November 30, 2011

Davis Cup Championship Preview: Clash of Two Titans

It'll be a battle of powerhouses vying for Davis Cup glory this weekend, as two teams we've become accustomed to seeing in the final try once more to stake their claim on the trophy. One's done it a couple times in recent years, while the other has a real shot at making its first trip to the top of the podium.

Home-team Spain, twice a champion in the last three years, makes its way to this weekend's final after a thrashing of last year's runner-up France in the September semis. Led by world #2 Rafael Nadal and Barclays Championship semifinalist David Ferrer, they've got higher-profile names on their side, but their star power may extend deeper than than.

Feliciano Lopez has clawed his way back to a career-high ranking at #20, thanks to some solid play since the spring. He made his first championship match in over a year in Belgrade and stunned Andy Roddick to make the quarters at Wimbledon. He beat Mardy Fish in a long first rubber back in July and notched a win over Juan Martin Del Potro in the 2008 final. He'll probably get relegated to the doubles rubber, but might be able to score some key wins in the reverse singles matches.

And former top-ten player Fernando Verdasco has been a bit out of the spotlight recently, but still ranks in the top twenty-five. He's won both singles rubbers he's played at Davis Cup this year and has scored victories over higher-ranked players like Marin Cilic, Jurgen Melzer and Nicolas Almagro this year. He's had a less successful year in the doubles circuit, but with the crowd on his side and playing for country, he could still do some damage.

The Spaniards will have to face a pretty stacked Argentine team though. The three-time second place finishers secured their spot in the final after top-ranked Juan Martin Del Potro benefited from a retirement by Novak Djokovic back in September -- that gave the South Americans an insurmountable 3-1 lead over defending champs Serbia. DelPo, spitting distance from returning to the top ten, leads the team in the finals, coming off a semifinal run in Valencia and a runner-up placing in Vienna. He has an impressing 9-2 record in Davis Cup play, and though he has lost two matches to Rafael Nadal this year, he had a nice streak going before that, and soundly defeated David Ferrer in their last two meetings.

Veteran David Nalbandian could also feature highly in this weekend's rubbers. He's fallen a bit in the rankings, but won both his singles matches this year, including one over then-#16 Viktor Troicki. Never one that should be taken lightly, he has fairly solid records against the likely singles representatives. And with top-thirty players like Juan Monaco and Juan Ignacio Chela both in the mix, there's a lot of talent in the pool for captain Tito Vazquez to choose from.

Spain has won all of the teams' previous ties, and soundly defeated the Argentinians in the 2008 final. But some new blood could help ignite a fire in the underdogs. If Del Potro, still really developing his game, is in top form, it might be a closer fight than we think. And with the pride of their nations resting on their shoulders, the motivation to win has never been greater.

November 27, 2011

Mean Reversion

It's a common phenomenon of statistics -- day-to-day events can deviate from a trend, sometimes very drastically, but eventually, over time things go back to normal, and the trend is resumed, almost as if nothing changed.

The past two years have felt a bit like an aberration in men's tennis, as the man we've come to expect to dominate the sport has taken a spot on the sidelines as younger upstarts stole the show. But this week's action in London brought us all back down to earth, and put Roger Federer back on top.

The long-time world #1 came to the year-end championships with his lowest ranking since 2003, but he was riding a solid streak during the fall that brought with it titles in Basel and Paris. He dominated his round robin matches earlier in the week, dropping sets here and there but handing Rafael Nadal, last year's runner-up, a one-sided defeat in which the Spaniard only won three games. Against David Ferrer in the semis, he needed less than ninety minutes to take out the 2007 Masters Cup finalist.

In Sunday's final he took on the man who's come to be his new nemesis this year. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga staged one of the biggest upsets of the year, when he came back from two sets down to take out Federer in the Wimbledon quarters and repeated the win a few weeks later in Montreal. He'd lost their most recent meetings, but made a valiant stand post-U.S. Open with two titles and a Master's final of his own. In the round robins the Frenchman was able to make up for a three-set loss to Roger with wins over Mardy Fish and Rafael Nadal and exacted revenge over Tomas Berdych in the semis for his Beijing loss. The win gave him entry to his first World Tour Final championship match -- not bad for what was just his second appearance at the year-ending event.

In Sunday's final both men came out on fire, but for the first half of the opening set at least, it seemed Tsonga was the stronger one, dropping just a handful of points on his serve. But in the eighth game, Federer built up a 0-40 lead and converted the only break chance of the set. The Swiss built up a 4-2 lead in the second and had a few chances to get an insurance break, when things turned around -- Tsonga denied Fed the chance to serve out the championship and forced a tiebreak. He came back from a 2-5 deficit and saved match point, finally winning the set and forcing a decider.

Things stayed close in the third to start, but the stats favored the sixteen-time Grand Slam champion. Federer lost just one point on his first serve, three on serve in total. He made a bigger dent on return, too, converting his third break chance of the set and finally closing out the match in just under two-and-a-half hours.

The win brought Roger his record sixth year-end championship, sending him ahead of both Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras in total titles. And maybe more importantly, it reminded us all he's still a real contender for the big titles in 2012 -- despite what we may have been taught the last few years. It's clear Roger Federer's career is far from over, as his run over the last several months proves, and with the year culminating in his biggest trophy of the season, it might mean his trend is on course for quite some time.

November 25, 2011

What a Way to End!

It's not very often that the top seeds in the men's draw of a tournament do not make it through to the end, especially when all the top seeds are entered. In fact, at least three -- and often all four -- of the players in the semifinals of the last three Grand Slams ranked at the top of their quarters of the bracket. We've become accustomed to seeing the best beat the best under the toughest circumstances, so we should expect that to continue, even at the year-end championships.

But something strange happened this week in London. World #3 Andy Murray withdrew after losing his first match Monday, French Open champion Rafael Nadal pulled out a tough win against Mardy Fish and then lost two in a row to end his hopes of that maiden year-end title, and then Novak Djokovic, almost unbeatable for the first nine months of the year, dropped his first match ever to countryman Janko Tipsarevic -- the wildcard entry after Murray's withdrawal -- earlier today, being stopped short of the semis for the first time all year*.

So that leaves a somewhat motley crew in the semis of this years ATP Championships. Roger Federer, five times a winner, is the clear favorite. Though he lost sets to both Fish and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga during the round robins, he's been loss-less since the U.S. Open semis, with titles in Basel and Paris to his name. It's quite a turnaround for a man who fell to his lowest ranking since 2003 and went oh-for-four at the Majors this year. For what's ostensibly his least prolific year in quite some time, he might just pull momentum squarely onto his side.

But there are some formidable opponents in his way. David Ferrer will meet Roger in the semis after winning his first five sets in London. He ended up losing earlier today to Tomas Berdych, but the Spaniard, ranked #5 in the world, was relentless against Murray and Djokovic earlier in the week. He's never beaten Federer, only taken one set off him on hardcourts, but Ferrer made the finals at the Tennis Masters Cup in 2007 and has been relentless this week. It might be a harder fought semi than we expect.

In the second semifinal Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will try to make his fourth final since the U.S. Open. The Frenchman has had a more-than-solid autumn, and with wins over Nadal and Fish this week, he's improved his previously mediocre record versus top ten players. He didn't make it out of the round robins in his last appearance at the Championships in 2008, and with the run he's had over the last few months, it sure looks like he can go one better this time.

But he'll have to face Tomas Berdych in Saturday's semi, a man who came back from the brink a few times in London. After enduring a tough defeat by Novak Djokovic on Monday, he found himself in an early hole two days later against wildcard Tipsarevic, a man against whom he had a 1-4 record. Not only did he pull off that win, he repeated the rally today against Ferrer, whom he hadn't defeated since Hamburg in 2005. The Czech has also saved his best play for late in the year, having won a title in Beijing where he incidentally beat Tsonga in the semis, so there's no reason to believe he won't put up a fight again.

It's been quite a reversal of what we've come to expect this year -- the only two men to have won Majors in 2011 won't be fighting for the final title of the year. But for the players left, this is exactly the way they wanted to finish the season, and if they can last just a few matches longer, they'll finally reap that ultimate reward.

* Djokovic withdrew from the quarterfinals in Paris, but did not actually lose a match that tournament.

November 21, 2011

Not Exactly What You'd Expect

The first set of round robin matches is in the books at this year's World Tour Finals in London, and though we are far from deciding who will take home the prize in the end, the surprises -- and the surprising battles -- we've seen so far make choosing the champion this early a largely futile task.

In a rematch of last week's final in Paris -- and a couple other matches this year -- Roger Federer took on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the first singles match of the week. He got off to a quick start, taking the first set while only dropping three points on serve, but the Frenchman wholly reversed the score in the second, losing just two points himself. They kept things close in the decider, holding serve for the first nine games before Tsonga fell to 0-40 in the tenth. Federer failed to convert his first match point, but he was ultimately too much for the sixth seed. After just under ninety minutes, albeit through a bit of a scare, Federer had extended his win streak to thirteen consecutive matches since the U.S. Open and gave himself a further leg up on his competitors.

Rafael Nadal had a slightly tougher time of it on Sunday. Last year's runner-up took on first-time finalist Mardy Fish, and broke the American in the first game of the match. But, like Tsonga before him, Fish got the lead in the second and though he failed to convert break chances on Rafa's serve, he was eventually able to serve out the set and force a third. That's when things got exciting, though -- Nadal broke again early, but Fish pulled back even; Fish got his own lead, but failed to consolidate. After almost three hours of play, the two were pushed to a tiebreak, where the former #1 took control. In a match that ended near midnight, Nadal was the ultimate winner, staying in the top half of his group -- at least for now.

Monday's singles action kicked off with the biggest shock of the tournament so far. Third seeded Andy Murray, a winner of three titles since the U.S. Open, took on David Ferrer, who hadn't captured a trophy since Acapulco in February. The Spaniard, who'd lost his last four matches to Murray, found himself in an early deficit this morning but quickly pulled back even. Though both players had plenty of chances to cause damage on his return games, it was Ferrer who took advantage again to close out the set. Murray was again the aggressor early in the second, but the pair traded breaks throughout with the fifth seed ultimately denying the Brit a tiebreak and notching the win -- his first on a hardcourt, and the first real upset in London.

We were almost treated to another surprise when world #1 Novak Djokovic took on second-time final qualifier Tomas Berdych in Monday's second match. The erstwhile Wimbledon runner-up built a 3-0 lead on the Serb early and held on long enough to take the first set. The Czech's quality of play dropped a bit in the second, getting fewer than half of his first serves in, but got the break in the decider and a 4-2 lead. But Djokovic, who'd only lost one match to a player out of the top five all year, immediately broke back. Berdych earned himself a pair of match points a few games later, but both were rejected. In the tiebreak, Nole took control early and finally closed it out after more than two-and-a-half hours of play.

So there was only one true upset early in this year's World Tour Final, but even the favorites were put through the ringer for their first wins. It just goes to show that pretty much any of these guys is a real contender for the title, and with a lot of round robin bouts still left to go, there's plenty of room for things to turn around -- and quickly.

November 18, 2011

London Calling

This year's field at the ATP Championships is an interesting mix. Peppered with a mix of veterans and newbies -- relative or otherwise -- and plagued by injury, fatigue and some recent unexpected results, it might be harder to pick a favorite that you'd think. And it might open some holes just big enough to sneak through.

Group A
The first group of round robin matches is headlined by world #1 Novak Djokovic, who comes to London with a two-tournament (three, if you count the Davis Cup semis) losing streak -- something he hasn't had at any other time this year. He continues to struggle with a shoulder injury, and likely exhaustion, but he boasts the only winning record against the others in his group, and as the winner here three years ago, he certainly has the most experience.

For his first round robin match, Nole will play Tomas Berdych, appearing in London for the second straight time. The Czech, who really broke out in 2010, wasn't able to defend a lot of his points in the first half of the year, but picked the perfect time to play well again. He took the title in Beijing and beat three tough players to make the Paris semis. He's lost more than twice as many matches as he's won against the group, but if he's able to get an early jump on his opponents, he could cause damage.

Andy Murray had been riding one of the most successful streaks post-U.S. Open, winning three titles in Asia before losing to Berdych at the Paris Masters. Somewhat surprisingly, he has losing records against two of his three round robin groupies, but recent wins over Nole and his first opponent David Ferrer should give him confidence this week.

Ferrer can't be counted out, though. The veteran Spaniard is playing his third World Tour Final -- he was runner-up to Roger Federer in 2007 -- and has a fairly decent record against the guys he plays early this year. He hasn't won against any of these guys this year, but as one of the few in the field who hasn't been nursing injuries or illness the last few months, he could very well catch someone off guard.

Group B
Group B in London may be slightly more stacked with experience this year, but it's no less impenetrable. World #2 Rafael Nadal is the top seed, but he comes with significantly less momentum than he had this time last year. He hasn't won a title since Roland Garros and lost the last two finals he made. He pulled out of Paris to prep for this event, so hopefully he'll be well-rested, but with some tough challengers to contend with, it won't be smooth sailing.

Mardy Fish, playing in the post-season for the first time in his career, will open against Rafa. He'll be the underdog in London, for sure, but has notched some big upsets over the last two years -- including a win over Nadal in Cincinnati in August -- that should remind opponents he should not be overlooked. But his health remains a question mark -- a hamstring pull forced him to retire after one game in his first match in Basel and he wasn't able to hold on to a lead against Juan Monaco in Paris. It would be a shame if injury forced him to squander this opportunity, though, so I'm hoping the last week and a half gave him ample time to recover.

Defending champion Roger Federer is also in this group, and though he's fallen a few spots from the top he's having the most successful streak of anyone else in the field. Fresh off titles in Basel and Paris, he has a chance to prevent his least prolific year since 2002. Not counting Nadal, he has dominated his group-mates and might be in the perfect position to make a play for his record sixth championship.

But Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who Roger's already played six times this year, might have something to say about that. The Frenchman, in just his second World Tour Final -- his first since 2008, staged a stunning comeback from two sets down to Federer in the Wimbledon quarters and repeated the win in Montreal about a month later. He's had a good fall, winning titles in Vienna and Metz, and though he lost in the Paris finals, he's arguably playing some of his best ball these days. He might be able to cause some real damage in his half of the draw.

With just a few days left before the first balls are struck at the year-end championships, players don't have a lot of time left to prepare. But even the biggest underdog should know everyone out there is beatable. And the one who's able to put the first dent in the field's armor could walk away with something huge.

November 15, 2011

Celebrating the Other Guys

It's about time players who spend their days and weeks slogging away on the Challenger Tour get their due.

With all the attention paid to the professional Tour -- the Slams, especially -- it's easy to miss the successes on the second tier circuit. But this year, for the first time, the ATP is celebrating just those athletes with the inaugural Challenger Tour Finals which kicks off Wednesday in Sao Paulo.

Portugal's Rui Machado leads the field in Brazil. Though he literally won just a handful of matches in ATP events -- his best result was a quarterfinal appearance in Costa do Sauipe -- he did earn himself four Challenger titles and climbed as high as #59 in the world in October. In the same round robin group is former top-thirty player Dudi Sela, struggling to regain the traction he found two years back, Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, on the verge of cracking into double-digit rankings after starting the year at #404, and Matthias Bachinger, a quarterfinalist in Bangkok and a titleist in Athens.

A second group of matches -- the "Grupo Verde" -- is headlined by wildcard Thomaz Bellucci. He's dropped a bit in the rankings since peaking at #21 in 2010, but with two ATP titles to his name, he's clearly the most experienced of the bunch. Slovakia's Martin Klizan only played six matches all year on the main Tour, but claimed his second Challenger title in Genova in September. Germany's Andreas Beck, once ranked #33 in the world, and American veteran Bobby Reynolds, winless in the ATP but a winner of two Challengers, round out the section.

Brazil's Bellucci may be the on-paper favorite to take the title, but if this year has taught us anything, it's that pretty much anything can happen. With the encouragement of their own year-end title, whoever wins the championship could ride the momentum and make even bigger strides on the main Tour -- and an even more successful 2012.

November 13, 2011

The Master, Back at Work

Shame on you for giving up on Roger Federer. Shame!

The sixteen-time Major winner may have gone Slam-less for the first time since 2003, and he may have dropped a few spots in the rankings, but that certainly doesn't mean he's no longer relevant. And that's exactly what he spent the past week proving.

