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.

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