April 29, 2013

Comfort in the Familiar

We know this is the time of year when, really, anything can happen -- upsets on the clay are almost so commonplace now that we barely bat an eye. That's why it's almost reassuring that, after this weekend's action on the dirt, we're left with two long-time champions showing us all who's boss.

Defending Stuttgart champion Maria Sharapova has been having quite the year -- already a winner in Indian Wells, she's solidly back in the #2 spot and has been upping her game against the sport's best. She was rewarded with no easy road this week in Germany, where just one seed was ranked outside the top ten -- she lost a set to Lucie Safarova to start and was forced to a third by Ana Ivanovic a round later. She was further tested by a recently-rebounding Angelique Kerber in the semis, who seems to have found her game again after a weak start to the year.

Meanwhile 2011 French Open champ Na Li was making her own statement on the bottom half of the draw. An ankle injury had kept her largely out of play since reaching the final of the Australian Open, but clearly comfortable on the clay, she was able to step right back into action, albeit against some lower-profile players. She routed qualifier Mirjana Lucic and ended an impressive streak by American veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Her only real test early was against fifth seed Petra Kvitova, but she scored that win and reached the final without losing a set.

But Li was no match for Sharapova in Sunday's final. Though the two have a pretty close history -- the Chinese star last denied Maria a chance for a rematch of last year's Melbourne final -- the Russian was able to get the upper hand this time. She got three-quarters of her first serves in, and only dropped eight of those points. She only allowed Li two break chances, and converted four of nine herself. On a surface which the six-foot-two, lithe champion has famously said makes her feel like a cow on ice, Sharapova needed just over ninety minutes to take the title, reminding us just how much her game has evolved.

Rafael Nadal has more than proven himself on this surface, of course, but the seven-time champion in Barcelona was coming off a week which could have been a sea change in this sport. But after a one-sided loss at the tournament which he has reigned for the better part of a decade, the Spaniard hit the ground running in his homeland -- he progressed easily through early rounds and even dismissed his biggest potential test, big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic, in straight sets in the semis. The win earned Rafa entrée into his sixth final of his injury-shortened year -- with three titles already, he's yet to lose before the championship round in 2013.

Fellow clay-court specialist Nicolas Almagro -- a disappointing 0-10 against his compatriot -- hoped to capitalize on what's seemed to be the slightly tarnished armor of Nadal, though. He'd been solid during his Spain campaign, besting a resurgent Juan Monaco in the quarters and benefiting from the hole left by top-seeded David Ferrer's ouster in the top half of the draw. It was, somewhat surprisingly, Nico's first trip to the Barcelona final -- in nine previous attempts, he'd only made the semis twice -- but possibly his best chance to score that elusive first win against his long-time rival.

But eventually experience won out -- Nadal may not have had the strongest service performance of his career -- he was broken twice -- but he pounced on his country's third best player the way he had on current Spanish #1 David Ferrer just a few weeks back. Winning seventy percent of his first serve points and more than half of Almagro's second attempts, he closed out the match in a much different hour-plus of action than what he'd endured a week before. With his eighth crown at Banc Sabadell Open, Rafa might have erased some pain from the Monte Carlo loss, but more importantly, he might have put himself back on course to close out the season.

We can't ignore the fact that both this week's repeat champions also went on to win at Roland Garros last year. That's not to say, of course, they've locked in victory just yet, but their performances last week could have set the stage for bigger wins to come.

And as they restore some semblance of normalcy during this often tumultuous time, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the play's only getting better from here.

April 26, 2013

Spoiler Alert

With just about a month left until the French Open, now's the time for players to really dig in and make a push for this year's grandest clay court title. And while many of the sport's biggest stars concentrating their efforts this week and some higher profile tournaments, some lesser known names have been quietly pulling off some mighty big wins elsewhere on the dirt.

A handful of top-twenty players made their way over to Bucharest, with world #10 Janko Tipsarevic leading the pack. Upsets rocked the draw from the start, though -- Germany's Daniel Brands, a surprise semifinalist in Doha, was up a set and a break when wildcard Gael Monfils retired, and one-time top-tenner Mikhail Youzhny dropped at the hands of Victor Hanescu in his opener. But a couple others had even better success.

Last year's giant killer Lukas Rosol hasn't had many high-profile wins since, but some time on the Challenger's circuit and two big wins for the Czechs during Davis Cup action has helped him crack the top fifty this year. Momentum is on his side in Romania too -- he took out third-seeded Andreas Seppi in the second round, and a win today over Viktor Troicki gave him entry into his first ever ATP semifinal. He'll be rewarded with a battle against the highest seed left, Gilles Simon, which will be no easy task, to be sure. But if he can pull it off he might have set himself up for some real successes the rest of the year.

Guillermo Garcia-Lopez has had a little more success over the years -- he beat Andy Murray last year at Indian Wells and has a couple Tour titles to his name -- but it's been a while since he's done anything too noteworthy. Before Bucharest he'd only won two main draw matches this year and, since peaking at #23 in the world about two years ago, he's since fallen to near triple-digit rankings. But this week the Spaniard seems to have found his game again -- he took out Horacio Zeballos, the most surprising man to beat Rafael Nadal this year and backed it up with a come-from-behind win today over Tipsarevic. He'll meet Florian Mayer next -- a man who's also been struggling to recapture recent glory -- so there's no reason he can't make a real play for title #3 here.

There's plenty of opportunity for the ladies to deliver similar results in Marrakech too. Top seeded Dominika Cibulkova pulled out after a long Fed Cup weekend and second seed Sorana Cirstea, largely pulling her career back in line after a breakout 2009 season, lost her opener in two quick sets. And that's allowed more than a few underdogs -- a couple of them veterans -- to pull through this week.

Chanelle Scheepers won her first and only title two years back in Guangzhou at the ripe "old" age of twenty-seven, but an unimpressive performance in 2012 send her out of the top fifty to end the year. She'd only won three Tour-level matches this year and most recently lost in the quarters of an ITF event in Pelham. The South African may have turned things around this week, though -- she dominated Cirstea in their opener and was similarly strong against rising French star Kristina Mladenovic earlier today. Her win set her up for a semifinal showdown against one-time Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone -- certainly no pushover, of course, but a big fight now could make everyone else sit up and take notice the rest of the season.

Thirty-two year old Lourdes Dominguez Lino has won two titles in her career, both in Bogotá, five years apart. She, not surprisingly, is something of a clay court specialist though, and lost every match she played this season before hitting the dirt. But she's finally hitting her stride in Morocco -- after defeating lucky seed Tsvetana Pironkova she took out defending champion Kiki Bertens in three tight sets. It'll be the Spaniard's first Tour semi in over two years, and maybe her best chance in a while to take home a title.

Her opponent on Saturday will be rising star Mandy Minella of Luxembourg, who first started grabbing headlines at the 2010 U.S. Open. She's won just a handful of main draw matches this year and has been hanging out just in the top hundred for a while. But a win over still-recovering Kaia Kanepi in the Marrakech second round was followed by a solid three-set win over Silvia Soler-Espinosa on Friday. She's lost the only match she's played against LDL, back in Bogotá 2011, and hasn't had too much of a challenge yet this week -- she'll have to raise her game even further if she wants to reach that elusive first career final.

All these guys and girls have put up some big wins over the past week, and while there's plenty of work left to do before taking home a title, their performances should show they're capable of doing some damage. This is the time of year, after all, when not even the biggest or most consistent stars are safe -- and any of these athletes could prove themselves to be the big spoiler this spring.

April 21, 2013

The End of an Era

It's a little difficult to remember what life was like back when Rafael Nadal wasn't champion at Monte Carlo. But after this week's action at the first clay court Masters event of the season, we've gone back to exactly that world.

It was always going to be a tough task for the eight-time champion -- having missed seven months of action since Wimbledon last year, there was a lot of pressure on him to defend the boatload of points he'd accumulated at this time last year. But he was 17-1 since his return at Viña del Mar, had accumulated three titles already, including one which saw him defeat three top ten players in a row, and despite a couple tests during the week, eventually reached his ninth straight final in Monaco.

Meanwhile, world #1 Novak Djokovic faced challenges as well on his way to a middling-by-comparison third Monte Carlo championship -- an ankle injury threatened to keep him out of the event entirely, and he lost opening sets to both Mikhail Youzhny and Juan Monaco -- but he eventually got his game together in the later rounds.

And his renewed strength was apparent from the get-go in Sunday's rain-delayed final. He started off winning five straight games off Rafa, threatening to deliver the Spanish star his first bagel set on the dirt since Hamburg in 2007. Nadal tried to stage a bit of a comeback, capitalizing on Nole's errors to get one break back, but eventually dropped serve himself again and lost the set. Momentum seemed to shift in the second set though -- Nadal got a break early, and though he lost it soon after, he was able to eventually earn the right to serve out the set. But Djokovic had come with a mission -- with his shots consistently finding their marks and his errors getting cleaned up, he broke back for a tiebreak which he dominated from the first serve.

Nole's win harkens back to his stellar 2011 season when he stunned Nadal in four straight Masters finals, two on Rafa's favorite surface. Circumstances are different of course -- the Serb isn't running quite the streak he was then, and Nadal is still trying to get his groove back. But it sure looks like we're in for a few exciting weeks coming up. Now the question is, of course, whether Novak will be able to do it best-of-five.

After all, if he's ever going to complete the not-so-elusive (these days) Grand Slam, this could be his best shot to do it.

April 19, 2013

Fed Cup Semi Preview: A Chance to Shine

It sure has been an interesting couple of months on the WTA Tour -- we've seen the inevitable resurgence of Serena Williams, the comebacks of long-forgotten players like Alize Cornet and Sorana Cirstea, and the emergence of young stars like Madison Keys and Heather Watson. But it hasn't been all good news for the ladies, and in this weekend's Fed Cup action, a couple will look to change all that.

Italy vs. Czech Republic

The Two-time defending champion Czechs take on an Italian team who's no stranger to winning themselves. And while both squads boast a slew of high-ranking veterans, there's still plenty of room for surprises.

The top-ranked doubles team in the world is concentrating on the singles rubbers for Italy this time around, but it might be the lesser-known Roberta Vinci -- champion in Katowice last week -- who's a little more sure of her game. That's not to say Acapulco winner Sara Errani should be ignored -- she made the finals in Paris and Dubai and the quarters at both American hardcourt Premiers -- but she hasn't quite grabbed the headlines she did this time last year. Still, the bigger opportunities lie with some of the more historically heralded players on the team. Flavia Pennetta -- the first Italian to break the top ten -- and 2011 French Open titleist Francesca Schiavone have both fallen down the rankings of late. Pennetta has been hampered by a wrist injury since last spring while Schiavone has lost in five first rounds this year. Paired for the doubles rubber, they'll both have the chance to prove how relevant they still are.

They'll be tested, of course, by Czech stars Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova who, despite being one of the winning-est pairs of 2012, haven't won an event together since last October. They've got a good history, though, and should be able to come together and represent. The bigger spotlight will likely be on singles specialist Lucie Safarova -- after shocking her way to the Montreal semifinals and securing the Fed Cup crown for her team last fall, the now-world #25 has had a handful of opening round losses herself this year. While she has a losing record against Vinci -- they've met three times -- she did win her only meeting with Errani, albeit almost four years ago. If she can find the momentum she had late last year, though, and harness the support of teammates like Petra Kvitova, she could become again the clincher for her country.

Russia vs. Slovak Republic

The Russians come to this Fed Cup weekend missing their biggest star, but there's still plenty of firepower in their ranks. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is coming off a trophy in Monterrey and a return to the top twenty, while Maria Kirilenko had a solid run to the Indian Wells semis and ended a five-year title drought when she beat Sabine Lisicki in Pattaya City. But the players heading up the doubles rubber may have a bit more to prove. Ekaterina Makarova has long been a contender, but really hit the radar with a win over Serena Williams in Melbourne last year and began her ascent up the rankings. She made the quarters in the 2013 Australian Open too, but only won two matches since. And Elena Vesnina, who proved the seventh time's a charm when she won her maiden title in January in Hobart, hasn't beaten a top-fifty player since leaving the Down Under. We've seen both these ladies do big things -- and not that long ago -- so hopefully this weekend they'll be able to turn things back in their favor.

Probably the least known players grace the roster of the underdog Slovak Republic. Nineteen-year-old Jana Cepelova is only just in the top hundred and hasn't much main draw play on Tour this year. And Magdalena Rybarikova, though near her career high ranking, has scored some big wins throughout her career, but is still overshadowed by higher-profile compatriots. Daniela Hantuchova, for example, will want to prove she deserves that attention as she continues her comeback from an ankle injury that caused her to miss all of the 2012 clay court season. But more critical might be the performance of Dominika Cibulkova who, for the second year in a row squandered a huge lead against a #1 player in Miami. She hasn't played since blowing that set-and-a-break advantage over Serena Williams last month and her performance this weekend will show just how much she has recovered -- both physically and mentally -- and with an opener against Pavlyuchenkova, she'll be tested from the start.

There's a lot at stake during this weekend's games, but for some players more than others. Sure, Fed Cup glory may be victory enough, but for those trying to put their seasons back on the uptrack, this could be their opportunity to make a an even bigger statement.

April 8, 2013

Three Times a Charm

It's about that time of year when we make the switch in earnest from hard courts to clay, but while the change of season can take some players by surprise, for others it can be a chance to either continue a good (okay, great) run or to wash out the bad taste of a thus-far disappointing year. And this past weekend a couple ladies, each winning their third trophies at their respective tournaments, might have done just that.

The draw in Charleston was full of not just top-notch talent, but also a few rising stars that were out to prove they too could hit with the big girls. And while a couple succeeded for a time -- college star Mallory Burdette upset 2009 champ Sabine Lisicki and eighteen-year-old Madison Keys worked her way to the quarterfinals -- it was ultimately a couple veterans left standing to contest the title. Last year's winner Serena Williams had progressed without much drama, even easily dispatching older sister Venus in the semis, to make her fourth final of the year. Meanwhile former world #1 Jelena Jankovic, rebuilding her game with a title in Bogota and an impressive run to the final four in Miami, endured a few more hiccups during her campaign -- though she didn't meet a seed in her first five matches, she nonetheless needed three sets to beat Melanie Oudin, Caroline Garcia and Stefanie Voegele.

Despite these challenges JJ came out swinging in Sunday's final -- she saved five early break chances before pouncing on Serena's serve early in the first. She broke again to grab the opener, firing off aces, catching Williams flat-footed, and guessing right on almost every ball -- it was quickly evident why the Serb had been able to compile a commendable 4-5 record against the top-ranked champion. But things took a turn early in the second set -- after a heated exchange at 40-15 in the first game, Serena eventually broke and went on to bagel JJ, forcing a decider. She took an early lead in that one too, and never looked back -- the "war" of words may have, to some degree, shifted momentum to the American's favor, but her comeback shouldn't have been unexpected, given Serena's recent indomitable level of play. Still, with her third title at the Family Circle Cup, on a surface that is far from her best, she's certainly put her name in real contention for the ultimate clay court crown -- if it wasn't there already.

The field may not have been as star-studded down in Monterrey, but that doesn't mean the stakes weren't as high. Here, too, was an opportunity for resurrections -- Monica Niculescu, down markedly from her career-high ranking achieved a little more than a year ago, made her way to the semis with wins over uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm and sixth-seeded Yanina Wickmayer -- and for breakthroughs -- young American Coco Vandeweghe scored a big win over world #11 Marion Bartoli before being ousted herself by nineteen-year-old Lauren Davis. But finally top seed Angelique Kerber, looking for her first title of the year, worked her way through the draw, needing three sets to get past both Alla Kudryavtseva and Maria Kirilenko in the semis. In the other half of the draw, two-time champion Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, having put together a middling 7-7 record on the year -- including five first round losses -- found a way to regroup. She didn't face a seed until the final, but won her first six sets of the event, facing a challenge only from Niculescu to make her second final of the year.

Kerber seemed to get the edge early in the pair's second meeting -- having lost in the Brisbane quarterfinals in two tiebreaks, the German broke in the first game of this final and held on to take the set. But Pavs regrouped in the second, winning nine games in a row to go ahead 5-0 in the decider. Kerber very nearly pulled off the comeback of the tournament, though, winning the next four games and drawing within a stone's throw of evening the match. But the Russian held tough again, winning the next game and, with it the match. Her record in Mexico now stands at 15-0, with three of her four trophies coming South of the Border. And while her success here hasn't yet translated into much for the rest of the clay court season, her performance this past week could set the stage for bigger things this time around.

Three-peats are big accomplishments in this sport, whether they come in sequential years or not, and both of these ladies made some big statements when they got their third trophies this week. If they can keep up their game, it seems they could find continued success on court throughout the spring, and those who thought they might be able to rest easy on clay might just have to sit up and take notice.

April 4, 2013

Unusual Suspects: Davis Cup Quarterfinal Preview

There are going to be a couple unfamiliar flags flying this weekend as the eight countries left in the hunt for the 2013 Davis Cup crown contest the quarterfinals. And while there will certainly be plenty of star power in the field, there are enough wildcards out there that there's really no telling who'll be left standing on Sunday night.

Canada vs. Italy

The Canadians are playing in their first ever World Group quarterfinal, but despite their relative inexperience they could be the spoilers in this tie. World #16 Milos Raonic will be the highest-ranked player on the courts this weekend and comes to Vancouver with a 11-4 record on the year, including a title in San Jose. He's never met either of Italy's likely singles players, though, and with just five top twenty opponents so far this season he hasn't really been tested yet. And while he is by far the best on-paper singles player on the Canadian squad, the team could eventually find its leadership in veteran doubles star Daniel Nestor, holder of eighty crowns in his twenty-plus year career. The forty year old could very well help clinch the win for his countrymen if Raonic is able to take care of his job on his own.

The Italians can't be fully discounted though. All four of their representatives are ranked in the top eighty in singles and they've each pulled off a few upsets in their time. Andreas Seppi, sitting at his highest ever ranking more than a decade since going pro, has won two titles in the past twelve months and famously took the first two sets off Novak Djokovic at last year's French Open. Fabio Fognini, who did his best to end Andy Roddick's career in New York, made his way to the finals in St. Petersburg last fall and the semis in Acapulco in February. The disadvantage the team has, though, is that most of their success has come on clay -- all ten of Paolo Lorenzi's Challengers titles and seventy-five percent of Simone Bolelli's have been on the dirt. If the 1976 champions can't make a quick adjustment to the hardcourt, they might be sent home much sooner than they expected.

U.S. vs. Serbia

Somewhat surprisingly the U.S. is sporting the better recent Davis Cup record than the 2010 champs. After shocking wins over Switzerland and France, their magical 2012 performance ended at the hands of Spain in the semifinals. The Serbs, meanwhile, were summarily dismissed in the quarters to the eventual Czech titleists. Still it could be a tough task for the Americans to repeat last year's success. Former top-ten player John Isner has been nursing a knee injury most of the year, withdrawing from the Australian Open and falling in his Indian Wells opener, dropping points he'd accumulated by making the final last year. Sam Querrey is now the top player for the U.S., and with fourth round showings at both of the American Masters events and wins over the likes of Kei Nishikori, Fernando Verdasco and, stunningly, Novak Djokovic late last season, he certainly has earned that spot. If both players play to their potential, it would be a good sign for the U.S. -- if not, it could come down to the doubles tie here too with the record-breaking team of Mike and Bob Bryan needing to come through for their country again.

The Serbs will do their best to keep that from happening. World #1 Novak Djokovic returns after taking last year off from Davis Cup play, having already avenged recent losses to both Querrey and Isner. His twenty-two match win streak ended in the Indian Wells semis, though, and he failed to capture a third straight Miami trophy when he lost to Tommy Haas in the Sony Open fourth round. But with solid winning records against the Americans, he should be able to tie up his matches cleanly. The bigger question mark will be Viktor Troicki, #12 in the world less than two years ago but with just three Tour-level wins so far this year. He has winning records against both potential opponents, but hasn't met either since 2011. If he ends up losing both his rubbers, former doubles #1 Nenad Zimonjic might have to carry the burden against the Bryans. Ultimately this tie will probably come down to whether Isner has recovered enough to put up a fight against a mid-forties player or whether Troicki will be able to recapture the talent that sent his star soaring not so long ago.

France vs. Argentina

It's a bit of a shame that these two recent powerhouses are meeting so early this year -- runners-up in 2008, 2010 and 2011, both squads have what it takes to stir the pot at Davis Cup. France is led by world #8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who holds a solid 14-3 record in Davis Cup play. He won the title in Marseille in February, outlasting rival Tomas Berdych in the final, and only has a couple sub-fifty losses on his resumé this season -- but Tsonga's had some long matches too, having already played thirteen tiebreaks in 2013. We might actually see bigger things from Gilles Simon, just out of the top ten but steadily climbing the rankings over the last five months. The French #2 #3 has notched wins over Janko Tipsarevic and Juan Martin Del Potro and has made at least the quarters of five events this year. He may be relegated to second rubber status this weekend, but don't be surprised if he ends up becoming the star.

The Argentines meanwhile are missing their biggest weapon in Del Potro, who lost his opener in Miami after shocking both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic on his way to the Indian Wells final. Instead Juan Monaco, who last year climbed to #10 in the world, a full decade after going pro, will lead the team. He's struggled, though, winning just two matches so far, albeit both during Davis Cup play in February, and dropping nearly all the points he'd earned by making the Miami semis last year. With losing records against both Tsonga and Simon, it'll be difficult for him to deliver now. Carlos Berlocq, a semifinalist in Viña del Mar and a fourth rounder in Indian Wells, may be a better bet, but at #71 in the world he's no sure thing. I wouldn't be surprised if the South Americans subbed surprise Chilean champion Horacio Zeballos in for the singles action -- with a win over Rafael Nadal on clay this season, he may have shown the most spunk on this team and could surprise us all.

Kazakhstan vs. Czech Republic

In what's likely the strangest match-up this weekend, the little known Kazakhs take on the defending champion Czechs and carry with them home-court advantage and a surprising 1-0 record against their rivals. There's not a lot of star power on the squad, though -- no singles player is ranked in double digits -- and Mikhail Kukushkin, who made the fourth round in Melbourne last year hasn't won a main draw match yet this season. And Andrey Golubev, #205 in the world, has played mostly qualifying matches in 2013 -- he did cement the Kazakhs' win over Austria in the first round, though, and could be the spoiler this time around.

And that's because the Czechs may have opened the door for an upset -- world #6 Tomas Berdych is sitting out this tie and last year's clincher Radek Stepanek has been relegated to the middle Saturday doubles rubber. That's not to say things won't be shifted around, but as it stands, world #94 Jan Hajek -- just 2-5 this year -- and giant-killer Lukas Rosol will be opening up singles action. Again, Stepanek may very well be called in to pinch hit should the Czechs find themselves in a hole after Friday's action, but if the Kazakhs pounce early we could see a big surprise by one of the biggest underdogs in the field.

With so much room for upsets and surprises, things could get really interesting this weekend. Plenty of players have an opportunity to prove themselves -- either that they're back in contention, or that they should be taken as seriously as the biggest stars in the sport. Whatever shakes out at the end of the day, though, could set a new stage in the world of tennis. And it sure looks like all these guys will be eager to capture the audience from the start.

April 1, 2013

No Easy Task

The fields sure were packed in Miami the last two weeks, but that didn't mean we were in for the same old stuff. Upsets peppered the draws from the start, with players like Angelique Kerber, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and even two-time defending champion Novak Djokovic all losing before their time. But even with some paths relatively cleared, the eventual champions found themselves a little more than tested as they made their way to the titles.

Serena Williams was going for her record-tying sixth trophy at the Sony Open, but for vast parts of her campaign, it looked like she was about to fall short. After some relatively easy early rounds, the world #1 -- playing her first event since reclaiming the top spot -- found herself down a set and a break to spunky Dominika Cibulkova in the fourth before getting herself together. Meanwhile Maria Sharapova, coming off a huge win in Indian Wells a fortnight ago, seemed to keep her roll going, tested only slightly in the quarterfinals when Sara Errani finally seemed to hold her own -- though not quite enough -- against the 2012 French Open winner. The Russian was on fire by the time she reached her second straight final on Saturday and even ended a thirteen-set win streak by the American when she jumped to a 6-4 lead in the championship. But Serena found a way to regroup, as she is want to do, and rattled off a string of ten games to end the match. The win -- somewhat shockingly, only her second title of the year, and her first since kicking off 2013 with a crown in Brisbane -- secures Williams' spot at #1 for another six weeks or so, but more importantly may cement her as the queen of Miami. And the way she's playing, it doesn't look like she's gonna relinquish that title any time soon.

Andy Murray was similarly tested on his quest to reclaim the trophy he last won in 2009. Like Serena, with whom he shared Brisbane singles honors back in January, the defending U.S. Open champ was tested through his campaign. He hung tough against youngsters like Bernard Tomic and Grigor Dimitrov early and dropped the opening set to Richard Gasquet in the semis. In the top half of the draw -- the one in which Indian Wells runner-up Juan Martin Del Potro was stunned by little-known Tobias Kamke in his opener and world #1 Djokovic was summarily sent home by a constantly resurgent Tommy Haas in the fourth round -- players like Jurgen Melzer and Gilles Simon were able to show their stuff. Ultimately, though, it was David Ferrer making his way to his fourth final of the year -- he needed three sets to get through Melzer and Haas, but won the first four games of the championship match before things turned sour for the Spaniard. Murray took control early in the second set and was able to force a tiebreak in the decider -- Ferrer wasn't able to put up a fight when it came down to it, and after nearly three hours of play it was Murray left standing, victorious, and back at the #2 ranking in the world.

The champions this week have certainly been in the winner's circle more than a few times in the past, and it sure seems like they'll be back again and again. The tests they faced in capturing the crowns this time around don't suggest their runs are about to end, but rather that the rest of the field has gotten that much stronger -- and that's only going to be good for tennis. But in the meantime it sure seems like we've seen the dawn, or re-dawn in some cases, of a new era of dominance in the sport. And with these guys proving they have what it takes to triumph over a top-notch field, it only shows they have what it takes to keep their spots at the top