October 30, 2012

The Junior Leagues?

We may have crowned the season's WTA champion on Sunday, but the action isn't over yet -- quite an interesting field made it to the Tournament of Champions in Sofia this week. The year-end event for players who've won at least one International-level title during the year includes the woman who began 2012 at #1 in the world and a full three who were part of the doubles field in Istanbul. There are a few, of course, who have a bit less experience in this second-tier championship, but something tells me the quality of play we'll see could be top notch.

The "Serdika" Group

Caroline Wozniacki took a while to find her groove this year -- after winning six titles in both 2010 and 2011, including some big ones in Montreal and Indian Wells, she went nearly nine months without a single trophy this year. Long chastised for holding the top ranking spot without winning a Grand Slam, she finally ceded it after the Australian Open and has since fallen out of the top ten. But she did her best to find redemption in the fall -- Wozniacki won two titles to end the season, scoring an important victory of Istanbul alternate Sam Stosur in the Moscow final, and was able to take the top seed in Sofia. If she makes good on the position, she could end the year the way she wishes it began.

Roberta Vinci may have made a bigger dent on the doubles circuit in 2012 -- she and Istanbul breakout Sara Errani played in three of the four Major finals, winning two of those trophies along with six others on the year, and ended the year as the #1 team in the world. But she did manage a singles crown in Dallas and made the quarters in New York, her best ever showing at a Slam. Now just a shade off her career-high ranking, the Italian is hitting her singles stride too, and after demolishing veteran Daniela Hantuchova in her first round robin, she certainly seems to have the leg up in Sofia. Vinci might have lost her only match at the year-ends, but if she does well here, she could easily make this year about more than her doubles career.

Su-Wei Hsieh could be the least recognizable name on the Sofia roster -- the twenty-six year old was ranked well into the triple-digits when 2012 began and ran to the semis as a qualifier in Pattaya City and to the trophy as a qualifier in Kuala Lumpur. She didn't make much of an impact at the Majors, but with a second WTA title in Guangzhou, she is the only one in the field with two International victories this year. Now ranked #27 in the world, she'll kick off her ToC campaign later today against Wozniacki, a woman who bagelled her in the last set of their latest meeting in Beijing. But Hsieh has little to lose this week, so I wouldn't be surprised to see her come out swinging from the start.

Daniela Hantuchova has had a tougher year than many of the players here this week. The one-time world #5 didn't play at the French Open because of a foot injury and has trouble winning many matches at all since. She did, however, manage a title in Pattaya City, beating two of the players in this field in the process, and a run to the semis in Luxembourg with wins over tricky players like Arantxa Rus and recently dominating Kirsten Flipkens. Her loss to Vinci today was not encouraging, but the beauty of round robins is that no one match decides your fate -- if Hantuchova can right the ship she might turn her year around when it counts.

The "Sredets" Group

The second group of round robins is led by a pair of ladies coming off a big win in Istanbul -- Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko were the last to qualify for the year-end championships, but with wins over the top two seeds they came away with the top prize, their fourth together. Petrova also made a late-season surge in singles, not dropping a set for the title in 's-Hertogenbosch and beating three top-ten players for another in Tokyo. She's been a little spotty at the Slams, hasn't gotten past the fourth round in over two years, but she did score some big wins this year, including two over recent rival Sam Stosur, and climb back into the top fifteen again. At thirty years of age, she's easily the oldest woman in the draw, but we've seen this year just how little age matters in this sport.

Petrova's doubles partner may not have won a singles title in 2012, but she nevertheless has put together one of the most successful years of her career. Very sneakily she made the quarters in Indian Wells and Wimbledon, the semis at the Olympics and put up some big fights in Cincinnati and New York. She climbed to a career-high ranking of #12 in the world in August and notched wins over resurgent Yaroslava Shvedova, feisty teammate Petrova, and 2011 Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova. It's been more than four years since her last trophy though, and two losses in finals this year, it's hard to see her hoisting the trophy at the end of the week. But if she's on her game there's no reason we can't see the Russian surprise us all.

Jie Zheng has been a little more quiet in recent months. After winning the title in Auckland -- thanks, in part, to a retirement by Flavia Pennetta -- she hasn't made much of a dent at any tournament, save a semifinal run in Birmingham. A back injury hampered her play in the back half of the year, and she only won more than two matches at two events after that. She kicks off her Sofia campaign against wildcard Tsvetana Pironkova, a woman she's beaten in their last two meetings, so at least her early outlook is bright. And with some huge results in her past, we know she's capable of outhitting some favorites -- if she's in fighting form, this could be a stage for her to do just that.

The final wildcard in Sofia is homegrown Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova, the only woman from this country to make a semi at a Grand Slam. The world #44 hasn't had the best year -- having made the at least the quarters the last two years at Wimbledon, she fell this time in the second round, but not without putting up a fight against Maria Sharapova and taking the 2004 champion to three sets. She also beat Nadia Petrova in Brussels, Dominika Cibulkova at the Olympics and Aggie Radwanska in Eastbourne. She may be the bottom seed in the field, but Pironkova has shown she can hit with the big girls and her native crowds might give her the confidence she needs to succeed this week.

These may not be the ladies who've made the loudest statements on Tour this year, but that doesn't at all reflect how much they've accomplished during the season -- some big doubles victories, a couple breakthrough titles, and more than a few wins over top-tier players, these athletes certainly have what it takes to be crowned a champion. And with their performances this week in Sofia, they each have a chance to get some long-deserved recognition.

October 28, 2012

Full Circle

I'm not sure if anyone was predicting a different result at this year's WTA championships. In a season full of comebacks, breakouts and breakthroughs, at the end of the day it was the most experienced who survived. And after the results we've seen the last four and a half months, it was exactly what we should have expected.

Serena Williams began the year with some interesting results. After being stunned in the Australian Open fourth round by Ekaterina Makarova, ranked out of the top fifty at the time, she lost in the Miami quarters to Caroline Wozniacki -- arguably the only notable win she's had all year -- retired from the Rome semis and then, shockingly, inexplicably, earth-shatteringly, fell in the first round at Roland Garros. After that, though, things turned around, and quickly. She won the three biggest titles left for the year, and only dropped one match in the meantime, climbing technically to #3 in the world, but easily holding the spot of favorite in Istanbul.

Serena took some time off after the U.S. Open, and she looked a little shaky to start at the year-end finals. She got less than half of her first serves in against Angelique Kerber, incidentally the only woman to beat her since the French Open, was broken five times by Na Li, and was even tested by New York rival Victoria Azarenka all in the round robins. But she nevertheless make it through without dropping a set. She was relentless against Aggie Radwanska in the semis, though, taking advantage of the three-and-a-half hour marathon her Wimbledon challenger went through on Friday and making her first Tour final since 2009.

Meanwhile fellow veteran Maria Sharapova was working through her section of the Istanbul draw. The young Russian had put together what might be the best season of her career, making her way to final in four of the first five events she played this year, finally winning a title in Stuttgart. Her year culminated when she completed the career Grand Slam in Paris and reclaimed the #1 ranking for a few weeks in the spring. She did well after that, too, winning Silver in London, making the semis in New York, and getting to the final in Beijing.

At the year-end's she dominated the round robins, dropping just a set to Aggie Radwanska and winning a solid 63% of the games she played -- better even than Serena. And in Saturday's semi against year-long rival Victoria Azarenka -- she'd previously lost four of five matches to the world #1 this year -- she raised her game even higher. She kept her opponent to just about fifty percent on serve and converted four break opportunities. It took her just over ninety minutes, but finally the Russian earned herself a rematch of the 2004 final, the only one she'd won in her decorated career.

But Serena was just too much for Sharapova to handle on Sunday. The two-time year-end champion came out swinging and, while both were able to hold serve early, eventually broke her opponent in the fifth game of the match. Maria stayed close for a time, keeping herself from falling too far behind in the set, but after finally losing the first she was immediately broken to start the second. Serena controlled her serve from the start, never allowing even a break opportunity to the returner, and firing off four winners in a row during the last game to seal the deal. It wasn't enough to boost her ranking any before the next season starts, but with the way she's played since June no one -- even those ranked higher -- will want to see Serena Williams in her path.

After her victory, Serena was asked if this had been the best year of her career and, acknowledging the rocky start, she had to concede that she might have had better. But as she's improved her play throughout the season, it sure seems like the thirty-one year old has come back to the point at which she can handily dominate anyone in her path. And now that she's back where she started her run over a decade ago, there's no telling how much longer it will last.

October 25, 2012

Nearing the End

There sure seemed to be a lot of veterans in action on the men's Tour this week. More than a handful of thirty-plus players took to the court, and one very special one said good-bye for good. And that makes me wonder how many more will throw in the towel in the months to come.

Nikolay Davydenko has been trying to stay relevant for much of the last three years. After peaking -- in form, at least -- at the 2009 year-end championships, he struggled to come back from a wrist injury the next season and, despite some decent wins this year, he hasn't won a title since Munich last year. His ranking has straddled both sides of the top fifty for the last twelve months, and the one-time world #3 has only won one match at a Major in 2012. He had a promising start this week in Basel, taking out fourth-seeded Stanislas Wawrinka in his opener, but hit a stumbling block today against fellow veteran Paul-Henri Mathieu. Having missed the entirety of 2011 with a knee injury, the Frenchman saved five of six break chances to make his second quarterfinal of the year, but his win might have meant more for Davydenko. It was his seventh loss of the year to a lower-ranked player and keeps him from trying to improve a 0-9 record against top-ten players this season. Unless the Russian is able to turn those stats around soon, it might not be long before he's pulling the retirement switch.

Lleyton Hewitt has been making similar bobs in and out of the power game recently. Having battled one injury after another for years, he's only just climbed back into the top hundred for the first time since last June. But the two-time Major winner has pulled off wins over Marin Cilic, Milos Raonic and Andy Roddick this year, and with a run to the Newport final in July he's shown he's still hungry for a title. This week in Valencia he too kicked off his campaign with some fireworks -- he needed just two sets and less than two hours to dispatch fourth seed Juan Monaco, and with always tricky Philipp Kohlschreiber out with his own opening round loss, things looked good for the Aussie to advance. But qualifier Ivan Dodig had other ideas -- firing off ten aces the world #110 survived a second set surge from Hewitt and closed out the decider with three breaks of serve. Lleyton might not be down for the count quite yet, but he'll need to raise his game to new level in the upcoming season if he's going to make another push into the sport's elite.

And while these guys may be running on fumes, one veteran decided to call it a career this week. Juan Carlos Ferrero announced last month that Valencia would be his final tournament, and immediately you could see the tennis world mourn. The thirty-two year old Spaniard and 2003 champion here had a couple comebacks since he first hit the scene. He reached his first Grand Slam final ten years ago in Paris, returned the next year to win the title and was a runner-up in New York later that season, pushing him to #1 in the world. A sickness and injury-plagued 2004 took him well out of the spotlight -- he didn't win another title until 2009 in Casablanca -- but he didn't give up there. From out of the top hundred, he climbed to #14 less than a year later, claimed four more trophies in the next two years and reached at least the fourth round of three Majors. He struggled with more injuries the last year and a half, and with just five wins on the season, it seemed time to go. JCF put up a fight against countryman Nicolas Almagro in his first round in Spain, actually getting a solid seventy-plus percent of first serves in. But his younger, sprier counterpart was able to get the better of him, and fans were forced to say good-bye to the graceful star.

Whether they play on or have already called it quits, no one can say any of these guys didn't fight 'til the end. Wherever they stood or stand in the rankings by the time they formally retire, we've seen them put in some big results throughout their time on Tour, and the titles and the records may not do justice to what they've accomplished. Unfortunately this is not a career anyone can have forever, and we will eventually see all these guys go. And what they've left behind shows just how great they are.

October 22, 2012

Old vs. New: 2012 WTA Championships Preview

It's all come down to this for the ladies on the WTA Tour -- ten months of comebacks, breakthroughs and victories have left us with eight women fighting for the year-end championship. Some have been here before, a couple seem to be missing and a few are here for the first time. But the way these ladies have played all year, you can be sure we'll be in for some fireworks.

The Also-Rans

There are a couple players who'd been fixtures at the year-end tournament left out of the action entirely this time around. Former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, runner-up in 2010, fell a little too far the rankings to qualify. And Vera Zvonareva, whose injury-marred season kept her to just twenty matches on the year, still isn't quite in fighting form, much less ready to compete at this level. But there are a few players whose hope for competing may still be alive.

Moscow runner-up Sam Stosur finished the regular season just outside the Elite Eight, so after two years of making the Final Four, she'll have to settle for an alternate ticket to Istanbul. It's tough, really, to gauge her performance this year -- she didn't defend a lot of points, most notably at the U.S. Open, but she did get back to the semis in Paris and put up her best fight yet against Victoria Azarenka in New York. Several things would have to happen for the Aussie to see any playing time at all this week, but if she sneaks in, there's no reason to believe she won't make an impact.

Marion Bartoli certainly made use of her alternate spot last year -- though she only played one match, her first at the WTA Championships since 2007, she did hand Azarenka her only loss in the round robins. And several months later she dealt out the #1 player's first defeat of the season. The Frenchwoman also had a solid showing in New York, but with a weak 12-30 career record against the eight qualifiers, it might be hard for her to make any impact here should she get the chance to play.

The Old Hat

The women who actually did successfully qualify for Istanbul this year span quite a range, from age to origin to experience. And a couple who've been making the trip since practically the turn of the century are back this year, trying to return back to the winner's podium they occupied several years ago.

Maria Sharapova made her first trip to the year-end championships in 2004, the breakthrough year during which she won Wimbledon and saw her ranking rise from #32 in the world to #4, and the then-seventeen year old stunned the world with another win over Serena Williams in the final. Sharapova's ups and downs since then have been well documented, but this year was the first in which we finally saw her really take back the reins. She made at least the semis of every Major event, and even completed the career Grand Slam in Paris. She may have ceded the #1 ranking she'd regained for a few weeks during the spring, but she's finally performing well, week after week again. And with a solid 11-8 record against the rest of the field this year, no one should expect to walk over her.

But the more intimidating figure might, as usual, be six time Tour finalist Serena Williams. Currently the holder of two Slam titles she's lost just four matches in total this year -- only once to a player in this field. Yes, she suffered a shocking loss at the French Open and yes, her opponents have been able to squeeze a little water out of the rock during those finals. But playing her first year-ends since 2009 -- which, incidentally, she won -- she's certainly going to bring her best to the table this time around. And with the way she's been playing all season, there doesn't seem to be much that will stop her.

The Breakouts

But while experience may be on the side of a few, there are a couple others who've been around the block before and might have just thrown their hats into the mix this year.

Agnieszka Radwanska is playing her fourth Tour Championships but, twice an alternate, it's only the second time she's qualified for it outright. But what a qualification she had -- through mid-May, the only player who could beat her was Victoria Azarenka, and her unexpected run to the Wimbledon final was only surpassed by the amazing fight she put up in it. She won three top-tier titles this year and climbed to #2 in the world during the summer. Injuries marred the second half of her season, though -- she had a disappointing hardcourt season, retiring in New Haven and looking pained at the U.S. Open. She did make her way back to the Tokyo final, but failed to defend titles there or in Beijing. But if she's back in fighting form and has her confidence back, she should be able to get in a few punches to cap off the best year of her career so far.

But the woman who's had Aga's number all year might have something to say about that. World #1 Victoria Azarenka qualified for her fourth straight Tour final in 2012, on the heels of a season that may have finally put to rest doubts over her stamina and attitude. After her runner-up finish last year, she won twenty-six matches and four titles in a row to kick off this season, including that first Grand Slam in Australia. She went relatively radio silent during the summer months, losing four big matches to Serena Williams. But her amazing showing in the U.S. Open final was followed by thirteen straight wins and another two titles to cap the year. She has a more-than solid 14-5 record against these ladies this year and, it seems, if she can finally get the best of Serena, she might have more than a shot at this title.

The Encores

Mixed in with the ladies who've made the post-season year after year are those with slightly less experience. But we've seen in the past that even first-timers can do a lot of damage here.

Petra Kvitova, for example, won the whole enchilada in her debut appearance last year without losing even a round robin match. Her play dropped off a bit this year -- it wasn't until August that she won her first title in Montreal, and with just five wins against the rest of this field in 2012, it seems top players might have finally figured her out. She's also 1-2 since the U.S. Open and may have a hard time repeating her success from last year. Still, she made at least the quarters in her first three Slams this year and her solid summer may have diminished concerns that arose after her post-Wimbledon slump last year. If she can find the power that brought her so close to the top of the game in 2011, she might surprise a couple players in Istanbul.

Veteran Na Li didn't have the same success in her first year-ends, winning just five games in her two round robin defeats last year, but that wasn't terribly surprising. The thirty-year-old won just a handful of matches after her breakthrough French Open last year, ending the season in a slump that seemed, at the time, impossible to get out of. But a new coach helped her regroup to start 2012 -- she made the final in Sydney, the quarters in Indian Wells and Miami and took the title in Cincinnati with a stunning win over Angelique Kerber in the championship match. Proving her performance last year was no fluke, the diminutive Chinese doesn't have much to lose in Istanbul -- if she comes out swinging, she certainly has a chance to get out of the early rounds.

The Fresh Blood

Even further down the experience list are a couple ladies few -- if anyone -- expected to still be around when the season started.

Sara Errani, the only woman playing both singles and doubles in Istanbul, had ended the last four years out of the top forty -- always spunky, she'd never made it past the third round of a Major, hadn't claimed a title since 2008 and won just sixteen matches off the clay last year. Her quarterfinal run in Melbourne to start 2012 kind of seemed like a fluke -- she didn't face anyone in the top thirty -- but when she hit the dirt this season, there seemed to be no stopping her. She more than doubled her trophy count with titles in Acapulco, Barcelona and Budapest, and then shocked the world by making the Roland Garros final with wins over three former Grand Slam champions on the way. Despite some missteps -- she was, after all, on the losing end of Yaroslava Shvedova's infamous Golden Set at Wimbledon -- the tiny Italian proved herself off clay too, making the semis in New Haven and even at the U.S. Open. Still it'll be a tough order for Errani to do much in Istanbul -- she's only 4-23 versus the rest of the field her entire career and has only notched one win against them off clay in 2012. It would be amazing to see her do something big her first time out, but something tells me her better chance lies on the doubles court.

A more realistic spoiler might be Angelique Kerber, who followed up on her Cinderella semi last year in New York with clear aplomb. Ranked #32 at the end of last year, she won the first two titles of her career in 2012 and broke the top ten after making the semis in Rome. Now at #5 in the world, she's scored ten wins over women who've held the top ranking and is the only one in Istanbul who's beaten Serena Williams this year. She can be spotty at times, but unlike some of her colleagues she's not one to get intimidated by anyone in this field. And with some of the most experience against these ladies this season -- she's faced off against them eighteen times, third only to Vika and Maria -- she's certainly gotten accustomed to playing the sport's elite. If she keeps her game up all week, she really could do some damage.

The mix of ladies contesting the WTA Championship this year seems to be refreshingly diverse. Clearly the players who've been here before have shown they know how to win, but the newbies are more than capable of catching the favorites off guard. And with so many hotly contested battles among this group there's potential for some real fireworks in Istanbul.

But whoever ultimately lays claim to the title will surely have to put up a fight to get there.

October 21, 2012

Closing Arguments

The field for the ladies' year-end championships is set already, but with a few weeks left for the men, some of the sport's top players are making their final push to qualify. And a couple made quite a case for themselves this week.

Andreas Seppi may not be in contention for one of the eight spots in London, but after the year he's had already it might not be long before he is in that conversation. The twenty-eight year old took a set from Roger Federer in Doha and beat John Isner in Rome. He won a title in Belgrade -- the second of his career -- but perhaps his biggest accomplishment came at Roland Garros. Ranked #25 at the time and already having endured two five-set matches to make the fourth round, he took a two-set-to-one lead on top-seeded Novak Djokovic, before finally succumbing.

And this week in Moscow he brought exactly that kind of game. He lost just a handful of games in his first three matches, facing his biggest challenge in his opener against Igor Sijsling. Against Malek Jaziri in the semis Seppi needed just eighty minutes to get the win and reach his fourth final of the year. Meanwhile Thomaz Bellucci, trying to claw his way back up the rankings, went almost two-and-a-half hours on Saturday against big-serving Ivo Karlovic. The effort didn't seem to affect him in today's final -- at first. The Brazilian fired off eight aces to take the first set from Seppi, but his service game started to struggle in the second. The second-seeded Italian took advantage to force a tiebreak and, eventually, a deciding set in which he really raised his game. Dropping just four points on serve, Seppi kept his opponent off his game and finally closed out the win.

A little further east in Vienna Juan Martin Del Potro was doing his part to make his first year-end final since 2009. The tall Argentine started the year by re-cracking the top ten after a quarterfinal run in Australia. He followed it up with a final in Rotterdam and a title in Marseille. He made a couple other Major quarters, but the highlight of his season might have been a Bronze medal at the London Olympics, a feat he achieved after a heart-wrenching loss to Roger Federer in the semis. Now back at #8 in the world -- his highest ranking since dropping U.S. Open points in 2010 -- he is poised to make a real stab at the elite again.

There was a little bit of luck on DelPo's side this week in Austria -- seeded Benoit Paire and Robin Haas both lost their first round matches, and hugely volatile Jurgen Melzer bowed out in his opener a round later. DelPo was nevertheless tested in his campaign -- in a three-hour, three-tiebreak, sixty-two ace, no-break match against qualifier Daniel Brands, it took everything in him to notch even one win. Two rounds later he was challenged again, this time by tricky Gilles Muller who put together another ace-fest -- this time with a relative piddling thirty-three -- but again prevailed to reach his second final in Vienna. On the bottom half of the draw, though, qualifier Grega Zemlja was establishing himself as quite the giant killer. He'd taken out Xavier Malisse, recently resurgent Tommy Haas and world #9 Janko Tipsarevic on the way to his first ever championship match, each in a three-set match. But his run finally ended Sunday afternoon -- the Slovenian kept things close to start, but eventually DelPo's experience won out. Winning over eighty percent of his first serves and allowing just one break conversion, the top seed made good and marked his most prolific year since winning the U.S. Open.

In the meantime a couple other World Tour Final hopefuls were working their way through the draw in Stockholm. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga ended last year on quite a high note, winning a couple titles after the U.S. Open and making the finals in Paris and London. He's won a few trophies this year too, but only posted one match against a top-ten player all season. Tomas Berdych, on the other hand, has put together a more impressive 5-11 record against the sport's elite, including a stunning victory over Roger Federer in New York. Just last week he put together a straight-set win over Tsonga in the Shanghai quarters -- the match was close though, sixteen aces, eighty-plus percent of first serves won, just one break. In Sweden Tsonga was out for revenge, but it would all be for naught.

The two top seeds in Stockholm worked their way through the draw with little drama. Tsonga didn't drop a set until the semis when Marcos Baghdatis pushed him to a decider before the Cypriot retired. Berdych faced a couple more seeds on his route and only lost serve once -- against world #11 Nicolas Almagro in the semis he didn't allow one break opportunity and converted three of his own. The Czech fell into a deficit in the final, losing the first set to Tsonga in just their fourth career meeting and then getting down a break too. But he rallied to take the second and kept things close in the decider. He had a couple chances to break for the title, and though Tsonga was able to save two match points, he ultimately double-faulted away the game and the match. The win put Berdych a little closer to securing his third straight trip to London, and kept Tsonga on the sidelines for just a little while longer.

Clearly not all of these winners will make the trip to London, and only a couple might have any legitimate shot at winning there. But their triumphs this week certainly do a lot to prove just how strong they really are and, if they can keep it up as the season winds down, there's no telling just how many more wins they have left in them.

October 18, 2012

Ending on a High Note

It's the last week of regular-season play for the ladies of the WTA, and while the Elite Eight going to Istanbul have already been decided, that's no reason for everyone else to stop fighting. And the players doing just that this week may actually have even more at stake.

The Luxembourg draw seems to be full of players who haven't been uber-present this year. A foot injury took Daniela Hantuchova out of action in April and May and several early-round losses since has pushed her ranking out of the top thirty-five. She's unseeded at the BGL Open, but was able to survive a feisty Arantxa Rus -- she who made the fourth round at the French Open and stunned Sam Stosur at Wimbledon -- and today stayed just tough enough against recently surging Kirsten Flipkens to prevent the upset. It'll be Dani's first quarterfinal since February, and with her next meeting set against veteran Spaniard Lourdes Dominguez Lino, a woman to whom she's never lost, she has a real opportunity here to prove she's back in fighting form.

The same can be said for Andrea Petkovic, who's injury-marred year has pushed her ranking down to #182. Since her return in August, the popular German has won a match here and there, but hasn't recaptured the glory that led her to be my New Year's pick to win the U.S. Open. But this week in Luxembourg she's shown she may be on the way back -- she survived a scare against qualifier Garbine Muguruza in her opener, but today exacted revenge against her Beijing vanquisher and sometimes-doubles partner Jelena Jankovic. After handing out a second set bagel, she's earned the right to a quarterfinal against also-recovering Ksenia Pervak, the woman who beat her last year at the All England Club. But if Petko's truly got her game back, she might be able to continue doing damage throughout this draw.

Venus Williams is looking to accomplish just as much. Since returning to the singles scene in March, she's already done some damage -- she took out three seeds on her way to the Cincinnati semi and has put together an impressive 5-7 record against top ten players this year. She had no problem this week against wildcard Belinda Bencic in her first round and is currently up a set on recently-struggling Mona Barthel. It might be a lot to ask for her to make a run for the title -- it's been more than two years since her last one, and the top two seeds are both still alive -- but there's no reason the American legend couldn't pull it off. She's certainly got the talent to do so.

Meanwhile in Russia, a couple other players are trying to restore their relevance. Maria Kirilenko has been flying under the radar most of the season, but somehow snuck to a career high ranking in August. Titleless since 2008, she nevertheless made the quarters at Wimbledon, the semis at the Olympics and the final in New Haven. She struggled with a back injury last month, though, and hadn't won a match since the U.S. Open until she came to her native Moscow. The seventh seed at the Kremlin Cup, she's had a tough draw, opening against Elena Vesnina and then battling through a tough Yaroslava Shvedova earlier today. She'll meet recent giant-killer Sofia Arvidsson next, but if she can keep her play up it could help her make another push into the sport's elite.

Reigning Moscow champion Dominika Cibulkova has had a slightly less stellar year. Though she was able to capture her second career title in Carlsbad and did score a massive defeat of world #1 Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros, she's still barely above 50% on the year. Dealt a tough draw too, she's already taken out Ekaterina Makarova and Tsvetana Pironkova to make the quarters, but she'll have to raise her game against Caroline Wozniacki if she's going to make another trip to a semi --she did beat the former #1 last year at Wimbledon, but still trails their head-to-head by 3-8. A win would certainly give her confidence a boost and put her in a good place to make another run for the title.

Sam Stosur may have even more to prove. The recent U.S. Open winner has had some big wins this year -- she put up a huge fight against long-time nemesis Victoria Azarenka in the New York quarters and earned one of her few victories against Maria Sharapova in Tokyo. But she's also had some bad losses, most recently to world #134 Kai-Chen Chang in Osaka, the site of her first career trophy three years ago, and was relegated to alternate status for the year-end Championships. Later today she opens her Moscow campaign against Alize Cornet, a woman who's taken her to three sets the last two times they've played -- and beat her in their only other meeting. But it's been a long time since those matches, and if Stosur wants to show us how much her game's improved, now's a good time to do it.

Whether these ladies are able to keep up their performances remains to be seen, but they've certainly given us cause to believe they're still capable of pulling out some big wins. As their years wind down wit's nice to see them making a last push for a win -- and whoever comes out on top might be able to change the conversation in the year to come.

October 15, 2012

The Year of the Brit

It's been a pretty good couple months for UK athletes. First they played host to a successful Olympic Games, winning twenty-nine gold medals in the process. Golf's golden boy Rory McIlroy won the PGA Championship and returned to the #1 ranking in the sport. And, maybe most spectacularly, their tennis stars have finally come out of the shadows and taken the spotlight.

It started with perennial also-ran Andy Murray, claiming Gold at the All England Club less than a month after being denied the Wimbledon crown. A few weeks later he ended a seventy-six year Major drought with a stunning win at the U.S. Open.

He wasn't the only Brit making waves in New York, though. Eighteen-year-old Laura Robson might have been the Cinderella story of the tournament, stopping not one, but two Grand Slam champions on her way to the fourth round -- this after teaming with Murray to capture the mixed doubles Silver in London, too. She didn't stop there, however. At a then-high rank of #74 in the world, Robson took out three seeds on the way to her first Tour final in Guangzhou, ultimately losing a hard-fought battle to Su-Wei Hsieh, but chopping another fourteen spots from her ranking.

But perhaps the greatest breakthrough came this past weekend. While Murray lost a tight final to Novak Djokovic in Shanghai, and Robson was ousted in her Osaka third round, often overlooked Heather Watson was making her own move in Japan. Just twenty herself, her previous best performance this year might have come when she took a set off Maria Sharapova in Tokyo -- the only top-thirty player she's ever beaten was Lucie Safarova back in Miami -- but she didn't let her inexperience stop her last week. After defeating sixth-seeded Anabel Medina Garrigues in the second round, she sailed until reaching the championship match, stumbling a little against fellow final first-timer Kai-Chen Chang, but finally winning her first trophy in the more than three-hour match.

It wasn't a huge title -- only one player ranked higher than #20 was in the draw -- but it was enough to push Watson into the top fifty as of this week's standings. It was also the first Tour title won by a British woman in twenty-four years, a feat that might match the more headline-grabbing accomplishments of her compatriots. And as she joins the ranks of the many Brits making breakthroughs this year, she might just be ushering in a new era of athleticism in the sport, changing the face of the top ranks in the years to come.

October 14, 2012

Reversal of Fortune

Things can get surprisingly interesting during the back quarter of the tennis season. Even with all the Majors in the books for the year, the sport's top stars still turn up the heat post-U.S. Open as they try to make up for what some might consider lackluster recent performances.

A couple years back Nikolay Davydenko came off an early, fourth-round loss in New York and put together a three-title streak, which included wins over Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer and the year-end championship. In 2011, Federer was unstoppable after squandering semifinal match points at the Open -- his 17-0 record buoyed him toward a sixth World Tour Final and served no small role in getting him back to the #1 ranking.

This time, it seems, it's Novak Djokovic's chance to turn his luck around. Not exactly having a bad season -- the leader in the race to London has four titles, including a Slam, already -- he has nevertheless ceded the spotlight a bit to the resurgent Roger and the groundbreaking Andy Murray. And with very few points to defend from this time last year -- he went trophy-less after his own win in New York -- he didn't have a lot to lose.

Nole might not have faced a seeded player until the semis in Shanghai, but that didn't mean he was without challenges. He opened against rising star Grigor Dimitrov, squared off against a tough Feliciano Lopez in the third round and finally ended the streak of comeback story Tommy Haas in the quarters. He might have had trouble against Tomas Berdych -- the tall Czech stunned the then-#3 on his way to the 2010 Wimbledon final and has put up some big fights in the past -- but Djokovic kept his cool and walked away with the win in just under ninety minutes.

Meanwhile, the Serb's recent nemesis Andy Murray was working his way through his own half of the draw. He'd actually had a bit of a struggle in his quarterfinal, going down a set to Radek Stepanek before pulling through, but against Roger Federer in the semis, he raised his game. He won over eighty percent of his first serves, capitalized on a handful of double faults and broke the world #1 three times during the match. In a routine two-setter, Murray notched his second win in a row over, making his way to the seventh final of his year, and his third
in Shanghai.

It was the first time Djokovic and Murray had met since that devastating final in New York, actually just a month ago. With that win capping the Scot's already-successful year and giving him three wins to the Serb's two this year, momentum seemed to be on his side. And he rode that wave through at least a set and a half of Sunday's final. After losing his first service game, Murray won three in a row himself. The pair traded an inordinate number of breaks during the first set, but kept their level high, with the #3 seed finally getting the early lead after more than an hour of play.

He got a break in the second, too, and earned a chance to serve out the match at 5-4, but a glorious between-the-legs shot got Nole on the board in the tenth game. Murray failed to convert any of five championship points in that game and the ensuing twenty-four point tiebreak, and eventually was forced to a decider. With the tide turning now towards Nole, it was only a matter of time before he closed things out. He took advantage of some weak legs from his opponent and mediocre serving to break Murray twice in the decider. And in three hours, twenty-one minutes -- the longest non-Major final of the year -- Djokovic had claimed his first Shanghai Masters crown and, maybe more importantly, stop the sting of that last big loss.

The win gives Djokovic a 10-0 record since the U.S. Open and marks his seventieth win of the year. It's certainly a better showing than he put up at this time in 2011 when, after a record-breaking kick-off he seemed to suffer a bit from exhaustion. But now that he's figured out how to control his success -- and his schedule -- it looks like he's poised to end this season the way he started the last one.

And if he keeps it up, it looks like there will be a whole new set of headlines in the coming months.

October 10, 2012

Where'd They Go?

If the top ranks of the tennis world have seen something of a resureection in recent weeks, the middle tiers seem to be stumbling a bit this time of year. Despite some impressive starts to the year, a couple players have faded the last couple months of the season. And they'll need to take the next few weeks to regroup if they're going to make a statement in 2013.

World #32 Christina McHale started off the year with real promise -- after her breakout in 2011 she made the quarterfinals in Doha and beat then-Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in Indian Wells a few weeks later. The young American climbed to a career high ranking in August, breaking the top twenty-five, but has struggled since then. She withdrew from New Haven with illness and wasn't well enough to win her first round match at the U.S. Open. After pulling out of two tournaments after New York, she lost her first match back in Beijing to Ana Ivanovic and this week in Osaka couldn't quiet get her game together. Against Kai-Chen Chang in her opener, she lost more than half her points on serve and in a break-filled match -- nine in total -- she was the weaker player on return. Hopefully once she's fully recovered she'll be able to get back on track -- it'd be nice to see her notch a couple more elite wins and cement herself as a force in this sport.

Frankly I'm a little more surprised at the performance we've seen out of Yaroslava Shvedova recently. The doubles star had lost singles ground last year when injury hampered play in the second half, but came back swinging in 2012. She beat defending champion Na Li at Roland Garros to make the quarters and famously dealt Sara Errani a Golden Set at Wimbledon a month later. Her climb up the rankings has been phenomenal -- the Kazakh is at #28 coming to Japan, having started the year out of the top two-hundred -- but her showing since the summer, less so. She hasn't made it past the second round of any event since, and this week in Japan was trounced by thirty-five year old Tamarine Tanasugarn in her first round. It's probably too soon to be overly concerned, but it would be great to see her turn her luck around before she loosens her grip on the top too much.

Mona Barthel was a little further under the radar when she broke onto the scene in January. Largely unknown when she qualified for Hobart, she stunned four seeds in a row to take the title and went on to notch wins over Jelena Jankovic and Marion Bartoli before the spring was over. She stumbled in the months that followed though, losing six matches in a row and losing her opening rounds in the last three Majors. She did manage a semifinal in Quebec City, but this week in Linz she seemed to revert immediately. In her first round against Kiki Bertens, she was able to force a deciding set, but couldn't convert a single point on return during it. After a relatively short hundred-minute match she was sent packing again, the eighth time this year the German wasn't able to win a match at an event. She still has enough points to hold on to a decent ranking, but she'll need to up her game if she wants to prove her early results this year were no fluke.

Tamira Paszek had made her breakthrough years ago, making the girls' final at both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open Juniors championships. She even made the fourth round in both events' main draws in 2007 and cracked the top forty at sixteen years of age. Her start to this season was less impressive -- she went 2-13 in the first five-and-a-half months -- but she quickly shut up any doubters with her performance in Eastbourne. Just a week before (successfully) defending a slew of quarterfinal points at the All England Club, she beat five higher ranked players to take her first title in almost two years. But she's struggled off the grass -- the Austrian managed to make the quarters in Montreal, but has only won a handful of matches elsewhere. In her homeland, the seventh seed, she should have been the aggressor, but committed too many errors against Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her first round. After losing her first set quickly, Paszek stayed close in the next, but couldn't defend her second serve and lost in another two-set match. Clearly a threat on the lawn, she's going to have to prove her power translates onto other surface if she wants to be a real threat to the top ranks.

And while all these ladies will need to execute a turn around, perhaps we'll be most closely watching the progression of Sabine Lisicki. My comeback story of 2011, she won two big titles and score a slew of upsets in her post-injury run. And while she seemed plagued with problems at the start of the year, she nevertheless worked to the #12 spot by May and made her way deep into the Wimbledon draw. Like Paszek, though, she didn't seem to find success off the grass -- Lisicki won just one match after the Olympics and earlier today fell in just over an hour to Linz wildcard Patricia Mayr-Achleitner, ranked #159 in the world. Injury has been a problem for the German for years, and she's intimated in the past that she might quit the game if her health doesn't hold up. Hopefully she'll make a turn for the better -- you can't deny that, when playing her best, she's one of the true stars of the game.

As the 2012 season winds down it may be too late for these ladies to turn things back in their favor this year, but that doesn't mean all hope is lost. A couple big wins here and there and they'll be back in the spotlight, back on the upswing. And if they are able to come out of hiding soon, play to their full potential, it could make for an interesting year to come.

October 7, 2012

Back Where We Started

It's easy to forget where we stood nine months ago. With the return of Roger, the rise of Murray, the dominance of Serena, more recent headlines are quite different from the ones we saw back then. But this week we did something of an about-face, and the winners, some of whom have been out of the spotlight for months or more, climbed their way back to the top, and reminded us all not to be distracted by all that's gone on since summer ended.

Kei Nishikori was the comeback story of last year, fighting back from injury that had largely sidelined him since 2008, rocking his way to two runner's-up trophies and cracking the top thirty by the end of the year. He kicked off 2012 with the same kind of success, becoming the first Japanese man to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals in eighty years. He was a little quiet after that, skipping Roland Garros and winning just two matches at each of the other two Grand Slams. He only made one significant win since January, beating David Ferrer at the Olympics, and was starting to lose the momentum he'd built up last season.

Then he came to Tokyo and turned things around. The eighth seed was challenged early, dropping sets to countryman Go Soeda and a rebuilding Tommy Robredo, but he raised his game in the quarters against world #6 Tomas Berdych and made quick work of Marcos Baghdatis a round later to make his first final in over a year. There he took on Milos Raonic, fresh off two huge wins, first over Janko Tipsarevic and then over top seed and defending champion Andy Murray in the semis. His previous long matches didn't seem to have much affect on the big-serving Canadian -- Raonic fired off fourteen aces and kept himself close for two sets. But Nishikori took over in the third, allowing his opponent just nine points on serve and ceding only four on his own. After about two hours of play, he'd won his first title in over four years, the first Japanese man to take the trophy in Tokyo, and put himself squarely back on the path he seemed destined for less than a year ago.

Novak Djokovic hasn't exactly fallen out of the spotlight this year, but it certainly feels like he's not making the same statement he was at the start of it. Coming off the best season of his career, he was understandably fatigued at the start of this one, but nevertheless defended his title in Australia and retained his #1 ranking through Wimbledon. He picked up a couple more titles in 2012, but compared to the ten he'd racked up by this time last year, it felt like he was losing a bit of his luster.

He may have gotten his season back on track this week in Beijing though. Though he was pushed to three sets by Michael Berrer in his opener -- his first match since that heart-breaking loss in the U.S. Open final -- he rebounded quickly and didn't drop a set on his way to this championship round. Meanwhile Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, riding his own win streak with a title in Metz last month, made his way to the final with similarly little fanfare -- after dropping his first set to Denis Istomin, he received a walkover, a retirement and a fairly routine win over Mikhail Youzhny to make his third final of the year. Sunday's match had the potential to be hotly contested -- Tsonga held a more-than-decent 5-7 record against the world #2 -- and the Frenchman got an early break lead. But Djokovic rebounded, drew even and eventually won the tiebreak. He took control in the second, too, breaking his long-time foe twice and clinching his third Beijing title in four years.

Like Novak, top-ranked Victoria Azarenka hasn't exactly fallen from grace -- though she hadn't won a title since Indian Wells in March, her impressive performance in the U.S. Open final helped her retain the #1 ranking she'd lost for a few weeks during the summer. Still, after that twenty-six match, four-crown, one Grand Slam run that started the year, her more recent performances have shown the kinks in her armor. She's only lost one match to a player outside the top ten this year, though, so even without a recent title to her name, opponents had to stay wary.

As should be expected, the Belorussian sailed through her early rounds -- she didn't drop a set in her first five matches and was relentless against Marion Bartoli in the semis, the woman who doled out her first loss of the year, needing just over ninety minutes to make another final. In the other half of the draw, her recent rival Maria Sharapova had her own straightforward run to the final. After a long first round against Simona Halep, she dominated in later matches, winning all nine games until Angelique Kerber retired in the quarters and handing out a big bagel set to Na Li in the semis. The win earned Sharapova her fifth meeting against Vika this year, but with just one victory in those meetings, history was not on her side. Azarenka kept her play consistent, drew nearly forty errors from her challenger and eventually scored the win with a straightforward 6-3, 6-1 performance. With her fifth crown of the year, she reminded us just why she's at the top of the women's game these days.

With their wins this week all these players brought us back to a time when they were at the top of their games. There are only a few weeks left in the season, so there may not have been a better time for them to work their way back into the headlines. And as they look to end the year the way they started it, we can only hope their momentum carries into the new season.

October 3, 2012

Stopped Short

It's got to be a little disheartening for a tennis player, just putting together the momentum to launch a comeback, successfully pulling off a huge win at a tournament, and then having the wind sucked out of her a match or two later. Many of the ladies in Beijing this week have fallen victim to just that trend, and that's allowed some interesting names to make their way into the quarterfinals.

Ana Ivanovic isn't exactly an underdog at the China Open -- seeded eleventh here, she's coming off her first Major quarterfinal since 2008 and is at her highest ranking in three years. Still, she hasn't beaten a top ten player since Indian Wells, and was dealt a pretty tough draw from the start in Beijing. Ana opened against Christina McHale, a rematch of her Olympic first round, and got a challenge from new U.S. #2 Varvara Lepchenko a match later. Having survived these threats, she might have expected smooth sailing for a while, but world #69 Romina Oprandi had other plans.

The Swiss miss had lost three straight matches since the U.S. Open, but came to China with an agenda. She dispatched rising star Urszula Radwanska in her opener and avoided a second round against French Open finalist Sara Errani, who retired in her first match. She raised her game further against Ivanovic in today's match, taking advantage of weak serving from the Serb and actually winning more points on return than in her own game. After just over an hour, she'd notched her biggest win of the year and secured a spot in her first Tour-level quarter since last June. It'll only get tougher from here, of course -- she'll likely face world #1 Victoria Azarenka next -- but the veteran has proven she can still hit with the big girls and might just be able to make an even bigger statement this week.

Julia Goerges seemed to be in a bit of a sophomore slump after her breakout 2011 season. After reaching a career-high ranking at #15 this past March, she failed to defend clay court points during the spring and fell in the first round of the U.S. Open. She survived a scare against Vania King in her Beijing first round, but seemed to save face against rival Sam Stosur in the second. The German had won the pair's first two meetings, and though the fellow dirt specialist got revenge this year in Stuttgart, Goerges was able to turn the tide back in her favor in a two-and-a-half hour, three set win on Tuesday.

Her success would not last long, however. Ninth-seeded Marion Bartoli, who's play can be a little manic at times, had had a decent 2012 -- she was the first player of the season to beat Victoria Azarenka in Miami, made the final at two events, reached the quarters in New York, and very nearly ended a long losing streak to Maria Sharapova. Today she was relentless against Goerges, with eight aces and seven doubles, she was the aggressor and took down her opponent for the second straight week. She's certainly no stranger to the latter stages of an event, but her third round dominance may make her a bigger force than others realize.

Former world #1 Jelena Jankovic is striving to get back to that same level. Having fallen out of the top twenty in May, she's 1-9 against top-fifteen players this year and has racked up fourteen opening round losses -- I won't mention how many times she's squandered match points again. Well out of seeding territory these days, she also faced a tough draw in Beijing, but stayed tough against comeback story Andrea Petkovic to start and demolished a struggling Monica Niculescu on Tuesday to reach the third round. She seemed to be getting her act together again and, like compatriot Ana before her, should have bought herself a little breathing room.

But Carla Suarez Navarro was quick to put an end to the Serb's momentum. Dealing with her own set of injuries over the past two years, the teeny Spaniard had already scored wins over the likes of Sabine Lisicki and Sam Stosur this year and had made her way to the final in Estoril, her first since 2010. She'd already marked moral victory in Beijing, taking out Petra Kvitova in the second round, but kept her cool against JJ today. In a somewhat ugly display -- neither lady won even half of her service points and together they lost serve sixteen times -- Suarez Navarro was able to save just slightly more of the twenty-three break points she faced and eked out the win in just under two hours. She'll need to do better against Bartoli in her next round, but if she is able to clean up her game, she might just be able to catch the Frenchwoman by surprise.

It would have been nice to see the players looking to regroup this week really put an end to recent slumps, but with subsequent losses the roads to their revival seemed to take some unfortunate turns. Hopefully they'll be able to turn things around during the balance of the year -- after all, they've each proven they're still capable of pulling off some big wins.

Now they just needed to do it over and over.