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February 27, 2014

Squeaking in the Wins

It always surprises me how many top tier players play the Latin clay court swing just before the start of Indian Wells and Miami, and this year it seems more than usual have made the trip south of the border. And while many are considered favorites in their draws, no victories should be taken for granted, and we could see more than a couple new faces making their way to championship weekend.

Carla Suarez Navarro may be the top seed at the Brazil Tennis Cup, but she's one of only two players left in the draw still looking for her first title. She's been solid so far, but with a meeting today against Melbourne spoiler Monica Niculescu she will be tested soon, and still other players in this field could make a play for the title too. Young Garbine Muguruza has put together a more-than-impressive 13-3 record so far this year and picked up her first crown as a qualifier in Hobart. She's already pulled off upsets of players like Kirsten Flipkens and Caroline Wozniacki this year, so she shouldn't be intimidated by any of her potential challengers. But Alexandra Dulgheru also looks poised for a comeback -- once ranked #26 in the world, she's struggled a bit recently. But the Romanian hasn't dropped a set yet in Florianopolis and, slated to meet Klara Zakopalova, who she's beaten on dirt before, she could keep her streak going.

Over in Sao Paulo a couple men and trying to launch comebacks themselves. Juan Monaco, a top ten player less than two years ago, is now out of the top forty. That's enough to make him a fourth seed here, but with only one win on the season, he'll be a long shot for this title. And Nicolas Almagro, usually a force this time of year -- a full half of his twelve titles have come in LatAm -- skipped this year's Australian Open with a shoulder injury and fell in his opener here to Federico Delbonis. My eyes instead will be on Thomaz Bellucci who's already ousted eighth seed Santiago Giraldo and could have a pretty open field from here on out. It's been almost two years since his last title, but he's scored wins over players like Jerzy Janowicz, Grigor Dimitrov and David Ferrer since then, so it wouldn't be too much to ask for a few more upsets in his homeland this week.

A little to the north of Brazil, Melbourne Cinderellas Dominika Cibulkova and Eugenie Bouchard have been turning around their bad luck since the Aussie Open. Both have reached the Acapulco quarters without dropping a set and hope to prove their runs Down Under were no fluke, but either could be surprised in the remaining days. France's Caroline Garcia once held a set and a break lead over Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros, but has spent most of her time since then on the ITF circuit. She scored her first two wins of the season in Mexico though and should arguably be stronger on this surface than her next opponent, Bouchard. And Ajla Tomljanovic, who took Sloane Stephens to three sets in Melbourne, has lost just seven games in her first two rounds here. She holds a 2-1 record against Shuai Zhang, too, and so could earn entry to the semis with a win today. And there's no reason either of these ladies couldn't go even farther.

The draws are a bit more intimidating on the men's side, though, with three-time champion David Ferrer and double-Major winner Andy Murray leading the pack. But lower seeds like Delray finalist Kevin Anderson and Marseille titleist Ernests Gulbis have been just as strong the last few weeks and should put up a fight for the title. But one-time world #13 Alexandr Dolgopolov could be the unseeded spoiler in this bracket -- the Ukrainian star is coming off a final run in Rio during which he beat Ferrer handily and opened in Acapulco with a straight set win over Vasek Pospisil. He'll face big-serving Ivo Karlovic next, though, and that's clearly no easy task, but the way Dolgo's been playing, I wouldn't put a big win past him.

Whether these players can fare as well once they hit the hard courts remains to be seen, but it might be a smart move to get in a couple big wins before making the turf switch. And if they're able to notch a couple big wins now, there's no telling what kind of confidence that'll give them down the road.

February 24, 2014

Not Just the Same Old

It can be so refreshing when we're treated to a couple surprises on championship weekend. As great as it is to see the favorites show off the stuff that makes them great, it's just as inspiring to watch a few underdogs pull off a quality upset. And yesterday's finals, during which more than a couple low seeds pulled off exciting wins, certainly made fans sit up and take notice.

Of course, some things went as expected, but even those results were far from certain. Venus Williams did capitalize on her experience in the Dubai final, but as the lower-ranked player, her victory over Alize Cornet was far from in the bag. And King of Clay Rafael Nadal made his return in Rio as the overwhelming favorite but was tested big time on his way to the title. In the semis against Pablo Andujar, he lost the first set and was pushed in a long tiebreak in the decider. He had relatively little trouble against Alexandr Dolgopolov in the final, though, and ultimately scored his forty-third title on the dirt.

Things didn't go as smoothly for the top ladies in Rio, though. Second seeded Franesca Schiavone lost her opening match and rising star Paula Ormaechea suffered a small setback when she fell in the quarters. Eventually Klara Zakopalova, looking for her first trophy since 2005, and Japan's Kurumi Nara, playing in her first Tour final, were left playing for the title. The two had never played before, but the top-seeded Czech, who'd beaten Ana Ivanovic in Doha and was runner-up in Hobart already this year, should have had the upper hand. Still the young Nara, who'd just about halved her ranking in 2013, was not intimidated -- after taking out year-end doubles champ Su-Wei Hsieh in her opener, she had a clear path to the final. In a fairly sloppy final -- neither woman won more than sixty percent of their serves -- she dropped the middle set to Zakopalova, but dominated the third, closing out the match after two hours and claiming her maiden trophy. Now ranked #48 in the world, she's still not quite top tier, but with the confidence she's built the last twelve months, she soon might be.

The men in Delray weren't breaking any seals this weekend, but that didn't make their performances any less noteworthy. Top seed Tommy Haas bowed out early to qualifier Steve Johnson while John Isner, struggling with injury early in the year, fought through a string of long three-set matches before eventually losing in the semis. A couple lower seeds were able to make their way to the final, though -- big-serving Kevin Anderson also playing his first event since Melbourne, came back from losing the first set in two of his matches, and red-hot Marin Cilic continued his comeback without losing a set. He was finally tested in Sunday's final, splitting the first two breakers, but he finally took charge in the decider, keeping the break lead to close out the match in just over three hours. It's the Croat's second title of the year and pushes him to his highest ranking since his suspension. And heading into the next round of big tournaments, there's no better time for him to rise.

Two-time Delray champ Ernests Gulbis didn't make the trip down to Florida this year, but instead tried his luck in the arguably tougher fields of Marseille. The third seed in France, himself having come back from years of injury and middling rankings, he took out Melbourne spoiler Roberto Bautista-Agut in his opener and top seeded Richard Gasquet in the semis. For the crown he faced off against world #10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a man who'd won three of their four meetings and who'd retired from their only other one last year at Wimbledon. But Gulbis was on a roll this Sunday, firing off fourteen aces -- bringing his total for the tournament to sixty-one -- and winning eighty-five percent of his first serves. He's now beaten three top ten players this year and, maybe more importantly, notched his fifth win in as many final appearances. With his run at the Open 13, Gulbis also climbed to #18 in the world, his highest ranking to date, and now that he's healthy again, I wouldn't be surprised to see him go even further.

The triumph of this weekend's winners highlights just how deep the fields have become in this sport, and while there will surely be favorites at every tournament, nothing can be taken for granted. And with players showing that an upset is possible every time they take the court, it certainly looks like we're in for a lot more excitement the rest of this season.

February 21, 2014

The Spoiler

In the first five years of their professional lives, Venus and Serena Williams played each other in an astonishing eight championship matches.

Times have changed since 2003, though -- both ladies have struggled with injury and illness and have taken breaks of various lengths from the sport they've both dominated over the last decade. And while Serena has fought her way back to the top of the game, the elder Williams, thirty-three years old now, has seen her ranking fall into the mid-forties, making surges here and there, but staying largely inconsequential at the big events. The sisters haven't met in a final since the year-ends in Doha more than four years ago and have in fact only faced off once since 2009, in the Charleston semis last year, with Serena increasing her lead over her older sibling to 14-10 all-time. Whereas we once lamented Grand Slam draws in which the two were not placed in opposite halves and thus destined to meet only for the title, we now hope we'll see Venus reach the second week, wherever she lands in the bracket.

This week in Dubai we had the opportunity to finally see an all-Williams final again. Unseeded in a tournament at which seven of the top ten players were entered, Venus was in rare form -- in the second round she dominated Ana Ivanovic, importantly getting revenge on the woman who'd ousted her sister and followed it up with a win over world #22 Flavia Pennetta. In Friday's semifinal against Caroline Wozniacki, putting together some big wins herself this week, Venus broke the former #1 an incredible six times, lost just a handful of her first serves, and closed out the match in under ninety minutes. It was her fifth win in as many meetings over the eighth seed, but her first as the underdog, and gained her entry to her second final of the year. With younger sister Serena taking the court against often-spotty Alize Cornet in the second match of the day, it seemed inevitable that we'd get the long-anticipated final showdown.

But the teeny Frenchwoman had other plans. Once ranked as high as #11 in the world, Cornet had dropped into triple digits less than two years ago. A title in Strasbourg last year put her back on the map, though, and after a disappointing loss in Melbourne she fought through four long three set matches through her Paris semifinal run. This week in Dubai she rolled through the first set against red-hot Doha champ Simona Halep in her opener and took out two more higher-ranked players on her way to the final four. She was still the big underdog against top seeded Serena today, though, having only managed one set off her opponent in their previous three meetings, but she didn't let that get to her. The match was tight early, but Cornet earned and won the first break opportunity in the ninth game. She finished off the set and even got an early lead in the second, but when she ceded her lead it looked like the twenty-sixth ranked player would suffer another big Serena comeback. She stayed tough throughout, though, pulled ahead again and even had match points on Serena's serve at 5-3 in the second. And while Cornet, known in the past to have breakdowns when things don't go her way, wasn't able to convert, she held at love in the final game, scoring by far the biggest win of her career and reaching her biggest career final since Rome 2008.

So Cornet's amazing upset precludes what many were waiting and hoping for, but it shouldn't diminish the opportunity tomorrow's final holds for both contestants. For two women who've long been counted out of the mix at the big events, reaching the Dubai championship -- and the possibility of winning it -- could jump-start their careers. And at a tournament like this, there's no better time to do it.

February 17, 2014

In the Big Leagues Now

I've been waiting a long time for Simona Halep to really graduate from the Juniors and make a splash in the WTA. It took longer than I expected, in some respects -- at twenty-two years of age she's far out-aged the likes of Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis, who were winning Majors in their teens -- but after a year spent climbing the rankings and honing her game, she's finally scored a title worthy of her talent and broken into single digits. And with the performances she's shown, not just this past week in Doha, but over the last twelve months, it seems she might stay here for some time.

The one-time girls' champion at Roland Garros originally had her biggest successes on clay, reaching the Fes final two years in a row, in 2010 as a qualifier, and then beating -- get ready for this! -- Daniela Hantuchova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Roberta Vinci, Jelena Jankovic and Agnieszka Radwanska on her way to the Rome semis last year. When she finally did capture that first trophy just after the French Open, it was, not surprisingly, on the dirt as well. But she'd shown signs of her diversity too -- she put up a huge fight against Jankovic in New York way back in 2010 and reached the third round of both Indian Wells and Miami two years later. And once she broke the championship seal in Nürnberg, she went crazy on every surface -- the grass of Den Bosch, the hard courts of New Haven -- and closed out the season with her first six Big Girl titles. And she never let anyone else do the dirty work -- victims of her breakthrough 2013 run also included the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Sam Stosur and Ana Ivanovic, to name a few more.

Still Halep was on the outskirts of the elite, claiming only mid-tier titles and never making a big dent at a Slam. That changed this year however when, ranked just outside the top ten, she finally cracked the second week at the Australian Open, but fell disappointingly short of making the semis.

She seems to have rebounded just fine, though.

She only claimed the seventh seed in Doha, a premier event in which more than half of the sixteen seeds had played in or won a total of fourteen Grand Slam finals. And the rest of the field was primed as well. Halep was pushed early by Kaia Kanepi, dropping the middle set and needing a tiebreak to close out the match. But she rolled over fellow clay court specialist Sara Errani in the quarters and then pulled out another straight-set win over world #4 Aga Radwanska. She was still the underdog against Angelique, a player she hadn't faced since an ITF event all the way back in 2009. But this time again Halep had the upper hand -- in a match that lasted just over an hour, she broke the German four times and won a solid seventy-three percent of her first serves. In two quick sets, she had claimed her seventh and biggest crown and climbed to a career high #9 ranking.


Halep's victory this weekend certainly cements her place among the top stars of the sport, and should put everyone on notice for the damage she can cause. But as the newest inductee to the upper echelons, she still has a lot of work to do. In spite of all the impressive scalps on her resume, she still hasn't notched a victory over Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova. That's not to say she won't eventually, or even soon -- she's in Serena's half of this week's Dubai draw -- but the pressure will only get higher from here.

After all now that Halep's made it to the Big Leagues, she'll have to prove she belongs.

February 13, 2014

Eye on the Underdog

This is the first week since the Australian Open where many of the sport's top players are back in action, with six players in the ATP top ten taking the court one place or another. And while many of the favorites have survived and powered through their early opponents this week, it might be a couple of longshots who are scoring the more notable wins.

On the clay of Buenos Aires, David Ferrer made a winning return against qualifier Maximo Gonzalez while Viña Del Mar champion Fabio Fognini repeated Sunday's win over Leonardo Mayer to make the quarters. But perhaps the dark horse in this draw will be his next opponent Pablo Andujar, who really hasn't put up many big results over the last several months. But this week, back on his most successful surface -- his two career titles have come on the dirt -- he delivered a one-sided loss to fifth seed Marcel Granollers in their second round and could be poised to go farther. He lost his only Tour-level meeting with Fognini, though, on these courts in fact, but that was five years ago, and if he can take advantage of the Italian, who went over three hours against Mayer on Wednesday, he might be able to change that record.

There have been some surprises in Memphis too, even as world #17 Kei Nishikori advanced to the quarters with little drama. Still struggling Sam Querrey, champion here in 2010, lost his opener after winning a decisive first set and fifth seeded Marinko Matosevic dropped to 2013 Newcomer of the Year Jiri Vesely in straight sets. But the standouts in Tennessee might be a couple of old dogs with new tricks. Alex Bogomolov, one of the big comeback stories of 2011, but fell back down the rankings over the next several months. Now barely in the top hundred, he's come out on top of two three-set matches, beating Querrey in the first round and then taking down American Ryan Harrison yesterday. And Michael Russell, approaching thirty-five years of age, rallied past seventh seed Michael Przysiezny before handling Tim Smyczek to make the quarters. In his long career -- sixteen years as a pro -- he's never even made a singles final, but it sure would be nice to see him continue his fight this week.

But even more spoilers have emerged in Rotterdam, in a draw where top tier players like defending champion Juan Martin Del Potro and two-time Grand Slam titleist Andy Murray loom large as threats. Marin Cilic continued his comeback with a win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Wednesday and Jerzy Janowicz managed an upset of Zagreb finalist Tommy Haas earlier today. But maybe more threatening are barely unseeded Ernests Gulbis and Phillipp Kohlschreiber, neither of whom have lost a set on their way to the quarters. At #24 and #27 in the world, they promised to be spoilers from the start -- Gulbis has the tougher task ahead, facing DelPo next, while Kohlscreiber, who just wrapped up a fairly routine 4&4 win over Richard Gasquet will face either wildcard Igor Sijsling or qualifier Michael Berrer next, but either man could continue his streak.

With just a few weeks left before the next round of big tournaments, there might be no better time for all these guys to make these statements. And after their performances so far this week, you can't count any of them out, even against the most intimidating of foes.

February 10, 2014

On the Upswing

Tennis is a sport of ups and downs, one in which players can peak and fall quicker than cresting tides. But it's often how players bounce back from their stretches in the doldrums that can define their careers, and this weekend's champions proved they have what it takes to keep themselves at the top of the game for some time to come.

Fabio Fognini hadn't exactly fallen off the radar -- the third seed in ViƱa Del Mar came to the tournament at his then-highest ranking of #15 in the world. But since claiming his first two career titles last summer, he's gone a little radio silent since -- he retired from his opening round in Chennai and was drubbed by Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open. Back on the Chilean clay, though, he seemed to find his footing. He stayed tough against always tricky Jeremy Chardy and withstood a comeback from dirt-specialist Nicolas Almagro, playing his first match since October, in the semis. Meanwhile Leonardo Mayer, barely ranked in the top hundred at the time, survived a tight second round against Tommy Robredo and came back again against Daniel Gimeno-Traver in the quarters to make his first career final. But Fognini was too strong in the end, dropping just four points on his first serve and breaking his opponent three times in thirteen chances. In under ninety minutes the Italian had claimed the title, establishing himself as a real threat once the clay season gets in full swing. Whether he has what it takes to unseat the greats is yet to be seen, but he sure has shown he can put up a fight.

The comeback in Zagreb was a little more obvious -- former top-ten player Marin Cilic had fallen deep into double digits after an anti-doping violation last year forced him into a six-month hiatus, and though he put up quite a fight in Melbourne, he hadn't scored any notable wins since his return. The three-time champion in Croatia was granted just a fifth seed in his homeland, and with second seeded Mikhail Youzhny dropping his opener he only faced one opponent ranked inside the top hundred on his road to the final. In the draw's top half, not-to-be-forgotten Tommy Haas, still skirting the top ten even though he's in his mid-thirties, came back twice against both Benjamin Becker and Daniel Evans to reach the championship match. The top seed, who'd come out the winner in the pair's long Wimbledon slug-fest five years ago, might have been spent by the time he got to Sunday's final, though -- the strong-serving Croat fired off ten aces to Tommy's two and capitalized on any opportunity he could on the German's parlay. Cilic was able to close out the match in straight sets, adding trophy #10 to his mantle, but maybe more importantly proving he was back with quite a vengeance.

