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.

No comments: