September 29, 2011

Avoiding the Meltdown

The sports pages in the U.S. today are all a-twitter over the stunning results of the last few hours -- minutes, even -- of the 2011 baseball season. A couple amazing rallies and a few unprecedented burnouts turned the year on its head, and what had been such a promising start for some ended with more than a few heads hanging in defeat.

Tennis players are more than capable of staging their own flame-outs. Sam Querrey raced into the elite, peaking at #17 in the world this past January, but went through a six-month period in which he won only one match -- dogged by injury most of this year, he's now ranked out of the top hundred. And Aravane Rezai, who climbed into the top fifteen less than a year ago, hadn't won more than two matches at a tournament all year until making the Dallas finals in August -- she's now just out of double-digit territory. But a couple players are trying to avoid similar fates this week in Asia -- after all, the last thing they want is to collapse fizzle out like the sad boys in Boston and Atlanta.

Andy Murray is probably the least likely to suffer a monstrous breakdown -- at #4 in the world, I have to begrudgingly admit he's probably the most talented player without a Major title. But he has periods of weakness -- he didn't win a match for more than two months after the Australian Open -- and he routinely allows opponents to walk all over him on the biggest stages. As the stronger hardcourt player, he probably should have won his U.S. Open semifinal against Rafael Nadal, but instead he was barely able to put a chink in the armor.

The Scot begins his Asia tour as the top seed in Bangkok, and really should seize the opportunity to make a statement -- especially with both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer pulling out of the China Open. Earlier today he thumped veteran Michael Berrer in straight sets, setting up a meeting with up-and-comer Grigor Dimitrov. The young Bulgarian has certainly shown he's got talent, and if he's able to get under Murray's skin it could get tough for the favorite. Still, as long as Andy keeps his cool -- something he is want to lose now and again -- it could bode well for his tournament.

A problem may arise, though, if he has another run-in with U.S. Open standout Donald Young. The surprise vanquisher of both Stanislas Wawrinka and Juan Ignacio Chela in New York has already notched wins over Murray and Jurgen Melzer this year and climbed to within a stone's throw of the top fifty. It may have taken a little longer than most pundits expected, but he certainly looks ready now to carry the mantle of next-gen American tennis stars.

Of course, he shouldn't rest on his laurels. Another one prone to letting emotions get the better of his game -- and his off-court behavior -- he still has a lot of work to do in Bangkok. Though he was impressive in his dismissal of fourth-seeded Guillermo Garcia-Lopez on Thursday, he still potentially faces a challenge from world #9 Gael Monfils if he's going to make his first Tour final. It's not out of his reach, but something he'll need to keep his focus in order to achieve.

Unlike these guys, Marcos Baghdatis isn't one susceptible to throwing tantrums -- the friendly Cypriot is one of the calmest guys on Tour -- but his game is certainly one with ups and downs. Once ranked in the top ten, he failed to defend most of his points from last summer and has since fallen out of the top fifty. This year he's beaten Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Murray, but also lost eleven opening rounds.

He took a wildcard entry into Kuala Lumpur, though, and opened with a solid victory over quick-rising Alex Bogomolov, Jr. He followed it up with a win over Somdev Devvarman, a man with whom he's split his last two meetings. He'll face doubles start Jurgen Melzer next, but the Austrian has been a little spotty himself recently and hasn't made a third round since July. If Baghdatis is at his best, I wouldn't be surprised to see an upset here too.

Serbian star Janko Tipsarevic is similarly likely to see his game break down. Last year after stunning Andy Roddick in the second round of the U.S. Open he promptly dropped in four sets to Gael Monfils. And back in February he was in total control versus Del Potro in the Delray Beach final before he broke down and ceded victory to the Argentine. But though he squandered his chance in another final in Eastbourne, he finally seemed to gain ground late in the summer -- he made the semifinals in Montreal and broke into the top fifteen after reaching the quarters in New York.

That record was enough to get him a third seed in Kuala Lumpur, where today he made the final eight with a win over Flavio Cipolla. The road only gets harder from her, as he next faces one-time world #3 Nikolay Davydenko, who's in the process of getting himself back together after his own injury sabbatical. The Russian has won their previous two meetings, but the last one was more than three years ago. If Tipsarevic is able to play as consistently has he had the last few months, he should make good on his favored position.

It's important for all these guys to keep momentum on their side. We've still got a few weeks to go before the end of their season, but this is certainly not the time to start slacking off. After all, none of us want to see another set of slumps that rival what's already happened in September -- especially the players themselves.

No comments: