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.

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