June 28, 2012

The Days That Shook the Earth: Part II

It wouldn't be a Slam if the upsets didn't come early and often, but it sure seems like more favorites than usual are booking quick trips home*. Or maybe it's just that the magnitude of the upsets so far this week is so huge, it just feels that way. Whatever the case, the first couple days of action at Wimbledon have left us a lot to talk about. And this time it goes right to the top.

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that Caroline Wozniacki didn't make it out of her first round match. Facing off against Eastbourne champion Tamira Paszek, she wasn't exactly dealt an easy draw. But the women's bracket was affected much more deeply than that.

Na Li hasn't defended a lot of ranking points recently, and though she made a valiant effort to prove she's still relevant on clay, she didn't have the same luck on grass. After a solid first-round win over Ksenia Pervak, she ran into Sorana Cirstea, a fellow dirt specialist albeit one who might've proven herself a slightly better all-surface player. The young Romanian, who made her breakthrough a few years back in Paris, has been on the comeback trail all season and her win over the eleventh seed helped her match her best-ever performance at the All England Club. With a third round meeting against Maria Kirilenko, a woman she's beaten more times than she's lost to, she might just be able to last at least a few days longer.

Defending U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur had already improved on her first round exit from last year, but the three-time doubles finalist at the All England Club continues to struggle when she's by herself on these courts. After quickly dismissing Carla Suarez Navarro in her opener, the Netherlands' Arantxa Rus proved to be too much for the Aussie. The Dutchwoman, a winner over Kim Clijsters at last year's French, added one more top-ten player's pelt to her stash Wednesday. In a match fraught with service breaks, Rus was able to serve out the third set on her second attempt, earning herself a third-round date with eminently beatable Shaui Peng. For the twenty-one year old, putting together her best year at the Majors, it's a great opportunity to really make a run to the elite.

And while all these exits where shocking to an extent, they were nothing compared to what came next. Marion Bartoli has had some of her biggest successes on grass -- she made the final in 2007 and beat Serena Williams here last year. She may not have capitalized on a huge lead over eventual Eastbourne champion Tamira Paszek last week, but as the ninth seed in London she nevertheless should have been a favorite to make the second week. But she might have fallen into a time warp earlier today when Mirjana Lucic, a semifinalist in 1999 and a qualifier this year, took her out in straight sets. The thirty-year old Croat has now pulled off two wins at a Major for the first time in over a decade, and though she will face a tough lawn-court player in Roberta Vinci next, she's proven she shouldn't be counted out just yet.

But of course the biggest shock was saved for the last match to finish Thursday. Two-time champion and three-time runner-up Rafael Nadal hasn't lost before a final here since 2005. Long thought of as a clay-court specialist, he's really been just as comfortable here. But his uneasiness was apparent today when he found himself down two sets to one to world #100 Lukas Rosol in his second round -- that after eking out the win in a long first-set tiebreak. He'd been in this position before -- he'd gotten down two rounds in a row in 2010 to Robin Haase and Phillipp Petzschner, but eventually won the crown that year -- but something was different this time. Just after Nadal evened the score around nine at night, refs paused play to close the fabled Centre Court roof and turn on the lights. When the match resumed momentum shifted back to the Czech and after a quick fifth set, it was the huge underdog left standing as winner. He'll meet a tricky Philipp Kohlschreiber next -- incidentally, the man who knocked Rafa out at Halle -- but it will certainly be an easier match than what he went through today. And for a man who's only won three matches total at a Slam, he may never have had such an opportunity.

So with all the craziness we've seen the last few days, I feel I have to add one thing to my list of things that have to happen at Wimbledon: someone -- if not everyone -- needs to follow through! We don't even have to look as far ahead as the next Slam, or even the next tournament. Just win one more match! Don't let all the effort put into these upsets exhaust every ounce energy for the next round! It'll clearly be easier for some of these players than others, but their performances so far show that each is capable of great things.

If they can keep the magic going just a few days more, it could change the landscape at the All England Club for a long time.

* Do I say that at some point in every Major?

June 26, 2012

Four Things that Need to Happen at Wimbledon

We've gotten almost one full round's worth of action in the books at the All England Club and, not surprisingly, not everything has gone according to plan. But there's a lot of play left to go before crowning Wimbledon's king and queen for the year, and with that comes a lot of opportunity for spoilers to emerge and favorites to further improve their game.

So while there's still a chance for "anything to happen", here are a couple of things I would love to see over the next two weeks or so -- some may be pipe dreams, others aren't such long shots, and a couple will necessarily preclude the rest. But this is a Slam, after all, and nothing is out of the question.

4. Someone needs to win their first Grand Slam

I detailed my picks to win their first Major at Wimbledon at the end of last year, and though my original thoughts may seem a little less likely these days, that doesn't mean it couldn't still happen.

It's probably slightly more likely for the ladies, who've crowned four first-time winners at the last five events and have failed to really establish a clear favorite at any Slam recently. Of course the favorites won't make it easy for them -- all but one of the last fifteen trophy winners are still alive -- but that doesn't mean someone else can't surprise us. Five women in the top ten have never won a Major, and most of them looked really good in their opening round. Players like Aggie Radwanska, Angelique Kerber and 2007 finalist Marion Bartoli have pulled off plenty wins against the sport's top names this year, so they don't even have to rely on their draws getting cleared for them. If they get confidence on their side, there's no reason they can't make a play for the title.

The men, on the other hand, have a slightly stronger claim to the trophy -- since early 2005, only one player has been able to sneak in between the troika of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But should the powerhouses get eliminated early -- and, let's face it, that's not outside the realm of possibility -- a couple Slam virgins could pounce. David Ferrer is coming off a title in Den Bosch, the second time this year he's won a lead-up tournament to a Major, and though this isn't his best surface, he might be able to stun us all. And while I think Andy Murray is still not ready to make his breakthrough, his homecourt advantage and the strength he has buried under miles of attitude could make him "Man Most Likely" this time around.

3. An American not named "Serena" needs to make the semis

Nothing against the four-time champion, but with so much talk about the depth of next-generation tennis in the U.S., it would be nice to see one of them -- many of whom are several years older than either Williams, Jennifer Capriati, or even Andy Roddick when they first hoisted their trophies -- finally live up to the hype.

Several of our chances have been squandered, of course. After winning her first WTA title in Birmingham, Melanie Oudin dropped her opener to young Timea Babos. And marathon man John Isner has had a little trouble winning his recent races. And even Ryan Harrison who did manage a win in his first round may not last much longer with a meeting scheduled tomorrow against defending champion Novak Djokovic. None should consider their long-term prospects ended, of course, but I'd have loved to see them make a real play on a surface which has suited them so well in the past.

But there are still a couple good prospects out there. Twenty-eighth seed Christina McHale has started to make some strides at the Majors, so it was nice to see her battle through her two-day match and come out with a win. If she's properly regrouped -- and if she gets a little bit of luck going her way -- she might be in a good position the next few rounds. Sloane Stephens, also in her quarter, could similarly take advantage of some weak or injured seeds and make a deep run here. But maybe the best chances lie with Varvara Lepchenko, the Uzbekistan-born newly-named Olympian who put together her best-yet Slam run in Paris. She'll need to make it past Petra Kvitova in a few rounds, but there's no reason she shouldn't take advantage of what has been a spotty season for the defending champ and make another run here.

The American boys could also produce some surprises. Andy Roddick's been to -- and past -- the semis before, and after his "underdog" victory in Eastbourne, he's playing well above his seed again. He'll face an early test against David Ferrer, but the next few rounds are less intimidating. And Sam Querrey, who's been out of contention for some time, is finally looking like the player we wanted him to be a few years back. After making the semis in London and pulling off a solid win over Vasek Pospisil earlier today, he could have the confidence he needs to finally prove himself on a big stage.

2. A Cinderella needs to stay a princess (or prince)

There are a lot of reasons why players who break through at one Major fade away at the next: the pressure foisted on them eventually leads to a few cracks, they've exhausted all their energy and cannot recover, they shift to a surface they're not comfortable on. But wouldn't it be nice if the players who got a big career boost in Paris proved it was no fluke?

David Goffin took one step in the right direction today. After making the fourth round at Roland Garros as as qualifier, the Belgian was granted a wildcard to his first main draw at Wimbledon, but after his opening loss to Benoit Paire at 's-Hertogenbosch, it looked like he wouldn't be able to make a successful switch to grass. But against last year's underdog triumph Bernard Tomic today, he dismissed those fears. He lost the first set to the Aussie, but came back stronger for the rest of the match to keep his reputation for causing upset at the Majors in tact. He'll next meet Jesse Levine, a former college star who's had his own trouble capitalizing on long-ago wins here, so he might actually be the favorite this time.

With a little more at stake is French Open finalist Sara Errani, who arguably was the Cinderella of the Australian Open, comes to Wimbledon with a career-high #10 ranking and riding the best streak of her career. She lost early at Den Bosch, though, and really hasn't had a lot of success on the lawn, but just a game away from winning her rain-suspended opener, she could turn that around. After the success she'll already pulled together this season, it'd be nice to see her continue winning.

And hey, and while we're at it, let's hope the Cinderellas at the All England Club -- there are bound to be a few, after all -- take their momentum with them to the summer hardcourts. It'd be a shame to see their runs halted just as quickly as they start.

1. Someone needs to prove us wrong

It can't be easy dealing with the pressure put on a professional athlete -- players are derided as one-Slam wonders, top rankings are questioned, wins, when they don't come at the expense of the elite, are dismissed. And once these stars stumble a bit, pundits are quick to latch onto their falls from grace. What better way for them to respond than to take this opportunity to prove how well-deserved their spotlight is.

Juan Martin Del Potro was that only one to breach the fortress of men's Grand Slam winners, but after injury sidelined him for much of the subsequent season, it's been a long road back. He's won a handful of titles over the last eighteen months, but none carried nearly the same caché as that illustrious U.S. Open. And even though he's made the quarters of the last two Majors, "experts" have declared he doesn't have what it takes to get past the top guys again. But he was brutal in dismissing Robin Haase in his opener Tuesday, and with a couple of relatively easy challenges coming up, he might do even better than his fourth round showing last year. If he can make the final or even better, pull off a win, his detractors might have reason to silence themselves.

Poor Caroline Wozniacki has had an even tougher time of things. Long derided for her #1 ranking, achieved more than a year after she reached -- and lost -- her only Grand Slam final to date, she seems to have succumbed to the naysayers and has fallen well off the top spot. Even I questioned whether she'd make it past Eastbourne champ Tamira Paszek in her opener. But if she does she might have dismissed the toughest opponent she'll see for a while. And a deep run here, especially when she has no expectations on her, might be exactly what she needs.

Of course I don't expect all, or maybe any, of these things to happen, but it sure would be fun to see the players try to fulfill my wishes. In the beginning days of any Major, there really is this feeling that pretty much anything is possible, so why not take advantage of that? After all, it could make for one of the most exciting Slams in a while.

June 24, 2012

Blogcast: 2012 Wimbledon Preview

The best tennis players in the world move to London for the third Grand Slam of the year, but the lawns of Wimbledon might prove tricky for even the biggest stars.

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 London to see if anything's changed.

June 23, 2012

Wimbledon: Draw Analysis

I feel like I haven't even had a chance to breathe since the French Open, and here we are, already on the eve of Wimbledon eve. There are never as many same-surface events leading up to this Major as there are for the others -- in fact this year, with Newport and the Olympics later in the summer, this Slam is practically the start of the lawn tennis season -- so it's difficult to telescope who's best prepared.

Maybe it's that uncertainty -- plus the slew of somewhat crazy results so far -- that makes the draws so ripe for upsets and breakthroughs. And this year promises to be no different.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Defending champion Novak Djokovic comes back to the All England Club with the top seed and a decent draw. Pitted against clay-court veteran Juan Carlos Ferrero in the first round, he should be able to advance without much difficulty. The bigger problem for me is that he'll likely take out personal favorites like Eastbourne semifinalist Ryan Harrison and my dear James Blake to do so. Tomas Berdych could also claim a similar victory when he meets struggling comeback-story Ernests Gulbis in the first round. But eventually, you can expect, the stronger talent will survive.

There are still some interesting matches in this section, though. Harrison will face an immediate rematch with Yen-Hsun Lu, whom he beat just a few days ago in Eastbourne. But the man from Taipei, who's had his most success on grass and made the quarters at Wimbledon in 2010, might have the advantage in a best-of-five situation. And just unseeded Viktor Troicki meets up against dirt specialist Marcel Granollers, which could result in one of the early upsets.

But perhaps the biggest potential for a Cinderella in this quarter comes from world #101 Philipp Petzschner who, despite a couple Major doubles titles, has never had a lot of success on the singles circuit. He's made the third round here once before -- the best result he's put up at a Slam -- and took a two-set to one lead over Rafael Nadal in that match, and after making the 's-Hertogenbosch final as a qualifier, he might be primed to roll that momentum forward. He'll face largely-unknown Blaz Kavcic in the first round, and if he hasn't exhausted himself too much to get through that battle, he could put in a few more wins here.

Who'll survive? The likely battle between Nole and Berdych is rife with history -- the Czech notched his only win over the world #1 on his way to the 2010 final, but subsequent meetings have been hard-fought. He might be playing the slightly better game these days and could score the upset again.

