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.

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