April 29, 2012

Show 'Em Who's Boss

It's been a tricky road for the some of the sport's biggest stars so far this year. While headlines were grabbed by new #1s, comeback stories, and some rising powerhouses, a few other champions have been laying low, at least until recently. But this week, despite some big challenges, they really found a way to shine.

Clay court king Rafael Nadal had been relatively quiet over the last eleven months or so. After ceding the top ranking to Novak Djokovic in July, he'd made a handful of finals but couldn't seem to break through. He returned to the spotlight last Sunday, though, with a record-setting win in Monte Carlo and got right back to work in Barcelona, another event he hasn't lost at since 2003.

It wasn't a walk in the park however. Despite sailing through early rounds without dropping a set, he found himself down an early break in the final against compatriot David Ferrer on Sunday. Though he was able to even the score, he struggled on serve in the opener and faced several set points late in the first. But the six-time champion at the Open Banc Sabadell wouldn't lie down -- he fought off every one of them and eventually dominated the tiebreak. It wasn't over, though -- he gave up a break lead in the second set and even allowed his opponent a chance to serve for a third. But Nadal rattled off three straight games to close out the match, winning his seventh title in Barcelona and keeping himself unbeaten in April for eight years.

Maria Sharapova was going through a similar drought. Though she'd climbed back to her highest ranking since 2008, she wasn't putting up her best performances when a trophy was on the line -- she'd played in three finals already this year and hadn't won a set. But she was out to turn the tables this week in Stuttgart.

She looked solid from the start, coming back from a set down in her quarterfinal and saving match point against Sam Stosur, the woman who'd ended a nine-match losing streak to the Russian last year in Istanbul. She then re-avenged her Wimbledon loss to Petra Kvitova in the semis, earning the right to face world #1 Victoria Azarenka in their third final of 2012. Like at the Australian Open Sharapova came out firing, earning the early break, but unlike the Australian Open, she never gave it up. Vika was only allowed one break chance during the match, and though she was able to keep things close in the first half of the second set, some glorious serving and precise net play gave the three-time Major winner her first title of the year.

It seems experience was the ultimate champion on Sunday -- despite some rough-ish starts to the year, both of this week's champions were able to harness the power and strengths that brought them glory in the first place. Whether they can keep it up the rest of the season remains to be seen, but a few more wins like this and the course of the year could be very different from what it seems right now.

April 26, 2012

No Shelter From the Rain

With so many of the top players this week concentrated in a couple of higher-profile tournaments, a couple who've been struggling recently might have hoped to catch a few easy points at events where the draws were more sparse. But things are never as easy as they may first appear, and from the start results have proven that no one should rest easy.

Defending champs in Bucharest and Fes both lost their opening matches. Florian Mayer, who hasn't won a match since Miami, fell after a long struggle with Xavier Malisse in his opener, and Alberta Brianti, just clinging onto a spot in the top hundred, went three sets but still fell to Monterrey finalist Alexandra Cadantu in her first round. But they weren't the only ones leaving the draws earlier than expected.

Marcos Baghdatis has had fits and starts for the last several years, so it shouldn't be a big surprise that his performance is so unpredictable. Still with wins over Juan Martin Del Potro in Sydney and Feliciano Lopez in Indian Wells, he'd earned the fifth seed in Bucharest and should have had a fairly easy time of things early. Unfortunately for him he ran into Fabio Fognini earlier today -- a man who's pulled off a few big wins on the dirt. Just out of seeding territory, the Italian was undervalued on paper, but he wasn't deterred. In a match that saw eleven breaks of serve, Fognini was eventually the winner, earning his first quarterfinal of the year.

Victor Troicki has been even less impressive so far this year -- ranked in the top fifteen just twelve months ago, he's notched only one top-fifty win this season. Still he came to Romania a fourth seed, looking to turn his year around. But against Matthias Bachinger, who he'd already beaten this year in Doha, he came up against a roadblock. He was able to force a third set after losing the first, but the German took control in the tiebreak and after two-and-a-half hours on court dismissed the slumping Serb. Troicki will need to rebuild quickly if he's going to get back on track.

