July 29, 2013

Off to Summer Camp

The temperatures may have been soaring for a while now, at least here in the northeastern U.S., but the sport's top stars have only just begun to make their way across the Atlantic and onto the American hardcourts. But there is no time to simply camp out under the stars -- the early arrivals were put to the test during the first events of the U.S. Open Series, and this weekend's winners may have given themselves quite a head-start in the big race to New York.

At the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford we saw the old guard clash with new. But while veterans like Francesca Schiavone and Sam Stosur struggled to get out of the early rounds, rising stars such as Jamie Hampton and on-the-mend Sorana Cirstea worked their way through to the semis. But at the end of the day it was top-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska and often spotty Dominika Cibulkova contesting the final, a rematch of the Sydney championship in which the Pole didn't drop a game.

But the results would be surprisingly different this time around. Though Cibulkova has scored some big wins in the past -- she beat then-world #1 Victoria Azarenka at last year's French Open and Caroline Wozniacki, also the top seed at the time, the year before at Wimbledon -- she's also squandered huge opportunities, most recently at Miami this past March when she had a set and a break up on Serena Williams. The Slovak was also 4-0 against Radwanska before coming to California, only taking a set from the favorite in their previous meetings. She was down in this match too, dropping the first set to the 2012 runner-up at the All England Club. It looked like Aga had regrouped, though, when she took a 4-2 lead in the decider, but the petite Cibulkova somehow found a way to rally, winning the last four games of the match and, in the process, claiming her third career title in as many years. And after bringing a middling 17-16 record on the season to Stanford, there may never have been a better opportunity to turn things around.

On the other side of the country the men hit the pavement in Atlanta, with a couple players looking for redemption. Two-time champion Mardy Fish, having missed most of the season with heart troubles, made only his second Tour appearance of the year, and Ryan Harrison, a disappointing 5-16 on the year before the BB&T Open, made a solid run to the semis, pushing his ranking back up to near double-digits. But here too the favorites prevailed. Top-seeded John Isner avenged a loss in Newport to Lleyton Hewitt to make his third final in Georgia, while fellow big-server Kevin Anderson rallied after a tough opening match to make his third championship round of the year.

And this title match wasn't straightforward either. The two men -- a combined thirteen feet and four inches tall -- served up forty-five aces between them, but neither were ever able to break serve. Anderson, who actually had eleven chances to win a return game, took the first set in a tiebreak, but failed to convert match points in the second. Isner, meanwhile, seemed to get a second wind one he was able to force a decider, and after nearly three hours finally pulled out the win to claim his second crown of the season -- and to keep his record in finals this season perfect.

Both these champions got off to a great start this weekend, and atop their respective leader-boards, they've put themselves deep in the heat to claim the U.S. Open Series honor. But plenty of elite will be arriving at camp over the next few weeks and the competition is certainly going to get hotter. Whether they're able to take home the prize at the end of the season remains in question, but if they can capitalize on their early leads, they might just give us something big to watch the rest of the summer.

July 26, 2013

Even More Upsetting

There seems to be a strange new trend in tennis these days, where players, even the most favored ones, prove they're fallible time and again. We saw it happen throughout the fortnight at Wimbledon, and the phenomenon resumed posthaste once the trophies were presented.

Here's the thing, though: it's not enough to simply poke a hole or two in the draw -- you've got to follow through after that. That was less the case at the All England Club, with the vanquishers of both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both losing one round later. Things weren't much better on the ladies' side -- while Sabine Lisicki rode her upset of Serena Williams all the way to the final, Michelle Larcher de Brito couldn't do much more after defeating Maria Sharapova in the second round.

That same trend has also manifested itself in the current tournaments. Daniel Brands, having scored a huge upset over Federer in his Gstaad opener, subsequently lost to Victor Hanescu a day later, while Albert Montanes ousted top Umag seed Richard Gasquet and then lost a long battle Friday to Gael Monfils. And Ons Jabeur, who ousted defending Baku champion Bojana Jovanovski on Wednesday, suffered an ankle injury during her match today, allowing qualifier Magda Linette -- ranked #226 in the world -- into her first ever Tour semi. But hope is not lost for everyone, and a couple players still have a shot at proving their early successes this week were no fluke.

