July 31, 2012

Things Are Getting Good...

The rain, as it often does, tried its best to disrupt the schedule at the All England Club the last few days, but as Tuesday's action wrapped up we were ultimately left with sixteen men and sixteen women, all of whom still have a good shot at ultimately bringing home Olympic Gold. There have been upsets, of course, but with even the favorites facing off against some big stars from the start, you know the players who've lasted have earned it.

Perhaps the top half of the men's draw has the fewest surprises, with world #35 Denis Istomin the lone unseeded player to survive this far. World #1 Roger Federer had a bit of a hiccup in his first round, but has been on point the last few days as he looks to complete his Golden Slam, and largely underrated David Ferrer has sailed fairly easily though his first two matches -- he didn't even allow a break opportunity today against Slovenia's Blaz Kavcic. But perhaps the player to watch most carefully in this section of the draw is Argentina's Juan Martin Del Potro. He might have had the toughest second round match-up against Italy's Andreas Seppi -- the man who nearly beat Novak Djokovic in the Roland Garros fourth round -- but performed some of his best ball Monday to make the sweet sixteen in his first Summer Games.

There are a few more unexpected names in the bottom half of the bracket. Novak Djokovic also stumbled early, losing his first set after his tiebreak with Fabio Fognini was halted at seven-all, but his performance today against Andy Roddick reminded us that the world #2 is far from a nonentity at this event. And Wimbledon runner-up Andy Murray hasn't dropped serve in his first two matches and pulled off a one-sided victory in his opener over Stanislas Wawrinka, a man who previously held a solid 4-6 record against the Scot. There are also some veterans pulling off big wins in this section -- Lleyton Hewitt, Feliciano Lopez and Marcos Baghdatis all had to pull off upsets to make the third round -- but it might be worth keeping an eye on the real underdog in the bunch. Belgium's Steve Darcis, who pulled off the first shocker of the Games against Tomas Berdych on Saturday, backed it up with a win over Santiago Giraldo yesterday. He'll face clay-court specialist Nicolas Almagro next, and though he'll be the clear underdog, he might just be able to take the Spaniard by surprise.

There have actually been fewer seeds falling in the ladies' draw, but even when you account for the surprises the sixteen women remaining are some of the best of the bunch. Three in the top half have won at least one Grand Slam title and two more have made the finals. Every one of them has spent some time in the top ten. Top seeded Victoria Azarenka is the on-paper favorite, but Serena and even Venus Williams might still be favored over her. Still I'll be watching Angelique Kerber whose rise up the rankings the last twelve months is nothing to be overlooked. The German, playing her first Olympic games, has only lost three games so far in London, and facing off against Venus on Wednesday, she might be out to avenge her doubles loss from earlier today. Even with two titles on the year and having made at least the quarters in three of the last four Majors, she still has farther to rise and this could be her perfect opportunity to do so.

There are even more Major winners in the bottom half of the bracket, and while a couple of them haven't tasted big victories for a long time, that shouldn't take anything away from their performances so far. Ana Ivanovic could have folded early against rising American star Christina McHale in her opener, but came through in straights. Kim Clijsters, who's had some solid performances on grass since coming back from her latest set of injuries, handily dismissed both of her early opponents -- though, admittedly, she was spared having to face fifth seed Sam Stosur. And Maria Sharapova, whose trophy in Paris ended a long losing streak at the Majors, has been similarly strong as she goes for her own Golden Slam. But a more under-the-radar player might be the one to surprise us all. Maria Kirilenko put up an amazing fight as the surprise quarterfinalist at Wimbledon, and with her next opponent Julia Goerges eliminating the woman who devastatingly beat her a month ago, her prospects to advance have greatly improved.

Of course some of these players' have much better chances than others to keep their momentum going, but the draws sure have shaken out so that they each have some interesting opportunities. And if their level of play so far in London is any indication, things are only going to get better from here.

July 29, 2012

Out of the Spotlight

For the next two weeks most of the sporting world will have its eyes turned to a couple spots in London where the world's best athletes are competing for Olympic gold across a variety of sports. But there's action elsewhere in the tennis world, and this weekend a few players who haven't tasted victory in quite some time have a chance to change their luck while no one is looking.

A crop of under-the-radar ladies headed over to Baku, Azerbaijan where defending champion Vera Zvonareva was not in the mix. In fact with no one in the top fifty making the trip, the draw was wider open than the draws suggest -- top seed Ksenia Pervak had only won more than a match at one event since late March and the highest seed to survive the first round was Luxembourg's Mandy Minella, ranked #82 in the world. That opened the door for young American Julia Cohen who scored her first and only Tour-level win a few weeks back in Palermo. The twenty-two year old benefitted from Pervak's retirement in the first round, but then followed up with two solid three-set wins to make her first WTA final Saturday. There she met Serbia's Bojana Jovanovski, an up-and-comer who began 2011 with a bang. She hasn't had the same success this season, but by beating second seed Alexandra Panova in the semis, she earned her own championship debut. It wasn't much of a struggle for the fifth seed -- pouncing on her opponent's serve, she broke five times and in just over ninety minutes she was able to hoist her first ever tournament trophy.

The men in Kitzbuhel had a little more firepower in their ranks. Philipp Kohlschreiber, who defeated Rafael Nadal in Halle, made the Wimbledon quarters, and actually is in the Olympic draw, fended off fellow Rafa-crusher Lukas Rosol on the way to his second final of the year. But he ran into defending champion Robin Haase, who'd dropped just a set on his way back to the final. The Dutchman hasn't had the best year -- before making his way to Austria he sported a losing record for the season -- but with wins over Thomaz Bellucci and Xavier Malisse, he's shown signs of strength. Haase lost the first set of Saturday's final in a one-sided tiebreak, but rallied in the second and saved all six break points in the deciding set. With the win the world #42 -- who will open his own Olympic campaign against Richard Gasquet -- brings some good momentum with him to London. And having won the title so casually, he might be able to sneak up on some of the favorites.

The Los Angeles final won't be contested until later today, but the men who've thrived there may also be benefitting from a little less pressure. Former Junior #1 Ricardas Berankis had to survive qualifying rounds to make the main draw, but once he got there he turned on the juice. He opened by upsetting seventh seed Bjorn Phau and in the three matches that followed, he has only dropped serve once. Meanwhile two-time champion Sam Querrey, well off his career-high ranking after injury sidelined him about two years ago, made his own way quickly through the draw. His biggest challenge came in last night's semi when he fought back from a break down in the second versus fellow American Rajeev Ram. His eventual win secured Querrey his first final since he won here in 2010, and against the untested Lithuanian, you have to favor the experience of the hometown favorite.

Sure most of the world's best tennis players have been concentrating their efforts elsewhere, but it doesn't make these guys' efforts at some less heralded events this week any less important. If they can thrive while all the attention is being paid elsewhere, they might be in good shape once the pressure is back on. And as they get to the top of their games again, it could shape the rest of their seasons in a much better way.

July 26, 2012

London 2012: Draw Analysis

I realize the Olympics aren't technically a Grand Slam, but with most of the top tennis players in the world making the quick turnaround to head back to Wimbledon and play for their countries, it sure feels like they're just as important. It might be a smaller field, but the requirements to make it there might be even be a little stricter. And for the players who finally get the honor of wearing Gold, they'll know they'll have earned it.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Roger Federer comes back to the All England Club fresh off a historic win here and setting another record in his career. He's clearly the favorite here, but he'll have to bring his A-game from the start -- his first opponent is Colombia's Alejandro Falla, just a shade of his highest ranking and a man who once held a two-set and a break lead over the great Federer at this very venue. The early rounds at the Olympics are best-of-three matches, so the Swiss can't afford any slow starts. And it doesn't get any easier for him -- Julien Benneteau, who got off to the same start against Federer this year at Wimbledon, looms as a potential second round opponent.

Roger's not the only one subject to rematches in this quarter. Seventh seed Janko Tipsarevic faces off against veteran David Nalbandian for the fourth time this year -- the Serb's won the past two meetings, but the underdog could easily put up a big fight. And John Isner opens against grass-court specialist Olivier Rochus, whom he met on the way to his first Newport title last year. The Belgian has fallen a bit down the rankings since his place at the Summer Games was secured, but he could put up a bigger battle than anyone expects.

There are of course a few dark horses in this section of the bracket. Former top-ten player Mikhail Youzhny is unseeded in London, and could give Benneteau a problem early. And Fernando Verdasco, who's been improving his game this year in fits and starts might catch a couple on-paper favorites off guard. But at the end of the day, you have to think the strong will survive here.

Who'll survive? Odds are on Federer to carry his momentum forward as he looks to complete the Golden Slam. But I'd love to see Isner put up a fight for that semifinal spot.

Second Quarter

Beijing Bronze medalist Novak Djokovic is the only man in the field who's ever tasted Olympic singles glory, but he's been a little quieter than he was at this point last year. Yes, he's only a handful of points behind Federer in the rankings and has fallen short of the semis just one time this year -- he lost in the Madrid quarters to eighth-ranked Janko Tipsarevic -- but it sure seems like he's lost some of his luster. He's got a tough draw to deal with too -- Atlanta and Eastbourne champ Andy Roddick is once again playing championship-quality tennis, and is slated to meet Nole in the second round. And Queen's Club and Umag champion Marin Cilic seems to be on the upswing himself recently -- he could play the Serb in the third round.

There are plenty of other threats out there too. Wimbledon semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga kicks off against Gstaad champion Thomaz Bellucci. The Brazilian is less comfortable on the grass, having only played ten matches on the surface in total, but he's having a comeback year and shouldn't be counted out. Is Tsonga makes it through, he'll likely meet big-serving Milos Raonic next, and brand-new top ten player Juan Monaco is lurking a round later. There's certainly no breathing room for the favorites here.

And there's opportunity for the Cinderellas too -- veteran Lleyton Hewitt and admittedly spotty Jurgen Melzer could pose threats to their early opponents. And if the top-ranked players are put to the test, there may be a chance for either of them to make a break for it

Who'll survive? It's dangerous to count Djokovic out, even with all the trouble his opponents can get into. But it might be someone else's chance to work the draw to his advantage, and I'm going with Tsonga for this quarter.

Third Quarter

Thanks to a shocking withdrawal by 2008 Gold medalist Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray was given the third seed at the Games, but he might be able to do even better than that. After a solid showing in the Wimbledon finals, his prospects at the big events have greatly improved. He too faces danger early -- world #26 Stanislas Wawrinka, who holds a decent 4-6 record against the Scot will try to send him home off the bat -- but it might be smooth sailing after that.

The next highest seed in the quarter is Tomas Berdych, himself a finalist at the All England Club once, but one who lost his opener there this year. He's had a couple nice runs this year, beating Murray in Monte Carlo and Juan Martin Del Potro in Madrid, and shouldn't have much trouble against Belgium's Steve Darcis in his opener. But he's been surprised a few times too, so may not be as much of a favorite as his seed suggests.

This quarter might instead be one that allows new talent to shine. Young Ryan Harrison is just off a career-high rank and is playing his first Olympic Games. A semifinalist in Newport, he might have the edge over clay-court specialist Santiago Giraldo in his opener. And Carlos Berlocq, slowly climbing the rankings himself, could have a chance to shine against Alex Bogomolov Jr., who's won just one match since late May. A nice run here for the Argentine could turn him into quite a force in the South American tennis world.

Who'll survive? The stars have really aligned for Murray in this quarter. I wouldn't be surprised to see him sail after his first round.

Fourth Quarter

Spain's David Ferrer is the surprise top seed for his country in London, and with five titles already on the year -- most recently in Bastad and on the grass of Den Bosch -- he's more than established he's a force on any surface. He'll likely face a test in his second round though when he meets world #23 Phillip Kohlschreiber -- the German beat Nadal in Halle, made the quarters at Wimbledon and earlier today made the semis in Kitzbuhel. It's been a full schedule for him, and as long as he's not exhausted, he could continue to put up a fight.

Eighth-seeded Juan Martin Del Potro is the biggest on-paper threat to Ferrer in this quarter, but the six-foot-six Argentine rolled over surprisingly easily to him in the Wimbledon fourth round. He had been having a pretty good year 'til then, though, and will hopefully be able to handle an opening round against Ivan Dodig easily. If confidence is on his side he could be dangerous later in the draw.

There are also some interesting first rounds outside the top seeds in this quarter. Bernard Tomic, on a bit of a downward spiral -- he hasn't won more than two matches at an event since April -- faces off against world #18 Kei Nishikori. The quarterfinalist in Atlanta and Newport has nevertheless never performed well on grass -- it's the only surface on which he has a losing record -- and could be taken by the one-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist. And former third-ranked Nikolay Davydenko has been tumbling in recent months, but if he can get an early break on Radek Stepanek in his opener, it might bode well for his prospects.

