May 31, 2014

10 Things Update: About a Week In...

Didn't I tell you things were going to get crazy at the French Open?

Since Day One we've seen some shocking upsets, the exit of champions and the rise of some unexpected stars. And as the rounds progressed, the surprises continued.

All that action tore quite a few holes in my wish list for Roland Garros. But while I may have gotten some of the details wrong, a couple themes still hold, so I thought it appropriate, as we kick off the last day of the first week, to revisit the things I'd like to have happen this fortnight, and nominate a few new candidates that now seem to fit the bill.

10. A dubious seed proves his worth

Well this was a tricky ask from the start. Roberta Vinci lost her opener, bringing her record on the year to an unimpressive 7-15. And while Jerzy Janowicz's loss in the third round to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was expected, he certainly should be able to pull off those upsets. Sorana Cirstea has a slightly better shot -- though she'll technically be the underdog against Jelena Jankovic in today's third round, she's won both their meetings on clay and might be able to keep things in her favor.

Hopefully the same can be hold true for twenty-fourth seed Fernando Verdasco, who's survived through his first two rounds by the skin of his teeth. One of the few men who've defeated Rafael Nadal on clay, the Spaniard picked up his first title in almost four years in Houston, but had otherwise put together a middling 10-8 record on the year. This week he toughed it out against Mikhail Kukushkin in his opener, and had to come back after losing his first to sets to Pablo Cuevas late on Thursday. He'll have to raise his game higher versus Richard Gasquet in his next round, and if he does manage a win he'd likely face off next against Andy Murray -- no easy task. Still a few more surprises would do a lot to reinforce his ranking, and maybe even help him improve.

I've been even more impressed by Sloane Stephens, interestingly the only American woman left at the French. The world #19 was dead even in her 2014 record before Paris and had notched just one win over a top seventy player on clay this year. But she survived a test from Shaui Peng in her opener and only dropped serve once against Polona Hercog on Thursday. She'll be the higher seed when she meets Ekaterina Makarova today, but the Russian will be the biggest threat she's faced yet this week. It won't be an easy win, by any means, but if she gets it done, it could certainly right her career this season.

And John Isner, almost always a tenuous seed at the Majors, has so far lived up to his on-paper reputation. He's lost on dirt this year to the likes of Federico Delbonis, Jurgen Melzer and, most discouraging, then-#101 Dustin Brown, and with less than a fifty percent win record on this surface, I wasn't expecting him to do too much at Roland Garros. Admittedly he's been scraping by this first week -- in eleven sets he's played eight tiebreaks -- but he stuck it out versus veteran Tommy Robredo on Friday. The stakes get higher from here, of course, but even as the tenth seed here, the run to his first fourth round in Paris seems impressive. Even if he loses to Tomas Berdych next, I'll be happy with what he's done.

9. An underdog follows through

All my original picks in this section, unfortunately, have had to book their tickets home -- Jeremy Chardy and Dominic Thiem both won their openers, but ran into the two favorites in the second rounds, Novak Djokovic and eight-time champion Rafael Nadal, respectively. Camila Giorgi had a slightly better shot at advancing, facing totally beatable 2009 titleist Svetlana Kuznetsova on Thursday.

But others have so far kept their cool after exacting big wins. Kristina Mladenovic, who shocked 2011 champ Na Li in the first round, battled through an injury timeout to make her first Paris third round. While she faces a tough Andrea Petkovic for a spot in the sweet sixteen, the German struggled in her last match too and the Frenchwoman could take advantage. On the men's side, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez suffered little fatigue after ousting Melbourne winner Stan Wawrinka in his first round. He had a little hiccup on Thursday, but delivered a fourth set bagel to Adrian Mannarino to close out that match. And with a third round meeting with streaky Donald Young, I like his chances of making it into Week Two.

8. A breakout has a breakthrough

This one was also almost totally a farce. Caroline Garcia and Donna Vekic both lost their openers, and while Jiri Vesely lasted a round longer, he couldn't keep leads he had on Milos Raonic in their second round. Roberto Bautista-Agut, too, the group's best shot at delivering, didn't repeat his Indian Wells triumph over Tomas Berdych, falling on Friday in four sets.

Meanwhile, Garbine Muguruza seems to have recaptured the fire she had to start the year. After picking up her first career title in Hobart and defeating Caroline Wozniacki on her way to the Melbourne fourth round, she went a little quiet during the spring. But she sure turned up the volume in Paris, shocking Serena Williams in an hour-long, straight-set victory on Wednesday, and following up by dismissing fellow upset-causer Anna Schmiedlova yesterday. She'll face unseeded Pauline Parmentier, playing her first ever Major fourth round, for a spot in the quarters, and maybe she can ride that momentum even farther.

7. A fish jumps out of water

South Africa's Kevin Anderson is the only one still alive among this bunch, so it'd be great to see him continue to keep one of my calls alive. To be fair, the nineteenth seed hasn't had the toughest couple rounds, opening against Austranlian Cinderella Stephane Robert and facing wildcard Alex Michon in the second round, but he hasn't dropped a set yet. And while he faces another big server in Ivo Karlovic today, he won the pair's last meeting in Delray and could get the momentum he needs to improve on his fourth round showing here from last year.

6. Hard work is paid off

While most in this section have also fallen earlier than I'd have liked, Fabio Fognini has been impressive in his first two rounds of play, against two very solid opponents -- Andreas Beck has picked up a couple Challenger trophies this year and Thomaz Bellucci, coming back from injury, has won all three of his titles on clay. Fognini, though, a quarterfinalist here in 2011 took care of them both and will face off against former top-ten player Gael Monfils next. He is the on-paper favorite in this match, and holds a winning 3-2 record over the Frenchman, so he should be able to advance. Whether he can repeat his Cinderella run from three years ago still remains to be seen, but I kind of like his chances.

5. A phoenix rises

I feel a little bad about this one -- my original wish list came out the morning before news broke of Caroline Wozniacki's split with that dude, and she of course did not rebound quite as quickly as he did. I'll put my money on her for next time though.

But my other picks are still alive and kicking. Former world #1 Jelena Jankovic dropped the first set she played here, but quickly recovered to take out Sharon Fichman and after a tight opener against Rio champ Kurumi Nara, she delivered a bagel in the second round. She's lost both of her meetings with third round opponent Sorana Cirstea on clay, though, so she might have to pick up her game a little. Meanwhile compatriot Ana Ivanovic is looking even stronger. She survived what could have been a big challenge from Caroline Garcia in her opener and handily dispatched Ukrainian teenager Elina Svitolina on Thursday. While Petra Kvitova is the favorite in her immediate section of the draw, and world #4 Simona Halep cannot be ignored, I wouldn't be surprised if the Serb really took this opportunity to make a statement.

4. A runner-up repeats (or goes one better...)

Dominika Cibulkova is so far the only one in this group who's been knocked out, though, to be fair she's also the only one who's played her third round.

But after a little blip in her opener, 2012 finalist Sara Errani came back strong to take out young American Madison Keys and advanced over Dinah Pfizenmaier with little drama. She'll meet Israel's Julia Glushko, barely ranked in the double digits next, and should be the heavy favorite. And last year's runner-up David Ferrer hasn't dropped a set in his first two matches, spending under three-and-a-half hours on court so far. He'll face Andreas Seppi on Saturday, a man who very nearly beat Novak Djokovic here two season's ago, but the Italian's game has fallen a bit and should prove little trouble to the world #5.

Whether either can ride early successes to another final in Paris -- well, I'm not sure. But with the draws clearing out so much over the first couple days, there's no reason not to hold out hope.

3. A first-time Major winner is crowned

Kei Nishikori knocked himself out of the running here early, but both Carla Suarez Navarro and Tomas Berdych have reached the fourth round already, the latter having avenged that shocking Indian Wells loss to then-unknown Roberto Bautista-Agut. And while the Czech has a little more experience on the big stage -- he made the semis here in 2010, just before stunning Roger Federer on his way to the Wimbledon final -- the Spanish señorita is in a wide-open section of the draw and could be the big beneficiary of that.

But perhaps Milos Raonic has established himself as another spoiler here. Somewhat surprisingly, the world #9 has never gotten out of the third round in Paris, and he barely did this time either -- after having to come back from breaks against upstart Jiri Vesely in his second round, he got down sets to hometown favorite Gilles Simon twice on Friday -- and nearly squandered a lead in the fifth -- before finally closing out the three-plus hour match. He's in the same section of the draw as Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych, so even if he makes his first Major quarterfinal he'll have his work cut out for him. Still it seems inevitable the Canadian will eventually win a Slam, so why not get things going now.

2. MaSha doubles up

This was sort of a long shot when I first wrote it, but with Serena's exit in the early rounds, not only have Maria Sharapova's prospects in Paris improved, she might have just established herself as the favorite.

Sure, there are still a couple higher seeds left in the draw, but only Petra Kvitova has ever won a Slam before and Jelena Jankovic is the only other one to even play in a final -- and both those runs feel like they came decades ago. Meanwhile Sharapova is coming off wins in Stuttgart and Madrid, and her double bagel over Paula Ormaechea in her third round Friday shows she's far from tired. She'll meet Sam Stosur for a spot in the quarters, and the 2010 runner-up has been launching a comeback of her own in recent weeks. But Maria's only lost two of the the pair's fifteen career meetings, and something tells me she's not going to let that number change anytime soon.

1. Rafa takes home #9

After his performance during his first two matches I'm breathing a little easier than before. Rafael Nadal has only lost ten games so far at the French Open, fewer than anyone else in the men's field, and with the promise of facing no seeds until at least the quarters, he's unlikely to drop many more in the immediate future. Still with one major exception, the men's draw hasn't been nearly as decimated as the ladies' and big threats still loom from the likes of Roger Federer, David Ferrer and even Andy Murray.

Of course Novak Djokovic, with the career Grand Slam and a #1 ranking on the line, continues to hold the best odds of turning the world upside down. While he did drop a tiebreak in his Friday third round, he's faced noticeably tougher challenges -- barely unseeded Jeremy Chardy and always tricky Marin Cilic -- and he's set to meet last year's semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round. But he's got the stamina to power through these tests, and I fully expect to see him challenge Rafa come finals weekend.

With a little more than a week left at this year's French Open, there's still plenty of opportunity for my revised wish list to be dashed again. Still, we've seen some impressive results from the favorites and the underdogs alike, and as we enter Week Two at Roland Garros the titles really do seem up for grabs.

So let's hope the excitement we see over the coming days matches that we saw in early rounds. And that the eventual champions deliver performances that live up to the standards already set.

May 27, 2014

The Young(-ish) Guns

The early rounds of a Grand Slam are often a great opportunity for young talent -- either in terms of age or experience -- to catch some of the favorites a bit off guard, and this year's French Open is no exception. But while many of the top seeds have so far fallen to tried-and-true veterans, plenty others have been taken completely by surprise. And the victors in those matches could last even deeper into the draws in Paris.

There was some early promise from a couple youngsters on the men's side. Jiri Vesely had a solid win over one-time giant-killer Lukas Rosol and even had a chance to serve out the first set versus Milos Raonic before falling in straights. And Madrid stand-out Dominic Thiem won his first match at Roland Garros over hometown favorite Paul-Henri Mathieu but was cursed with a second round against eight-time champion Rafael Nadal -- he lost today in a little over two hours.

But while both those guys ultimately fell to big, legitimate threats, a couple others have sneaked through. Twenty-three year old Dusan Lajovic, who started the year at #116 in the world, qualified for his first Major main draw in Australia and took sets off both Alexandr Dolgopolov and Stan Wawrinka this year. He began his French campaign with a win over Nice finalist Federico Delbonis -- a man who'd himself beaten both John Isner and Gilles Simon just last week -- and followed up today by taking out Jurgen Zopp in straight sets. He'll face another upstart next in American Jack Sock, once the surprised mixed doubles champion at the U.S. Open. He benefited from the retirement of Nicolas Almagro in his opening set but earlier today took out compatriot Steve Johnson, who'd barely survived his own first round. Sock is technically the favorite in this match, ranked seventy-fifth to Lajovic's #83, but something tells me not to trust the numbers. The Serb has won four Futures and two Challengers titles on the clay, and might just be the surprise Cinderella hanging around the second week.

On the women's side, a couple ladies with some impressive seasons have been continuing their success. Spain's Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor lost a bit of her momentum since picking up her first career title in Marrakech -- she'd won just one match after that. But she took out thirtieth seed Klara Koukalova in her opener and stayed tough against Magdalena Rybarikova to reach her first Slam third round. She'll face world #4 Simona Halep next, though, so it's tough to see her going much further. Countrywoman Silvia Soler-Espinosa, who broke back into the top hundred last week with a run to the Strasbourg final, might have a better shot at advancing. She started this week dispatching Chanelle Scheepers and earlier today handed a one-sided loss to former world #12 Yanina Wickmayer, known more these days for adding to the pain of Caroline Wozniacki. She's got a third round date with world #148 Kiki Bertens, certainly someone who can cause troubles, but an opponent that should be more than manageable.

And as impressive as all these performances have been, it's the young ladies in the top half of the draw who've really shone in the early rounds. Eighteen year old Taylor Townsend, the 2012 Juniors champion in Melbourne, made a successful debut in France's adult competition with an upset of homeland heroine Alize Cornet on Wednesday. And nineteen year old Anna Schmiedlova, who picked up a couple ITF titles in recent weeks and climbed to a career high of #56 in the world, improved on her second round showing last year. After taking out one-time Wimbledon and Aussie semifinalist Jie Zheng in her opener, she then stunned multiple-Major winner Venus Williams on Wednesday morning. That was followed quickly, of course, by the biggest shock of any Slam match this year, the loss of defending champion Serena Williams, who was coming off a title in Rome and an 8-0 clay court season. Garbine Muguruza, who'd cooled off some since her red hot start to the year, recorded the biggest win of her career, a straight set victory over the world #1 in just over an hour. And with no seeds in her way for at least two rounds, she's got a pretty good shot at turning around her underdog status.

The slew of upsets we've seen in the first few rounds of action in Paris may have made the draws a little less intimidating for the favorites, but wins by some players way below the radar prove they might just be in contention too. If their momentum continues into the coming rounds, the coming tournaments or the coming years, any one of them could establish themselves as forces way beyond just Roland Garros.

And the way they're playing, any one of them deserves it.

Stopped Short

Here's something you don't see very often -- with a full round of action just barely in the books at the French Open, both of this year's Grand Slam champions have already been ousted.

And it's not just them -- while the most experienced so far have advanced without drama, plenty of other favorites, and near favorites have faltered a little sooner than expected, proving once again how tricky the red clay of Roland Garros can be.

Caroline Garcia wasn't exactly a favorite in Paris, but the world #43 came to her hometown Major at her best ever ranking, having reached the quarters in Madrid and picking up her first career trophy in Bogota. She was one of my sleeper picks to reach the later rounds here, too, but that was before I knew she'd face off against 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic in her opener -- the barely hour-long match was much more one-sided than I'd expected, and while Garcia is sent home a round earlier than last year, the Serb reasserts her ability to make a run for the title. There will be challenges, of course -- former titleist Svetlana Kuznetsova and more-than-capable Simona Halep are both in her quarter -- but coupled with some big wins already this season, she might just have the confidence to keep her momentum going.

