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.

No comments: