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

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