May 31, 2012

While You Were Otherwise Occupied...

Grand Slams make for great headlines, don't they?

"Serena Williams stunned at French Open." "Murray beats Nieminen and the pain barrier." "Victoria Azarenka narrowly avoids shock exit." "John Isner is tennis's marathon man again."

And while all these matches were well worth watching, and perhaps have held some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring moments of the French Open so far, there have been just as many players sneaking through there draws with little or no fanfare. And maybe their victories deserve a little more notice as the fields get narrowed.

Janko Tipsarevic comes to Paris with his highest ever seeding at a Slam, but he had been a little quiet since his stellar 2011. It wasn't as though he was losing to a lot of triple-digit players, but he didn't quite keep up the momentum that brought him his first two titles at the end of last year, and his best performance came only last week in Dusseldorf, where he and compatriot Viktor Troicki brought the World Team Championship home to Serbia. Tipsarevic started off slowly in Paris, losing his first set to Sam Querrey, but he came back swinging and improved his record against the American with a four-set win. Earlier today he rallied after an early service break to clay court specialist Jeremy Chardy and earned his ticket into the third round. Maybe the least-discussed player in the top ten, he's certainly shown he can be something to talk about this week.

Julia Goerges had possibly fallen even further off the radar in recent months. The #17 seed here last year, she's fallen out of the top twenty after failing to defend a title in Stuttgart or a semi showing in Rome. Though she's notched wins over Marion Bartoli and Caroline Wozniacki this year, she hasn't made quite the splash she did in 2011 and few pundits were considering her a threat at Roland Garros this go-round. But the German survived a tough opener against Madrid semifinalist Lucie Hradecka and barreled through her second round against young Heather Watson today. Her next round should have been played against heavy favorite Serena Williams, but with perennial spoiler Arantxa Rus taking out the woman who took out Williams, Goerges's prospects are looking a whole lot brighter.

Somewhat of a longer shot is thirty-four year old veteran Tommy Haas. Once ranked as high as #2 in the world, a diet of injuries and illnesses and "old"-age pushed him out of ranking territory by this time last year. But after reaching the semis in Munich and battling through three qualifying rounds in Paris he was back in the main draw. He dropped a bagel set to Filippo Volandri in his first round, but had relatively little trouble today against Sergiy Stakhovsky, where he pounced on weak second serves and converted on nearly sixty percent of his return points. Next up he faces hometown favorite Richard Gasquet, over whom he holds a two-to-one career record. Those matches were a long time ago, though, so it'll be tough against the seventeenth seed. But we should know better than to count anyone out.

I guess that means I shouldn't give up on my New Year's pick to win the ladies' title here quite yet. Like Tipsarevic, Dominika Cibulkova ended the 2011 season with her career high -- that elusive maiden title in Moscow -- and then promptly failed to deliver through the early part of this year, winning just four matches in her first eight events. She finally started to show some spunk in Miami, but after that heart-wrenching loss to world #1 Victoria Azarenka I worried she might not be able to pick herself up. She finally started to turn things around on the clay, though, making the final in Barcelona and beating Yanina Wickmayer in Brussels. And so far at Roland Garros she's been on point, losing literally just a handful of games in making the third round. Tomorrow she'll face unseeded Maria Jose Martinez who earlier vanquished Lucie Safarova and won both the pair's previous two meetings -- ironically, both in Moscow. But if the diminutive Slovak plays up to her ability, she could make a real push for Week Two.

It's been a while since Fernando Verdasco got that far at a Major. Somewhat surprisingly seeing the most success at the hard court Slams, he hasn't reached as far as the fourth round since Australia last year and saw his ranking fall out of the top twenty in the latter half of 2011. The Spaniard started to pull things together in the late winter, though, pushing to the final in Acapulco and stunning Rafael Nadal in Madrid. So far in Paris he fought off an early break to Steve Darcis and stayed tough after losing the first set to Gilles Muller on Wednesday. On Friday he meets Belgrade champion Andreas Seppi, a man who may have momentum on his side. But Verdasco has won all six of their previous matches, in fact losing just one set in their eight-year history, so it might be his opportunity to really make a statement again.

But maybe the player with the best opportunity at the French is 2010 runner-up Sam Stosur. Like so many recent Grand Slam winners, she hasn't followed up successfully on her U.S. Open crown -- she lost the first round in Melbourne and only made the semis at two events this year -- and though still seeded sixth in Paris, she was mostly overshadowed by higher profile names. But she's been quietly making quick work of her opponents so far -- Stosur handed Elena Baltacha a bagel in their second set and took out rising American star Irina Falconi in just over an hour on Wednesday. Tomorrow she'll have her eighth career meeting with Nadia Petrova, often a spotty player, but one who's put up some thrilling three-set battles against the Australian in their last two matches. They too have never met on clay, where Stosur is arguably more comfortable, and a win on Friday could do wonders for her the rest of the tournament.

With so much attention being paid to the big stories of the week, it's been easy to miss some of the more quiet players as they methodically do their jobs. Who knows? It might just work to their advantage as the hard-fought struggles of their potential foes keep the pressure off them. And while we're all too busy looking elsewhere, any of these guys could take the opportunity to really surprise us.

May 29, 2012

The Days That Shook the Earth

Well it's official -- you can never tell what's going to happen at Roland Garros.

With one round's worth of action in the books, I'm not sure whether we've had any more or fewer upsets than in previous years, but we've sure seen some results none of us could have expected. And the surprises just got bigger and bigger over time.

On day one Andy Roddick took the court against co-marathon man Nicolas Mahut in one of the matches I pegged as a potential upset. The American tried to rally a bit in the third set, but it was all for naught as his opponent -- who'd only won one match in his nine Paris appearances -- took him out in the fourth. A day later world #1 Victoria Azarenka nearly became the fifth straight Major winner to take an early plane home from their subsequent Slam when she found herself down a set and two breaks to current #103 Alberta Brianti. But the Belarusian, no stranger to digging deep, found a way to rally and rattled off six straight games, winning twelve of the last fourteen to notch the win.

But of course the biggest shocker came earlier today when Madrid champion Serena Williams, widely thought to be the favorite here despite her fifth seed, essentially crumbled at the hands of veteran Virginie Razzano, a woman who's lost in the first round here seven times. Securely in the lead at 5-1 in the second set tiebreak, the 2002 champion was two points from the win when she things turned south -- she lost six straight points and the set and watched Razzano, who lost her fiancé just before this tournament last year, run off to a 5-0 lead in the decider. Four games later Williams was walking off the court, her earliest ever exit at a Major. And for her efforts the Frenchwoman, who has beaten the likes of Kaia Kanepi, Marion Bartoli and Maria Sharapova in the last couple years, gets her first second round at her home Slam since 2009.

It may not seem like a lot -- after all, the top fourteen men's seeds are still alive, and the three guys who most expect are the only real contenders for the title each sailed through their openers. And all recent winners of the ladies' trophy as well as favorites like Maria Sharapova and 2010 finalist Sam Stosur have had little trouble advancing. But that doesn't mean there aren't more surprises in store, and the hopefuls that are able to best take advantage could see rewards even they were never expecting.

May 26, 2012

Blogcast: 2012 French Open Preview

The world's top tennis players head to Paris for the year's second Grand Slam. But, as always, the red clay is likely to hold some big surprises for everyone.

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

And check out the man and woman I thought were most likely to bring home their very first Major trophies in Paris to see if anything's changed.

May 25, 2012

French Open: Draw Analysis

The draws are out for this year's French Open, and at first glance it sure looks like there will be plenty of room for surprises. The seeds are a little different from what we've been used to at Grand Slams past -- at least on the ladies' side -- but there are sure to be some players who take advantage of whatever shake ups there may be in their brackets, and by the time June rolls around, a couple favorites may not be still standing.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Top-seeded Novak Djokovic doesn't have the same momentum coming into the French he did at this time last year, but that doesn't make him any less of a threat. With runs to finals in Monte Carlo and Rome, he's clearly still able to win on clay. He could face potential spoiler Lleyton Hewitt in the second round, but it should be a few matches after that before he faces any true challenge.

Jo Wilfried-Tsonga comes to his hometown Slam with his highest career ranking, but it may not serve him too well -- he's never gotten past the fourth round here, and with clay-court specialists like Cedrik-Michel Stebe and barely-unseeded Pablo Andujar in his section of the bracket, it might be hard to improve that stat. He should also keep an eye out for Thomaz Bellucci, well off his career-high ranking at #70 in the world. But the Brazilian beat David Ferrer in Monte Carlo and former French Open champ Juan Carlos Ferrero in Nice, and if he can get through Viktor Troicki in his opener, he could be a tough third round opponent for the Frenchman.

Players should also keep an eye on surprise Nice finalist Brian Baker -- the Tennessee native won one Major match, way back at the 2005 U.S. Open, but hasn't done much of anything since. He might be exhausted after his week of upsets, but now would be a good time to prove those wins were no fluke. But if someone's going to really prove the spoiler in this quarter, it might just be Fernando Verdasco, who notched his first career win over Rafael Nadal on the strange blue clay of Madrid. The #14 seed, he should have an easy start in Paris, and if he keeps his level high, he might just be able to make the second week.

