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.

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