Over in Montpellier Gael Monfils' return to the podium marked the end of an even longer drought. The 2010 champion at the Open Sud de France -- back when the even was held in the fall -- skipped much of the 2012 season with injury and made spotty returns to the fray last year. Though he won a Challenger event in wine country and made the final in Nice, he couldn't quite seal the deal -- and earlier this year in Doha he failed to keep his Qatar record against Rafael Nadal spotless. He did get things back on track this past week though -- as the fifty seed he survived a couple scares on his way to the final where he met countryman Richard Gasquet on Sunday. But the top seed had just eked out a win over big-serving Jerzy Janowicz and couldn't keep up in the championship match. Here too Monfils out-aced his opponent, lost just two points on first serve and allowed not a single break point. In another quick, straight-set, sub-ninety minute match, the underdog again came out on top, claiming his first crown in over two years.

Whether these guys can continue their momentum remains to be seen, of course, but each faced and overcame some big challenges over the last week -- and maybe over a much longer time frame than that. And if they can keep their confidence high, I wouldn't be surprised to see them claim even bigger prizes -- and scalps -- in the months to come. After all, there's still no telling when their tide might start to ebb, so they'd better strike while they've got the best opportunity.

February 6, 2014

A Shot at Redemption

This year's Australian Open was one of many storylines -- from young stars' breakthroughs to reversals of long losing streaks, from huge upsets to near misses. And this weekend as the first round of Fed Cup gets underway, the ladies have an opportunity to follow up on their performances in Melbourne, and maybe even go one better.

Italy vs. U.S.A.

Both these teams are missing their top players in this tie so the result is truly up in the air, but for a couple athletes there's a huge opportunity to make a big statement. American Alison Riske, ranked #46 in the world, reached the third round Down Under with wins over Elena Vesnina and Yanina Wickmayer -- her third straight Major with at least two victories. She's never played Fed Cup before, so this will be a good test for the rising talent. But eyes might be slightly more focused on Karin Knapp this weekend. The largely unknown Italian burst into the spotlight when she showed she wouldn't give up against Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open second round, and somehow found the strength to withstand a three-and-a-half hour match in grueling heat. With teammates like Sara Errani and Flavia Pennetta sitting out this round, she'll get top billing on the roster, and there may be no better time to prove that loss is behind her.

Spain vs. Czech Republic

The Spaniards have plenty of talent on their side of the court this weekend, and Carla Suarez Navarro, who'd been my dark horse pick for Melbourne did bow out a bit early. But she might find herself hard-pressed against the wily Czechs, Fed Cup champions two years in a row, especially with Lucie Safarova champing at the bit for revenge. The world #28 was the only one to give eventual Aussie champion Na Li any kind of trouble last month, running through the first set and holding match point in their third round match. She hasn't been back on court since that heartbreaking loss, but if she can regroup and rebound now, she could make quick work of her opponents -- if only to prove she has what it takes in the clutch.

Slovakia vs. Germany

This tie has some of the most potential for fireworks this weekend, with Sydney finalist Angelique Kerber and back-on-the-radar Andrea Petkovic leading a strong German team. Even Julia Goerges, down substantially from her career high ranking, is fresh off an upset of Sara Errani in Melbourne and a run to the semis in Pattaya City. But watch out for Dominika Cibulkova, the Cinderella runner-up in Australia who barely broke a sweat as she beat four top twenty players back to back. She had a disappointing end to what was by far her best Grand Slam run, unable to get on the board in the second set, but she's more than proven she can hit with the biggest hitters out there and could use this opportunity to make up for the trophy now missing from her mantle.

Australia vs. Russia

Last year's runner-up Russian squad has lost a bit of its luster for this first round -- missing Maria Sharapova as well as consistent stars like Maria Kirilenko, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova and others, only one player, little known #158 Victoria Kan, is ranked in the top two hundred in singles. That's going to open the door wide for the Australians, but veteran Sam Stosur may not be the one to beat here. Though she hasn't had a terrible start to the year, the standout for the Aussies may be Casey Dellacqua whose fourth round showing at her homeland Slam brought her back up into the top hundred. Most of her Fed Cup wins have come in the doubles rubbers, but now that she's proven herself on the solo court too I wouldn't be surprised if she became the clincher this weekend.

