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.

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