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.

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