Grigor Dimitrov's loss earlier today might have been a little more shocking. Arguably one of the biggest threats in Rafael Nadal's section of the bracket, the young Bulgarian had made the semis in Madrid and picked up his first clay court crown in Bucharest -- and after making the second week in Melbourne, he was certainly high on my radar for potential breakthrough performance here. But the world #12 crashed out today at the hand of big-serving Ivo Karlovic. The Croat, who hadn't won a match at Roland Garros since 2007, fired off twenty-two aces over three sets and saved the only break opportunity he allowed. With so many seeds in this quarter falling -- Tommy Haas and Nicolas Almagro both retired during their first sets while tenuous #30 Vasek Pospisil dropped in straights -- the veteran Karlovic has a great opportunity to advance further. And after the win he already scored, I wouldn't put it past him.

Kei Nishikori's potential in Paris was a little more in question. Sure, with a couple titles this year and a run to the Madrid final, I thought he had the talent to really content for this trophy. But after losing his lead in Spain, retiring in the championship match and pulling out of Rome, whether he was well enough to compete was less clear. And facing tough-as-nails Martin Klizan, a Cinderella Down Under and the victor in Munich, his task was even harder. The Slovak survived a tough first set tiebreak, but then ran over his opponent in the back half of the match, capitalizing on a slew of errors and weak serving and winning almost twice as many points as Nishikori in the second hour. Klizan's never gotten out of the second round of this Slam, but next against Robin Haase -- a force, sure, but no clear favorite -- he might be able to change his luck this year.

The biggest shock on the men's side, though, by far, came at the expense of Australian Open champ Stanislas Wawrinka. The world #3 had some questionable results since his breakthrough run, but he did manage a solid campaign in Monte Carlo, notching wins over three top ten players, including his first over compatriot Roger Federer in five years. But last year's quarterfinalist had some bad luck in his draw -- his opening round opponent, Casablanca titleist Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, was one of my underdog picks for this title four years ago, and though he'd fallen a bit down the rankings, he had notched wins against Alexandr Dolgopolov and Tomas Berdych already this year. His win over Wawrinka, the third of his career, came when the Swiss was playing some of the best tennis of his career, and while he'd still likely face two-time Major winner Andy Murray if he makes the quarters this time, it's a job he might be up to taking on.

Like Wawrinka, Na Li was the only other person riding a perfect 7-0 record at the Majors this year, picking up a trophy in her third shot at the Melbourne final. And like Wawrinka, too, her momentum was halted before it even had a shot to resume. Li hadn't picked up another title since her time Down Under, but she made the semis in Indian Wells and the final in Miami. On clay, though, the surface of her first Grand Slam triumph, she was upset in both the Madrid and Rome quarters. And in her French Open return -- she lost in last year's second round to Bethanie Mattek-Sands -- she fell again, this time to world #103 Kristina Mladenovic, a winner of two mixed doubles Majors, but just five singles matches during her career. In a section of the bracket even more open now -- recovering Sara Errani and often-spotty Jelena Jankovic are the top seeds remaining -- the Frenchwoman could surely make a run for it while no one else is looking.

Whether the exit of the top players clears the path for others or indicates even more surprises to come is yet to be seen, but it certainly shows how fleeting momentum in this sport can be. And while there's no guarantee the players who caused these upsets will keep their own streaks going, these courts may provide the best opportunity for them to do just that. Hopefully they don't hit any brick walls themselves -- after all no one wants to be on the receiving end of the losses they've already dished out.

May 24, 2014

Blogcast: 2014 French Open Preview

After a spring full of surprises on clay, this year's French Open has the potential to be more exciting than ever.

For more of Tennis Spin's video content, please click the "Blogcasts" tab above.

May 21, 2014

French Open: 10 Things I Want to See

I admit I have a bad tendency to go into Grand Slams making big predictions, only to have the majority struck down in the first few days. Now I'm not all bad -- sometimes I pick the early upsets okay, but I tend to stick with the wrong Cinderella.

But I kinda did okay when telescoping the Australian Open this year. It wasn't all right, of course, but players like Simona Halep, Martin Klizan, Lauren Davis, Donald Young, and even Stanislas Wawrinka, to some extent, made some of my wishes come true. So hopefully by couching my "predictions" as "hopes" will yield similar -- or even better -- results this time around.

As before it's impossible for all the following to happen, and not just because a few "wishes" necessarily preclude others. A couple on this list are super long shots, others are practically in the bag. And while some may seem similar to those I highlighted in January, each carries with it nuances particular to the courts of Roland Garros, where we know nothing should be unexpected.

So without further ado here's the rundown, in somewhat particular order, of things I'm primed to see happen at this year's French Open.

10. A dubious seed proves his worth

As I did the last time, let's get the snark out of the way early.

It's natural that, no matter how closely you follow the sport, you get to a Slam and there are a couple players among the seeds you didn't expect to see there. Hopefully it's because they snuck up the rankings without anyone realizing it -- putting together consistent wins at Challenger or ITF events or by sticking around deep into main draws even if they don't make a big splash.

But then there is the other type of seed -- the kind that's "grandfathered in" to this year's elite by last season's successes, holding on to his place as a favorite -- or semi-favorite -- by the skin of his teeth. And it's high time these guys show they belong here.

Take for example Jerzy Janowicz, whose breakthrough at the Paris Masters in 2012 was followed by an unlikely run to the Wimbledon semis last year. He peaked at #14 in the world last August and put together a tidy 27-20 record for the year. But in 2014 he's lost more than he won and, in fact, dropped every match he's played since early February -- that five opening round losses at Masters-level events. Thanks mostly to his stellar run at the All England Club, he's still brandishing a #22 seed this fortnight, but his grasp on that standing is tenuous at best.

Then there's Roberta Vinci, who rose to a career-high #11 after a run to the fourth round here last June, picking up trophies in Katowice and Palermo to boot. But the year-end #1 doubles player, two years in a row, started off this season losing her first six matches. It wasn't until Oeiras last month that she was able to put together two wins in the same week. She's seeded seventeenth at the French, though in the road to Singapore she's an unimpressive #70, behind the likes of Monterrey finalist Jovana Jaksic, who was playing in just her third WTA-level event, and oft-injured Timea Bacsinszky, who's spent most of the last year recovering on the ITF circuit.

Even worse might be the recent performance of Sorana Cirstea, who maybe appropriately had her breakout in Paris five long years ago. She returns to Paris ranked #27 in the world, but since her run to the Toronto final last summer, she's lost in thirteen first rounds and four times to players ranked in triple digits. She's had to climb back from the depths before -- after her run late last decade she fell out of the top hundred herself in 2010 -- and this is her most successful Slam, so hope is not lost for the Romanian. But she'll need to deliver when she hits the courts this time, or she may lose her place so close to the top.

9. An underdog follows through

While these seeds are definitely vulnerable in the early rounds, they're certainly not the only ones. As with every event, we're sure to see upsets starting Day One, and no one is immune to that. The problem, of course, is what comes after that -- time and again we see players pull off one huge upset, only to fall a round later. Whether it's Julia Goerges taking out seventh-seed Sara Errani in her Australia opener and then losing to Lauren Davis, or Steve Darcis who pulled out of Wimbledon last year after stunning Rafael Nadal in the first round, it can be hard to keep momentum going. But this time a couple players who've managed big wins this season -- and have the potential for even more -- could just make this the tournament they prove they're not one-trick ponies.

Young Austrian Dominic Thiem has been chomping at the bit all year long, winning the first match he played at a Grand Slam in Melbourne and causing upsets of Gilles Simon and Marcel Granollers in the following months. His biggest triumph, of course, came in Madrid over Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka, a generally strong clay-court player who somehow crumbled after taking the first set 6-1. Thiem, however, withdrawing from the next round due to illness, didn't get a chance to back up the first top-ten win of his career. But he's having encouraging results in Nice, so far, coming back from a set and break down to beat Steve Johnson in his opener, so something tells me he'll have more cracks at the elite soon -- at a career high ranking of #58 in the world, he's not quite high enough to get a seed in Paris, but depending on how the draw shakes out, he has more than a good shot at causing a little bit of agita among the favorites.

