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.

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