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.

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