February 17, 2013

A Battle for Supremacy

Two days ago Serena Williams earned the right to reclaim the #1 ranking. Today the woman she took it from proved she wasn't going to let it go quietly.

Serena's rise back to the top was long overdue -- after the season she had in 2012, one that included two Major titles, Olympic Gold and eighteen wins over top ten players, she'd more than proven she was the one to beat. She started this year with a bang too, taking the title in Brisbane, and though she suffered a surprising loss in the Australian Open quarterfinals she'd climbed back to within a stone's throw of the ranking she last held over two years ago.

This week in Doha, Williams won her first couple matches with little drama, but with the #1 spot on the line in the quarters she was finally tested. Former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova had lost their previous three meetings, all at Slams and all in straight sets, but she came out of the gates swinging this time around -- she lost just eight points on serve in the first set and didn't allow a single break point. After winning her first set off her opponent, though, the American raised her game and converted the only break chance in the second. The decider went back and forth, but after more than two hours of play Serena had finally finished off the match and secured her return to the top of the rankings. From there it seemed like a clear shot to the title -- with a one-sided win over Maria Sharapova in the semis, she looked as though no one would beat her.

But Victoria Azarenka had other ideas. The defending champion in Doha was undefeated in 2013, having successfully reclaimed her crown in Melbourne, but despite a 13-0 record going into Sunday's final and having lost just two sets during the year, she knew she'd be relegated to "just" #2 in the world come Monday. With nothing to lose, though, she was free to hit freely today -- she took an early lead against Williams and, after missing an opportunity to serve out the first, rallied to save set points in the breaker. Serena raised her game in the second to force another deciding set, but Vika won the first three games of the third and never looked back. Serving at 5-3, she ran off to a 40-0 lead and finally ended a nine-match losing streak to the #1-elect.

It's interesting that Azarenka would play her best tennis against the top player in the world when she was most under the gun. Sure she'd notched one huge win over Serena to win a big title, but that was almost four years ago and came when Williams was not playing at her best. And though the Belarusian had some promising results early in her career -- she'd built leads twice in Melbourne before retiring in 2009 and ultimately squandering a huge lead the following year -- the middle years of their history were solidly in Serena's favor. It wasn't until the U.S. Open last year that Vika was finally able to put up any fight against her nemesis.

But today's victory might have shown that their past is truly in the past, and with an opportunity to reclaim the #1 spot as early as next week depending on her results in Dubai, Azarenka has kicked the battle for the best in this sport into high gear. And for the first time in quite a while in the women's game, it looks like the two most worthy adversaries are the ones fighting it out.

And that's the kind of contest in which we all come out winners.

February 11, 2013


It's not very often that Rafael Nadal loses on clay.

Dropping just one match in forty-six rounds at Roland Garros, holding a record eight trophies in Monte Carlo, claiming thirty-six of his forty-nine titles on dirt, and winning ninety-three percent of the time he hits the surface, it's no wonder so many consider the Spaniard to be the King of Clay.

This weekend, though, the sovereign fell victim to a bit of an uprising.

Obviously there were question marks hanging over Rafa's head coming into the 2013 season -- missing from Tour the last seven-plus months, no one really knew what to expect when he finally made his return as a wildcard in Viña del Mar. Would he be just as dominant on the dirt as he'd been before his knee injury? Would he stumble early and eventually regain his footing, or would he come out of the gates swinging? Would he be able to carry his successes onto other surfaces, or would he never return to the top spot he'd occupied for a total of nearly two years?

The last time he played on the Golden Swing was 2005, way before most casual tennis fans had heard his name, but as the top seed in Chile and with just one other player in the top twenty making the trip south of the border, it seemed like a smart and low-pressure way to get back in the groove. And with his performance early during the week, it certainly looked as though he was primed to pick up just where he left off. He glided through his early rounds, losing serve just once and even dismissing Melbourne Cinderella Jeremy Chardy in two easy sets.

But his luck would change in Sunday's final. Argentina's Horacio Zeballos had been a standout way back in 2009, but had failed to follow through on earlier success. Now twenty-seven, he was ranked #73 in the world when he came down to the VTR Open and hadn't won a match in a Tour-level event's main draw since last year's French Open. He was tested from the start last week, too -- he lost his opening set to qualifier Diego Sebastian Schwartzman and needed to go the distance to pass Albert Ramos in the quarters. But he was the tougher player against Rafa when it most counted -- in the nearly three hour match, Zeballos came back after losing the first set, forced a third by winning a tiebreak, and got the deciding break at last to clinch the win. It was Nadal's only loss to a left-hander on clay and just the fifth time in his career he'd dropped a championship match on dirt -- all the others came at the hands of either Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer.

On the surface it was kind of a disappointing end to a much-anticipated comeback, but there were a lot of positives to take away from his performance in Chile, as well. Including his run to the doubles final, Nadal played nine matches last week, and with some easy wins interspersed with a couple grinding marathons, it seems his body is ready for more challenges this season. We'll get an even better idea of where he stands when we makes his way to Sao Paulo this week, but the bigger test will be what he can do when he hits the surfaces on which he's less comfortable.

It could be a long road back for the Spaniard, but Rafael Nadal is nothing if not a fighter, and he'll not let go of his kingdom easily at all. It's too soon to call an end to his reign based on this one loss, and something tells me we'll soon see how much he's willing and able to defend his realm.

Until then it seems the best course of action is for everyone to keep calm and carry on. The King may be slightly bruised and battered, but you can be sure he hasn't quite abdicated his throne.

February 8, 2013

The New Faces of Fed Cup

The ladies take to the courts this weekend to contest their Fed Cup quarterfinals, and while there are more than a few powerhouse names in the draws, there are a couple fresher faces in the field. And they might just have what it takes to cause a stir during this year's battles.

Czech Republic vs. Australia

The two-time defending champion Czechs kick off their attempt to three-peat with a cadre of well-heeled athletes. Petra Kvitova may be a shade off her career high ranking, but is an impressive 16-6 when playing for her country, and Lucie Safarova, only 3-4 this year, was nevertheless the surprise star in the 2012 campaign. Meanwhile the duo of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka rebounded from a second round loss in Melbourne to make the final in Paris -- if this tie comes down to the doubles rubber, the pair could very well seal the deal.

But the Australians could surprise us, and not in the way you'd think. Bumped out of the World Group last year, they return to the big girls' draw led by veteran Sam Stosur -- but with only one, hard-fought win on her record this year, the Aussies might look elsewhere for leadership. Former top-thirty singles player Jarmila Gajdosova is coming off a mixed doubles title at the Australian Open, and young Ashleigh Barty teamed with Casey Dellacqua for a surprising runners-up finish in the ladies' draw too. They might be the lesser-known names on the squad, but it certainly doesn't mean they can't grab the headlines this weekend.

U.S. vs. Italy

In a repeat of the 2009 and 2010 championship round, Italy will take on a Williams-less U.S. team in Rimini. The #1 doubles team of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci will represent their country's bid for a fourth trophy, but the two top-twenty singles players will be focused on clinching the tie before they ever get to the last rubber. They'll want to bring their A-game, too -- Errani hasn't been able to repeat her successes from early last year and fell unceremoniously to Mona Barthel in the Paris final, while Vinci is only 5-4 on the season. And if the headliners split singles rubbers, the Italians may have to rely on sub-hundred players like Karin Knapp and Nastassja Burnett in doubles. And that could open the door for their opponents.

The Americans are not only missing their veterans, though -- Melbourne standout Sloane Stephens pulled out with (another?) ab strain and was replaced by rising star Jamie Hampton, playing singles in her first Fed Cup tie. With these absentees, fellow newbie Varvara Lepchenko is the leader for the U.S. -- still fresh to the sport's elite, she's only won one match this year, but having notched wins over Francesca Schiavone, Jelena Jankovic and Dominika Cibulkova in the past twelve months, she may be ready to deliver. One-time darlingMelanie Oudin will also be called on -- she's relegated to the doubles rubber with Liezel Huber, but a few good plays here might get her the confidence she needs to mount a comeback.

Russia vs. Japan

The Russians are no strangers to Fed Cup glory -- having won all four of their trophies in the last decade, they should have history on their side against the upstart Japanese, playing in their first World Group draw since 2007. The favorites will be missing some of their biggest stars, though -- perennial powerhouses Maria Sharapova, Nadia Petrova and resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova are all off the docket -- but they could very well make up for it with players like Melbourne Cinderella Ekaterina Makarova and first-time titleist Elena Vesnina. Rounded out by teenager Magdalena Gasparyan, ranked well into triple digits, it might not be the A-list you expect, but these ladies know how to turn up the heat when needed.

Their opponents, though, have been known to cause a few upsets themselves over the years. Ayumi Morita repeat a career-best third round showing in Melbourne and upset top-seeded Ana Ivanovic in Pattaya City. Uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, who's been playing Fed Cup since 1989, climbed her way back into the top hundred -- again -- with an upset of Nadia Petrova Down Under. A win over a tried and tested Russian team is far from certain, of course, but there's really no telling what could happen when national pride in on the line.

Serbia vs. Slovak Republic

Perhaps the most interesting quarterfinal, though, pits last year's runner-up Serbia against long-time also-ran Slovakia. Possibly unfortunate for the on-paper favorite, though, they'll be missing their top two players in Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. That leaves Bojana Jovankovski leading a team completed by two teenagers and the world #92. Vesna Dolonc probably scored her best result last year in Moscow, where she made the quarterfinals, but Aleksandra Krunic and fifteen-year-old Ivana Jorovic have barely put up any numbers to speak of on Tour. But with a couple years of Fed Cup play under her belt, she might be the veteran on the squad this rubber.

The holes in the armor might give the Slovaks a chance to regroup. Dominika Cibulkova headlines the field, but seems to have created a pattern of one deep run followed by several early losses -- she made the final in Sydney, but that was the only time this year she's made it out of the second round. Veteran Daniela Hantuchova will also look to put some wins on her scoreboard -- plagued much of last year by injury that forced her to skip the French Open and played part in three subsequent Major first round losses, she did make the quarters in Sydney with a win over Sara Errani. Still, this tie could easily come down to the doubles rubber, allowing often spotty but certainly talented Magdalena Rybarikova a chance to shine. If the team performs to their ability, it wouldn't be the biggest shock to see an upset here.

There's a lot at stake for the ladies this weekend -- especially with so many lesser-known players getting a chance to shine. When all is said, I wouldn't be surprised to see some new contenders left battling for this year's Fed Cup trophy. And if they make some real strides over the next few days, it could set the stage for even more successes this season.

February 4, 2013

The New Crop

It wasn't just the same old during this weekend's Davis Cup action -- sure, plenty of favorites made it through their first rounds, but after a couple surprises it looks like we'll have a little new blood in the quarterfinals. And the pressure will be on them to deliver, now that they've shown what kind of force they can be.

Of course it wasn't all Cinderella stories. The defending champion Czechs clinched their return to the quarters with a win over the Roger Federer-less Swiss, the French, runners-up in 2010, blanked a lackluster Israeli team, and the Serbs wrapped up their victory in the first two days of play, though they did end up losing the dead rubbers when the subbed in the B-team. There were some interesting results, too, even among those who advanced through the first tie. The U.S., a surprise semifinalist last year, went down to the wire against a spunky Brazilian team while, Argentina -- three times a runner-up in recent years, but missing their biggest star -- wholly demolished a strong German squad which sported two top-thirty players for themselves. But at the end of the day, it's wasn't their victories that made the biggest impact.

The little-known Kazakhs, on the other hand, pulled off some of the more notable upsets this weekend -- the fact that no one on their team was ranked in the top hundred makes that feat even more impressive. Andrey Golubev and Evgeny Korolev each scored wins on Day One, the latter besting former top-ten player Jurgen Melzer in three fairly one-sided sets. Though the Austrians were able to stay alive by taking the doubles rubber on Saturday, Golubev was able to seal the deal, coming back after losing a set to Melzer and securing only the country's second World Group win in its nineteen appearances. They'll meet the Czechs next, a rematch of the 2011 first round -- which they won against all odds. It won't be an easy task of course, but with months to go before that showdown, the Kazakhs have plenty of opportunity to prep. And with their recently strong history, it doesn't look like they should be counted out just yet.

Meanwhile the Italians were able to notch some big victories of their own on their home soil. Against a tough Croat team that boasted top fifteen plater Marin Cilic and one-time standout Ivan Dodig, they were the on-paper underdogs, and they kept us guessing until the end. After Cilic won a marathon first rubber to give his team the lead, Italian #1 Andreas Seppi delivered to keep things even. The Italians won the doubles round, but Cilic came back in the battle of the favorites. That left things to recently struggling Fabio Fognini, who'd won just one match since losing the St. Petersburg final last September. He'd lost his only previous meeting with Ivan Dodig a little over two years ago, but after dropping the first set this time around, he found a way to rally, giving Italy its first World Group win in fifteen years. They made it all the way to the final that year, which will be hard to replicate. But given their performance so far, there's no telling what they can still do.

For their efforts the Italians will meet in the quarters an even bigger underdog Canadian team, which scored its very first World Group win over the weekend after four failed attempts. Pitted against the top seeded Spaniards -- missing, incidentally, their top four players -- both high-flying Milos Raonic and largely unknown Frank Dancevic won their Day One rubbers and the Canucks very nearly clinched it before Spain got on the board after a long doubles man. But it was too little, too late -- Raonic kicked off Sunday against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, a man who's been known to draw some big wins in his time. But the Canadian got the better of him this week -- in straight sets he secured the victory and put his country in quite a good place to make a bigger dent in this year's draw.

Whether these gentlemen are able to keep their momentum going remains to be seen, but with the wins they've already scored this weekend, they've certainly shown they can put up the right fight. Of course with some more experienced groups still very much in the mix, it's going to be a long road to eventual Davis Cup glory, but there may never be a better chance for these teams to get there. And with plenty of new faces out there, who's to say what can happen.