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.

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