May 13, 2013

No Contest

The draws in Madrid were rife with upsets from the start this year, but when all was said and done it was some of the strongest stars in the sport left standing on finals weekend. A couple have only just come into their own on this tricky surface, but the ultimate winners were those who've shown, time and again, just how much of a threat they are, no matter what court they're playing on.

Maria Sharapova once described herself as a cow on ice when she played on clay, but a title at Roland Garros last year, followed by a repeat in Stuttgart might belie that statement. She made her way to the Madrid final, her fourth of the year, without dropping a set. Defending champion Serena Williams, meanwhile, never a sure thing on the surface herself, had actually had a few hiccups along the way -- after being pushed to a tiebreak in her opening set with Yulia Putintseva and losing serve to Lourdes Dominguez-Lino, she dropped a weird bagel to Anabel Medina Garrigues in the quarters. But she too eventually made her fourth championship match of the year, extending her win streak to eighteen straight matches since Doha.

The history between these two champions has been long, but fairly one-sided. Since Maria's breakthrough win at Wimbledon nine years ago, she's been a disappointing 1-11 against the world #1, notching nine sets in which she won just one game or less. The Russian's best recent attempt came in the Miami final, where she'd scored an early lead against her rival, but it's remained a long, long time since she's managed a defeat. And this weekend would keep the stretch going -- in the hour-plus match, Maria was able to convert just one of two break chances and won barely a third of her second serve attempts. Serena stayed the stronger player again and in straight set win, earned her seventh clay court title and put her, once again, in prime position to finally end a long drought in Paris. A loss-less season hasn't necessarily meant guaranteed success in Paris, of course, but Williams' repeat on a court that's never been her best might set the stage for quite a run at the next Grand Slam.

The men's final wasn't quite as big battle between two greats, but it certainly pitted one rising star against a seasoned, if imperfect, champion. Stanislas Wawrinka, having won three of his four titles on clay during his career, was coming off a huge victory over clay specialist David Ferrer in Estoril and had upset Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych already in Madrid. Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, had given up his stranglehold in Monte Carlo, and shown he could be beaten by even less formidable foes on his best surface. Still, since returning to play in February, he'd made at least the championship match of every event he'd played and won three titles to boot. He was seeded just fifth in his homeland's Masters, and though he faced quite a scare against Ferrer in the quarters, eventually kept his final streak running strong.

Nadal's had a tough time in Madrid in the past -- his one title here is largely overshadowed by losses to big rivals and weird tricks of weird surfaces. And against a top tier player like Wawrinka, Rafa's fate was far from certain on Sunday. But he took control from the start, dropped just three points on his first serve and didn't allow a break opportunity during the match. Winning an impressive 22-7 points on return, he never gave the Swiss a chance to get in the match, and with his first clay court Masters of the year under his belt now, his confidence must be greatly increased as he looks to close out the season.

While all four of this weekend's finalists have shown they are forces on the surface, the champions' dominance in their respective finals proves they're still the favorites against any opponent. If they are able to keep it up, there's few who will be able to stop them -- and the battles for even the biggest titles this year might be wrapped up before they even start.

May 9, 2013

Random Acts

That weird blue clay may be a thing of the past, but that doesn't mean things are back to normal in Madrid. There have been upsets from the start, and even the most decorated clay courters have already been shown the door -- and with just one top ten player not making the trip to Spain*, that's no easy accomplishment. So for those still standing as we head into the final weekend, chances may not be better to make a real statement.

Kaia Kanepi is on what seems like her hundredth career comeback -- the Estonian made the quarterfinals at Roland Garros back in 2008, but a knee injury hampered her play for several months the next year; she reached the quarters at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2010, but lost momentum again in 2011, and she was in and out of Tour-level play throughout last season, battling an achilles injury that pushed her ranking back out of the top thirty. She's rebuilding again this year, but fell short of repeating as champion in Estoril. She's made better strides this week though -- she opened with a win in Madrid over former top-tenner Flavia Pennetta and then got one-sided revenge over her Portugal vanquisher Carla Suarez Navarro. Earlier today she battled through veteran Daniela Hantuchova to make the quarters, her best showing at a Premier event in almost a year. She'll have a tough task against Maria Sharapova in the next round, of course, but Kanepi's not one to be overlooked -- if she strikes early, she might just be able to put another big win on her resume.

Ekaterina Makarova has been scoring those "W"'s for years, beating Victoria Azarenka in the 2010 Eastbourne final and stunning Serena Williams in Australia last year. She's become a mainstay in the top thirty in 2013, but four first round losses coming into this event may have shaken her confidence a bit. She was instrumental in securing Russian victory at Fed Cup last month, though, and she hit the ground running this week in Spain. She got through Lucie Safarova in her opener and came from behind against third-seeded Azarenka late on Tuesday. Against recently struggling Marion Bartoli today, Makarova took control immediately, staving off all four break chances and jumping over her opponent on the return.

For her efforts she might get the honor of meeting another underdog in Varvara Lepchenko, whose so far ceded a two-break lead to seventh-seeded clay court specialist Sara Errani, a winner of five titles on the surface in the past year. Lepchenko has earned her chops on dirt too, though, making the fourth round of the French Open in 2012 and working her way from triple-digit rankings at the start of last year to top thirty now. She opened with a win over Roberta Vinci and then got a walkover from one-time Stuttgart champ Julia Goerges. She might be at a disadvantage even if she makes it through her third round -- Makarova won the pair's only previous meeting -- but there's no reason to believe the American #4 can't pull off a surprise.

The men's side hasn't been without upsets either and, maybe surprisingly, theirs have cut even deeper into the top ranks. Grigor Dimitrov, long hailed as "Baby Fed" for his similarity to the record-holding former #1, has only recently made good on these expectations -- since losing the final in Brisbane, he made the semis in Rotterdam and even took a set off Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo. This week, though, he really started to shine -- in a three-plus hour match against 2011 champion Novak Djokovic, he withstood two tight tiebreaks and eked out a win with just two more points than his much-heralded opponent. We'll see how worn out he is when he faces Oeiras champion Stanislas Wawrinka later today, but with his first career victory over a top five player finally under his belt, he should be confident that more can come.

Rivaling that result for most shocking of the tournament is what we saw this afternoon from Roger Federer. Defending Madrid titleist Roger Federer had only lost before the semifinals here once, and that was way back in 2002 when he made the quarters. Though he regained the #2 ranking from Andy Murray a few weeks back, he hasn't won a trophy yet this year, technically making this his least productive season since the turn of the century. His hopes to change that momentum were blunted today, though, when he met Japan's Kei Nishikori, rebuilding his own career over the last four years. The twenty-three year old stunned Roger to take the first set and, more impressively, held tough after losing the second 6-1. He got a break early in the decider, took advantage or weak serving by the legend and barely allowed Federer to win half his points on serve. After just over ninety minutes, he'd reached his first Masters quarter since 2011, but better yet scored the biggest win of his career.

Upsets are not uncommon at big events, of course, but the abundance of them in Madrid in recent years seems disproportionate. With no seeds safe, it seems, anything can and will happen on these courts. The winners that eventually emerge should know they've survived some of the biggest competition out there -- after all some of the best things ultimately came out of chaos.

World #7 Juan Martin Del Potro pulled out with a viral infection, the only man or woman in the top ten to miss the Mutua Madrid Open this year.

May 6, 2013

The Surprise Factor

Here's the thing about clay -- you really never know what's going to happen. Ever.

And this weekend a couple players proved they could get down and dirty, even when facing competition much more accomplished on the surface.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova had won all four of her previous titles on hardcourts and had only once made it into the second week of the French Open. The Russian progressed through the draw by the skin of her teeth -- she needed three sets to get through both Elena Vesnina and virtually unknown Romina Oprandi, dropping a bagel to the Swiss in the semis. Meanwhile her opponent in the Oeiras final this weekend, young Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro, was practically raised on the dirt. Though she hadn't yet won a title in her career, she had played for four championships on clay, even getting to the final Saturday in Portugal last year. Her road to this final had been smooth as well -- she hadn't dropped a set all week and easily ousted a resurgent Kaia Kanepi in the last four.

She had a leg up against Pavs in the final, too, breaking her opponent in the first service game and giving her trouble on serve throughout early play. But Anastasia had won the pair's previous four meetings and wasn't about to end her streak. After a visit from new coach, soon-to-be Hall of Famer Martina Hingis, the third seed was able to regroup -- she fought back from the deficit and dominated throughout the second set. After just over ninety minutes, the more experienced lady was left holding the trophy, pulling her to 5-2 in WTA finals. CSN falls to a less impressive 0-5, but her ability on these courts can't be ignored -- today she turned right around to win her Madrid first round against Sam Stosur, so hope is clearly not lost. And her strength only makes Pavs' accomplishment more noteworthy -- if she can win here, afterall, who knows where else she'll thrive.

