February 27, 2012

Back in Form

It seems to have been a good weekend for players that had something to prove. A shade or two off their best rankings, a couple champions made their return to the winners' circle on Sunday, and may have just reminded us all they're still forces to be reckoned with.

Juan Martin Del Potro has been working his way back to the sport's top echelon for some time and took titles last year in Delray Beach and Estoril. But it's been a while since he's been a threat to the top guys. Remember when he practically owned Rafael Nadal? On the way to his 2009 U.S. Open crown, the big Argentine went 3-0 against the one-time #1. He's 0-3 since then. DelPo did notch a couple victories over an ailing Robin Soderling early last year, but was largely ineffective against top-ten players that season.

Things seemed to have turned a corner in 2012, though. After beating world #7 Tomas Berdych on the way to the Rotterdam final, Del Potro seemed to have a renewed confidence. The fourth seed in Marseille, he was dealt a tough draw from the start, splitting sets with a re-invigorated Nikolay Davydenko in his opener before advancing on his opponent's retirement. He survived a close call against Richard Gasquet a match later, but scored an even bigger victory against top seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semis. In a match with forty-one aces -- the majority, somewhat surprisingly, coming from the Frenchman -- and a super-close second set tiebreak, things could have gone either way. But after nearly three hours, DelPo was able to close out the match and make his second straight final.

There he met a similarly resurgent Michael Llodra. Nearly in the top twenty less than a year ago, the Frenchman won no ATP-level matches after the U.S. Open in 2011. He pulled off an upset over Alexandr Dolgopolov in his Marseille second round and pulled off a major win against Janko Tipsarevic in the semis to make his first final in almost two years. His comeback ended quickly on Sunday, though as the Argentine won a more-than-solid ninety percent of his first serves and never allowed Llodra a chance to break. In his shortest match of the event, DelPo earned his tenth career title and reasserted himself as a powerful force against even the big guns.

Austrian Jurgen Melzer is less temporally removed from his career-high ranking, having peaked at #8 in the world just about a year ago. But after failing to defend points at Roland Garros or his trophy in Vienna, he started out 2012 outside the top thirty. A first round loss in Australia and an upset at the hands of Michael Berrer in Zagreb pushed him even further out of the spotlight.

Melzer was unseeded by the time he came to Memphis and found himself under the gun from the start. Down a set in his first two rounds, he needed third-set tiebreaks in both to advance. He scored the biggest on-paper upset of the tournament when he ousted big-serving American John Isner in the quarters, but upped his game even further Sunday when he met Milos Raonic, fresh off a win at the SAP Open in San Jose. The six-foot-five Canadian was playing his second straight final here, after losing last year on one of the most spectacular shots ever seen, and despite a middling fourth seed may have been the favorite even when Isner was still in contention.

But Melzer was on point in the championship match this year. After staying close to start, the veteran thirty year old broke in the eleventh game of the contest and served out the first set. Raonic wouldn't back down, though, and climbed to a 4-1 lead in the second before the Austrian fought back to even. The two battled to a tiebreak, but Melzer got the better of his opponent there too and, despite twenty-two aces and an eighty-plus first serve percentage from the world #32, closed out the match in less than two hours. The win halved the winner's ranking as of Monday's stats, bringing him back to #19 and reminding us he's a threat on more than just a doubles court.

Both these guys scored some milestone wins over the past week, and while there's still a ways to go before they regain their topmost form, their back-to-back upsets and victories should surely get them noticed again. And now that they're back on the radar, there are not many who will be able to rest easy.

February 25, 2012

Desert Bloom

It can be hard to stand out in a game where the biggest stars are either known for their brute strength, their loud on-court presence, their similarity to a supermodel, or -- unfortunately, these days -- their inability to win a Major. And if you don't fall into any of these categories, you may fly a bit under the radar.

But there's always an opportunity for those players to shine eventually, and with her performance this week in Dubai, Aggie Radwanska made the case for why she should be included as part of the elite. At her highest career ranking coming to the UAE, the twenty-two year old had been having a solid seven months. An improved service game and the ability to track down balls many others would let go helped her win three titles in the back half of 2012, and she's only notched losses this year to newly-minted #1 Victoria Azarenka, making at least the quarters in every event she played.

This week in Dubai, a tournament in which anyone ranked outside the top thirty had to qualify for the main draw, Radwanska brought her A-game from the start. After dropping a set to one-time world #21 Aleksandra Wozniak, she dominated Shahar Peer and Sabine Lisicki to make the semis. She had her biggest struggle Friday against Jelena Jankovic, who'd scored her biggest win in ages against Doha finalist Sam Stosur in the quarters. They split the first two sets, each losing serve four times in total, before the Pole went gangbusters in the third, winning every point on serve and bageling her opponent to finish off the match in just over a hundred minutes.

In Saturday's final she met unseeded -- at #19 in the world -- German Julia Goerges. A tad off her best career ranking, she'd had a tough couple rounds recently, but had also had trouble advancing deep into tournaments since her win last year in Stuttgart. Goerges had an even tougher road to the championship in Dubai, losing the first set to Svetlana Kuznetsova in her opener, then taking out Pattaya City champ Daniela Hantuchova and recent #1 Caroline Wozniacki in the semis. She'd only won a couple games in her previous meeting with Radwanska, eating two breadsticks in the fourth round of this year's Australian Open, but was playing ball this week, and promised to put up a good fight for the title.

She started out shake on Saturday, though. Aggie got an early break before the German got on the board and held on to build a 4-3 lead in the first set. Goerges turned things around in the eighth game, though, leveling the score and fighting off a couple break points the next game to finally take the lead. But Radwanska was relentless and converted again on her sixth break point of the set before serving it out. Both players held two tough service games to start the second, but the fifth seed ultimately built up a two break lead. Though she eventually surrendered one, the insurance served her well, and a long return of serve by Goerges gave Aggie her first title in Dubai.

The win will push Radwanska to #5 in the world come Monday, and earns her the eighth crown of her career -- a third at the Premier level. And as this twenty-two year old veteran finally begins to hit her stride on Tour, it sure looks like there will be more to come. She may not have the weapons of some of her contemporaries, but her consistency and precision will keep her in games much longer than some others. And she might just blossom into a real threat in the women's game.

February 23, 2012

A Chance for the Vets

The Latin American stretch of the tennis season always catches me a little off guard -- a (mostly) clay court teaser before the players really make the switch to dirt post-Indian Wells and Miami. The events don't always attract the top players, but that doesn't mean there aren't a ton of challenges out there. And the players who show up really have the opportunity to shine -- and this time, it's not just the youngsters making an impact.

Not too surprisingly, the upsets began early in Monterrey, with Roberta Vinci, Alexandra Dulgheru and Gisela Dulko all failing to make it past the second round. And while Australian Open standout Sara Errani and recently resurgent Sorana Cirstea are still alive, for the time being, there are again some underdogs out there ready to bite.

Patricia Mayr-Achleitner has been around for what seems like ages, but hasn't ever made a big dent on Tour. An ITF titleist fourteen times during her career, the best she's ever done on the WTA was a runner-up showing last year in Bad Gastein. But after her defeat of Dulko and a smashing of Eva Birnerova earlier today, her draw is opening up. She'll next face either Cirstea or Timea Babos, having her own coming out party these days, but at an event where anything really can happen, she has a real shot going even further.

Ranked just outside the top hundred -- a few spots behind Mayr -- twenty-six year old Nina Bratchikova is responsible for the bigger upset in Monterrey, taking out #1 seed Vinci in their second round. Though she's been around for over a decade, she's never made a big crack into the double digits, but this was her second top twenty-five win of the year, having beaten Flavia Pennetta in her Melbourne opener, and could help her move to a new all-time high in her career, whatever happens next. And with a quarterfinal date with super-veteran Greta Arn, a woman who she's only played once -- in 2005 -- there's a good chances she might really break through in Mexico.

The big upsets didn't start until today in Buenos Aires. After seven of the eight seeds made it through early rounds, Gilles Simon, Juan Monaco and Fernando Verdasco all lost Thursday, each in straight sets. While Nicolas Almagro still has a shot at winning his second title of the Golden Swing, the door swung open for some others to sneak through too.

Qualifier Igor Andreev hasn't won a title since 2005, but his first main draw matches here have been reminiscent of the play that helped him nearly beat John Isner last year in Miami. After beating Verdasco today, dropping just three points on his first serve, he should be able to give even defending champion Almagro -- against whom he has a solid 4-3 record, two of those wins coming on clay -- a run for his money.

But fellow veteran David Nalbandian might have something to say about that. The one-time #3 in the world has struggled with injuries over the last few seasons, but comes to Argentina after a tough five-setter versus Isner in Australia and an upset of Gilles Simon in Brazil. Facing his countryman, up-and-comer Carlos Berlocq, in the quarters, he has a much less intimidating road through the draw now. And if he keeps it up, he might be able to give a couple of elite a fight for the rest of the year.

With so many new stars coming onto the scene, the ones with the most experience can often be overshadowed. But this week there's plenty of veteran power shining through among the youngsters. And as the fields get narrowed, the opportunity for even bigger success may never look better.

February 19, 2012

Where the Strong Survive

We may be in that short lull of the tennis season between the Grand Slams and the major Masters or Premier events, but there was still plenty of star power on the courts this weekend. And the eventual winners were the ones who proved they're (still) a cut above the rest.

By the time the final was set up in San Jose, it should have been no surprise that defending champion Milos Raonic was the odds-on favorite. The third seed at the SAP Open may have been a hair of his career-high ranking, but after taking the title in Chennai and winning a handful of matches at the Australian Open, he finally looked like he was fully recovered from that hip injury he sustained last year at Wimbledon. He had a fairly easy road to championship Sunday, losing serve just once in his first three matches and facing no one in the top thirty on the way.

There he met Denis Istomin, who'd defeated an ailing Andy Roddick in the quarters and backed it up with a three-set win over veteran Frenchman Julien Benneteau. But he was no match for the big-serving Raonic on Sunday -- though things stayed close in the first set, neither man allowed even a chance to break, after the Canadian won the tiebreak it was all Milos. Losing just one point on serve in the second, Raonic closed out the match quickly and became the first two-time champion on the ATP Tour this year. If he can stay healthy, it sure looks like he's ready to resume the momentum he had at this time twelve months ago -- and that's going to make him quite a threat to the top players in the weeks to come.

The final in Rotterdam had the potential to cause more sparks to fly. In a rematch of the epic 2009 U.S. Open championship, world #3 Roger Federer took on Juan Martin Del Potro, newly re-entered into the top ten. The champion here seven years ago, Federer has been a little touch-and-go of late. One of my favorites to win the Australian Open, he fell fairly quickly in the semis to Rafael Nadal and suffered a shocking loss to John Isner in Davis Cup. He seemed to be turning things around this week, though, down a set and a break to Nikolay Davydenko in the semis, he came back strong to make his first final of the year.

Del Potro was in the middle of re-establishing himself, too. Since wrist injury took him out of the game when he was at the top of his, the tall Argentine has had a hard time making a dent among the elite. But he scored a big win over world #7 Tomas Berdych on Saturday and could have put up quite a fight in the final today. But Federer got the better of him again, winning the first five games of the match and thoroughly dominating the opening set. Things were a little closer in the second -- Del Potro had chances on the Swiss serve, but wasn't able to convert. Despite mediocre serving and improved play by his opponent, Federer was able to secure the only break and win his first title of the year. With momentum back on his side, he should be able to make a real play to climb back to the top.

Meanwhile Victoria Azarenka is doing more than her part to show us all why she's at the top. Playing in her first tournament since winning the Australian Open and claiming the #1 ranking, she was out to break the recent streak of first-time Grand Slam champions spending the next several months battling a hangover. She dropped just a game to breakout star Mona Barthel in her Doha opener, bagelled Yanina Wickmayer in their quarterfinal first set and powered through an ankle injury to take out Aggie Radwanska in the semis.

In the final she met a finally resurgent Sam Stosur, who's struggled a bit since winning her maiden Major in New York last fall. The third seed here, she got revenge over her Melbourne vanquisher Sorana Cirstea in her opener and lost just won set on her way to the championship round. But Vika, who's had Stosur's number on all five of their previous meetings, took it to the Australian again. She won nine games in a row to establish a 6-1, 3-0 lead and never gave her opponent a break opportunity. Nearly three-quarters of her first serves found their mark and she won nearly eighty percent of the ones that did. After just over an hour, she'd claimed her third trophy of the year, extended her win streak to seventeen matches and pulled even farther ahead of the rest of the pack.

Some of this week's winners had been out of the spotlight a while, others have just recently risen to it. But the way they're each playing, they've told us they're neither to be forgotten, nor dismissed as a flash in the pan. And as the season continues, expect them all to spend a lot more time on the winner's stand.

February 16, 2012

The Opportunists

It's that time of the year when players begin making their move to the clay courts. And, as usual with some of these smaller events before the season really gets underway, some lesser known players will have their chance to make their marks.

At the Brazil Open, relocated this year to Sao Paulo after eleven years in Costa do Sauipe, there's no shortage of big names in the draw -- Nicolas Almagro and Juan Carlos Ferrero, fixtures during the Golden Swing year after year, both look to return to the winner's podium this year. But they'll be joined by a few others a little more under the radar.

Albert Ramos is just barely seeded here, but at #64 in the world he's at his best-ever ranking. Mostly a Challenger player, he scored his biggest career win last year against Marin Cilic in the first round of the Shanghai Masters. Before arriving in Sao Paulo he'd only won one match this year, upsetting Dmitry Tursunov in Doha, but this is the surface where he's most comfortable -- in the handful of years he's been pro, he's racked up a fifty percent win record on the dirt. He's no Rafa, clearly, but this could be his chance to put himself on the map. He scored a decisive win over Santiago Giraldo in his first round yesterday and will next face Igor Andreev, a man he beat in their only previous meeting last year. It wouldn't surprise me if he made an even bigger push this time around.

I might be expecting even bigger things from Argentina's Carlos Berlocq, a man possibly best known for nearly getting triple-bageled by Novak Djokovic last year at the U.S. Open. Still he's improving his game steadily, adding five Challenger trophies to his case last year -- all on clay -- and making his first Tour final last week at Viña del Mar. Now #42 in the world, he dropped just four games to Eric Prodon in their first round in Brazil. Next up is Potito Starace, himself a force on the surface. Berlocq has lost to the Italian the only two times they've played, but if he can get a hold of his opponent early, he should be able to live up to his fifth seed at least a little while longer.

The ladies in Bogota have an even bigger chance to shine this week. With no one in the top fifty entered in Colombia -- and seeds #2, #3, #4 and #7 already out -- there's plenty of opportunity for upsets and maybe no real favorites left in the draw.

Eighteen-year-old Timea Babos has already won nine ITF titles and took the Juniors' doubles crown at three Majors back in 2010. She is still a newbie on the main Tour, but after defeating third seed Romina Oprandi on Wednesday, she might have a little more confidence that she can hit with the big girls. Her next match against Yaroslava Shvedova, herself a Slam doubles champion and former top-thirty singles player, will be much harder, of course. But if she can pull of the win, I'd look for even bigger things from her this year.

But also keep an eye on unheralded top seed Marina Erakovic. The surprise finalist last year in Quebec City, she's only won one Tour match since then. Still, with wins over Tamira Paszek, Daniela Hantuchova and even Victoria Azarenka in the past twelve months, she can't be completely discounted. Now ranked #56 in the world, she faces beat Stefanie Voegele in her Bogota opener, but clearly the path will be rockier further down the road. If the Croat can get at least a few wins under her belt this week and back up her seeding a little bit she might get the bump she needs to make a big push later in the year.

Whether any of these guys actually does take advantage of the chances they've been given in South America is yet to be seen. But if they live up to their potential, any one could break through this week. And now's as good a time as any to announce to the world they've arrived.

February 12, 2012

The Payoff

It's hard to be patient.

That's true of life in general, of course, but also for players trying to make their mark on the professional tennis world. Some who peak early struggle to climb back to the heights they once were, while others spend years on Tour waiting for that breakthrough. But once they get there, the rewards are plenty.

Daniela Hantuchova peaked at #5 in the world back in 2003, the year after her first WTA title in Indian Wells, where she beat legends Justine Henin and Martina Hingis for the crown. She made three Slam quarterfinals in a row that year, and though she's fallen a bit down the rankings she's remained a fixture in the top thirty almost ever since. Her title tally hasn't reflected that, though -- she repeated in California in 2007, but when the year started she only had amassed four trophies, a little strange for someone who's been on the circuit for thirteen years now.

Things got a little better for Dani in 2012. Unseeded in Brisbane, she made her way to the final, thanks largely to a walkover from Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters' retirement, and followed it up by beating one-time French Open champ Francesca Schiavone to make the Sydney quarters. Her efforts didn't result in a trophy in either instance, but it was encouraging to see her hang in against the top stars.

And then she came back to Pattaya City, the site of her last title a year ago. The third seed this time around, Hantuchova didn't have much of a challenge early and only lost seven games in her first two rounds. And with second seeded Dominika Cibulkova eliminated in her opener, she had a clear shot to Sunday's championship.

Her opponent, Russia's Maria Kirilenko, had a tougher week. She had saved match point in her first match, came back from a break down in her second, and needed two-and-a-half hours to finish off her semi. She got off to a good start in the final, securing an early break and eventually winning the set in a tiebreak, but that's when her luck ran out. Hantuchova took the advantage in the second set and cruised in the third, securing her first career title defense in an three-plus hour match. And with her best start to a year since 2008, it's looking like she might have finally found her game again.

Twenty-four year old Angelique Kerber has been finding her game over the last six months or so. After winning just five Tour main draw matches in the first half of 2011, she made a surprising semifinal run in Dallas as a qualifier. She was still ranked just inside the top one hundred when she came to New York, but she beat Aggie Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta to make the semis at the U.S. Open. With wins over Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges in Auckland and the only German point against the Czechs in Fed Cup, she's now #27 in the world and was just granted a seed this week in Paris.

Kerber was dealt a tough draw from the start, but she got past Lucie Safarova and Monica Niculescu -- both ranked in Slam seeding territory -- to kick off her campaign. In the quarters she avenged her Australian Open loss to Maria Sharapova, taking advantage of all five opportunities she had to break the Russian's serve. She had a tougher time against Yanina Wickmayer in the semis, but after more than two hours on court Saturday, she advanced to her second career championship match.

There she met second seeded Marion Bartoli, playing in her sixth final over the last twelve months. The hometown girl had launched a few comebacks over the week, coming back against Roberta Vinci in the quarters after losing the first set and getting down breaks in the second and third. She almost did the same against Kerber on Sunday, drawing even after losing serve early in the first and eventually pushing the match to a decider after winning the second set 7-5. But Kerber got the better of her in the third, running off with the first four games, finally taking out her opponent for her first ever WTA crown. And the way she's playing, it sure looks like there will be more to come.

It's been a long time coming for both this weekend's winners -- longer for some than for others, of course. But these titles may help kick off an even more successful year than they've already had. And if they can keep up this momentum, their waits will be more than worth it.

February 8, 2012

Davis Cup Preview: A Man or Two Down

A week after the ladies launched their opening salvos in this year's battle for Fed Cup, the men are ready to do the same. And though a couple top-tier stars will be out battling for their nation's pride, a few teams are left without their stalwarts and could have to really fight for what should be theirs.

Spain vs. Kazakhstan

Defending champion Spain, winner of the Davis Cup three of the last four years, won't have the benefit of Rafael Nadal -- a key player here the last few years -- but comes with some depth and experience that should give them the edge over the upstart Kazakhs.

Nicolas Almagro, playing just his third World Group tie heads up the team and is coming off his best run at the Australian Open -- losing three tiebreaks to Tomas Berdych in their four-set, four-hour slugfest, had a couple balls bounced a different way, he might have scored the win. He's been quiet recently, but on his home turf -- on his best surface -- he could be deadly. He's backed up by world #27 Marcel Granollers, admittedly new to the elite ranks. He's never played singles for Spain and hasn't had a great start to the year, but a title run late last year in Valencia -- which included wins over Marin Cilic, Gael Monfils and Juan Martin Del Potro -- tells me he's got potential to make a big impact.

But the Spaniards can't rest too easy. Though none of the Kazakhs are ranked in the top fifty, Mikhail Kukushkin made a big push to get there in Melbourne. Barely in double digits at the time, the twenty-four year old stunned Viktor Troicki in the second round, and followed it up with his second five-set win in a row, beating Monfils to make the sweet sixteen. Now a perfect 4-0 in matches that go the distance, no one can assume this man will eventually tire out. And with Andrey Golubev -- ranked #33 in the world about a year ago -- backing him up, this may not be as easy as it initially seems.

Germany vs. Argentina

Last year's runner-up Argentine team might have an even harder time. Without big-serving Juan Martin Del Potro playing this tie, they'll have to rely on some consistent, yet veteran players to hold the torch. Juan Monaco is coming off a title at Viña Del Mar and is at his highest ranking in three and a half years. And Juan Ignacio Chela, just a few spots behind him, hasn't been in the top twenty since early 2008. Perhaps their best performance will come from David Nalbandian, who's well off his career-best ranking at #84, but boasts an impressive 22-5 record in Davis Cup singles. The linchpin of the team could help carry them past a tricky German squad.

Still there will be a few close calls. Florian Mayer had some of his best results on clay last year, and though he hasn't played -- or won -- a lot in 2011, he's capable of pulling off some big upsets. He has winning records against both Monaco and Chela, and could pounce if given the chance. And Philipp Kohlschreiber, arguably the stronger player these days, beat Nicolas Almagro in Auckland and Richard Gasquet in Montpellier, while Philipp Petzschner, half of one of the world's best doubles teams, has been notching big wins in singles as well. Either might surprise us this weekend.

Sweden vs. Serbia

Like the top contenders before them, 2010 champions Serbia are also without their team leader Novak Djokovic. But the likes of top-ten player Janko Tipsarevic and doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic should be more than enough to easily handle a Robin Soderling-less Swedish team. The underdogs' best hope might be Robert Lindstedt, ranked tenth in the world in doubles -- he's the highest ranked singles player on the team, at #309. Michael Ryderstedt, almost forty spots behind him, hasn't won a main draw match at an ATP event since July. On paper, it looks like this could be a near-Serbian sweep.

France vs. Canada

France, luckily, comes to their Davis Cup tie fully prepared with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils both in action. They've been solid performers in recent months, with Monfils making the finals in both Doha and Montpellier just last week and Tsonga claiming that Doha title along with runner-up spots in both London and Paris. Teaming with veteran Julien Benneteau and current doubles #5 Michael Llodra, they paint a formidable picture.

But despite the top-tier star power, they shouldn't overlook a wily Canadian team, looking for their first ever World Group win. Milos Raonic looks to be back in form, winning a title to start the year in Chennai. He might not have made as deep a run in Melbourne as he did last year, but he's certainly capable of serving his way through a few sets. And as he gets back on the trajectory he was on before injury stalled his 2011, even on-paper favorites aren't safe. And seven-time Major doubles champion Daniel Nestor could help notch an easy rubber win that may be the decider in a surprisingly close tie.

Italy vs. Czech Republic

The Italians have played the Czechs a surprising ten times at Davis Cup, with the eastern Europeans holding a 7-3 advantage. They haven't met since 1995, when the Italians secured a solid victory, but things may be going back to normal now. Tomas Berdych is coming straight off a title in Montpellier and has amassed an impressive 8-1 record on the year, and Radek Stepanek, once ranked #8 in the world, seems to be playing well again. But also look for Lukas Rosol to try making a statement in a possible reverse singles match -- ranked just seventy-eighth in the world, he is getting more play on the ATP Tour this year, and though he's only scored one win so far, the twenty-six year old may be ready to make a move.

The Italians have some firepower too, but nothing that should pose too big a threat for the Czechs. Andreas Seppi is just out of the top forty, and though he's scored a couple upsets over the last few months, he hasn't beaten a top-ten player since 2008. And Potito Starace, three times a runner-up in his career but never a bride champion, hasn't quite had the breakthrough I've been waiting for. It shouldn't be difficult for a strong -- and stacked -- Czech team to improve their record.

U.S. vs. Switzerland

The U.S. is technically the favorite in this match up -- with a record thirty-two Davis Cup trophies in the case, they certainly have history on their side. But even with their top player -- their top two players, in fact -- they'll likely struggle against a Swiss team that boasts Grand Slam king Roger Federer. Mardy Fish, the best hope for the U.S. in singles, has certainly put up a fight, taking sets from Fed both at last year's year-end championships and in the 2010 Cincinnati finals. But he hasn't beaten the world #3 in almost four years. John Isner doesn't have a better record, going 0-2 against Roger.

There's a little more leeway against Swiss #2 Stanislas Wawrinka. The twenty-six year old has only notched one win in five outings against the two Americans, and he's had some spotty results recently, having advanced past the quarters of only one tournament since last February. And veteran doubles champion Mike Bryan -- playing without twin and brand new father Bob -- could prove to be a great mentor for rising star Ryan Harrison as he seeks to establish himself as the next generation of U.S. athletes. I'm not giving this win to the Swiss outright, but something tells me it could come down to that all-important doubles rubber.

Japan vs. Croatia

This might be the biggest toss-up among this weekend's ties. Croatia has some real tennis talent in its ranks -- unfortunately, neither Marin Cilic, battling a leg injury, nor fellow former top-ten player Ivan Ljubicic will be representing their country. Ivo Karlovic should be able to pick up the reins somewhat, as the big-server seems to be making strides recovering from injury, and Ivan Dodig, one of the biggest flame-outs of 2011, will look to redeem himself here.

