September 9, 2013

Defying Expectations

It took quite a long time for Rafael Nadal to find his footing in New York.

He'd already won four crowns at Roland Garros, made three straight finals at Wimbledon -- taking a title there, too -- and climbed to the top of the rankings before he even reached the semis here. He lost time and again to players ranked below him -- #49 James Blake in 2005, #54 Mikhail Youzhny a year later -- and couldn't beat any player in the top ten in the three years after that. And even after capturing the previously elusive hardcourt Major in Melbourne, this one spot in this trophy case remained empty.

Rafa finally broke the seal, of course, completing the career Grand Slam in 2010. But with the rise of upstarts over the next several seasons, an injury-plagued 2012, and some shockingly early exits outside of Paris, it seemed like the Spaniard would have a tough time reclaiming the momentum that brought him his sole victory in Flushing Meadows.


Nadal rebounded from his first round loss at the All England Club and roared through the draw in Montreal. He followed up with a win in Cincinnati, his first ever title there, and came to New York with a perfect record on hardcourts, what's long been the worst surface of his career. Despite the secondary ranking he brought with him to the U.S. Open, he was, against all odds, considered the favorite here, and with just one break of serve on his way to the final, he was performing like it too.

Meanwhile, top-seeded Novak Djokovic had lived up to his own expectations. A thrilling win over first-time Slam semifinalist Stanislas Wawrinka on Saturday, put him in his fourth straight U.S. Open final. He seemed lethargic in the first set of Monday's championship, broken twice in about forty minutes to fall into an early hole, but came back in style in the second, breaking the previously untouchable Nadal in three straight games to even the score and then get a lead.

But that's when Rafa turned up the heat -- just as momentum had shifted back to one of the best hardcourt players in the sport, he was able to put together shots that had the entire crowd on their feet. He fought back from the brink and rolled through the final set, capturing his second trophy on the grounds that had proved his foil for so long.

The win, Nadal's second Major of the year and thirteenth overall, puts him in a league above most others in the field, just one Slam behind the Pete Sampras. He's only lost three matches all year, and the way he's playing it doesn't seem like he's going to cede many more in the months that come. And this is a position few of us thought he'd be in just a year ago.

But if we've learned anything by watching this champion over the last eight years, it's that nothing is out of his reach. And by reclaiming the crown in New York, he's shown that he's going to be grabbing for everything in sight for some time to come.

September 8, 2013

No Winds of Change...Yet

It sure was swirling out on Arthur Ashe today, and I'm not just talking about the gusts that blew up the skirts of the players on center court -- the balls flew too, hard and fast, showcasing the strengths and fortitude of the two ladies left contesting the championship at the U.S. Open. Serena Williams, in a quest for her fifth title in New York, took on world #2 Victoria Azarenka, runner-up here last year, and though the American ultimately lived up to expectations as the heavy favorite, the road to the trophy was far from easy and may have established just how far these two have set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd.

Serena and Vika had last met just three weeks ago in the Cincinnati final, and the young Belorussian had staged quite a comeback to claim the trophy, but Serena had proven the stronger player at Flushing Meadows, broken just twice in her first six matches and spending just over an hour on court each time. Azarenka, on the other hand, had to claw back from a set down to both Alize Cornet and Ana Ivanovic, and lost serve an astounding nineteen times during the fortnight. Serena had the upper hand from the start in the final, too, rebounding after giving up an early lead to take the first set and running off to a 4-1, two-break lead to start the second.

But Vika would not concede. She took advantage of some weak serving by the world #1 to draw even, fighting off Serena's attempt to serve out the match -- twice. In the tiebreak she squandered her first couple set points but finally was able to force a decider, again challenging Williams when everyone assumed she had the title all but wrapped up. Of course the momentum shifted squarely back to the other side of the court in the third set, with Serena grabbing an early break again, but this time raising her own service game to keep the lead safe. In only the second three-set U.S. Open women's final since 1995 -- both of which featured these two ladies -- Williams again walked away the winner, adding Slam #17 to her trophy case and closing in on records held by legends like Chris Evert and Martina Navritalova.

And while Serena's victory in New York cements her as the best in this sport -- for now, and possibly for all time -- it's important to acknowledge the effort put up by Azarenka in this final as well. The twenty-four year old was all but vanquished about an hour into this match, but found a way to regroup and stay strong, determined to prove she deserved to share a bit of the spotlight. After all, she has beaten Williams twice this season, and has given her the biggest fight she's faced in any of her recent Major victories. Serena might not be ready to hand over the reins quite yet, but Vika's certainly shown she's more than capable of taking over when the time comes.

And when the winds finally do start blowing in that new direction, we can only hope the battles we see are as great as the one we got tonight.

September 3, 2013

Party Like It's...2009?

There must be something in the air in New York this fortnight.

While we've clearly been treated to more than our fair share of breakthrough stories at the U.S. Open, as we stand on the verge of the Major's quarterfinal rounds you can't help but notice the names of a few veterans -- long counted out of contention at the Slams -- surviving into Week Two. And though many of the top seeds can still claim to be favorites for the titles here, the performances of these underdogs could bode well even after the grounds at Flushing Meadows go dark.

The men's draw has stayed a little more intact than it did at Wimbledon, but it wasn't entirely devoid of early upsets. Juan Martin Del Potro, champion here in 2009, bowed out in the second round and opened the door for another former champ to continue. Lleyton Hewitt, my choice for Cinderella in this quarter, took the edge in the pair's head-to-head by fighting back from a two-set-to-one deficit in their second round battle. A win over rising star Evgeny Donskoy a match later brought him entrรฉe to his first U.S. Open fourth round since 2006.

He's now on court with fellow comeback kid adult Mikhail Youzhny who's seeded here, but far from playing at his best. The Russian, a semifinalist in New York back in 2010, has faced three tough players already and pulled off surprisingly one-sided victories in all of them. He has just a 1-5 record against Hewitt, though, so history is not on his side. But with both players looking to make their best Slam showing in quite some time, don't expect either to give up easily.

While Del Potro's early loss was the biggest on-paper upset in the men's bracket, the more shocking result came in yesterday's fourth round action. Five-time champion Roger Federer was taken to task by Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo, marking the first year since 2002 in which he didn't reach a Slam final. Robredo's win meanwhile put him back in rarefied territory -- the world #22, whose ranking peaked in the top five back in 2006, has now reached his first U.S. Open quarterfinal and made the final eight of two Majors this year. The thirty-one year old has never gotten further at any big event in his career, and set to meet 2010 champion Rafael Nadal next, I doubt he'll change that this time around. But by showing life just when his career seemed over might prove how much fight Robredo's got left in him.

Ana Ivanovic has been climbing her way back into the sport's elite for a few years, but the former world #1 has only made one Slam quarterfinal since winning the 2008 French Open. She looked poised to break that streak this week though, having dropped just five games against her first two opponents in New York, and taking the opening set from last year's runner-up Victoria Azarenka in their fourth round today. She didn't seem willing to cede the advantage either -- in a third set which "boasted" seven breaks in ten games, the Serb wouldn't allow Vika to serve out the match. She did eventually end her run at the Open, of course, but might have given herself some much needed confidence to finish out the year. Tite-less now since Bali, 2011, she might just be ready to recapture the glory that once brought her to the top of this sport.

It's been a little longer since Daniela Hantuchova was playing at her best. The one-time world #4 missed a big chunk of last season with an ankle injury and took her time to rebuild -- though she's put up wins over top ten players like Sara Errani in Brisbane and Petra Kvitova in Madrid, and even added a title to her trophy case in Birmingham, she nevertheless hasn't won a match at a Major since the 2012 Australian Open. That changed this week, though -- now ranked just inside the top fifty, the thirty year old was able to capitalize on a draw that had been cleared out by her opponents. 2011 champ Sam Stosur was dismissed in the first round and upstart American Alison Riske took out former Wimbledon titleist Petra Kvitova in the third. By beating both these Cinderellas, Hantuchova sneaked her way into her first U.S. Open quarterfinal since 2002 and sets up a meeting with Azarenka, a woman with whom she holds a super-tight 2-2 record. It'll be her first real challenge of the tournament, by far, but if she can take advantage of holes in her opponent's game, she might just get it done.

But by far the biggest comeback of this event has been long-unheralded Flavia Pennetta. The Italian was the first woman from her country to break into the top ten, doing so just before the 2009 U.S. Open and was my pick to make the semis at Roland Garros the year after. But with her compatriots stealing the spotlight in recent years and a series of injuries kept her off the court for much of 2012, she had not only fallen out of the top hundred, but way off the radar of even the biggest tennis fans. She'd had some strong results this year, though, reaching the final in Strasbourg and the fourth round of Wimbledon -- thanks mostly to the withdrawal of Azarenka in the second round -- but has really made her strides in New York. She delivered a one-sided loss to last year's semifinalist Sara Errani and followed it up with wins over 2004 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and red-hot Simona Halep. Now in her fourth quarterfinal in Flushing Meadows, the clay court specialist has established this as her Slam of choice, and if she can pull off a win over fellow Italian Roberta Vinci in her next round, she would put herself security back on the map for the sport's elite.

It's been quite a while since these players have been at the top of their game, but they've all seemed to find a time machine to bring them back to better days. It's a long shot for any of them to walk away with the title -- in fact, only one of those still alive has even played in a Major final before. But if they can keep the clocks turned back just a little while longer, there's no telling what even bigger wins they can pull off as we close out this fortnight.

August 28, 2013

U.S. Open Cinderella Stories

So this is post is coming a little late, but with a bit more than a round's worth of action in the books at the U.S. Open, we might just have a better idea now of the players that can emerge as Cinderella at the year's last Major. While many of the favorites have survived early rounds unscathed, there have been more than a few big shocks in the draws already, and as play grinds on we're sure to see even bigger ones down the road.

And more than a few unknowns could put together the biggest tournament of their careers this fortnight. So let's take a look at where we might see the underdogs really take a bite out of the draws.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

The top seeds in this quarter have so far progressed without a lot of drama. World #1 Novak Djokovic needed less than ninety minutes to dispatch Lithuania's Ricardas Berankis and Juan Martin Del Potro, who's so far split sets with Guillermo Garcia Lopez, shouldn't have much more trouble than that. But that's not to say it'll be all smooth sailing in this section of the bracket -- already Grigor Dimitrov came out on the losing end of a long five-setter, keeping his record in New York at a less-than-impressive 0-3.

His vanquisher Joao Sousa will have to man up if he's going continue his run though. Jarkko Nieminen, set for a second round match-up against the Portugal native, beat both Milos Raonic and Del Potro in Monte Carlo and made the final in Dusseldorf. The veteran Finn won just his second title last year in Sydney, but did make the quarters here all the way back in 2005. He's set to meet Nole just a few matches down the road, but he might have what it takes to pull off an upset. And Jurgen Melzer, well off his career high ranking, did manage to get a seed in New York even before winning a title last week in Winston-Salem. He's slated to open against Evgeny Donskoy, who beat John Isner on his way to the Den Bosch quarterfinal, but if he survives that test he might just put together a solid run this year.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Fabio Fognini (16) vs. Lleyton Hewitt

Fogs has worked his way well up the ranking since putting himself in the record books as Andy Roddick's last win last year, and at #18 in the world he looks primed to keep improving. And 2001 champion Lleyton Hewitt seems unwilling to fade away into oblivion -- ranked out of the top fifty, he's nevertheless made the final in Newport two years running and the semis in London and Atlanta this season. The Australian has so far taken the first set from Cinderella Brian Baker, and though he will certainly face bigger threats down the road, he's shown he has the resolve to keep going.

Second Quarter

Opening rounds were good to the favorites in this quarter -- both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer sped through early action in straight sets -- but still no one's safe. After all eleventh seeded Kei Nishikori, at his best ranking in a Major, dropped quickly in the first day of play to little known Brit Daniel Evans.

But some players might just be ready to shine in this section. American Sam Querrey, once in the top twenty and hailed as the next big thing in U.S. tennis, had been struggling this year, but reached the semis in Winston-Salem last week. He was tested early, but actually has a fairly winnable road over the next few matches, as long as he plays his best. And countryman John Isner had the summer of his career, winning a title in Atlanta and making the finals in both DC and Cincinnati. He dropped just a handful of games to Italy's Filippo Volandri and seems like he might finally be ready to make a statement at a Slam.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Gael Monfils vs. Carlos Berlocq (both unseeded)

Unfortunately for Isner, he'll next face former top-ten player Gael Monfils, fresh off a final run in North Carolina. The Frenchman has won the pair's last two meetings and may have the momentum to do it again. And Berlocq, who won his first career title last month in Bastad, is back in the top fifty. He was nearly triple-bageled at the U.S. Open in 2011 but he's a much better player than that these days. Though he'll have to get through five-time champion Roger Federer in the next round, we've seen how vulnerable even the greats can be.

Third Quarter

Defending champion Andy Murray hasn't taken to the court yet this year, and while France's Michael Llodra could give him a bit of a fight in the first round, I don't anticipate much drama for the Scot. Tomas Berdych, too, was relatively unchallenged in his opener, needing just a hundred minutes to dispatch Paolo Lorenzi. But the fates haven't been kind to everyone in this section of the draw -- Juan Monaco, ranked in the top ten this time last year, has only made it out of one Slam first round this year, and kept that streak going when he retired down two sets to Florian Mayer yesterday. And recently quiet Nicolas Almagro -- this is so far the first year since 2005 in which he hasn't won a title -- was stunned by unheralded Denis Istomin in his first round.

And there are a couple other players who might take an opportunity to shine in this section. Donald Young, a Cinderella once before, is now better known for the meltdown he had last year. Still he had a surprisingly easy win over a not-inconsequential on Tuesday. And James Blake, having announced this will be the last event he plays in his professional career, could pull a Roddick and put together more wins than we expect now that he's retiring. At least I'm hoping that's what happens.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Kevin Anderson (17) vs. Jeremy Chardy

Anderson is playing at his highest career ranking, and after a run to the Atlanta final this summer, seems to be playing with a lot of confidence. He's made a Major fourth round twice this year -- his best ever showings on the big stage -- and might now be ready to push one step further. And Chardy, the surprise quaterfinalist in Australia this year, is just out of seeding territory, but could turn things around after his five set win over Sergiy Stakhovsky in the first round and make another run in the second week.

Fourth Quarter

This quarter houses the lowest-seeded favorites, and while both David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet were able to advance without a lot of drama, not all the seeds were as lucky. Ernests Gulbis, at his highest ranking in over two years, couldn't hold on to a two-set-to-one lead over Andreas Haider-Maurer and ultimately lost in the nearly four hour match. And Jerzy Janowicz, the unquestioned surprise story at the All England Club, wasn't able to keep his streak going and dropped three quick sets to Argentina's Maximo Gonzalez, barely ranked in the top two-fifty.

A couple other players in this section, though, are looking to launch a comeback this fortnight. Janko Tipsarevic has made the quarters in New York two years in a row, but actually has a losing record on the season so far. He survived what could have been a struggle when Pablo Cuevas retired in their first round, but if he doesn't up his game, there will be a lot of points coming off his ranking, and quickly. Meanwhile Dimitry Tursunov, a top-twenty player some seven years ago, has been working his way back from injury all year. He beat Ferrer in Barcelona and repeated the win on his way to the Cincy quarters, just enough to eke out a seeding at Flushing Meadows. He needed four sets to do it, but with a win over Aljaz Bedene made it out of the first round hear for the first time since 2008. If the vet can keep it up, he could make quite a statement in the coming days.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Feliciano Lopez (23) vs. Roberto Bautista-Agut

Feli has been on the comeback trail himself this year, and after winning a title in Eastbourne, he beat Stanislas Wawrinka in Gstaad and Kei Nishikori in Cincy. He disappointed my expectations by just making the third round at Wimbledon, but might be able to deliver this time around. And his countryman is just a few weeks off a career high ranking, hung around longer than expected in Stuttgart and Winston-Salem. After beating a tough Thomaz Bellucci in the first round, he might be ready to make an impact here too.

The Women

First Quarter

Serena barely batted an eye in her first round win over recent French Open champion Francesca Schiavone on Monday night, and actually seemed angry with herself that she let the Italian get on the board in the eleventh game of the match. And Angelique Kerber, who's more than proven her 2011 run here was no fluke, dropped just two games to doubles star Lucie Hradecka in her opener. But DC champ Magdalena Rybarikova couldn't keep up her strong summer and Kirsten Flipkens was summarily routed by two-time champion Venus Williams on Day One of play.

Despite all odds Venus could just be the spoiler in this section. Though hampered by injury and illness the last few years, she looks good this year, fighting back to force a decider after losing her first set today to Jie Zheng. If she survives she'll meet Carla Suarez Navarro next though, and she famously lost to the Spaniard at the 2009 Australian Open. But these days who knows what can happen. And Kaia Kanepi continues to struggle in her comeback, but did manage to hold on for a win against Vania King in her opener. The Estonian has missed a lot of time with injury, but manages to put on a show every time she gets back on court -- she made the quarters at Wimbledon and won a title in Brussels. It should be a few rounds more before she faces another challenger this time.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Sloane Stephens (15) vs. Eugenie Bouchard

Sometimes players are exhausted by a challenging round and lose their very next match, but other times they rally are run away with a title. Something tells me Stephens is part of the latter group -- since coming back from a break down in the third set to Mandy Minella on Monday, she might just have the adrenaline to push farther. And the Canadian teenager has had a couple big wins this season -- Laura Robson in Charleston, Ana Ivanovic at Wimbledon -- and having already won her first match at her first U.S. Open, she really has nothing to lose.

Second Quarter

This quarter, by far, was the scene of the biggest shock of the tournament so far. Yes, last year's runner-up Victoria Azarenka advanced without dropping a game to a tricky Dinah Pfizenmaier, and yes, Petra Kvitova was pushed to a third before closing out Misaki Doi on Tuesday. But easily the loss by 2011 champion Sam Stosur to seventeen-year-old qualifier Victoria Duval was what everyone was talking about. Whether the young American, just ranked inside the top three hundred, has it in her to pull off another win -- against former world #5 Daniela Hantuchova in the next round -- remains to be seen, but even making it this far makes her the Cinderella of the event.

That said, a slew of other youngsters could put up a fight too. Alison Riske got her first win in New York when she beat Tsvetana Pironkova in her opener, and little known Sachia Vickery kept up that trend with a win over veteran Mirjana Lucic herself. And Christina McHale, out of the top hundred now, but seeded here last year, survived a scare against similarly slumping Julia Goerges in her first round. Any of these ladies might have what it takes to put in a good run the rest of the fortnight.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Ana Ivanovic (13) vs. Mona Barthel (28)

Of course, all their efforts might just serve to clear the roads for some other relative underdogs. Ivanovic made a solid run to the quarters last year and put up a one-sided victory against rising star Anna Tatishvili in her opener. And Barthel, who first burst on the scene early last year, has struggled to keep up her consistency since then. But she seems ready to make a statement at a Slam, and this might just be a good place to do it.

Third Quarter

Though many matches were delayed by rain today, Aga Radwanska and Na Li, both in this quarter, were some of the few players to lock in their spots in the third round Wednesday, neither dropping more than five games in either of their matches. In fact, none of the seeds in this quarter have had trouble so far and only one -- Toronto finalist Sorana Cirstea -- even lost a set.

There will still be opportunities to surprise, of course. Bethanie Mattek-Sands made the fourth round at Roland Garros and put together a solid win over Mathilde Johansson on Monday. She'll take on Ekaterina Makarova next, though, and that won't be an easy task. The Russian, twice a quarterfinalist in Melbourne, has for some reason never gotten out of the third round in New York. But she's beaten players like Angelique Kerber, Sara Errani and Victoria Azarenka already this year -- and claimed bigger scalps in the past -- and might be ready to make a run this time around.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Alisa Kleybanova vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (32)

I'm not sure what Pavs' coaching status is now that Martina Hingis is playing doubles again, but under the tutelage of a player that won the title here in 1997, you have to think she's got some kind of leg up. As for Kleybs, that one's entirely wishful thinking. But girl's got the talent to make stuff happen, so you certainly can't count her out.

Fourth Quarter

Of all the players to deliver a double bagel at the U.S. Open, I never would have guessed it would be Sara Errani. Yes, she made the semis here last year, but she also was handed a rare Golden Set at Wimbledon in 2012. Talented, yes, but clearly inconsistent when she's not on the clay. But good for her to get the win and prove she deserves the #4 seed in New York. Because, despite her favored status, if she lives up to that ranking I think most people would be surprised.

But in a quarter where the favorites are slightly questionable, there's plenty of room for underdogs to sneak through. After a weak summer Lucie Safarova isn't seeded at the Open, but survived a first round match that could have caused her trouble. Meanwhile Birmingham finalist Donna Vekic, completing her first year of Major main draw action, held on for a win over veteran Marina Duque Marino. And Wimbledon mini-Cinderella Michelle Larcher de Brito kept her streak going by beating Eleni Daniilidou in her opener. Even seeded players like Elena Vesnina and recently struggling Svetlana Kuznetsova have a shot at making a run here, depending on how the draw shakes out.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Caroline Wozniacki (6) vs. Simona Halep (21)

It seems like a long time since Caro made the final here, the way she's been playing recently, and even though she's a top seed in this section of the draw you have to wonder about her prospects. But she looked good in her opener, and after making the quarters in Cincinnati might be ready for another break here. And Halep, well, I'm just going with the odds on this one. She's won four titles in three months and isn't showing any signs of slowing down. If she doesn't take this title this year, I guessing it won't be long before she does.

With almost three days down at this year's U.S. Open, we've seen some stars shine and some fall by the wayside. But after the crazy antics we saw at Wimbleon, there's no reason to believe we won't see more in the city that never sleeps.

What these players do with the opportunity is entirely up to them. But if they're going to do something with it -- this is the place to do it.

August 25, 2013

Blogcast: 2013 U.S. Open Preview

You may think you know what's in store at the U.S. Open this year, but the last couple weeks prove that nothing can be taken for granted and even the sport's biggest stars face a tough road in New York.

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

August 19, 2013

Business as Usual?

Things got pretty interesting last week in Cincinnati as the sport's stars tried to make their last big statements before heading to the U.S. Open. We saw players exit early, players announce surprise retirements and players prove they're not quite ready to fade away.

Even on champions' Sunday, when those ultimately left standing have consistently been some of the strongest in the field this summer, things didn't go down quite as smoothly as you might expect. And the results might just show how nothing is set in stone in New York.

While the road to the men's final may not have been as externally dramatic as that for the women, there were still plenty of upsets to rock the field. Third-seeded David Ferrer, winless in non-Majors since his historic French Open run, lost his second match here to qualifier Dimitry Tursunov, and Roger Federer and Andy Murray -- who've combined to win seven of the last eight titles here -- both fell in the quarterfinals this time around.

Meanwhile, some of the strongest men this summer season were busy causing their own drama. American John Isner, winner in Atlanta and finalist in DC, put together one of his most successful weeks ever -- after defeating Montreal finalist Milos Raonic in the third round, he stunned world #1 Novak Djokovic and came back from a set down to beat 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in a rematch of the Citi Open final. It was just his second Masters 1000 championship match but, with wins over three top-ten players to get there, might have been the biggest accomplishment yet of a man who'll likely only be remembered for one thing.

His opponent didn't have to endure as many challenges on his way to the final, and Rafael Nadal, fresh off a win in Montreal, should have been the clear favorite on Sunday. Yes, he'd survived a scare from Roger Federer in the quarters and played two long sets against one-time Wimbledon finalist (and the man with whom I'll potentially have to split my Powerball winnings) Tomas Berdych, but with just two losses on the year and a perfect 14-0 hardcourt record going into the final, it should not have been a contest. Still, Isner put up a hell of a fight yesterday, holding set points in the opening tiebreak before finally ceding the trophy in a two-hour battle. Nadal may have established himself as a favorite in New York, but Isner's proven he might just be in the running too.

Most of the noteworthy surprises on the women's side came early, of course, but the consistency that came from those causing the upsets was nevertheless noteworthy. Simona Halep followed up a career-ending win over Marion Bartoli by taking out Carlsbad champion Sam Stosur, and 2009 champion Jelena Jankovic put herself back within a stone's throw of the top ten with wins over Wimbledon Cinderella Sabine Lisicki and Maria Sharapova's vanquisher Sloane Stephens, and even took a set off Victoria Azarenka in the semis.

But ultimately it was the top two seeds that made the final. World #1 Serena Williams, riding a fourteen-match win streak since her Wimbledon loss, had a couple hiccups on the way -- she lost a set to Canada's Eugenie Bouchard in her opener and dropped serve five times to defending champion Na Li on Saturday night -- but powered through for a chance to play for her ninth title of the year. Meanwhile Azarenka, struggling with injury since her Wimbledon first round, worked her way to a second straight final, surviving a scare from pink-hot Magdalena Rybarikvoa and being pushed by on-the-rebound Caroline Wozniacki in the quarters.

The two ladies have been some of the strongest in the sport over the past eighteen months, trading the #1 ranking back and forth and reaching six Grand Slam finals between them. But history has been squarely on Serena's side, and other than a couple losses on the books, the American had been on a role against the NextGen star. She seemed to be in control Sunday, too, storming through the first set, but Azarenka held tough forcing a decider and, when Williams had a shot to serve out the championship, breaking back and reaching a tiebreak. She came back from deficits there, too, and after two and a half hours -- thanks to a netted return from her opponent -- ended a streak that threatened to continue for months to come.

You may have thought that this weekend's championships were cut and dry, but whether the favorites eventually won or lost, neither did so without a touch of drama. It's become clear that plenty of players in the field can cause a stir while even the surest things have some questions around them. And with less than a week left before the first balls of the U.S. Open are hit, all these guys and gals have thrown the door wide open as they race for the year's last big trophy.

August 16, 2013

One and Done

It's been a weird couple days in women's tennis -- yesterday we got the surprising announcement that Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli was retiring from the sport, just weeks after winning the biggest title of her career, and today we learned that Maria Sharapova had parted ways with Jimmy Connors, brought on as her coach after a shocking second-round loss at the All England Club. Neither of these were snap decisions, I'm sure -- there was probably a lot of thought and discussion that went into both -- but the abruptness of both certainly highlight some major differences.

Bartoli had played a handful of matches since that unbelievable run in London, but stopped short during her second round in Toronto and lost her opener this week in Cincinnati. Citing pain from a series of injuries throughout her career, she told the press through tears that her body couldn't take it any longer, a sentiment to which more than a few of her colleagues could certainly relate.

Marion first made a name for herself in 2007 when, as the #18 seed, she beat superstars like Jelena Jankovic and Justine Henin on her way to the Wimbledon final. She lost there, of course, and didn't win another title for more than two years, ultimately avenging that defeat to Venus Williams in the 2009 Stanford final. And though she had trouble putting hardware on her shelf -- in thirteen years as a pro she won a relatively sparse eight titles and needed forty-seven Major appearances before finally bringing home the grand prize -- but she had hung a couple big scalps on her wall. She stunned Serena Williams during her 2011 Wimbledon comeback and delivered Victoria Azarenka her first loss last season in the Miami quarterfinals. Her win last month at the All England Club put her back at a career high ranking of #7 in the world, making her departure from the sport just when she's playing her best all the more surprising.

Sharapova's decision may not have been as drastic a move, but it certainly was quite dramatic. After cutting ties with Thomas Högstedt, who'd joined her camp at the start of the 2011 season and helped her return to the top ten and eventually complete the career Grand Slam, she signed on with eight-time Major winner Jimmy Connors. The choice elicited more than a few raised eyebrows, with some pundits questioning how well the two strong personalities would meld while others hoped Connors might have MaSha the boost she needed to finally get the better of unquestioned #1 Serena Williams.

The pair's first match together didn't quiet the critics -- after pulling out of the Rogers Cup, Sharapova seemed to be back in form in Cincinnati, pulling together a 6-2, 2-0 lead on unseeded U.S. #2 Sloane Stephens in her opener. But the Russian seemed to lose focus and self-control and a barrage of errors turned the tide quickly, eventually sending Sharapova packing after almost two-and-a-half hours of play.

But Connors' shift would soon be over, as Sharapova shortly thereafter announced the split. Having previously said she wouldn't accept a wildcard to New Haven next week, she now heads to New York coach-less and with a less-than-extraordinary 1-2 record since the French Open, calling into question her chances to take home the trophy at the Open.

Ultimately each lady's decision this week tells a different tale of patience. Bartoli, who'd been toiling away and pushing through the pain for years, finally had enough, while Sharapova apparently realized immediately that something very specific wasn't working for her. That's not to say these choices won't serve one better than the other, of course -- after all, in a sport where patience is so often a virtue, in some cases it's the calls you make on the fly that turn out the best.

August 12, 2013

Cheers to Second Place!

So here's the thing about this weekend's championship matches in Canada -- once the final fields were settled, you pretty much knew what was going to happen. World #1 Serena Williams walked away with her eighth title of the year in Toronto, dropping just two games on Sunday, while Rafael Nadal, coming off an important win over top-seeded Novak Djokovic in the Montreal semis, was the heavy favorite in the final and won his twenty-fifth Masters title with little drama.

But the real story of this weekend might be that of the also-rans, the two runners-up who made their way to their first Tier One tournament finals by racking up a series of impressive wins during the week. They might not have come away with the wins this time, but the level of play they brought to their games might mean they've got what it takes to make a bigger impact down the road. And maybe this time the silver medalists won't dwell on the fact they came up short and can revel in the great things they did accomplish.

Sorana Cirstea had worked her way into the top thirty four years ago after a Cinderella run at the 2009 French Open. But she struggled even at the end of that year, losing five straight first round matches to finish off the season, and by the start of 2011 was back in triple digits. But the young Romanian slogged it out on the ITF circuit, got her game back on track last year and finished 2012 at #27 in the world. She'd pulled off a couple big wins this season, including a defeat of then-#6 Angelique Kerber in Miami, but really hit her stride in Canada. Unseeded at the Rogers Cup she took out two former #1's -- Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic -- before ousting a couple Grand Slam champions. It was Cirstea's first championship match since winning a title in Tashkent back in 2008, and only her third career final. She might not have made a big dent against Serena in the barely one-hour match, but by leaving the trail of corpses on her way to the final not only got her to her highest-ever ranking this week, but may have proven she's got the talent to at least hit with the big girls.

Over in Montreal the men faced a similarly deep field with eight top ten players making the trip to the Great White North. Things were shaky, though, with two-time champion Andy Murray losing his third round match to Ernests Gulbis and third-seeded David Ferrer dropping in straights to world #83 Alex Bogomolov. Still Milos Raonic's advance to his first Masters final was nothing to scoff at -- he stunned Washington champion Juan Martin Del Potro in the third round and won the battle of Canadians in the semis after losing the middle set to Vasek Pospisil. Though he already has four titles to his name, three of which came in San Jose, this would've by far been his biggest and, having been unable to follow up on his first deep Major run, could have reminded the sport's elite of his relevance. Raonic couldn't capitalize this time, though, with the big server broken four out of four times. Still, it was a breakthrough to make it this far, and if he is able to learn from the experience, he might just be able to make an impact in New York.

Both of this weekend's champions re-cemented themselves at the top of the game, but the runners-up too were able to break new ground with their wins all week. It's not always about bringing home the biggest trophy, after all, and hopefully these almost-champions can use what they've learned and parlay it into an even brighter future.

August 6, 2013

Put Up, or Shut Up

The first few weeks of the summer hard court season can be tricky to navigate -- while some of the sport's top players skip the smaller tournaments, plenty others slug it out week after week at events where relatively few points are on the line. But with bigger bounties at stake this week in Canada, this past weekend's champions will want to prove they can deliver when it really counts.

The heat took a bit of a toll on the ladies in Washington, with the favorites at the Citi Open falling earlier than expected. But that opened the door for a couple others to strut their stuff, hopefully putting themselves back on the map as they head to New York. Andrea Petkovic, a year removed from her career-high in the top ten, has been working her way back up the rankings since injuries cut her 2012 season short. She wasn't seeded in Washington, but nevertheless caused upsets of both Mona Barthel and Alize Cornet on the way to her second final of the year. But she was ultimately stopped by defending champion Magdalena Rybarikova, who's currently playing some of the best tennis of her career. The petite Slovak, who beat both Ekaterina Makarova and top-seeded Angelique Kerber in DC, kept her momentum going early this week in Toronto with a straight-set win earlier today. It's a better result than some other champions have seen of late -- Dominika Cibulkova lost her very next match after winning a title in Stanford -- so hopefully Rybarikova can keep it up. She's never made much of a splash at any Premier event, so this could be her chance.

The stakes were a little higher for the men in DC, with the first nine seeds all ranked in the top twenty-five. There was some follow-through here, with Atlanta runner-up Kevin Anderson getting back to the quarters and John Isner, the champion down South, making his way all the way back to the final, albeit being the favorite in each of his first four matches. He even seemed to have the upper hand in Sunday's final, opening by taking his only set off 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in their previous meetings. But the top seed, coming off a late-night semifinal win over Tommy Haas, was able to regroup, dominating his fellow big man and winning his third straight title in the U.S. capital. DelPo gets a first round bye at the Rogers Cup this week, but he's certainly parlayed success here into bigger things in the past. Isner, meanwhile, may need to do some serious soul-searching -- though he certainly has a big weapon, he continues to struggle closing out matches -- he was forced to three sets and two tiebreaks in his Montreal opener, eventually losing to wildcard Vasek Pospisil in over two and a half hours. If he can't capitalize better on what he's got, it's hard to see him making any kind of dent when it counts.

The ladies who battled it out in Carlsbad last week have been a little more battle-tested. Finalists Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur have won three Grand Slam titles between them, though neither has been at the top of her game recently -- Vika, injured during her first round at Wimbledon, has been recovering in the weeks since while the Australian was a disappointing 19-15 on the year before heading to California. But both ladies pulled themselves together at the Southern Cali Open and, though both were tested -- Azarenka by Ana Ivanovic in the semifinal and Stosur by Aga Radwanska in the quarters -- proved they were back. And Stosur kept her run going, ending an eight-match losing streak to the former world-#1 and winning her first title in almost two years. Azarenka subsequently pulled out of this week's Rogers Cup in Toronto, while Stosur will open against qualifier Julia Glushko later today. The win should come easy for the newly anointed world-#11, but a good performance could mean big results for her in New York again. And having lost a bit of her luster over the past eighteen months, there may never be a better time for just that.

This is the time of summer where things get serious, and last week's champions will have to get right back to work. If they're going to make a real statement on their way to the Open, they don't get a chance to let their performance drop even a little. But if they can show us what they're really capable of, the payoff is sure to be worth it.

July 29, 2013

Off to Summer Camp

The temperatures may have been soaring for a while now, at least here in the northeastern U.S., but the sport's top stars have only just begun to make their way across the Atlantic and onto the American hardcourts. But there is no time to simply camp out under the stars -- the early arrivals were put to the test during the first events of the U.S. Open Series, and this weekend's winners may have given themselves quite a head-start in the big race to New York.

At the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford we saw the old guard clash with new. But while veterans like Francesca Schiavone and Sam Stosur struggled to get out of the early rounds, rising stars such as Jamie Hampton and on-the-mend Sorana Cirstea worked their way through to the semis. But at the end of the day it was top-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska and often spotty Dominika Cibulkova contesting the final, a rematch of the Sydney championship in which the Pole didn't drop a game.

But the results would be surprisingly different this time around. Though Cibulkova has scored some big wins in the past -- she beat then-world #1 Victoria Azarenka at last year's French Open and Caroline Wozniacki, also the top seed at the time, the year before at Wimbledon -- she's also squandered huge opportunities, most recently at Miami this past March when she had a set and a break up on Serena Williams. The Slovak was also 4-0 against Radwanska before coming to California, only taking a set from the favorite in their previous meetings. She was down in this match too, dropping the first set to the 2012 runner-up at the All England Club. It looked like Aga had regrouped, though, when she took a 4-2 lead in the decider, but the petite Cibulkova somehow found a way to rally, winning the last four games of the match and, in the process, claiming her third career title in as many years. And after bringing a middling 17-16 record on the season to Stanford, there may never have been a better opportunity to turn things around.

On the other side of the country the men hit the pavement in Atlanta, with a couple players looking for redemption. Two-time champion Mardy Fish, having missed most of the season with heart troubles, made only his second Tour appearance of the year, and Ryan Harrison, a disappointing 5-16 on the year before the BB&T Open, made a solid run to the semis, pushing his ranking back up to near double-digits. But here too the favorites prevailed. Top-seeded John Isner avenged a loss in Newport to Lleyton Hewitt to make his third final in Georgia, while fellow big-server Kevin Anderson rallied after a tough opening match to make his third championship round of the year.

And this title match wasn't straightforward either. The two men -- a combined thirteen feet and four inches tall -- served up forty-five aces between them, but neither were ever able to break serve. Anderson, who actually had eleven chances to win a return game, took the first set in a tiebreak, but failed to convert match points in the second. Isner, meanwhile, seemed to get a second wind one he was able to force a decider, and after nearly three hours finally pulled out the win to claim his second crown of the season -- and to keep his record in finals this season perfect.

Both these champions got off to a great start this weekend, and atop their respective leader-boards, they've put themselves deep in the heat to claim the U.S. Open Series honor. But plenty of elite will be arriving at camp over the next few weeks and the competition is certainly going to get hotter. Whether they're able to take home the prize at the end of the season remains in question, but if they can capitalize on their early leads, they might just give us something big to watch the rest of the summer.

July 26, 2013

Even More Upsetting

There seems to be a strange new trend in tennis these days, where players, even the most favored ones, prove they're fallible time and again. We saw it happen throughout the fortnight at Wimbledon, and the phenomenon resumed posthaste once the trophies were presented.

Here's the thing, though: it's not enough to simply poke a hole or two in the draw -- you've got to follow through after that. That was less the case at the All England Club, with the vanquishers of both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both losing one round later. Things weren't much better on the ladies' side -- while Sabine Lisicki rode her upset of Serena Williams all the way to the final, Michelle Larcher de Brito couldn't do much more after defeating Maria Sharapova in the second round.

That same trend has also manifested itself in the current tournaments. Daniel Brands, having scored a huge upset over Federer in his Gstaad opener, subsequently lost to Victor Hanescu a day later, while Albert Montanes ousted top Umag seed Richard Gasquet and then lost a long battle Friday to Gael Monfils. And Ons Jabeur, who ousted defending Baku champion Bojana Jovanovski on Wednesday, suffered an ankle injury during her match today, allowing qualifier Magda Linette -- ranked #226 in the world -- into her first ever Tour semi. But hope is not lost for everyone, and a couple players still have a shot at proving their early successes this week were no fluke.

Nineteen year old Elina Svitolina won her first Tour title last year in Pune, beating Andrea Petkovic in the process, and in 2013 she's made the semis in both Cali and Bad Gastein. This week she took to the hard courts of Baku as the seventh seed and earlier today took out Birmingham finalist Donna Vekic in a quick two sets. In the semis she'll face Alexandra Cadantu, the only other seed left in the draw -- the Ukraine native lost the pair's only previous meeting, but that was some two years ago when she was ranked outside the top four hundred. A win on Saturday -- and, dare we speculate, maybe on Sunday too -- would not only underscore her performance so far, but might just push her into the higher tiers of the sport.

Meanwhile in Gstaad, Robin Haase is trying to make a similar move up the rankings. The Dutchman, who returns to Kitzbuhel next week to defend the title he's won the past two years, has yet to manage a sustained stay in the top forty. But after dominating third-seeded Janko Tipsarevic in Switzerland, the twenty-six year old survived a two-and-a-half hour battle against Marcel Granollers to make the semis. With world #29 Feliciano Lopez the highest seed remaining, the field is wide open for Haase to add a new trophy to his case and maybe give him the oomph he needs to really establish himself in the sport.

Of course upsets have been known to bring tears to the eye, but while both these players have caused their opponents woe this week, they'll want to make sure their own cheeks stay dry throughout the summer. It'll be a hard task, to be sure, but after the performances they've already put up there's no reason think it's impossible.

And with the way things are going this summer, there may be no better time to get stuff done.

July 22, 2013

Deep Seeded Anxiety

After the rampant bracket busting we saw at Wimbledon this year, we can't really be surprised by the upsets that have come in the weeks that followed. In fact, only one favorite won a title this past weekend, while everyone else broke new ground on their way to the winners' circles. Their performances show just how deep the talent in the fields has become, and may make even the biggest stars a little nervous.

The only top seed to survive the week's action was, maybe not surprisingly, Serena Williams. Playing for the first time in Bastad, Sweden, the world #1 was able to redeem herself after a shockingly early exit at the All England Club -- though she didn't face a player in the top thirty, she did make her way to this title without dropping a set, defeating 2011 runner-up Johanna Larsson in under eighty minutes during Sunday's final. It was Williams' fifty-third career title, her seventh of the year, and should do a lot to erase the memory of a disappointing run in London as she preps for the hardcourt season. But we've seen so often this year that nothing is certain on these courts -- and all the other winners this weekend prove that not all top seeds are safe.

That was quite apparent in Bad Gastein, where world #33 Mona Barthel retired while down a set to Austrian wildcard Lisa-Marie Moser, and up-and-coming German teenager Annika Beck won just a game in her quarterfinal match. Karin Knapp, something of a Cinderella at Wimbledon a few weeks back, was the only seed to make the semis, and even she couldn't cut it against eventual champion Yvonne Meusburger. The twenty-nine year old veteran reached her second straight final, having lost last weekend to Simona Halep in Budapest. But this time against doubles specialist Andrea Hlavackova, playing in her first ever singles championship, the hometown girl had the advantage. After surviving a tight first set, Meusburger won her first career trophy, reached her highest career ranking and proved some things do get better with age.

That sentiment is also true for Ivo Karlovic, who'd been struggling to come back from injury almost a year before being struck by illness in April. The big-serving Croat came to Bogota ranked out of the top hundred-fifty and title-less for over five years, and at thirty-four seemed unlikely to change that. But he withstood some tough challenges in Colombia -- he played five tiebreaks on his way to the final, only dropping one set to second seed Kevin Anderson in the semis. Meanwhile twenty-nine year old Alejandro Falla, himself ranked in triple digits and coming off a win over world #14 Janko Tipsarevic in the quarters, was playing his first ever title match. But Karlovic proved too much for the relatively untested local -- in a quick two-set match which brought his ace total above a hundred for the tournament, nearly three hundred for the year, Dr. Ivo landed his first crown in half a decade and put him back on the radar for the rest of the field.

On the radar too, now, are the two finalists in Hamburg, each of whom pulled off some of the biggest wins of their careers to make the title match. Young Federico Delbonis had won a handful of Challenger events before heading to Germany, but had only spent a total of one week inside the top hundred -- he hit #98 in the world after winning in Barranquilla. But he began his campaign last week with a win over Tommy Robredo and followed up by defeating recently resurgent Fernando Verdasco in the quarters. His biggest triumph, though, was over a much bigger fish -- in the semis he took on four-time champ Roger Federer and, against all odds at the bet-at-home Open, came out the winner. Meanwhile Fabio Fognini, long an also-ran in this sport, took out hometown hero Tommy Haas before ousting clay court specialist Nicolas Almagro to make his second final of the year. And ultimately the Italian's experience won out -- after dropping the first set and saving three match points in a tiebreak, the twenty-six year wrapped up the tightest final of the weekend, extending his win streak to ten matches and two titles since Wimbledon. Suddenly a top-twenty player, he's proven that even underdogs have a little bite to them.

Whether this weekend's results show that the favorites have lost a bit of their sparkle or that the longshots have upped the ante remains to be seen. Certainly a loss this week doesn't mean a career is over -- nor that momentum will last in the months that come. But with even the most unheard-of players proving they can hit with the big guys, it sure will be fun watching them all fight it out.

July 17, 2013

Blogcast: 2013 Hall of Fame Induction

This year's inductees into the International Tennis Hall of Fame highlight how much the sport has changed over the years.

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

July 11, 2013

Failure to Launch?

Wimbledon is over, people!

It's been over a month since we crowned this year's French Open king and queen!

This is the time in the season when players should be making the switch to hard courts as they prep for the last Major of the year. But for a reason I've never understood, none of the events this week help athletes transition, keeping some still on the grass and sending many more all the way back to the clay. Sure, the surfaces may play to some stars' strengths better than the American concrete, but can they keep it up once they're in full U.S. Open tune-up mode?

The top seeds have struggled so far in Budapest with Lucie Safarova winning just one game in her opener against world #190 Valeria Solovyeva and 2008 champion Alize Cornet faring little better. Of course, they could turn things around once they hit the pavement -- Safarova, after all, made a nice run to the Montreal semis last year -- but others might be poised to make a bigger statement. Simona Halep went on a ten-match winning streak just before Wimbledon, winning two titles on two surfaces. She didn't fare so well at the all England Club, but this time she could resume her momentum and get in some rest before heading to New York. She's won her first two matches in Hungary with little drama and, as the top seed remaining, could give herself a nice bolt of confidence before switching to hard courts the next few weeks.

Meanwhile in Palermo one clay court specialist is looking to erase her own memory of a bad Wimbledon. Two-time champion Sara Errani has been a little quieter on the dirt this year than last, but she did well at the premier events early in the season and made her way back to the Roland Garros semis. In 2012 she parlayed a win in her homeland into a semi showing in New York and, though certainly not a sure thing, her performance her would make up for a first round exit from the All England Club. But also watch out for Germany's Dinah Pfizenmaier -- though she's spent most of the year on the ITF circuit, a run to the French Open third round put her on the radar. She's already upset eighth seeded Karolina Pliskova and veteran Anabel Medina Garrigues in Italy, but has yet to make many strides off the surface. If she can take the lessons she's learned the last few weeks with her, it could bode well for her summer season.

It's not just the women who've used this week to go back in time. Nicolas Almagro, last year's runner-up in Bastad, came back from an ugly first set to beat Guillermo Garcia-Lopez earlier today while recent top-ten player Juan Monaco, a disappointing 16-14 on the year so far, earned himself a quarterfinal match against Grigor Dimitrov. But the best story in this draw might be Fernando Verdasco, whose quarterfinal run at the All England Club put him squarely back on the tennis map. And on clay, arguably his best surface, he might be able to accomplish even more -- he hasn't really been tested in his first two matches but could give Almagro a challenge next. More good results in Sweden might be what he needs to show recent success was no fluke and to ride his wave to bigger wins in the U.S.

A couple men in Stuttgart, on the other hand, are looking to get momentum back on their side. Gael Monfils seemed to be well on the comeback trail with a title in Bordeaux and a runner-up finish in Nice, but pulled out of Wimbledon a few days before the tournament began. He'd climbed back well in the first half of the year, cutting his ranking from triple digits in February to #60 in the world now, but is still out of seeding territory in Germany. He did pull off wins over always tricky Paul-Henri Mathieu and sixth seeded Florian Mayer, though, and might have laid the groundwork for success the next part of the season. But he'll have to get past Philipp Kohlschreiber first -- the second-ranked German took a bit of a tumble when his first round exit at the All England Club fell far short of his quarterfinal run last year, but he could turn things around now. He'll need to, too, since he's got a bunch of hard court points to defend too -- including a fourth-round at the Open -- so his third round against Monfils might carry more importance than usual.

While all these guys and gals took this week to revert to spring-time play, the men in Newport chose to stick to the grass, and not all got the desired results -- top seeded Sam Querrey, a finalist here in 2009, notched his second straight opening round loss, this time to world #120 Tim Smyczek. But defending champion John Isner might be able to take advantage of the hole his compatriot left in the draw -- the big-serving American retired from his second round at Wimbledon, but has been on point so far at the Hall of Fame. This is often his best time of year -- he's won titles at Newport and Winston-Salem the last two years running -- but once did it mean a solid run in New York. After fits and starts in 2013, he'll want to make sure this time counts. And his arch-nemesis and very good friend Nicolas Mahut is lurking in the top half of the draw, fresh(-ish) off his first career title in Den Bosch. He's never had much luck off the grass, but if he does meet and beat Isner in this final, he might be turning his entire career around.

This week's tournaments, admittedly, didn't give players much choice but to put off their hard court seasons just a little bit, but hopefully their experiences this week will serve as a good launching pad for the summer events. With the U.S. Open just over a month away, the competition is only going to heat up from here, and they'll need to keep the momentum they've garnered this week without wearing themselves out.

After all, at this stage in the year, the last thing they want is to find themselves stuck at an age they won't be able to grow out of.

July 7, 2013

It's a New World

I woke up this morning feeling like something had changed in the world. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who felt that way.

This weekend we crowned two brand new Wimbledon singles champions, both of whom had come THISCLOSE to tasting glory at the All England Club before, but only this year were able to take home the trophies. And after a fortnight that might be best remembered for slippery stumbles and shocking upsets, it was their victories that marked the end of a couple long droughts -- and possibly the beginning of a new era.

Marion Bartoli was the unlikely runner-up here in 2007 -- ranked just nineteenth in the world at the time, she had only just made her first Major fourth round a month earlier at Roland Garros. She found her groove though on the grass that season, reaching the semis in both Birmingham and Eastbourne before beating then-world #3 Jelena Jankovic and top-ranked Justine Henin to make the final here. She was technically the favorite against Venus Williams then, but the on-paper underdog, three times a winner at Wimbledon already, had the upper hand that Saturday, and Bartoli had to settle for second best. The Frenchwoman hung around the top players after that, though -- a staple in or around the top ten through the years since, she took home big titles in Stanford and Osaka, ended Serena Williams' comeback run at Wimbledon in 2011, and brought Victoria Azarenka's miracle beginning last year to a close in Miami.

She was a little slow to start this season, though -- she split with her father as coach, struggled a bit with injury and illness, and came back to the All England club way under the radar. But the withdrawal of Victoria Azarenka and the loss of Maria Sharapova cleared her half of the bracket early in the tournament. In fact, Bartoli didn't face a seeded player until the semifinals where she dismissed Cinderella woman Kirsten Flipkens in straight sets. Her opponent in the final, meanwhile, had been doing most of the heavy lifting this week -- Sabine Lisicki, struggling herself all year, had taken out five-time champion Serena Williams in the fourth round and then survived a threat from last year's runner-up Aga Radwanska in the semis. Though she was playing her first Slam final, the German has had some of her biggest successes on these courts, and might have been hoping to deliver Marion another upset in the championship match.

But that would not be the case this time, though, as the emotion and exhaustion of a week's worth of victories finally got to her. Bartoli had the advantage from the start in Saturday's final -- she allowed Lisicki just ten points on serve in the first set and broke her in every service game. The scoreline was a little closer in the second, but the usually big-serving Sabine struggled to hold in one game after another, and was nearly reduced to tears when she couldn't get a jump on her opponent's game. After just over eighty minutes it was the Frenchwoman claiming the crown and ending a six-year stint as a bridesmaid at the sport's grandest ceremony.

Andy Murray came to Wimbledon this year intent on providing water for a drought of a different kind -- one that had lasted most of a century. Though a Gold medal last summer and a U.S. Open crown a few weeks later proved he had the stuff of a Grand Slam champion, his homeland's Major remained without a British king since Fred Perry last claimed the honor in 1936. He'd made a valiant effort in last year's final, and it seemed this year -- with a warm-up title at Queen's Club and every man who'd ever beaten him here out by the second round -- he was bound to go one better. He had a tough time, though -- surprise quarterfinalist Fernando Verdasco ran off with an equally surprising two-set lead in their Round of Sixteen, while super Cinderella Jerzy Janowicz looked primed to repeat his Paris victory in the semis -- but he never faced a top twenty during the week, and was the clear favorite in terms of both experience and fan support.

World #1 and 2011 champ Novak Djokovic didn't have an easy time of it either, though. He didn't drop a set in his first five matches, but faced powerhouses later in the draw, meeting uber-veteran Tommy Haas and 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych before being forced to go the distance against back-in-form Bronze medalist Juan Martin Del Potro in the semis. Still he'd rebounded from long matches to win Majors before, so there was clearly no counting him out.

But like with the ladies, this time was also different. The top two seeds stayed on serve early before Murray claimed the opening set, and Nole ran to a 5-2 lead in the second. But buoyed by the crowd and ready to rally, the Scot won eight of the next nine games to take the second and grab a break in the third. Like in their U.S. Open final, though, momentum seemed to shift back to the Serb -- but only for a short while. Though he saved three championship points in the tenth game and even earned a couple chances to break back, Murray ultimately closed out the three-plus hour match, cementing his place in the history books and finally giving the Brits something to cheer about. It was Nole's first straight-set loss at a Major since 2010, but more importantly Murray's first successful attempt to prove he's no one-hit wonder. He's currently the only man holding two Grand Slam trophies, and the win makes quite an emphatic statement as he begins to journey to defend his New York crown.

Both winners start this week, for the first time in their careers, as Wimbledon champions, a distinction that carries more than a little clout in the tennis world. By ending their streak of disappointments -- whether at the Majors, and this one in particular, or for their countries -- they've set themselves on a new course for their seasons, and maybe for their careers.

What they do with this opportunity, of course, remains to be seen -- but from here it sure looks like the possibilities are endless.