Nineteen year old Elina Svitolina won her first Tour title last year in Pune, beating Andrea Petkovic in the process, and in 2013 she's made the semis in both Cali and Bad Gastein. This week she took to the hard courts of Baku as the seventh seed and earlier today took out Birmingham finalist Donna Vekic in a quick two sets. In the semis she'll face Alexandra Cadantu, the only other seed left in the draw -- the Ukraine native lost the pair's only previous meeting, but that was some two years ago when she was ranked outside the top four hundred. A win on Saturday -- and, dare we speculate, maybe on Sunday too -- would not only underscore her performance so far, but might just push her into the higher tiers of the sport.

Meanwhile in Gstaad, Robin Haase is trying to make a similar move up the rankings. The Dutchman, who returns to Kitzbuhel next week to defend the title he's won the past two years, has yet to manage a sustained stay in the top forty. But after dominating third-seeded Janko Tipsarevic in Switzerland, the twenty-six year old survived a two-and-a-half hour battle against Marcel Granollers to make the semis. With world #29 Feliciano Lopez the highest seed remaining, the field is wide open for Haase to add a new trophy to his case and maybe give him the oomph he needs to really establish himself in the sport.

Of course upsets have been known to bring tears to the eye, but while both these players have caused their opponents woe this week, they'll want to make sure their own cheeks stay dry throughout the summer. It'll be a hard task, to be sure, but after the performances they've already put up there's no reason think it's impossible.

And with the way things are going this summer, there may be no better time to get stuff done.

July 22, 2013

Deep Seeded Anxiety

After the rampant bracket busting we saw at Wimbledon this year, we can't really be surprised by the upsets that have come in the weeks that followed. In fact, only one favorite won a title this past weekend, while everyone else broke new ground on their way to the winners' circles. Their performances show just how deep the talent in the fields has become, and may make even the biggest stars a little nervous.

The only top seed to survive the week's action was, maybe not surprisingly, Serena Williams. Playing for the first time in Bastad, Sweden, the world #1 was able to redeem herself after a shockingly early exit at the All England Club -- though she didn't face a player in the top thirty, she did make her way to this title without dropping a set, defeating 2011 runner-up Johanna Larsson in under eighty minutes during Sunday's final. It was Williams' fifty-third career title, her seventh of the year, and should do a lot to erase the memory of a disappointing run in London as she preps for the hardcourt season. But we've seen so often this year that nothing is certain on these courts -- and all the other winners this weekend prove that not all top seeds are safe.

That was quite apparent in Bad Gastein, where world #33 Mona Barthel retired while down a set to Austrian wildcard Lisa-Marie Moser, and up-and-coming German teenager Annika Beck won just a game in her quarterfinal match. Karin Knapp, something of a Cinderella at Wimbledon a few weeks back, was the only seed to make the semis, and even she couldn't cut it against eventual champion Yvonne Meusburger. The twenty-nine year old veteran reached her second straight final, having lost last weekend to Simona Halep in Budapest. But this time against doubles specialist Andrea Hlavackova, playing in her first ever singles championship, the hometown girl had the advantage. After surviving a tight first set, Meusburger won her first career trophy, reached her highest career ranking and proved some things do get better with age.

That sentiment is also true for Ivo Karlovic, who'd been struggling to come back from injury almost a year before being struck by illness in April. The big-serving Croat came to Bogota ranked out of the top hundred-fifty and title-less for over five years, and at thirty-four seemed unlikely to change that. But he withstood some tough challenges in Colombia -- he played five tiebreaks on his way to the final, only dropping one set to second seed Kevin Anderson in the semis. Meanwhile twenty-nine year old Alejandro Falla, himself ranked in triple digits and coming off a win over world #14 Janko Tipsarevic in the quarters, was playing his first ever title match. But Karlovic proved too much for the relatively untested local -- in a quick two-set match which brought his ace total above a hundred for the tournament, nearly three hundred for the year, Dr. Ivo landed his first crown in half a decade and put him back on the radar for the rest of the field.

On the radar too, now, are the two finalists in Hamburg, each of whom pulled off some of the biggest wins of their careers to make the title match. Young Federico Delbonis had won a handful of Challenger events before heading to Germany, but had only spent a total of one week inside the top hundred -- he hit #98 in the world after winning in Barranquilla. But he began his campaign last week with a win over Tommy Robredo and followed up by defeating recently resurgent Fernando Verdasco in the quarters. His biggest triumph, though, was over a much bigger fish -- in the semis he took on four-time champ Roger Federer and, against all odds at the bet-at-home Open, came out the winner. Meanwhile Fabio Fognini, long an also-ran in this sport, took out hometown hero Tommy Haas before ousting clay court specialist Nicolas Almagro to make his second final of the year. And ultimately the Italian's experience won out -- after dropping the first set and saving three match points in a tiebreak, the twenty-six year wrapped up the tightest final of the weekend, extending his win streak to ten matches and two titles since Wimbledon. Suddenly a top-twenty player, he's proven that even underdogs have a little bite to them.

Whether this weekend's results show that the favorites have lost a bit of their sparkle or that the longshots have upped the ante remains to be seen. Certainly a loss this week doesn't mean a career is over -- nor that momentum will last in the months that come. But with even the most unheard-of players proving they can hit with the big guys, it sure will be fun watching them all fight it out.

July 17, 2013

Blogcast: 2013 Hall of Fame Induction

This year's inductees into the International Tennis Hall of Fame highlight how much the sport has changed over the years.

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

July 11, 2013

Failure to Launch?

Wimbledon is over, people!

It's been over a month since we crowned this year's French Open king and queen!

This is the time in the season when players should be making the switch to hard courts as they prep for the last Major of the year. But for a reason I've never understood, none of the events this week help athletes transition, keeping some still on the grass and sending many more all the way back to the clay. Sure, the surfaces may play to some stars' strengths better than the American concrete, but can they keep it up once they're in full U.S. Open tune-up mode?

The top seeds have struggled so far in Budapest with Lucie Safarova winning just one game in her opener against world #190 Valeria Solovyeva and 2008 champion Alize Cornet faring little better. Of course, they could turn things around once they hit the pavement -- Safarova, after all, made a nice run to the Montreal semis last year -- but others might be poised to make a bigger statement. Simona Halep went on a ten-match winning streak just before Wimbledon, winning two titles on two surfaces. She didn't fare so well at the all England Club, but this time she could resume her momentum and get in some rest before heading to New York. She's won her first two matches in Hungary with little drama and, as the top seed remaining, could give herself a nice bolt of confidence before switching to hard courts the next few weeks.

Meanwhile in Palermo one clay court specialist is looking to erase her own memory of a bad Wimbledon. Two-time champion Sara Errani has been a little quieter on the dirt this year than last, but she did well at the premier events early in the season and made her way back to the Roland Garros semis. In 2012 she parlayed a win in her homeland into a semi showing in New York and, though certainly not a sure thing, her performance her would make up for a first round exit from the All England Club. But also watch out for Germany's Dinah Pfizenmaier -- though she's spent most of the year on the ITF circuit, a run to the French Open third round put her on the radar. She's already upset eighth seeded Karolina Pliskova and veteran Anabel Medina Garrigues in Italy, but has yet to make many strides off the surface. If she can take the lessons she's learned the last few weeks with her, it could bode well for her summer season.

It's not just the women who've used this week to go back in time. Nicolas Almagro, last year's runner-up in Bastad, came back from an ugly first set to beat Guillermo Garcia-Lopez earlier today while recent top-ten player Juan Monaco, a disappointing 16-14 on the year so far, earned himself a quarterfinal match against Grigor Dimitrov. But the best story in this draw might be Fernando Verdasco, whose quarterfinal run at the All England Club put him squarely back on the tennis map. And on clay, arguably his best surface, he might be able to accomplish even more -- he hasn't really been tested in his first two matches but could give Almagro a challenge next. More good results in Sweden might be what he needs to show recent success was no fluke and to ride his wave to bigger wins in the U.S.

A couple men in Stuttgart, on the other hand, are looking to get momentum back on their side. Gael Monfils seemed to be well on the comeback trail with a title in Bordeaux and a runner-up finish in Nice, but pulled out of Wimbledon a few days before the tournament began. He'd climbed back well in the first half of the year, cutting his ranking from triple digits in February to #60 in the world now, but is still out of seeding territory in Germany. He did pull off wins over always tricky Paul-Henri Mathieu and sixth seeded Florian Mayer, though, and might have laid the groundwork for success the next part of the season. But he'll have to get past Philipp Kohlschreiber first -- the second-ranked German took a bit of a tumble when his first round exit at the All England Club fell far short of his quarterfinal run last year, but he could turn things around now. He'll need to, too, since he's got a bunch of hard court points to defend too -- including a fourth-round at the Open -- so his third round against Monfils might carry more importance than usual.

While all these guys and gals took this week to revert to spring-time play, the men in Newport chose to stick to the grass, and not all got the desired results -- top seeded Sam Querrey, a finalist here in 2009, notched his second straight opening round loss, this time to world #120 Tim Smyczek. But defending champion John Isner might be able to take advantage of the hole his compatriot left in the draw -- the big-serving American retired from his second round at Wimbledon, but has been on point so far at the Hall of Fame. This is often his best time of year -- he's won titles at Newport and Winston-Salem the last two years running -- but once did it mean a solid run in New York. After fits and starts in 2013, he'll want to make sure this time counts. And his arch-nemesis and very good friend Nicolas Mahut is lurking in the top half of the draw, fresh(-ish) off his first career title in Den Bosch. He's never had much luck off the grass, but if he does meet and beat Isner in this final, he might be turning his entire career around.

This week's tournaments, admittedly, didn't give players much choice but to put off their hard court seasons just a little bit, but hopefully their experiences this week will serve as a good launching pad for the summer events. With the U.S. Open just over a month away, the competition is only going to heat up from here, and they'll need to keep the momentum they've garnered this week without wearing themselves out.

After all, at this stage in the year, the last thing they want is to find themselves stuck at an age they won't be able to grow out of.

July 7, 2013

It's a New World

I woke up this morning feeling like something had changed in the world. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who felt that way.

This weekend we crowned two brand new Wimbledon singles champions, both of whom had come THISCLOSE to tasting glory at the All England Club before, but only this year were able to take home the trophies. And after a fortnight that might be best remembered for slippery stumbles and shocking upsets, it was their victories that marked the end of a couple long droughts -- and possibly the beginning of a new era.

Marion Bartoli was the unlikely runner-up here in 2007 -- ranked just nineteenth in the world at the time, she had only just made her first Major fourth round a month earlier at Roland Garros. She found her groove though on the grass that season, reaching the semis in both Birmingham and Eastbourne before beating then-world #3 Jelena Jankovic and top-ranked Justine Henin to make the final here. She was technically the favorite against Venus Williams then, but the on-paper underdog, three times a winner at Wimbledon already, had the upper hand that Saturday, and Bartoli had to settle for second best. The Frenchwoman hung around the top players after that, though -- a staple in or around the top ten through the years since, she took home big titles in Stanford and Osaka, ended Serena Williams' comeback run at Wimbledon in 2011, and brought Victoria Azarenka's miracle beginning last year to a close in Miami.

She was a little slow to start this season, though -- she split with her father as coach, struggled a bit with injury and illness, and came back to the All England club way under the radar. But the withdrawal of Victoria Azarenka and the loss of Maria Sharapova cleared her half of the bracket early in the tournament. In fact, Bartoli didn't face a seeded player until the semifinals where she dismissed Cinderella woman Kirsten Flipkens in straight sets. Her opponent in the final, meanwhile, had been doing most of the heavy lifting this week -- Sabine Lisicki, struggling herself all year, had taken out five-time champion Serena Williams in the fourth round and then survived a threat from last year's runner-up Aga Radwanska in the semis. Though she was playing her first Slam final, the German has had some of her biggest successes on these courts, and might have been hoping to deliver Marion another upset in the championship match.

