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.

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