The scalps have been just as big in Fes. One-time U.S. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer, whose ranking peaked at #12 exactly two years ago, has had a couple good runs this year, but hasn't been able to defend a lot of points. Now ranked out of the top thirty, she should nevertheless have been the favorite against Patricia Mayr-Achleitner in her first round. But unable to hold serve and barely making a dent in her return games, the Belgian fell in straight sets.

Second-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova, fresh off a disappointing loss to Jelena Jankovic last weekend in Fed Cup, has also seen her star fall this year. The former world #3 dropped out of the top twenty after a third-round loss in Doha and hasn't won more than two matches at any event since January. She looked to be in good shape against up-and-comer Irina-Camelia Begu in Morocco, winning the first set 6-1. But after losing the second, she suffered a thigh injury that forced her to retire. Hopefully she'll be back in shape if she's going to try for another French Open crown next month.

The latest casualty in Fes came this morning. Petra Cetkovska hasn't exactly been struggling, ranked just off her career high at #30, but now that she's spending less time on the ITF circuit, she hasn't had many deep tournament runs, making just one third round in Doha. She looked strong early this week, not dropping a set in her first two matches, but against lucky loser Mathilde Johansson, who'd already bumped off a similarly flailing Shahar Peer a round earlier, she couldn't find her game. She got fewer than half her first serves in and won a dismal thirty-one percent on her second attempts. With a ton of Wimbledon points coming off in the next few months, she'll need to remember how to play against the big girls.

Seeded players are certainly getting no passes at this week's events, and that's certainly left a lot of holes in the brackets. For the favorites remaining, they should be warned out of getting too complacent. But perhaps more importantly, the spoilsports out there should be encouraged to take advantage. After all, no one is unbeatable in this sport, and whoever pounces first could reap quite the reward.

April 22, 2012

No Mercy, or "This is My House"

I have to admit, I was a little nervous before Sunday's Monte Carlo final.

Sure, seven-time defending champion Rafael Nadal hadn't lost here since 2003. Yes, he hadn't dropped a set all week and only lost serve twice going into the championship match. And, admittedly, he had a much easier time in his semifinal -- against France's Gilles Simon, he needed less than two hours to dispatch his opponent. Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, spent almost three hours on court Saturday and needed to come back from a set down in two matches this week.

But that didn't necessarily mean anything. Twice last year, in both Rome and Madrid where Nadal had been previously dominant, Djokovic had survived tough semis and each time pulled out a straight set win over the then-champion. He'd also pulled off a handful of other wins over the former world #1 in the past sixteen months, each when a trophy was at stake, five times where the Spaniard was defending the crown. He had beaten his rival on every surface, had narrowed the gap in the pair's head-to-head to a tight 14-16 and had taken over his top ranking. It was quite a demoralizing stretch for Nadal.

Things went a little differently today in Monaco. Rafa, who'd won forty-one straight matches in Monte Carlo coming into the final is clearly more comfortable than anyone else on this surface. He drew first blood against Nole in the fifth game of the match and didn't face a break point in the opening set. He ran off to a 4-0 lead in the second before Djokovic was able to get on the board, finally making a dent on Nadal's serve and earning one break back. But the tide didn't turn for long -- Rafa broke back immediately and held his opponent to just four points on serve the entire set -- all on second attempts. After less than ninety minutes, the real prince of Monaco fired off an ace and sealed in his record eighth title in Monte Carlo -- the most any player has ever won at a single Masters event, and the longest trophy streak at any men's tournament in tennis history.

The win was more significant than even that, though. It reminded Nadal he has what it takes to beat the top player in the sport again, and as he enters what's traditionally the best part of his season he'll need that confidence to climb back to the top. But even beyond that, the vindication proves that, this year at least, no one player is untouchable. And that means the rest of the year is about to get very interesting.

April 21, 2012

The Year Was 2004...

It's hard to remember a time before Rafael Nadal was champion of the Monte Carlo Masters -- way back when, things were quite different.

In April 2004 then-clay court powerhouse Guillermo Coria had taken the title. Ranked #4 in the world at the time, the Argentine went on to the final in Hamburg and a runner-up trophy at Roland Garros, where unseeded Gaston Gaudio came back from two sets down to capture his first and only Grand Slam crown. Since then it's been all about Rafa.

It's been such a long time since we've thought of anyone else but Nadal as ace of this base. And so much has changed in the interim that things that were once commonplace are now even harder to imagine.

Eight years ago Illinois State Senator Barack Obama was just prepping his career-changing keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, Mitt Romney was in his second year as Massachusetts governor. John Edwards was in the running to be Vice President, Newt Gingrich was already on his third wife and at least his second affair. Al Franken was best-known as a writer for SNL, Sarah Palin as the former Mayor of Wasilla.

Tony Blair was still Prime Minister of Britain, Angela Merkel was not yet Chancellor of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy was just France's finance minister -- not a supermodel's husband. Kim Jong-Il was alive. So was Osama Bin Laden. And Saddam Hussein.

Mark Zuckerberg was an unknown undergrad who had just launched theFacebook at Harvard, the only things that tweeted were birds -- and they were very seldom angry. Google wasn't yet a public company, and Apple's stock was trading under $28 a share.

Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual were still in business -- and making big bucks. The U.S. unemployment rate was just 5.6%, down from recent highs above a staggering 6%. No one outside Wall Street knew what a "subprime" loan was. Or had an opinion on Goldman Sachs. Or spent any time in Zucotti Park.

Tsunami was an SAT vocabulary word, Katrina was just a girl's name, Pluto was still a planet.

Marlon Brando, Christopher Reeve and Ronald Reagan were all still with us. Arrested Development was wrapping up its first season, Friends was gearing up for its series finale. The last installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was Best Picture, Denzel Washington's Man on Fire was tops at the box office. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez had just split, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston hadn't yet. Mel Gibson was only showing signs of his insanity, Robert Downey Jr. was just climbing out of his.

The New England Patriots had won their third and (so far) last Super Bowl, but all anyone cared about was Janet Jackson's half-time show. The Red Sox were at the tail end of an eighty-five year World Series drought. Michael Phelps hadn't made his Olympic debut, Jeremy Lin hadn't applied to college.

Seventeen-year-old Rafael Nadal was ranked #37 in the world.

Tomorrow, having beaten Gilles Simon in this afternoon's semi, Rafa will play in his eighth Monte Carlo championship match, hoping to extend his run in Monaco to forty-two straight wins*. There he'll face world #1 Novak Djokovic who, of course, has defeated the Spaniard in their last seven meetings, all in finals. And while victories on hard courts or grass might be explicable, Nole's triumphs in Rome and Madrid last year show that no streak is safe. Nadal is going to have to be at the top of his game in order to retain the title he's owned for almost his entire career.

And whether or not you're excited by the possibility of a world where Rafa no longer dominates the clay, you can't deny that tomorrow's result could make this season look very different from here on out. And the implications might mean the world for the two men who take the court Sunday.

* Rafa's only loss in Monte Carlo came in the 2003 third round, when he was ranked #109 in the world.

April 18, 2012

Fed Cup Semi Preview: Prepared to Dominate

There's a lot of star power in the field for this weekend's Fed Cup action -- and it's not just among the teams playing for a berth in November's final. And with something more important than a trophy on the line -- national pride! -- expect all these players to step up to the plate over the next few days, and make some statements that could last the rest of the year.

Belgium vs. Japan

It what will likely be the most under-the-radar tie in the World Group playoffs, little-heralded Japan will take on a Clijsters-less Belgium. With no player ranked in the top two hundred in singles, the visiting Europeans will have to dig deep to make a dent, and the Japanese will look to take advantage. Twenty-two year old Ayumi Morita hasn't scored many wins this year, but she did notch victories over the likes of Ana Ivanovic and Petra Kvitova in 2011. And uber-veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm, just one ranking spot below her countrywoman, has the experience to lead her team back to the big leagues. And this might be the perfect opportunity for them to really steal the spotlight.

Slovak Republic vs. Spain

There will be a few more heavy hitters in Marbella, where 2008 runners-up Spain take on the Slovaks, but they're not on the side you'd expect. Dominika Cibulkova, who very nearly destroyed world #1 Victoria Azarenka in Miami, is fresh off a second-place finish in Barcelona and looks ready to turn her year around. And Daniela Hantuchova, the winningest Fed Cup player on the team, already has a title to her name this year. Against a slate of Spaniards led by sub-sixty ranked Silvia Soler-Espinoza, admittedly a woman who has been climbing the ladder this year, you have to give the edge to the eastern Europeans.

U.S. vs. Ukraine

The U.S. looks to make its return to the World Group when it takes on recently-ousted Ukraine, and they're bringing out the big guns to do it. Serena Williams and #1 doubles player Liezel Huber lead the pack along with rising stars Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens. It's a relatively young team, but one packed with talent, and it could be a chance for the newbies on the squad to get some invaluable playing time. Their opponents haven't made a big dent in the rankings, so it shouldn't be too tough a weekend. But they shouldn't be too glib -- Lesia Tsurenko, yet to crack the top hundred, has nevertheless beaten Shahar Peer and Francesca Schiavone this year and might prove to be a challenge. Still, the U.S. looks poised to advance easily, which might set the entire team up for more success this year.

Australia vs. Germany

In what's quiet possibly the most talent-filled playoff tie, players accustomed to meeting late in tournaments will fight for the last spot in next year's World Group. Current U.S. Open champ Sam Stosur leads her team against four top-twenty German players. But injury may somewhat dampen the quality of play -- Andrea Petkovic returns to play after a low back stress fracture forced her out of the Australian Open and Sabine Lisicki, who left the Charleston court in tears with an ankle sprain, will sit the sidelines. But with players like Angelique Kerber and Julia Goerges pinch-hitting, the Germans should have what it takes to roll through the weekend.

Serbia vs. Russia

The stakes only go higher when we move onto the World Group. Four-time champions Russia have home field advantage against the upstart Serbs, but without their top two players, they might be at a disadvantage. Veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova is famously fickle and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova hasn't held her own much this year. That leaves world #21 Maria Kirilenko carrying the torch, and hopefully she'll be able to handle it. On the opposing side, the burden is on Ana Ivanovic's shoulders -- back at #15 she's passed compatriot Jelena Jankovic in the rankings and has had the most success on the team this year. And for the the player(s) who eventually emerge victorious this weekend, it could set the course for the rest of the season.

Italy vs. Czech Republic

The defending Fed Cup champion Czechs will try to follow up on their first-round success when they take on the Italians, who captured the crown the previous two years. Wimbledon titleist Petra Kvitova teams with Charleston finalist Lucie Safarova and a pair of Grand Slam doubles champions, so there's plenty of skill on the slate. But everyone on the Italian slate is ranked in the top thirty for singles -- and three of them are top twenty in doubles. Their secret weapon may in fact be Sara Errani, who won both titles just last week in Barcelona, and seems to be having her breakout season. While the Czechs are probably the on-paper favorites, this battle could go down to the wire, and I'm not sure I'd be surprised to see the upset.

So as the ladies take to the courts this weekend, there's a lot on the line. Not everyone has a shot at the Fed Cup trophy this year, but that doesn't mean they can't all make a big difference in their seasons. And a good showing over the next few days could be just what they each need.

April 15, 2012

And So It Begins...

It's that time of year again -- the boys have officially made the shift to the clay season, and began their French Open warm-ups in earnest this week.

The Casablanca field was full of dirt specialists, with the top four seeds winning all of their titles on the surface. But that didn't mean the favorites all advanced without drama -- top seeded Florian Mayer lost his opener in a fairly one-sided straight setter to Jeremy Chardy while Alexandr Dolgopolov, playing well off the game that brought him to #13 in the world earlier this year, dropped just as quickly to Flavio Cipolla in his first match. In fact only two seeds made it to the quarterfinals -- defending champion Pablo Andujar and rising star Albert Ramos, who'd already beaten the likes of Fernando Verdasco, Richard Gasquet and Feliciano Lopez this year.

The two Spaniards eventually made their way to final on Sunday, though Ramos had a slightly easier trip -- though he lost serve a handful of times during the week, he never dropped a set. Andujar, on the other hand, was breadstick-ed in his middle quarterfinal set by qualifier Sergio Guttierrez-Ferrol before rebounding in the semis. But he took control early in his third career meeting with Ramos today, allowing his countryman just eight points on serve in the first set. The underdog raised his game in the second, though, but it was too late -- he managed to eke out one more point than Andujar, but eventually fell in the tiebreak, 7-5, and last year's champion kept his record against Ramos undefeated.

Things got a little more interesting in Houston where, even though most of the top seeds stayed deep into the draw, a couple big story-lines emerged. Thirty-three year old Michael Russell, ranked #136 in the world, dismissed top-seed Mardy Fish in the second round and kept his run going all the way to the semis. And fellow Americans Ryan Harrison, Sam Querrey and 2011 champ Ryan Sweeting, all put in some nice showings during the week, proving the country may not be quite as hard-up on the clay as so many think.

But in the end it was two of the players who've been on the hottest roll in recent month. John Isner, recent vanquisher of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, faced fifteen break points in his first three matches and never lost serve -- his win over Feliciano Lopez in the semis earned him the #1 ranking in the U.S. And Juan Monaco, who made a run to the Miami semis with wins over Gael Monfils, Andy Roddick and Fish, survived a test from Russell on Saturday, but came to his second final of the year the fresher man. Finally delivering the first break of serve to Isner in the opening set, he was the one to get the go-ahead in the third, winning the last three games of the two-and-a-half hour match and sealing the deal.

So with the first salvos of this year's clay court season now launched, it's now up to these guys to follow through. The winners, of course, have a bit of a leg up for now, but every player who showed he can put up a fight this week can turn himself into a force during the spring. And with the way things have shaken out so far this year, any one of them might make an even deeper impact than anyone expects.

April 12, 2012

Where No One Is Safe

There's been something strange going on in the women's game this year -- for the first time in what seems like forever, we're seeing some consistency on court. Victoria Azarenka may no longer be undefeated for the year, but her only loss came at the hands of Marion Bartoli, herself a powerful player. Aggie Radwanska's two titles come in addition to three quarterfinal and two semi runs. Maria Sharapova has made three finals this year, two in a row in Indian Wells and Miami. And even the lesser-known names -- Angelique Kerber, Mona Barthel, Sara Errani -- are lasting more than a few rounds at a time.

So it's a little strange that this week we're seeing one seed after another fall by the wayside.

The bloodshed started early in Barcelona. Top-seeded Francesca Schiavone lost in straight sets to world #83 Olga Govortsova. Defending champion Roberta Vinci came back from a set down to win her opener, but fell a day later to Simona Halep. And earlier today Flavia Pennetta, who'd made finals in Auckland and Acapulco already this year, dropped her second round to qualifier Yuliya Beygelzimer.

A couple seeds have survived, of course -- at least so far -- but they might still be in danger. Dominika Cibulkova was just able to force a third set against Klara Zakopalova. The Slovak won the pair's only meeting last year, on her way to the title in Moscow, but after a heart-breaking loss to Victoria Azarenka in Miami, she might be fighting more demons than her opponent. And second seeded Julia Goerges may have to keep an eye on her next opponent -- eighteen-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza Blanco beat both Pennetta and Vera Zvonareva at the Sony Ericsson Open. She hasn't yet cracked the top one-hundred, but if she keeps it up, she might be on the way there soon. And Carla Suarez Navarro, still on the mend from an injury that halted her 2010 season, might be able to regain her form and take advantage of others' losses -- already having ousted Petra Cetkovska, she could keep up her momentum a few more rounds.

The results in Copenhagen haven't been quite so dire for the favorites -- Angelique Kerber survived a scare earlier today and two-time champion Caroline Wozniacki, fresh off arguably her biggest career win in Miami, is currently up a set against Pauline Parmentier. But the retirement of Ksenia Pervak in the first round and losses by Sofia Arvidsson and Monica Niculescu have nevertheless opened the door some.

Alize Cornet, once so close to breaking into the top ten, is now just knocking on the door of double digits. She delivered a double bagel against wildcard Malou Ejdesgaard in her opener, though, and survived a two-plus hour contest against Patricia Mayr-Achleitner on Wednesday. She'll have to raise her game farther in the next round, where she'll likely meet Wozniacki, but it's still nice to see her winning again. And Bojana Jovanovski, who has yet to follow up on her success from early last year, may have a bit of a reprieve against her next opponent -- she beat Petra Martic at a Challenger event two years ago. She'll still be the underdog, ranked nearly fifty spots below the Croat, but if she can find her game, she could present a challenge to even more seeds.