Jeremy Chardy knows what it's like to tear up the draw a little bit -- last year in Australia he followed up a win over Juan Martin Del Potro by taking out then #23 Andreas Seppi. He's been a little more under the radar in 2014, but last week in Rome scored one of the biggest wins of his career -- after losing the first set to the great Roger Federer 1-6, he stormed back to force a third, eking out a win in a tiebreak. He was able to keep his buzz a little longer, winning his next round against only slightly higher-ranked Ivan Dodig and forcing Milos Raonic to a deciding set, but ultimately fell short of making his first Masters semi. He certainly has the talent, though, and if he pounces early he could just make another big run in Paris.

But perhaps the player with the best shot at taking out a couple seeds in Paris is young Italian Camila Giorgi. The twenty-two year old had been a master of the one-and-done game -- back in 2012 she stunned Nadia Petrova at Wimbledon and immediately lost to Aga Radwanska, last year she took out Caroline Wozniacki in New York and then fell in straights to Roberta Vinci, and just a few months ago she scored perhaps her biggest win over defending Indian Wells champion Maria Sharapova only to be dominated by Flavia Pennetta. She did finally learn how to sustain some momentum in April, when she took out two seeds on her way to the Katowice final, which, for a moment there, it even looked like she'd win. She upset ninth seeded Dominika Cibulkova in Rome and is just a hair outside the top fifty, too. And after avenging her loss in Poland to Alize Cornet in Strasbourg this week, something tells me she might be ready to rise even higher in Paris

8. A breakout has a breakthrough

These aren't the only players who can cause a stir at the French Open, of course -- a few who've hit some real milestones this season seem primed to finally deliver on a big stage.

Jiri Vesely might be the least accomplished of this lot -- still ranked outside the top hundred, the young Czech is making just his fourth Slam appearance. But the 2011 ITF Junior World Champion and the 2013 ATP Star of Tomorrow won his fist matches on the big boys' Tour this year, even taking a set off Andy Murray in the Indian Wells third round. This week in Dusseldorf, he's already upset eighth seeded Igor Sijsling and former world #3 Nikolay Davydenko. He hasn't yet made many strides at the Majors, but he did take the first two sets off big-serving Kevin Anderson Down Under, and with eight of his twelve Challenger and Futures titles coming on this surface, he might be able to do even better this time around.

Donna Vekic has long been on my radar at the Majors, but she's only managed a couple wins over low ranked players like Lucie Hradecka and Marina Duque Marino during her short tenure. She's had better showings elsewhere on Tour, though, reaching the 2012 Tashkent final as a qualifier and beating Urszula Radwanska and Sorana Cirstea in Birmingham last year. The problem is, like with many players trying to find their groove, the Croatian can be a little spotty -- she didn't win her first match this season until early March, then ousted Svetlana Kuznetsova in Miami, went on to defeat Melbourne runner-up Dominika Cibulkova for the Kuala Lumpur title...and failed to qualify for Madrid. Still, she's claimed her first trophy and marked her first top-ten win, putting her on track for bigger and better things down the road. But there's no reason she can't realize that potential in the short-term, and finally make some waves on a big stage.

Caroline Garcia nearly did that way back in 2011 at Roland Garros. At just seventeen, she was up a set and a break on Maria Sharapova, looking ready to cause the upset of the tournament, when experience won out and the Frenchwoman was sent packing. She hasn't done much at the Majors since, notching just a handful of wins over low-ranked opponents and never progressing past the second round. But she certainly seems to have turned things around this season -- after a 0-4 start, she took out Aussie Cinderella Genie Bouchard in Acapulco, pushed Serena Williams to three sets in Miami, shocked Jelena Jankovic for the Bogota title and reached the quarterfinals in Madrid. She comes to Paris at a career high ranking of #46 in the world, again shy of a seed, but certainly capable of an upset. And after the year she's had so far it'd be a shame to see her head home early.

