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.

No comments: