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.

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