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.

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