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.

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