September 29, 2012


As I wait with bated breath for my favorite guilty pleasure show to begin tomorrow night, I can't help notice there was similar feeling to the late-round matches of the Pan Pacific Open. A couple women with some long and grueling histories took the court looking to change the recent course of history -- and the results weren't always what you'd expect.

Nadia Petrova and Sam Stosur have been playing each other for eight years on Tour, and though the Russian got off to the better start -- she won their first four meetings in straight sets -- tables had recently turned in Stosur's favor. In one of the longest and most grueling ladies' matches of last year's U.S. Open, the eventual champion edged Petrova on her fifth match point, after over three hours, two tiebreaks and thirty-eight games. Petrova returned the favor this past March in Indian Wells, but Sam's win at Roland Garros suggested the Australian brought her game better on the big stage.

Both had rough roads to the semis in Tokyo. In the second round Stosur faced off against the woman who stunned her in the Paris final a few years back and a few matches later took out long-time nemesis Maria Sharapova, a woman against whom she held a 1-10 deficit. Petrova, meanwhile, was down a set and nearly two breaks against Sara Errani in their quarterfinal before she rallied for the win. Often spotty in her play -- the world #18 has lost fourteen first rounds in the last two seasons -- and her attitude, she was the on-paper and emotional underdog against Stosur. But somehow able to raise her game when it counted, Petrova fired off nice aces, won eighty-five percent of her first serves and saved every break point she faced. With the win, she not only battled her way into her second final of the year, but avenged her recent losses and proved she could still hit with the big girls.

In the other half of the draw defending champion Aggie Radwanska and Angelique Kerber, both arguably having the year of their careers, were on their own collision course. Kerber had also shocked Radwanska in New York last year when, ranked #92 in the world, she stopped short the run of a woman who'd put together a solid summer herself, and made her way to the semis as the clear Cinderella story. Aggie had gotten two wins since then, but Kerber has been steadily improving her game, and post-Wimbledon she might have be the one with momentum on her side.

This week in Tokyo both were on point. Aggie's only real challenge came from a rejuvenated Caroline Wozniacki in the quarters, but with a straight set win there too, she seemed to have recovered from the shoulder injury that plagued her all summer. Kerber, too, had an easy run, dismissing Aggie's quickly ascending sister Urszula in under fifty minutes and getting a walkover when top seed Victoria Azarenka pulled out with dizziness. Radwanska might have been a little relieved by that development -- she'd lost her last six matches against the world #1, all this season, each by a wider margin than the last -- and perhaps that, combined with her need to prove her loss to Kerber last year was a fluke, caused her to up her game in Friday's semi. Twenty winners, four errors and an hour of play later, she had made her way back to the final, her fifth of the year.

Revenge was on the menu for the final too. Aggie had a 3-1 record over her foe, but those first two wins were hard fought three setters and they hadn't met once since 2008. Still, with her dominating win in the previous round and with far fewer hours on court this week, the Pole was better rested and playing better ball. So watching her go down 0-6 in the first set was a bit of a surprise. Petrova stumbled in the second, though, losing five games in a row before getting back on the board, but the third seed eventually closed out the set and forced a decider. Somehow, though, the Russian was able to regroup. On serve for the first six games of the third, Petrova finally earned and converted a break chance in the eighth, serving out the match after just over a hundred minutes.

The title, Petrova's second of the year, certainly allays some fears around her erratic play. It marks the first time she won two trophies in one season since 2006 and the first time she beat three top-ten players to get one. When Monday's rankings come out, she'll have climbed back to #14 in the world, but maybe more importantly, the veteran player will have proven she's not to be counted out quite yet.

After all, don't they always say success is the best revenge?

September 26, 2012

Looking for the Turnaround

As is often the case at some smaller tournaments during the tennis season, this week's events give some players who've been a bit out of the spotlight recently a chance to remind us of their relevance. Some have been grinding their way back onto the scene for weeks and months, while others have had such a stroke of bad luck they've become more known for their losing streaks. But with their performances this week, they all have a chance to put their years back on track.

Alejandro Falla is one of those players who can put up a good fight here and there, threaten the big stars from time to time, but eventually doesn't make much of a mark. In 2010, remember, he had a two-set lead on Roger Federer in his Wimbledon first round, but eventually fell in a bagel in the fifth. This year he beat John Isner at the All England Club, but was winless in Tour main draws after that. He came to Kuala Lumpur unseeded, having dropped eleven ranking spots in the past week, but after his opening round win over Rajeev Ram, he might have brought some confidence back to his game. He'll next meet Alexandr Dolgopolov, seeded fourth but admittedly spotty all year, so the Colombian has a chance to pull off an upset, and possibly put him on a more consistent upswing.

Albert Ramos has arguably made a bigger statement at various moments this year. He has yet to win a title, but made the Casablanca final back in April. With wins this year over Feliciano Lopez, Richard Gasquet and Fernando Verdasco, you know he can hold his own, but he's barely won a handful of matches since Rome. He had an easy first round in Malaysia, needing just an hour to dispatch qualifier Julian Knowle, and will certainly have a tougher match against third seeded Kei Nishikori next. But if Ramos can raise his game and harness the strength we saw earlier in the season, he might just get the upset.

