March 17, 2014

The Resurrection

It's been a while since either of this weekend's champions held a trophy over their heads. To be sure, a "while" is certainly relative, and one of the victors had surely been suffering a much longer drought before ironically quenching her thirst in the desert of Indian Wells. But both performances seem to herald a bit of a change from what we'd seen early in the year, and might just set a new course for the rest of the season.

Novak Djokovic knows what it's like to win here, of course -- back in 2011, this was title number three in his seven-trophy streak that started the year -- but he was knocked out in the semis two years after that. And despite winning every match he played after last year's U.S. Open final, he hadn't reached a final weekend at all this season, his slowest start to a year since 2006. After defending champion Rafael Nadal was knocked out early, though, he was the on-paper favorite and, despite challenges from red-hot Marin Cilic and recent nemesis John Isner, made his way to Sunday's final as expected.

Nole was put to the test in that match as well. Four-time titleist Roger Federer didn't drop a set on his way to the final and was able to do what many others in the field could not -- end the runs of players like Kevin Anderson and the Cinderella of this tournament, Alexandr Dolgopolov. He kept his streak going on Sunday, grabbing an early break in the final and capping off the first set with little drama. Djokovic stayed strong, though -- he capitalized on some weak serving from the Swiss star and ultimately forced a deciding set. He got a lead in that one, too, but got a little shaky trying to serve it out -- Roger broke the world #2 at love and pushed the pair's thirty-third match to a tiebreak. But there the tide turned squarely in the Serb's favor. Nole got an early minibreak and never looked back, locking in the win and bringing himself within a stone's throw of an even record against the all-time great. It was Novak's first title of the year, but likely not his last, and puts him squarely in the spotlight as we move on to Miami.

The focus will be even sharper on Flavia Pennetta who, at this time last year, was ranked #92 in the world and quickly sliding. Having missed much of the 2012 season, she spent the early part of '13 rebuilding her game. Pennetta managed a run to the Strasbourg semis, albeit without facing an opponent in the top seventy, but only started to pull herself together at Wimbledon where the unseeded Italian reached the fourth round well below the radar. After that she stunned a handful of top players to make the Final Four in New York, her first Slam semi at thirty-one years of age, and kept it up in Melbourne with a run to the quarters. This week in Indian Wells, a tournament at which she'd only once won more than two matches, she pulled off an upset of sixteenth seed Sam Stosur, then recouped quickly after a marathon against American upstart Sloane Stephens to shock Aussie champ Na Li in straight sets. With the win, Pennetta had entrée to her first final in over two years and the possibility of her first title in almost four.

She'd be the underdog in this match, though. World #3 Agnieszka Radwanska had been on similar stages before, reaching the Wimbledon final in 2012 and having already added a couple Premier-level titles to her mantle, and having survived threats from one-time champion Jelena Jankovic and Romanian upstart Simona Halep, she was the clear favorite. But Pennetta had won their last meeting in Dubai just a few weeks ago and Aga was visibly struggling with injury throughout Sunday's match. Flavia secured an early break on the Pole and never ceded the lead. In just over an hour she'd secured the win, easily the biggest crown during her veteran career, and put her star back definitively on the map -- as of today's WTA rankings, she's #12 in the world, a far cry from the doldrums she trolled over the summer.

There's not a lot of time for either of these newly-minted champions to revel in their wins, though -- while both get byes in the first round of the Sony Ericsson Open, the ladies' action begins in less than twenty-four hours! Still, if they recover in time, as they've both shown they can do, it could be another big fortnight for both these guys. And there's no reason they won't be able to carry that momentum with them to even bigger things throughout this year.

No comments: