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.

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