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.

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