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.

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