October 30, 2011

A Banner Year

If at the start of 2011, someone had said then-#34 Petra Kvitova would be a Grand Slam and WTA champion by the end of the year, few would've believed it. But the twenty-one year old Czech has spent the last ten months honing her game, moving up the rankings, and earlier today capped off the best season of her still-young career.

She kicked off the year in style, defeating four higher-ranked opponents to capture the title in Brisbane and several weeks later dominated Kim Clijsters at the Paris Indoors final. Of course that was all small potatoes compared to her stunning victory at the All England Club, which ultimately announced her arrival in the elite.

Kvitova struggled a bit since July, winning just two matches during the summer hard-court season and losing in the first round at the U.S. Open. But with a run to the semis in Tokyo and a title in Linz, it looked like momentum was back on her side, and when she got to Istanbul for her first ever appearance at the year-end championships she was at the top of her game.

She got off to a good start in the round robins, taking out two-time Major finalist Vera Zvonareva in straight sets, avenging her loss at the Pan Pacific Open. She followed it up with a straightforward win over world #1 Caroline Wozniacki and completed her rout of the Red Group by taking out Aggie Radwanska on Friday. She lost her first set of the tournament to Sam Stosur in the semis, but rebounded from the 5-7 deficit to take out the U.S. Open winner after just over two hours of play.

Over in the White Group Victoria Azarenka was trying to cap off her own career-best year. The twenty-two year old had won a trio of titles in 2011, highlighted by reclaiming the trophy in Miami, and put up her deepest run at a Major with a semi showing at Wimbledon. But some consistent play throughout the year -- she's often faded out after a strong spring -- helped her climb to a high ranking of #3 in September, and got her on the radar of pundits looking for the Next Big Thing in women's tennis.

In Istanbul, her third consecutive appearance at the year-end championships, Vika was quick to get off on the right foot. Previously unable to get out of the round robins, the Belarusian came out swinging against Sam Stosur, notching the win in just over an hour. The next day she reversed her recent record against Na Li, who'd knocked her out at both the Australian and French Opens, to secure her spot in the semis. Though she lost her third match against Marion Bartoli -- a replacement after Maria Sharapova withdrew with injury -- Azarenka posted an easy win over Vera Zvonareva Saturday, setting up her third meeting with Kvitova this year. She'd lost on both previous occasions.

The match-up between the two young stars certainly lived up to its potential. Kvitova came out firing and built up an impressive 5-0 lead in the first set. But an increasingly consistent Azarenka somehow managed to draw even, thwarting the Czech on two attempts to serve out the set. Petra broke again in the twelfth game to regain the lead, but Vika didn't back down. They traded breaks early in the second, but ultimately a better service game and more aggressive return from Azarenka brought things to a tie again and forced a deciding set, even earning herself three break chances to start the third. But that's when Kvitova came alive -- after denying Vika on four opportunities that game she immediately broke again and never looked back. Finally after two and a half hours of play, it was Kvitova, in her Tour Championship debut, that came away with the title.

For her efforts, Petra Kvitova will end the year as #2 in the world and go into the 2012 season as a legitimate threat, really on any court -- considering the girl was ranked outside the top fifty just eighteen months ago, that's quite an accomplishment. She's proven that she can hit with the big girls and will likely beat them more often than she loses -- something other players in the top ten can't always say.

And if she can keep up her play, there's no telling what she could do next year.

October 27, 2011

Winding Down?

We're getting to that part of the men's season where much of the London field has been decided and the couple remaining contenders are fighting to rack up a couple extra points here and there before the last few Masters events of the year. But even those players who have no possibility of making a trip to the O2 have reason to keep fighting -- some are looking to follow through on recent successes, while others need to get their games back on track after losing the momentum that was once so clearly on their side.

It hasn't been all successful -- one-time world #3 Nikolay Davydenko continues to struggle post injury -- though he was able to reach the semis last week in Moscow, he got bagelled in his second set in Vienna yesterday, ultimately losing the first round to qualifier Steve Darcis. And surprise Australian Open quarterfinalist Alexandr Dolgopolov may be at a career high ranking, but after his drubbing by Dudi Sela on Monday in St. Petersburg he's now lost three opening matches in his last four events.

Big-serving Kevin Anderson is trying to turn his year around. Though he's just a shade off a career-high ranking, he hasn't won more than two matches at any event since March. Many of his losses have come at the hands of top-twenty players, or better -- Novak Djokovic, Mardy Fish, Gael Monfils are among the South African's vanquishers this year -- but it's still been hard for him to get traction since taking his maiden title in Johannesburg. So far in Vienna, though he seems to have found his game again. Already notching twenty-two aces this week, he had a straight forward win over Andreas Haider-Maurer on Monday and followed up by downing always-tricky Marcos Baghdatis in straight sets. This is where he can get into trouble, though, as his next opponent, either Jurgen Melzer or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, could present a challenge. But he'll have to power through if he's going to re-establish himself as a force next year.

More interesting, though, might be the re-emergence of veteran Tommy Haas. Once the #2 player in the world, he remained a force until hip surgery nearly two years ago cut his 2010 season way short. He started playing singles again at Roland Garros and won his first match of the year against Michael Berrer in Newport back in July. And though he made a surprising run to the third round at the U.S. Open, it wasn't until this week he managed to put together more than a few wins back-to-back. As a wildcard in the qualifiers, he took out Matthias Bachinger to make the main draw and immediately upset fifth seed Juan Ignacio Chela. Today he came back from a set down against fellow qualifier Aljaz Bedene to make the quarters, the first time he's gotten that far at a tournament in over two years.

Over in St. Petersburg Alex Bogomolov Jr. is having the year of his career. Though he first emerged on the scene at the start of the last decade, some personal troubles -- a divorce from fell tennis player Ashley Harkleroad and a suspension for doping in 2005 -- kept him from making a real impact on Tour. But already this year he's beaten Andy Murray in Miami and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Cincinnati. The seventh seed came to Russia, incidentally where he is a dual citizen, ranked #36 in the world, also just off his career high. After stomping down Igor Kunitsyn in his first match, he withstood a late surge by Philipp Kohlschreiber today to get the win earlier today. That gives him entry to his sixth quarterfinal of the year, proving his recent run was no flash in the pan.

Marin Cilic is trying to accomplish a similar feat, though his greatest successes are far less recent. A top-ten player last year, he hasn't won a title since February, 2010 and lost five opening round matches this year. But he's been trying to reverse that run recently and made the finals in Beijing earlier this month. He's fallen a bit in the rankings, but retained the fourth seed in St. Petersburg and today rebounded after losing his first set to Somdev Devvarman to get the win after two-plus hours of play. He also benefits from a lack of viable seeds in his section of the draw, so could make a very legitimate run for a title.

It's too late for any of these guys to hope their seasons will be extended this year, but it's still important for them to make a stand before they begin their 2012 campaigns. If they kick off next year like they're trying to end this one, there's no telling where the momentum will take them.

October 23, 2011

It's About Time

It was quite an eventful week in Moscow as the ladies wrapped up their regular season events and the men put in last-ditch efforts to qualify for London. But for the players who made it to the end, their rewards may have longer-lasting impacts than just the one title.

It's been a banner year for Janko Tipsarevic -- fresh off a big win over Andy Roddick at the 2010 U.S. Open and a Davis Cup trophy, he was poised for big things. Though he failed in attempts to capture his first title in both Delray Beach and Eastbourne, he nevertheless climbed to a career-high ranking on the heels of a run to the semis in Cincinnati and quarters in New York. And in his fifth appearance in a championship match, he finally did one better than runner-up when he took the crown in Kuala Lumpur. He came to Moscow as the top seed and, though he stumbled slightly in the first set against Igor Kunitsyn, he quickly rebound and dominated the way to his fourth final of the year.

There he met his friend and compatriot Viktor Troicki, incidentally the winner here last year. The third-ranked Serb had been moving up the rankings himself this year, but with four first round losses in his last five tournaments, momentum was not on his side. He had a tough road in Russia, needing three tiebreak sets to get through Alex Bogomolov in the quarters, but ultimately returned to the finals to set up the first all-Serbian title match in ATP history.

But ultimately the defender, who had won their only previous meeting here three years ago, wasn't able to get the better of the on-paper favorite this time. Though Troicki was able to overcome a service deficit early and did out-ace his opponent in the first set, Tipsarevic finally got the go-ahead break in the ninth game and did serve it out. He stayed aggressive early in the second, pressuring Troicki in his first service game, and broke again a few games later. By then it was all over, and it was London-hopeful Tipsarevic hoisting the trophy this time.

Things weren't quite so smooth in the women's draw in Moscow. Top players Vera Zvonareva and red-hot Aggie Radwanska both fell early in the week. In fact Linz finalist Dominika Cibulkova was the only seed to make the semifinals -- after stunning Vera in the quarters, she smashed through doubles specialist Elena Vesnina on Saturday to make her second championship match in as many weeks.

In the other half of the bracket Kaia Kanepi, who's fallen substantially from the career high #16 ranking she held earlier in the year, was putting on an impressive display herself. Unseeded here, she was nevertheless able to upset French Open runner-up Francesca Schiavone and two-time Major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova in back-to-back matches. Having won a title last year in Palermo, she may not have been the favorite, but she was surely the more comfortable on this stage.

And it seemed Kanepi's experience would win out early in the match. She broke the diminutive Slovak in the fourth game of the match before taking the first set and stayed strong after losing break point in the second to force a tiebreak. But Cibulkova won seven straight points to push the match to a decider and after failing to consolidate a break twice in the third set, she finally held serve when it counted most and was able to capture that elusive first title. And after the year she's had -- wins over Zvonareva, world #1 Caroline Wozniacki and Wimbledon finalist Maria Sharapova -- it was certainly quite well-deserved.

As the season winds down for all these athletes, it's nice to see them bringing their best play even at the end. And especially for two newly minted champions who've waiting a long time to bring home those maiden trophies, it's the best way to cap off the year. Now that they have the confidence that comes with success, there's really no telling what they can do in 2012.

October 20, 2011

The Turnarounds

There's nothing worse than seeing a promising talent burn out after having a burst of success.

It happens a lot, of course -- former #1 Dinara Safina's injuries have taken her out of the game indefinitely and Sam Querrey, once considered the future of American tennis, has been having only moderate success on the Challengers' Tour since elbow surgery took him out of the game for a while. But there is sometimes light at the end of the tunnel, and a couple players are trying to prove their strong starts to the year were no fluke.

Many of the top women in the sport made their way over to Luxembourg this week, but some of the best results have come from the non-seeded players. Veteran Alberta Brianti won her first ever title days after her thirty-first birthday in April, and though she's had a couple nice victories after that -- a suddenly resurgent Flavia Pennetta in Carlsbad, sky-rocketing Sabine Lisicki in Linz -- she hasn't been able to gain the same traction she had in the spring. But after her first round victory over Anna Tatishvili this week, she might be swinging strong again. She'll have to get past top seed and world #3 Victoria Azarenka to go any further here, but her strong start could give her the confidence she needs.

Then there's Anastasija Sevastova, whose surprise run to the fourth round of the Australian Open helped her climb to a career high ranking of #36 in the world in January. She's only won eight matches since, falling in twelve first rounds. Now ranked out of the top hundred, the Latvian seems to be getting her game back in order in Luxembourg. She dealt a one-sided defeat to Pennetta in her opener and earlier today was similarly impressive against rising star Simona Halep, winning more than seventy percent of her first serves and breaking the Romanian six times. She'll have to raise her game even more against her next opponent, Stuttgart champion Julia Goerges, but the German has also been off her game a bit recently and hasn't won more than two matches at an event since April. If Sevastova takes charge, she could make a big impact here.

Over in Stockholm, the field is led by world #10 Gael Monfils, but I've got my eye on some players a little further down the rankings. Ivan Dodig erupted onto the scene to start the year, winning a title in Zagreb and making the finals in 's-Hertogenbosch. He was also the only player to take a set off Novak Djokovic during his Australian Open run. He's gone 4-10 since mid-June, though, and though he remains the seventh seed in Sweden he's fallen far out of the spotlight. But the Croat has a chance to change that this week -- after a tough win over Adrian Mannarino he will meet former world #3 David Nalbandian for a spot in the quarters later today. Dodig lost their previous meeting a few weeks back, but he is the on-paper favorite here, and will want to reverse that result.

More impressive has been the return of my dear James Blake in Stockholm. After falling way out of the top hundred, he's been plodding his way through the Challengers' Tour all year, winning titles in Winnetka and Sarasota. He's still been trophy-less on the pro circuit for over four years, but back at #69, he's playing solid ball again. Yesterday Blake pulled off his biggest win in years as he upset second seed 2009 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro in straight sets. It's probably too soon to call the bracket wide open for the American -- he'll face the winner of Dodig/Nalbandian next -- but the upcoming challenges are much less intimidating than the one he's already overcome.

With only a few weeks left in the season, there's never been a better time for these players to turn their years -- or careers -- around. There's no telling yet how long their streaks will last this week, but their wins so far sure show they've still got what it takes to make a dent in their draws.

And if they play up to their potential, it could change things dramatically in the months to come.

October 16, 2011

The Right Way to Finish

Most of the headlines of 2011 have understandably focused on the impressive streak which began Novak Djokovic's year. His 64-3 record, ten titles and three Major trophies is one of the best runs in tennis history. And with the year-end #1 ranking all tied up now, he's broken ground few have ever tread before. But as the Serb takes a couple weeks off to recover from what's been a very intense schedule, it seems it's time for someone else to take over.

Andy Murray came to Shanghai as the defending champion and fresh off titles in Bangkok and Tokyo. Since mid-August, he'd put together twenty-one wins and just a single loss -- to Rafael Nadal at the U.S. Open, certainly nothing to be embarrassed by. As the second seed this week, he was one of the few favorites to survive the early rounds -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Mardy Fish and even Nadal all suffered early losses, allowing tricky players like Feliciano Lopez and Kei Nishikori into the semis. And though Murray had the benefit of a first round bye and a second round walkover, he took out his next three opponents in fairly short order, dropping just three games in less than an hour of play with Nishikori to make his sixth final of the year.

The only other seed to make it to the final four was David Ferrer, himself a two-time titleist this year and a runner-up in Monte Carlo, among others. The world #5 had a slightly more difficult path, though, toughing out a win over promising youngster Milos Raonic, rebounding from a set down against former #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero and fighting off a stubborn Andy Roddick in the quarters. He even needed more than two hours to dismiss his countryman Lopez, who'd already taken care of Janko Tipsarevic, Tomas Berdych and Rafa's vanquisher Florian Mayer.

After such a week, it shouldn't be too shocking that Murray had the upper hand in the final. Though Ferrer had won a respectable three of their seven previous matches, each victory came on clay and he had only taken one set off the Scot on any other surface. Murray kicked off the match by breaking the Spaniard's serve, and though the score was immediately evened up he did manage to get the lead back. The second set played out in similar fashion, and when all was said and done, Murray was able to secure the win, his fifth of 2011 and his eighth Masters crown.

The win does more than add to Murray's trophy chest. As of Monday's rankings, he'll be back in the top three for the first time since March of last year and, maybe more interestingly, ahead of Roger Federer, who'll be at his lowest position in over eight years. There are still a few weeks of play left in the season, though, and this is certainly not the time for Murray to start coasting.

If he's able to keep up his momentum and end the year like Djokovic started it, he might finally be able to make that breakthrough everyone's been waiting for.

October 13, 2011

New Stars Emerge

The last couple weeks on the ladies Tour have been dominated by a very familiar group of players -- those we've become used to seeing in the later rounds of the Majors and the ones who've been staples in and around the top-ten for most of the year.

But at the slightly smaller events this week we're starting to see some new faces last into the latter matches. It's not that the tournaments are without star power -- winners of the last two Grand Slams are in both draws -- but it's a couple others who have potential to really make an impact.

At the HP Open in Osaka, some of the year's break-out stars are continuing their momentum. U.S. Open semifinalist Angelique Kerber, just a shade off her career-high ranking, has only dropped seven games in her first two rounds. And Petra Cetkovska, who began the year ranked #142 in the world, has followed up well on her fourth-round run at Wimbledon -- she's now made her third Tour quarterfinal since July.

But the true player to watch in Japan might be veteran South African Chanelle Scheepers. A true journeywoman, the twenty-seven year old has never finished a year ranked inside the top one hundred. But since nearly defeating Francesca Schiavone at the U.S. Open and then earning her first career title in Guangzhou immediately after, she's vaulted into everyone's attention. She had a tough second round match against doubles champion Yaroslava Shvedova and faces a more-than-intimidating Sam Stosur next, but the girl knows how to persevere and I wouldn't put an upset past her.

The ladies in Linz have been similarly impressive. Fes champion Alberta Brianti hadn't made much of an impact in the intervening months, but a dominating win over uber-tough Sabine Lisicki in the first round put the Italian back on the map. And Ksenia Pervak, who won her maiden crown in Tashkent back in September, has a very good chance to make a dent in the draw when she takes out Daniela Hantuchova later today.

But here I've got my eye on qualifier Sorana Cirstea. Once ranked #23 in the world, the young Romanian hasn't followed up on her French Open success from years ago -- this year alone she's lost in or before the second round of seventeen events. But two ITF titles, including one last month in Saint Malo, may have helped her turn things around -- she began her run in Austria with a fairly easy win over Wimbledon quarterfinalist Tamira Paszek and then staged an impressive come-from-behind win over world #15 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova -- her first top-twenty win in over a year. She'll next face either Brianti or Lucie Safarova, neither an opponent to be overlooked, but certainly less of a challenge than what she's already faced.

Sure it's getting late in the year and there's not a lot of time left to make a big move in the rankings. But as their seasons wind down it sure looks like they're all looking to get momentum moving in their direction. And as they prep for 2012, now might be the perfect time to come out swinging.

October 9, 2011

Return to Glory

It's not that this week's winners have been completely out of the spotlight recently, but with other stories hogging the headlines -- Novak Djokovic's miraculous run this year, the return of Serena Williams, three first-time Grand Slam ladies' champions this year -- it's no wonder that other players have been relegated to the back pages. But in Asia this weekend, some players who've been sitting on the sidelines made some loud arguments that they should not yet be forgotten.

Andy Murray is clearly not down and out. The world #4 has only lost one match in the last two months, racking up titles in Cincinnati and Bangkok. This week he came to Tokyo as the second seed, but wasn't rewarded with a particularly easy draw -- he began with a two-and-a-half hour battle against Marcos Baghdatis, a man who'd beaten him earlier this year in Rotterdam, and then faced Alex Bogomolov, David Nalbandian and David Ferrer in succession. Against Rafael Nadal in the final, a man who'd handily beaten him in their last five meetings, I was nervous, but fairly certain his luck had run out.

But Murray was undeterred in Sunday's final. After getting down an early break to the Spaniard and losing the first set, he seemed to regain focus. He broke his opponent in the fourth game of the second and never looked back, ultimately blanking the former #1 in the decider and dropping just four points in the set. It was Murray's fourth title of the year and the twentieth of his career. And with just a handful of events left before the year-end championships, there's never been a better time for him to show his stuff.

The same could be said for Tomas Berdych who, though a shade off his career-high ranking, had gone over two years without a title to his name. He had made a couple good runs at tournaments this year, but failed to defend points both at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He'd lost to players like Thomaz Bellucci, Philipp Petzschner and Stephane Robert and had only notched two top-ten wins on the year, half the number he scored last year.

But this week in Beijing he seemed to be back in form. After a tough first round against a feisty Jurgen Melzer, he only dropped three games on the way to the semis. He endured a long match Saturday, however, against top-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, himself fresh off a title in Metz, but eventually made it through, delivering a breadstick in the third set. He was similarly impressive in Sunday's final against former #9 Marin Cilic, a man who, though impressive, hadn't faced a seeded player on his way to the championship match. After losing the first set, Berdych eventually drew even and dominated the decider, closing out the match and earning his sixth career trophy. It may have come at the most opportune time, pulling him back into contention for the World Tour Finals. If he keeps his momentum up, he could be making a return to London.

The stakes were just as high for the ladies in Beijing, and Tokyo champion Aggie Radwanska was out to prove she deserves to be considered among the elite. A shade out of the top ten, she still held hopes of qualifying for the BNP Paribas Championships, but needed to put up a strong showing in China to keep those prospects alive. And after her impressive upset-filled run in Japan, she must have been happy to have her opponents clear the road for her this week. Sofia Arvidsson took out Wimbledon titleist Petra Kvitova, while Ana Ivanovic defeated world #4 Vera Zvonareva, and Flavia Pennetta ousted top seed Caroline Wozniacki. Not that any of these ladies should be overlooked, but certainly they were less intimidating than other options.

In any case, when Radwanska met Andrea Petkovic in the final, she hadn't lost a set in over a week. She ran off to a good start against the German, but kept losing every lead she built -- the two traded breaks for much of the first set before Aggie was ultimately able to consolidate. But the tide turned swiftly in the second and the ninth seed took less than half an hour to blank her opponent and force a decider. Here again it was a game of ups and downs for the Pole, but she was finally able to serve out the match, improving her record against Petkovic to a perfect 5-0 and garnering enough points to move her securely back into the top ten. She's now in position to qualify for the Championships for the third time in her career -- if she's able to hold on.

With so many of the biggest stars this year taking some time off to recoup -- or regroup -- it's the perfect chance for others to seize the reins, and all these athletes are making a valiant stab at doing just that.

As the 2011 season winds down they really could have an impact on how things end -- and it's certainly not to late to turn the tables in their favor.

October 5, 2011

Looking for Follow-Through

It's not news that the schedule of a professional tennis player can be taxing. With nearly every week on the calendar featuring an event somewhere on the globe, athletes often head straight from one tournament to another, and those lucky enough to make the final rounds one week could easily find themselves right back in action days, even hours, later. So we shouldn't be too surprised to see signs of fatigue, and hopefully those who do pull through will be able to keep it up

It's not all good news, of course. Pablo Andujar, since making the final in Bucharest, has lost two straight first rounds, most recently to world #137 Matthew Ebden. And Marcos Baghdatis, who pulled off one upset after another last week in Kuala Lumpur, apparently didn't have one more in him, falling to Andy Murray in Tokyo earlier today, while Janko Tipsarevic, high off his first career title, lost a battle with Dmitry Tursunov right off the bat. Then there's Pan Pacific runner-up Vera Zvonareva -- she struggled against Klara Zakopalova in her Beijing opener and was subsequently drubbed by a resurgent Ana Ivanovic in the third round.

On the other hand, we shouldn't be surprised to see players like Bangkok titleist Murray and Japan Open champ Aggie Radwanska do well, at least in the early stages of a tournament. It's the more unlikely heroes we should be watching.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has spent most of the last three years in and around the top fifteen, but he hadn't won a title since 2009 until Metz a few weeks back. He's the top seed at the China Open and survived a potentially big challenge from up-and-comer Grigor Dimitrov in his first round. He'll meet wildcard Ze Zhang next, but has a tough quarter of the draw with former #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2010 Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych and one-time top-ten player Fernando Verdasco all playing some good ball these days. If he wants to be a real contender at the World Tour Finals, he'll have to keep his level up.

Kaia Kanepi hasn't been quite as consistent, but nevertheless has a chance to climb back into the sport's elite. Having dropped several ranking points the last few months after a foot injury kept her out of contention, she finally showed signs of the strength she had at the All England Club last year. She scored wins over U.S. Open standout Flavia Pennetta and world #1 Caroline Wozniacki in Tokyo last week, and benefitted in Beijing from the retirement of Sabine Lisicki. Tomorrow, she'll have a rematch with the Dane on Thursday, clearly no easy repeat. But if she's able to clear her path again, she'll certainly be well on her way to turning her year in a new direction.

There's certainly downside to playing such a physically demanding sport day in and day out, and hopefully none of these guys will pay a price for jumping right back into the game. If they are able to manage their schedules it could mean a very successful fall run -- they just have to be careful they don't suffer the fate of so many others.

October 1, 2011

The Major Leagues

At the first premier tournament of the ladies' Asian Swing this year, there was no shortage of stars in the draw -- seven of the top ten made their way to the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo, but plenty who'd just missed nabbing a seed were in full display as well. And that certainly made for some interesting results early on in the week, and allowed those who advanced to show they truly belong among the elite.

World #1 Caroline Wozniacki survived a tough first round against Jarmila Gajdasova, but was promptly dismissed a round later by former top-twenty player Kaia Kanepi. Maria Sharapova, at her highest ranking at a tournament in more than three year, was looking good, but suffered an unfortunate ankle roll in her quarterfinal rematch against Petra Kvitova which puts the rest of her year in jeopardy. But despite early losses by the favorites, the women who made the final weekend in Tokyo were forced to put up some of their best fight all week long.

Two-time Major finalist Vera Zvonareva hasn't had as much success this year versus last, but she did make eight semifinals, including deep runs in Australia and New York. She held onto the fourth seed here, but her road was far from easy -- she was forced to avenge a third round Wimbledon loss to Tsvetana Pironkova right off the bat and followed it up with a crushing defeat of doubles stand-out Iveta Benesova. She was down 1-5 in the semis against Kvitova, but somehow managed to win the match in straight sets, knocking off eleven of the last twelve games in her favor.

In the other half of the draw Agnieszka Radwanska, one of my perennial favorites, was pulling out the big guns against some top-tier talent herself. After dismantling U.S. Open surprise semifinalist Angelique Kerber -- incidentally, her own vanquisher in New York -- she took on former #1 Jelena Jankovic, blanking her in the third set. Against hard-hitting Victoria Azarenka in the final four, Aggie stayed calm after losing a 4-2 lead in the second set and ran off to an early lead in the third. Though it took a few tries to get it done, she eventually secured the win after over two and a half hours of play.

So Saturday's final ended up being a rematch of the Carlsbad championship, one which the Pole won relatively easily after also having endured a couple three-setters earlier in the week. And this time too Radwanska was able to seize the reins early -- after dropping her first service game, she rattled off four in a row and took the early set lead. She took an early lead in the second as well, and never looked back. In short order she'd scored the win -- her third straight over the Russian -- and claimed the biggest title of her still-young career.

For years I've been waiting for Radwanska to win herself a Big Girl's trophy, and it's so satisfying to see her do it. It may not be a Grand Slam, but she had to display the same standard of skill to get it. After notching her seventh top-ten win this year, she's certainly shown she can hang in with the top brass.

Now she just has to do it on the big stage.