Fresh off his fifth title in Basel -- his first since Doha in January -- the Swiss Mister came to Paris running the best streak he'd had in quite some time. And with long-time rival Rafael Nadal withdrawing from the event and this year's hot-shot Novak Djokovic struggling with injury all fall, Federer had one of the best chances he's had all year to make a splash.

Federer made quick work of his opponents en route to his first ever Bercy final -- he'd never gotten past the semis here before. He overcame an early deficit against a resurgent Juan Monaco in the quarters and avenged a loss to Tomas Berdych in Cincy a day later. Somewhat surprisingly, it was only the second time he was playing for a title since the French Open.

Meanwhile in the other half of the draw, recent London qualifier Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was looking to improve on his stellar autumn, which already included trophies in Metz and Vienna. He sealed his spot at the O2 after making the quarters, and received a bit of a break when Djokovic's withdrawal gave him automatic entrée into the semis. He struggled a bit against big-serving John Isner on Saturday, dropping the first set -- but even though he was never able to break the American's serve, he ground out the win after two tiebreaks and nearly three hours.

The battle must have taken it's toll on the Frenchman during Sunday's match. Though he earned two break chances on Roger in the first game -- mostly thanks to errors by the former #1 -- Tsonga couldn't convert and quickly found himself in a 0-5 hole. Federer closed out the first set easily, but faced a tougher test in the second. Tsonga nearly took advantage of a break opportunity in eighth game, but a challenge by the third seed set the score straight and the pair went to a tiebreak. From the start, though, it was all Federer, and after less than ninety minutes of play, he had captured his second title in as many weeks.

The win puts momentum squarely on Federer's side as he prepares to defend his title in London. Now 12-0 since the U.S. Open, he's boasting the best record among the qualifiers, and could very well translate that into yet another year-end championship -- what would be his fifth. That's not bad for a guy who, not very long ago, seemed to have lost a bit of his step. Clearly Federer still has the talent to take pretty much any opponent by storm -- and we've seen the past two weeks he also has the hunger to do it.

And as long as he keeps playing like this, it doesn't look like anyone's safe.

November 9, 2011

Sneaking In

It's a strange set of circumstances looming over the Paris draw this week. With three openings at the year-end finals still in play, athletes on the bubble are campaigning to secure their spot. But at the same time, question marks loom over some of the favorites -- so the door ironically could swing wide open for those last to enter the field.

Novak Djokovic has been locked down for London for months, but he's been showing chinks in his armor the last few months. Injury forced him to retire from the final in Cincinnati and his singles rubber at the Davis Cup semis. He was clearly not in top form last week when that lingering shoulder injury seemed to factor prominently in his loss to Kei Nishikori in Basel, only his second defeat in a fully-played match this year, and speculation ran rampant that he might not play in Paris.

Though he took the court earlier today -- and won -- he wouldn't have been the only one to rest up before making the trip to London. Andy Murray skipped Basel as he nursed a hamstring injury, and Rafael Nadal pulled out of the Bercy Masters to prep in a less strenuous environment. Only Roger Federer, reigning year-end champ, and David Ferrer have so far seemed to be in good shape.

So what does that mean for the players who will secure the remaining spots over the next few days? Tomas Berdych, who I'm frankly surprised is so closely in contention after failing to defend points at Miami or Wimbledon, needs just one more win. Unfortunately standing in his way will be fellow London hopeful Janko Tipsarevic who's played three finals since the U.S. Open -- he punches his ticket with a title in Paris, but a far more likely third round win over the Czech would still keep Berdych guessing.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga significantly improved his own chances this fall, claiming titles in Metz and Vienna. He's also a match away from returning to the Masters Cup for the first time since 2008. He might have to get past Nicolas Almagro to get there though -- the world #11 has three titles on the year, but has been relatively quiet off the clay. Like Tipsarevic, the Spaniard needs to win Paris to clinch the season extension -- something that looks less likely as he's just lost the first set to Andreas Seppi in his second round. But he could cause some damage to Tsonga's hopes if he pulls through.

Mardy Fish needs to make the quarters in order to qualify for his first ever year-end championship. It's been a long time coming, but I fear the hamstring injury that forced him to retire last week may hamper his performance in Paris. Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils round out the remaining hopefuls -- the Frenchmen have had something of a resurgence this season, but both need a little luck, even if either takes the Masters title.

All that said, any of the final entrants could take advantage of a weary and wounded favorite field. Of course Federer has been playing top-rate tennis this month and players like Djokovic and Nadal can never be counted out of contention. But with the long ATP season due to take its toll eventually, those making their last push this week could be able to find some holes in the usually impenetrable armors of the elite.

And perhaps one who just snuck in the door could sneak up on everyone and do some real damage in London.

November 6, 2011

End With a Bang

The women's tennis season officially wrapped up today as the final balls were hit at the Commonwealth Bank Tournament of Champions. And while the field contesting the title boasted some of the most impressive records on Tour, the ultimate outcome was probably not what many expected.

The top seeds in Bali were mostly occupied with some of the most successful athletes. Marion Bartoli just missed gaining full entry to the year-end championships held last week in Istanbul, but got in one round robin win as a wildcard. Sabine Lisicki came back from an injury-filled 2010 to take two titles and put up career-best showings at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. And twenty-eight year old Roberta Vinci put together her most trophy-filled year, capturing a career-best three crowns herself. But only Lisicki made it out of the first round, and a low back injury forced her to retire late in her semifinal match.

Taking advantage of the German's bad luck -- and, incidentally, Bartoli's a round earlier -- was Anabel Medina Garrigues, the surprise winner in both Estoril and Palermo. They were the first events she'd won since 2009 and helped her climb back into the top thirty. She's been a little quiet in the second half of the year, but by hanging in just a little longer than her opponents this weekend, she made her first final since July.

The bottom half of the draw had a few more surprises, but at least all the matches were fully played out. College Park champion Nadia Petrova, once ranked #3 in the world, avenged previous losses to second-seeded wildcard Shuai Peng this year, and defending titleist Ana Ivanovic reversed her recent losses to Vinci to score the win in just over an hour. The semifinal match on Saturday was similarly straightforward as the Serb got the better of her long-time rival, further improving her slight head-to-head lead over the Russian.

It was the first final Ivanovic had reached this year, and though she had dropped a few spots from her high ranking of 2011, she was nevertheless hanging with the big girls again. She'd beating Jelena Jankovic in Indian Wells and took Kim Clijsters to a third set tiebreak in Miami -- just a few weeks back in Beijing she beat both Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva to make the semis. And she brought that momentum with her to Sunday's championship match, dominating her service games and breaking Medina Garrigues four times during the match. With the win, her only title of the year, she may not make a big move up the rankings, but she will at least gain confidence to play even better when she kicks of 2012.

And with the way her competition is playing these days, that confidence can only be to her advantage.

November 4, 2011

Fed Cup Final: A Turning Point?

This weekend plays host to what could be a very interesting Fed Cup championship -- both squads, with plenty of power and lots of talent, have a real shot at winning the trophy, and though the tide may have shifted ever so slightly, it's too early to count anyone out.

It would seem history favors one side -- Russia won four Fed Cup titles in the last decade, while the Czechs haven't hoisted the trophy since becoming an independent country. The Russians made it here with a one-sided drubbing of the defending champion Italians back in April, and the Czechs advanced by the skin of their teeth over Belgium, securing the win only with a gutsy doubles victory.

But the team is playing without some of its brightest stars -- still-hobbled Maria Sharapova was left off the roster, while world #7 Vera Zvonareva was forced to pull out due to a shoulder injury sustained at the Kremlin Cup. Strangely the next highest-ranked player on their list, #15 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, was relegated to the doubles rubber, leaving Maria Kirilenko -- incidentally a runner-up in doubles at the Australian Open this year -- and veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova to hold up the fort in the early rounds.

In the meantime, the easy-to-overlook Czechs have momentum on their side in a big way. Wimbledon and Istanbul champ Petra Kvitova has dominated the Tour recently, winning her last two tournaments and climbing to #2 in the world. And the doubles pairing of Lucie Hradecka (#15 in the discipline) and Kveta Peschke (#2) will be hard to beat -- if the match goes to a deciding rubber, the advantage should be with the first-time finalists.

But, as always, it won't be quite as easy as that.

Kvitova can have periods of spotty play -- she lost in three straight first rounds after her title in Paris and only won two matches during the summer hardcourt season. She's also lost her only two matches against Kirilenko, admittedly back in 2009, and never faced Kuznetsova. MaKiri, on the other hand, is having a nice fall -- she twice beat her U.S. Open vanquisher Sam Stosur and made at least the quarters of the three events she's played out. And Zvonareva's replacement, Elena Vesnina, has three doubles titles this year herself -- and a runner's-up trophy from Roland Garros. Of course, Lucie Safarova could become a secret weapon on the Czech side, while the roller coaster of Kuznetsova could do the opposite for the Russians.

It would mean a lot for the Czechs to take the title. The growing and developing squad would get a real boost if they can pull off the upset of the long-dominant Russia. But it clearly won't be an easy task -- the Russians will be hungry to return to the winners' podium and could bring the firepower to do it. One thing's certain though -- whoever comes out on top will have earned it.

November 1, 2011

The Boys Are Back

Is it me, or has something been missing from the ATP Tour the last few weeks?

Sure Andy Murray has been tearing up the Asian hard courts, and Janko Tipsarevic has carved himself quite a nice little niche, making the finals or better more than a few times this fall. But without the presence of superpowers like world #1 Novak Djokovic and Grand Slam master Roger Federer, the draws have seemed fairly sparse since the U.S. Open.

That changes this week, though, as both the Swiss and the Serb -- along with a few ther once-familiar faces -- take the courts in Basel and Valencia. They've been absent for a variety of reasons, from injury and illness to fallen rankings and time spent on the Challengers' circuit, but they return to the scene this week in full force. Not all can be successful, of course -- John Isner, who's been out of commission during the Asian swing, already lost his first round in Spain to young Canadian Vasek Pospisil --but others could really use this week to get back in the swing of things.

Roger Federer hasn't played since the Davis Cup World Groups in September, and though he won both those round robins, he's seen his ranking drop to a level not seen since March of 2003. He came back to Basel the defending champion, one of the last few tournaments he won, but this time he's not the on-paper favorite. Still he powered through his first round against Potito Starace, earning the right to meet Jarkko Nieminen tomorrow. A few more wins under his belt and he could very well re-establish his position before moving on to Paris.

Novak Djokovic has been riding a slightly more successful year, but after recording just his third loss of the season -- he pulled out of his match with Juan Martin Del Potro after a nagging back injury put an end to his most recent run -- he's been on break. He too is back in action in Switzerland and had a opening round date with veteran Xavier Malisse earlier today. And though he had a longer day at work -- the Belgian won every one of his first serves in the second set -- Djokovic was ultimately able to secure the win. He'll get a day off while Tobias Kamke and Lukasz Kubot battle for the right to face him next, and the rest could serve him well if he's going to keep up his success.

Over in Valencia the stars shine a little less bright, but with six of the top fifteen players entered in the draw, the road to a title is no less difficult. So it's encouraging to see co-marathon man Nicolas Mahut seeing success again. He's only played a handful of pro Tour matches this year but made it through a couple tough qualifying rounds to make the main draw. On Monday he faced one-time top twenty-five player Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and, after surviving a tight first set and tiebreak, he eventually sailed through the second, notching only his second victory over a player ranked in the double-digits this year. He probably has a decent chance against Nikolay Davydenko in his next match, but it's encouraging to see him notch even one upset.

Another player ranked outside the top hundred might have a better chance of making a dent in Valencia, though. The twenty-four year old American only won a single match between last year's U.S. Open and February this year, and when an elbow injury kept him from defending many of the points he racked up last summer, he tumbled out of the sport's elite. He's bided his time on the Challengers' tour since September and played his first pro match earlier today against also recovering Ernests Gulbis. With ten aces, a ninety-plus win percentage on his first serve, and a solid return game, he might be back in the form he needs to climb up the rankings again.

It's been a while since we got a chance to watch any of these guys play at all, and some of them haven't played well in ages. But early indications this week bode well for hopes they're still in the mix, and if they play to their potential, it could be an exciting end to the season.