August 28, 2013

U.S. Open Cinderella Stories

So this is post is coming a little late, but with a bit more than a round's worth of action in the books at the U.S. Open, we might just have a better idea now of the players that can emerge as Cinderella at the year's last Major. While many of the favorites have survived early rounds unscathed, there have been more than a few big shocks in the draws already, and as play grinds on we're sure to see even bigger ones down the road.

And more than a few unknowns could put together the biggest tournament of their careers this fortnight. So let's take a look at where we might see the underdogs really take a bite out of the draws.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

The top seeds in this quarter have so far progressed without a lot of drama. World #1 Novak Djokovic needed less than ninety minutes to dispatch Lithuania's Ricardas Berankis and Juan Martin Del Potro, who's so far split sets with Guillermo Garcia Lopez, shouldn't have much more trouble than that. But that's not to say it'll be all smooth sailing in this section of the bracket -- already Grigor Dimitrov came out on the losing end of a long five-setter, keeping his record in New York at a less-than-impressive 0-3.

His vanquisher Joao Sousa will have to man up if he's going continue his run though. Jarkko Nieminen, set for a second round match-up against the Portugal native, beat both Milos Raonic and Del Potro in Monte Carlo and made the final in Dusseldorf. The veteran Finn won just his second title last year in Sydney, but did make the quarters here all the way back in 2005. He's set to meet Nole just a few matches down the road, but he might have what it takes to pull off an upset. And Jurgen Melzer, well off his career high ranking, did manage to get a seed in New York even before winning a title last week in Winston-Salem. He's slated to open against Evgeny Donskoy, who beat John Isner on his way to the Den Bosch quarterfinal, but if he survives that test he might just put together a solid run this year.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Fabio Fognini (16) vs. Lleyton Hewitt

Fogs has worked his way well up the ranking since putting himself in the record books as Andy Roddick's last win last year, and at #18 in the world he looks primed to keep improving. And 2001 champion Lleyton Hewitt seems unwilling to fade away into oblivion -- ranked out of the top fifty, he's nevertheless made the final in Newport two years running and the semis in London and Atlanta this season. The Australian has so far taken the first set from Cinderella Brian Baker, and though he will certainly face bigger threats down the road, he's shown he has the resolve to keep going.

Second Quarter

Opening rounds were good to the favorites in this quarter -- both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer sped through early action in straight sets -- but still no one's safe. After all eleventh seeded Kei Nishikori, at his best ranking in a Major, dropped quickly in the first day of play to little known Brit Daniel Evans.

But some players might just be ready to shine in this section. American Sam Querrey, once in the top twenty and hailed as the next big thing in U.S. tennis, had been struggling this year, but reached the semis in Winston-Salem last week. He was tested early, but actually has a fairly winnable road over the next few matches, as long as he plays his best. And countryman John Isner had the summer of his career, winning a title in Atlanta and making the finals in both DC and Cincinnati. He dropped just a handful of games to Italy's Filippo Volandri and seems like he might finally be ready to make a statement at a Slam.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Gael Monfils vs. Carlos Berlocq (both unseeded)

Unfortunately for Isner, he'll next face former top-ten player Gael Monfils, fresh off a final run in North Carolina. The Frenchman has won the pair's last two meetings and may have the momentum to do it again. And Berlocq, who won his first career title last month in Bastad, is back in the top fifty. He was nearly triple-bageled at the U.S. Open in 2011 but he's a much better player than that these days. Though he'll have to get through five-time champion Roger Federer in the next round, we've seen how vulnerable even the greats can be.

Third Quarter

Defending champion Andy Murray hasn't taken to the court yet this year, and while France's Michael Llodra could give him a bit of a fight in the first round, I don't anticipate much drama for the Scot. Tomas Berdych, too, was relatively unchallenged in his opener, needing just a hundred minutes to dispatch Paolo Lorenzi. But the fates haven't been kind to everyone in this section of the draw -- Juan Monaco, ranked in the top ten this time last year, has only made it out of one Slam first round this year, and kept that streak going when he retired down two sets to Florian Mayer yesterday. And recently quiet Nicolas Almagro -- this is so far the first year since 2005 in which he hasn't won a title -- was stunned by unheralded Denis Istomin in his first round.

And there are a couple other players who might take an opportunity to shine in this section. Donald Young, a Cinderella once before, is now better known for the meltdown he had last year. Still he had a surprisingly easy win over a not-inconsequential on Tuesday. And James Blake, having announced this will be the last event he plays in his professional career, could pull a Roddick and put together more wins than we expect now that he's retiring. At least I'm hoping that's what happens.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Kevin Anderson (17) vs. Jeremy Chardy

Anderson is playing at his highest career ranking, and after a run to the Atlanta final this summer, seems to be playing with a lot of confidence. He's made a Major fourth round twice this year -- his best ever showings on the big stage -- and might now be ready to push one step further. And Chardy, the surprise quaterfinalist in Australia this year, is just out of seeding territory, but could turn things around after his five set win over Sergiy Stakhovsky in the first round and make another run in the second week.

Fourth Quarter

This quarter houses the lowest-seeded favorites, and while both David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet were able to advance without a lot of drama, not all the seeds were as lucky. Ernests Gulbis, at his highest ranking in over two years, couldn't hold on to a two-set-to-one lead over Andreas Haider-Maurer and ultimately lost in the nearly four hour match. And Jerzy Janowicz, the unquestioned surprise story at the All England Club, wasn't able to keep his streak going and dropped three quick sets to Argentina's Maximo Gonzalez, barely ranked in the top two-fifty.

A couple other players in this section, though, are looking to launch a comeback this fortnight. Janko Tipsarevic has made the quarters in New York two years in a row, but actually has a losing record on the season so far. He survived what could have been a struggle when Pablo Cuevas retired in their first round, but if he doesn't up his game, there will be a lot of points coming off his ranking, and quickly. Meanwhile Dimitry Tursunov, a top-twenty player some seven years ago, has been working his way back from injury all year. He beat Ferrer in Barcelona and repeated the win on his way to the Cincy quarters, just enough to eke out a seeding at Flushing Meadows. He needed four sets to do it, but with a win over Aljaz Bedene made it out of the first round hear for the first time since 2008. If the vet can keep it up, he could make quite a statement in the coming days.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Feliciano Lopez (23) vs. Roberto Bautista-Agut

Feli has been on the comeback trail himself this year, and after winning a title in Eastbourne, he beat Stanislas Wawrinka in Gstaad and Kei Nishikori in Cincy. He disappointed my expectations by just making the third round at Wimbledon, but might be able to deliver this time around. And his countryman is just a few weeks off a career high ranking, hung around longer than expected in Stuttgart and Winston-Salem. After beating a tough Thomaz Bellucci in the first round, he might be ready to make an impact here too.

The Women

First Quarter

Serena barely batted an eye in her first round win over recent French Open champion Francesca Schiavone on Monday night, and actually seemed angry with herself that she let the Italian get on the board in the eleventh game of the match. And Angelique Kerber, who's more than proven her 2011 run here was no fluke, dropped just two games to doubles star Lucie Hradecka in her opener. But DC champ Magdalena Rybarikova couldn't keep up her strong summer and Kirsten Flipkens was summarily routed by two-time champion Venus Williams on Day One of play.

Despite all odds Venus could just be the spoiler in this section. Though hampered by injury and illness the last few years, she looks good this year, fighting back to force a decider after losing her first set today to Jie Zheng. If she survives she'll meet Carla Suarez Navarro next though, and she famously lost to the Spaniard at the 2009 Australian Open. But these days who knows what can happen. And Kaia Kanepi continues to struggle in her comeback, but did manage to hold on for a win against Vania King in her opener. The Estonian has missed a lot of time with injury, but manages to put on a show every time she gets back on court -- she made the quarters at Wimbledon and won a title in Brussels. It should be a few rounds more before she faces another challenger this time.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Sloane Stephens (15) vs. Eugenie Bouchard

Sometimes players are exhausted by a challenging round and lose their very next match, but other times they rally are run away with a title. Something tells me Stephens is part of the latter group -- since coming back from a break down in the third set to Mandy Minella on Monday, she might just have the adrenaline to push farther. And the Canadian teenager has had a couple big wins this season -- Laura Robson in Charleston, Ana Ivanovic at Wimbledon -- and having already won her first match at her first U.S. Open, she really has nothing to lose.

Second Quarter

This quarter, by far, was the scene of the biggest shock of the tournament so far. Yes, last year's runner-up Victoria Azarenka advanced without dropping a game to a tricky Dinah Pfizenmaier, and yes, Petra Kvitova was pushed to a third before closing out Misaki Doi on Tuesday. But easily the loss by 2011 champion Sam Stosur to seventeen-year-old qualifier Victoria Duval was what everyone was talking about. Whether the young American, just ranked inside the top three hundred, has it in her to pull off another win -- against former world #5 Daniela Hantuchova in the next round -- remains to be seen, but even making it this far makes her the Cinderella of the event.

That said, a slew of other youngsters could put up a fight too. Alison Riske got her first win in New York when she beat Tsvetana Pironkova in her opener, and little known Sachia Vickery kept up that trend with a win over veteran Mirjana Lucic herself. And Christina McHale, out of the top hundred now, but seeded here last year, survived a scare against similarly slumping Julia Goerges in her first round. Any of these ladies might have what it takes to put in a good run the rest of the fortnight.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Ana Ivanovic (13) vs. Mona Barthel (28)

Of course, all their efforts might just serve to clear the roads for some other relative underdogs. Ivanovic made a solid run to the quarters last year and put up a one-sided victory against rising star Anna Tatishvili in her opener. And Barthel, who first burst on the scene early last year, has struggled to keep up her consistency since then. But she seems ready to make a statement at a Slam, and this might just be a good place to do it.

Third Quarter

Though many matches were delayed by rain today, Aga Radwanska and Na Li, both in this quarter, were some of the few players to lock in their spots in the third round Wednesday, neither dropping more than five games in either of their matches. In fact, none of the seeds in this quarter have had trouble so far and only one -- Toronto finalist Sorana Cirstea -- even lost a set.

There will still be opportunities to surprise, of course. Bethanie Mattek-Sands made the fourth round at Roland Garros and put together a solid win over Mathilde Johansson on Monday. She'll take on Ekaterina Makarova next, though, and that won't be an easy task. The Russian, twice a quarterfinalist in Melbourne, has for some reason never gotten out of the third round in New York. But she's beaten players like Angelique Kerber, Sara Errani and Victoria Azarenka already this year -- and claimed bigger scalps in the past -- and might be ready to make a run this time around.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Alisa Kleybanova vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (32)

I'm not sure what Pavs' coaching status is now that Martina Hingis is playing doubles again, but under the tutelage of a player that won the title here in 1997, you have to think she's got some kind of leg up. As for Kleybs, that one's entirely wishful thinking. But girl's got the talent to make stuff happen, so you certainly can't count her out.

Fourth Quarter

Of all the players to deliver a double bagel at the U.S. Open, I never would have guessed it would be Sara Errani. Yes, she made the semis here last year, but she also was handed a rare Golden Set at Wimbledon in 2012. Talented, yes, but clearly inconsistent when she's not on the clay. But good for her to get the win and prove she deserves the #4 seed in New York. Because, despite her favored status, if she lives up to that ranking I think most people would be surprised.

But in a quarter where the favorites are slightly questionable, there's plenty of room for underdogs to sneak through. After a weak summer Lucie Safarova isn't seeded at the Open, but survived a first round match that could have caused her trouble. Meanwhile Birmingham finalist Donna Vekic, completing her first year of Major main draw action, held on for a win over veteran Marina Duque Marino. And Wimbledon mini-Cinderella Michelle Larcher de Brito kept her streak going by beating Eleni Daniilidou in her opener. Even seeded players like Elena Vesnina and recently struggling Svetlana Kuznetsova have a shot at making a run here, depending on how the draw shakes out.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Caroline Wozniacki (6) vs. Simona Halep (21)

It seems like a long time since Caro made the final here, the way she's been playing recently, and even though she's a top seed in this section of the draw you have to wonder about her prospects. But she looked good in her opener, and after making the quarters in Cincinnati might be ready for another break here. And Halep, well, I'm just going with the odds on this one. She's won four titles in three months and isn't showing any signs of slowing down. If she doesn't take this title this year, I guessing it won't be long before she does.

With almost three days down at this year's U.S. Open, we've seen some stars shine and some fall by the wayside. But after the crazy antics we saw at Wimbleon, there's no reason to believe we won't see more in the city that never sleeps.

What these players do with the opportunity is entirely up to them. But if they're going to do something with it -- this is the place to do it.

August 25, 2013

Blogcast: 2013 U.S. Open Preview

You may think you know what's in store at the U.S. Open this year, but the last couple weeks prove that nothing can be taken for granted and even the sport's biggest stars face a tough road in New York.

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

August 19, 2013

Business as Usual?

Things got pretty interesting last week in Cincinnati as the sport's stars tried to make their last big statements before heading to the U.S. Open. We saw players exit early, players announce surprise retirements and players prove they're not quite ready to fade away.

Even on champions' Sunday, when those ultimately left standing have consistently been some of the strongest in the field this summer, things didn't go down quite as smoothly as you might expect. And the results might just show how nothing is set in stone in New York.

While the road to the men's final may not have been as externally dramatic as that for the women, there were still plenty of upsets to rock the field. Third-seeded David Ferrer, winless in non-Majors since his historic French Open run, lost his second match here to qualifier Dimitry Tursunov, and Roger Federer and Andy Murray -- who've combined to win seven of the last eight titles here -- both fell in the quarterfinals this time around.

Meanwhile, some of the strongest men this summer season were busy causing their own drama. American John Isner, winner in Atlanta and finalist in DC, put together one of his most successful weeks ever -- after defeating Montreal finalist Milos Raonic in the third round, he stunned world #1 Novak Djokovic and came back from a set down to beat 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in a rematch of the Citi Open final. It was just his second Masters 1000 championship match but, with wins over three top-ten players to get there, might have been the biggest accomplishment yet of a man who'll likely only be remembered for one thing.

His opponent didn't have to endure as many challenges on his way to the final, and Rafael Nadal, fresh off a win in Montreal, should have been the clear favorite on Sunday. Yes, he'd survived a scare from Roger Federer in the quarters and played two long sets against one-time Wimbledon finalist (and the man with whom I'll potentially have to split my Powerball winnings) Tomas Berdych, but with just two losses on the year and a perfect 14-0 hardcourt record going into the final, it should not have been a contest. Still, Isner put up a hell of a fight yesterday, holding set points in the opening tiebreak before finally ceding the trophy in a two-hour battle. Nadal may have established himself as a favorite in New York, but Isner's proven he might just be in the running too.

Most of the noteworthy surprises on the women's side came early, of course, but the consistency that came from those causing the upsets was nevertheless noteworthy. Simona Halep followed up a career-ending win over Marion Bartoli by taking out Carlsbad champion Sam Stosur, and 2009 champion Jelena Jankovic put herself back within a stone's throw of the top ten with wins over Wimbledon Cinderella Sabine Lisicki and Maria Sharapova's vanquisher Sloane Stephens, and even took a set off Victoria Azarenka in the semis.

But ultimately it was the top two seeds that made the final. World #1 Serena Williams, riding a fourteen-match win streak since her Wimbledon loss, had a couple hiccups on the way -- she lost a set to Canada's Eugenie Bouchard in her opener and dropped serve five times to defending champion Na Li on Saturday night -- but powered through for a chance to play for her ninth title of the year. Meanwhile Azarenka, struggling with injury since her Wimbledon first round, worked her way to a second straight final, surviving a scare from pink-hot Magdalena Rybarikvoa and being pushed by on-the-rebound Caroline Wozniacki in the quarters.

The two ladies have been some of the strongest in the sport over the past eighteen months, trading the #1 ranking back and forth and reaching six Grand Slam finals between them. But history has been squarely on Serena's side, and other than a couple losses on the books, the American had been on a role against the NextGen star. She seemed to be in control Sunday, too, storming through the first set, but Azarenka held tough forcing a decider and, when Williams had a shot to serve out the championship, breaking back and reaching a tiebreak. She came back from deficits there, too, and after two and a half hours -- thanks to a netted return from her opponent -- ended a streak that threatened to continue for months to come.

You may have thought that this weekend's championships were cut and dry, but whether the favorites eventually won or lost, neither did so without a touch of drama. It's become clear that plenty of players in the field can cause a stir while even the surest things have some questions around them. And with less than a week left before the first balls of the U.S. Open are hit, all these guys and gals have thrown the door wide open as they race for the year's last big trophy.

August 16, 2013

One and Done

It's been a weird couple days in women's tennis -- yesterday we got the surprising announcement that Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli was retiring from the sport, just weeks after winning the biggest title of her career, and today we learned that Maria Sharapova had parted ways with Jimmy Connors, brought on as her coach after a shocking second-round loss at the All England Club. Neither of these were snap decisions, I'm sure -- there was probably a lot of thought and discussion that went into both -- but the abruptness of both certainly highlight some major differences.

Bartoli had played a handful of matches since that unbelievable run in London, but stopped short during her second round in Toronto and lost her opener this week in Cincinnati. Citing pain from a series of injuries throughout her career, she told the press through tears that her body couldn't take it any longer, a sentiment to which more than a few of her colleagues could certainly relate.

Marion first made a name for herself in 2007 when, as the #18 seed, she beat superstars like Jelena Jankovic and Justine Henin on her way to the Wimbledon final. She lost there, of course, and didn't win another title for more than two years, ultimately avenging that defeat to Venus Williams in the 2009 Stanford final. And though she had trouble putting hardware on her shelf -- in thirteen years as a pro she won a relatively sparse eight titles and needed forty-seven Major appearances before finally bringing home the grand prize -- but she had hung a couple big scalps on her wall. She stunned Serena Williams during her 2011 Wimbledon comeback and delivered Victoria Azarenka her first loss last season in the Miami quarterfinals. Her win last month at the All England Club put her back at a career high ranking of #7 in the world, making her departure from the sport just when she's playing her best all the more surprising.

Sharapova's decision may not have been as drastic a move, but it certainly was quite dramatic. After cutting ties with Thomas Högstedt, who'd joined her camp at the start of the 2011 season and helped her return to the top ten and eventually complete the career Grand Slam, she signed on with eight-time Major winner Jimmy Connors. The choice elicited more than a few raised eyebrows, with some pundits questioning how well the two strong personalities would meld while others hoped Connors might have MaSha the boost she needed to finally get the better of unquestioned #1 Serena Williams.

The pair's first match together didn't quiet the critics -- after pulling out of the Rogers Cup, Sharapova seemed to be back in form in Cincinnati, pulling together a 6-2, 2-0 lead on unseeded U.S. #2 Sloane Stephens in her opener. But the Russian seemed to lose focus and self-control and a barrage of errors turned the tide quickly, eventually sending Sharapova packing after almost two-and-a-half hours of play.

But Connors' shift would soon be over, as Sharapova shortly thereafter announced the split. Having previously said she wouldn't accept a wildcard to New Haven next week, she now heads to New York coach-less and with a less-than-extraordinary 1-2 record since the French Open, calling into question her chances to take home the trophy at the Open.

Ultimately each lady's decision this week tells a different tale of patience. Bartoli, who'd been toiling away and pushing through the pain for years, finally had enough, while Sharapova apparently realized immediately that something very specific wasn't working for her. That's not to say these choices won't serve one better than the other, of course -- after all, in a sport where patience is so often a virtue, in some cases it's the calls you make on the fly that turn out the best.

August 12, 2013

Cheers to Second Place!

So here's the thing about this weekend's championship matches in Canada -- once the final fields were settled, you pretty much knew what was going to happen. World #1 Serena Williams walked away with her eighth title of the year in Toronto, dropping just two games on Sunday, while Rafael Nadal, coming off an important win over top-seeded Novak Djokovic in the Montreal semis, was the heavy favorite in the final and won his twenty-fifth Masters title with little drama.

But the real story of this weekend might be that of the also-rans, the two runners-up who made their way to their first Tier One tournament finals by racking up a series of impressive wins during the week. They might not have come away with the wins this time, but the level of play they brought to their games might mean they've got what it takes to make a bigger impact down the road. And maybe this time the silver medalists won't dwell on the fact they came up short and can revel in the great things they did accomplish.

Sorana Cirstea had worked her way into the top thirty four years ago after a Cinderella run at the 2009 French Open. But she struggled even at the end of that year, losing five straight first round matches to finish off the season, and by the start of 2011 was back in triple digits. But the young Romanian slogged it out on the ITF circuit, got her game back on track last year and finished 2012 at #27 in the world. She'd pulled off a couple big wins this season, including a defeat of then-#6 Angelique Kerber in Miami, but really hit her stride in Canada. Unseeded at the Rogers Cup she took out two former #1's -- Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic -- before ousting a couple Grand Slam champions. It was Cirstea's first championship match since winning a title in Tashkent back in 2008, and only her third career final. She might not have made a big dent against Serena in the barely one-hour match, but by leaving the trail of corpses on her way to the final not only got her to her highest-ever ranking this week, but may have proven she's got the talent to at least hit with the big girls.

Over in Montreal the men faced a similarly deep field with eight top ten players making the trip to the Great White North. Things were shaky, though, with two-time champion Andy Murray losing his third round match to Ernests Gulbis and third-seeded David Ferrer dropping in straights to world #83 Alex Bogomolov. Still Milos Raonic's advance to his first Masters final was nothing to scoff at -- he stunned Washington champion Juan Martin Del Potro in the third round and won the battle of Canadians in the semis after losing the middle set to Vasek Pospisil. Though he already has four titles to his name, three of which came in San Jose, this would've by far been his biggest and, having been unable to follow up on his first deep Major run, could have reminded the sport's elite of his relevance. Raonic couldn't capitalize this time, though, with the big server broken four out of four times. Still, it was a breakthrough to make it this far, and if he is able to learn from the experience, he might just be able to make an impact in New York.

Both of this weekend's champions re-cemented themselves at the top of the game, but the runners-up too were able to break new ground with their wins all week. It's not always about bringing home the biggest trophy, after all, and hopefully these almost-champions can use what they've learned and parlay it into an even brighter future.

August 6, 2013

Put Up, or Shut Up

The first few weeks of the summer hard court season can be tricky to navigate -- while some of the sport's top players skip the smaller tournaments, plenty others slug it out week after week at events where relatively few points are on the line. But with bigger bounties at stake this week in Canada, this past weekend's champions will want to prove they can deliver when it really counts.

The heat took a bit of a toll on the ladies in Washington, with the favorites at the Citi Open falling earlier than expected. But that opened the door for a couple others to strut their stuff, hopefully putting themselves back on the map as they head to New York. Andrea Petkovic, a year removed from her career-high in the top ten, has been working her way back up the rankings since injuries cut her 2012 season short. She wasn't seeded in Washington, but nevertheless caused upsets of both Mona Barthel and Alize Cornet on the way to her second final of the year. But she was ultimately stopped by defending champion Magdalena Rybarikova, who's currently playing some of the best tennis of her career. The petite Slovak, who beat both Ekaterina Makarova and top-seeded Angelique Kerber in DC, kept her momentum going early this week in Toronto with a straight-set win earlier today. It's a better result than some other champions have seen of late -- Dominika Cibulkova lost her very next match after winning a title in Stanford -- so hopefully Rybarikova can keep it up. She's never made much of a splash at any Premier event, so this could be her chance.

The stakes were a little higher for the men in DC, with the first nine seeds all ranked in the top twenty-five. There was some follow-through here, with Atlanta runner-up Kevin Anderson getting back to the quarters and John Isner, the champion down South, making his way all the way back to the final, albeit being the favorite in each of his first four matches. He even seemed to have the upper hand in Sunday's final, opening by taking his only set off 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in their previous meetings. But the top seed, coming off a late-night semifinal win over Tommy Haas, was able to regroup, dominating his fellow big man and winning his third straight title in the U.S. capital. DelPo gets a first round bye at the Rogers Cup this week, but he's certainly parlayed success here into bigger things in the past. Isner, meanwhile, may need to do some serious soul-searching -- though he certainly has a big weapon, he continues to struggle closing out matches -- he was forced to three sets and two tiebreaks in his Montreal opener, eventually losing to wildcard Vasek Pospisil in over two and a half hours. If he can't capitalize better on what he's got, it's hard to see him making any kind of dent when it counts.

The ladies who battled it out in Carlsbad last week have been a little more battle-tested. Finalists Victoria Azarenka and Sam Stosur have won three Grand Slam titles between them, though neither has been at the top of her game recently -- Vika, injured during her first round at Wimbledon, has been recovering in the weeks since while the Australian was a disappointing 19-15 on the year before heading to California. But both ladies pulled themselves together at the Southern Cali Open and, though both were tested -- Azarenka by Ana Ivanovic in the semifinal and Stosur by Aga Radwanska in the quarters -- proved they were back. And Stosur kept her run going, ending an eight-match losing streak to the former world-#1 and winning her first title in almost two years. Azarenka subsequently pulled out of this week's Rogers Cup in Toronto, while Stosur will open against qualifier Julia Glushko later today. The win should come easy for the newly anointed world-#11, but a good performance could mean big results for her in New York again. And having lost a bit of her luster over the past eighteen months, there may never be a better time for just that.

This is the time of summer where things get serious, and last week's champions will have to get right back to work. If they're going to make a real statement on their way to the Open, they don't get a chance to let their performance drop even a little. But if they can show us what they're really capable of, the payoff is sure to be worth it.