Who'll survive? There are a few threats out there, but chances seem good that Nole will be able to work his way through the quarter with little drama.

Second Quarter

Whatever his seed is at Roland Garros, six-time champion Rafael Nadal is always the favorite, and this year is no different. Three times a winner this season, he's looking healthy and confident enough to make another run here. He's got plenty of clay courters in his section -- first round challenger Simon Bolelli, rising-star Carlos Berlocq and second wind Argentine Juan Monaco, to name a few -- but none should be too big a threat to the Master. Perhaps most interesting would be the potential fourth round match-up against big-serving Milos Raonic. The nineteenth seed hasn't won yet in Paris, but if he's able to raise his game on the surface, fireworks could fly.

Janko Tipsarevic, still new to this level of the tennis elite could have a more interesting first round against Sam Querrey -- the American is back in the top hundred after a Challenger win in Sarasota, and has beaten the eighth seed in three of their four meetings. If he's back in form, he might be able to pull off an upset. And Munich champion Philipp Kohlschreiber seems to be playing with a mission these days -- after his loss to Tipsy in Dusseldorf, he could either be out for revenge, or breathing a sigh of relief. But this surface may best suit Nicolas Almagro, twice a quarterfinalist here. He very quietly made the final in Nice and nearly took out David Ferrer in Madrid. I expect he's in form to play for the semis this year again.

Who'll survive? Despite the challenges out there, you have to think Rafa will play like he always does. If Monte Carlo is his house, this is his vacation home.

Third Quarter

This is an interesting quarter -- Roger Federer leads the charge with four titles already the year, including one in Madrid, and for that he's rewarded with a possible second round against veteran David Nalbandian, who's climbed his way back into the top forty this year. The Argentine, who has a solid record on clay is still a guy willing to go the distance -- he's played thirty five-set matches in his career and won most of them. I wouldn't be surprised if he took it to Roger early.

Tomas Berdych is also high on the radar. After making the final in Madrid, he led his Czech teammates to the final in Dusseldorf, winning all three of this round robins and dismantling Andy Roddick in the process. He could face an early challenge from Guillermo Garcia-Lopez -- once my underdog favorite in Paris, he's found a way to start winning agin -- and will likely meet 2009 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Porto for a spot in the quarters. With everyone playing so well on clay this year, we could see a lot of battles as the dirt flies.

It'll be tough for players to sneak through this quarter, but watch for a possible early upset when Roddick, seeded low at #26, meets co-marathon man Nicolas Mahut. We know the Frenchman will be willing to brawl, and with Roddick's weak showings on clay this season and nagging injuries, he might be able to fight through for the win this time around.

Who'll survive? My heart -- and most of my mind -- says this quarter belongs to Fed, but I'd love to see Del Potro take revenge on the man who's stopped him four times already this year.

Fourth Quarter

Andy Murray did make the semis here last year, and I don't mean to dismiss that. But the world #4 hasn't had even the same clay court success he had last year, never losing to a player outside the top thirty, but also never winning more than two matches in a week. He's got a couple threats early, too -- veteran Jarkko Nieminen looms in the second round, and strong specialists like Alejandro Falla and surging youngster Bernard Tomic could await a match later. He should survive, but it won't be easy.

David Ferrer, at the top of this quarter, is a much likely contender at this Slam -- with eight clay court titles to his name, he knows what he's doing on this surface. But he could have an interesting second round against either Belgrade finalist Benoit Paire or Casablanca runner-up Albert Ramos, both making their way up the rankings. But if he makes it through that test, it'll be a while before he is challenged again -- the next highest seed in his section is John Isner, certainly a threat on clay, but one who hasn't won a lot recently.

There are a couple dark horses in this section of the draw. Grigor Dimitrov, for all the headlines he grabs, is only just ranked in the double digits. But with wins over Juan Ignacio Chela and Tomas Berdych this year, he might have learned how to pull off the upset -- he faces a struggling Donald Young in his opener and the highest ranked opponent in his immediate section of the bracket is world #19 Alexandr Dolgopolov, wholly beatable on this surface. And U.S. Open doubles champ Philipp Petzschner kicks off his campaign against little-known Malek Jaziri. He's had a couple near wins over big-named opponents in the Slams, so if given a chance, he could take it.

Who'll survive? Murray might be the favorite, but Ferrer is so much more comfortable here. I expect he'll be able to breeze through most of his matches.

The Women

First Quarter

Victoria Azarenka comes to Paris as the top seed at a Major for the first time in her career, but she's lost a bit of momentum the last few months. That's not to say her run is over -- she's made finals in Stuttgart and Madrid and has won on clay before. But it'll be tough. Junior stand-out Caroline Garcia, who very nearly ousted Maria Sharapova here last year, could be her second round opponent, and Dominika Cibulkova, my New Year's pick to win the title might just be able to put up the kind of fight she did in Miami.

Sam Stosur headlines the bottom half of this draw, but the one-time runner-up in Paris hasn't made many big statements recently. Her early rounds look a little clearer, though, and her potential fourth round opponent -- Sabine Lisicki, if the seeds play out like they should -- has been struggling to stay healthy during the spring.

There are a couple unseeded players in this quarter who could upset the bracket a bit, too. Aleksandra Wozniacki is climbing back from injury herself and is much more talented than her #57 ranking suggests -- she followed up a disappointing loss in Miami with wins over Christina McHale in Charleston and Shahar Peer in Budapest. And Ekaterina Makarova, the Cinderella of the Australian Open might cause headaches for a couple favorites early. Also watch out for perennial threat Simona Halep, Junior champion here in 2008 -- she's coming off a run to the final in Strasbourg and has the kind of game that could be troublesome for the seeds in her section.

Who'll survive? Even with that first Grand Slam under her belt, I feel like Vika thinks she has something to prove. She made the quarters here last year and will want to do one better.

Second Quarter

What a quarter, this one -- Maria Sharapova, fresh off defending her title in Rome, Serena Williams, taking the trophy in Madrid, and Caroline Wozniacki, who lost her #1 ranking but made up for it with a win over Williams. None seem to have challenges early, which means the fireworks in the later rounds of this section could be loud (literally) and bright (that too).

As for who could upset the apple cart, well, Julia Goerges was one of the dark house favorites here last year, and she could rally again. But her first round opponent, Madrid semifinalist Lucie Hradecka, could stall those plans. And former world #15 Aravane Rezai has fallen way out of the spotlight over the last year and a half, but she could be tested by last year's newcomer Irina-Camelia Begu. And while the top seeds leave each other battered and bruised, perhaps they'll clear the way for Estoril champ Kaia Kanepi who had one of the best starts to the year on Tour. She could take this chance to resume the momentum she may have lost after Australia.

Who'll survive? All that said, something tells me this will come down to Maria and Serena for the semi. I'd love to see MaSha take it, but I don't think that will happen this time.

Third Quarter

These quarters get more interesting as we go. Aggie Radwanska, coming to a Slam with her own career-high ranking, has only notched one loss to anyone other than Victoria Azarenka this year. She'll have to regroup quickly after her Brussels final, though, as Venus Williams will likely be her second round opponent in Paris. The Pole scored a win over the veteran champ on her way to the title in Miami, though, so confidence is on her side, but things will get tougher from there.

Angelique Kerber may be the favorite in the bottom half of this quarter. A couple titles and even more wins over top-ten players this year prove she can hit with the big girls, but a fairly clear draw means she might not have to for a few rounds. Her first real threat will likely come from ninth seeded Marion Bartoli, technically higher ranked than the German, but probably not favored to win the meeting. After her run to the semis in New York, we know she can handle the big stage, and now's her chance to deliver on it.

And you can't count out Sara Errani, already three times a titleist this year. Like Kerber, the Australian Open quarterfinalist has shown she too can perform at the Majors, even if her trophies only come at smaller events. The potential of a third round meeting with 2008 champ Ana Ivanovic might derail those dreams, but it's possible she could pull off the upset.

Who'll survive? I'd love to see Aggie capitalize on her seeding, but the quarter might be Kerber's to take.

Fourth Quarter

Why not make this even more interesting? Both of last year's finalists, incidentally the last two women to win the title here, are both in this quarter, and it won't be easy for either of them. Na Li put up an amazing battle in the Rome final and hopefully that won't take too much out of her -- she meets one-time Paris Cinderella Sorana Cirstea in the first round. And Francesca Schiavone will take on uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm in her opener -- her run to the Strasbourg final, shows she can still play, but if she's at all tuckered out, it could work to her disadvantage.

Meanwhile, the top seed in this quarter, defending Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, has been quiet recently, making little dent in any draw since Melbourne. She's not the most comfortable on clay, so contenders like Strasbourg semifinalist Pauline Parmentier -- potentially a second round opponent -- have a good chance to pull off a win. And experienced players like Vera Zvonareva, injured the last few months, and Jelena Jankovic, now ranked just out of the top twenty, have been non-threats of late as well. That could open the door for their early round opponents too.

One of the most interesting matches, though, might come from the possible second round meeting between two up-and-comers. Mona Barthel and Christina McHale, who barely fell out of seeding territory have never met before, and it's a shame that one will have to go home so early. But if some of the on-paper favorites fail to make good on their seeds, whoever wins could take the momentum forward farther than anyone expects.

Who'll survive? I'm not confident about any of these girls' chances, but I'm going to put my money on Li -- no one thought Schiavone would get back to the final. Hopefully Li will make it through this far.

Things might seem cut-and-dried for the men, while the ladies' draws look to be ripe for upsets. But something tells me nothing will go as we expect over the next fortnight. With so much on the line, you can be sure everyone will be fighting for those titles.

May 23, 2012

Last-Minute Pitches

The excitement around the last Masters and Premier events before the French Open may have died down a bit, but with just a few days left before the first balls are hit at Roland Garros, action is heating up at a few smaller events.

Some recently strong players are continuing their run at the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf. Madrid finalist Tomas Berdych struggled slightly against Japan's Go Soeda, but easily dismissed Andy Roddick in Tuesday's action. And both Janko Tipsarevic, who made the semis in Spain, and Munich champion Philipp Kohlschreiber have so far won all their matches. But perhaps the biggest triumphs have come from Argentina's Carlos Berlocq -- the world #37 beat both Roddick and Soeda, and dropped fewer games in the process. If he's able to put up a fight in his next match, it could give him a boatload of confidence in Paris.

Over in Strasbourg, the upsets came fast and furious. Top-seeded Sabine Lisicki, who's battled injury for most of the year, was handily dismissed in her opener, and world #16 Maria Kirilenko retired after splitting sets with young American Sloane Stephens. That opens the door for 2010's surprise French champion Francesca Schiavone, who hasn't won more than two matches at an event since Sydney. She's recently been able to raise her game this time of year, though -- I'm not sure anyone expected her to return to the Roland Garros final last year -- and after her win over Mirjana Lucic earlier today, the veteran Italian might have turned her year around.

A couple of higher profile names made their way over to Nice, where Bucharest champ Gilles Simon and Nicolas Almagro, who's won a title on clay every year since 2006, took to the courts. But perhaps the most attention will be paid to top-seeded John Isner, who proved he can play on clay with wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer in Davis Cup. He's only won one match since early April, though, so if he can make a stand this week, it'll go a long way in Paris. He'll next face former world #3 Nikolay Davydenko, whom he beat not long ago in Miami, so history is on his side, but if he can get the win it'll be key for his prospects in Paris.

The ladies are bringing even higher stakes to Brussels. A few top twenty players made their way to Belgium to make one more push before Paris. Former world #1 Jelena Jankovic failed to come back against young Simona Halep, and second-seeded Marion Bartoli was ousted by Urszula Radwanska in her opener. Meanwhile the Pole's older sister, who suffered her first 2012 loss to someone other than Victoria Azarenka in Rome, easily took out Lesia Tsurenko to make the quarters. But the bigger story might be my New Year's pick to win at Roland Garros. Dominika Cibulkova hasn't won a lot this year, but very nearly handed Victoria Azarenka her first loss of the season. She pulled off a nice win against a strong Christina McHale in her first round, and followed it up with a straight-set victory over Yanina Wickmayer earlier today. If she can harness that momentum for a few more wins, it might increase her prospects over the next two weeks.

Sure, there's no telling yet whether this week's battles will translate into strength in the coming fortnight, but after the run these guys have had recently, it's got to be comforting to get a few wins under their belts. And as they make their way through the draws, they'll only cement their case to be real forces in Paris.

May 20, 2012

The Round-Up

I know it's been a while since I've posted, but that's no indication that there hasn't been a lot to talk about. The last two big events before the French Open featured eight distinct players battling for the crown, and each one made his or her case loud and clear that any could be real contenders at the year's next Grand Slam.

The biggest story in Madrid had nothing to do with the players and everything to do with the strange color of the court, but all complaints and dramatics aside, two of the strongest women in the field made their way to last week's final. World #1 Victoria Azarenka battled her way through a tough draw -- she faced 2009 Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the first round -- to make her sixth final of the year. Meanwhile Serena Williams, finally toting a single-digit ranking again, looked to extend her win streak -- she'd taken a title in Charleston and swept opponents in her Fed Cup playoffs -- and dismissed potential threats from Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova to play for the title herself.

The final, though, was less dramatic than many hoped. Vika had put in some awe-inspiring battles during the pair's history, even when she ended up losing, and given the way she'd refined her game this year, the match-up promised to be brutal. But Serena built a 4-0 lead before the Belarusian was able to get on the board, and she had no occasion to look back from there. As Azarenka's serve failed her, she double-faulted away the first set after less than an hour of play. She tried to stay within spitting distance in the second but was unable to erase another early break there. With fourteen aces and nearly twice as many winners, Serena was finally the one holding the trophy -- her first on European clay since she won the French in 2002 -- and reminding us why nearly no one is safe when she's on her game.

The men in Madrid were out to make a similar statement. After both of last year's finalists lost before the semis, the remaining men knew the title was up for grabs. Roger Federer, winner here in 2009, had been on a roll recently, claiming three straight titles in February and March, and after surviving an early test from Milos Raonic in his opener, he sailed through his matches to make the final. In the other half, 2010 French semifinalist Tomas Berdych had pulled his game together, taking advantage of a Rafa-less draw and really only facing a challenge from Juan Martin Del Potro in the final four.

The Czech came out swinging in the final -- having won three of their last five, he had the confidence to do so. He got a break early in the first set and didn't squander the lead. But Federer turned the tables in the second -- this time it was his turn to ride a break to a 4-1 lead, and despite failing to serve out the set, he did eventually force the decider. The third set followed a similar pattern -- Roger broke in the eighth game, only to have his opponent even the score again. But with Berdych serving for a tiebreak, the Swiss kept his cool after losing a 0-40 lead and finally converted his fourth championship point, proving there are more than a few players able to win on the dirt.

The drama just intensified by the time everyone made their way over to Rome this week. A couple retirements on the women's side -- including both Madrid finalists -- wreaked a little havoc on the draw, but eventually the strong survived. Last year's champion Maria Sharapova got through some early tests from up-and-comer Christina McHale and resurgent Venus Williams before avenging her Paris loss to Angelique Kerber in the semis. And 2011 French Open champ Na Li, who's been pretty quiet since winning that trophy, benefitted from both Vika's and Serena's withdrawals, making the final without dropping a set.

The pair's head-to-head has been a see-saw of sorts -- MaSha won their first five meetings, but momentum shifted to Li's side for four matches after that, with Maria taking their last battle in Miami. The final was no different -- the Russian got the first break, but quickly gave it back, they stayed on serve for a bit, but Li broke again in the tenth game to take the first set. She built a 4-0 lead in the second, but the three-time Major winner rattled off eight games in a row and was a point away from 5-1 in the decider when Li started to rally again. The two had just fought to a tiebreak -- Sharapova saving a championship point along the way -- when rain halted play, and when the athletes finally took the court again, the 2011 winner was the one who kept her cool. Sharapova concerted her first match point, winning her second clay court title of the year and further turning around a recent losing streak in finals and reasserting her power just in time for the French.

The men's bracket was no less exciting. Defending champion Novak Djokovic rebounded from his quarterfinal loss in Madrid and took out one threat after another, notching his fifth victory over Roger Federer in their last six meetings. More impressive, perhaps, was Rafael Nadal, fresh off his earliest clay court loss since 2004 and a slight dip in his ranking, got right back to work in Rome. He easily made his way through early rounds, took out Madrid finalist Berdych in the quarters, and blanked compatriot David Ferrer to make the final.

So we'll be treated to a rematch of last year's final, though circumstances were slightly different this time around. Nadal had successfully ended his seven-final losing streak to Nole in Monte Carlo, and no one is sporting an astonishingly unblemished record going into the championship match. The head-to-head is more even than it had been, and both have shown they're not indomitable. When they both take the court, whether it's after a long rain delay on Sunday or Monday afternoon, they'll both bring their all to reclaim the crown. And while they've both proven to be great forces on the surface, something tells me this is where the Spaniard will reassert his dominance.

Of course, not all these guys and girls will be able to take the crown at Roland Garros, and experience may favor some over others. But each one of these players reminded the world of what it takes to win on clay. And if they're able to keep it up, they might be able to do some real damage when an even bigger trophy is on the line.

May 10, 2012

Feeling Blue

By now you've all heard the complaints. The strange blue clay of Madrid is slippery, it's hard to see the ball fly, it's just a way for the tournament to sell out for a sponsor, it looks like a Smurfing pile of Smurf. But when you see the surface claim arguably the best clay court player of all time as a victim -- well then, then, you really have something to complain about.

Earlier today Rafael Nadal, who fell in the final here last year to Novak Djokovic, was handed an even more surprising loss. Despite putting on one of the best shows of 2009, Fernando Verdasco had won just four sets off the former world #1 in their previous thirteen meetings. But Nadal's fellow Spaniard came out swinging, capitalizing on both his break chances in the opening set and creating a lead for the first time on the surface. Nadal fought back, though, and after forcing a third set had a couple chances to serve out that match. But Verdasco kept his cool -- he rattled off five straight games and avoided a late rally by his compatriot, and after more than three hours sealed what might be the biggest win of his career.

It was Nadal's earliest loss on the surface in eight years, and he wasn't the only casualty of the blue clay. Eighth seeded John Isner fell in straight sets to former top-ten player Marin Cilic, and Marion Bartoli lost a long struggle to Sorana Cirstea in her opener. Alexandr Dolgopolov, who'd put up a mediocre 12-9 record on the year so far, pulled off an impressive win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Petra Kvitova, after winning her first match handily, was handed an equally one-sided defeat a round later.

But while these players' moods may reflect the color of the courts, not everyone is upset. And the results so far this week suggest anyone can take advantage of the spell the clay casts.

Verdasco had fallen out of the top twenty a few weeks ago, but he may have turned his year around with Thursday's win. He should be careful his hangover doesn't impede his next match, though -- he has a decent record on the surface against Tomas Berdych, his opponent on Friday, and if he stays strong he could make a run even further in his homeland. And Janko Tipsarevic, coming off a super-successful end to 2011, has won just two matches for each he's lost this year. He'll have to bring his A-game against countryman Djokovic on Friday, but he's beaten him before and could just rattle the defending champ.

Not surprisingly, the ladies have seen a few more upsets along the way, but while many of the favorites are still alive, the pressure will be on in the quarterfinals. Aggie Radwanska, who's still only lost to world #1 Victoria Azarenka this year, will face qualifier Varvara Lepchenko on Friday -- the Uzbek native has dispatched Shahar Peer and Francesca Schiavone already, so she's playing with some confidence. It'll be a tall order, but momentum may be on her side. And Lucie Hradecka, who also made it through the qualifying rounds, has similarly beaten three higher-ranked players, including Kvitova. She'll again be the underdog against Sam Stosur in the next round, but the Czech's won a doubles crown at Roland Garros -- a couple more singles wins may not be that far behind.

But perhaps the player with the biggest opportunity is David Ferrer, a clay court specialist coming off a run to the final in Barcelona. The world #6 faces 2009 titleist Roger Federer next, and though he's never beaten him in twelve tries, Thursday's results could give Ferrer some confidence. After saving match points against Nicolas Almagro today, he's shown he has more than a little fight in him, and if he catches King Fed a little off-footed, like Verdasco before him, he too might be able to score that elusive first win.

Who knows if the underdogs remaining will be able to pull off the upsets? But if even a couple of them do, you can be sure the complaints from the favorites will grow louder. The blue courts of Madrid may ultimately not be long-lived, but they have already seemed to impact. Whether it's for this event -- or for the rest of the season -- we have yet to see.

In the meantime, I'll go back to a normal font -- I don't know first hand how hard it is to find the ball in this sea of blue, but this post is giving me a headache.

May 6, 2012

When the Cat's Away...

Not everyone showed up to defend their titles this week -- some literally, others more mentally -- so a couple trophies were truly up for grabs. And while players in every corner of the brackets scrambled for some big upsets, the ones who made it to the winners' circles were those who truly brought their A-games.

With last year's Belgrade champion sitting out the event this year, the tournament draw was wide open. Top seeded Pablo Andujar seemed to be in fine form early while veteran David Nalbandian, who's proven multiple times this year that he will not be discounted, fought his own way to the final. But ultimately it was Benoit Paire, playing his first ATP final, facing off against world #46 Andreas Seppi for the title. It was a valiant effort from the Frenchman -- he'd only spent one week of his career in the top eighty before coming to Serbia -- but the slightly more experienced Seppi took it to him from the start. He took advantage of weak serving from his opponent and capitalized on the strength that brought him his first title less than a year ago in Eastbourne. After just over an hour and a second set in which he lost just three points on serve, Seppi claimed the title and pushed himself to within a stone's throw of his career high ranking.

Nikolay Davydenko was in the draw at Munich, but a first-round loss to qualifier Robert Farah ended his hopes to recapture the crown early. And Tommy Haas, trying to get back in the double digits, took out both Marcos Baghdatis and top seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But world #24 Marin Cilic finally ended his run, and Philipp Kohlschreiber, the champion here in 2007, survived a two-plus hour battle against Feliciano Lopez in the semis to make his sixth championship match. The pair traded breaks in the first set of the final, with the German ultimately closing it out in a tight tiebreak. But Kohlschreiber was able to save all four break chances in the second and pulled off one more upset to claim the title.

Juan Martin Del Potro was the only champion from a year ago who not only showed up in Estoril, but also was out to prove who's boss, and perhaps his imposing presence helped keep everyone in line -- all four top seeds made the semis without dropping a set. The Argentine had a bit of a challenge against Stanislas Wawrinka in their first set, with neither man allowing a break chance, but eventually took the match in straight sets. In the other half of the draw, Richard Gasquet found himself in a bit of trouble, dropping his first set to Albert Ramos, but climbing out of a hole in the second and getting a late break in the decider to take the match. That may have taken all the juice out of him, though. DelPo's service game was indomitable, while Gasquet seemed to falter on his, and the defender never allowed him an opportunity to break. After less than ninety minutes, he was hoisting the trophy above his head for a second time.

This week's results show the impact a defending champion can have when he brings his best to the office. If he's at the top of his game, he could make an easy run to the title -- if he's not, there's no telling who'll take advantage of the holes. And if these guys learn that lesson, we might see them break through all over the place the rest of the season.

May 4, 2012

Finding Their Motivation

This year has been a coming out party of sorts for some ladies on the WTA Tour, while others have struggled to gain the footing they once had. A couple have been more successful than the rest, and with a few women who've most recently shown their greatest potential facing off against those who've yet to really break through at this weekend's finals, we could set the course for the next several months, or change things entirely. And everyone's got a reason to win.

Elena Vesnina has spent the last several years cultivating her game on the doubles circuit, making the final at a Major in each of the last three years, including mixed in Melbourne a few months back, and has captured a few other big titles along the way. But she's struggled in singles, reaching the championship round at a handful of events, but never walking away with a crown. She'll have her sixth chance tomorrow in Budapest, where the Russian has already dispatched three seeds during the week. She hasn't dropped a set yet, and earlier today took out fifth seeded Marina Erakovic, losing serve just once in the barely ninety-minute match. It's her best performance all year -- she won more matches in Romania than she has all season -- and if she has a little more gas left in the tank, it could get her climbing the ranks the rest of the year.

It'll be a rough road for her, though, as one of the hottest players on Tour still stands in her way. Sara Errani only broke the top thirty about a month ago, but with two titles under her belt already in 2012, she's currently ninth in the race to the year-end WTA Championships. She's notched wins over Dominika Cibulkova, Julia Goerges and frequent doubles partner Roberta Vinci and, other than a slight hiccup in her second round in Budapest, she's lost fewer than ten games in her other three matches, wholly dominating rising star Anna Tatishvili in her semifinal today. She's never played Vesnina, so there's no precedent for the final. But if the feisty Italian holds her ground, she might just add another trophy to her case.

Over in Portugal, Carla Suarez Navarro finally looks like she's back on the track that brought her a win over Venus Williams and helped her to the final in Marbella two years straight. She hasn't been much of a presence on Tour the last few years, with injuries cutting her seasons short, but she proved she's still comfortable on clay with a run to the final four in Barcelona. She was handed a little bit of luck in Estoril, with Polona Hercog retiring from their second round and opponents taking care of two other seeds in her half of the draw. But a solid win over Karin Knapp in Friday's semi, where she broke the Italian five times, proved she might be up for the next challenge.

It could be a good one against Kaia Kanepi in Saturday's final. The Estonian has had her ups and downs, making the quarters at Roland Garros in 2008 and at Wimbledon two years later, but a series of injuries pushed her ranking down every time she built it up. She was on the way to great things, claiming the title in Brisbane this past January, but shoulder problems stalled her momentum almost immediately, and she'd only won three matches since. She struggled slightly against Petra Cetkovska in her quarterfinal, but followed up with a straight-set win over top Estoril seed Roberta Vinci today. She split her previous two meetings with CSN, with each winning when she was at the top of her game, but neither confrontation was on clay. It would be easy to give Kanepi the edge, but this could be a bigger fight than anyone expects.

With this week's finalists looking to keep, recapture, or spark a streak of momentum, there's a lot on the line in the ladies' title matches. If those looking for first-time wins are able to pull off the upsets, it could give them some much-needed momentum, but if the favorites succeed as planned, who knows what other wins they could pull off down the road. Whatever it takes to get them there, though, you can be sure they'll put up a fight. And the resulting performances should be well worth it.