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.

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