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.

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