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.

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