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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 ViΓ±a 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.

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