January 9, 2013

Not to Be Forgotten

Last year was one which saw plenty of stars rise, but just as many fall, as a couple of rising stars seemed to hit a roadblock in 2012. But while this season may have just begun, it seems that more than a few of them have made a point of turning things around this week.

Dominika Cibulkova didn't have a precipitous fall from the top -- since winning her breakthrough title in 2011, she's only "fallen" to #15 in the world -- but her results last season still feel somewhat less-than-stellar. She lost to three players ranked close to triple-digits to start the year and, after stunning Victoria Azarenka at Roland Garros, only beat one top ten player through the rest of the year. She didn't quite live up to my expectations for her, but with her performance this week in Sydney, she might be making a case for herself this year. She opened with a drubbing of one-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova and earlier on Wednesday delivered a similar blow to 2012 stand-out Sara Errani. She faces one more top-ten player in the semis, Angelique Kerber, but she's won bigger matches before and she might just be able to do it again.

The ladies' draw in Hobart featured a lot of new rising talent, but last year's most improved player Su-Wei Hsieh and last week's surprise Shenzhen finalist Klara Zakopalova both dropped matches early. Instead Monica Niculescu, in the top thirty less than a year ago, has taken the opportunity to battle back -- after a straight-set win in her opener, the Romanian fought back from a set down to defeat Shuai Peng and make the quarters. It'll get harder from here, with Kirsten Flipkens waiting in the wings, but now's as good a time as any to prove what she can do. But even more impressive this week has been the comeback of Jarmila Gajdosova, whose 1-11 record since last May pushed her well into the triple digit rankings. She did beat Roberta Vinci in Brisbane and with two straight-set wins this week, she's put herself in her first quarterfinal since this time last year -- and if she can get past Elena Vesnina on Thursday, there's no reason she can't make a play for the title in her homeland.

Meanwhile in Auckland Gael Monfils, sidelined in the middle part of 2012 with an on-and-off knee injury, continued making strides to climb back into the elite. He made the quarters last week in Doha, but since he was unable to defend runner-up points, he saw his rank drop to just inside the top hundred. Eager to get in more court-time before the first Grand Slam, he's back in action in New Zealand and after surviving a scare early he's back in the quarters here too. He'll next battle third-seeded Tommy Haas, another veteran who's struggled with injury throughout the latter part of his career. The two haven't met in over four years, so there's no telling what will happen here -- but if Monfils makes a stand, it could set him up well for his trip to Melbourne.

The Cinderellas of Sydney may be flying a little further under the radar, but some big wins this week could do a lot to change that perception. Bernard Tomic, who couldn't break even in 2012, saw his ranking drop from top thirty to sub-fifty in just a few months. But he started this season with a huge upset of Novak Djokovic in Perth, and came back to his homeland rejuvenated. After an upset of fifth seeded Feliciano Lopez today, he earned himself a quarterfinal date with more-than-beatable veteran Jarkko Nieminen. But Ryan Harrison, just as disappointing last year, may have pulled off the bigger feat -- after qualifying for the main draw, he notched a win over top-seed and #1 American John Isner in straight sets. It's no easy road from here, but all the top players have been eliminated in his half -- if Harrison wants to make a bid for the title, this could be his chance.

There's still a lot left to play at this week's tournaments -- even more left the rest of the year -- and there's no guarantee that these winners will continue their runs. But after the slumps they've each endured over the last few months, it's nice to see them shaking things up now. And with some solid reminders they're all still in the game, it sure bodes well for the rest of their years.

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