World Group II

It's not all about the Fed Cup main draw though -- the teams vying to play for the trophy next year also have a lot on the line. Sweden's Johanna Larsson, who put up quite a fight against Victoria Azarenka in their opening round in Melbourne will take on a Polish team helmed by Agnieszka Radwanksa, probably still smarting from having missed a second Major final. And Junior Roland Garros and Wimbledon champion Belinda Bencic, who won her first big girls' match at a Slam against uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, makes her debut on the Swiss team against a French squad led by always spunky Alize Cornet and mixed doubles titleist Kristina Mladenovic.

But perhaps the highest profile woman to hit the courts this weekend will be Melbourne breakthrough Eugenie Bouchard, a semifinalist in her first trip Down Under. The young Canadian was certainly helped as her colleagues cleared the field for her, but she stayed strong against an injured Ana Ivanovic in the quarters and was able to avoid a rout by Na Li a round later. Now ranked in the top twenty, pressure is on to prove her run Down Under was no fluke, and she has a fairly good shot at doing so. She and her Canadian teammates take on a Serbian team which is missing stars like Ivanovic, world #8 Jelena Jankovic and always-tricky Bojana Jovanovski. With the biggest threat on the other side of the net a triple-digit ranked Vesna Dolonc, Genie has ample opportunity to boost her confidence before facing off against bigger foes -- and if her performance in Australia is any indication, there will certainly many more of those in the future.


Of course there is a lot more at stake in Fed Cup than each individual player's scoreline -- this, unlike other tournaments, is a team effort. But any one of these ladies can put in a showing this weekend that not only boosts her nation to the next level, but does the same for herself, as well. And after the fight they each showed over the past month, I'd expect nothing short of the best from all of them.

February 3, 2014

The Rebound

It can be tough to muster up energy after a Grand Slam, especially if you didn't put up the performance you were hoping you would. But a couple ladies this weekend found the physical and mental toughness to bounce back after Melbourne and eventually came away with trophies that were a long time coming.

It's hard to believe it had been almost four years since Ekaterina Makarova's first title in Eastbourne, given how her star has risen in the meantime. Though she beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open in 2012, cracked the top twenty a year ago and reached the quarters at two Majors last season, she hasn't been able to claim another crown -- heck, she's never even made another final since 2010. Coming off injury, she survived a first round scare Down Under, but bowed out with a surprisingly unimpressive 6-2, 6-0 loss to eventual champion Na Li a round earlier than in the past.

This past week she came to Pattaya City as the fourth seed in a field of ladies who'd under-performed in Melbourne -- she was only one of two who'd made it past the second round. But she regrouped better than her contemporaries, and while one after the other was eliminated, Makarova was able to fight through one tough match after another. She ultimately faced off against Karolina Pliskova, a woman who'd already taken out two seeds and an on-the-comeback Julia Goerges on her way to the final. The Czech started off this match strong, too, firing off six aces in the opening service game -- ten total for the match -- but Makarova was able to stay stronger. With the only break on her side of the scoreboard, the Russian closed out the match in a tight second set tiebreak, winning the second title of her career. But perhaps more importantly, she ended a reputation of being a spoiler who rarely got to reap the spoils, and something tells me there will be a lot more trophies coming her way.


Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has claimed a couple more titles during her young career, but since peaking at #13 in the world over two years ago, her profile has fallen a bit. She hasn't gotten past the third round of any Slam since 2011, and though she played in four finals last year, her two crowns came at second tier tournaments. This year she'd retired from her second round in Brisbane, lost an opener in Hobart, and after taking the first set from Aga Radwanska at the Aussie Open, she struggled under pressure and ultimately went home in the first week again.

Pavs wasn't even seeded when she arrived in Paris last week -- four top ten players were originally entered in the draw -- and she was challenged from the start. The young Russian endured five three set matches during the week, fighting back from a set down against former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, ninth-ranked Angelique Kerber, and top seed Maria Sharapova. She lost her opener against Sara Errani in the final too -- after building a 3-1 lead, she lost seven games in a row. She turned the tables, though, winning a stretch of her own, but got down in the decider too. Pavlyuchenkova soldiered up then and remained tougher in the clutch -- after nearly two hours on court, bringing her total for the week to almost ten and a half, she'd secured the biggest trophy of her career and put herself back in the mix against the biggest names in the sport.


With their wins this weekend these ladies might have put themselves in a position to make a play for even bigger success down the road. And what better way to erase some slightly sour memories from their time in Melbourne than by coming back bigger, stronger, and ready for new heights.