It'll be a tough task for some of these players to continue their runs, but it might be a tougher task for the favorites to hold on to their edge. And whomever is able to take advantage of the holes in the draws could reap more than a few benefits.

And this week might just be the time to do it.

April 8, 2012

How It's Done

I'm not sure many people didn't expect today's result at the Family Circle Cup. The 2008 champion here, Serena Williams, coasted through the draw without dropping a set, winning her first trophy of the year and the milestone fortieth of her career. But the manner in which she did it proved she's still the one everyone else must answer to.

Williams' performance in Miami helped her back into the top ten, but she was still the fifth seed when she came to Charleston. But her performance, even in the early rounds, showed she was ready to outplay her position. She fired off eleven aces against Elena Vesnina in her opener and, despite suffering her only broken service game of the week in that match, eventually advanced with little drama. As she progressed through the event, as is her style, she seemed to clean up her game further -- in her semifinal against Sam Stosur, the woman who stunned her in last year's U.S. Open final, she made just fifteen errors to nearly twenty-nine winners and dropped just two points on her first serve. After just under an hour, she'd made her way back to the final, the clear favorite for the title.

In the other half of the draw, Lucie Safarova had been similarly impressive, though arguably against less formidable players. The ninth-seeded Czech was pushed to a third set by on-the-rise Aleksandra Wozniak, but passed the test without dropping serve. Against Vera Zvonareva in the quarterfinals, a woman to whom she'd lost a tight two-setter last year in Melbourne, she stayed strong and polished off the former world #2 in just under ninety minutes. Safarova raised her game in the semis, rolling past Polona Hercog -- who'd incidentally beaten Nadia Petrova in the quarters after outlasting a likely exhausted Marion Bartoli a round earlier -- with a double bagel.

But her luck ran out in Sunday's final. Serena ran off with the first nine games of the match, and though Safarova was able to hold at love in the tenth game, Williams quickly put the championship back on her track and polished off her opponent in just fifty-eight minutes.

Her win should bring her back to #9 in the world as of Monday's rankings. But more importantly, it reminds all potential challengers she's still out there to win. Sure it's been a few months since her last title and a couple other stars have taken the opportunity to shine in her absence. But Serena's return to the winner's circle this weekend shows she can still dominate, and do so without any drama. And if she's truly healthy again, it might just change how the rest of the year plays out.

April 6, 2012

Davis Cup Quarterfinals: Separating the Men...

I don't think I'm the only one who was surprised by some of the results during first round Davis Cup action this year. Even beyond the amazing U.S. triumph over Swiss giants Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka, we saw a surprisingly close call in the Austria/Russia tie, and the upstart Japan team took Croatia down to the wire. And with the fields narrowed for this weekend's quarterfinal matches, we'll now really see who's stronger than their record and whose previous wins were just a fluke.

Spain vs. Austria

The Austrians will have their work cut out for them. Against defending champion Spain, they'll be up against a slew of strong stars. They might be missing their biggest star in Rafael Nadal, but David Ferrer is consistently one of the biggest fighters on court, and Nicolas Almagro, relatively quiet recently, has nonetheless continued to show his prowess on the clay. Rounded out by Marcel Granollers and doubles powerhouse Marc Lopez, they should be the clear favorites.

Austria will be banking on the strength of Jurgen Melzer, playing well again after a title in Memphis. The 2010 French Open semifinalist has had his own success on the dirt in the past, and might just be able to recapture that momentum. It'll be tough, though, with no other real singles stars on the team -- the Austrians may have to hope that doubles rubber goes their way.

Argentina vs. Croatia

The Croats will also have tough time if they're going to advance further. Pitted against a veteran Argentine team that boasts resurgent talents of Juan Martin Del Potro, finally back in the top ten again, Juan Monaco, a surprise semifinalist in Miami, and veteran David Nalbandian, arguably a bigger surprise in the Indian Wells quarters. They've made at least the semis in five of the last seven years and seemed primed to do it again.

Their opponents, meanwhile, will be lead by Marin Cilic and big-serving Ivo Karlovic, neither of whom are playing at the top of their game. Either is capable of pulling off an upset, of course, but they'll have to bring their A-game if they're going to unseat last year's runners-up. But playing on the Argentine's homefield, it seems unlikely we'll see any huge surprises here.

Czech Republic vs. Serbia

Both the Czechs and the 2010 champion Serbs were able to handily take their opening ties, each just losing a rubber during the weekend. But things might not be so one-sided this time around. Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek are both playing well for their team, while their opponents' brightest start, world #1 Novak Djokovic, will be sitting out this round. Sure Janko Tipsarevic, at a career high ranking of #8, is coming off a run to the Miami quarters, where he very nearly notched an upset over Andy Murray. And Nenad Zimonjic is always a force in the doubles rubber. But if both these countries play to their ability, it could be the closest match-up we see.

France vs. U.S.

Quite possibly the most attention will be put on the Americans as they try to return to the semis for the first time since 2008 -- though that might just be because I'm in America. Still, having deposed a heavily favored Swiss team does put a bit of a target on their backs. They'll be missing stalwarts like Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, and will instead rely on Indian Wells finalist and rising star Ryan Harrison. Backed up by the #1 doubles team Mike and Bob Bryan, they're not without firepower, but this will be a true test of the next generation of U.S. stars.

France, on the other hand, will bring four top-fifty singles players to the mix, a couple of whom are also well-accomplished in the doubles realm. But Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, though always a threat, has been little better than mediocre this year, and Gilles Simon suffered a close loss to Isner in the California dessert. They have experience on their side, though, and a little more time at the top than their opponents. But if the Americans can score the win, it might be the coup we've been waiting for.

Of course, like with any major tennis event, there's no way to really know what will happen. But this weekend's quarterfinals sure hold potential for more than a few surprises -- and a couple blowouts. The results could really make clear the differences between those that advance and those that stay behind. And as the survivors continue to vie for Davis Cup glory, it looks like the competition will only get tougher from here.

April 4, 2012

Separated at Birth -- American Masters Edition

It's been a while since I posted one of these, but after about a month of watching the sport's biggest -- and not so big -- stars slug it out on the U.S. hard courts, I was once again struck by some uncanny resemblances. Some players who've never spent a lot of time in the spotlight and others who've been largely overshadowed by some harder-hitting colleagues emerged in both Indian Wells and Miami during March. And if you were just a cursory spectator, you might have mistaken them from some much more familiar faces.

Over at the BNP Paribas Open, young Christina McHale continued her coming out party with a solid come-from-behind defeat of reigning Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova. It wasn't her first top-five victory, but at such a big tournament, seeded at a Premier event for the first time, it was a notable accomplishment. She should get herself for ready all sorts of attention to come her way -- similar to her doppelganger, who may be working her own way onto a tennis court someday.

Christina McHale (USA) vs. Bethenny Frankel

Thomaz Bellucci has had his time in the upper echelons of the sport, nearly cracking the top twenty just two years ago. But some disappointing results during subsequent clay court seasons knocked him down the rankings. He started to turn things around in the California desert, beating Jurgen Melzer, fresh off a title in Memphis, and taking Roger Federer to three sets before ultimately succumbing. Still, his star may be back on the rise, like his would-be twin, Smash star Raza Jaffrey.

Thomaz Bellucci (BRA) vs. Raza Jaffrey

Twenty-year old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov had a similar run a few weeks later in Miami, notching wins over Juan Ignacio Chela and Tomas Berdych on his way to the fourth round. He's still far from reaching the top of the sport -- he's still several positions off his own career-best ranking. But if he keeps up his level of play, he could get back there. And hopefully this time he won't say "Bye, Bye, Bye" to it so quickly.*

Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) vs. Justin Timberlake

Agnieszka Radwanska has become a staple during the latter rounds of tournaments recently, and with her rise to #4 in the world she promises to become an ever-growing presence on Tour. People may have only begun to take notice of her after that title run in Miami, her biggest trophy to date, but truth is Aggie's been a Grand Slam champion on the Juniors' circuit since 2005 -- not unlike her near-mirror image, who made her breakthrough at age six in the classic E.T.

Aggie Radwanska (POL) vs. Drew Barrymore

Sure, like the celebs, not all these athletes' stars will shine with the same brightness, or for the same length of time. But it certainly seems like we'll have to get more used to them hanging around the biggest events. And hopefully they'll continue to play like they have the past month -- no one wants to see these guys fall from grace.

If you want to share your favorite tennis look-alikes, send me a note, and be sure to check out my other "Separated at Birth" pairs here!

* Yes, I know that was bad. Sorry!

April 1, 2012

If Not For...

It's a tempting but dangerous game to play in sports. If not for that missed free throw... If not for that deflected pass... If not for that dropped fly ball...

And in a sport as individual as tennis, it becomes even easier to play. If not for her terrible attack, how many Majors would Monica Seles have won? If not for Roger Federer, would Andy Roddick be a Wimbledon champ? And the possibilities don't stop there.

Agnieszka Radwanska has spent the last nine months clawing her way into the sports elite, winning four titles since July. Before coming to Miami she'd marked the third best year on Tour, reaching at least the quarters of every event she played and even taking a trophy in Dubai. The only blemish on her résumé to date? A handful of losses to world #1 Victoria Azarenka. Four of them, actually, most recently a 6-0, 6-2 smackdown in Indian Wells. But when Vika's out of the picture -- this week Marion Bartoli finally ended the Belarusian's twenty-six match win streak in the quarterfinals -- Radwanska's been nearly perfect.

She took that perfection into the championship match Saturday, playing for what would be the biggest title of her career. There she met last year's runner-up Maria Sharapova, three times a finalist in Miami, never a winner. From the start it was the Russian, who held a dominating 7-1 record over her challenger, playing aggressor -- she fired off more powerful groundstrokes, made a bigger dent on Radwanska's serve and kept her opponent running all over the court. But Aggie only allowed two break chances, no conversions, and stayed in every rally, patiently waiting for the former #1 to make an error, and Maria seemed happy to oblige. After a forehand from Sharapova sailed long on match point, the twenty-three year old Pole took over the Miami crown from the woman who's stood in the way of her capturing four others this year.

Of course there's no way to know if Radwanska would have eventually gone on to win the trophies in Sydney, Melbourne, Doha or Indian Wells. But her performance in Miami -- she didn't drop a set to opponents who included former champion Venus Williams and seventh-ranked Bartoli -- shows she can handle the power of most big opponents, even when she plays more of a thinking man's game. It's not that she doesn't know how to deal with Azarenka -- she beat her on the way to a title in Tokyo last fall and has taken sets from her twice this year -- and eventually I feel she'll notch another victory, maybe in the next few months. If it weren't for Vika there may be a few more trophies on her mantle, but something tells me she might be able to turn the tables on her foe from here on out.

Andy Murray has been dealing with a similar story, though perhaps for a slightly longer stretch of his year. He's finished the last four years ranked fourth in the world, briefly peaking at #2, and often taking matches from the sport's best -- he has a more-than-adequate 18-27 record against the three men ahead of him. And he's even notched a few of those wins at the Majors, and a couple in Masters finals. But he still can't seem to break through when it counts.

This afternoon in the Miami championship, Murray might have had the edge over world #1 Novak Djokovic. He'd beat him last month in Dubai, making him the only man to notch two wins over the Serb since he took over the top spot. But the match listed to the side of Djokovic from the start -- he lost five straight games in the first set, winning just half of the points on his second serve. Things stayed a bit closer in the second, with Murray successfully fending off four break chances. But he couldn't make a mark on his opponent's serve and ultimately fell in the tiebreak, with Djokovic converting his first match point.

Murray hasn't been completely unsuccessful against the top guns, of course, but he certainly would have more than a few additional trophies on his mantle if not for the dominance of Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal over the last several years. He'd probably have a Major or two as well, and probably a #1 ranking on the books. He'll probably get that Slam eventually, maybe even this year, but he'll have to figure out how to deal with the big guys first.

There's always a risk in playing hypotheticals -- the fact of the matter is that Azarenka, Djokovic, et al. have been the powerhouses this year and beyond, and up until now there's been nothing anyone can say about it. But if these guys take what they've learned this week, and from their wins in the past, they may be able to shift the tide in their favor the rest of the year. After all, they've already proven they have what it takes -- they just have to get it done.