June 30, 2013

Wimbledon Week Two Preview: Time to Sober Up

So things got a little crazy this first week at Wimbledon, and more than a couple of us are left holding our heads in agony, wondering if we're remembering things quite right. We've only just reached the point in the tournament where the favorites should be getting tested, but in fact barely half of those remaining are actually seeded. And while both world #1's are still alive, plenty of others in the draws might never have imagined they'd be standing the second week of this Major. But now we've had a full day to sleep off the last couple wild nights, and it's time we get really serious.

Odds-on favorite Serena Williams has looked unstoppable so far, as should be expected, and hasn't lost a set yet, while, somewhat surprisingly, last year's runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska has been on point herself, advancing to her fifth straight Slam fourth round. But that's not to say their fates are set quite yet. Sabine Lisicki, a semifinalist here two years ago, if she's playing at the top of her game, could give Williams a run for the money in their next round, while Tsvetana Pironkova, a Cinderella at the All England Club a couple times herself, might give Aga a tough time herself.

But the biggest opportunity may lie in the section of this half where no one is seeded. Kaia Kanepi, who made the quarters here three years ago as a qualifier, has struggled to come back from injury time and again, and has already taken out world #7 Angelique Kerber this past week. And hometown hero Laura Robson -- she who ended Kim Clijsters career in New York and then made the finals in Guangzhou, ousted tenth seeded Maria Kirilenko in her opener. She's never made the quarterfinal of a Major, but with the cards seeming to stack up in her favor this week, it might just be time for a real breakthrough.

The bottom half of the women's draw has a couple more holes poked in it. With both favorites Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova out by the second round, the top seed remaining is 2011 champion Petra Kvitova -- a winner here, yes, but also one who's won just two matches for every one she's lost this year. That could open the door for rising star Sloane Stephens or 2007 runner-up Marion Bartoli. But teenager Monica Puig might have some different ideas -- the nineteen-year-old Puerto Rican, who's fresh off a third round appearance at Roland Garros, opened by upsetting fifth seeded Sara Errani here. She, along with world #104 Karin Knapp, might be the least likely picks to make the quarters, but if we've learned anything from the first week at the All England Club, it's to expect the unexpected.

The men's draw, if you can believe it, has been even more decimated in the first week of play. Two-time champion Rafael Nadal crashed out in the first round while seven-time winner Roger Federer followed a match later. Their exits, plus that of 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt, leave Novak Djokovic as the only man in the field who's ever won a Wimbledon trophy. But Juan Martin Del Potro, winner in New York nearly four years ago and Bronze medalist here last summer, hasn't dropped a set yet. And French Open finalist David Ferrer, despite having hiccups here and there, will be eager to prove his run at Roland Garros was no fluke. But pressure might be most on 2011 quarterfinalist Bernard Tomic, who's already taken out big-serving Sam Querrey and tough-as-nails Richard Gasquet. A good run this year might cement his position among the sport's elite, instead of gaining him attention for the wrong reasons.

Meanwhile Andy Murray seems to have a clear path to the final in the bottom half of the draw -- the only other seeds in his section are #20 Mikhail Youzhny, who he's never lost to, and #24 Jerzy Janowicz, who'll be playing his first Major fourth round at this Wimbledon. This half is really more about the comeback stories. Jurgen Melzer, out of the top thirty now, hasn't made the fourth round at a Slam in over two years and has mostly faced clay court specialists in the first week, but might be on the verge of breaking through again at the All England Club. And Fernando Verdasco, well out of his top-ten ranking phase, is coming off a quarterfinal run in Eastbourne, and has gotten past Xavier Malisse, Julien Benneteau and Ernests Gulbis in his first three rounds. He may not be known for his lawn game, but he might be able to change that after this week ends.

But there are a couple other stories to tell in this half. Thirty-one year old Lukasz Kubot has benefitted from, first, the upset of Rafael Nadal and, second, the withdrawal of Steve Darcis, but backed up his good luck by ousting twenty-fifth seeded Benoit Paire in the third round. It's the veteran Pole's second trip to Wimbledon Week Two and, slated to meet fellow triple-digit-ranked Adrian Mannarino next, he could go farther still. It's hard to predict his future much beyond the next round, but in a half of the draw that's so incredibly wide open, he might not have a better opportunity to make a stand.

After a week of outrageous results and huge surprises, the second week of this Slam features some unfamiliar faces. And while this is precisely when the favorites should take the reins and remind us who's boss, the upstarts need to make sure their hangovers don't get in the way of the success they've had.

Because there's a lot on the line the next couple days, and something tells me we'll all want to remember what's coming next.

June 26, 2013

Who's Safe Now?

It's funny -- clay courts have a reputation for really messing with players' games. But some of the weirdest days in tennis the past year have come on the grass. And over the last couple days, we've seen the lawns of the All England Club take quite a toll on the draws, and even though it hasn't rained yet, the outlook at Wimbledon has never been more cloudy.

The upsets started early and came often. Rafael Nadal, fresh off his reaffirming, record-crushing eighth Roland Garros crown, was shocked on Day One when world #135 Steve Darcis handed him the only Major first round loss of his career, and fifth seeded Sara Errani -- admittedly never a force on the grass -- was summarily dismissed by Puerto Rican teenager Monica Puig. And while they were the highest-ranked causalities that day, the ghouls that haunted early round matches lingered a while longer.

Recent world #1 Victoria Azarenka took quite a spill when up a set and a break against Portugal's Maria Joao Koehler, requiring a long medical timeout before completing her match. The knee injury proved too much, though, and she pulled out before this morning's second round. And Darcis, having scored the second top-ten victory of his career -- he beat Tomas Berdych last year in Winston-Salem -- also gave Lukasz Kubot a free pass to Round Three. They, along with Marin Cilic, John Isner and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, made today one of the most anti-prolific days I can remember at a Slam.

But it didn't stop there.

Black Wednesday saw a slew of former champions pack their bags, not because of injury or slippery turf, but due to the pure skill and strength of their opponents. Lleyton Hewitt, champion here over a decade ago, was coming off an upset over Den Bosch runner-up Stanislas Wawrinka, was upended by little known Dustin Brown, ranked just inside the top two hundred. Then 2004 champ and 2011 runner-up Maria Sharapova, hampered by hip injury late in her match, fell in straight sets to Michelle Larcher de Brito, her worst loss at a Major in five years. But perhaps most shocking was the departure of seven-time champion Roger Federer, who lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky, previously 0-20 against top-ten players.

With so many surprises in just a few days' time, it seems even the things we thought we knew have come into question. Heavy favorite Serena Williams dominated her most recent meeting with second-round opponent Caroline Garcia, dropping just three games to the woman who once nearly beat Sharapova in Paris. But after winning her way through qualifying rounds, the French teenager took out 2008 semifinalist Jie Zheng in her opener, and might be able to take advantage of whatever magic has touched these courts. And Andy Murray, hoping to continue a seven match win streak at the All England club, is suddenly in a half with no one ranked in the top ten. But he could faces threats from any of several remaining -- Mikhail Youzhny put up a fight in the Halle final and looms in the fourth round, while Jerzy Janowicz, who beat him last year at the Paris Masters, might just challenge him in the semis.

It's easy to assume the favorites will thrive at Wimbledon, but if the last few days have taught us anything, it's that no one's future is certain here. And perhaps this year, more than any other, a Cinderella has a real shot at becoming royalty.

June 23, 2013

Wimbledon Preview: Cinderella Stories

If it's going to happen anywhere, it's probably going to happen at the All England Club -- year after year at Wimbledon we've seen unknown players emerge as the sport's newest stars. And while the favorites will certainly have the upper hand at the season's next Grand Slam, there's still plenty of room for up-and-comers to cause a little bit of trouble. So let's take a look at who not only could cause the biggest upsets in the draw, but also have the potential to put together runs that really put them on the radar.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Top seed and 2011 champion Novak Djokovic and 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych are slated to meet in the quarterfinals here, but that's not necessarily set in stone. Both open against barely unseeded players -- Nole against Florian Mayer who, last year, made the elite eight, and the Czech against world #35 Martin Klizan -- and could be tested early. Still, the experience of these champions on the big stage should be enough to get them through early rounds.

