March 18, 2013

Not Done Yet

It wasn't that long ago that all four players contesting the finals at this year's BNP Paribas Open, to one extent or another, had fallen a bit off the radar. Each had worked his or her way back on the scene, but perhaps it was their performances at Indian Wells over the past ten days that truly cemented their return to the game.

Former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki had long been criticized for holding the ranking without a Major title to back it up, and when all the pressure finally led to a disappointing 2012 season and a drop nearly out of the top ten, some predicted an eventual end to the Dane's ride. She seemed to get back on track in the desert, though -- after dominating an early round against suddenly surging Elena Vesnina and surviving a potential challenge from Nadia Petrova, never to be counted out, she really raised her game. Against fourth seeded Angelique Kerber in the semis, Caro was down a set and a break before finding her groove and coming back in exciting style. The win earned Wozniacki her first final of the year, and her biggest since winning the title here in 2011.

Her run, eventually, was stopped by similarly resurgent Maria Sharapova on Sunday afternoon. Another one once atop the rankings, her climb back to the top was slow and steady and culminated with a historic completion of the Grand Slam last spring, but that was the last title she won on any surface since. As the second seed in Indian Wells, the Russian didn't have as tough a road to the final, but the pressure was nonetheless on last year's runner-up to deliver. And having not dropped a set the entire event, that's just what she did in Sunday's championship -- she took an early lead against Wozniacki and never looked back. The win was her first hardcourt title since mid-2011, but maybe more importantly proved just how hungry she still is to add to her trophy chest.

The men are hungry too. Juan Martin Del Potro, like MaSha before him, had been on the comeback trail for years, finally getting his footing with a Bronze medal in London and a couple big wins over long-time nemesis Roger Federer late last year. He'd also won a title in Rotterdam this season, but he truly hit his stride in the California desert -- after a solid win over relentless veteran Tommy Haas in the fourth round, he notched a stunning come-from-behind victory against reigning U.S. Open champ Andy Murray and then powered through to repeat his Olympic triumph over world #1 Novak Djokovic. It was the first time in more than three years he'd defeated two top-five players at one event, and may have sealed his return to the sport's elite.

But DelPo's campaign would eventually Sunday when he'd face the ultimate comeback of the year. Rafael Nadal, champion here in 2009, had characteristically dominated the early clay court season, losing a final in Viña del Mar before reclaiming glory in Brazil and Mexico. But no one really expected him to accomplish much on the tougher hard courts, by far his least successful surface -- and with a loss just two weeks ago at an exhibition in New York, at the hands of Juan Martin Del Potro, no less, he might have actually been the underdog in Sunday's final. But Nadal proved he still had the fighting spirit he's shown so many times before -- after defeating Roger Federer in the quarters and one-time Wimbledon runner-up Tomas Berdych a round later, he was down a set to the big Argentine, but he regrouped to close out the match in two and a half hours. It was the six-hundredth match win of his career and his record twenty-second Masters crown -- if that doesn't prove he's still very much in contention for the big trophies, it seems clear he'll be giving even more evidence over the months to come.

It shouldn't be too surprising that these champions haven't fallen away into the shadows -- their attitudes throughout their careers show just how hard they're willing to fight. But with some big wins all week, their spirit has certainly translated into real results at Indian Wells. And with the season still having really just begun, I expect we haven't seen the last of any of them yet.

March 3, 2013

Like it Was Only Yesterday...

So it's been a couple weeks since I've had a chance to post something, and now that I'm here again it sure seems like we've turned the clocks back a lot farther that even that.

Things got a little crazy for a minute or two -- Murray started winning Majors, Serena started losing finals, and some of the strongest players in years past started to struggle a bit. But with the results the last few weeks, order may have been restored.

Petra Kvitova had been a stone's throw from the #1 ranking just over a year ago, but was largely overshadowed by her contemporaries for most of the 2012 season. With illness marring her performance at the year-end championships and a couple early round losses to start 2013, she'd dropped a couple ranking points before coming to Dubai two weeks ago. But she upped her game when it counted in the UAE -- after dominating Aggie Radwanska in the quarters she easily ended former #1 Caroline Wozniacki's comeback run a round later. She was the clear favorite against clay-court specialist Sara Errani in the final, and when tested by the spirited Italian, she rose to the task and closed out the match in impressive form. It was her first title since New Haven last year and did a lot to put her back on the radar among the sport's elite -- if she can bring that momentum with her the rest of the year, it might not be long before we see her holding up the big trophies again.

Errani's disappointment didn't last long, though. It would have been easy to write off her stellar 2012 season as a fluke -- she'd already lost two finals this year and failed to defend points from last year's Australian Open. But when she returned this week to Acapulco, the site that kicked off her ascendance to the top ten, she found that spark which has made her such a force on Tour. Ranked well above the rest of the field in Mexico, she shouldn't have had much trouble at all, but given reason stumbles that wasn't enough to seal in the win. But the slight star hardly missed a beat during the event -- with only one of her ten sets going as far as a tiebreak, she rolled through early rounds and won the first seven games of the match against second-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro in the final. Though the second set was tighter and Errani's serve started to slump a bit, she eventually closed out the win in just over an hour and a half, winning her seventh career title and hopefully silencing those naysayers who complained she wouldn't be able to repeat her successes. She hasn't been out of the spotlight quite as long as Kvitova, but hopefully her performance this week will help keep her in it a bit longer.

The gentlemen were not immune from similar comebacks the last few weeks. One-time world #21 Ernests Gulbis has been largely off the radar the last few years as injury cut short a couple of seasons -- but he worked his way back through Challenger events and qualifying draws and eventually was able to make an impact again on the big stage. This week in Delray Beach he opened with a win over my dear James Blake and followed it up by defeating quickly climbing American Sam Querrey. He was taken to a third set by uber-veteran Tommy Haas in the semis too, but after surviving one test after another he was treated to a relative easy final against Edouard Roger-Vasselin today. Though the pair traded breaks through the first set, Gulbis finally got lead in a tiebreak and never looked back. It was his second championship in Florida, the site of his first title three years ago. It may not be enough to push him back to the top right away, but it could just give him enough confidence to return there soon.

And while all these players made huge strides to get themselves back on the radar, perhaps the most impressive run we've seen the last few weeks came from a man who never really fell that far down the rankings anyway. Rafael Nadal had been missing from Tour since that fateful Wimbledon second round, and his long-awaited return stopped somewhat shortly when he lost in the Viña Del Mar final to little-known Horacio Zeballos. But he rallied after defeat, winning a title a week later in Sao Paulo after suffering through two three-set nail-biters. This week he finished off his Golden Swing in Acapulco where, as the second seed, he got straight-set revenge over Martin Alund -- one of the men who'd troubled him in Brazil -- and positively dominated top seed David Ferrer in the final, dropping just two games in the hour-long championship. Things will be a little more difficult for Rafa when he's off the clay the next few weeks, but it's nice to see him thriving on the surface that made him a star. And having proven he can still beat the best, it sure bodes well for him once Roland Garros training really kicks in.

With the last few weeks bringing stars big and small back into the spotlight they occupied not so far in the past, it might not be long before we see some big shake-ups among the top ranks. Those that have recently been strongest will have to watch their backs, it seems, and up their games if they're going to compete among these resurgents. And as long as they keep up their games, there's no telling what they can do for the rest of the season.