April 29, 2014

Topsy Turvy

Things sure got a little crazy in the back half of last week, didn't they? While there was plenty of star power on the courts of Stuttgart and Barcelona, they didn't always deliver the way they were expected to, and the ones who stuck around for championship weekend, may have surprised even themselves with their performances. In the end, though, the dust did settle, and the players who walked away with the titles proved they have what it takes to withstand the tumult.

Agnieszka Radwanska and red-hot ingenue Simona Halep took the top seeds at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, but neither could make good on their status -- Halep, who made the semis in Indian Wells, lost her opener in Germany to veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova, while Aga at least made the quarters before bowing out to Maria Sharapova. Ultimately MaSha contested the final against a plucky Ana Ivanovic, who battled through a slew of tough opponents to get to her third final of the year -- Kuznetsova, Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki, 2011 champion Julia Goerges, and former world #1 Jelena Jankovic. The Serb even took the first set off the Grand Slammer, a woman she hadn't beaten in almost seven years, but eventually the tide turned. In a set with twelve breaks of serve, Sharapova forced a decider and rolled through the third to retain the title for a third straight year, successfully snapping a year-long trophy-less streak. And after the string of relatively disappointing results she's had so far this year -- at #9 now, she's at her lowest ranking in over three years -- it might just give her the push she needs to deliver even bigger returns the rest of the season.

Things got even more interesting on the clay courts of Barcelona, which have been ruled by one Rafael Nadal since 2005. But the eight-time champion, riding a forty-two match win streak here, was foiled in a rematch of last year's final against Nicolas Almagro, this time losing in the quarters. Nico, however, couldn't sustain his momentum and was ousted a round later by Colombian Santiago Giraldo, ranked just #65 in the world. On the bottom half of the draw, fourth seeded Kei Nishikori -- who beat David Ferrer and Roger Federer in Miami -- fought off challenges from recent upstart Roberto Bautista Agut and previously on-fire Marin Cilic to reach his second final in 2014. The man from Japan had experience on his side Sunday too -- against a man who'd lost the only other final he'd played before, he won three-quarters of his first-serve points and three-quarters of his second-serve returns. After just over an hour, Nishikori had claimed the title, the biggest of his career, and secured his spot as #12 in the world, just ahead of long-time, top-ten staple Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and veterans Tommy Haas and Mikhail Youzhny.

Whether this weekend's champions can parlay recent success to bigger trophies in the weeks to come, of course, remains to be seen. But that they were able to keep they're cool when so much around them was getting turned upside down sure bodes well for their prospects. And with some real favorites proving there are some holes in their armors, these winners could really take the opportunity and pounce

April 24, 2014

Time to Step Up

The clay court season got underway in earnest this week, and while many of the sport's top stars are taking to the courts of Barcelona and Stuttgart, it might be the action at some lower-profile events that warrants some real attention. The fields might seem a little less intimidating, but that only increases the pressure on the favorites to perform -- and opens the door for the underdogs to really show us what they've got.

World #30 Daniela Hantuchova takes the top seed in Marrakech, and was tested from the start. She dropped her opening set to little-known qualifier Renata Voracova before rallying to win her next two matches. The one-time top-five player has never won a title on the dirt, though, so she might still be a long-shot for this one. Instead watch out for Garbine Muguruza, the young Spaniard who stormed through qualifying rounds in Hobart to win her first career title and then rode that momentum to the fourth round in Melbourne. She lost three first rounds in a row, though, before coming to Morocco, and should be looking to turn her luck back around. Next up she'll face fellow comeback kid, Shahar Peer -- the veteran was a stone's throw from the top ten not that long ago, but has since fallen all the way to #92. Her only title since 2009 came at a 125K-level event last year in China, and she's barely won more than two matches at any event in quite some time. Peer hasn't had to face a seed here yet -- her last opponent took care of rising star Elina Svitolina for her -- but if she sinks her teeth in early should could prove to be a real spoiler in this draw.

Over in Bucharest all eyes are on Grigor Dimitrov, who won his second career title in Acapulco a few months back and subsequently climbed to a high ranking of #14 in the world. He was pushed by another young upstart, Jiri Vesely, in Wednesday's second round, but should have an easier time against his next opponent, a battle-worn Sergiy Stakhovsky, who's gone three sets in his last two matches. Still, Dimitrov's had most of his success on other surfaces -- he won Juniors titles at Wimbledon and New York and has only gone as far as the third round in Roland Garros -- so there's plenty of room for underdogs here too. Famed giant-slayer Lukas Rosol won his only title here last year, and though he's not seeded here he did manage an upset over Jarkko Nieminen to make the quarterfinals. And Robin Haase, who'd only won three matches all year before heading to Romania, today pulled off the upset of the event so far, taking out world #15 Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets. He won't face another seed until at least the semis, so the Dutchman could really make a legitimate play for this title. And after the season he's had, there might not be a better time.

The favorites, of course, have plenty of potential to deliver on their status this week, but with the fields so wide open in both Marrakech and Bucharest, it really does seem to be anybody's game. And for whoever is able to rise to the challenge -- or seize the opportunity -- it could be a big step for the rest of their season.

April 21, 2014

A Changing of the Guard

Well I'm not sure anyone was expecting the results we got at this weekend's tournaments. With a Master summarily dethroned and a newbie finally seeing through her potential, the two champions crowned on Sunday might not have been the ones we'd expected, but they could be a signal of just how much things have changed.

With many of the ladies on Tour occupied with Fed Cup action this weekend, the draw in Kuala Lumpur was a little sparse. Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova, the only top-forty player in the field, should have been the clear favorite, and she began her campaign like she was on a mission. She struggled a bit in later rounds, though, coming back against Zarina Diyas and Karolina Pliskova, but eventually reached the final, her third of the year.

Meanwhile in the other half of the draw, wide open with the four seeds averaging a #83 ranking, young Donna Vekic seemed to turn around her luck a bit. The seventeen year old who'd reached the final in Birmingham in 2013 and in Tashkent the year before, had lost her first four matches of the season and, despite causing a nice upset of Svetlana Kuznetsova in Miami, nevertheless lost easily a round later. She was granted the seventh seed in Malaysia, but was tested from the start and dropped opening sets to her first two opponents. In the topsy-turvy final she was trailing too, down a set and 4-5 before rattling off seven straight games for a 4-0 lead in the decider.

But things are never easy on the ladies' Tour, and after missing three match points, the Croat found herself in a tiebreak for the trophy. Ultimately she was able to hold tougher, eking out the match in a nearly three-hour battle, scoring just one more point than her opponent, but decidedly an important one. The win marked Vekic's first career win over a top-ten player and made her the youngest champion in almost seven years*, quite a milestone for the rising star. Now up at #65 in the world and having finally followed up one win with another, she could prove to be quite a factor in the big events in the months to come. She's certainly still in the early stages of her career, but she might just be ready to take the reins.

There was a little more experience on the court in Monte Carlo, and the stakes were understandably higher at the first Masters event of the clay court season. Some of the favorites bowed out early -- Mikhail Youzhny dropped his opener to Andreas Seppi while fifth seed Tomas Berdych succumbed to red-hot Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in his third round. But the surprise exit of eight-time champion Rafael Nadal in the quarters really tilted the apple cart, and the subsequent semifinal loss of injury-addled Novak Djokovic, the first man to beat Rafa in Morocco since 2003, only added to tumult.

Ultimately two Swiss stars were left standing -- Roger Federer, three times a loser to Nadal in the final here, and recently baptized Stanislas Wawrinka, playing in just the third Masters 1000 final of his career. It was the pair's fifteenth meeting, and while the less-experienced Wawrinka held the slightly higher ranking -- #3 versus #4 -- he'd won only one of their previous matches, on these courts actually, but way back in 2009. He started out in a deficit this time too, losing the first set in Roger's attempt to win his twenty-second Masters crown, but came back with a vengeance, taking a tiebreak to force a third and closing out the match in just over two hours.

