August 31, 2012

The Comeback Kids

Despite some recent high-profile exits at this year's U.S. Open, the theme hasn't so much been that of a "Farewell Tour" as it has been a "Comeback Tour." And those comebacks come in all shapes and sizes -- through four days of play nine men have rebounded after losing the first two sets and more than a couple players in both draws have had to regroup after squandering big leads. It might not always be pretty, but, as we've come to expect from action in New York, it certainly shows us how exciting this sport can be.

Fabio Fognini is no stranger to five set matches -- his two-day 2010 French Open second round against Gael Monfils was one of my best of the year -- but when he got down two-sets-to-one to Edouard Roger-Vasselin after less than ninety minutes of play in his first round, it didn't seem like he'd be able to pull it off. But somehow the twenty-five year old Italian was able to pull himself together, taking advantage of his opponent's weak second serve in the third set, and eventually pushed him to a decider. After more than three and a half hours on court, he finally walked away the winner, scoring just his second career win in New York.

The one saving grace for Fognini is the fact that his next opponent, Spain's Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, endured a similar battle on Tuesday. Against tenth seed Juan Monaco, a man who'd won four of their five previous meetings, the world #68 needed just an hour to go down two sets. But the Argentine's serve fell apart in the third and despite winning one more point in the fourth, couldn't get a win in the tiebreak. Garcia-Lopez finally closed it out in an eighty-one minute decider -- again winning fewer points -- earning only his second top-twenty victory of the year. It could be ugly when the two tested players meet later today, but with each of them vying for their deepest run at the Open, it seems likely they'll both put up a fight.

While these underdogs might have been able to eke out the improbable wins in their early matches, some favorites have had to claw back from the brink. Janko Tipsarevic, defending quarterfinal points from last year, looked like he might be heading straight for the door when world #129 Guillaume Rufin took the first two sets from him, and American Mardy Fish, himself a standout here in 2011, had trouble getting a handle on Nikolay Davydenko in their second round. Tipsy was able to turn things around and Fish dropped just five games once he got his bearings -- if they want to go further, though, they'll need to raise their game further. Tipsarevic will meet quickly-rising Brian Baker, who'll have the crowd support in their second round, and Mardy's got a date with sixteenth seed Gilles Simon. Hopefully the long early rounds will serve as valuable prep as they continue forward.

The ladies haven't been immune from the drama either. World #2 Aggie Radwanska comes to New York with mixed expectations -- on the one hand, she's fresh off her first Grand Slam final, holds her highest career ranking and is one of the few women who could be #1 at the end of this fortnight. But she's only won a handful of matches since Wimbledon and retired from her New Haven opener with a shoulder strain. She breezed through her first round in New York, but against petite Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro yesterday she got herself in a world of trouble. She fell behind early and pulled even, only to be broken again in the first set and was a point away from going down two breaks in the second. But as CSN's game fell apart, Radwanska's was raised. She won five straight games to force a decider and blanker her opponent in a twenty-six minute third. Her win earns her a third round meeting with former U.S. Open runner-up Jelena Jankovic, and though the one-time #1 has been solid in her first two matches, we all know how easy it is for her to lose leads these days. If Aggie can keep her cool she might be able to overcome her doubters and make a run into the second week.

But so far nothing can compare to the fight we saw last night between two true stars of the sport. In what might be the best match of the tournament yet, and what is arguable the only real battle Arthur Ashe Stadium has seen so far this year -- at least at night -- sixth seeded Angelique Kerber took on two-time champion Venus Williams in a rematch of their Olympic third round. The German has been one of the standouts over the last twelve months, climbing from a rank of #92 at last year's Open -- where she had to qualify -- and beating the likes of Petra Kvitova, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams this season. Venus, meanwhile, is clearly at the tail end of her career, but with five top-ten wins this year and a run to the semis in Cincinnati, she certainly can't be counted out.

The pair's second round match didn't start out well for either woman -- Kerber opened with a break of serve but immediately gave it back. In fact, no one held until the sixth game, and after about half an hour the German seemed to have all the momentum. When she was up a set and 2-0 -- a ten-game stretch during which Venus hadn't held serve once -- things began to turn around. The veteran pulled even and ahead, and though Kerber got a break back, Williams finally forced a decider after more than a seventy-minute set. She had a break in the third, too, but Kerber, one of the best fighters on Tour this year, rebounded again. With the all-American crowd clearly pulling for her opponent, Angelique stayed the slightest bit stronger and finally earned her first match point after nearly three hours of play. Her win late last night -- early this morning -- sets her up against world #67 Olga Govortsova, who's coming off her own long second round. But with this section of the draw open wide, and her biggest threat already dispatched, things are looking good for Kerber to at least repeat her run from 2011.

The first few days of the U.S. Open certainly haven't fallen short in the drama department, and hopefully that won't wholly exhaust the stars who've survived this far. If they can keep up their level of play it could bode well for what we'll see in the next week.

And their comeback performances could give hope to all the others who find themselves down and out -- after all, in New York we know that anything can happen.

August 30, 2012

Goodbye, A-Rod

There must be something in the New York water.

Just about a day after Kim Clijsters' singles career ended in the second round of this year's U.S. Open, Andy Roddick announced he would retire after his run at the tournament was over.

Yes, it's been a while since the thirty-year-old was at the very top of the sport -- he ceded the #1 spot to Roger Federer in early 2004, making himself the last champion in the era before the current trifecta of Fed-Nadal-Djokovic took over. But he never went far -- Roddick finished the year in the top-ten every season from 2002 to 2010 and only dropped out of the top twenty late last year. He's won at least one title a year since 2001, including two in 2012 when many thought he was no longer relevant. He's played a handful of Grand Slam finals, winning the 2003 U.S. Open and coming oh-so-close to winning that elusive Wimbledon title just three years ago. Even as his career was winding down, he kept pace with the top guys -- he beat John Isner on his way to the Atlanta title in August and stunned Roger Federer in March with a third round win in Miami.

Roddick's resume may not be quite as decorated as some of his contemporaries -- his thirty-two trophies compare to seventy-six for Roger Federer and only tops Novak Djokovic, five years his junior, by one. But he remains the last American man to win a Major and has been instrumental in developing the young U.S. players of this sport. A fixture on the Davis Cup team for years, he's ushered in the likes of John Isner, Sam Querrey and Ryan Harrison, and leaves them in the still-capable hands of Mardy Fish and James Blake. And his foundation focuses on improving the lives of children on and off the court, so his influence on the sport is sure to last a good deal longer.

It's not entirely a surprise to see Roddick announce his retirement. At thirty years of age he's one of the tennis old guard, and while players like Roger and Serena have defied Father Time recently, Roddick has been plagued by various injuries for years. He said he would know by the way he played his first match in New York if he'd be able to continue past the Open, and he knew that he could not.

Like with Clijsters before him, the outpouring of emotion on hearing of Roddick's coming retirement was heavy:

But we're not quite done with him yet. Tomorrow night, under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, Andy Roddick will take on Australian teenager Bernard Tomic in his second round match. It would be interesting if two veterans' careers were ended by members of the next generation, but this New York crowd will be sure to do everything it can to keep their son's run going just a little while longer. And with so many new players now making their mark on the courts, us old folk will want to treasure that little bit of nostalgia we have remaining.

So the only question left is, "Who's next?"

August 29, 2012

Goodbye, Kim

Earlier this evening the tennis world said goodbye to another great champion for a second time.

Kim Clijsters, playing her final professional event at the U.S. Open, having won the tournament her last three trips to New York, lost in her second round to British teenager Laura Robson. The match displayed everything we've come to expect from the Belgian -- her fight, her talent, her compassion for fellow players, her respect and love for the game. And it ended a career that spanned, in no particular order, fifteen years, forty-one titles, one retirement, four Grand Slams, eight Major finals, multiple injuries, a husband, a daughter, twenty weeks at #1, twenty-two straight wins at the Open, nearly two-hundred thousand followers, and just a couple people sad to see her go.

The outpouring of sentiment only begins to do Kim's career justice. She did more than her part to shape women's tennis at the turn of the century, grinding out powerful groundstrokes, placing un-gettable winners, and running down just about every ball with the help of her signature splits. She challenged and often won against the sport's best, pulling together a 7-6 record against Venus Williams, dominating Serena in that infamous New York semi, and turning the tables on countrywoman and long-time rival Justine Henin in both of their second careers. And in the process she moulded the careers of the players who could one day take her place at the top of the game, players like Robson, who after the biggest win of her career said:

"I want to thank Kim for being such a great role model to me for so many years...She's always been someone that I've looked up to since I started on the tour. She's always been incredibly nice to be around. I think we're all going to miss her."

To say Clijsters left a legacy in the sport is an understatement. She's been an inspiration to both those she faced and those still to come. And while she will have to cede the trophy she's held since 2005, it will be a long time before the courts in New York forget her name. And her reign as a true champion will last forever.

August 26, 2012

Blogcast: 2012 U.S. Open Preview

Top tennis players are gearing up for the last Grand Slam of the year, but after a long, grueling summer, the trophies could really be up for grabs.

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 New York to see how much things have changed.

August 24, 2012

U.S. Open: Draw Analysis

Maybe it's the strength of the field, maybe it's the vulnerability of some favorites, maybe it's just me, but the draws for this year's U.S. Open sure seem to hold the potential for more than a few big upsets, and right from the get-go. Sure the top seeds still have the advantage, but even they're not all safe, and depending on how things work out through the rest of the brackets, we might see some surprising faces hanging around in the second week. And maybe even beyond that.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Roger Federer holds the top seed at a Slam for the first time in over two years, and after a title in Cincy and Olympic Silver, that's no figurehead position. He kicks off his quest for a sixth U.S. Open crown against Donald Young, the Cinderella here last year, but a man who's scored just one win in his last nineteen matches. Tomas Berdych may have a slightly tougher time against French Open standout David Goffin -- the young Belgian has been climbing the ranks this year -- but as the former Wimbledon runner-up might be out for blood after the disappointing summer he's had.

There is room for more sparks to fly elsewhere in this quarter, though. I hadn't paid much attention to eleventh seed Nicolas Almagro for a few months, and was surprised to realize he's made at least the quarters of all but one event he's played since mid-May. He's never been a huge threat in New York, though, and with an opening round against always threatening Radek Stepanek, this may not be his year either. And Sam Querrey, who's worked all year to get back into seeding territory will need to bring the heat from the start. He actually has a fairly easy draw early on, and if he can get past Berdych in the third round I wouldn't be surprised to see him battle Federer in the quarters.

There is one little section where really anything can happen -- Mardy Fish and Gilles Simon are joined by players like Ivo Karlovic, Nikolay Davydenko and Michael Russell, any of whom could pounce on their opponents' weaknesses. I'd love to see Fish defend points here, but if anyone expends too much energy early, this section could blow up by the third round.

Who'll survive? This quarter is Fed's for the taking, but if Querrey hangs tough enough, he might put up a fight for the semi spot.

Second Quarter

Defending champion Novak Djokovic isn't exactly having a bad year, but with just three titles so far this year compared to the nine he'd wracked up by this time last August, it sure seems like he's fallen out of favor. But he shouldn't see any real challenge until the third round when he faces off against Julien Benneteau, and even then he's the clear favorite. The other half of the section is a little less certain. Juan Martin Del Potro, who beat Djokovic for the Bronze medal in London, has been cleared to play with an injured wrist, but could still face problems early against countryman David Nalbandian. And with big hitters like Andreas Seppi and Ryan Harrison lingering in his immediate future, I'm nervous he won't last long.

There are a couple of spoilers in this section too -- Alexandr Dolgopolov and Stanislas Wawrinka have both had some strong results this summer, and could meet each other in the third round. They've both had varying degrees of success here in the past, and the way they're hitting the ball, it's a shame that only one of them has a shot at making another fourth round.

But if you're looking for a real surprise in this quarter, keep an eye on tenth seeded Juan Monaco -- the veteran Argentine cracked the top ten last month thanks to a super-strong clay season, but a run to the Miami semis in March proves he can hit on hardcourts as well. He'll be challenged at the start though -- former world #23 Guillermo Garcia Lopez is his first round opponent and Andy Roddick, Bernard Tomic and Carlos Berlocq all could raise their game to outplay their rankings. But if Monaco keeps his cool, he could make his deepest run here yet

Who'll survive? Experience and talent still favors Nole -- he's made at least the semis in New York for five straight years, and doesn't seem at all ready to let that stop now.

Third Quarter

Andy Murray comes to New York again with the weight of the world -- or at least of Great Britain -- on his shoulders, so he's going to want to deliver. He's made the final here before but after taking Olympic Gold a repeat of that performance won't be enough to placate his fans. He opens against Alex Bogomolov, another man who had a nice showing here last year -- the Russian-turned American-returned Russian did win their first meeting, but he's been dropping points all year and shouldn't be much of a challenge to the Scot.

A bigger challenge should come from his potential fourth round against Milos Raonic -- the big serving Canadian won their only previous match, with each ceding a walkover at two other scheduled meetings, but that win came on clay and is far from indicative of either's strengths. This is a match where sparks could fly.

The other top seed in this section is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, unfortunately slated to meet Murray in the quarterfinals. He faces off against a qualifier in his first round, but could meet just-seeded Jeremy Chardy, the man who beat him in his Toronto opener just a few weeks ago, in the third. The lower-ranked Frenchman seems to be on the upswing -- he also took out Murray in Cincinnati -- and can't be overlooked by anyone in this section.

Who'll survive? It's a strange quarter, this one -- two players in the top six, a couple "underdogs" who've upset the favorites, and more than a handful of qualifiers. Really, it's anyone's to take and, not to upset the ardent Murray fans, I think it'll be Raonic and Tsonga battling for this semi spot.

Fourth Quarter

The last quarter of the men's bracket might be the most unusual -- David Ferrer got the benefit of Rafael Nadal's withdrawal from the Open, and so the world #5 comes to New York leading his quarter. But for his efforts he was rewarded with a first round against just unseeded Kevin Anderson, a player who has spent a little more time on American hardcourts this summer. Meanwhile Janko Tipsarevic, last year's surprise quarterfinalist, could meet 2012 uber-Cinderella Brian Baker in his second round. Both favorites clearly have experience on their side, but I wouldn't be surprised to see either underdog pull off an upset.

There are more than a couple interesting first rounds in this section, though. Tommy Haas takes on Ernests Gulbis, who's spent his whole summer trying to rebuild his ranking. Still out of the top 150, he's nevertheless scored wins over Anderson, Xavier Malisse and Tomas Berdych this year and might be able to take advantage if the German is too tired after his summer. Malisse has also been scoring some impressive wins this season -- Florian Mayer in Bucharest, Gilles Simon at Wimbledon -- and could give John Isner, my New Year's pick to win the title, a run for the money in their opener. And two rising stars -- Grigor Dimitrov and Benoit Paire -- will also face off in their first round. With nearly identical win-loss records on the year, it's a shame one of them will have to go home early.

And one relatively low seed could cause some trouble in this section -- Phillipp Kohlschreiber is just off a career-high ranking at #20 in the world, and with two finals and a win over Rafael Nadal on his record this year, you know he can do some damage. He's got doubles specialist Michael Llodra to start and either Dimitrov or Paire a match later. None of those are necessarily easy prospects, but if he survives he should be Isner's first real test at the Open.

Who'll survive? I picked Isner to win this whole thing, so he'll have to get through this quarter first. It won't be the easiest task but, the Kohlschreiber threat aside, he might have a better look than some other spoilers.

The Women

First Quarter

Things could get a little hairy for the ladies too. Defending champion Sam Stosur is in the same quarter as world #1 Victoria Azarenka, and with a 0-6 record against the Belarusian she won't have the easiest time defending. But that's not even the biggest threat she faces in the quarter.

Jie Zheng, previously an Australian Open and Wimbledon semifinalist, hasn't had too much success off the grass this season, but is the kind of player that can catch the favorites off guard -- she's slated to meet Azarenka in the third round. And Varvara Lepchenko squeezed into seeding territory just in time for the Open. She'll likely be Sam's third round opponent, and with a win in the pair's only meeting -- albeit several years ago -- she might have the confidence to do it again.

Possibly the most interesting third round here will come between Kim Clijsters, unbeaten in New York in her last twenty-one appearances, and Na Li, runner-up in Montreal and champion of Cincinnati. The two have had a dramatic history, with Li stunning the Belgian in Sydney last year and Kim coming back from a set down in both the 2011 and 2012 Australian Opens. This will be Clijsters' last time in Flushing Meadows, so she is the sentimental favorite, but plagued by injury most of the season she might just fall this time to the ninth seed, who's been on a roll all summer.

Who'll survive? There's a lot of strength in this quarter, with so many players proving themselves on this surface. I think it'll be Vika and Li vying for that semi spot, and momentum might just be on the Chinese woman's side again.

Second Quarter

This is where things are interesting. Second seeded Aggie Radwanska has had one of the most successful seasons on Tour, capped by a stellar performance in her first Major final last month. And though she's generally strong this part of the year, she suffered two one-sided losses to Na Li in Montreal and Cincinnati and withdrew from New Haven with a nagging shoulder injury. Even with a few easy matches early, I'm afraid she's one of the most vulnerable of the top seeds.

That could bode well for last year's Cinderella semifinalist Angelique Kerber, seeded sixth here this year. She pulled out of Dallas with her own shoulder issues after making the Cincy final, but hopefully will parlay the week off into a strong showing in New York. She'll need the rest too -- comeback kid lady Venus Williams looms as a second round opponent, assuming the American gets past countrywoman Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her first round. Venus has proven she's still a contender, making the semis in Cincinnati and beating a handful of top-ten players this year, so she should prove a formidable foe to even the best players here.

Elsewhere in this section a couple players will be looking for redemption. Jelena Jankovic put up a fight to make the Dallas final this week, but has been less than predictable most of the year -- she's slated to meet Aggie in the third. And Dominika Cibulkova, who returned to glory with a win in Carlsbad early in the summer, hasn't won a lot since. After her dismantling in the New Haven quarters, she'll want to raise her game here, but with a slew of rising stars in her immediate path -- Johanna Larsson, either Mona Barthel or Bojana Jovanovski -- it could be difficult. And Sara Errani, a breakout during the clay season has been surprisingly quiet even on the hardcourts. Hopefully her run in New Haven will prep her well for this Major.

With so many potential fireworks, it's easy to miss that Yaroslava Shvedova, a surprise in her own right this season, will face off against her oftentimes doubles partner Vania King in her opener. The two were actually runners-up here last year and won together in New York and Wimbledon back in 2010. It's always interesting to see two players so used to each other's game face off, but I'm thinking with the year Slava's having, it'll be her match to lose.

Who'll survive? It's a tough one, but I like Kerber's chances to make it through this section.

Third Quarter

Maria Sharapova has obviously been having a great year herself -- a Grand Slam final, another title, Olympic Silver, she even climbed back to #1 for a month or so. She hasn't played a lot on hardcourts this year, but should have a fairly straightforward run as she looks to repeat at a Major for the first time. There aren't a lot of threats for her early -- the first seed she's slated to meet is a wholly beatable Anabel Medina Garrigues, and no one in her half of the quarter is ranked in the top fifteen.

The biggest threat, predictably, comes from the bottom half of this section -- Petra Kvitova, who clinched the U.S. Open Series when she made the semis in New Haven, has an extra million dollars riding on her performance here, and after reversing a dismal hardcourt season from last year, she could very well do it. She also has a relatively easy road early, potentially facing a rematch of her New Haven quarter with collegiate star Nicole Gibbs, and doesn't get a major challenge until the Sweet Sixteen where Marion Bartoli should be waiting for her.

There are some spots that could be tricky, though. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who just started pulling her career back together by making the final in DC, opens against injury-addled Daniela Hantuchova, unseeded at a Major for the first time since Wimbledon 2009. She has pulled things together recently though, beating Jie Zheng in Cincinnati and Na Li at the Olympics, so she could give the Russian some trouble. And Lucie Safarova, finally a member of the top twenty thanks to her semifinal in Montreal, kicks off against one-time U.S. Open darling Melanie Oudin. The American's star certainly has fallen some, but that seems to be when she does best. Also keep an eye out for Alexandra Wozniak, in the same section as Safarova and often spotty Nadia Petrova -- if she's on her game, she's shown she can well outplay her ranking.

Who'll survive? It seems inevitable MaSha will take on Petra for the semi spot and it really is a toss-up. The Czech might be a bit exhausted, though, after four straight weeks of play, so I'm giving this win to Maria.

Fourth Quarter

Yes, Wimbledon champ and Olympic Gold medalist Serena Williams is only seeded fourth here, even though she's the odds-on favorite for this title. Still, other favorites have to be happy they won't see her too soon in their draw. First round opponent Coco Vandeweghe isn't as lucky -- the young American faces a rematch of the Stanford final in which she actually had the lead at one point. That might give young Coco some hope, but we all know just how high Serena raises her game at the Majors.

Caroline Wozniacki is the other favorite in this section, and though she has falling from the top seed she held just a year ago, things might not be so dour for her in New York. She's already made the semis in New Haven, an event she's dominated since 2008 and handed Serena one of her only losses on a hardcourt this year in Miami. The one-time finalist starts against rising star Irina-Camelia Begu, certainly no easy mark, but might have an easier time later in the draw. Ana Ivanovic is the highest seed in her immediate path, and with the Serb dealing with her own set of injuries, it might not be as big a fight as we'd hope.

As should be expected, there are plenty of opportunities for players to sneak through. Unseeded American Sloane Stephens is steadily climbing the rankings, and with a first round against Francesca Schiavone, she's more than capable of making a statement here. And Maria Kirilenko, who's quietly worked her way to a career high ranking, could be challenged by Chanelle Scheepers in her opener, but is more likely to breeze through her section -- her first on-paper challenge will be inexplicably seeded Klara Zakopalova in the third round and, seeing how she plays much bigger than her size, she might just give Serena a run for the money a match later.

Who'll survive? I would love to see something special happen here, but back problems aside, if Serena doesn't make the semis, something is seriously wrong.

There will of course be surprises along the way, but the top players -- especially those who've spent some time at the top -- should be able to work their ways through their respective brackets. It'll be interesting to see just how much the jam-packed summer has affected their play, and if some underdogs come out on top, that might just make for a very interesting fortnight.

But when all is said and done, and a new king and queen are crowned, you'll know the eventual champions will have earned their places as the newest stars on the block.

August 22, 2012

Where Things Are Good

It's a little strange to see so many top stars in action the week before the year's last Major, especially after the summer we've already had. Of course they run the risk of exhaustion -- if they hope to make the second week of the U.S. Open, it could mean three straight weeks of grueling matches -- but some players insist on getting in a few extra matches at these warm-up events. And maybe for good reason.

The ladies are only making their second trip to Dallas, so there's not a lot of history to draw from, but if last year's draw is any indication, it's been a place for players to regain the spotlight. Aravane Rezai hadn't won more than two full matches at any event in 2011, but as a qualifier pulled off four upsets in the main draw to reach the final. And champion Sabine Lisicki's title sealed her comeback and helped her reach a career high ranking a few months later.

Neither are in the draw this time, but former #1 Jelena Jankovic might hope their karma rubs off on her a bit. Her opening round loss in Cincinnati last week -- during which she squandered five match points -- pushed her out of the top thirty for the first time since 2006 and threatened to unseed her in New York. But this week in Texas, JJ seems to be back on track -- she stayed tough last night to notch a win over giant killer Arantxa Rus and decimated Sorana Cirstea this evening to make her first semi of the summer. There are still a few matches left before she can claim a title, but if she can stay alive a little while longer, it could do wonders for her confidence next week.

A little further east John Isner will try to recapture the magic he found last year at the inaugural Winston-Salem Open -- he won the title in his home state with wins over Marcos Baghdatis, Julien Benneteau, and then top-seeded Andy Roddick. Stakes are higher in 2012 -- Isner is one of three top-ten players in the draw this time -- but the crowd will certainly be on his side again. After surviving a scare yesterday against Martin Klizan, he'll have to raise his game against Jurgen Melzer who's won their previous two meetings. But if he can harness those good memories from last year, he might have the edge the rest of the week. And if he can translate that into success in New York, it could help him make his first real Slam statement.

There's a bigger streak at stake closer to the action at the U.S. Open. Caroline Wozniacki has been crowned champion in New Haven four years in a row -- in fact, her 2011 title was the last she's won and, considering she claimed six trophies in each of the previous two seasons, that makes this year her least productive since 2007. She's seemed more than comfortable so far at Yale, dispatching Sofia Arvidsson in less than ninety minutes earlier today, but things look to get tougher from here. She'll next face Carlsbad champion Dominika Cibulkova, spotty in her recent matches, but a winner over the eighth-ranked Dane in two of their last four meetings. The Connecticut campus has been like a second home to Wozniacki, though, so there may be a few intangibles in her favor on Thursday. And given the relatively staid year she's had so far, any momentum she can gather can only do her good at the Open.

Hopefully these players' recent successes won't deplete their energy when it's really important, but there's no harm in returning to a place sure to boost their confidence. There's no guarantee they'll come out victorious when the week's through, of course, but getting that nice little reminder of just how much they can accomplish could only help them as they make their way to New York.

August 19, 2012

Rally the Vote

Here in the States we're approaching a very important period of the year. No, not the lead-up to the Presidential election, but the last stages of preparation before the final Grand Slam of the year. And while recent attention may have been placed elsewhere, this week's action in Cincinnati refocused us on a couple candidates that may have fallen a bit under the radar in recent weeks.

It's a little disingenuous to pretend world #1 Roger Federer is anything but one of the top contenders for the U.S. Open title. But after his shockingly one-sided defeat at the hands of Andy Murray in the Olympic final, momentum seemed to be shifting slightly. But things seemed to revert this week at the Western & Southern Open, where the great Fed, four times a champion before, was back in form. In his first four matches, he allowed just three break chances to his opponents and never conceded one -- and these were no second tier players he faced: Bernard Tomic, compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka, 2010 finalist Mardy Fish.

But never during the week did he look as good has he did in this afternoon's final. Against second-seeded Novak Djokovic, riding his own hardcourt win streak with titles in Toronto and Miami, he had lost six of his last eight meetings, three of which had come at Grand Slams. Nole had looked surprisingly good since loosing a heartbreaking Bronze medal match, too. In Cincinnati he'd been perfect on serve too and reached the final with a drubbing of Juan Martin Del Potro, the man who'd denied him a second spot on the Olympic podium.

After the most recent stretch, Djokovic had pulled just shy of even with the world #1, but Roger was quick to pull back ahead. In a twenty-minute first set, he made good on three of four break chances and held his opponent to just over a third of his service points. Nole was able to raise his game in the second set, but it wasn't quite enough -- neither man was able to make a perceivable dent in his return games, but when they made their way to the tiebreak, Roger was the one holding ever-so-slightly stronger. On his second championship point he hit a winner that Djokovic couldn't get to and sealed his spot as champion again.

The ladies' draw didn't pan out quite as expectedly -- the top three seeds were all eliminated in the quarterfinals, but the two who made the final nevertheless represented some of the best of this year's hard court season. Angelique Kerber, who made her breakout on Tour just about a year ago, has been playing some of the most consistent tennis of the year, making three finals before arriving at Cincinnati, and taking a couple titles in the process. At the Western & Southern, though, she really raised her game, pulling off some of the biggest wins of her career over red-hot Serena Williams in the quarters and Petra Kvitova in Saturday's semi.

Meanwhile Na Li, who hadn't won a title since taking the French last year, nevertheless compiled a strong 17-6 record on hardcourts this year and made the finals in both Sydney and Montreal. At thirty years of age, it would've been easy to write her off, but she pulled off a second win over top seed Aggie Radwanska in the quarters and stayed strong against veteran Venus Williams in the semis to make her second final in as many weeks.

Kerber seemed in control of the match early. In a first set just slightly longer than that of Roger and Nole's she broke twice and won about two-thirds of the total points. But the tide turned in the second and the players traded breaks early. It was in the eighth game of the set, though, that things got interesting. In a twenty-four point game, Li converted on her eighteenth break chance of the match and after that things went entirely in favor of the Chinese. Kerber couldn't get any hold in the decider, losing the first four games of the set and almost before you realized what happened, it was Li walking away with the trophy.

It was a nice time for both this week's champions to come up with their wins -- with just a week left until the U.S. Open, there might not be a better opportunity to reassert their strength. It's not as though we could really, truly forget about them, but especially while the rest of the fields look a little bruised and battered, there's no harm in reminding us all what they're made of. And with the latest salvos they've delivered in their debates, there's sure to be a lot more support in their camps when they make the move to New York.

August 16, 2012

The Graveyard

The summer hardcourt stretch is usually one of the more brutal periods of the tennis season -- it's hot, it's humid, it's hard on your body. But players, at least the top ones, usually get more of a chance to pick and choose events, take a week off to recover here and there, and pace themselves better between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. This year, on the other hand, the calendar has been especially rough, and more than a few high-profile casualties have been claimed.

Of course there was an Olympic elephant in the room, jamming the back half of the summer with three big tournaments back-to-back-to-back just before the final Grand Slam of the season. The London event isn't wholly to blame, of course, but the tight and tense schedule has taken a toll on the field. So far in Cincinnati, four players have retired mid-match, this after the likes of Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic and John Isner pulled out of the draws entirely. And that's not even the worst of it -- Rafael Nadal yesterday disappointed a legion of fans when he announced he wasn't fit enough to play in New York, and earlier today Gael Monfils, absent from Tour since early May with knee issues of his own, did the same.

It does make you wonder, then, if everyone's efforts are worth it. Tommy Haas, left off the German team in London, has played every week since Wimbledon -- every week but one in fact since Roland Garros -- but fell in the second round in Cincy. And Olympic Bronze medalist Juan Martin Del Potro, who dismissed Haas Wednesday, battled a wrist injury today to get a three-set win over Viktor Troicki -- makes you wonder if he can last another round here. Even Serena Williams, riding a three-title win streak, was nursing a back strain on Tuesday and had trouble closing out against world #121 Eleni Daniilidou. In her match against Urszula Radwanska today, she was broken four times -- by comparison, she lost serve just once at the Olympics.

But while these guys struggle, there are of course those looking to pick through the remains of these fallen and broken stars and come out on top. Montreal titleist Petra Kvitova has already won more hardcourt matches this summer than she even played last year, suggesting she might have found a way to lick the asthma that plagued her in the latter half of 2011. And reigning U.S. Open champ Sam Stosur, two-and-four since Wimbledon, slogged through a nearly three hour match against Anabel Medina Garrigues Tuesday. Up a set and a break on Ekaterina Makarova now, she might be making that late-August push as she preps to defend.

A few men are also looking to take advantage of their opportunities. Mardy Fish, hobbled by illness for much of the first half of the year, seems to have found his groove again. He's dropped a bit in the rankings, but notched his only top-ten win of the year last week in Toronto. He's only been broken once in his first three matches year and looks poised for a quarterfinal meeting against Roger Federer -- the four-time champion is already up a break on Bernard Tomic in his third round. That's no easy draw, of course, but Fish has given the Great Fed a challenge more than once recently, so the outcome is far from certain.

More impressive, however, might be the run of Nikolay Davydenko in Cincinnati. The former world #3 has fallen well out of the spotlight the last few months, making it past the second round of a tournament just once since late March. Now almost out of the top fifty, he fully dominated DC champ Alexandr Dolgopolov in his opener, converting five of ten break chances and winning almost two-thirds of all the points. He followed it up with a similarly one-sided victory over Florian Mayer and will tonight face last year's runner-up Novak Djokovic. Clearly he's the underdog in that match, hasn't beaten the recent #1 since 2009, but the Serb has been pretty busy this summer and could be caught off guard.

As usual some players are primed to pounce on any chance created for them, and with so many falling by the wayside, the opportunities are particularly plentiful. For a few looking to turn their seasons around, it's a chance to get in a couple big wins before the year's last Major. And if they can do it, there might be a hugely different dynamic in place when we get to New York.

August 13, 2012

Canada Not-So-Dry

Rain sure tried to wreak havoc on the Rogers Cup all week -- with so many matches suspended and delayed, players were forced to cram in multiple rounds in one day, and the ladies, in fact, won't decide their champion until later today. The weather wasn't to blame for all the surprises we saw over the last few days, of course -- the grueling summer schedule cast a shadow in the form of several pull-outs and retirements in Canada and Cincinnati -- and with both the literal and figurative clouds cleared, we're left with some results we might not have expected.

A lot of the big upsets in Toronto came in the early rounds, but players like Mardy Fish pulled off a solid comeback against Juan Monaco and top American John Isner stayed tough against fellow big-server Milos Raonic to make the semis. Both, however, were stopped by France's Richard Gasquet, who's seemed to make a habit of dismissing the best U.S. athletes this year.

In the other half of the draw, defending champion Novak Djokovic was trying to "turn around" the year that's only brought him two titles and seen him fall before the semifinals one time*. He didn't have to face a seeded player in his first three rounds, but with matches against back-on-the-rise Sam Querrey and Tommy Haas, he was certainly dealt no easy draw. His biggest on-paper challenge came late Saturday night when he faced off against countryman Janko Tipsarevic in a stop-and-go semi. But even that he handled easily, winning all but three points on his first serve and getting back to the final after less than two hours of actual play.

The championship match itself wasn't much to speak of. Gasquet hadn't beaten the recent #1 since 2007, and couldn't seem to get a foothold in this, his third Masters 1000 final. Novak broke early and often, served better than he had even on Saturday and before you even knew what happened, had earned his twelfth Masters trophy and moved himself within a few hundred points of reclaiming the #1 ranking. If he's able to keep up his play in Cincinnati -- not out of the question considering he's one of the few players who doesn't seem to be nursing major ailments -- he could make himself the favorite again at the fast-approaching U.S. Open.

The drama in the ladies draw was arguably more palpable. After the withdrawals and the upsets, there were a couple unseeded players who survived as far as the quarters and ultimately no one in the top five was left standing by the semis.

In the first match contested Sunday, world #23 Lucie Safarova, who'd already dismissed Sam Stosur and and an always-tough Roberta Vinci in Montreal, faced off against 2011 French Open champion Na Li, a woman who'd only won one match since the fourth round of this year's Roland Garros. She looked on point in Canada though, first ousting fellow clay-courter Sara Errani in the third round and then ending Aggie Radwanska's bid to become the top ranked player in the world with a two-and-one drubbing of the Wimbledon runner-up. The veteran Chinese got in trouble early against Safarova, ceding the only break of the first set, and found herself in a 1-5 hole in the decider. But the pressure finally seemed to get to the Czech, as she failed to serve out the match twice and finally succumbed in the nearly two-hour match.

The second semi was no less exciting. Former #1 Caroline Wozniacki and the player of 2011 Petra Kvitova were both hoping to claim their first title of the season. The Dane was arguably running on fumes, needing nearly four-and-a-half hours on court Saturday to survive both Varvara Lepchenko and hometown girl Aleksandra Wozniak. She started off strong too against last year's Wimbledon champ by taking the first set, but Kvitova was able to force a decider just before the skies opened up again. When play resumed later that evening, this Czech hit her way to a two-break lead and eventually finished off her opponent to make her first final of the season.

The finalists don't have a lot of history -- their three meetings have all happened in the last fifteen months -- but Li won their only meeting on a hardcourt this past January, and Kvitova hasn't traditionally fared well during this North American swing. But she's been more than solid in her last few matches, and with the motivation to prove last year was no fluke might just be in a position to run to a title here.

It has certainly been a brutal couple weeks for all the players on Tour, but those who've survived the rains at the first big event of this U.S. Open Series might just have a leg up on their competition. It promises to be an exhausting couple weeks before the next Major, but these guys have proven they might have the stamina to last a bit longer than others. And if they pace themselves during this home stretch, they might just come out shining brighter on the other end.

* Novak's earliest loss this year was in the Madrid quarterfinals, to world #8 Tipsarevic.

August 10, 2012

Making the Switch

It's been a rough couple days for the sport's best players as they've tried to make the relatively late shift to the American hardcourt season. With so many staying on Wimbledon's grass for the Olympics last week, there wasn't a lot of time to adjust for the first big events of the U.S. Open Series.

Players like fourth-place finisher Maria Kirilenko and runner-up Maria Sharapova skipped the Rogers Cup in Canada entirely, while Gold medalist Andy Murray withdrew after his first match. And a couple who were hoping to stick around fared no better -- five men's seeds, including Bronze winner Juan Martin Del Potro, were upset in Toronto on Wednesday and top players like Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova had to fight back from the brink in Montreal.

But that does open the door for other players still in the draw -- both those who have been slogging it out on the surface the last few weeks while the favorites were otherwise occupied, and those who didn't last quite as long at the All England Club as they might have hoped.

Aggie Radwanska's run to the final at Wimbledon solidified her spot as one of the sport's top athletes, but her opening loss at the Summer Games threatened to halt her momentum cold. She got herself in a bit of danger her first match in Montreal, dropping her first set to rising German Mona Barthel. But perhaps helped by a couple rain delays, the Pole regrouped in the second and finally closed out the match. Traditionally strong this time of year, she might be able to take advantage of any holes left in the draw.

Sara Errani, too, hasn't done much off the clay since spring -- she's won a match here and there on grass, but with an infamous golden set against her record she might have been aching to get on a surface more to her liking. She's never won a Tour title on a hardcourt, but with a run to the Australian Open quarters, you know she can cause some waves. She was dominant in her opener against Jana Cepelova, but will have to raise her game against Na Li, a woman who's proven she's still relevant on both Errani's best grounds. If she can score the win, though, it could bode well for the Italian the rest of this week.

It's not just the favorites, though, that stand to gain in Montreal. Hometown favorite Aleksandra Wozniak has been rebuilding her game all year, winning an ITF title in Nassau and cutting her ranking basically in half. She survived a close call against unseeded and recovering Daniela Hantuchova in her first round and followed up with a one-sided victory over former #1 Jelena Jankovic on Thursday. She'll be the underdog again against Christina McHale in her next match, but with the American going three sets in her early rounds, Wozniak might be the fresher contestant. And the way her section of the draw is shaping up, there's plenty of reason to believe she could keep on going.

The men in Toronto have seen their bracket busted wide open over the last few days, and while favorites like Novak Djokovic and Canada's own Milos Raonic have survived, the possibilities for others may be stronger. Mardy Fish has a chunk of points to defend in the coming weeks, and while his contemporaries bided their time in London, he got in a couple practice shots in the U.S. He's only played one match so far at the Rogers Cup, but his drubbing of his Indian Wells vanquisher Matthew Ebden -- he lost just seven points on serve and needed less than an hour to advance -- suggests he's in good form. If he can make it past new top-tenner Juan Monaco next, certainly no easy task, he could make a good and deep run here.

Tommy Haas has also spent the summer rebuilding his game. Back in the top thirty thanks to a title in Halle and runner-up finishes in Hamburg and Washington, he's already survived two tough opponents -- veteran David Nalbandian nearly ousted him early while ninth seeded Gilles Simon provided relatively little resistance. He'll next face Radek Stepanek, who on Wednesday scored a big win over Juan Martin Del Potro and won their most recent meeting in Miami. But Haas is a different player these days and might just be the favorite this time.

But the sleeper in this draw might be Jeremy Chardy who notched his first top-ten victory of the year over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Wednesday. The Frenchman barely has a winning record on the year, but by making the third round here, he looks to be changing that. He'll next meet Spain's Marcel Granollers, a man who's technically a favorite, but with just two wins on hardcourts so far this year, he might not be quite up to snuff. Chardy did win the pair's only previous match about a year ago, too, so history could be on his side.

The switch to hardcourts seems to have had different effects on players this week, taking some victims, allowing others redemption, and rewarding those who've remained loyal to it the last few weeks. Whether players can keep the momentum they've captured so far in Canada as we head to the final Grand Slam of the year remains to be seen. But performances so far bode well for these players, and with a more wins they might just change the conversation at the U.S. Open.

August 6, 2012

It's Not All About the Gold

Now that all the excitement around Olympic tennis has died down it might be a good time to step back and look at the other action that went on last week. It's easy to have been distracted, but for the tennis players who passed on or were left out of the Summer Games, this was a great opportunity to get some momentum for the fast-approaching U.S. Open. And the results in DC certainly provided more than a few surprises and some real chances to shine.

The ladies' draw featured more than a few players who could have played in London last week. Top seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has seen her ranking drop slightly the last few months due to injury though and, at #34 when the Olympic players were determined, was only the sixth-highest Russian in the field. And South Africa's Chanelle Scheepers hasn't played for her Fed Cup team since 2005, so was ineligible to make the trip herself. Instead they made their way to the U.S. hardcourts along with a crop of other players looking to make a bold statement or a strong comeback.

Success came unevenly of course -- Scheepers dropped her first round quickly, back-on-the-upswing Melanie Oudin dropped a long three setter to one-time #15 Aravane Rezai, whose own comeback was stopped just one round later. Meanwhile Americans Vania King and Sloane Stephens, each at or near their career-high singles rankings, lived up to their rankings to make the semis while Pavs herself reminded the tennis world she was still relevant, making her first final in over a year.

Unfortunately for the former world #13, she was full out of gas -- her semi with King went nearly three hours -- when she met unseeded Magdalena Rybarikova in Saturday's match. The young Slovakian was well off her best ranking, having dropped out of the top hundred and compiling an unimpressive 5-11 record on Tour this year. But she took no prisoners in Washington last week -- she ousted Scheepers in just over an hour, stunned a strong Sloane Stephens in the semis, and took advantage of an exhausted opponent in the championship match. With Maggie's every ball finding its mark -- she made just seven errors in the match -- she dismantled the #1 seed in another hour's time, handing Pavlyuchenkova her first loss ever in a final and earning her own third career trophy.

The stakes for the men in DC might have been even higher -- with five hundred points on the line, the champion would receive a bigger boost than Federer got from taking Silver in London. Perhaps that helps explain why stars like Mardy Fish, Kevin Anderson and re-ascendant Sam Querrey were all in the bracket.

They weren't immune from upsets of their own, though -- only five seeds made it out of the second round with James Blake ousting Pablo Andujar in their opener and Xavier Malisse, strangely left off the Belgian team at the Olympics, taking care of Jeremy Chardy a few days later. On the other hand Fish, struggling with injury all year, rebounded after retiring in Atlanta and losing the first here to make his first semi of the season. And Querrey, a stone's throw from a seeding in New York, scored a solid win over Anderson in the quarters to make the final four himself.

Both their runs were stopped though -- one by a veteran who's been rebuilding his form throughout 2012, the other by a youngster who'd so far failed to repeat his successes from last year. Tommy Haas, who in January was ranked just #205, proved he wasn't going anywhere when he stunned Roger Federer to take the Halle title back in June and made the final a few weeks later in Hamburg. In a solid service performance he took out Fish in Saturday's semi, dropping just two points on first attempts and denying all three break opportunities. Meanwhile Alexandr Dolgopolov, a standout at last year's Australian Open, had failed to defend many points this season. He dropped three opening matches in a row during the spring and lost in the semis of Umag, the lone title he'd won in 2011. But he was back in the groove in Washington. He only struggled briefly against James Blake in his early rounds and got past Querrey without allowing a break of serve.

The final last night was not without drama -- a long rain delay late in first set gave Haas the advantage in the tiebreak, but the Ukrainian rebounded quickly and got a late break in the second which he did not cede. The tide swiftly turned after that and Dolgopolov built a solid lead in the decider, finally closing out the match as the German's serve faltered and his own confidence grew. The win vaulted him nine spots up the rankings, and with his solid play all week, reminded future opponents he was no one-season wonder.

This weekend's champions may not have had the honor of playing for their countries, but perhaps the boost they got in winning was worth a little more to them individually. With confidence restored they can play with -- and defeat -- the big guns, there's no telling what they can do the rest of the year.

August 5, 2012

The Missing Link

We knew that by the end of today's Gold medal match we would make history -- either world #1 Roger Federer would walk away with the elusive Golden Slam, or Britain's son Andy Murray would finally rise to the level his country has been expecting from him since he burst on the scene some four years ago. Chances to grab Olympic Gold don't come around often, and for two of the most decorated players in the sport winning this match would raise either to a most rarefied strata, and hopes for a fierce battle on Sunday ran high.

Roger, with seven titles at the All England Club already, was the clear favorite against the man who'd never beaten him in a best-of-three match, much less at Wimbledon. But after Federer's record breaking win over eventual Bronze medalist Juan Martin Del Potro in the semis, it was the Scot who came to this game more rested. The fact that the crowd was so clearly on his side might have helped too.

But I don't know that anyone would have predicted such a one-sided performance as the one we got today.

Murray, whose performance in his fourth career Slam final last month was easily his best so far, seemed to finally have taken a lesson from that defeat. He struggled to hold serve in his first game, but broke not long after and closed out the set in just over a half hour. He took an early lead in the second, built a shocking 5-0 lead and before you knew it was up two sets. Roger held a little tougher in the third, but still couldn't make a dent on his opponent's serve -- he won just a single point when receiving. On the court he's excelled on for the better part of a decade, Roger Federer had suffered his first straight-set loss since 2002 and was denied the one prize still missing from his trophy case. And after dominating all afternoon, Murray had finally given Great Britain the champion they've longed for.

Importantly, Sunday's performance from Murray finally proved he can play with the big boys. Yes, his first five matches in London were only three sets, but solid wins over Roger, Beijing Bronze medalist Novak Djokovic in the semis and even Stanislas Wawrinka in his opener remind us of the talent that's earned him an impressive eight Masters titles. Murray's Olympic Gold gives him that rare honor most of the sport's greats have never achieved, and as he gets ready to make another go for that first Grand Slam in less than a month, he may never have been in a better position.

For Roger, on the other hand, his failure to complete the medal run leaves him one accomplishment short of uber-rival Rafael Nadal, who won Gold in Beijing -- and with four years to go before Rio, the almost thirty-one year old may not have another opportunity to catch up. We know better, of course, than to count him out for good -- after all chasing the dream is what drives all great champions.

And both these men certainly have more to aspire to.

August 4, 2012

Golden Domination

We knew that by the end of today's Gold medal match we would make history -- either world #2 Maria Sharapova or Wimbledon champion Serena Williams would walk away with the elusive Golden Slam, winning each of the Majors and the championship medal at the Olympics. It's a rare honor only three people have achieved before and given the legacy both have created over the last ten-plus years, it's hard to choose two women more deserving of the prize.

But I don't know that anyone would have predicted such a one-sided performance as the one we got today.

The match took just over an hour, the scoreline reading 6-0, 6-1 in favor of the American. Sharapova didn't get on the board until the tenth game of the match, won fewer than half of the total points and managed only six winners in total -- one-fourth the number Serena scored. It was Williams' biggest win over the recent world #1 -- since that stunning loss to the Russian in the 2004 Wimbledon final, she's only lost once to Sharapova, and in her wins has ceded fewer and fewer games as time passed.

Serena's victory Saturday was more than the story of just one match, though -- it was the culmination of a season in which she's time and time again dominated the best women in the sport. This week alone, she easily ousted a couple former #1s -- Jelena Jankovic in her opener and Caroline Wozniacki in the quarters -- a two-time Major finalist and the current top-ranked player. In her first five matches in London she only dropped serve once, fired off thirty-seven aces and lost just sixteen games. Considering the quality of her opponent in the final and how much was on the line, her showing today was arguably even more impressive.

But the thirty-year-old's streak has been going strong for quite some time longer. Since she returned to the game post-injury last June, she's beaten thirteen top ten players, eleven of them in straight sets. She's only lost three times in 2012, with two of those defeats coming at the hands of players who really just caught her off guard. Against the best, Serena seems to always be on her game these days -- even more so than before her injury. She may stumble a bit, but she always seems to pull out the big guns when history is on the line. And the way she continues to play, it looks like there will be more for her to make in the coming seasons.

Williams' win today makes her the second woman, after Steffi Graf, to complete the Golden Slam. With Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, who exhibited a slightly more muted domination of Russia's Maria Kirilenko in the earlier Bronze medal match, occupying the rest of the podium, you could argue that the best of women's tennis was certainly represented at the Summer Games this year. But while no one's efforts in London should be discounted, it sure seems like that top spot in London reaches just a bit higher than all the others.