a break point against Gael Monfils in the final. In just over ninety minutes he'd claimed his biggest title since 2006 and secured himself a spot back in the top thirty. Not bad for a week's work.

On the other side of the country, Aggie Radwanska was doing her best to get her name back on people's minds. Once a top-ten player, she's spent most of the last four years in the top twenty but hasn't won a Tour title since 2008. But she's one of the most consistent players on the circuit and is routinely still around the latter parts of tournaments. She came a stone's throw from taking the title in Carlsbad last year, and fought through foot surgery late in the fall to keep herself in the game in 2011.

Aggie dealt out bagel sets to both Elena Baltacha and Christina McHale -- to whom she only dropped one game -- early in her draw, but was challenged in her later rounds. Daniela Hantuchova scored a 6-0 lead in the quarters before eventually bowing to the twenty-two year old and feisty second seed Andrea Petkovic put up a heck of a fight against both Radwanska and her own illnesses before ceding the spot in the final. Against top-seeded Vera Zvonareva on Sunday she battled a nagging shoulder injury and held serve the entire match, earning her fourth win over a top-ten player this year and finally hoisting the winner's trophy again.

All these players have swung momentum back on their side, and whether they're capturing their first title or their first title in years they've at the very least captured the attention of their competition. It's great to see all their hard work and perseverance ultimately rewarded, and if they keep it up, there should be many more spoils to these winners.

August 5, 2011

This is What We've Been Waiting For

It's been a rough couple years for us American tennis fans.

With the players who've dominated the sport for the better part of the last decade -- Serena and Venus Williams, Andy Roddick and to a lesser extent my dear James Blake -- getting on in years and showing some vulnerabilities along the way, there haven't been a legion of youngsters lining up to take their place.

Until now -- the past few weeks during the U.S. Open Series kick-off we've started to see signs the future of American tennis is pretty darn bright.

Ryan Harrison, who's already pulled off a few upsets on the big stage, made his first Tour-level semifinal in Atlanta and repeated that run a week later in Los Angeles. And Christina McHale, a quarterfinalist in Charleston, has notched wins over top players like Nadia Petrova and Svetlana Kuznetsova in the past year. Neither was so lucky this week, but I'd expect both to become fixtures during the summer hard court season this year.

Eighteen-year-old Sloane Stephens made her quarterfinal debut this week in Carlsbad at the Mercury Insurance Open. Often touted as the next great talent among the Juniors, she captured a few girls' doubles titles at the Majors, but has only had limited success on the women's Tour. But in SoCal over the past few days she's really hit her stride. The Florida native stunned seventh-seeded Julia Goerges in the second round and rode her momentum through Friday. She lost earlier today in straight sets to Andrea Petkovic, but if she brings her new-found experience with her the next few weeks could see her make even bigger leaps up the rankings.

Donald Young has been around a bit longer, but though he reached a career high ranking of #73 in the world a little over three years ago, some inconsistent play and the inability to follow up one big win with another has kept him out of the elite. We know he's got talent -- he barely blinked in his drubbing of Andy Murray at Indian Wells in March -- but he never made it to the quarters of an event outside the Challengers. This week in Washington, however, Young survived Jurgen Melzer in the second round and today drubbed last year's finalist Marcos Baghdatis in straight sets. With a meeting against rebuilding Radek Stepanek tomorrow, the twenty-two year old certainly has his work cut out for him, but his chances have never looked better.

John Isner is clearly the most recognizable face in the group. The winner of a couple titles, the holder of several virtually unbreakable records in the sport, and the writer of a very entertaining Twitter handle, he's really the elder statesman of this next generation. But losing several ranking points over the last few months, he's been somewhat out of the spotlight. But thanks to a championship run in Newport and a finals showing in Atlanta last month, he seems to have his game together again. At the moment he's up a set in his quarterfinal match against Victor Troicki in DC, but down a break in the second. If he's able to pull it out, he should be the favorite to take the title where he first made a name for himself four years ago.

Of course it's not all over for the old guard -- Serena is coming off her first title in over a year in Stanford, Roddick is a stone's throw from the top ten and even Blake is hanging in there with some hard-fought losses. But it's nice to see the new class step up.

It's been a long time coming.