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.

No comments: