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.

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