A little more is at stake for former world #3 Nikolay Davydenko. Possibly nearing the end of his career, the veteran Russian has struggled to come back from injury that ended a streak of huge wins over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal nearly three years ago. But he's not giving up quite yet -- he's made three semis this year, most recently last week in Metz and opened his Kuala Lumpur campaign with a straight-set win over lucky loser Sanam Singh. He escaped a meeting with a seed in his next round -- Denis Istomin took care of Pablo Andujar for him -- but if he's going to make a serious push to get back into the sport's elite, he'll have to take advantage of the the road that's opened up for him here.

Over in Bangkok some higher profile names are trying to get back in the conversation. Fernando Verdasco has made big strides already this year -- having fallen to #27 in the world on the heels of a weak 2011, he made his way to the final in Acapulco, put together a solid clay court season, and even stunned 2010 Madrid champ Rafael Nadal on the weird blue clay in Spain. He hasn't beaten anyone in the top twenty since then, though, and has slid a few spots back down the rankings. He was tested by Tatsuma Ito in his first round this week, dropping the opening set before rebounding for the win in three. A couple more wins in Asia could turn the dial squarely back in his favor.

Even more in need of momentum, though, is his next opponent. Donald Young was on a clear upswing this time last year, making the fourth round at the U.S. Open and following it up with a run to the final here. The 2012 season doesn't look much like that -- having started the year at #40 in the world, on the verge of becoming the next great American in the sport, Young then famously put together a string of seventeen straight losses from February through August. Though he did finally end the streak in Winston-Salem, he's still 3-22 on the year and now holds a ranking of #124 -- with 150 of his 460 total ranking points on the line in Thailand. He did manage a win over Yen-Hsun Lu in his first round Tuesday, but he's going to need to step up his game further -- another early loss won't make it easy for him to regroup.

Gael Monfils has proven to be a bit more resilient. The Frenchman had climbed to a career high #7 ranking a little over a year ago, but when a knee injury forced him to miss much of the spring and summer on Tour, he dropped out of the top forty. But he made a successful, dreadlock-free return in Metz last week, defeating Phillipp Kohlschreiber in the quarters and taking Andreas Seppi to the limit in the semis. He needed all three sets today too to take out Kevin Anderson, and with the win earned a spot against sixth-seeded Victor Troicki in the second round. It would be an on-paper upset, but Monfils seems to be playing above his ranking and could just "surprise" us with another deep run here.

There's a lot on the line for all these guys -- a good showing during the Asian swing could give them a lot of momentum going into next year, but a bad run could be devastating, for some more than others. Hopefully these athletes can make a statement this week, but if not, they'll need to regroup quickly if they want to prove they've got more fire left in them.

September 23, 2012

Turning It Up

With so many of the sport's biggest stars dominating the headlines the last few months, it's been difficult for those in the second and third tiers to make a statement. But this week's winners brought their best game when they needed it most, one returning to the winner's stand for the first time in a while, the other getting there for the first time.

Over in Metz defending champ Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was trying to put his year back on track. After ending last season with some of the best wins of his career, the Frenchman has been a little quiet in 2012. Though he fought through injury to make the semis at Wimbledon, he lost his opener in Toronto and in the second round of the U.S. Open. It took a while to get back into the swing of things in his home country -- he got down breaks to Jesse Levine in the quarters and was forced to a decider against Nikolay Davydenko on Saturday.

But against tough-to-crack Andreas Seppi in the final, Tsonga didn't seem to think twice. He was practically untouchable on serve, dropping just one point on his first attempts and allowing his opponent -- the man who took a 2-0 set lead over Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros, you might remember -- just six return points in total. Tsonga didn't allow the Italian one break opportunity, and in under an hour lay claim to his second title of the year. And with just a few months in the season, it might not have come at a better time.

To the northeast of the action in France, a slightly less-decorated crew were vying for the title in St. Petersburg. Of the eight seeds only two had ever won titles before, but that didn't mean the field wasn't fraught with lots of talent looking to make a leap. Third seeded Martin Klizan, winner of four Challengers events this year and, appropriately, the man who took Tsonga out in New York, rode to the fourth round at the Open and climbed to a career-best #45 ranking by the time he came to Russia. He spent almost four hours on court Saturday with top-seeded Mikhail Youzhny, but eventually took out the former world #8 in the break-filled grind.

The bottom half of the draw was a little more interesting. Fabio Fognini, who'd made a legion of fans himself in New York, taking a set from Andy Roddick during his farewell tour and emerging as one of the more likable characters of the first week, was the only seed to survive the first round. After losing his first set to Tobias Kamke he rebounded strongly, winning the next eight to make his second final of the year. But there was not much he could do against Klizan in the final -- the Slovak rebounded well from his semifinal marathon, won more than two-thirds of his points on serve and broke his opponent five times. This match just took him an hour, but he closed out the win and sealed in the first Tour trophy of his career. It might not be enough to make him a household just yet, but if he's able to continue his run into next season, it might just give him the confidence he needs to really break through.

Neither of this week's winners got to the top without a few struggles. They lost serves, games, matches -- but when it really mattered they were able to turn up the heat on their opponents and really shine. If they keep finding a way to do that, I wouldn't be surprised to see either start making waves, even among the most elite in this sport.

September 20, 2012

The Comebacks and the Coming Out

This is an interesting period of the tennis season -- with the Majors over and done for the year, casual fans might not pay attention to what's happening on court. But there are still several weeks worth of tournaments left, and there's a lot on the line for players trying to make a statement this year. Some may be trying to reverse several months of less-than-spectacular results, while others are looking to capitalize on recent momentum. And though they've already scored some impressive wins, they might need to raise their game even more at the end of this week.

Caroline Wozniacki came to Seoul with her lowest ranking in over three years and on the heels of two first-round Slam exits. She held onto the top seed this week, but with no titles on the year -- she'd won at least three annually since 2008 -- it seemed the former world #1 was on the downswing. But she came out firing this week, dropping just three games to giant-killer Arantxa Rus in her opener and taking just an hour to oust Caroline Garcia, she who took a set and two breaks from Maria Sharapova at last year's French Open. She'll next meet Klara Zakopalova who hadn't won a match since July, and against whom the Dane holds a solid 2-0 record. If she can hold her ground, it might put her on track to win her first trophy of the year.

But Kaia Kanepi, trying for her own comeback -- again, might stand in her way. After a stellar start to the year, injury sidelined her after Roland Garros. She arguably has had an easier road than Wozniacki in her first tournament back, but with two straight-set wins she seems to have eased her way back into fighting shape. Next up will be Kiki Bertens, another up-and-comer who won her first career title in Fes this past April. The Dutchwoman has pulled off a few upsets this year -- Nadia Petrova in Montreal and Christina McHale at the U.S. Open -- but if Kanepi plays to her full ability, she should be a real contender for this title.

Over in Guangzhou we've seen a couple other players fight their way back into relevance. Sorana Cirstea, once a standout in Paris, has been climbing up the rankings for most of the year, beating Marion Bartoli in Madrid, Na Li at Wimbledon and Sabine Lisicki in New York. She's had a couple of struggles this week, dropping serve four times in her first round and needing a tiebreak to close out her second. But today against Alize Cornet, whose advance in China had been helped largely by retirements of her opponents, the Romanian was on point. Against the former #11 she converted four break opportunities and won a solid seventy percent of her first serves. The win might have given her the confidence she needs to pull out a few more wins.

Unfortunately for the third seed, though, she next faces British teenager Laura Robson. The Olympic Silver medalist has been having a coming out party this summer, beating two former Major champions at the U.S. Open and rising to a career-high ranking of #74 in the world. So far in Guangzhou she's taken out second seeded Jie Zheng and survived a break-fest with Shuai Peng earlier today. Now in her second Tour semifinal -- she got this far in Palermo back in July -- she might actually be expected to get the win. And with her compatriots finally proving they've got the stuff to win, all eyes will be on Robson to deliver too.

It's not over yet, of course, with a few rounds left before winners are crowned, but these ladies' performances so far certainly look encouraging. As former stars look to regain their place at the top of the sport and rising ones climb their way to new heights, it sure looks like we'll get even more depth in the women's game. And while the biggest crowns of the year have already been awarded, it sure looks like they might be in a good position to get next season off on the right foot.

September 16, 2012

A Chance for Revenge

This past U.S. Open was a little different from other Majors we've seen the last several years. With Rafael Nadal out of the picture and Roger Federer sent home in the quarters, we saw a few less-familiar faces in the final weekend. And while the most experienced and most decorated were the ones eventually vying for the title, you have to think the others may have squandered a huge opportunity to play for a big trophy.

This weekend was their chance to swing the pendulum back in their favor.

The pressure was high on David Ferrer to carry Spain's mantle in New York with Nadal missing, and in making his second semifinal there, he arguably delivered. But he failed to capitalize on a one-set lead over Novak Djokovic and delayed his first career Slam final by at least another couple months. So he was sure to change things when he led his country in their Davis Cup tie this weekend. Playing on home soil, the defending champions were already at an advantage, and with Ferrer fired up their edge was that much greater.

Ferrer got off to a slow start, dropping his first set to resurgent American Sam Querrey on Friday, but rebounded quickly to get the first point for the Spaniards. Teammate Nicolas Almagro had a slightly tougher day, forced to his fourth five-setter of the year against big serving John Isner. But Nico was able to stay ever so slightly stronger and gave his country a two tie lead going into the doubles match. Things got a little tense over the weekend -- with the Bryan brothers finally putting the U.S. on the board, the tide very well could have turned. But Ferrer took the court again on Sunday, this time facing off against Isner, who'd actually won their last meeting less than a year ago. He lost the first set again, dropping a tiebreak to his opponent, but regrouped quickly to close out his match. The win put Spain in their fourth Davis Cup final in five year, but more importantly for their leader, redeeming his loss from just a week ago and putting him in a place to do even more amazing things the balance of this year.

Tomas Berdych had been in a slightly more precarious position all year. A staple in the top ten, he'd nevertheless been rather spotty this season, going winless on the grass and squandering match points versus Isner in the Winston-Salem final. In New York he'd pulled off the upset of the tournament, dominating world #1 Roger Fededer in the quarters, and even took a set off Andy Murray in the semis before the wind-torn match shifted the momentum. He needed to rebound quickly too, leading his Czech team against the three-time runner-up Argentines, and he more than performed.

He had to come from behind, though, even more than did Ferrer. Juan Martin Del Potro, himself on the mend this year, had given the South Americans an early lead with a fairly routine win over Radek Stepanek. Berdych, then, fell to a 1-2 set deficit to veteran clay courter Juan Monaco and lost a break lead in the decider. Momentum seemed to be on the home team's side, but the Czech stayed tough to even the score on Friday, then teamed with Stepanek to take the doubles tie and the lead into Sunday's play. With DelPo sitting out the reverse singles with injury, Berdych was able to dominate against substitute player Carlos Berlocq and clinch the win for the visiting team. And playing at the top of his game again, he might have erased a bit of the sting from his loss in the Big Apple.

The weekend's action sets up a repeat of the 2009 Davis Cup final, one which the Spaniards fully owned. Things may be a little different this time, with leaders on both teams looking as sharp as they have in some time. And with the pain of recent defeats hopefully gone, we're sure to see everyone put up some exciting fights when it really matters.

September 13, 2012

Sneaking Through

It's been a rough couple days for seeded players since the U.S. Open. With many of the sport's very top tier taking a short break from competitive play, a couple others may have hoped to get in some easy wins at this week's events. But, it turned out, the challenges started from the get-go, and those who've survived may find themselves with some big opportunities.

The draw in Tashkent was a little sparse. Defending champion Ksenia Pervak, struggling still with injury -- she pulled out of Dallas with a hamstring strain and retired from her first round in New York -- skipped the event entirely, and top seeded Monica Niculescu, who'd only put together ten match wins on the season -- couldn't maintain an early lead in her opener and fell to Karin Knapp after nearly three hours of play. With the top half of the bracket cleared out, some lesser known players like qualifier Donna Vekic and last year's runner-up Eva Birnerova, who'd only scored two main draw wins on Tour this year, have been able to progress largely unchallenged.

But there may be more at stake in the bottom half of Tashkent bracket. Irina-Camelia Begu, one of my newcomers of last year, has dropped well down the rankings this season, failing to defend points in Budapest or Marbella. She did upset Caroline Wozniacki in the first round of the U.S. Open, but otherwise hasn't made much impact. She's unseeded in Uzbekistan, but with upsets of Alize Cornet and Galina Voskoboeva already this week, she's playing like she did a year ago. If she can keep it up, she might be ready for her real breakthrough, and make a real play for that first career trophy.

Unfortunately for Begu, she'll next face the only seed remaining in Tashkent -- while Aggie Radwanska has been stirring the pot in the top five of the sport, younger sister Urszula has been having a coming out party of her own. Ranked out of the top hundred at the start of 2012, she beat Marion Bartoli in Brussels, made the final in 's-Hertogenbosch and handed Serena Williams her only break on the way to Olympic Gold. Now at #40 in the world, the young Pole rebounded after losing a set to Alexandra Panova in her quarterfinal and is in a good position to make the final. Begu won't be an easy foe, but it could be exactly the prep she needs as she looks to make the big breakthrough.

There was a little more star power at the Bell Challenge in Quebec City, but so far it hasn't served them any better. Second seeded Yanina Wickmayer, who's made a couple finals this year, but only won two matches since Stanford, was handily ousted by qualifier Lauren Davis in the second round. And similarly spotty Dominika Cibulkova, who put up a couple good fights at the U.S. Open, didn't even make it out of her Canada opener -- a game from a three set win, she eventually succumbed to the veteran Belgian Kirsten Flipkens, marking her tenth first round loss of the season. And while these vanquishers have made a statement already, they're not the only ones.

Homegrown Aleksandra Wozniak has been on the comeback trail all year, winning her second ITF title since getting over a wrist injury and very nearly ousting Venus Williams in Miami. She's had a couple big wins on hardcourts this year -- Klara Zakopalova in Dallas, Jelena Jankovic in Montreal -- and after surviving a tough Elena Vesnina on Tuesday, she seems to have her wits about her. She'll next meet one-time American sweetheart Melanie Oudin, who's won their previous two meetings, but momentum and the crowd may be on the Canadian's side, and I'd look for her to do well as she tries to reach the quarterfinals here.

Mona Barthel has already booked her spot in the quarters, and tomorrow will take on defending champion Barbora Zahlavova Strycova for a spot in the semis. Barthel stormed on the scene early this year, beating four of the top five seeds as a qualifier in Hobart to take her first title, but she's been relatively quiet since. She had a couple of wins over big stars -- go figure, Jankovic and Bartoli were among them -- but only made one semi since January. Winless in her last three Majors, she's looking to redeem herself in Quebec and, unpredictable as she may be, it looks like she's getting her feet back under her. If she keeps up her level, she might be able to end the year the way she started it.