It was Wawrinka's third title of the year, making 2014 his most prolific season to date, and maybe more importantly cements his standing as one of the sport's top players. After years of hanging out in the second tier, he's somehow managed a 6-0 record against top ten players this year, and is now firmly atop the leaderboard in the race to London. He may have struggled a bit after his breakthrough in Melbourne -- he fell to Alexandr Dolgopolov and Kevin Anderson during the spring Masters season -- but with his triumph in Monte Carlo, he's shown he can up his game against the very best. And with bigger tournaments on the horizon, he might just be able to go on a run no one saw coming.

To varying degrees, both of this weekend's champions proved they can deliver when it counts, and if they can keep their momentum going over the next few weeks and months, there's really no telling what they can accomplish. Of course Wawrinka has the experience to really take it to the big guys, while Vekic, still younger than so many in the field, is still just getting her footing. But both have the talent to cause some big surprises. And at a time of year when anything can happen, there may be no better chance for them to shine.

Vania King was about two months younger when she won in Bangkok in 2006.

April 17, 2014

Fed Cup Semifinal Preview: Stealing the Spotlight

The two teams that will ultimately contest this year's Fed Cup championship will be decided this weekend, and though the four countries in the semis have some long and storied histories, there sure seems to be some new blood in the mix. And the way this year's gone so far, the stand-out performances may not come from the players you'd expect.

Germany vs. Australia

There'll be a lot of high-ranking power on the court in Brisbane, with world #7 Angelique Kerber leading the charge for the Germans and former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur talking the helm for the Aussies. But neither has had a particularly good year -- Stosur, now barely in the top twenty, hasn't won more than two matches at an event since Melbourne, while Kerber, a quarterfinalist in Miami, has nevertheless lost to then-#107 Tsvetana Pironkova and little-known Maria-Teresa Torro Flor. It doesn't mean, of course, that they won't be favorites this weekend, or that they won't come through when buoyed by their country's support -- still, a couple others might put a new spin on things.

Doubles stars Casey Dellacqua and Ashleigh Barty have had their share of success when paired up -- together they reached the final of three Slams last year -- but they're even starting to thrive on their own. Young Barty -- she's only seventeen -- still has to qualify for most singles events, but she did beat Kiki Bertens and Daniela Hantuchova in Brisbane. Meanwhile veteran Dellacqua reached the fourth round of her hometown Major in January and followed it up by taking out Kirsten Flipkens and Roberta Vinci on her way to the Indian Wells quarters. For the Germans look for Andrea Petkovic to solidify her comeback -- the one-time top ten player is back at #28 in the world, and is fresh off a title in Charleston, where she knocked off three higher seeds. And Julia Goerges, who had briefly fallen into triple digits at the start of the year, has managed wins over Elena Vesnina and Sara Errani this year. If either one plays to her potential, there are few on the Australians' side that could stop them.

Italy vs. Czech Republic

We could potentially see more fireworks in the tie being contested in the Czech Republic, where the top-ranked teams face off. Here again the higher ranked players have some of the less impressive records on the year. The Czech's Petra Kvitova did make the quarters in Miami, but with six three-set matches already this year, her wins haven't come easy. And the Italians, missing their most successful player this season, are instead lead by Sara Errani, who's lost mostly to players outside the top ten this year, and Roberta Vinci, who's somehow only won two singles matches this year.

Instead it may be time for others to shine. Lucie Safarova, who won her first title in over five years last fall in Quebec City, was the only woman to take a set off Na Li on her way to the Australian Open title and came through for her compatriots in a big way during the first round of Fed Cup. She also reached the quarters in Charleston with her ninth career win over on-paper favorite Sam Stosur. And Klara Koukalova has reached three finals this year, even winning a title in Florianopolis. Both seem to be having career-making years and this weekend might just be the next big step for either. But no one should ignore Italy's Camila Giorgi, a surprise finalist in Katowice this past weekend. Now a stone's throw from the top fifty, she's pulled off six upsets this year, the biggest over Maria Sharapova in Indian Wells. She might not get top billing this weekend, but she could be a clincher if things get tough.