But other players have a big opportunity in this section -- Eastbourne champion Feliciano Lopez opens against Gilles Simon in a rematch of the Aegon final and, if he's able to keep momentum on his side, might not only be able to repeat, but also get in a couple more wins here. And Ryan Harrison, long held up as the next big thing in American tennis, has had a couple of close calls at being a Slam Cinderella. He's had the bad luck of facing a top ten player during his first two matches in six of the last nine Majors, and this time is relatively lucky to be dealt world #27 Jeremy Chardy in his opener. If he gets in a few big wins he could finally have the break we've been waiting for.

Also in this section of the draw is surprise 2011 quarterfinalist Bernard Tomic. He did win his first career title in Sydney this year, but has since fallen out of the top sixty and is gaining more headlines because of his father's off-court antics. It'll be interesting to see if he can rise above, or if he'll be the latest to suffer for the sins of a parent.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (21) Sam Querrey vs. Feliciano Lopez

I wanted Sam to get this far in Australia, too, and he fell short there too. But he has had some of his best Major results in London -- as well as a title at Queen's Club. If he survives an opener against Tomic, he might just get the confidence he needs to put together a run here.

Second Quarter

Andy Murray arrives at Wimbledon this year, not only a Grand Slam champion for the first time in his career, but also an Olympic Gold medalist, and having added another title at Queen Club, he's riding a pretty nice streak as he heads to his homeland. He opens against Benjamin Becker, a man he beat fairly handily in London, and the first seed he should face is world #29 Tommy Robredo. But Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, his likely quarterfinal opponent, has made the semis his last two trips here, and may not be willing to relinquish his claim to the final four.

Still the road may not be that easy. Tsonga faces a first round match against last year's semi-Cinderella David Goffin, who's now trying to end a four-match losing streak at the Majors. Viktor Troicki, meanwhile, is coming off a nice run in Paris, and could get the upper hand over compatriot Janko Tipsarevic, while Ernests Gulbis, having won a second title in Delray in March, might finally be ready for his Slam breakthrough. And players like Fernando Verdasco, who made a nice run to the Eastbourne semis, and 's-Hertogenbosch semifinalist Xavier Malisse -- who are, unfortunately, meeting in the first round -- would both like to keep their momentum going at the All England Club.

But maybe the biggest surprise will come from a man who once spent half a day playing here and didn't even get out of the first round. Nicolas Mahut is coming off a huge win in Den Bosch -- his first career title -- having contested his third final on grass. Seeming to have rebounded from that marathon better than eventual winner John Isner, he could easily win his first few rounds -- and slated to meet Murray in the third, he should bring with him the confidence that helped him get a win over the world #2 last year at Queen's Club.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (20) Mikhail Youzhny vs. Marcos Baghdatis

Youzhny was once a semifinalist in New York and Baghdatis, you might remember, came in second in Melbourne seven-and-a-half years ago. They've come a bit down from those highs of late, but the Russian did put up a fight to make the Halle semis and Baghs, well, I just want to believe his eleven match losing streak is about to end. Both men are probably past their prime, but Cinderellas can come from anywhere, so why not from the archives?

Third Quarter

The Brits might be watching the Murray quarter most closely but this is the one where sparks can really fly. Defending champion Roger Federer could meet long-time nemesis and reigning French Open titleist Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals -- the first time that's happened...ever. The two men who've ruled the sport for the better part of a decade have played twenty of their thirty matches in a final, and the fact that only one of them can make the final four seems, well, wrong. And even though one of the favorites has to go home earlier than he'd like to, a couple other guys could cause trouble before even that.

Last year's giant-killer Lukas Rosol is in this quarter, but this year wouldn't meet Rafa until the quarters. It'll be a tough road for him to get quite that far, but surrounded immediately by a bunch of clay court specialists, there's no reason to believe he won't at least be able to improve on his 2012 run. Elsewhere, Queen's Club semifinalist and 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt will try to improve on his first round showing from last year, but with an opening match against pink-hot Stanislas Wawrinka, it might be tough. And the other marathon man John Isner, coming off a opening round loss in 's-Hertogenbosch kicks off at the All England Club with a rematch against Evgeny Donskoy, the man who beat him there. He continues to struggle closing out matches, though, and on the grounds of his most famous performance yet, it could be hard to turn things around.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (11) Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Radek Stepanek

The Swiss has been having the best year of his career so far, and though he was stunned in the Den Bosch final by Nicolas Mahut, he's proven he's able to put together more than a few big wins. He's made the quarters of the three other Grand Slams, but hasn't yet made it out of the fourth round here -- with the success he's been having, he might just be able to turn that around now. And Stepanek, well off his career high ranking in the top ten, has actually made the quarters here once before. The favorites in his immediate section of the draw are clay-court specialist Nicolas Almagro and possible one-hit wonder Jerzy Janowicz, so there's no reason he can't be the one sneaking through the first week of action.

Fourth Quarter

This is uncharted territory for David Ferrer -- he's carried a fourth seed at a Slam before, but I don't think it's ever happened when all four of the big boys are playing, and certainly never having the experience of playing in a Major final. Pressure will be on him and eighth-seeded Juan Martin Del Potro, who skipped the French Open due to illness, to get back in the thick of things. But neither has too much to worry about in early rounds -- the biggest threat is to DelPo who might face 2009 "Cinderella" Jesse Levine, ranked #112, in the second round.

Still, with a lack of true grass court players in this section there's a lot of potential to break through. Last year's standout Philipp Kohlschreiber will look to defend quarterfinal points, but could get challenged early by Eastbourne semifinalist Ivan Dodig, who big be able to ride his momentum to another couple wins. And players like Michael Llodra, a fourth rounder at the All England Club in 2011, or Denis Istomin, who opens against Andreas Seppi, a winner of just a handful of matches here, have plenty of opportunity to shake things up. And low seed Grigor Dimitrov, a hair of a career high ranking, has beaten top stars like Janko Tipsarevic and Novak Djokovic this year -- there's a lot of hype around him, of course but he has yet to make a statement at a Slam, and this might be his best shot.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (17) Milos Raonic vs. (12) Kei Nishikori

The Canadian, with his big serve and power game, should be a shoe in at Wimbledon, but he's never made it past the second round here and lost his opener at the Aegon International to Dodig this past week. He's made the second week of a Slam a couple times, but since his breakout in Australia back in 2011, he's been hard-pressed to recapture that euphoric state -- it would be nice to change that now. And Nishikori, suddenly ranked just outside the top ten, has only made it out of the first round once in London. If he can harness the talent we know he has in him -- he stunned Roger Federer in Madrid -- he might be poised to have that epiphany.

The Women

First Quarter

The way she's playing, it's hard to imagine anyone getting in the way of Serena Williams -- even though she's slated to meet Sam Stosur, the woman who crushed her during the 2011 U.S. Open final, in the fourth round, and Angelique Kerber, winner of their Cincinnati quarter last year, she shouldn't have much trouble as she tries for another Wimbledon crown. But that's the point of this exercise, so let's look at where we could see some surprises anyway.

Francesca Schiavone is unseeded at the All England Club this year, as is Julia Goerges -- both, though, have shown their ability to cause trouble on the big stage, and could give early round opponents a run for their money. And up-and-comers like Laura Robson, Cinderella of last year's U.S. Open, and Urszula Radwanska, both in the relatively weaker bottom half of this section, might be able to take advantage of the opportunity.

