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.

1 comment:

Kavitha said...

My mistake -- Kohlschreiber did pull out of the Olympics after the final. Haase is still in the draw though. He'll open tomorrow against Gasquet.