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 Bogotรก, 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.

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