But that would not be the case this time, though, as the emotion and exhaustion of a week's worth of victories finally got to her. Bartoli had the advantage from the start in Saturday's final -- she allowed Lisicki just ten points on serve in the first set and broke her in every service game. The scoreline was a little closer in the second, but the usually big-serving Sabine struggled to hold in one game after another, and was nearly reduced to tears when she couldn't get a jump on her opponent's game. After just over eighty minutes it was the Frenchwoman claiming the crown and ending a six-year stint as a bridesmaid at the sport's grandest ceremony.

Andy Murray came to Wimbledon this year intent on providing water for a drought of a different kind -- one that had lasted most of a century. Though a Gold medal last summer and a U.S. Open crown a few weeks later proved he had the stuff of a Grand Slam champion, his homeland's Major remained without a British king since Fred Perry last claimed the honor in 1936. He'd made a valiant effort in last year's final, and it seemed this year -- with a warm-up title at Queen's Club and every man who'd ever beaten him here out by the second round -- he was bound to go one better. He had a tough time, though -- surprise quarterfinalist Fernando Verdasco ran off with an equally surprising two-set lead in their Round of Sixteen, while super Cinderella Jerzy Janowicz looked primed to repeat his Paris victory in the semis -- but he never faced a top twenty during the week, and was the clear favorite in terms of both experience and fan support.

World #1 and 2011 champ Novak Djokovic didn't have an easy time of it either, though. He didn't drop a set in his first five matches, but faced powerhouses later in the draw, meeting uber-veteran Tommy Haas and 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych before being forced to go the distance against back-in-form Bronze medalist Juan Martin Del Potro in the semis. Still he'd rebounded from long matches to win Majors before, so there was clearly no counting him out.

But like with the ladies, this time was also different. The top two seeds stayed on serve early before Murray claimed the opening set, and Nole ran to a 5-2 lead in the second. But buoyed by the crowd and ready to rally, the Scot won eight of the next nine games to take the second and grab a break in the third. Like in their U.S. Open final, though, momentum seemed to shift back to the Serb -- but only for a short while. Though he saved three championship points in the tenth game and even earned a couple chances to break back, Murray ultimately closed out the three-plus hour match, cementing his place in the history books and finally giving the Brits something to cheer about. It was Nole's first straight-set loss at a Major since 2010, but more importantly Murray's first successful attempt to prove he's no one-hit wonder. He's currently the only man holding two Grand Slam trophies, and the win makes quite an emphatic statement as he begins to journey to defend his New York crown.

Both winners start this week, for the first time in their careers, as Wimbledon champions, a distinction that carries more than a little clout in the tennis world. By ending their streak of disappointments -- whether at the Majors, and this one in particular, or for their countries -- they've set themselves on a new course for their seasons, and maybe for their careers.

What they do with this opportunity, of course, remains to be seen -- but from here it sure looks like the possibilities are endless.

July 3, 2013

Which of These Things Is Not Like the Other Ones?

Take a close look at the four men left contesting this year's Wimbledon title. Notice anything?

We have in our midst three former Grand Slam champions...and one dude who's never won a title. Of any kind. Ever.

This, of course, wasn't the semifinal field we expected to see at the All England Club, but even after early upsets punched holes in the draw, latter-round outcomes were far from certain.

Juan Martin Del Potro, who skipped the French Open due to sickness, hyper-extended his knee during his third round match and took another big tumble during the sixth point today against David Ferrer. He said afterwards he had thought about retiring but, thanks to some "magic pills" supplied by the tournament doctor, was able to not only get a quick break, but went on to win an astounding eighty-seven percent of his first serves and close out the match in straight sets. It's his first semi appearance at Wimbledon, but he hasn't dropped a set yet, and after winning Olympic Bronze here less than a year ago, he might be able to improve on that run.

Hometown hero Andy Murray also skipped Roland Garros but, with a title at Queen's Club and after the losses of both Roger and Rafa, his road to at least the final here seemed clear cut. An on-the-rebound Fernando Verdasco had other plans though -- the one-time top-tenner had fallen out of the top fifty, but had ousted veteran Xavier Malisse, thirtieth-seed Julien Benneteau and tricky Latvian Ernests Gulbis on the way to his first Slam quarter since 2010. The Spaniard came out swinging today, too, winning the first two sets off the world #2 before ultimately falling in the three-and-a-half hour match. With the win, Murray secures his fifth straight Wimbledon semi and warded off what might have been -- even with all the other crazy $h!+ that's happened this fortnight -- the upset of the tournament.

Novak Djokovic, champion here two years ago, didn't have as dramatic a day today, but that doesn't mean he wasn't tested. After a tough-as-nails first set against Tomas Berdych -- neither had a break opportunity in the hour-plus opener -- he got down two breaks to the Czech in the second. The top seed quickly regrouped though and was able to close out the match in straights. The win sets up Nole's twelfth meeting against Del Potro -- and the sixth since losing Olympic Bronze to the big Argentine. He'd dominated the first four matches of that history, but stunningly lost in the Indian Wells semis this past March. Djokovic is clearly the favorite here, and probably healthier. But if DelPo plays the way he has -- in spite of injury, no less -- it's going to be hard to get past him.

But the true surprise in this year's semi lineup has to be twenty-two year old Jerzy Janowicz, a man who started 2012 ranked #221 in the world. The big-serving Pole arguably had a breakthrough at the All England Club last year when he reached the third round as a qualifier and took a two-set-to-one lead over then #29 Florian Mayer. But he really started grabbing headlines in November when he reached the Paris Masters final with wins over Marin Cilic, Janko Tipsarevic and -- you guessed it -- Andy Murray. Now in the top thirty, he didn't have to face as many favorites this time around, but he nevertheless ousted clay court specialist Nicolas Almagro in the third round and today beat out fellow Pole Lukasz Kubot for a chance to play for the final. A win on Friday would put him in only his second championship match, but having had an easier time in his quarter and the confidence of the win last fall, he certainly can't be counted out in his rematch with Murray. And the way this tournament is going, I'm not sure I'd be surprised if it happened.

These four men certainly have various degrees of experience at this level of play, with some just being inducted into the sport's elite while others have become quite accustomed to these ranks. And while the remaining field is not what we've been used to at the Majors, all of these guys have definitely proven this is where they belong.

July 1, 2013

The Rebel Slam

For a tournament with so many rules of conduct, no one seems to want to follow protocol this year at Wimbledon.

The one thing I -- maybe anyone -- thought was certain this year at the All England Club, was that Serena Williams would walk home with the title for a sixth time. She was, ultimately, riding a thirty-one match win streak coming to the event and had already claimed six titles on the year. She looked healthy, fit and in dominating form during her first three matches, and with so many of the most experienced players in the field falling by the wayside, it seemed inevitable she'd coast to another Major title.

But that would not be the case for the world #1 -- Sabine Lisicki, one of the most promising young talents out there, has struggled with injury most of the year and had fallen out of the top thirty for most of the year. But she came out swinging Monday -- down breaks a couple times in the third set of her fourth round, she held tough to close, saving break chances at 0-40 and again when trying to serve it out, and scored her fourth win over a reigning French Open champion at Wimbledon. While only one of the German's three titles has come on grass, she's now compiled a 17-4 record at this Major, versus just 17-15 at all the others, easily making this the most prolific part of her season year after year.

The win was certainly one of the biggest of Sabine's career, but it might have also cemented her place as the new favorite to win this title -- and it seems only appropriate that the one who ousts the Queen should be the one to assume the throne. It's not a sure thing by any means, though -- two players in the field have Slam titles to their names, and two more have made a final here. There may never be a better opportunity for any of them to claim Wimbledon glory.

But fact of the matter is that, in a draw that's been thrown so wide open, even the deepest of underdogs could make a break for it in the days that remain. And, while the favorites may disagree, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

After all, isn't it kind of nice to see the proper players at Wimbledon get their tennis whites nice and dirty?