There are still a couple rounds of action left before any of these ladies is able to claim a title for themselves. But their performances so far this week bode well, if not for these tournaments, then hopefully for the rest of the year. The Slams may be over for 2012, but there's a lot more play left to be had, after all. And ending this season on a good note could put any of these ladies in a position to make a splash in the coming years.

September 10, 2012

"I Don't Think You're Ready..."

For years it seemed that Andy Murray, long touted as Britain's best hope for its first Grand Slam trophy since 1936, fell just a bit short.

Yes, he had put together a decorated career -- twenty-three titles heading into the U.S. Open, eight Masters and Olympic Gold -- had risen as high as #2 in the world, had pulled off some big upsets over the greats like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But while his contemporaries were able to break through at the Majors, Murray was left listless, failing to win a set in his first three attempts and eventually succumbing after taking the first one this year at Wimbledon.

That changed in New York this week, when the twenty-five year old with the weight of the United Kingdom on his shoulders proved he could handle the pressure and was finally able end the region's seventy-six year Slam drought. And the match he did it in was more than worthy of making history.

Murray had faced a couple challenges en route to his second U.S. Open final -- he'd battled through four sets with Feliciano Lopez in the third round and came back from sets down against both Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych before securing his spot in Monday's match. Defending champion Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, had a relatively straightforward path, dropping only a set in his windblown semi against David Ferrer on Saturday before closing out the match yesterday afternoon. Nole was arguably the more rested competitor, had five Majors in his pocket already, and was 29-3 on hardcourts already this season. History was on his side but, as it would turn out, fate was not.

The #3 seed came out swinging Monday, getting the first break of the match, but ceding it almost immediately. Djokovic climbed back from behind later in the set and eventually forced a tiebreak, one that lasted twenty-two hotly contested points. After squandering a handful of set points the Scot finally got the first set and amazingly built a 4-0 lead in the second before Nole regrouped. In an amazing turn, the Serb won five of the next six games and clawed his way to five-all. He failed, this time, to push his opponent to another tiebreak though and was suddenly down two big, seemingly insurmountable, sets.

That's when things started to change. Nole got an early break in the third and Murray berated himself -- he cursed his exhausted, "jelly"-turned legs, sprayed an inordinate number of errors and was broken a second time to lose the set. He was no better off in the fourth, but though he continued to get angry -- both at his box and at his supposedly feeble legs -- he kept reaching for every ball. Djokovic got a break again early, but it took some of the most spectacular shot-making of the tournament for him to force a deciding set. Still, with momentum on his side and Murray's body seeming to be failing him, it looked like we were in for a repeat champion.

But part of the magic of New York is that you can't ever count someone out. After over four hours of play Murray seemed to get a second wind -- he ran off with another two break lead in the decider and though he gave one back he was decidedly in control when Nole started to cramp. It took nearly an hour more, but he was finally able to close out the match, securing for him and his country the trophy that had eluded them for so long.

So after a long, drawn-out wait, it appears Andy Murray finally is ready to be considered part of the sport's top tier. Whether he's able to follow up on this maiden Major like his stoic mentor Ivan Lendl and capture several more trophies or whether he becomes a one-Slam wonder in the vein of Gaston Gaudio and the like is yet to be seen -- something tells me there are at least a few more wins left in this one.

And we might just have to prepare ourselves, ready or not, for the fact that whatever jelly Andy Murray is made out of is the kind that will win championships.

September 9, 2012

The Good Kind of Drama

There's always been a high level of excitement at the U.S. Open, what with late-night finishes and an always-rowdy New York crowd. But for seventeen years, the women's final in Flushing Meadows has been devastatingly one-sided with one tiebreak played since 1995. That all changed this evening as two of the sport's heaviest hitters put on one of the most unpredictable shows we've seen in a while, keeping an entire stadium and legions of tennis fans on the edge of their seats for over two hours.

It had been said since the moment the draws were announced that the most drama would be in the top half. Seven of the last eight Majors were won by women in this section, and three of these ladies made it to the quarters. And, happily, the favorites did not disappoint -- Victoria Azarenka was pushed to the limit by defending champion Sam Stosur for the right to meet 2006 winner Maria Sharapova in the semis. And in what became the fourth or fifth "match of the tournament", found a way to come back from a set and a break down to her Australian Open rival, closing out the nearly three hour match Friday evening. The win earned the Belorussian to her second Slam final of the year -- the second of her career -- and brought the world #1 to a stunning 32-1 record on hardcourts for the season.

More stunning, however, might be the performance of Serena Williams through the bottom half of the women's draw this past fortnight. True, she's had fewer real challenges, but her last three matches -- including ones against 2008 French Open winner Ana Ivanovic and this year's surprise runner-up Sara Errani -- took less than three hours put together. She'd only dropped serve twice at this Open going into Sunday's weather-delayed final, and given some ignominious ends to her last two runs in New York, she must have delighted in her no-frills advancement this year.

The two players -- arguably the favorites for this title going in despite Azarenka's previous record here and Serena's conservative #4 seeding -- have had an interesting history. Years ago, Vika was one of the few players that could give Serena a challenge at the Australian Open. In 2009 she was up a set in the fourth round but retired down a break in the second with heat exhaustion, and a year later she took another set in the quarters and pushed the eventual champion to a tiebreak for the second before eventually succumbing. She did manage one win over the fourteen-time Major winner, taking the Miami title over an injured Williams a few years back, and in their early head-to-head it looked like this might turn into a very solid rivalry. But ironically, once Azarenka was thoroughly entrenched in the top tiers of the sport, Serena turned the tables -- in their last five meetings, over the past two years, the American didn't drop a set and handed the on-paper favorite three one-sided breadsticks.

But today's final was not nearly so one-sided. Serena came out swinging, of course, got a break over her opponent early and finished off the first set in a quick thirty-four minutes. It looked like it was going to be a walkover, but Vika turned the tables hardcore in the second -- as Williams' game began to show some holes, the twenty-three year old took advantage. She pounced on second serves, of which there were many, and cleaned up her game. After another half hour she'd evened the score and forced the first third set at a U.S. Open women's final in seventeen years. She even got the early break in the decider, putting herself in position to pull off what would be the biggest win of her career. Serena was able to pull even again, but Azarenka broke one more time for a 5-3 lead. But nerves finally got to the still-new #1 -- serving for the championship a match later she found herself down 0-40 and, when she failed to dig herself out of that hold, a few minutes later she was serving for a tiebreak. Serena took control then and, in what might be the most hotly contested Major final she's ever played, ultimately took the match in a long last game.

The win not only solidifies Serena as one of the best players this sport has ever seen, but one of the best fighters out there -- able to battle even when her opponents throw the best stuff they have at her. For Vika, hopefully she'll be able to take the loss in stride -- to put up a performance like she did against such a decorated champion shows more trophies are sure to come her way. And with the drama at this year's Open finally taking a positive tone, we can only hope the action will get better from here.

That leaves just one match more at this year's U.S. Open. Tomorrow afternoon, in the fifth straight Monday championship in New York, defending titleist Novak Djokovic will take on second-time finalist Andy Murray for the men's trophy. Nole holds a slight edge in their head-to-head, but has won both of their matches at the Majors, and has been one of the most dominant hardcourt players of the last two years. Murray's sure to put up a fight, though, and for the first time in a long time people are calling him a contender again. And after the thrilling women's final we've already seen, you can't count out any surprises tomorrow.

So let's hope these boys live up to the expectations the ladies have set for them.

September 7, 2012

And Then There Were Eight...

It's been a long couple days at the U.S. Open, fraught with high drama, heart-wrenching goodbyes, late-night matches, stunning upsets, and maybe a few minutes -- still too much -- of inexplicable frivolity.

But here we are now, with eight men and women left to contend for the final Major trophy of the year, and you can't deny they represent the best of what we've seen the past fortnight. It hasn't always been pretty, and most have stumbled at some point along the way, but with just two wins left before they can claim the title, any one of them would deserve it.

The ladies, somewhat surprisingly, represent some of the most consistent women on Tour this year. We'd become accustomed to seeing one Slam champion flounder immediately after her title run, but three of this weeks semifinalists have already won a Major this year. World #1 Victoria Azarenka is set for a rematch of that Australian Open final against French Open winner Maria Sharapova in today's earlier battle. It's unfamiliar ground for both -- Vika has never made the final four in New York, and MaSha, champion here in 2006, hasn't gotten back since then.

The pair have met a couple times in the past two years -- their last three meetings have come in finals -- and the Belorussian holds a slight 5-4 edge. But they were both dominant through early rounds, averaging about one game lost per set in their first three matches, and tested in their quarterfinal. Azarenka nearly squandered a huge lead over defending champion Sam Stosur on Tuesday, but held just tough enough to keep her record against the Australian -- and in three-setters this year -- unblemished. And Sharapova, down 0-4 against Marion Bartoli before rain delayed play for a day, finally proved her champion spirit with a come-from-behind win. The battle with Vika could be dramatic, though -- Azarenka is 26-1 on hardcourts this year, and won't be willing to tarnish that record without a fight. And with both ladies looking for their second Major in 2012, we may be entering a new era of dominance in the women's game.

We might not exactly be on the edge of our seat during the day's second semifinal -- I fear we're in for a blowout -- but that doesn't mean there's not a lot on the line here. Three-time U.S. Open titleist Serena Williams has put together a 19-1 record since losing the first round of the French Open and has wholly dominated her opponents through five rounds. She dropped serve just twice and leads the field in aces and first serve points won. If she's got her wits about her, there's very little standing in her way to make her nineteenth Slam final

Sara Errani is slightly less experienced in the later rounds of Majors. Before this year she was 15-17 at the big events, but in 2012 alone she's 19-3. Her shocking run to the Roland Garros singles final -- she actually won the doubles crown -- was the culmination of a year that's brought her four clay court titles and a career high ranking in the top ten. She's struggled a bit since the French -- ironically her breakout year is marred by the elusive Golden Set at Wimbledon -- but a comprehensive beating of Angelique Kerber in her fourth round proves she's still a threat on the hardcourts. She has a not-so-inspiring 0-3 record against Serena, has only won one set, and I'm not sure this is the place that will change. But the bubbly Italian is earning herself a legion of fans this year, and that kind of adrenaline might just help her pull off the match of the tournament.

While all four women playing the semis have already played in a final this year, this is slightly new territory for most of the men. Defending champion Novak Djokovic is the only one, in fact, who's ever won a Major. Tomorrow he'll take on David Ferrer, a semifinalist in New York for the first time since 2007. They've both pulled off some stunning victories so far this event -- Nole, who has yet to drop a set through give matches, put on a showcase late last night against 2009 titleist Juan Martin Del Potro, limiting the big man to just about 66% on serve and winning some of the most dramatic points of the tournament. The Spaniard, on the other hand, has proven one of the most tireless guys in the field -- down two sets to one against Janko Tipsarevic and a break in the decider, he rallied from behind and withstood a questionable medical timeout from his opponent and finished him off in a tiebreak.

Ferrer has a decent record against the one-time #1 -- he pulled off a solid win during last year's ATP Championship round robins -- but most of those wins have come on clay, and never at a Major. The Spaniard is also the only man left who's never played in a Major title round, so you have to think experience favors his opponent. But if nothing else we know this is not a man who likes to give up, and if he's rested up since Thursday evening, he could give us a show tomorrow.

The final semi features a couple former runners-up who've combined to win just one set in their previous championship matches. But Andy Murray came to New York with huge expectations on him, thanks to that Olympic Gold, and the pressure is on to deliver. He's hit a few bumps on the way to the final four, needing four sets and three tiebreaks to dispatch Feliciano Lopez in the third round and getting down a set and multiple breaks to Marin Cilic in Wednesday's quarter.

For a spot in his second New York final he'll take on Tomas Berdych, who's made a name for himself as a giant killer of sorts at the Slams. During that stellar Wimbledon run, he beat both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, and with his dominating performance against Federer on Wednesday's quarters, he ended an eight-plus year streak during which either Roger or Rafa made a Major semi. The big Czech has had an up-and-down year, winning a title in Montpelier and making another couple finals, but also falling in the first round at both Wimbledon and the Olympics. But by surviving some serious challenges by top-notch opponents the last week or so, he's proven he's a real contender here, and with a 4-2 career record against Murray, history is arguably on his side.

If we've learned anything during the last week and a half of play, it's that nothing is certain at these Grand Slams. Sure, there are favorites, of course experience favors some over others. But any underdog can put together a performance of a lifetime, and any champion can have a bad day. And given the performances we've seen from all these players so far, I'm not counting any of them out of the running. In just a couple days time we might have added to some highly decorated players, or we may have shaken up everything we thought we knew about tennis.

Either way, it seems, the ultimate champions will have earned it.

September 5, 2012

Cramming It In

We were kind of spoiled during the first week of action at the U.S. Open. After a rain delay on opening day, there weren't a lot of weather-related concerns during the early rounds, and most matches that went late into the night did so because these athletes were fighting their butts off through one marathon match after another. But that all changed yesterday, with some strong showers suspending many matches midway through, and creating a bit of a jam in today's schedule which, given Wednesday's forecast, may be difficult to immediately unclog. And that might mean a couple busy days of play in the back half of the week.

Just two matches were completed Tuesday -- world #1 Victoria Azarenka put together a brilliant performance against defending champion Sam Stosur to book a spot in her first New York semifinal, and David Ferrer, likely the most underrated top seed at the Open, endured some long breaks in play to finish off France's Richard Gasquet under the lights. They are the only singles players who get today off, that extra day of rest may serve them well while everyone else hustles for court time.

Maria Sharapova didn't get off to the start she wanted against Marion Bartoli -- in the half hour of play they got in yesterday, the 2006 champion found herself down 0-4, disconcerting as she hadn't dropped even a set to the Frenchwoman in their previous four meetings. Something tells me she'll come back rejuvenated today -- she just broke Bartoli to open play again -- but she'll have her work cut out for her. After a stunning comeback against Petra Kvitova Sunday, Bartoli had won twelve games in a row, and to keep going Sharapova will have to keep that momentum squarely in her favor the rest of the afternoon.

While at least some of the ladies' semifinals are set, there are some fourth round men's matches that still have to be decided. Novak Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka barely got any balls in play when action was halted last night, the defending champion up a quick break. His countryman Janko Tipsarevic was leading 2012 breakout story Phillipp Kohlschreiber too, up 5-2 in the first, but not surprisingly neither match was the focus of many people's attention.

Andy Roddick's Farewell Tour was extended by one more day when play was called after nearly an hour. Under supremely humid conditions last night, the crowd-favorite American got off to a strong start and broke for a 4-2 lead over 2009 champ Juan Martin Del Potro, but the big Argentine raised his game and Roddick couldn't serve out the set. In a near dead heat in the tiebreak -- Roddick's thirty-six points outnumber DelPo's by one -- they're set to resume today once if the skies clear, and there will be little time for rest after that. The winner faces the possibility of back-to-back quarters and semis, and that could put these players through an even tougher mental and physical toll.

You might think the players who didn't take the court Tuesday would now be at an advantage -- so far their schedules haven't been affected -- but some warm-ups have already been halted once today, and with eight partial or full single matches still on the docket there's no guarantee we'll be able to wrap things up be end of day. Hopefully the players will be able to handle the rapid fire matches in the back half of the week -- traditionally my last-minute cramming hasn't served me well in the long run.

And with so much on the line -- for some players more than others at this Open -- we certainly want to see everyone able to give their very best.

September 3, 2012

Unfamiliar Faces

We're coming down to the wire at this year's U.S. Open, and while many of the true favorites are still alive and cruising, you can't help but notice there are a few new names still in the mix early this Week Two. And while they might be the severe underdogs from here on out, their performances so far in New York prove they're capable of pulling off an upset or two, and they might just have a few surprises left in them.

The ladies have finalized their quarterfinal pairings, and no one should be shocked to see most of the top seeds still alive. The winners of the first threeGrand Slams of 2012 have all been mostly flawless, with world #1 Victoria Azarenka dropping just ten games in four matches and three-time champion Serena Williams delivering a fourth round bagel to doubles specialist Andrea Hlavackova earlier today. Even defending champion Sam Stosur, despite a relatively disappointing summer, has been on top of her game and has yet to drop a set.

More surprising has been the resurgence of some other stars. One-time Wimbledon runner-up Marion Bartoli hasn't made her way to a Major final since, but she did end the campaign of U.S. Open Series champion Petra Kvitova in the fourth round, dropping just two games after losing the first set. Bartoli's never made the quarters here, and hasn't had the best luck at the hardcourt Majors, so I'm not sure anyone was expecting much from her. If she can keep up her play though, she might give Maria Sharapova a good fight for the semi spot. And Ana Ivanovic, who hasn't made a quarterfinal since the French Open she won more than four years ago, finally seems to be playing with the talent we know she has. She hasn't faced a seeded player yet -- unfortunate for her it'll be Serena in tomorrow's match -- but if she can use her confidence to her advantage, she might be able to find a few chinks in the American's armor.

The real shock for the ladies, though, has been in what has surprisingly become the Italian section. Unexpected Roland Garros finalist Sara Errani is back on the upswing after a pretty quiet post-clay season. After pounding out a win against red-hot Angelique Kerber on Monday, she's now made the quarters of three Majors this year -- not bad for someone who'd won just fifteen matches at the Slams through 2011. For the semis she'll meet her doubles partner and best friend Roberta Vinci, a woman who's only made a fourth round once. Earlier today she turned the tables on second-seeded Aggie Radwanska, winner of their four previous meetings, grinding out a one-sided win in just over an hour. Neither lady has been much of a staple in the latter rounds of the big tournaments -- at least not on the singles circuit -- and seeing the two of them fighting for a place in the final four could indicate a big change in the face of this sport.

The top tiers in the men's game have played out as you'd expect too. World #1 Roger Federer has barely broken a sweat in his first three matches, and with the walkover he received today, he might get some much-needed rest as he makes a play for a sixth title in New York. Defending champion Novak Djokovic has been similarly steady, and with so much attention focused on Roger and prodigal Gold medalist Andy Murray, he might inexplicably be flying under the radar. And fourth seeded David Ferrer, admittedly one of the most overlooked players in the sport's elite, is nevertheless making his way through the draw as expected, closing out veteran Lleyton Hewitt on Sunday with a bagel set.

Still a couple players are playing the kind of ball we haven't seen from them in quite a while. Marin Cilic had a breakout in New York a couple years ago, when he beat then #2 Andy Murray in the fourth round to make the quarters. From there he made the semis in Australia and quietly went on to a career high ranking. But injury and inconsistency hampered his rise over the next two years, and he only recently began to play to his potential again. He's been tested already at the Open, getting down two sets to Marinko Matosevic in his opener and nearly squandering a two set lead to Daniel Brands a round later. But his straight-set win earlier today got him back into the final eight, where he'll this time face Murray for a spot in the semis. It'll be no easy task, to be sure, but if he can survive it might put him back on track to reach the top.

The same year of Cilic's coming out saw the rise of eventual champ Juan Martin Del Potro, but the tall Argentine struggled through his own injury for much of 2010 and took a while to climb back within a stone's throw of his career high. Seeded seventh at the Open this year, he's now reached at least the fourth round of every Major this season, and if he pulls off the win over soon-to-be-retired Andy Roddick tomorrow night, he'll have a quarterfinal hat trick. The crowd won't be on his side, of course, and he is nursing another troubled wrist, but given the performance he's put out so far in New York, he has to be considered the favorite. DelPo's road will only get tougher after that, but to see him consistently in the latter rounds of a Major could bode well as he looks to prove he's no one-hit wonder.

It's nice to see so much new blood -- or refreshed blood -- still in the mix this late at the Open. Surely the favorites will continue to threaten even the brightest Cinderella stories, but we've all come to know that nothing should be taken for granted in New York. And perhaps those who haven't been around that long will soon become staples at the Slams.