Who'll survive? This one is really a toss-up, and though Ferrer has proven he can win on the lawns, there's plenty of opportunity for someone else too. Let's give this one to Grigor Dimitrov, a semifinalist at three of his last four events. Just for the heck of it.

The Women

First Quarter

The ladies' draw is full of opportunities for upsets, and strangely not because of how inconsistent the women have been. In fact with a whole slew of players who've been delivering week after week, success will not come at the expense of the weak but on the talent of the strong.

Top seed Victoria Azarenka may have reclaimed her #1 ranking, but she might be the most vulnerable of the big guns. After her super start to the year, she hasn't won a title since Indian Wells, but gets a bit of a break against young Irina-Camelia Begu in her opener -- the Romanian may be on the rise, but she hasn't beaten a top-tier player all year and lost both her meetings with Vika handily. More sparks may fly elsewhere in the draw.

Polona Hercog is coming off her second career title in Bastad and is actually now ranked higher than her first-round opponent, veteran Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez. And Den Bosch winner Nadia Petrova has the potential to put on a great show against world #25 and 2008 Wimbledon semifinalist Jie Zheng in her opener.

The seeds aren't necessarily safe either. French Open finalist Sara Errani will open against five time Wimbledon champ Venus Williams, and world #7 Angelique Kerber, fresh off a run to the semis at the All England Club, faces off against last year's surprise fourth-rounder Petra Cetkovska to start. There are a lot of strong ladies in this quarter, and if they don't work each other to the bone, whoever survives could be a real contender for Gold.

Who'll survive? Yes, Vika is the favorite, but Kerber might be carrying the better momentum on this surface. I wouldn't mind seeing her with a medal at the end of the week.

Second Quarter

This is the highest Aggie Radwanska has ever been ranked at an event, and after her inspiring performance in the Wimbledon final she'll want to live up to the potential we now know she has. Unfortunately for her she'll meet a solid world #24 Julia Goerges to start her Olympic run -- the Pole has won both of the pair's previous meetings, never dropping a set, but it could nevertheless be a good fight early on in the draw. And if she survives, she should face rising U.S. star Varvara Lepchenko and maybe put together a rematch with Maria Kirilenko in the third. The Russian put up a surprising battle in their Wimbledon quarter, and she might be out for revenge.

Petra Kvitova, the 2011 champ at the All England Club, may not have a much easier beginning -- in her opener she'll meet Kateryna Bondarenko, a woman who's won their last two matches, both times while ranked lower than the Czech. KBond has been dealing with injuries the last several months, so she's not playing her best, but the one-time U.S. Open quarterfinalist may have a few surprises left in her.

This could be a quarter where some underdogs get a chance to shine too. Sorana Cirstea, trying to recapture the momentum that once brought her to #23 in the world, has a good chance to get some quick blows in against Flavia Pennetta. And Tsvetana Pironkova may face Carslbad champion Dominika Cibulkova in her first round, but the Bulgarian has consistently performed well on the grass of Wimbledon and can't be counted out of pulling off an upset.

Who'll survive? In my Wimbledon draw analysis I said it'd be Aggie or Kirilenko coming out of their quarter. I stand by that call this time around.

Third Quarter

Third seeded Maria Sharapova is playing her first Olympic Games, and the pressure is on her to lead a Russian team who swept the medals in Beijing. While her opening round against an on-the-decline Shahar Peer may not pose many problems, there are more threats in her quarter. Sabine Lisicki, who avenged a semifinal loss last year at Wimbledon with a round of sixteen win this time around, could force a third-round meeting in London. Then again, so could quickly-rising Yaroslava Shvedova, she of the Golden Set. It certainly won't be an easy road for the recent #1.

Things are no better in the top half of the quarter, either. World #5 Sam Stosur is the second highest ranked player here, but this has never been her best surface. She should be able to get past Carla Suarez Navarro in her opener, but either grass court specialist Roberta Vinci or four-time Major winner Kim Clijsters will be waiting for her a round later. And Ana Ivanovic, trying to sustain her recent momentum, could pose a threat later in the draw -- she'll have to get past Christina McHale first, though, and the young American seems to be making good on all the expectations that have been thrust on her for years.

Who'll survive? This is a hard one, too, and with so many strong athletes in the quarter. Sharapova is playing strong ball these days, but Shvedova seems to have all the momentum on her side.

Fourth Quarter

Serena Williams, who won Gold in the Beijing doubles tournament, is looking to capture her first singles medal in London, and with a two-title win streak in her pocket chances are she'll be a favorite to do so. She could have a struggle early against former-#1 Jelena Jankovic, who actually won their last meeting in Rome. But that was more than two years ago, and the Serb hasn't played at that level in a long time. Serena's second round might actually be a little tougher -- either Mona Barthel or Aggie's younger sister Urszula Radwanska could put up a nice fight. They're both young and on-the-rise, and Williams is unlikely to be familiar with either of their games, and that might -- just might -- catch her a little off guard.

Caroline Wozniacki is the other top seed in this quarter, but her prospects aren't much better than they've been at other events recently. She should survive her opener against young Brit Anne Keothavong, and even a second round versus either veteran Anabel Medina Garrigues or back-on-track Yanina Wickmayer. But unseeded Tamira Paszek, who beat her in their Wimbledon first round could easily make her way back to a rematch -- the Austrian is slated to meet either Na Li or recovering Daniela Hantuchova in the second round, neither of which is as big a threat on this surface as her ranking suggests.

Who'll survive? Momentum, experience, and a whole lot of other factors are on Serena's side. I don't see this quarter going any other way.

There may be three technical winners at the Olympics, but ultimately all that matters is whether you can hang that golden medal around your neck, and even the most decorated players in the field have yet to achieve that feat. It could be a long road to that winners' podium, but the reward would be well worth it -- and the ones who make it there will have certainly proven they deserve it.

July 25, 2012

Blogcast: Playing for Gold

The world's best tennis players head back to the All England Club of Wimbledon with a little more than a trophy on the line.

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

July 22, 2012

Still Going Strong

This week Roger Federer completed his two-hundred eighty-seventh week as the #1 tennis player in the world, giving him the longest reign of any man at the top of this sport.

287 weeks. Over five and a half years.

That's one week ahead of my dear Pete Sampras, the man who Roger's seemed to make a career out of tying and surpassing, four months longer than Ivan Lendl and a full two years more than #5 on the list, John McEnroe. He's got a ways to go before passing Steffi Graf -- her seven and a quarter-year record on top of the WTA rankings is safe for some time yet -- but still playing some of his best tennis at thirty years of age, there's no reason to believe his run is going to end soon.

Sampras might have made his mark on the sport at a slightly earlier age -- he was just shy of twenty-two when he first climbed atop the leaderboard in 1993, compared to Roger, a good nine months older by the time he did the same a decade-plus later. But Federer, now almost thirty-one, seems to be on an upswing -- since the U.S. Open last year, he's compiled a 63-6 record and picked up eight titles. Against top ten players this season he's eleven-and-three, and though he's been tested a few times -- Julien Benneteau and Juan Martin Del Potro both built 2-0 set leads on him at recent Slams -- he's always seemed to find the magic he needs to pull off wins on the biggest stages.

During his final stint at #1, which began just after a run to the 2000 U.S. Open final, Sampras didn't actually play a single tournament -- by the time he got to the year-end championships, he was back down at #3. On the other hand Roger has a full slate for the summer -- in just a week he'll try to complete his Golden Slam at the London Olympics, a feat he's probably more than happy to take on at his "native" All England Club, and he's currently on the docket for Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati. With relatively few points to defend at those events, he'll likely increase his currently slim lead over Novak Djokovic in the coming months. And if he holds onto the top seed by the time he heads to New York, you can expect big things from him there too -- the five-time champion has only lost at Flushing Meadows once, in the 2009 final, while ranked #1 in the world.

It may seem like he's done it all, given the long list of records he holds, but believe it or not there's plenty he hasn't yet accomplished -- he lacks Olympic gold, of course, and would have to hold onto his ranking 'til at least the end of the season to match Sampras' still-safe six years as World Tour Champion. And though it seems he's won every tournament out there, he's still more than thirty short of Jimmy Connors' 109 singles crowns. He may not break all the records before his reign is over, or even before his career ends -- one day, after all, both have to be -- but something tells me he'll keep fighting until that day comes.

And the way he's playing these days, there's no telling how much more he can still achieve in the meantime.

July 19, 2012

Where's the Follow Through?

Here in the U.S., with veteran champions like the Williams sisters and Andy Roddick crossing, or about to cross, the thirty-year mark, and transition players like John Isner and Sam Querrey having their biggest successes so far at the mid-tier tournaments, we've been aching to identify our next generation of big tennis stars. We get some glimpses of hope here and there, but have yet to find the next athlete who promises to deliver again and again.

At last week's U.S. events, a couple American youngsters got a chance to shine. College stars like Nicole Gibbs and Mallory Brudette got their first Tour wins in Stanford and young Coco Vandeweghe chopped her ranking nearly in half by making the final. In Newport, 2009 champion Rajeev Ram put together his most successful singles run in a while on his way to the semis, and soon-to-be Olympian Ryan Harrison put up a solid fight himself in the final four. But all these guys fell in their first rounds this week, understandable given their efforts, but disheartening for those hoping to see them back up their recent success.

That's not to say all hope is lost. The draw in Carlsbad features plenty of Americans, many wildcards, and more than a couple have so far survived early rounds. Christina McHale, long touted as the premier talent in the generation has lived up to her seeding and Melanie Oudin, finally backing up her 2009 U.S. Open run with a title in Birmingham last month, pulled off a solid win over fellow(-ish) up-and-comer Sloane Stephens in her first round. But perhaps the most potential lies with twenty-six year old Varvara Lepchenko. The surprise fourth-rounder in Paris has only lost a handful of games so far this week. With a quarterfinal meeting against often-spotty Nadia Petrova next, she has the real potential to pull off another upset, and that could bode well for her even beyond this tournament -- a first-time Olympian in a few weeks, there might not be a better time for her to prove how well she can fight for her country.

There's no Olympic gold on the line for some of the standouts in Atlanta, but that's no excuse for them to not put up a fight. While veterans like Roddick and top seeded John Isner, twice a runner-up here, are getting in some good practice for London, those a little further down the rankings may be the ones to watch this week. Wildcard Steve Johnson had only played one Tour-level match this year, but he hung tough against one-time U.S. Open Cinderella Donald Young in his first round. He'll meet another young star in Jack Sock next -- the 2010 U.S. Open Juniors champ defeated seventh-seeded Alex Bogomolov in his opener and could put on an entertaining show for a spot in the semis. For the man who survives, it could be a great opportunity to make a real splash on a Tour-level stage.

It's going to be difficult for any of these guys to make a real and immediate impact at a Slam -- with the top players in the sport right now proving they're not going anywhere soon, they might have to slog it out for several more months or years. But it's important that they bring the momentum they capture from wins this week into their next few events -- if they can prove themselves to be constant threats in the draws, it might not be long until they're no longer considered the underdog.

July 16, 2012

Blogcast: 2012 Hall of Fame Induction

This year’s inductees to the International Tennis Hall of Fame overcame all sorts of obstacles to make a real impact on the sport.

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

July 12, 2012

Putting Up a Fight

The calendar sure seems pretty full for the week after a Grand Slam -- six Tour level events were scheduled from Croatia to Rhode Island, Sweden to California, with some top-notch players contesting the titles. It makes some sense -- athletes, especially those who were ousted early at the All England Club, are eager to prep for the upcoming Olympics. But these tournaments might hold even more opportunity for the players who haven't quite reached Summer Game status yet, and so far they're more than holding their own against the big guns.

The top two seeds in Umag will represent their countries later this month in London, as will players like rising Argentine star Carlos Berlocq and unseeded Fabio Fognini. But the one to watch here might be American Wayne Odesnik. The twenty-six year old hadn't won a Tour-level match since pleading guilty to bringing steroids to Australia in 2010, but despite having earned the rancor of fans, players and pundits alike, he's turned that around this week. He pulled off an impressive win over Edouard Roger-Vasselin in his first round and yesterday earned a quarterfinal berth against world #15 Marin Cilic. He hasn't beaten a player ranked that high ever in his career, but if he wants to put the ugly stories of his past behind him, this would be a good way to do it.

Two Spanish heavy-hitters -- one fresh off a quarterfinal showing at Wimbledon -- lead the field in Bastad before they make their way back to the All England Club, but it's one of their countrymen making a statement on the red clay of Sweden. Ten-time titleist Tommy Robredo hasn't won a lot on Tour since a leg injury forced him to retire last year in Monte Carlo. But after winning two challenger events in June it looks like his comeback is well on track. A wildcard this week, he opened by ousting eighth seeded Adrian Ungur and fired off seven aces against Brazil's Joao Souza on Wednesday. He'll have his work cut out for him against David Ferrer next, but he has beaten him on this surface before. And since it's become clear that 30 is the new 20 these days, there's no reason to believe he's too big an underdog this time around.

There are Olympians all over the draw in Stuttgart Germany, and while some have advanced easily -- Janko Tipsarevic, Juan Monaco -- others have stumbled. Bernard Tomic, who dropped seventeen ranking spots after failing to defend Wimbledon points, lost again today to unseeded Thomaz Bellucci. Meanwhile Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, the twelfth-ranked Spanish player at #87 in the world, seems to be in decent shape in Germany. He survived a tight second round against compatriot and doubles partner Pablo Andujar Wednesday, and with a quarterfinal set against wildcard Dustin Brown next, he might be in a good position to make an even deeper run

On the other side of the pond in Newport -- ironically the only grass court event between Wimbledon and the Summer Games -- a couple first-time Olympic athletes are testing the waters. John Isner and Ryan Harrison have both lived up to their rankings so far, though Milos Raonic's two-set loss earlier today didn't bode too well for our neighbors to the north. But 2009 champion Rajeev Ram, ranked out of the top hundred and well out of eligibility range, has been playing solid ball again. Having not dropped a set yet, he might be able to put up a fight this afternoon against Kei Nishikori who, despite a top-twenty ranking, has still not put together a winning record on grass.

The ladies are just as busy this week. In Palermo hometown favorites Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci are getting in a few extra hits on clay before going back to the lawns of London, and Julia Goerges, representing her country for the first time at the Games have all done well in early matches. But it might also be worth watching Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, kept off the Czech team thanks to a slate full of singles and doubles champs. She's struggled in her matches so far in Italy, eking out a win after nearly three hours against Silvia Soler-Espinosa and today coming back from a set down against world #140 Julia Cohen. She's only won one title by herself -- last year in Quebec -- but if she can rally from here, it might bode well for her the rest of the week.

The stakes are even higher on the hardcourts of Stanford where perennial powerhouses Serena Williams and 2009 champ Marion Bartoli headline a pretty stacked field. But in a bracket rife with American qualifiers and wildcards, it might finally be young Coco Vandeweghe's time to shine. The 2008 girls' champion at the U.S. Open hasn't lived up to expectations on the main Tour yet, but after defeating former #1 Jelena Jankovic that looks to be changing. She'll meet the winner of this afternoon's Marina Erakovic/Urzsula Radwanska match for a spot in the semis, and if she plays to potential she could finally see her star set on a steady rise.

There's no telling whether this week's early standouts will keep their luck up through the weekend and it'll be tough for any, much less all, of them to ultimately hoist the trophies at the end of the day. But it's a great opportunity to put up some big performances against the big names in the sport. And if they win as some already have, it could put the rest of their years on a wholly different track.

July 8, 2012

Seven Ages of Roger

They say humans pass through seven distinct stages throughout their lifetimes, from birth to grave. And while Roger Federer winning his record-tying seventh Wimbledon trophy earlier today doesn't seem to signal the end of his career, it seems appropriate to take a look at how his game -- and his impact on the sport of tennis -- has changed over that span.


Federer was only ranked #5 in the world when he beat unseeded Mark Philippoussis for his first title at the All England Club, but he'd already started to make his mark -- two years earlier he'd defeated defending champion Pete Sampras in a historic five-setter to reach the quarterfinals. Up to that point, that had been his best performance at the Slams, and after three first round losses at the eight subsequent Majors he wasn't exactly flying high on the radar.

But then he stepped on the lawns of London and the world started to take notice. With that year's top seed Lleyton Hewitt out in the first round and the pretty Australian tweeter downing an aging Andre Agassi in the Round of Sixteen, the twenty-two year old Swiss made easy work of his draw. Still a relative newcomer to the scene -- he'd only won a handful of smaller titles and one Masters event in Hamburg -- we weren't quite sure what to make of his run, but we were starting to see the signs of something that held great potential.


A year later Federer came back to the All England Club toting the year-end championship, a second Major title from Melbourne and the top ranking to boot. Having backed up his maiden Slam, he'd established himself as a real power in the sport and one we knew better than to overlook. This year he played his first of four Major finals against American Andy Roddick, a rivalry that -- despite its greatness -- would eventually go down as only the fourth or fifth most exciting in the champion's history. In just under three hours Roger had successfully defended his crown, and he went on to capture a title in New York, going three-for-four at the Majors that season. We started to hear rumblings of his destiny, his ability to capture the career Grand Slam, the prospect he could set one record after another.

But we'd have to wait a few years longer for that.


By the time 2005 rolled around, Federer was firmly ensconced among the elite of the sport -- he'd held the top ranking for over a year, had reached at least the semis of the last four Majors, was racking up trophies like he was saving up for a gold shortage. But he was transitioning to a new stage of his career -- the powerhouses of the first half of the decade, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Hewitt, Roddick, were starting to fade, but Roger was there to bridge the gap. As if symbolizing the shift, he beat all three of these guys on the way to his third straight Wimbledon title, seemingly closing the door on the era where just about anyone could win a Slam.


Roger came to the All England Club the next year having played in four straight Major finals, narrowly missing the opportunity to complete the "Federer Slam" at Roland Garros. His foil, of course, was the poster boy for the new age of tennis, hard-hitting Rafael Nadal, now a two-time winner of the French Open at just barely twenty years of age. The Spaniard could easily have been dismissed as a clay courter -- to this day he is, of course, the greatest on that surface -- but his run to the final at Wimbledon that year belied such critiques.

Their meeting in the championship match was already the eighth in their still-forming rivalry and Nadal had an insane 6-1 record on the world #1, with Federer's only win to that date coming in a 2004 five-set marathon in Miami. Even still we were only getting a glimpse of what the competition between Rafa and Roger would mean for the sport, and for the time being, with Federer's four-set win over the then-#2, order seemed to be restored.


By Wimbledon 2007 Federer had held the #1 ranking for a record 177 consecutive weeks. He had won his tenth Major in Australia and was just shy of his fiftieth ATP title. He had improved his record somewhat against Nadal, now three times a winner in Paris and widely recognized as his biggest and probably only foe, but still lost twice as often to him as he won. Still with four straight titles in London, he'd established himself as the current king of the All England Club, and when he successfully captured his fifth -- tying Bjorn Borg's record for consecutive crowns -- he sent a message that, while Rafa might enjoy the clay of Roland Garros, this was his house.

We didn't know then, that was about to change.


Over the next few years the tide began to shift in the tennis world. Nadal upped his game off the clay, ended Roger's streak at Wimbledon, took over his #1 ranking and stunned him in Melbourne. It started to look like Fed's unchallenged reign at the top of the sport was over -- just short of breaking Pete Sampras' Major record. But in the spring of 2009 something amazing happened -- Rafael Nadal lost in Paris, opening the door for the Swiss giant to finally, finally complete the career Grand Slam. With Rafa pulling out of Wimbledon, Federer didn't face a single player in the top ten on the way to his ninth straight final here, and though he was pushed to the very limit by old and flagging foe Andy Roddick, he did manage to surpass the American with a fifteenth Slam. On top of the ranks again, it nevertheless looked like Federer was nearing the end -- when Juan Martin Del Potro shocked him at the U.S. Open final later that summer, the door finally seemed to be creaking open for some new blood.


Roger added another title to his shelf a few months later, but it began looking like that 2009 Wimbledon would be his swan song. Tomas Berdych ended his streak of twenty-three straight Major semis the next year and Nadal reclaimed his place the top and completed a Grand Slam of his own a few months after that. And then started the reign of Novak Djokovic -- you remember the one with ten titles in 2011, four Grand Slam trophies of his own, and an end to the stranglehold on the #1 spot? With two years passing since Federer last claimed a big title, some said his time was coming to an end.

But then he returned to Wimbledon.

After going down two sets to love against Julien Benneteau in the third round and needing a medical timeout for a back problem versus veteran Xavier Malisse a match later, Federer seemed to regain his form. The first Major championship with neither Nole nor Nadal since early 2010, both he and first-time finalist Andy Murray, a loser in his three previous attempts at a title, were chasing history. Hometown favorite Murray had the chance to claim the first Major for the UK since Fred Perry won the U.S. in 1936 and Roger was on the verge of tying yet another record with Pete Sampras -- a seventh career Wimbledon title. Clearly the more experienced of the two, Fed was nevertheless vulnerable, aging, aching and facing a crowd that wanted to end a seventy-six year long streak.

And for some time it looked like this was finally Murray's year -- he opened by breaking the Swiss and closed out the first set after breaking again in the ninth game. But Roger stayed strong, withstanding some solid serving by the Scot and denying all four break opportunities in the second set. After a rain delay and roof closure halted play for about forty-five minutes, momentum could have shifted back to the fourth seed, but Federer's experience eventually triumphed and though Murray played better than he had when any other title was on the line, after three and a half hours it was Roger Federer holding the trophy in triumph -- again.

With the win, Federer did more earn another trip to the winner's circle at Wimbledon -- he ended a two-plus year Slam-less streak, will climb back to the #1 spot in Monday's rankings and, yet again, tie Pete Sampras for total weeks at the top. And the way he's played the last several months, it sure doesn't look like his return will be short-lived.

Roger Federer's had a long and storied career in tennis, and at the All England Club in particular, and if we're lucky it's far from the end. There may be only seven ages of man, but this man is a king, and hopefully that gets him a lot more.

July 7, 2012

Where Old Is New Again

It's been said a couple times during this Wimbledon fortnight that "30 is the new 20", and with veterans like Kim Clijsters, Francesca Schiavone, Na Li and Sam Stosur all peaking in the latter half of their careers, maybe that's truly the case. But the ladies' final today at the All England Club not only represented the power of experience, but also put a trophy back in a case that's been a little empty for some time.

Serena Williams was the overwhelming favorite in Saturday's championship, despite a lower ranking than world #3 Aggie Radwanska and fewer titles on the year than her opponent. The Pole was playing her first Major final, had never before this week made it as far as a semi, and though she's one of the most consistent players on Tour, hasn't developed a weapon that could really threaten the four-time titlist. And for the first forty-five minutes or so of play, Serena's comfort on the big stage was apparent -- she won the opening five games of the match and took a 4-2 lead after a short rain delay. The match looked like it would not be long for this world.

But Aggie is one of those players that does not give up -- in the eighth game of the set she earned her first break opportunity and as the errors started piling up on Williams' side, was able to capitalize. With Serena serving for a tiebreak a few moments later, Radwanska raised her game even higher, broke again and forced the American to only her fourth Slam final deciding set.

As might have been expected, though, Serena took charge after that. Aggie struggled to hold serve early in the third, and though she fought off several break opportunities, Williams was stronger on balance. The world #6 aced out her opponent in the fourth game, won every one of her first serves, and took half of Radwanska's own service points. By the end of the match she'd fired off a record-setting 102 aces during the tournament, and when Aggie failed to get to her final backhand winner, she had finally ended a two-year Major draught, capturing her fourteenth Slam crown.

For Radwanska's part, it was a more-than-admirable showing -- largely expected to be beaten down today, she proved she could ball with the best of them. And the soon-to-be-#2 in the world showed she's got the fight and confidence it takes to eventually make it to the winner's circle at a Major. I wouldn't be surprised to see her there soon.

The men tomorrow with put up a similar battle -- six-time Wimbledon champ Roger Federer will look to end an even longer losing streak at the Slams when he takes the court against Andy Murray on championship Sunday. The Scot's been on the big stage before but has lost all nine sets he's contested. And though Murray has a chance to make history for the UK, I expect Federer, with a chance at equalling Pete Sampras' record seven wins at the All England Club, will do his best to put his name back in the books.

It wouldn't exactly be a new phenomenon -- Roger & Serena have shared Slam titles five times before -- but it has been a while since we've seen them both with the trophies. And if they both make it back to the top this time, there's no reason to believe they won't do it again and again.

July 5, 2012

The Reversal

We've become somewhat accustomed the last few years in tennis to seeing two things: almost sickening consistency in the men's performances at the Slams and complete unpredictability from the ladies. While three men have won all but one of the titles since 2005, we've had six different women take the crowns at the last six Majors -- four of those were first-time champions.

But things just might be about to change.

Technically, I suppose, we did have some new faces hanging around the late stages of the women's draw. In the early semifinal contested today, Agnieszka Radwanska and Angelique Kerber were both battling to make their first career Slam final. Kerber made her breakthrough late last year with a run to the U.S. Open semis, and Radwanska, despite the higher seeding and a longer stint in the sport's elite, was making her Final Four debut. But the two have been some of the steadiest players on Tour this year, combining for five titles already and taking two of the top four spots in the race to the WTA Championships. The majority of their four previous meetings went three sets, so this had the potential to be a real battle. But the Pole took control quickly -- after losing serve early she capitalized on weak second serves by her opponent and stayed tougher in the multi-shot rallies. Things stayed close in the second set, but Radwanska was able to hold onto an early lead and after just over an hour had secured her final berth.

The second semi featured players a little more used to the "big stage". Former #1s Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams, whose Major trophy case is admittedly more full with thirteen to Vika's one, have also been staples in the latter stages of tournaments all year. The Belarusian kicked off 2012 with a 26-1 record and, despite a shockingly early exit at Roland Garros, Serena had put together an impressive seventeen-match, two-title streak of her own on clay. The two had presented some stunning battles early on in their history but more recently, even with Azarenka's higher rank, Williams had dominated their meetings. And though she lost a break lead in the second set and was forced into a tight tiebreak, she eventually kept her streak alive and made her eighteenth Slam final.

There will, of course, be a number of factors, both physical and mental, favoring Serena in Saturday's final: experience, brute strength, a 2-0 record against her opponent in which she's only lost four games a match, the motivation to end a two-year Major drought. It could very well be a blowout, but I hope Aggie's able to put up a fight -- she seems to play her best tennis when facing superpower. Whatever the case, it's nice to see these ladies continue to deliver, rather fade off into the sunset.

The men have yet to decide their final two players, but things are not entirely what we've come to expect from these boys. Defending champion Novak Djokovic and six-time winner Roger Federer battle in the first semi tomorrow, somewhat ironic since they're by far the most accomplished of the four still standing. Neither have been playing at their best -- Nole is far lower on the radar than he was this time last year, sporting just two titles instead of seven, and Roger has endured some close come-from-behind victories, nearly losing in the third round to twenty-ninth seed Julien Benneteau. The Serb has won four of the last five meetings they've had at Majors, and may have been slightly more on point this fortnight. But if Roger, going after a record-tying seventh Wimbledon trophy, can harness that motivation, he could end his losing streak to the world #1.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, either of their efforts might be for naught. In the "featured" semi Friday hometown hero Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, my New Year's pick to win the title, will each try to reach his first Wimbledon final. Each losers at previous Major championship matches, these days they might actually be the favorites -- both were plagued by injury coming to the All England Club, both have lost a set here and there, and both look stronger than their top-half challengers. But Tsonga, looking to become the first Frenchman to win a Major since Yannick Noah did it in 1983, may be thwarted -- he's only beaten the Brit/Scot once, on his way to the Australian Open final in 2008, and will certainly have the crowds rooting against him. And while Murray has seemed to bend under the pressure in the past, this time he might just be able to shock us all.

It's not that I think the old favorites on the men's side have completely fallen by the wayside, or that we won't continue to see a rotation of women claiming the Major crowns for a few more years. But it certainly shows that more ladies can consistently put up a fight against top players and that there might be a few chinks in even the top men's armor. We might not ultimately crown brand new champions this weekend, but it sure seems we're on the verge of something different and exciting.

And can we really ever ask for anything more in this sport?

July 3, 2012

Back to Normal?

Things sure got hairy for a moment or two at the All England Club. With what's often referred to as the "Greatest Day in Tennis" largely rained out -- only the ladies and a handful of men were able to complete their Round of Sixteen matches on Monday -- and storms looming overhead for much of today, there was the potential weather and not talent would be the deciding factor of early Week Two matches. And while we did see some shocking upsets, some stunning comebacks and a couple utter dominations, now that we're all caught up, it sure looks like the strongest survived.

The surprises started early on Middle Monday with unseeded Tamira Paszek ousting feisty Italian Roberta Vinci, while Francesca Schiavone, who'd only reached the fourth round here once in her eleven previous tries, took a set lead over defending champion Petra Kvitova. But things got even more interesting as wildcard Yaroslava "Golden Set" Shvedova, a breakout last month at Roland Garros, pushed four-time titleist Serena Williams to a deciding set, risen star Angelique Kerber decimated Kim Clijsters in her last Wimbledon appearance, and often-injured Sabine Lisicki got revenge over world #1 Maria Sharapova for her loss in the semis here last year.

The men weren't spared from drama either. Roger Federer, who'd barely survived a two-set deficit late last week against Julien Benneteau, took a medical time-out before the end of his opener versus Xavier Malisse. He got an early lead against the fellow veteran but after a rain delay found himself down a break in the fourth set. Mikhail Youzhny, trying to get his year back on track post-injury, traded sets with unseeded Denis Istomin and even found himself trailing in the fifth. Both favorites ultimately scored the wins over their opponents and, along with 2011 champion Novak Djokovic, booked their tickets to the quarterfinals before the clouds sun set Monday.

Most everyone else only got a few shots in yesterday. World #4 Andy Murray lost his first service game to Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga dropped a set to Mardy Fish, playing his first tournament since Memphis. They had started to turn things back in their favor by the time play was called and eventually won their matches early Tuesday. With David Ferrer rolling over former U.S. Open winner Juan Martin Del Potro and Philipp Kohlschreiber ending the run of American comeback story Brian Baker, almost all the on-paper favorites succeeded in their efforts. The only exception was world #29 Florian Mayer, just barely seeded at the All England Club -- sporting a middling 9-15 record on the year, the twenty-eight year old German's best result this season was a title at a Challenger event in the Czech Republic. But he took a two-set lead over 2007 semifinalist Ricard Gasquet and eventually closed out the win to make his second Major quarter, his first since 2004.

With the men's quarters set the ladies were free to re-take the court and really get our hearts pumping. Serena got off to a quick start against Kvitova in what should have been a hard-hitting battle on Centre Court, and despite all her recent struggles she proved just how relevant she still is with a straight set win over the defender. Several hours later former world #1 Victoria Azarenka ended the run of Eastbourne champion Paszek by a slightly tighter score than last year, but one which reminded us she might be flying a bit too far under the radar this fortnight.

The tougher battles came in the remaining two matches. Rising Risen star Angelique Kerber took a set and a break from last year's Cinderella Lisicki and had earned match points when her fellow German raised her game and fought through a tiebreak to force a decider. They traded serves throughout the third, but Kerber stayed slightly stronger -- when her opponent failed to serve out the match at 5-4, it was all over for the fifteenth seed and higher-ranked Angelique had scored the win.

And in the last match to end today -- ironically one of the first to begin -- third seed Aggie Radwanska and supremely overlooked Maria Kirilenko were both fighting for their first Slam semi. Odds were squarely on the Pole's side -- she'd won the pair's last four meetings and was playing some of the best tennis of her career. Unfortunately Radwanska was unable to consolidate early breaks, and though she eventually closed out the opening set, she lost the lead in the second as well. Just before rain stopped play for the first time, Kirilenko had forced a third. They stopped again at four-all, waited for Vika and Paszek to finish their quarter, moved to Centre Court and resumed with just over an hour left before Wimbledon curfew. Then, about eight hours after starting their battle, Aggie broke again and finally was successful in serving it out. By securing the semi against a similarly exhausted Kerber -- the woman who beat her last year in New York -- she might just have earned her best shot at actually making a final.