Still, they should watch out for Kaia Kanepi, a quarterfinalist here in 2010 -- she's struggled to come back from injury, but did win a title in Brussels last month, and beat seeded Klara Zakopalova in the French first round. And American Alison Riske has yet to win a match at a Major, but she did make a nice jump up the rankings after making a run to the Birmingham semis -- she beat grass-court stars Sabine Lisicki and Tamira Paszek on the way. She opens against inexplicably seeded Romina Oprandi, so it wouldn't be hard for her to finally get a win when the pressure's on.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Elena Vesnina vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands (both unseeded)

After six failed attempts in finals, Vesnina finally broke the seal with a win in Hobart and proved that was no fluke when she took out former #1 Ana Ivanovic and 2011 French Open champ Na Li on her way to the Eastbourne title. She's been a doubles runner-up here too, so she certainly knows how to win. And BMS, having started the year at #173 in the world thanks to a long battle with injury, is now near top-fifty after a fourth round appearance in Paris. She too is more decorated on the doubles court, but with a first round match against recently quiet Angelique Kerber, she shouldn't be counted out on the singles side.

Second Quarter

Two-time semifinalist Victoria Azarenka seems to have bee a little quiet recently, but that doesn't mean she's still not a force on this surface. The first seed she's set to face is world #30 Alize Cornet, and she should have no trouble dispatching the threat. 2011 champion Petra Kvitova has a bit of a tougher task, with Ekaterina Makarova, a winner once in Eastbourne, lurking in the third round. But neither lady's fate is set in stone yet.

Twentieth seed Kirsten Flipkens seems happy to take over the reins in Belgian tennis -- she made the fourth round in Australia and is coming off a runner's-up finish in Den Bosch. And countrywoman Yanina Wickmayer used to be a near top-ten player. Having beaten Kvitova and 2012 quarterfinalist Maria Kirilenko in Eastbourne, she might be able to get some of that momentum back this fortnight. Sofia Arvidsson, on the other hand, has had less success of late, but having ended last season with wins over Kirilenko, Marion Bartoli and Lucie Safarova, she could have a great opportunity here to turn things around.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (16) Jelena Jankovic vs. Garbine Muguruza

The former #1 has been mounting a bit of a comeback recently, making the quarters in Rome and Paris and the semis in Nürnberg, and could continue that run here. And the little-known teenager, winner over Mona Barthel and Dominika Cibulkova in Den Bosch, seems to know how to pull off some big wins. She should face Makarova in the second round and Kvitova a match later, but if she can keep her wits about her, there's no reason she shouldn't thrive.

Third Quarter

2004 champion Maria Sharapova wasn't able to defend runner-up points last year, or the title she won at Roland Garros, but she's still an intimidating 36-5 on the year -- and only one of those losses came to someone other than Serena Williams. Though she's slated to meet 2007 finalist Marion Bartoli in the fourth round, the Russian's more consistent play should make her the one to beat in this section.

But again, there's lots of opportunity for surprises. Melanie Oudin made the fourth here four years ago and, though she wasn't able to defend a title in Birmingham, she has beaten Sharapova, her potential second round opponent, before. And players like Andrea Petkovic, Donna Vekic and Jamie Hampton -- all finalists at events since the French Open and all in a section where top seeds, clay court specialist Sara Errani and still-struggling Eastbourne semifinalist Caroline Wozniacki, are easily beatable here -- could really shake up the draws if they want to.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Petra Cetkovska vs. Lucie Hradecka (both unseeded)

Cetkovska made the fourth round here in 2011 and went on to make the final in New Haven. She's fallen a bunch in the rankings, but with an immediate draw that features less-accomplished players, she certainly has an opportunity again this year. And doubles specialist Hradecka, a wildcard at the All England Club, has the kind of serve and power game that should make her a force on this court. She's never gotten out of the singles' first round, but was a doubles finalist last year, and with Fed Cup teammate Lucie Safarova the first seed she's set to meet, she might have a chance to change that.

Fourth Quarter

I fear for last year's runner-up, Agnieszka Radwanska, I really do. She started the year 13-0 and won two titles Down Under and, though she made the quarters both in Melbourne and Paris, it seems like she lost a bit of a step and fell in the Eastbourne first round to eventual finalist Jamie Hampton. She has a couple easy early matches, but could be tested by the end of the first week, and with Na Li, struggling yes, but still the leader in their 6-4 head-to-head, as her scheduled quarterfinal opponent, I worry the Pole may drop a bunch of points at the end of this fortnight.

There are plenty of other threats in this section, too. 2010 semifinalist Tsvetana Pironkova clearly knows how to win here and, though her ranking's dropped a bit, was able to make the quarters in 's-Hertogenbosch. And both 2009 Birmingham champ Magdalena Rybarikova and Monica Niculescu, a fourth rounder at the U.S. Open once, have talent that belies their relatively low rankings. Neither have done well here in the past, but with some wholly winnable early rounds, that could change this year. And up-and-comers like eighteen-year-old Madison Keys and Osaka champion Heather Watson, who sadly meet in the first round, might have what it takes to finally put together a big Major run.

Daniela Hantuchova, meanwhile, made the quarterfinals here way back in 2002. She retired from her first round in Den Bosch, but is coming off an impressive title in Birmingham. She's got a winnable opening match against Klara Zakopalova and there's no reason she shouldn't translate an early win here to greater success. And Simona Halep, who won her first and second career titles over the past two weeks is in the same section of the draw. The 2008 Juniors champion at Roland Garros may be better known for her performance on clay, but after taking the crown in Den Bosch, she might have proven herself more of an all-court player.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: (11) Roberta Vinci vs. (13) Nadia Petrova

There is so much opportunity in this quarter for underdogs to shine, I wonder if they'll all tire themselves out after the first week -- so I'm giving the edge to two veteran grass court players. Vinci won the 2011 title in Den Bosch and made the fourth round here last year. At a career-high singles ranking, she's also half of the #1 doubles team in the world and could cause a stir here. The Russian, meanwhile, is a two-time quarterfinalist already at the All England Club. Though she's known for her spotty play, she's also never one to be counted out and might be up for making one more big statement here.

Of course, it won't be easy for any of these players to prove they have what it takes to be the standouts at this year's Wimbledon, but if dreams can come true anywhere, it certainly seems like they can do so at the All England Club. They have, after all, for so many before this. But what's important is not so much what these players are able to do this fortnight, but how they hold onto it for the weeks and months to come.

After all, no Cinderella wants to leave the ball at the stroke of midnight. And some of these players have a great opportunity to cement themselves as tennis royalty for a very long reign.

June 21, 2013

Blogcast: 2013 Wimbledon Preview

As the world's top players head to Wimbledon for the third Grand Slam of the year, there's real potential for things to get shaken up this year at the All England Club.

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

June 16, 2013

Back in Season

It's been a weird couple months for some of the sport's top stars. With the clay court season dominated by a couple key players, others were forced into the shadows during most of the spring. But as the season shifted to grass in preparation for Wimbledon the tides shifted too, and a few champions used the change to remind us just how relevant they still are.

Andy Murray hasn't had a bad year by any means -- titles in Brisbane and Miami and runs to the finals in the last three Majors he's played helped him climb back to the #2 spot in the world. He did skip the French Open, though, after a back injury forced him to retire in Rome, and so his fitness for the lawn-court part of the season was still under question.

But he quieted doubters with his performance in London this week. The top seed at Queen's Club didn't roll over opponents quite as easily as you might expect -- he needed tiebreaks to dismiss both marathon man Nicolas Mahut, who beat him here last year, and Benjamin Becker, and dropped his first set in the semis to recently red-hot Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- but eventually made his way to a third career final here. Murray struggled a bit too in the title match today -- defending champ and world #11 Marin Cilic, who's taken more than a few sets off the Scot in the past, started out the stronger player this time too. But Murray rebounded after dropping the first again, finally sealing in the win, and his third London crown, in about two and a half hours.

