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.

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