It always gets interesting when we come down to the wire at Fed Cup -- the team spirit so often brings out another level of play that a simple trophy just can't always elicit. Perhaps that's why this weekend's dark horses have so much potential to deliver big wins for their homelands. And whoever comes out on top will know they've earned it.

April 13, 2014

Unlikely Heroes

During a weekend in which only one top seed made it to a final, we shouldn't be surprised that things didn't go entirely according to plan when deciding where the trophies went. In fact, just one of the four titles awarded Sunday went to the higher seed in the championship match, and even those players who didn't come away the winners put in performances that could launch them into a new level of play.

Alize Cornet may have been the favorite in the Katowice Open final, but certainly did some heavy lifting to get there. The French wildcard dropped a bagel set to the former Klara Zakopalova (née Koukalova) but scored a comeback in the quarters and, after losing the first six games to top-seeded Aga Radwanska in the semis, rallied for the upset to reach her second championship of the year. And while this time she made good on her favored status, the real story in Poland may have been that of Camila Giorgi. The young Italian had pulled off big wins in the past, most recently against Maria Sharapova in Indian Wells, but had yet to follow up one victory with another. This week, though, she took down Roberta Vinci -- inexplicably still ranked in the top twenty, despite having won just two matches this year -- veteran Shahar Peer, and always tricky Carla Suarez Navarro. In the final she was down a set and a break before forcing a decider, and even came back from a two-break deficit to even the score. She did lose eventually, in a three-plus hour long marathon battle, but having finally kept momentum going for longer than a day she may have proven she has some staying power.

Underdogs had a little more luck elsewhere this weekend. At the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston, the two top players, John Isner and Tommy Robredo, both lost their openers, allowing numbers three and four to grind their way to the final. Nicolas Almagro, who'd only won one match in the last two months -- he'd skipped January's events with injury -- had a few relatively easy early rounds and got a walkover from Sam Querrey in the semis. Fourth-seeded Fernando Verdasco made it an all-Spanish final -- after a challenge from Steve Johnson in his opener, he rolled through his next two matches to make his first championship match since last July. He hadn't had much luck when playing for a title, though, losing in his last six attempts and going trophy-less for almost four years, and at #29 in the world with just five career crowns to Almagro's thirteen, he was the on-paper underdog in Sunday's championship. But Verdasco had the better record against his compatriot, 6-3 head-to-head, and capitalized on that history from the start -- taking advantage of weak serving from his opponent, he got the break in the first set and, after saving set points in the second, stayed stronger in the tiebreak to close out the win. While the size of the upset may not have been tremendous, the importance of the win -- the end of a long losing streak -- was much greater, and could bode well for the upcoming clay court season.

Things got a little more dramatic in Casablanca. Here, too, high seeds lost early -- Gael Monfils pulled out after his big Davis Cup weekend, while both Kevin Anderson, red-hot at the start of the season, and crowd favorite Benoit Paire, lost early. Ultimately fourth seed Marcel Granollers, a middle-of-the-road singles player who's been ranked in the twenties and thirties the last several years, and yet another Spaniard, Guillermo Garcia Lopez, well off his career high #23 in the world, were left contesting the final. Like with Verdasco, his last title came in 2010, but the thirty-year-old had beaten Monfils in Miami and had put together wins over the likes of Carlos Berlocq and Paire already this week. He also had history on his side, having won his only previous Tour meeting with Granollers at this event four years ago. But the younger finalist got the lead in this contest, taking the first set and fighting back from a break down in the second. But GGL stayed tougher here too, forcing a decider and then never looking back. It was just his third career championship -- and, again, his first in over three years -- and the win brings him back into the top forty for the first time since 2011. If he keeps the momentum over the next couple weeks, who knows what he could accomplish -- he might just be able to turn the big events upside down.

Speaking of rocking the boat, there may have been no bigger surprise this weekend than what we saw in Bogota. Former world #1 Jelena Jankovic made good on her top seeding at the Copa Claro and reached her first final since taking the title there last year without dropping a set. But with the three seeds below her all losing their openers -- and the other not fairing much better -- she didn't face anyone in the top seventy-five until Sunday. And even then she only faced off against world #74 Caroline Garcia, who'd only just made her first Tour semi a few weeks back in Acapulco. But the young Frenchwoman can play on clay -- remember a few years back when she so nearly took out Maria Sharapova in the Roland Garros second round -- and after forcing Serena Williams to a third set in Miami, she might just be improving her overall game too. In today's match she needed barely eighty minutes to dispatch Jankovic, her first ever win over a top ten player. The victory brings Garcia to within a stone's throw of the top fifty, and with several weeks of dirt events still to come, I would expect her climb even higher and maybe finally prove herself on the big stage.

Across the board this weekend's winners proved themselves up to the task against some formidable foes. And these long shots, able to perform at their best when it really counted, may have really turned a corner -- whether launching their careers or cementing a comeback, every one of them showed they're ones to watch.

And the next time they take the court, they might not be much of dark horse at all.

April 7, 2014

Back From the Brink

It sure came down to the wire this weekend at Davis Cup, with three of the four quarterfinal ties undecided until the last minute. It took some clutch performances when it counted most and featured some big upsets from unlikely stars, and in the end we're left with a talented group of teams that could very well make history.

It wasn't all edge-of-your-seat drama, of course. The two-time defending champion Czechs were the first to clinch their spot in the semis against an upstart Japanese team. Even without their star Tomas Berdych, a wily team helmed by -- go figure -- Lukas Rosol and veteran Radek Stepanek put together a 2-0 lead going into the weekend, and the two paired in the doubles rubber to give the Czechs an insurmountable lead. Rising star Jiri Vesely's win Sunday wasn't necessary, but sealing the victory with a 5-0 sure put an exclamation point on the dominating performance -- when the whole team shows up in the next tie, it'll be hard to beat them.

The French had a little tougher task after their Day One. Against an underdog German team -- they're top four players were missing this weekend -- Julien Benneteau dropped his opener to world #96 Tobias Kamke and headliner Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was pushed in a long fifth set, ultimately losing to Peter Gojowczyk, who hadn't won a match since his stellar run in January. It was their doubles team that finally turned the tide in their favor -- Benneteau and Michael Llodra finally got the French on the board Saturday and Tsonga rallied Sunday to even the score with a win over Kamke. And in the final match for the weekend, Gael Monfils took the court against Gojowcyzk, built himself an early lead and never looked back. The French face off against the Czechs next -- their head-to-head record stands dead even at 7-7 -- so they'll need to up their game. But they've certainly shown they can never be counted out, and in a setting like Davis Cup, there's no reason they can't keep their streak going.

The Italians had slightly more breathing room going into the weekend, but not much. While recently strong Fabio Fognini scored the tie's first point against Britain's James Ward, formerly formidable Andreas Seppi wasn't able to keep the momentum going against two-time Grand Slam titleist Andy Murray. The Brits took the lead on Saturday too, with Murray teaming with doubles specialist Colin Flemings to grab a 2-1 lead in the tie. With Murray taking the court again against Fognini in the first reverse singles match, it seemed likely the Italians would be sent packing -- the pair had split their previous two meetings, but the last came almost five years ago, and while Andy had slipped slightly to #8 in the world, he was still the clear favorite. But Murray wasn't at his best on Sunday and Fognini scored the upset in straight sets. And Seppi regrouped for his final rubber, closing out Ward and sending Italy to the semis for the first time in over fifteen years.

Also reaching new ground this weekend -- somewhat surprising considering the individual success of their top star over the past decade -- were the Swiss, who reached their first semi since 2003, but not in the way you'd expect. Stanislas Wawrinka, the breakout star of this season, may have supplanted long-time top-five fixtures like Andy Murray and David Ferrer as the Next Big Thing with his 11-0 start to the year, but he hadn't reached even a quarterfinal since and he opened his campaign against the Kazakhs with a four-set loss to world #64 Andrey Golubev. Stalwart Roger Federer sent the Swiss into the weekend even, but they got behind again when Golubev teamed with even lesser-known Aleksandr Nedovyesov to take the doubles rubber. Like with the Italians, it all came down to Wawrinka in the first reverse singles match Sunday, and this time the favorite made it count. After losing the first set in a tiebreak to Mikhail Kukushkin, Stan pulled himself together and closed out the match. Roger did his part too, downing Golubev in straight sets and keeping the Swiss hopes for their first ever Davis Cup still alive. They get homecourt advantage against Italy too, and if they continue to play to their ability, they could just ride their streak all the way to the end.

The excitement and drama around Davis Cup is only going to intensify from here, but this weekend's winners sure proved they can deliver when times are toughest. There's still a lot of ball left to be played, of course, but it sure looks like we could be in for something completely different this year. And I can think of no better way to stir things up.

April 4, 2014

A Door Creaks Open

It's been a good couple weeks for some of the stars of the WTA. Flavia Pennetta cemented her comeback with a win in Indian Wells, her biggest title to date, and Serena Williams closed out trophy #7 in Miami last weekend in dominating form. But the efforts got to both of them this week, and each lady bowed out of the first real clay court tournaments of the season earlier than expected. And that might have opened the door for other players looking to turn around a spate of bad luck in their own corners.

Uber-veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm took out Pennetta in their Monterrey Open first round, and followed the victory with a three-set win over Timea Babos. A couple other largely unknown names have also thrived south of the border -- qualifier Julia Boserup, ranked #302 in the world, took out Kirsten Flipkens on her way to the quarters and Jovana Jaksic, a winner of fourteen ITF titles and only one match win in a WTA main draw before this week, will face off today for an unlikely spot in the semis. But the bigger opportunity in Mexico lies with Caroline Wozniacki, seeded third and just off her lowest ranking in almost six years. She did reach the semis in Dubai and the quarters in Miami, so maybe she's been pulling her game together a bit over the last few months. She's handled challenges from American upstart Coco Vandeweghe and doubles champion Kristina Mladenovic already this week and should be the favorite today against Karolina Pliskova, though the Czech has put in some inspiring performances herself. If Caro can stay strong, she might just get back the confidence she needs to relaunch herself back in the elite

Up in Charleston, an exhausted and injured Serena lost her opening round to little-known Jana Cepelova who, to her credit, backed up the win by taking out another seed in Elena Vesnina. And as strong as the world #78 has been, the glaring hole in the draw has created opportunities for a slew of players who haven't tasted big victory in quite some time. Sara Errani, just hanging onto a spot in the top ten, has barely won more matches than she's lost this year, while former #1 Jelena Jankovic has only won one title since 2010. They're both still alive, but it's the lower seeds who could most surprise us. Quickly recovering Andrea Petkovic drubbed Sabine Lisicki in the third round and Daniela Hantuchova may not face a seed through the semis. But I'll keep an eye on Lucie Safarova, runner-up at the Family Circle Cup in 2012 -- she was the only player to take a set off eventual champion Na Li in Melbourne, even holding match point, and last night pulled off a stunning victory over Sam Stosur, bringing her record against the one-time Grand Slam champion to an impressive 9-2. She has a less impressive record against Petkovic, who she'll face in today's quarter, but could just have the momentum to push her a few matches more.

Of course the early exits of the very favorites at this week's tournaments should signal that nothing is certain -- and we've already seen several surprises in both draws, so there could very well be more in store. Whether these players take advantage of these opportunities remains to be seen, but the way they're playing there may never be a better chance to do so. And for some of them, a win could put them on a much brighter path for the rest of the year.