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.

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