Roger Federer, if you can believe it, has actually had an even slower start to the year. Having gone the first five and a half months of 2013 without a title -- the first time that's happened since the turn of the century -- he's almost been better known for his recent "failings". He lost in the Rome final to Rafael Nadal and got down two-sets-to-one against Gilles Simon in Paris before being drubbed in the quarters by France's Tsonga. He's only lost to two players out of the top ten this year, though, and at #3 in the world, he's not exactly slipping. Still, at thirty-one years of age he's finally proven himself to be slightly more vulnerable that we thought he would ever be.

But this week in Halle Federer showed he still has more than a little life left in him. He delivered a sub-forty minute double bagel to Mischa Zverev in the quarters and avenged a surprise loss in last year's final here, rebounding after dropping a set to Tommy Haas in the semis. Like Murray, he too struggled in Sunday's final, trading games with unseeded Mikhail Youzhny and eventually dropping the first set tiebreak. But he turned things around eventually, taking the last two sets decidedly and ultimately capturing his fourteenth grass court trophy.

Both of last year's Wimbledon finalists certainly did their part to prove all they needed was a little change of scenery to get back into their winning ways. And after the victories they've each recorded this week, it certainly looks like they're ripe for even more success.

June 14, 2013

Getting Warmer

This is always a tricky time in the tennis schedule -- just a few days after the clay court season officially ends and with little over a week before the big grass event of the year, players may not choose to get in their practice matches where you'd expect. But a couple ladies, whether they spent recent days on the dirt or made the transition to turf, have not only been warming up this week, but may have been turning red hot.

The inaugural Nürnberg Cup attracted a couple top-snotch stars back to the red clay, with recently resurgent Jelena Jankovic leading the pack. But second seed Klara Zakopalova didn't make it out of the first round, and a couple other favorites couldn't last much longer. Jankovic herself, fresh off an impressive run to the quarters at the French Open, squandered an early lead today and fell in the semis to Andrea Petkovic. The German, who failed to qualify in Paris, snuck in a Futures title in Marseille before heading back to her homeland and took no prisoners from the moment she took to the court. She opened with a win over always tricky Sofia Arvidsson and dismissed two seeds in a row before ousting JJ. The win today grants Petko entry to her first Tour final since taking the title in Beijing almost two years ago and may have sealed in her return to elite play. If she can keep it up, she might be able to cause quite a stir in the London draws.

But perhaps young Romanian Simona Halep will have something to say about that. One of the breakout stars of 2011, she had a rough ride in the second half of last year, winning just a handful of matches after reaching the Brussels final in May. She's rebounded a bit recently, beating five higher-ranked players in a row in Rome -- she notched a one-and-one drubbing of Svetlana Kuznetsova and avenged her loss in Belgium to fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska to make the semis. And this week in Germany she's made up for an opening round exit in Paris -- Halep didn't drop a set in her first three matches, and despite dropping a middle bagel to fifth-seeded Lucie Safarova earlier today, she rebounded to take the match in just under two hours. It'll be the twenty-one year old's fourth career final -- she's still looking for that first trophy -- and her second meeting with Petkovic. She lost the first time they met, but might be able to take advantage if the one-time top-tenner loses any of her momentum.

Over in Birmingham, the contestants made the switch to the surface of early summer and are getting in their first rallies on grass in preparation for Wimbledon. Not everyone's had the start they wanted -- Ekaterina Makarova, who won her only title on Eastbourne's lawns in 2010, lost her opener, and defending champion Melanie Oudin didn't come close to repeating her run -- but a couple ladies have looked a little more than solid. Magdalena Rybarikova, champion here in 2009, topped top seeded Kirsten Flipkens on her way back to the semis and former world #5 Daniela Hantuchova took out three seeded players, including 2010 French Open champ Francesca Schiavone, during her run here.

But the brighter stars in England might be those of far less-decorated athletes. Alison Riske, yet to crack the top hundred, has made the semis here before, and has already ousted grass-court specialist Tamira Paszek. So far today she's taken a set off a struggling Sabine Lisicki, but will have to come back in a decider if she's going to pull off the win. And not-yet-legal Donna Vekic -- she turns seventeen later this month -- had a breakout last September in Tashkent, where she reached the final as a qualifier. She's had no such high-profile runs in 2013, but did win an ITF title in Istanbul this past April. So far in Birmingham the Croatian reversed a loss in Monterrey to Urszula Radwanska and trounced third seed Sorana Cirstea earlier today in just over an hour. Both ladies will have a tough time from here on out, but their performances on these lawns to date prove they may have what it takes to keep going strong.

Whether this week's results provided the necessary prep for the challenges to be faced at Wimbledon is yet to be seen, but these ladies have certainly performed under pressure so far this week. There's not a lot of time, of course, to get ready for the Major and every win they're toting up now will lay the groundwork for miles.

June 10, 2013

On Fire

Here's an interesting fact -- at this moment in time Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams both have the exact same record on the year. 43-2. A total of thirteen titles, two Slams, between them.

And it's only June.

This weekend both champions accomplished something amazing. Serena, who'd never been the strongest clay court player out there, rebounded from a shockingly early exit at last year's Roland Garros in dominating style. Riding a twenty-four match win streak on her way to Paris, and toting a #1 ranking to a Major for the first time since Wimbledon 2010, she averaged just over an hour on court in each of her first four matches. She needed just forty-six minutes to dismiss last year's breakout finalist Sara Errani in the semis and, despite getting down an early break to last year's winner Maria Sharapova in Saturday's title match, Williams came back strong and polished off her long-time rival in a quick 6-4, 6-4 victory.

It was not Serena's first win at the French Open, of course -- in fact, both she and Sharapova were playing in just their second Paris final -- but with a full eleven years since her only other trophy here, it underscores her dominance in this sport for more than a decade. With sixteen Grand Slam titles to her name, the first dating back to 1999, she's shown time and again that she always delivers on the biggest of stages -- since breaking the seal she's only gone five years without winning a Major, and in the years she's played all four tournaments she's won at least one in all but two. And though Roland Garros has always been her "worst" event -- she'd only made the semis once since capturing her "Serena Slam" -- her win this weekend puts her well on course to putting together another one. And the way she's going, it doesn't seem like anyone can stop her.

Rafael Nadal's dominance on this court has been a little more consistent, and could be even more impressive. Since first coming to Roland Garros in 2005, Rafa had won a record-breaking seven crowns here, losing just one match in eight appearances. But his fate here was far from certain -- after suffering his own shocking early-round loss almost a year ago at Wimbledon, he hadn't had to endure a five set match yet. Yes, he'd added six titles to his mantle since returning to play this past February, including wins in Rome and Madrid, but he'd also been upset by then-#73 Horacio Zeballos in Viña del Mar and lost his stranglehold in Monte Carlo to his recent arch-nemesis. He was tested from the start in Paris too, dropping the first set he played to big-hitting Daniel Brands and needing nearly another three hours to oust Martin Klizan a round later.

The biggest challenge, clearly, came in the semifinals where he once again ran into world #1 Novak Djokovic. Nadal had lost the only match they'd played since last year's final, and, having also come out on the wrong end of their only previous five-setter, things didn't look good when he found himself down a break in the decider on Friday. But after surviving the four-and-a-half hour drama-filled battle, he was able to make relatively quick work in the final of countryman David Ferrer, who was incidentally playing his very first Grand Slam final after twelve years as a pro. His efforts which had been, somewhat complementarily to Serena's, concentrated on proving he could win elsewhere, had now shifted to reminding us he should never be counted out. And by reminding us he could win even under the most frustrating circumstances he will ever see at Roland Garros, he's let us know he's not going to let any other opportunities slip by him either.

It was a long road for this weekend's champions, and they certainly faced more than a few challenges during the fortnight -- rough weather, wily opponents, bizarre protesters. But with the streaks these two are running, it's going to be tough for anything or anyone to derail them. And as hot as they are right now, perhaps the only flame that will be put out was this guy's: