March 29, 2012

Road to the Final Four

This weekend, the best teams in men's college basketball will compete for the 2012 national championship. After a long, grueling winter and some shocking post-season upsets, there are only four teams remaining in the contest.

The season is far from over in tennis, of course, and there are still a few battles left before rounding out all the semifinalists in Miami, but the event hasn't been fraught with any less drama, and winnowing the field as far as we have -- plus what's still to come -- could really change the tenor of the year.

In the bottom half of the bracket, semi staples Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray have already secured their spots in the final four. Both endured near-three hour, three set matches on Wednesday, Murray going down a set to Janko Tipsarevic and Rafa dropping his second to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Prior to that neither had been much tested in Miami, but they both have the motivation to go one further -- the Scot, champion here in 2009, wants to remind the world he can compete with the big guys, while Nadal is looking to add one of the few trophies still missing from his mantle. In the clash of these two titans, the victor might be able to hold onto bragging rights for some time to come.

The third men's quarterfinal will be fought this afternoon and pits Mardy Fish, looking to make the semis here for a second straight year, against veteran Juan Monaco, who's felled both Gael Monfils and Andy Roddick in his last two matches. Fish's performance so far has been somewhat of a relief -- after ending last year at his highest-ever ranking, he failed to win more than one match at any event before reaching Miami. He withstood big-serving Kevin Anderson, himself on a roll after winning Delray Beach last month, and got past Nicolas Almagro in the fourth round -- his first win over anyone in the top twenty since last August. Monaco, meanwhile, may have avoided a clash with red-hot Roger Federer, thanks to Roddick, but with a one-sided two-set drubbing of the resurgent American, proved he shouldn't be ignored. I still like Fish's chances to get the win today, but it won't be an easy fight.

World #1 Novak Djokovic and always-feisty David Ferrer will decide the final men's semi spot later today. Nole came to Miami with a slightly less perfect record than he had this time last year, but he still hasn't dropped a set yet. The Spaniard, meanwhile, has already racked up three titles in 2012 -- none quite as big as his opponent's Australian crown, of course, but enough to keep him firmly ensconced in the top five. He pulled off an impressive victory over Juan Martin Del Potro on Tuesday -- a match that should have been much closer than the 6-3, 6-3 scoreline suggests -- and was able to put one of the very few losses on Nole's tote board last year in London. You can't expect he won't put up his best fight to get in one more win.

But even with the amazing displays we've seen in the men's draw over the past week, some of the most exciting matches may have come from the women. In the bottom half of their bracket, Maria Sharapova continued doing what she's been doing all year -- proving she's still one of the elite in this sport, coming back from deficits against Shahar Peer in her opener and ending a four-match losing streak to Na Li.

If she's going to make the final again this year, though, she'll have to get through the woman who, a round ago, pulled off the win of her career. Caroline Wozniacki, who spent much of the last eighteen months as a tormented #1 -- her biggest wins during that time came over middling top-tenners like Francesca Schiavone and Jelena Jankovic, neither playing at their best -- has now fallen out of the top five. But apparently all the pressure on her shoulders dissolved with that ranking, and on Tuesday she finally got what everyone's been clamoring for. In her straight-set victory over Serena Williams, she proved she does have the stuff to take it to the real powerhouses of the sport, and though it may not have been an on-paper upset, I'm sure it silenced a lot of her critics -- at least for now.

The ladies' other half was no less shocking. Victoria Azarenka, who'd so far put together a season that might have surpassed Djokovic's 2011 start in its impressiveness, was riding a twenty-six match, four-title win streak and had come back from the brink in their fourth round.

But Marion Bartoli was not intimidated. One of only two losses on Vika's record since last October, she had confidence on her side and came out swinging. After winning the first four games of the match she hardly looked back -- down a break in the second, she rattled off five straight games and won the match in decisive fashion. It's hard to tell who's happier, Bartoli or her semifinal opponent Agnieszka Radwanska, whose only four losses this year have come at the hands of Azarenka. The Pole has been unstoppable herself in Miami, somehow turning her serve into a weapon in her quarterfinal win over Venus Williams. With a solid 6-0 record over the Frenchwoman, she certainly has history on her side and could really have the tennis world sit up and take notice.

Of course, one tournament does not a season make, but as play winds down at the Sony Ericsson Open, all these athletes have a lot to take with them the rest of the year. If they can harness their success, there's no telling what will come next for them. As we've learned, nothing is certain in this sport, and the ones who take advantage will take big steps to becoming real champions.

March 26, 2012

Digging Deep

I don't know how much more of this I can take -- seriously.

We thought we saw the match of the tournament yesterday. Three-time Miami champion Venus Williams, playing in her first singles event since the U.S. Open, was down a set and a break to fellow wildcard Aleksandra Wozniak. She wasn't moving well, she was making a slew of errors and her once-dominating serve only found its mark only about sixty percent of the time. She managed to force a third set, but lost a couple of leads to the talented Canadian -- herself coming back from injury that caused a precipitous ranking drop -- and even faced match point late in the decider.

But that's where Williams' experience and champion spirit came through. Though she squandered a few leads in the tiebreak, she was eventually able to convert on her second match point, closing out the match in just under three hours. The win gave her re-entry to the round of sixteen -- she'll play fifteenth seeded Ana Ivanovic later this evening -- the tenth time she'll make that trip in her career. The American leads the pair's head-to-head my a hefty 7-1 margin, but after two long matches at the Sony Ericsson Open -- it took her another two-plus hours to get past Petra Kvitova Friday night -- it's hard to know just how drained she is physically. But if anyone can find it in her to get another win in, it would be the veteran.

But she's not the only one with fight in her, and tonight we were treated to a match that may have surpassed even that highly-set bar. Victoria Azarenka came to her four round match in Miami with a 25-0 record on the year, having made at least the final of her last six events. Dominika Cibulkova, having ended 2011 on quite the high note, had racked up a disappointing 4-8 record before this tournament, her only win since early February coming when her first round opponent retired in Indian Wells. But against all odds, the diminutive Slovak ran off to a 6-1, 5-1 lead over the world #1, firing off winners and staying aggressive on just about every shot.

Cibulkova had two opportunities to serve out the match, and came within two points of handing the Belarusian her first loss of the year. But the sixteenth seed lost five games in a row and was eventually down several set points in the second set tiebreaker. Vika needed five tries before she could force the decider, but her opponent remained strong. Every time the favorite took a lead in the third, Dominika pulled back even. She got within two points from the match again, at 5-4, but was again unable to close. And then, finally, after just under three hours of play it was Azarenka, playing from behind the entire night, who earned the first match point of the evening. When she sprinted to reach a drop shot and watched a forehand reply sail long, the defending champion was again standing victorious, one win more added to her so-far perfect record.

For their efforts, Williams lives to fight another day, Azarenka gets a day's rest before facing Marion Bartoli in the quarters, and poor Wozniak and Cibulkova will go home knowing victory just slipped from their grasp. All these ladies put up efforts that should be applauded heartily, but it was those who were able to find that little extra bit of will to battle who ultimately triumphed. Hopefully they'll all be able to find it again in the future -- for as dramatic and nerve-wracking as these matches are, they sure prove exactly why this sport is so amazing.

March 23, 2012

On the Verge

It's always exciting at tournaments like these, full of the sport's brightest stars along with some lesser-known names, to see which players among the set of next generation athletes have what it takes to bring their best against the best -- even if there's no Grand Slam title on the line.

Twenty-one year old Mona Barthel was almost entirely off the radar just last year, winning a couple ITF titles but only notching a handful of main draw wins on Tour. She did make the semis in Copenhagen, though, with wins over two seeded players, and score a victory over Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez at the U.S. Open. But she really made a name for herself in January when, as a qualifier in Hobart, she upset four straight top-forty players, including one-time #12 Yanina Wickmayer, to claim her first crown. She's had a little bad luck since then, running into red-hot Victoria Azarenka three times already this season, very nearly shocking the women's game when she had chances to serve out the match against the eventual champion in Indian Wells, but, of course, failed to do so.

Still the young German came to Miami as #36 in the world, her highest career ranking and just a shade out of seeding territory. She drubbed veteran Greta Arn in her opener, dropping just a game in their fifty-five minute match, and yesterday pulled off what's likely her biggest win yet. After bagelling former #1 Jelena Jankovic in their first set, she stayed strong in the second, winning nearly eighty percent of her first serves and securing the only break of the set. Her win ousted the thirteenth seed at the Sony Ericsson, the top casualty so far, and puts her in a good position to advance. Ekaterina Makarova, herself a winner over #19 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, obviously can't be ignored, but she's certainly beatable and could give Barthel a window to go deep in this draw.

Simona Halep may be a bit younger, but for years she's been causing rumblings -- both on the Juniors tour and by pushing the top players to the brink at the Majors. She made the quarters in Hobart and beat Daniela Hantuchova in the first round of Doha, but remains a few spots below her career-high ranking at #50 in the world. She'll get her chance to improve that score later today when she meets often erratic Nadia Petrova in her second round. Despite her win over Sam Stosur in Indian Wells, the Russian hasn't exactly had a banner year, and if Halep can take advantage she might just be able to push herself through.

The buzz around Bernard Tomic has existed for a few years now -- the nineteen year old Aussie was twice a Juniors Major winner -- and it's only increased when he went pro. He made a fourth round run in Melbourne and a quarterfinal showing at last year's Wimbledon as a qualifier. Now ranked thirty-sixth in the world, he hasn't made a big splash at recent tournaments, losing his first round in both Memphis and the California, so he'll look to change that in Miami. A opening win against Sergiy Stakhovsky on Thursday set up a second round with world #5 David Ferrer, certainly one of the biggest fighters on Tour. Tomic lost their only previous meeting, but if he's going to make a big push to prove he can play with the big guys, this might be his time to do it.

Grigor Dimitrov has lost a bit of ground since peaking near the top fifty last August. But after dropping points from three Challenger events he won back in 2010, he was unable to make up ground and two weeks ago fell back into triple digits. So far this year, the twenty-year-old Bulgarian has yet to win more than one match at any event and wasn't able to make good on a two-set to one lead over Nicolas Almagro at the Australian Open. He did win his first round at Indian Wells decisively over Ivan Dodig, but lost summarily a match later, allowing Ferrer to break his serve on all five of his opportunities.

Dimitrov will try to staunch the bleeding this week. He fired off five aces against Melbourne surprise fourth-rounder Mikhail Kukushkin on Wednesday and lost just nine point on his serve. He'll meet Juan Ignacia Chela this afternoon, a man he beat less than a year ago in Stockholm. The Argentine has hung around the low double digits for years at a time, but he's clearly more of a threat on other surfaces. If the underdog is able to harness his confidence -- and his serve -- there's no reason he can't dismiss the seeded veteran.

All these players have shown signs they could be real forces on Tour, though none have yet developed the consistency needed to notch one big win after another. Their time is coming, though, and if they're able to show their stuff over the next week in Miami, the whole world should sit up and take notice of them. And while we wait for that big breakthrough, look forward to them putting up some brutal battles to get there.

March 20, 2012

The Big Return

There's something ironic when you compare the draws from Miami and Indian Wells. Whereas a stomach bug afflicted the brackets seemingly from the get-go in the California desert, taking down some competitors before they even struck their first balls, the Sony Ericsson Open has been host to stories of resurrection, seeing players who've been out of the game for months return, hoping to recapture the magic that once brought them to the top of the sport.

Fernando Gonzalez has made a few attempts at launching a comeback since returning to Tour last April post hip surgery, some more successful than others. He beat Alexandr Dolgopolov last year at Wimbledon and made the quarters in Buenos Aires. But the former world #5 has mostly struggled against the top players and has yet to break back into the top two hundred. He comes to Miami, his fourth event of the season, as a wildcard and first meets fellow veteran Nicolas Mahut, so he'll have to be willing to fight 'til the death if this is going to be his true return.

Kim Clijsters, post-retirement, post-motherhood and post-some of her biggest successes on Tour, has seen some action already this year -- she made the semis in Brisbane before retiring to Daniela Hantuchova and beat Caroline Wozniacki (again) in the Melbourne quarters. But she didn't play at all in February and pulled out of Indian Wells with a persistent ankle injury. Now ranked #37 in the world, the 2010 champ in Key Biscayne isn't seeded this time around, and faces a resurgent Jarmila Gajdosova in her opener. It shouldn't be too big a struggle, but could be a true test of how ready she really is to compete at this level again.

Like both these athletes James Blake has battled more than a couple ailments during his career -- from not-uncommon injuries to Zoster and a near career-ending neck injruy. He'd just been regaining momentum after missing most of the 2010 season with a chronic knee injury, ending last year back in the top sixty. But he pulled out of the Australian Open to get continued treatment and had a dismal return in Memphis, winning just two games off Ryan Sweeting in the first round. He'll look to make a more successful showing this week in Miami, where he'll meet also-on-the-mend Nikolay Davydenko, who notched his best performance this year as a semifinalist in Rotterdam. Blake has a perfect 7-0 record against the Russian, though, and if history stays on his side he might just be able to improve that record.

Longer gone from the game has been Venus Williams, absent from the singles Tour since last year's U.S. Open, where she announced her battle with Sjorgren's Syndrome. She did notch a doubles victory for the U.S. in their Fed Cup first round, though, but the dead rubber holds much less pressure than a Premier event which she won three years in a row at the start of her career, and even reached the final in just 2010. Despite her advancing age and her injuries and illness, she's still a formidable force for any opponent, of course. And against uber-veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm in her Miami opener, it will clearly be a battle between two of the most persistent and long-lasting players out there. I can't imagine she won't put up a fight that proves she's not to be counted out.

Unlike all these players -- each of whom has been a pro for over a decade and launched multiple comebacks throughout their careers -- Alisa Kleybanova was dealt one of the most devastating blows early in hers. After a breakthrough 2010 which brought her titles in Kuala Lumpur and Seoul, and took her to the final in Bali, she reached a career-high ranking at #20 in the world last February. With wins over Flavia Pennetta, Francesca Schiavone and Vera Zvonareva, she was poised to make a big run into the elite. But diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in the middle of the season, she missed half the year while she sought chemotherapy and, certainly less important, saw her ranking drop to #248. The twenty-two year old Russian makes her return this afternoon, facing Sweden's Johanna Larsson in the first round. It almost doesn't even matter what her chances are or whether she even wins a game -- but the fact she's playing proves she might just be the biggest fighter out there.

It's a fact of life in this sport that athletes -- even the top ones -- will have to fight their way back from the brink, maybe multiple times in their careers. And as some try to get in one last shot, and others hope to resume the success they had not so long ago, it's a testament to all their strength and courage that they step on the court one more time.

And everyone, I'm sure, will be rooting that it's not the last time they do.

March 18, 2012

On a Roll

Neither of the results at today's finals in Indian Wells were particularly surprises, really, but what they might have lacked in drama they certainly made up for in decisiveness.

Victoria Azarenka came to the desert as the #1 ranked player in the world with an impressive 17-0 record and that breakthrough Grand Slam crown to her credit already this year. She struggled in her opener, battling a stomach bug that was nagging the entire field and squandering a huge lead against Mona Barthel before finally closing it out. But she got better with time, handily beating her next four opponents by dropping an average of just four games a match. Her victory over Angelique Kerber in the semis pushed her past Serena Williams to number four on the list of best all-time starts to a year.

In the final she met Maria Sharapova in a rematch of the surprisingly one-sided Melbourne final. The former #1 had been having her own string of success recently, making two Major finals in the past year and climbing back to the second spot in the rankings. In Indian Wells she battled from a set down against Maria Kirilenko in the quarters, and caught a bit of a break when Ana Ivanovic retired in the semis, but overall looked stronger than she had in quite some time.

That is, until she faced Vika in today's final. As had happened in so many of their recent meetings, Azarenka got off to a strong start, breaking her opponent off the bat and building a two-break lead in the second. Twice Maria was able to cut her deficit down, but each time the Belarusian had an answer, and despite a strong serve and some good gets she proved no match for the woman who hasn't dropped a set in this rivalry since 2009. Azarenka, now 23-0 on the year with four trophies on her mantle, has successfully escaped the curse that plagued so many of the first-time Slam champions in recent years, and though she may be loathe to make any comparisons, looks to be in a good place to set some big records in 2012.

The men's final featured another rematch of a big battle already waged this year. Roger Federer and John Isner last met a month ago when the big American shocked King Fed on his Davis Cup home court in just four sets. Since then Roger went on his own tear, winning ten straight matches and two titles coming to Indian Wells, and wracking up a dominating 33-2 record since last year's U.S. Open. He was challenged a bit in his early rounds this week, dropping sets to both Milos Raonic and Thomaz Bellucci before sailing past Juan Martin Del Potro and even long-time rival Rafael Nadal in the semis.

Isner was a little less obvious in his post-Davis Cup success. He failed to capitalize on his top seeding in Memphis or Delray Beach, but had nevertheless reached a career high ranking of #11 in the world. He wasn't challenged much early in the bracket, and perhaps without the pressure of being a favorite or by virtue of many of his biggest threats being eliminated for him, he was able to advance without much drama. He staged a solid victory against Gilles Simon in the quarters, and of course notched one of the two best career victories by beating reigning champ and top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the semis.

To his credit, Isner kept things close in his first ever Masters final. Forcing a tiebreak in the first set, he earned a few minibreaks and even had a set point to take the early lead, but an unfortunate decision to let a mishit lob go at seven-all might have cost him the set. Roger raised his game in the second set, too, going nearly four games before conceding the only point on his serve and breaking the big man's game twice. Now with a record nineteenth Maters crown to his name and a solid lead in the race to London, he seems to be well on his way to return to #1 in the overall rankings as well.

Given what we've seen already in 2012, it shouldn't shock us to find either of this weekend's champions back atop the winner's circle today -- and it shouldn't surprise us if we see them back there again and again this year. Of course their current winning streaks will end eventually -- maybe even in their very next matches. But the way they're playing, they've both shown their power goes far deeper than anyone might have thought before.

March 14, 2012

Grudge Matches

Remember this?

Victoria Azarenka vs. Agnieszka Radwanska
Doha semis - February 2012

Or this?

Tomas Berdych vs. Nicolas Almagro
Australian Open, 4th round - January 2012

Well it's a good thing these guys will never see each other again, right? Right?

Eh, not so much, it turns out. The elite players on the tennis Tour have no choice but to meet again and again, friends or not -- and both these pairs had rematches today in Indian Wells just weeks after their previous face-offs. Azarenka, previously criticized for her over-dramatization of an injury, showed no signs of lingering pain when she won eleven straight game off Radwanska on her way to a 6-0, 6-2 win over the world #5. And Almagro, ignored in his attempt to apologize for accidentally beaning Berdych in Melbourne, took just over an hour to dismiss the Czech this afternoon.

Grudge matches -- with or without the animosity -- are unavoidable in this and any sport. Later today Maria Sharapova will meet countrywoman Maria Kirilenko for the first time since the lower-ranked Russian shocked her in Australia two years ago. The world #2 has greatly improved her game since then, reaching the finals both at Wimbledon and Down Under, and become a more consistent force than we've seen in ages. But Kirilenko has been battle-tested in the desert, and has twice avenged that heart-breaking U.S. Open loss to Sam Stosur. She won't go away as quickly as her namesake might hope.

A little further down the road is the likely quarterfinal between Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro -- what would be their fourth meeting already this year. Federer is clearly on a roll and hasn't lost a set to the Argentine since the World Tour Finals in 2009. But DelPo has made each match closer and closer, and with solid, straight-set wins in his first two matches in Indian Wells, he might have the confidence to finally exact revenge over his opponent. Sure they both still have to get one more win in before that presumed match-up becomes a reality, but with Roger facing world #50 Thomaz Bellucci in the fourth round and Del Potro being handed Denis Istomin, one spot lower still, at this point it just seems inevitable.

It doesn't always work, of course -- poor Aggie! -- but the motivation to erase the memory of a disappointing loss can provide the extra oomph a player needs to eke out a win. Hopefully they're any to harness that good energy and let go of their frustrations -- whatever our differences, after all, this is the gentleman's sport. Let's keep it that way.

March 10, 2012

The Seeds Keep Falling

The seeds have taken to the courts in Indian Wells, and it's been far from smooth sailing for them.

Angelique Kerber trailed American wildcard Sloane Stephens 2-6, 1-5 and faced double match point, but somehow managed to eke out the victory. Andy Roddick was down a set and a break to Lukas Kubot earlier today before finally holding onto a lead in the third. Victoria Azarenka blew a commanding lead against Mona Barthel and needed to break her opponent twice just to stay in the match, ultimately winning the three-hour marathon.

And those were the one's who survived. After making the semis in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, 2010 champion Jelena Jankovic was broken five times in her opener by young Julie Jamie Hampton. And Sabine Lisicki, who's battled injury seemingly all season after staging an enormous comeback last year, fell in straight sets to veteran Lourdes Dominguez-Lino. The men weren't immune to the upsets either -- Richard Gasquet, serving for the match at 5-4 in the second against Albert Ramos, ultimately lost the tiebreak and the decider, winning zero points on his second serve. And early exits like these, as usual, give others a chance to shine.

Jarmila Gajdosova has been having a tough couple months. Though she peaked at #25 in the world less than a year ago, she's fallen out of the top fifty after failing to defend a title in Hobart and losing first round matches at three events already this year. But things are looking up for her in California, a place where she'd never won a main draw match before -- she's pulled off two come-from-behind victories against Coco Vandeweghe and twenty-second seed Yanina Wickmayer. And after Hampton's upset of JJ, her portion of the draw is opening up. If she can keep momentum on her side, she time out of the top ranks may be sharp-lived.

Maybe more impressive has been the performance of Vania King, who's nearly played more qualifying matches than main draw rounds this year. At #58 in the world, she's still a shade off her career-high ranking -- one she reached over five years ago -- but she was impressive in her first-round win over red-hot Sara Errani on Wednesday, and even more so against world #20 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova yesterday. It'll get tougher in the next round, of course, when she meets Kerber, but if King can take advantage of the tested German, she might score another win

Of course, there are some openings in the men's draw too -- and likely more to come. Pablo Andujar made his first mark on the sport a little less than a year ago when he won his first title in Casablanca and a few months later made the final in Stuttgart. Both those runs came on clay, though, and with only five career wins on hard court, he wasn't exactly a favorite here. But he rebounded after losing the first set to Robin Haase and shocked eighteenth seed Florian Mayer in a relatively quick two sets. He'll next face fellow underdog Ramos, who's already battled through two three-set matches to get here. With another win, Andujar might be in for a new set of successes this year.

There's of course a lot of ball left to be played in Indian Wells, and if early rounds are any indication, it sure looks like we're in store for some more surprises. As the favorites fall by the wayside, a slew of new stars get the chance to emerge. And there couldn't be a better place for them to take the opportunity.

March 7, 2012

Now or Never

The first balls of this year's BNP Paribas Open have been struck, with the ladies kicking off their main draw today while the men wrap up their qualifying matches. And while the seeded players all get byes for their first rounds, there's nevertheless a lot of pressure on everyone to perform from the start.

With just a handful of matches in the books, we've already seen a couple of disappointing results. Iveta Benesova, who's beaten Sabine Lisicki and Sam Stosur already this year, won her first set but dropped the next two to comeback kid Sorana Cirstea, and Memphis runner-up Marina Erakovic, looking for her first win in Indian Wells, was defeated in a two-and-a-half hour battle with Galina Voskoboeva. Meanwhile Sara Errani, fresh off singles and doubles crowns in Acapulco, surrendered a break lead to Vania King and lost in straights. But others hope to avoid similar fates.

Defending champion Caroline Wozniacki has amassed a mediocre 7-4 record so far this year, and will fall out of the top five if she doesn't make at least the semis here. She comes to the desert as the #4 seed, but has more than a few potential spoilers in her part of the bracket. Her first opponent will either be Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who put up a fight at the Hopman Cup, or Ekaterina Makarova, who stunned Serena Williams in Melbourne. And if she survives those early tests, Caro may face a rematch of last year's final with Marion Bartoli just to make the final four. She'll need to raise her game if she's going to survive deep into this draw.

Jelena Jankovic, winner her two years ago, doesn't have quite so many points to defend this time around but may have as much on the line. She's been pretty busy this year, already playing six events in addition to Fed Cup, and marked some big wins -- Stosur in Dubai -- and some not-so-big losses -- Petra Martic in Kuala Lumpur. To her credit, she's hung around most draws, but she hasn't won a title since she lifted the trophy here. Ranked out of the top ten this year, JJ will first face American wildcard Julie Hampton, but is slated to meet Aggie Radwanska, who beat her in Dubai, in the fourth round and current #1 Victoria Azarenka in the quarters. It's going to be a tough fight if the Serb plans on using this to launch her comeback campaign.

There are a couple men with just as much on the line over the next ten days too. Fernando Verdasco had struggled over the past two years or so, declining to defend points in San Jose and failing to make any headway against the sport's top players -- he'd only beaten one top ten player since the spring of 2010. But his run to the Acapulco final last week might have come at the perfect time -- now back at #19 in the world, he comes to Indian Wells with more confidence than he's had in a while. He'll meet either Ryan Sweeting or Challenger champion Cedrik-Marcel Stebe in his opener, but will likely face a much tougher challenge in Juan Martin Del Potro a round later. If he can score a win there we'll really know he's back.

Andy Roddick, runner-up here in 2010 -- and doubles champ the year before -- is also out to claw his way back to the top. Now ranked #31, his lowest position in an astounding eleven years, he's logged a 4-4 record in 2012. Injury forced him out of the Australian Open, and he hasn't been able to hold onto leads in matches since then. He did score an impressive win against Roger Federer in an exhibition match at MSG on Monday night, so things aren't completely bleak. He'll be challenged from the start, though, facing either big-serving Ivo Karlovic or dangerous Pole Lukas Kubot in the second round, and should meet back-in-form Tomas Berdych after that. It'll be a long road for Roddick, but a couple big wins here would be a good start.

There's a lot riding on the results in Indian Wells this week -- sure some players may not have a lot of ranking points at stake here while may have plenty of time left in their careers to make up for any disappointing results. But if they're going to silence the naysayers and prove they're still real contenders in the sport, they'll all have to put up a fight in the California desert. And there's never been a better time for them to show us what they've got.

March 4, 2012

Like Old Times

At this time last year we hardly knew what we were in for. Novak Djokovic's title in Dubai had just capped off a fourteen-match win streak, one that would triple before it ended. Roger Federer had completed his first twelve-month run without a Grand Slam since 2003 and had lost two matches in a row to the ascendant Serb -- it would be almost an entire season before he claimed another title on Tour.

But then things started turning around. Fatigue and injury slowed Nole down at the end of the year while Federer went 15-0 to claim three titles of his own. His Slam-less streak continues, but he's not letting go of his hold on the top ranks of the sport, and after sailing to a win in Rotterdam, he came to Dubai looking for his first title here since 2007.

His road to the final was not an easy one. Facing off first against last week's Marseille finalist Michael Llodra, he delivered one bagel set but battled through a tight tiebreak to take the second. He then squared off against former top-ten player Mikhail Youzhny, himself on a comeback trail after dispatching Mardy Fish in the second round. In his semifinal against one-time vanquisher Juan Martin Del Potro, he was unable to convert on any of six break points, but took the two-tiebreak win in just under two hours.

In the final he faced a familiar foe in Andy Murray who, somewhat surprisingly, had never made it past the quarters in the UAE. He began his campaign with a little rust on his swing, losing serve five times to world #116 Michael Berrer in his three-set first round. He cleaned up his game in the days that followed, though, stopping Montpellier champ Tomas Berdych in his tracks and then stunning three-time defending champion Djokovic in under an hour and a half.

His luck ran out in Saturday's final. After failing to convert on two break chances in the sixth game, Murray found himself on the losing side of the first set. Federer got off to a good start in the second as well, breaking his opponent in the third game and building a 3-1 lead. The Scot came back immediately and evened the score, but then King Roger ticked off three straight games to seal the deal.

The win marks Roger's fifth title in Dubai, his first in five years. And with wins over two real top-ten players -- and a couple looking like they're in the top-ten -- he's reiterated that he continues to be a contender at the big events. He may not have begun the year with as much flash and glamour as we've become used to, but if he's really looking to make the climb back to the top of the sport, it sure looks like he's off to a good start. And with just two losses in his last thirty-five matches, it sure looks like he might get there sooner than we think.

March 1, 2012

Men vs. Boys

There is of course a difference in sports -- and tennis in particular -- between the athletes who prove to be flashes in the pan and those that can deliver year-in and year-out. Some players can have a great run one week and, overwhelmed by the effort, fall early and often in the tournaments that come. But others, the real powerhouses, come back week after week and dominate the field. And the thin line that separates them marks a real distinction between winners and champions.

Jurgen Melzer isn't exactly a slouch, but his victory in Memphis last week came after a string of disappointing results. He probably had the right to be exhausted when he came to Delray Beach this week, after battling through three seeded players to take the title, but his loss to Tim Smyczek in his opener was nevertheless a surprise. His exit, though, may have cleared the way for others in the draw -- John Isner lost to Melzer in the Memphis quarters, but now will face a dangerous, but slightly less intimidating Bernard Tomic later today. And while Andy Roddick, trying to make his own comeback in Florida, may be able to gain some traction knowing the field is slightly cleared out for him.

Sofia Arvidsson, the other titleist in Memphis last weekend, was no more successful than Melzer when she came to Acapulco. Still well off her career-high ranking at #55 in the world, she was in seeding territory for the Abierto Mexicano. But though she got up a set against two-time winner Flavia Pennetta in their second round and could have closed out the match in a tiebreak, she ultimately succumbed 6-1 in the deciding set. Her exit could give the Italian a clear road to at least the final, as she looks to win her first title in nearly two years. But top seeded Roberta Vinci, who's quarterfinal run so far marks only the second time in 2012 that she's won more than two matches at one event, may have even more to prove. She's been spotty of late, but a good run here might put her back on the track that won her three trophies last year.

The men's draw in Acapulco also features one of last week's victors. David Ferrer, twice a champion here before, came to Mexico fresh off a title in Buenos Aires, and looks to extend his success during this season's Golden Swing. He's only lost a handful of games in his first two matches, and with many of his contemporaries getting upset he'll face no seeds through at least the semis. If everything goes as planned, he'd likely face Nicolas Almagro for the title, a rematch of last Sunday's championship match, but with a 9-0 record against his compatriot, something tells me Ferrer's streak is good to go.

Like Ferrer, Aggie Radwanska began this week on her own winning streak. With her title in Dubai, she came to Kuala Lumpur with an impressive 15-3 record on the year -- all three of those losses coming at the hands of current world #1 Victoria Azarenka. Playing some of the best tennis of her career, the Pole didn't drop a set in her Thursday double-header, beating both Akgul Amanmuradova and Karolina Pliskova in straight sets. There are, of course, still obstacles in her way -- Jelena Jankovic, one of the few remaining seeds left in Malaysia, took her to three sets in last week's semi -- but as Radwanska's star continues to rise, she should be able to handle the challenges she's dealt.

All that's not to say, of course, that sometimes spotty players won't be able to turn around their streaks -- Azarenka, after all, was only of the most inconsistent champions on Tour just last year -- or that the current stars won't see their successes come to a sharp end. But early performances this week certainly draw a line between players with staying power and those who might need some time to recover.

And that difference has the opportunity to make a big impact on the top ranks of the sport this year.