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.

No comments: