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.

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