The results in the men's event might have been even more impressive. David Ferrer, a long-time staple in the top ten and often hailed as the best player without a Grand Slam title, is a more-than-intimidating 247-100 on clay and has won fully half of his twenty titles on the surface. He'd already won two crowns this season, but injury hampered his play since the American hardcourt season and he was pushed to a third set in his Oeiras opener. Still, against Stanislas Wawrinka, relatively middling at 64% on clay, he was the clear favorite in Sunday's final. The Swiss had pulled off a huge win over Andy Murray in Monte Carlo last month and reached the semis in Casablanca already, but he was tested from the start in Portugal -- he lost his opening set to Albert Ramos, was forced to a decider by qualifying upstart Pablo Carreno-Busta in the semis.

But he was ultimately better rested going into Sunday's final. Wawrinka ran away with the first set and didn't allow a break opportunity during the hour-long match. It was his first top-ten win of the season and secured his fourth career title with a 6-1, 6-4 victory. For a guy who's struggled to deliver a big impact on the big stages -- he was half of the most epic match of the 2013 Australian Open, but ultimately lost after five hours of play -- this might just have gained him ground in his efforts.

This weekend's victors in Portugal certainly had to pull off some big wins to get their trophies, and the fact that they did so against some of the strongest players on these courts makes it even more sweet. Whether these wins translate into greater successes once the stakes are raised remains to be seen, but if their performances so far is any indication, all the favorites better sit up and take notice.

May 3, 2013

Vets vs. Newbies

It's become a bit of a contest between old and new in Munich -- with top seeds getting upset throughout the week, we're left with a somewhat unusual crop of semifinalists. A couple have been decorated time and again while the others are fairly new to the winner's circle -- if they've been there at all. And as action winds down we might just find out if the seasoned pros are ready to give up the reins to young guns.

Top seeded Janko Tipsarevic ceded his spot in the final four earlier today when world #69 Daniel Brands notched his first top-ten win in nearly three years. The German had already delivered some solid results this year, reaching the quarters in Dubai and the semis in Doha, but this run might be the most impressive. He's made the semis in Munich before -- back in 2009 he beat Potito Starace and Julien Benneteau to get here -- but with wins over the Serbian #2 and Gael Monfils before him, he's faced and bested his biggest competition here. He has played three three-setters in a row, though, and might be a little more spent than his next opponent, Phillipp Kohlschreiber. His compatriot, the defending champion in fact, is going for his fifth career title and his third at the BMW Open. He hasn't dropped a set yet this week and won the pair's only previous meeting, so history is on his side. But twenty-five year old Brands might just be ready to make a move into the sport's top tiers, and a trip to his first ATP final would certainly put him solidly on that road. If he's able to keep the momentum he's seemed to have all week he could just make the statement he's been waiting to make.

Ivan Dodig has made a statement here and there in the past, but after a string of first-round losses last year pushed him out of the top fifty, it's been a while since he said anything above a whisper. He's made some strides to turn things around this season, though, making the third round in Indian Wells and beating Alexandr Dolgopolov in Delray Beach. This week in Germany, the Croat beat 2011 champ Nikolay Davydenko to start, ousted countryman Marin Cilic in his opener and earlier today repeated his victory over fifth-seeded Dolgopolov in straight sets. His task only gets tougher from here, of course -- next up is uber-veteran Tommy Haas, who's somewhat surprisingly never won the title in his homeland. Haas was challenged early by on-the-rebound Ernests Gulbis, but needed less than an hour to dismiss fellow German Florian Mayer earlier today. He also won his only match against Dodig, actually ending the underdog's run in Delray, so if Ivan's going to make another final, he's going to have to come out swinging from the start.

Clearly the burden will be on the non-seeds to deliver on Saturday, but given their performances so far this week there's no reason to believe they're incapable of big things. But the veterans will be out to stop them short, and won't go down easy. Whether it's ultimately time for them to step aside and let the upstarts take over remains to be seen, but this weekend's battles might just be a turning point for one of these guy's careers.