But they'll be playing on foreign ground and Japan's #1 Kei Nishikori, on the verge of the global elite these days, will certainly have the crowd on his side. One of the few players to beat Novak Djokovic last year, he's certainly got the talent to defeat most opponents. And Go Soeda, barely ranking in double digits right now, is coming off a Challenger win in Honolulu and a solid run to the semis in Chennai as a qualifier -- incidentally, he beat Dodig during that event. This one will be a battle between rising stars and those on the rebound, and whoever gets in the first punch could do the most damage.

Russia vs. Austria

If the Japan/Croatia tie is the biggest toss-up, this one might have the most at stake. There's a lot of star power on both teams, but not everyone has been playing at their best recently, and anyone might be able to take advantage.

For the Russians Mikhail Youzhny -- #1 in his country, but still out of the top thirty -- will try to build on his Zagreb title from last week. He didn't face much of a challenge from his opponents, though, so we'll get a true test this weekend of whether he's back in form. Alex Bogomolov, playing for the former Soviet Republic despite his former allegiance to the U.S., will make his Davis Cup debut, while former #3 Nikolay Davydenko may be relegated to the doubles rubber. It'll be interesting to see how captain Shamil Tarpischev chooses to stack his team.

Meanwhile the Austrians will hope that Jurgen Melzer, top ten less than a year ago, can live up to his potential. After a tough couple months, he needs to make an impact again on the singles scene -- his teammate Andreas Haider-Maurer has shown signs of potential, but has yet to make an impact on Tour. On the other hand, the sixteenth seed in World Group has a slew of doubles talent to choose from -- Melzer, Alexander Peya, and Oliver Marach are all ranked in the top twenty-five for the paired discipline. Unfortunately, of course, that strength can only translate into one rubber, max. We're going to have to see a lot more depth, if this team is going to advance.

With pockets of powerhouses, and open opportunities, showing up throughout this weekend's rubbers, it looks like we could have some big matches -- and some big upsets. Whether the heavy favorites will make early exits or tricky upstarts will finally get footing is still to be seen. But we've seen almost anything can happen at Davis Cup. And as the field gets narrowed, be ready for a few surprises.

February 5, 2012

Fed Cup Round Up

Sure, most of the U.S. will have its eyes glued to the Super Bowl tonight -- go Giants! -- but there was plenty of other action on fields of a much smaller size this weekend. And the ladies who contested the first set of 2012 Fed Cup rubbers put up an effort that just might rival what the big boys are doing in Indianapolis -- and while some favorites thrived, a couple underdogs came out shining.

The defending champion Czech team had what looks like the easiest weekend of the bunch, despite a quarterfinal match-up with a tough German team. But Iveta Benesova, who's already beaten Sam Stosur and Shaui Peng this year, seems to be suddenly coming to her own on the singles circuit -- she opened the tie with a solid comeback against world #14 Sabine Lisicki. Then 2011 WTA player of the year Petra Kvitova gave the Czechs the lead after surviving a seventy-two minute, 10-8 third set against Julia Goerges. Angelique Kerber gave the Germans their only point of the tie, beating Lucie Hradecka in straight sets, but it was the Czechs who easily clinched their spot in the semis again.

The Russians, in a rematch of the 2008 final, also had an easy start against Spain as they looked to improve on their runner-up showing from last year. Maria Sharapova easily handled Silvia Soler-Espinoza in their first rubber and Svetlana Kuznetsova added to the lead by taking out one-time Melbourne quarterfinalist Carla Suarez Navarro in just over an hour. But the Spaniard rebounded nicely to upset Nadia Petrova in the first reverse singles match on Sunday, and in was left to Kuznetsova to secure the win. The veteran Russian was pushed to three sets by Soler-Espinoza, but was able to convert her only break opportunity in the decider, winning the match and rendering the doubles rubber moot. That marks the sixth straight year the Russians made the Fed Cup semis.

The other two quarterfinals came right down to the wire -- some surprising performances, both bad and good, made things a little tougher than you'd expect. The Italians, Fed Cup champions in 2009 and 2010, should have had a much easier time of things, though. But one-time French Open champion Francesca Schiavone was dismantled by world #121 Lesia Tsurenko in the second rubber, keeping the seeds even with the upstart Ukraine going into Day Two. Schiavone battled back after losing the first set tiebreak to Kateryna Bondarenko on Sunday though -- a good thing, too, since surprise Melbourne quarterfinalist Sara Errani retired a set and a break down to Tsurenko later in the day. But with Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci -- both currently ranked better in doubles than singles -- headlining the final rubber, the Italians finally clinched the win after a surprisingly long decider. They'll face the Czechs in April, and will certainly need to be more consistent if they're going to make another run to the final.

But perhaps the biggest shock came from unseeded, unheralded Serbia, facing 2001 champions Belgium on their home court. Sure, the Belgians were without their biggest star in Kim Clijsters, but with some recent spotty performances by Jelena Jankovic and no follow-through from up-and-comer Bojana Jovanovski, their prospects looked grim. JJ survived a tough two sets against veteran Kirsten Flipkens on Saturday, but pulled out of reverse singles with a thigh injury. Yanina Wickmayer evened the score for the Belgians and ran over eighteen-year-old Aleksandra Krunic in the third rubber, giving her team the lead. But BoJo came through to force a deciding rubber and teamed with the same youngster in doubles to stun Wickmayer and Alison Van Uytvanck in a three-set, two and a half hour battle. The win gave Serbia their first ticket to a Fed Cup semi and the right to face the much more experienced Russians in the spring. They might be the underdogs there too, but a few big plays could give them another big win.

Whether the long shots will continue their run toward the Fed Cup trophy, or the favorites will ultimately triumph, is still unknown. But if they keep up their level of play, it sure looks like anything can happen through the rest of the year. And with halftime about to end, now's the perfect time for them to show us what they've got.

February 1, 2012

Overcoming the Withdrawal

Like many tennis fans this week and, frankly, every week after a Grand Slam ends, I find myself at a loss now that the trophies have been presented. After two weeks of unending surprises, amazing breakthroughs, and heart-pounding displays of mental and physical strength, I'm not entirely sure what to do with myself these days. But not all players lasted long enough to make an impact Down Under, and some who've been in the doldrums for quite some time are right back in action this week trying to return to the top.

In Montpellier a handful of top twenty players are contesting the second Open Sud de France, but perhaps second seeded Gilles Simon has the most to prove. Since falling out of the top fifty a little more than a year ago, the Frenchman has been working his way back into the upper echelons of the sport. He had been on the comeback trail, but struggled through ten sets in Melbourne, and only won one match -- the second straight year he's fallen so early at the Australian Open. He's already had a comfortable win over Flavio Cipolla today and faces world #209 Guillaume Rufin in the quarters, so he's off to a better start this week. And if he can make an even deeper push here, and erase the memory of the last fortnight-plus, he could finally make that move back into the top ten, a level he hasn't seen since late 2009.

Jurgen Melzer suffered his fall from grace a little more recently, having peaked at #8 in the world just last April. But after failing to defend points at the French Open, falling after just one match win at every tournament since July, and losing to his own doubles partner Philipp Petzschner in Melbourne, he's now out of the top forty. He avenged that loss after qualifying for the Zagreb main draw, though, and followed it up with a straight set win over Andreas Seppi today. He gets a bit of a break in the quarters, as Germany's Michael Berrer took care of top seeded Ivan Ljubicic for him, and with the highest-ranked player left in the draw Alex Bogomolov at #34, his opportunity to go all the way couldn't be better. And he'll need to make a big stand soon if he's going to get that momentum back.

Chile's Fernando Gonzalez has fallen ever so slightly more out of favor. After hip surgery in late 2010, the one-time world #5 didn't play again until last April, when his ranking had fallen out of the top five hundred, and a knee injury kept him from making much of an impact the rest of the year. He didn't play in the Australian Open, but came to Viña del Mar as a wildcard and dispatched Pere Riba in his opening match. He gets a bit of a break next against Joao Souza and, I hate to admit, faces a field of aging veterans like Juan Monaco and Juan Ignacio Chela. If he's truly back in form, he might be able to pull off quite a set of upsets in his homeland.

All these guys have been well off their best game for various lengths of time, but they're still out there, fighting to climb back. And this week, now that the pressure of the biggest stage is off them, maybe they'll have a chance to work their way up the rankings. And with nearly four months before their next opportunity to shine at a Major, there's plenty of time for them to sate our appetite for more excitement.