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.

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