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.

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