It may have taken a few long and winding roads to get here, but the men and women left standing at Wimbledon have certainly proven just how strong they can be on the lawns of the All England Club. A couple upstarts still remain, yes, but it certainly seems like we're getting to the point where the field represents the best of the bunch. We might not have predicted the eventual king and queen at the outset, but it's looking good that the winners will have earned it.

July 1, 2012

Time to Take a Break

Wow, am I tired!

Even five hours behind London time, the late nights at the All England Club over the last week sure have left me exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Favorites have fallen, Cinderellas have emerged, and almost everyone was pushed to the limit. So this Middle Sunday, with the courts at Wimbledon are dark and the final thirty-two just barely decided, it might be a good time to step back, catch our breath, and reassess where we stand now.

The strength still runs deep in the top half of the women's draw -- world #1 Maria Sharapova and four-time Grand Slam titleist Kim Clijsters may be the most recognizable names remaining, but they'll both have their work cut out for them going forward. MaSha will need to survive a rematch of last year's semifinal against Sabine Lisicki, who's playing well here despite a season fraught with injury. And Clijsters, coming off a couple months of physical troubles herself, meets Eastbourne finalist Angelique Kerber, one of the fastest-rising stars this year. The eighth-seded German has never met the veteran before, but she's been relentless all week and arguably faced tougher opponents than Kim who, despite dismissing two seeds didn't meet anyone playing at her best. The two ladies who survive will certainly have earned it.

In the other side of the draw, Aggie Radwanska has reached her fifth fourth round here without enduring any struggle. And her streak might just continue, as her next opponent will be qualifier Camila Giorgi -- the young Italian pulled off a solid upset over Den Bosch champ Nadia Petrova on Friday and might not have it in her to go any farther. And Maria Kirilenko and Shaui Peng, the last two women left in the half, both have the chance of their lifetimes -- neither has made the quarters here before, and with their portion of the bracket cleared out for them, they might be able to go even farther. But I stand by my call that this is Radwanska's opportunity to shine. And if she can make her first Major semi, she'll have shown she's really one to be feared.

There are a few more technical interlopers left in the bottom half of the ladies' draw, but five of the eight know what it's like to hold a Grand Slam trophy above their head. Former world #1 Victoria Azarenka is again playing like she did at the start of the year, having not dropped a set and dominating each opponent. But against fellow one-time Major winner Ana Ivanovic, also flying somewhat under the radar here, she could face a tougher test. Meanwhile defending champion Petra Kvitova meets former French Open winner Francesca Schiavone next, and four-time Wimbledon champion Serena Williams, though tested by Jie Zheng on Saturday, nevertheless looks strong enough to be considered a favorite despite her sixth seeding.

But it might be the underdogs in this half that have the better stories. Grass court specialist Roberta Vinci hasn't been playing as well as she was this time last year, but she was relentless against one-time Wimbledon semifinalist Mirjana Lucic and has now made her first ever Major fourth round. Tamira Paszek, her next opponent, has been here before and is riding a solid eight-match win streak -- one that claimed three top-ten players as victims. The battle between these two could establish a new star for the rest of the season. But the bigger spoiler here might be Yaroslava Shvedova, putting together her second straight Slam of upsets. Early on Saturday she earned the elusive golden set against French Open finalist Sara Errani -- that is, she didn't lose a point in the first six games. Not one point. That's something no woman's done since the 1940s. It'll be tougher against Serena in the fourth round, of course, but she's proven she's capable of some great things on grass -- so why not one more surprise win?

There are slightly more surprises in the men's draw this year than we've been accustomed to -- though maybe that's all just relative -- and that's really shaken up the brackets. Defending champion Novak Djokovic and six-time titleist Roger Federer are both still alive, the latter by the skin of his teeth. But plenty others have fallen by the wayside. Mikhail Youzhny, on the comeback trail, dismissed eighth seeded Janko Tipsarevic in the third round, and world #29 Florian Mayer benefitted from the early exit of 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych to make his first Major fourth round since 2004.

Meanwhile the non-seeds have been putting together some impressive performances of their own. Viktor Troicki who fell just out of seeding territory started off by ousting Marcel Granollers in a surprisingly tight five set match. His victory over Juan Monaco Friday was comparatively easy. And veteran Xavier Malisse has been on fire recently -- ranked a low #75, he's beaten top-twenty players in each of his last two matches. Both men will have tough roads going forward -- Troicki against countryman Djokovic and Malisse versus Federer -- but the champions have been tested recently, so nothing should be assumed. That attitude might most help Denis Istomin who made his first Major fourth round with a win over Alejandro Falla Friday. He's got a date with Youzhny Monday, a far less intimidating foe than most others, so it could be the best opportunity he's had in a second week.

The bottom half of the men's bracket has gone a little more according to plan. Despite one obvious exception, players like Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer have all advanced with relatively little drama. Even Mardy Fish, playing his first event since illness halted his season in the spring, and Marin Cilic, who needed a thirty-two game, two-hour fifth set against Sam Querrey on Saturday, have lived up to their rankings to make the second week. And Juan Martin Del Potro, who'd struggled during the clay court season with a knee injury, looks to be winning matches much more easily these days.

But with two-time champion Rafael Nadal out of the picture, the very bottom of this draw holds the best potential for a Cinderella. Phillip Kohlschreiber is no double a fierce competitor and with a win over Rafa in Halle there's no reason to believe he wouldn't have repeated the feat at the All England Club. But the player everyone will be watching is qualifier Brian Baker, a veteran playing his first ever Wimbledon, attempting to make the main draw at Majors for the first time since 2005. He made a glorious run to the final in Nice and defeated Xavier Malisse at Roland Garros. With main-draw wins here against Jarkko Nieminen and up-and-coming Benoit Paire, he's certainly playing well above his #126 ranking. He's been largely unstoppable in all his matches here, and while the German will certainly be his biggest test to date there's no reason to believe he won't survive this one.

As we brace for what is often referred to as the most exciting day in tennis -- all sixteen fourth round matches will be played tomorrow -- there's plenty of opportunity for all those who've survived this far. History and experience will certainly favor some more than others, but nothing should be taken for granted. The first week of action has shown that no one is safe, and the ones left standing are more than capable of taking a few more scalps.

It's kind of nice to get this day off to regroup -- when everyone comes out on court tomorrow, you can be sure they'll swing with whatever power they have in them.