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.

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