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.

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