Second Quarter

Two-time champion Rafael Nadal has been riding a nice streak of momentum the last few months. He collected four titles through the clay court season, and more importantly avenged defeats by Novak Djokovic and ended a streak of three straight losses to the world #1 in Slam finals. He may have lost early in Halle, but he's done so before and still walked away with this title. First round opponent Thomaz Bellucci has been close to the top-twenty, and he's had a couple nice wins this year, but he's really more of a wildcard on clay and should give Rafa no trouble on grass.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is probably more of a question in this section of the draw. My New Year's pick to win his first Major here, the Frenchman injured his finger in London and may not yet be in top form. Kicking off against 2002 champ Lleyton Hewitt, Tsonga will have to be in top form. And Feliciano Lopez, who has an impressive record on grass himself, may face Roland Garros Cinderella Brian Baker in the second round. The sorta-veteran American has already worked his way through the qualies and proven he can be a force on Tour. Should he become the player to watch in two straight Slams, we'll really know he's going somewhere.

This quarter also has a couple of first round matches with some interesting storylines. One of the two Alexes -- Bogomolov and Dogopolov -- neither of whom is playing as well as he did last year, will be stopped early in his Wimbledon quest. The Russian has logged eight first round losses this year, and something tells me that number is about to go up. And 2011's surprise quarterfinalist Bernard Tomic and this year's French Open standout David Goffin will present a battle of next-generation stars. It's a shame one will lose so early, but hopefully they'll both put in a good fight.

But perhaps most interesting will be the rematch of the Halle semifinal between world #30 Philipp Kohlschreiber and that tournament's champion Tommy Haas. The seeded German has had a good season, beating Nadal at the Gerry Weber Open, but retired in his Eastbourne quarterfinal. If Haas, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2009, continues the run he's been on, he could get a couple wins in before the inevitable third round date with Rafa.

Who'll survive? There are a ton of fun stories in this quarter, but only one will really matter. Nadal should be able to rise above the surface and make the semis again.

Third Quarter

Roger Federer far and away has the most experience in this quarter, and shouldn't really be tested in his early rounds. The first seed he's set to meet is France's Julien Benneteau, who hasn't made a lot of waves in recent matches, so odds and talent favor the six-time champion for at least a few matches.

This quarter of the bracket does reveal a sense of humor in the fates, though. After two straight years of first round matches, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut are scheduled for a second round meeting this year. Mahut is coming off a solid win over Andy Murray in London, while Isner might still be reeling from another epic match -- this time resulting in a loss -- in his French second round. It could be an interesting psychological match, if not a physical one.

Veteran Xavier Malisse does lurk as a spoiler in this section -- he made the quarters at Queen's Club and the semis in the Netherlands. The one-time semifinalist is slated to meet Gilles Simon in the second round, a man who's beat him in their previous two meetings, but if he can pull off the upset, it might be smooth sailing for awhile.

But perhaps the most interesting opener will be between eighth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic and London-disqualified finalist David Nalbandian. They've split their two meetings this year, but the Serb hasn't won a match at the All England Clip this decade. If Nalbandian has gotten over his disappointing display at Queen's Club and plays to his ability, he might be able to pull off the win.

Who'll survive? There aren't a lot of threats to Federer in this quarter. I'd love to see him and Isner battling it out for the semi spot, but whoever his opponent is, the result will likely be the same. Roger is the only man to beat here.

Fourth Quarter

Andy Murray might have the most interesting opening round of the favorites -- Nikolay Davydenko may have fallen down the rankings since the last time they met, but he does have a decent 4-5 record against the Scot. And Murray's been struggling with injury and attitude for years months -- a loss to Nicolas Mahut in his Queen's Club opener doesn't exactly bode well for him right now. If the Russian can take hold of this match early, it might make for some interesting drama in this draw.

David Ferrer, the other top seed in this quarter, might have an easier time -- a couple qualifiers, a wildcard and a lucky loser highlight his immediate section -- and after his run to the Den Bosch title he could use the break. If all goes according to plan, he should meet Andy Roddick in the third round. The American, of course, has been struggling of late, but his title in Eastbourne proves he's still got some fight left in him. He did notch a win over the Spaniard in their last Major meeting last fall and is arguably the better grass court player. If he's healthy and rested, this could be a great opportunity to pronounce himself still-relevant.

There are a couple other players in this quarter that have the potential to make a big impact. Juan Martin Del Potro made the fourth round here last year, but is now playing even better than that. He's only lost once this year to someone ranked outside the top ten, so even with a first round against Robin Haase, who pushed Rafael Nadal to a fifth set in 2010, he should be in decent shape. And Milos Raonic, who dropped his second round here last year with what would be a near-season ending injury, should feel at home on this surface. He could meet London champ Marin Cilic in the third round and Murray a match later. But he'll be out to prove himself at the All England Club, and it'll be tough to get past that.

As for this quarter's Cinderella, keep an eye out for Sam Querrey -- injury kept him off the lawns in 2011 and his comeback has come in fits and starts, but by making the semis at Queen's he made a nice jump back up the rankings. Slated to meet Raonic in the second round, he'll have his work cut out for him but maybe -- just maybe -- he'll be able to pull off some upsets.

Who'll survive? Hope and sentiment aside, this will be a quarter where only the strong survive. And this time it might be Raonic besting Ferrer for the ultimate semi spot.

The Women

First Quarter

Maria Sharapova takes the top seed at a Slam for the first time since the 2008 French -- ironic, isn't it? -- but she has a bit of a tough road if she's looking to extend her Major win streak. Tsvetana Pironkova, who seems to do well here no matter what the rest of her season looks like, might be her second round opponent and, should the seeds play out as planned, Eastbourne finalist Angelique Kerber, who bested her in the Paris Indoors, would vie for the spot in the semis.

But there are even more interesting stories -- and some bigger threats -- in this section of the draw. Either Sabine Lisicki, last year's surprise semifinalist and my New Year's pick for the title, and Petra Cetkovska, who made her own run to the fourth round in 2011, could challenge MaSha for a spot in the quarters. And twenty-eighth seed Christina McHale and rising star Sloane Stephens could give their immediate opponents a run for the money while they try to resurrect Americans' status in the sport.

But perhaps the greatest fireworks will come from the middle of this quarter which houses 2010 runner-up Vera Zvonareva, former #1 Jelena Jankovic and unseeded, two-time semifinalist Kim Clijsters. Frankly I'm a little surprised Bepa, who withdrew before her first round at Roland Garros because of an ongoing shoulder injury, is still in the mix. And with an opener against Mona Barthel, who had an amazing start to the year, it might be hard for her to make any headway here. JJ and Kim, who've both done well at various lead-up events, will meet each other in their first round. Clijsters had to pull out of her 's-Hertogenbosch semi, but if she recovers from her abdominal injury in time, she might just get that on-paper upset.

Who'll survive? All the challenges aside, Sharapova is playing at the top of her game. And with the only true big-hitter in her quarter just coming off injury, I'd expect her to make it past even Clijsters to reach the semis.

Second Quarter

Victoria Azarenka started to look like her old self again at Roland Garros, and not necessarily in a good way. But the run she had in the early part of the year was not for naught, and she certainly has the ability to get back on the winning track here. She'll kick off against Irina Falconi, who may put up a struggle, but probably won't face a test for a couple rounds. If early action favors the seeds, her first challenge would come from Ana Ivanovic -- who'd incidentally have to get past a tricky Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in her opener -- in the sweet sixteen, and even that Vika should be able to handle.

Trickier is the other side of the quarter where former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who'll meet surprise Eastbourne champion Tamira Paszek to start. The one-time Junior contemporaries have only played once on the pro Tour, but the Austrian might be riding a more successful wave these days. After her first round loss at the AEGON International, Wozniacki now has fewer than two victories for every defeat this year and hasn't notched a single win over a top-ten player. If she doesn't turn her season around quick, she might be in for her earliest Major exit since the first one she played.

There's room for a few more upsets in this quarter as well. Barely seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova will meet Yanina Wickmayer, ranked just one spot below her, in her first round. Neither have been having the best year, but the Belgian started to turn things around with a runner-up trophy in Bad Gastein while Sveta pulled off that solid victory over Aggie Radwanska in Paris. Neither of those wins was on grass, though, and neither lady has put up any numbers on this surface this year. The Russian leads the pair's head-to-head, but Wickmayer pulled off a stunning win last year at the All England Club, so it might be an opportunity for her to pull even with her opponent.

Who'll survive? Azarenka might not be playing at her best, but the other players in this quarter aren't either. Whether by virtue of ability or luck, it looks like the Belarusian might have it made until the semis at least.

Third Quarter

Aggie Radwanska has been a little quiet since the successful run that brought her to the #3 spot in the world. A third-round loss in Paris and a opening defeat in Eastbourne may not be the way she wants to prepare for her historically-best Slam, and with the possibility of another second-round against Venus Williams, that's a shame. But if she wins that match, it could be smooth sailing for quite some time -- I'm not sure I'd say the same for Venus who, at thirty-one and still trying to manage her Sjogren's Syndrome, may not have the stamina for more than a few big battles.

There aren't many other true grass-courters in this quarter. Sam Stosur has never made it out of the third round at the All England Club, and Na Li, a quarterfinalist in 2010, haven't really done much off of clay recently. That could mean an opportunity for super-Cinderellas to emerge. Misaki Doi, ranked just out of the top hundred, scored a win over top-seeded Francesca Schiavone in Birmingham and first faces Arantxa Rus, who made a solid fourth-round run at Roland Garros. And one-time American darling Melanie Oudin might be polishing her star again after that title at the AEGON Classic. She'll probably face a tough second round against 's-Hertogenbosch winner Nadia Petrova, but the Russian is notoriously erratic and might not be the challenge her ranking suggests.

Who'll survive? If she gets through Venus early, this is Aggie's quarter. If not, it'll be someone totally random. Let's say Maria Kirilenko, just for fun.

Fourth Quarter

Defending champion Petra Kvitova comes to Wimbledon in 2012 with zero titles on the season -- at this time last year, she had three. She wasn't even able to defend runner-up points in Eastbourne, and despite her #4 ranking, she's currently just in the running for a spot in Istanbul, which she won in 2011. Luckily for her, she'll have a couple easy rounds here, with her first seeded opponent being a similarly struggling youngster, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. But it will get harder from there.

Serena Williams also has a clear road early on. Her potential third round against 2008 semifinalist Jie Zheng may be a bit more intimidating that Kvitova's, but after her shocking first round loss at Roland Garros, look for her to come out swinging -- and angry. That probably won't bode well for Sara Errani, the next highest seed in Serena's half of the quarter and her potential fourth round challenger, but then again the French Open finalist might want to prove her run wasn't a fluke and improve on her dismal 's-Hertogenbosch showing.

There are a couple places here too where we might see some big surprises. Yaroslava Shvedova, a doubles champion here in 2010, made the quarters in Roland Garros as a qualifier and is now ranked #65 in the world. She's in the same portion of the draw as Lucie Safarova and Errani, so could take advantage of non-lawn players. And Klara Zakopalova, a semifinalist in Eastbourne, might give thirteenth seed Dominika Cibulkova a fight in their first round. The Slovakian seems to be getting her groove back, but she's been spotty at times this year and might be an easy pick for her opponent.

Who'll survive? It seems inevitable Kvitova and Serena will be the ones playing in the quarters, and with so much on the line for both it's sure to be a good fight. I'll give this one to Serena, but it'd be nice for the Czech to put up a big fight.

It'll be a long road for any of these guys or girls to make the final, but the draws have shaped up to provide plenty of opportunity for any underdog to make a statement. The favorites will be out in full force to either reclaim or defend their titles from years past. But if the past few weeks have taught us anything, it certainly looks like even the ones most comfortable at the All England Club might not be as safe as they once were.

June 20, 2012

A Change of Season

Today marks the official start of summer in the northern hemisphere, and the warmer weather and longer days seem to have had quite an effect on a couple players making a shift to the grass court season as well. Some have struggled in the heat, but others have taken the opportunity to really come out of hibernation.

Plenty of seeds have fallen by the wayside in the 's-Hertogenbosch men's draw -- through the first two rounds, only 2008 champ David Ferrer has survived. But other clay-court specialists haven't fared as well -- Colombia's Santiago Giraldo dropped his first round match while third-seeded Jurgen Melzer, a semifinalist at Roland Garros in 2010 was ousted easily by world #70 Tatsuma Ito earlier today.

And that could be a big break for Belgium's Xavier Malisse, now just barely ranked in the double digits. After running to the quarters last week at Queen's Club, he kicked off his campaign in the Netherlands by ousting second seed Viktor Troicki and followed it up with a straight-set win over Paolo Lorenzi today. Though he's never won a title on the surface, he has a better record on grass than any other turf and with no real intimidating opponents in his path, he might have a clear road to at least the final.

The ladies' draw at the Unicef Open has been similarly decimated -- top seeds Sam Stosur and Sara Errani, who've each had some their biggest successes on clay, both fell in their first round, and Flavia Pennetta, who's won most of her nine career titles on clay, was served two breadsticks in her second.

And though a few seeds still remain, perhaps unseeded Kim Clijsters has established herself as the favorite at this event. Out of the top fifty now that she hasn't played since Miami, she lost her first set to Romina Oprandi -- ironically the woman who beat her here last year -- but has been back in battling form ever since. She has a quarterfinal date with 2010 French Open champ Francesca Schiavone, a woman much more at home on the dirt and one to whom she's never lost, and with no other seeds left in her section of the bracket, it could be smooth sailing to the final.

Over in Eastbourne the seeds again favored players who thrived in the spring, but both Estoril finalist Richard Gasquet and Spain's Marcel Granollers were sent packing after their openers. A couple are holding tough, of course -- Andreas Seppi, who very nearly took out world #1 Novak Djokovic in the French fourth round, and Munich champion Philipp Kohlschreiber have survived, but with a quarterfinal match-up against each other, only one can possibly go further.

And while other dirt specialists battle each other, flailing American Andy Roddick might be ready to take advantage. Currently out of seeding territory for Wimbledon, the veteran still has a losing record on the year, and a opening round loss last week in London might have dampened his hopes for the grass-court portion of this season. But he benefitted from a retirement by compatriot Sam Querrey on Tuesday, and then survived a close match against Jeremy Chardy earlier today. And with his immediate path cleared for him by his colleagues, this could be the perfect time for him to stage a real comeback.

The ladies at the AEGON International face a similar situation. Aggie Radwanska, honestly an all-court player, but one who reached an career-high ranking thanks in part to a title in Brussels, lost quickly to Tsvetana Pironkova in her opener. And defending Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova suffered a similar fate to 2010 titleist Ekaterina Makarova, who's racking up a trail of top-notch wins this year.

And with a couple of the headline-grabbing players out of the picture, defending champ Marion Bartoli might be able to trot back into the spotlight. She hadn't won more than one match at any event since Miami, so with her relatively easy road to the quarters -- she's lost just four games in each of her first two rounds -- confidence might be building in the one-time Wimbledon runner-up. She'll have to get past seventh-seeded Lucie Safarova first, but her chances for a repeat are looking even better now that her biggest foes have been taken care of for her.

Whether this week's wins can translate into triumphs at Wimbledon remains to be seen, but so far they're looking good. It's been a long time since they've tasted much success, so the victories will be many times as sweet. And if they can keep up their game for a couple more months, the summer sun might shine even brighter for them.

June 17, 2012

The Weirdest Day in Tennis

It's just after noon in New York, and I'm already overwhelmed by the stuff that's gone on today. Rain-delayed battles, amazing triumphs, stellar upsets, and one particularly strange display that brings up more questions than it does answers.

You'd be forgiven if you don't remember Alize Cornet. The twenty-two year old peaked during the 2008 clay court season, making the semis in Charleston and Amelia Island, the finals in Acapulco and Rome, and finally earning a title in Budapest. She's been a little quiet since, watching her ranking drop from nearly top-ten territory to triple-digits just a few months ago. She hasn't even won an ITF title in over four years. But she may be turning things around now -- the Frenchwoman beat four higher-ranked players to make the final in Strasbourg, and this week picked right back up post-Roland Garros to play for the trophy in Bad Gastein. In a surprisingly tight match against second-seeded Yanina Wickmayer, Cornet was able to capitalize on her break opportunities and out-lasted the favorite after more than two hours of play. For a woman who's been a bit of a non-entity in the sport the last several years, it was quite an accomplishment -- she might not be quite ready to take the grass court season by storm yet, but if she keeps up her confidence, it might not be long before she does.

Meanwhile in Birmingham, the rain played tricks with the players all week long. With play almost completely washed out on Friday, players were forced to endure one double-header after another over the weekend, with some athletes losing leads and others hanging tougher to get the win. Perhaps the greatest victories, though, came from world #208 Melanie Oudin, whose once-bright star has become a little tarnished since 2009. She looked good in her opening rounds in England, but it wasn't until her later matches that she really brought up her game. After her quarterfinal against compatriot Irina Falconi was delayed on Saturday, she got back on court to finish it up. She then went another three sets against eighth seeded Ekaterina Makarova, a more-than-solid player herself, to reach her first-ever Tour final. For the title she'll face Jelena Jankovic who, you might remember, she beat during that first breakout Wimbledon a few years ago. If she can pull it off again -- let's face it, JJ is not the player she was back then -- it could put Melanie way back on the radar over the next few months.

Tommy Haas has been on the radar before, but it's been a long time since. The thirty-four year old was the #2 player in the world a full decade ago, but shoulder surgery, hip surgery, illness and, well, age, pushed him out of the top fifty, hundred, three hundred and five hundred by this time last year. He didn't have the most successful return in 2011, winning just a handful of matches in his first five months back, but finally put together a few back-to-back wins to make the quarters in Vienna. He did even better this season, upsetting Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the way to the Munich semis and even got in a couple main draw wins at Roland Garros as a qualifier. But his true comeback was sealed this week when, as a wildcard in Halle, the 2009 champion stunned third-seed Tomas Berdych, overpowered eventual Munich champ Philipp Kohlschreiber, and earlier today pulled off an epic straight-set victory over Roger Federer, a man he hadn't beaten since the Sydney Olympics -- that was back in 2000, for those who forgot. Ten losses and twelve years later, Haas was again victor over King Fed, winning his first title in three years and pulling off probably the most surprising win of the day.

Things didn't stop there, however. In what might have been the strangest -- and most disappointing -- end to a tournament, David Nalbandian, seeded tenth at Queen's Club, was leading Croatia's Marin Cilic by a tiebreak, but had just lost serve when this happened:

The linesman was left with a bloody calf, and though the Argentine apologized for his outburst, tournament officials chose to disqualify him from the tournament, handing Cilic the win. It's a tough way to claim a title, certainly not the way true athletes want a competition to end. But with his first trophy on grass, Cilic may have at least proven to himself he can triumph on the surface. As for Nalbandian, it'll be interesting to see how the veteran pulls himself together after this latest outburst. Sadly, it wasn't the first -- and won't be the last -- instance of tennis players losing their cool, and hopefully the sport won't lose anything from it.

With all the unpredictable things that happened on the tennis courts today, it's a bit of a shame we'll probably most remember what went down in London. But there's so much more that's worth celebrating this weekend, and with just a week left until Wimbledon, those players should take all that good with them over the next few weeks. And they're recent successes -- and even their failures -- could prove invaluable as they look to put together even bigger triumphs in the matches ahead.

June 14, 2012

Seize the Opportunity

It's been a rough couple days for the favorites at the post-French Open events being played this week -- the top seeds failed to win even one match at three of the four tournaments, and a couple more just slightly further down the rankings did no better. It certainly opens the door for some of the lower seeds, with the fiercest competition out of the way, but perhaps some of the biggest beneficiaries are even further off the radar.

The seeds in Bad Gastein spanned a wide range, from world #25 Julia Goerges, who won her first career title here two years ago, to barely double-digit Johanna Larsson -- still, you might have expected a little more fight from the higher-ranked players. Goerges fell in a quick ninety minute match to Dutch qualifier Richel Hogenkamp and fourth-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro dropped earlier today to Luxembourg's Mandy Minella, who just cracked the top hundred earlier this year.

With two clay-courters out of the picture, Alize Cornet might have a chance to shine again. The Frenchwoman, who peaked at #11 more than three years ago, has been struggling since, but a run to the final in Strasbourg may have gotten her back on track. She hasn't faced a big challenge yet in Austria, and with her quarterfinal meeting with Goerges thwarted early, she could be in a good place to shake down the rest of the draw.

The casualties ran a little deeper in a rain-soaked Birmingham where the ladies made a switch to grass in preparation for Wimbledon. Seeds one through three were all bumped in their opening rounds -- Francesca Schiavone, out of the top twenty after failing to defend Roland Garros points, was stunned by unknown Misaki Doi, Sabine Lisicki, dogged by injury the last few months, was upset by Urszula Radwanska, positioned sixty spots lower than her #3-ranked sister, and Daniela Hantuchova, who skipped the French with a stress fracture, couldn't get past veteran Melinda Czink.

All that might be good news for one-time U.S. Open darling Melanie Oudin, who only won two Grand Slam matches in the two years after her breakthrough. Now out of the top two hundred, she's been working her way through the ITF circuit, even having to qualify for the second-tier tournaments, but finally won a Major match in Paris before losing to eventual finalist Sara Errani in the second round. So far at the AEGON Classic, though, she's already ousted fellow-comeback Sorana Cirstea and run over doubles specialist Elena Vesnina. It's the first time she's won three main-draw matches at a Tour-level event since Charleston in 2010, and as she preps for the All England Club, where she has gone as far as the fourth round, there's no better time to remind us all she's still relevant.

The men in London have not fared too much better so far. Andy Murray was stunned in his opener by co-marathon man Nicolas Mahut, who's having his own rebirth of sorts this year, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who managed to pull off one win, wasn't able to come back today against Ivan Dodig and in the process may have sustained a broken finger, putting him in doubt for Wimbledon at all. With both exiting so early, we'll be denied a repeat of last year's final, which Murray won in three long sets.

And with top players out of contention -- fifth seed and usual grass court staple Feliciano Lopez also lost today -- rebounding Sam Querrey could make a statement himself. The 2010 champion here has struggled post-elbow surgery, putting together a few stretches of first-round losses and falling out of the top one hundred late last year. He's starting to turn things around though, winning a Challenger event in Sarasota and even taking a set from Janko Tipsarevic in Paris. This week at Queen's Club he's already beaten a tough Denis Istomin and eighth seeded Julien Benneteau. With a quarterfinal meeting against Dodig instead of the more-intimidating Tsonga, he might be able to make a much needed run at a Tour event again.

It's not that these guys aren't able to beat the top-ranked players -- they've done so plenty of times throughout their careers -- but as they look to launch a meaningful comeback this season, it might be a while before they get another such chance. And if they can capitalize, it might mean we'll see a lot more of them in the months to come.

June 11, 2012

Rewriting History

We knew by the time this year's French Open final was over that history would be made, but at various points during the two-day long battle the version of history we'd get changed more than a few times.

Defending champion Rafael Nadal was going after his record seventh Roland Garros crown, hoping to break the Open Era tie he'd created with Bjorn Borg last year, and he was in good shape to do it. The clay court king had put together a 16-1 record on the surface this year, picking up titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, and summarily worked through his first six matches in Paris without dropping a set -- his biggest challenge came from countryman Nicolas Almagro in the quarters, against whom he needed a full hour to close out the first set.

His opponent in the final was world #1 Novak Djokovic, playing in the championship match here for the first time in his career. The record-setting Serb was looking to complete his own career Grand Slam, something Roger Federer did in 2009 and Nadal accomplished about a year later. But having won the last three Majors as well, he'd be going for the cycle too, a feat no man had achieved since Rod Laver did it in 1969. He'd struggled in his later round matches this fortnight, coming back from deficits against both Andreas Seppi and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga before sailing through his semi on Friday.

With so much on the line, the match-up seemed appropriate -- the pair had combined to win the last eight Slams and played the finals of the last three. They had wracked up a thirty-two match history, dating back to 2006, and the last nine meetings had been in a championship match. Djokovic, of course, had done a lot to even the score with his contemporary in the last eighteen months, wresting the #1 ranking from him and winning seven straight matches against the Spaniard, even besting him twice on his native clay last year. Rafa had ended the losing streak in Monaco, but he's still struggled in the Majors, and hasn't won a match at one since the 2010 U.S. Open.

Still at this Slam, on this surface, Nadal was probably still the odds-on favorite. He'd only lost one match ever at Roland Garros, and hadn't even lost a set to Djokovic here. And after his comparatively easy run to the final, it wasn't too surprising that he built a 3-0, two-break lead quickly to start. But Nole came back hitting hard, evening the score for a beat before Rafa closed out the first set. He stage another comeback after going down an early break in the second, too, but Nadal took another break just before play was suspended due to rain. When they resumed a little more than a half hour later and Rafa broke again for a two-set lead, it was looking like things would be over soon.

But things turned around again. Down another break in the third, Djokovic seemed to finally find his game and rallied off eight straight games, forcing a fourth set in the process and halting Nadal's dominating form just as he looked destined to top the record books. The Spaniard managed to finally stop the bleeding and get on the board when it started raining again and play was postponed until Monday. And when the players took to the court again, the tide turned once more with Nadal immediately breaking to kick play off. The match had the potential to end quickly after that, but Djokovic stayed as tough as he could, wilting under the pressure only when trying to serve for a tiebreak and double faulting on match point.

It's a little disheartening for Nole, of course -- the chances of him putting together another twenty-seven match win streak at the Majors are low, so this was likely his only chance for the Novak Slam, while Rafa probably has a couple more Roland Garros trophies left in him and could have surpassed Borg's record in any number of future years had he not done so today. But the win did more than cement him as the Greatest of All Time on clay -- it reversed a long streak of high-profile losses to a man who'd had his number for over a year and will hopefully give him the confidence that he hasn't lost his edge. It's a good time for Nadal to take the reins, too -- with Wimbledon just two weeks away and the Olympics not long after, there's more than a good chance he's put himself on track to climb back to the top of the sport and set himself a whole bunch of new records in the coming months.

For now, though, he'll have to settle for celebrating his Lucky #7 at the French Open -- one piece of history that will likely stand a very long time.

June 9, 2012

The Era of the Grand Slam

Is it just me, or have we been seeing a lot of career Grand Slams recently?

After a seven-year drought, first there was Roger Federer with the French in 2009, a little more than a year later, Rafael Nadal did it in New York. And now we have this.

I don't know that too many people expected a much different result from today's women's final in Paris. New #1 Maria Sharapova, three times a Major winner before, took on Italian Cinderella Sara Errani, who'd never made it past the third round of a Slam prior to this year. The scoreline was one-sided: Sharapova ran off with the first four games, won more than eighty percent of her first serves in the opening set, hit more than three times as many winners as her opponent, and despite an unflagging challenge from Errani was ultimately crowned the French Open champion.

Perhaps more important than the title itself is what Sharapova accomplished with the win -- her career Grand Slam, it turned out, was a long time in the making.

A breakout star with her astonishing 2004 run to the Wimbledon title, Maria went on to pick up the U.S. Open crown in 2006 and another in Australia in '08. She rose to #1 in the world, holding the position for seventeen weeks in total, but saw her career stall when a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery kept her out of the game for nine months. Her return was well-documented, but it took a while for her to really get her stride back -- at her first Slam post-injury, she battled to the Roland Garros quarters, but needed four three-setters to do it. It took another two years before she got past a Major fourth round, and her struggles made those first couple titles seem a few light years in the past.

But things started to turn around last year. She fought her way back to the Wimbledon final, albeit without facing an opponent ranked higher than she was, and kicked off 2012 with another runner-up showing in Melbourne. After going undefeated on the red clay this season, she proved she was truly one to watch in Paris and, though she avoided potential event-ending showdowns with Serena Williams or Caroline Wozniacki, she was able to live up to those high expectations.

At seven years and eleven months, hers was the longest length of time needed by man or woman to complete the career Slam -- Chris Evert needed two months less -- but the victory is just as sweet. I'm not sure many thought she'd be the next one to complete the feat, but now she joins an elite group of seventeen that includes the likes of Serena, Steffi Graf, and of course Rod Laver. And the better news is that this might be just the start of many more records to come -- with the Olympics just a few weeks away, she might have that elusive Golden Slam in her sights too.

Tomorrow Novak Djokovic will try to one-up even that. Currently reigning champion at three Majors, he has the opportunity to complete the Nole cycle Sunday, holding the title at every Slam at the same time -- something last done by Laver in 1962. Of course he'll have to go through clay court king Rafael Nadal to do it, but if he can pull off the upset -- yes, it'd be an upset despite the Serb's #1 ranking -- that would be four completed career Slams in three years, the most prolific period in history.

Of course that won't make the achievement any less prestigious, but it sure makes the divide between the sport's elite and everybody else that much greater. And with the latest entrants (or possible entrants) into the illustrious group separating themselves from the pack, they've put up notice for anyone who steps on court with them.

June 7, 2012

Virgin Territory

We shouldn't be terribly surprised that the women's draw at Roland Garros didn't exactly follow an expected path. Still, the four ladies who battled through the semis earlier today haven't exactly been staples in the latter rounds of the French Open. And with both winners making the final here for the first time in their respective careers, we are guaranteed we're about to see something we haven't in a long, long time.

Maria Sharapova has already secured her return to the #1 ranking with her win today. Sure, she hasn't won a Major since 2008, but she was runner-up at two in the past year and has only fallen before a championship round twice this season. She was deemed the favorite at this tournament almost as soon as Serena Williams was stunningly ousted in the first round, and her chances only got better as top-seeded Victoria Azarenka and each of the last four titleists fell by the wayside. Nevertheless, she'd only made her way to the semis here once last year and, especially after her ugly fourth round against Klara Zakopalova, she still had her work cut out for her.

But today facing Petra Kvitova -- playing her first ever semi at the French -- Sharapova showed no sign of nerves. She'd already avenged her Wimbledon loss in Australia, and threw the monkey off her back with another win in Stuttgart. And though she faced break points early in the match, she stood tough to close out the first set in a tidy forty minutes. There was a little more back-and-forth in the second, but the Russian kept her game ever so slightly cleaner to get the straight-set win and reach her third Major final in twelve months. A win on Saturday would not only cement her place at the top of the rankings, but would also give her that elusive career Grand Slam, making her the first woman to complete the trophy case since Serena Williams did it with the 2003 Australian crown. So the pressure is on, and the motivation is high.

The bigger surprise at this year's final, of course, is the run of super-underdog Sara Errani who, just ten days younger than Sharapova, has never made her way into the spotlight. I picked her as a dark horse at Roland Garros this year, but even I had no idea how well she'd do. The twenty-first seed had won just fifteen Major matches through 2011, two fewer than she'd lost, and she'd never beaten a player ranked in the top ten. That all changed this season, though -- after a Cinderella run to the quarters in Melbourne, she beat two former French champions and brand-new #10 Angelique Kerber to reach her first ever Slam semi.

There she met heavy favorite Sam Stosur, runner-up here in 2010 and a woman who'd won their previous five meetings, most recently a straight set victory in Rome. Errani got down a break early in their match, but rattled off nine straight points to even the score. She kept her cool serving out the first set, but got into a big, insurmountable 0-5 deficit in the second. It looked like momentum had shifted, but the Italian got an early lead in the decider and after another forty minutes successfully served out the match, recording her second top-ten win of the week. She now becomes the first woman to play in both the singles and doubles final of a Slam the French since Kim Clijsters did it in 2003 -- and may be the first to win both since the turn of the century.

Sharapova, of course, hasn't had a great record against first-time Slam finalists recently, and with no history between her and Errani -- surprising considering their similar age and experience -- there's no way to know how they'll match up. The Russian may have the edge on the big stage, but her opponent looks neither intimidated nor exhausted from her now days-on-days of play. But with so much on the line for each competitor, you know Saturday's final is going to be a fight to the finish.

The men contesting their semis tomorrow are a little more accustomed to the pressure of a Slam championship -- they have thirty-one titles between them -- but each has a chance to make his own history. Defending champ Rafael Nadal could surpass Bjorn Borg's record by capturing his seventh Roland Garros crown, top-seeded Novak Djokovic might complete the first Slam cycle since Rod Laver did it in 1969, Roger Federer would be the oldest Major winner also since Laver in '69, and David Ferrer -- the clear dark horse here -- would be the oldest first-time champ since Andres Gomez in 1990. Those milestones will probably be far out of their minds while they go after the wins tomorrow, but that doesn't mean there's any less at stake here.

And as the six remaining contenders for this year's French Open crowns tread into waters few have been before, they should take pride in knowing just how much they're about to accomplish.

June 5, 2012

Bruised and Battered

Usually during the first week of my Grand Slam coverage, I tend to focus on the lesser-known players who get the opportunity to stand out. Whether it's due to some high-profile early upsets or the fact that their paths were cleared for them, we're bound to have a few underdogs hanging around longer than they should. By the time week two rolled around, though, we could be pretty sure the true favorites would still be standing, so there would soon be plenty of time to devote to them.

But after the battles we've seen so far at Roland Garros, we seem to have fewer of those favorites than we expected, and those that remain are a little more bruised than they've been in a long time.

Only a handful of seeded ladies made it out of the fourth round -- Serena Williams was of course stunned in her opener, world #3 Aggie Radwanska fell to 2009 French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova in a quick two sets and top-seeded Victoria Azarenka was summarily dismissed by Dominika Cibulkova, who avenged the heartbreaking loss to her Miami vanquisher. None of those those spoilers is still alive, sadly -- Domi's run ended earlier today with a straight-set loss to one-time runner-up Sam Stosur. She'll face red-hot Sara Errani, who notched her first-ever top-ten win by defeating Angelique Kerber this afternoon, for a spot in the final.

The bottom half of the women's draw was no less filled with drama -- former #1 Caroline Wozniacki and defending champion Na Li were both dispatched by arguably the longest shots left in the draw, qualifier Yaroslava Shvedova and world #23 Kaia Kanepi. And while most pundits suggested that left second-seeded Maria Sharapova as the heavy favorite to make the final, the Russian had her hands full in the fourth round. After losing just five games in her first three matches, the Russian's serve almost wholly failed her against Czech Klara Zakopalova on Monday. The pair traded serves for most of the first two sets, breaking each other a total of seventeen times. Finally after more than three hours on court, she finished off her opponent to make the quarters -- we'll see how well she's recovered when she takes on the crafty Kanepi on Wednesday. The two have never met, so there's no history to draw from, and if MaSha's wounds haven't yet healed it could be a harder-to-win battle than rankings suggest.

The men who have yet to play their quarterfinal matches have been surprisingly strong. There's no big surprise that neither six-time champion Rafael Nadal nor perennially tough clay-courter David Ferrer have dropped a set in their four rounds, and fans of Andy Murray may be relieved that early back problems haven't bothered the Scot in the latter stages of the event. But that doesn't mean everyone progressed so smoothly.

Sixteen-time Major winner Roger Federer may be one of the three men considered a contender for this title, but he's only won one of his first five matches in straight sets, the biggest fight he's had to put up this early at a Slam in nine years. Earlier today he got down two breaks to 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, a man he's beaten in all four of their meetings this year. Shortly after he lost his first set to the Argentine since the World Tour Final two-and-a-half years ago, and an hour later he was down two sets -- more than improbable, considering the world #9 had been battling a knee problem for more than a week. But that's when things turned -- DelPo's serve began to fade and Federer took advantage. In less than sixty minutes he had forced a decider, and after getting the only break in the fifth finally closed out the match. His reward will be a record-tying thirty-first Slam semi and his ninth Major meeting with one Novak Djokovic.

But the world #1, looking to complete a Slam cycle in Paris, hasn't had the easiest time either. After sailing fairly swiftly through his first three rounds, he found himself in an unlikely two-set hole to Italian Andreas Seppi on Sunday -- one that proved difficult to climb out of. He won only half his service points in the third set, needed more than an hour in the fourth to reach a decider, where he was finally able to capitalize on his opponent's fatigue. Two days later he was put to the test again against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a man against whom he holds a tight five-to-five record. After running through the opening set and getting a break in the second, Nole was suddenly down two sets-to-one. There were no breaks in the fourth and the top seed faced match point in the tiebreak, but he was able to hang tough and with the break in the decider, finished off his second straight five-setter. He'll have to rebound quickly against Roger if he's going to avenge his loss in the semis last year. His one comfort may be that his challenger could be as tired as he is.

It's been a while since these guys have been challenged so hard, so it'll be interesting to see if they can pull it together for their next matches. Experience and strength certainly lie in the favor of some over others, but with so many unexpected casualties already on the field, there's no telling what's to come.

June 2, 2012

More Than Just Luck

We've gotten to that part in every Major where we really start weeding out the players who had some early good fortune from the ones who are the real forces. With the fourth rounds of both the men's and women's draws now set, there are of course a couple surprises, some perennial champions, and a few who might be on the verge of something great.

As is common the ladies have seen a few more upsets throughout their bracket -- though admittedly they may have been a little more shocking than usual. But the round of sixteen is stacked with likely favorite Maria Sharapova and five other Grand Slam winners still in the running. They're not entirely safe though, as some recent upstarts might be ready to make a push.

Among the longer shots is Arantxa Rus scored her biggest Slam win last year when she defeated Kim Clijsters in the second round in Paris. She's won just two main draw matches at the Tour level since then and got a bit of a break in her French Open return when Virginie Razzano precluded a second round meeting with Serena Williams. Still the twenty-one year old has proven herself strong, earlier today dispatching a strong-looking Julia Goerges in the late-night match. And Yaroslava Shvedova, a quarterfinalist here two years ago, dropped well off her once-top-thirty ranking thanks to injury and illness. After dominating her qualifying rounds, she's fought past some tough clay courters to make the fourth round. And young Sloane Stephens, one of the two Americans -- men or women -- remaining in the draw, has yet to drop a set in Paris. If any of these ladies is going to advance further they'll have to raise their games, but what they've shown so far gives them some hope.

At a slightly higher level is Sara Errani, three times a titleist already this year. Currently ninth in the race to the WTA Championships, she finally scored a win over a top-fifteen player when she took out 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic on Friday. She'll have to dismiss another former Roland Garros titleist if she's going to stay alive, but as the higher ranked player against Svetlana Kuznetsova, she may just have the advantage. And Kaia Kanepi, a quarterfinalist here four years ago, seemed to get her season back on track with a win today over former #1 Caroline Wozniacki. The Estonian, trying to come back from her own set of injuries, squandered a 5-1 lead in the second set and failed in her first four attempts to serve out the match. But after nearly three hours of play she was finally able to close it out. She'll meet Rus for a spot in the quarters, certainly less of a threat than she'd otherwise face, so she could have one of her greatest opportunities yet.

The men's draw has boasted slightly fewer upsets over the course of opening week. Sure tenth seed John Isner failed to win his second marathon and Major staples like Andy Roddick and Jurgen Melzer failed to make it out of the first round. But the true favorites are still alive -- all four players who've won every Slam since Melbourne in 2005 and most of the ones who've made the finals over that period. Even still a couple players have posted some strong results and might put up bigger fights than we expect going forward.

The only non-seeded player left in the draw actually has already lost in Paris this year. World #109 David Goffin dropped his last qualifying match, but gained entry into the main draw once Gael Monfils pulled out. He went on to take out Radek Stepanek in his opener and subsequently dismissed veterans Arnaud Clement and Lukasz Kubot in his first Slam appearance. It'll probably be as far as he goes, with a fourth round date with Roger Federer looming, but it's not a bad showing for the young German Belgian. It'll be also be tough for Marcel Granollers to keep up his own streak. The twenty-third ranked Spaniard has already spent nearly twelve hours on court to reach his first ever Slam fourth round, and the highest-ranked player he's faced so far was world #94 Malek Jaziri -- a far cry from countryman David Ferrer, whom he'll take on next. Still, he's gaining much-needed experience on the big stage, and it could bode well for his future. With neither likely to stick around much longer in Paris, it will still be important for them to turn their wins into an even more successful summer.

With slightly better chances of staying alive -- though maybe more like minuscule -- Juan Monaco could be flying a bit under the radar. The Argentine has already won two titles this year -- not surprisingly, both on clay -- and made a stellar run to the semis in Miami. His five-set slug-fest with Milos Raonic today allowed him into his first French fourth round since 2007, and though his reward is a meeting with six-time champion Rafael Nadal, he's shown he might be capable of throwing a few punches in too. And Nicolas Almagro, who himself added two clay court titles to his trophy case this year, has now won seven matches and seventeen sets in a row on the surface. He's the on-paper underdog against Janko Tipsarevic in the sweet sixteen, but with his confidence on dirt he might just be in the better position come Sunday's match.

Time may or may not be running out for these guys at this year's French Open -- some certainly have a higher chance of surviving than others -- but their performances so far show they have a little more on their side than just luck. Hopefully, whatever their prospects here are, they'll be able to take that with them the rest of the season. And one day we could see them really breaking into the sport's elite.