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.

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