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.

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