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.

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