Roberto Bautista Agut probably has an even better shot of sticking around in Paris. The twenty-eight year old was ranked well outside the top fifty this time last year, but has clawed his way to a twenty-seventh seed this fortnight -- and even that seems a little low. RBA made the semis in Auckland to start the season, stunned an albeit injured Juan Martin Del Potro at the Aussie Open, and ousted Tomas Berdych in Indian Wells. Earlier this month he reached his first Masters semi with wins over Tommy Robredo and Fernando Verdasco, and while he lost his opener in Rome, it seems he's primed to continue the tradition of great Spanish clay court players. And though his seeding certainly doesn't guarantee he won't be challenged early, it could give him added confidence once the pressure's turned up against the favorites.

7. A fish jumps out of water

It's no secret that the red clay is a tricky beast -- Pete Sampras, holder of so many records in this sport, and still one of the greatest of all time, only once got to the semifinals in Paris and won a paltry three of his sixty-four titles on the surface. It's hard for some players to make the transition to the dirt, and a couple who had stellar starts to the year have been pretty quiet since the season changed. But it would be nice to see them raise their voices again.

Despite hanging around the top-thirty range of this sport, Klara Koukalova has never really done much of note at the Slams. But she looked ready to do something big this year when she took out Sam Stosur to make the Hobart final and beat the top two seeds in Florianopolis to capture her first title since 2005. But despite making a nice run in Rio -- where she didn't face a single player in the top sixty, incidentally -- she hasn't won a match since the courts switched over in earnest. To be fair, she was given a few tough draws -- Sara Errani was her opening round opponent in Stuttgart, and eventual champion Maria Sharapova took her out in Madrid -- but she also lost to on-the-mend Polona Hercog this week in Nürnberg. Still, with a fourth round in Paris two years ago, she has shown some potential on these courts, and it would be great to see her make the transition in full.

Kevin Anderson also has a game that seems to translate better to the hard courts, especially this year. The South African reached finals in Delray Beach and Acapulco before pulling off his first real top-ten victory of the year over Stan Wawrinka in Indian Wells. His big serves don't seem to help much on the dirt though -- after a 15-6 start to the year, he's lost twice as much as he's won on clay since. He'll be a low seed by the time he gets to Roland Garros, sure, but on the upside, he's progressively done better each time he's played, winning one more match each year than he did the one before. With a trend like that, he could make the quarter this year, and a performance like that would certainly put an end to any doubts he has on this surface.

Meanwhile, Italian #2 Flavia Pennetta should be a powerhouse on the clay -- seven of her ten titles have come on the dirt -- but somehow her biggest recent successes were on hardcourts. She stunned four seeds on her way to the U.S. Open semis last year and cemented her resurgence with her biggest title to date in Indian Wells. But somehow during what's been the best part of her season, she's struggled a bit more -- while she too was the victim of tough draws, she fell to uber-veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm and only made it out of the second round once in her last four events. Pennetta is the kind of a wildcard wherever she plays, and my one-time pick for a semifinal spot, could surprise us all again.

Alexandr Dolgopolov may have even more potential to stir things up in Paris. Though he carries a somewhat middling ranking of #21 in the world, he's been the cause of some of the biggest upsets on Tour early this year -- it started, of course, with a win over Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells, the first time he'd ever taken a set off the defending champ, and he continued to the final by ousting Fabio Fognini and Milos Raonic, both ranked higher than him. He did well in Miami, too, reaching the quarters on the heels of a victory over Melbourne champ Stan Wawrinka. He was less impressive the last few weeks of the season, with only two wins at the clay Masters events, but we can't discount the run he had in Rio back in February -- he beat Fognini, Nicolas Almagro and then-#4 David Ferrer on his way to the final. And, as noted above, he's already avenged that loss to Rafa, so there's no reason to believe he can't see more success in the fortnight to come.

6. Hard work is paid off

As with the group above, there are a couple other players who deserve to see their successes rewarded with some nice results in Paris. But these guys have been putting in their time on the clay, and might just have a better shot at doing that.

After years of hanging out in the mid to low double digits, Santiago Giraldo has quietly scratched his way up to #34 in the world. The twenty-six year old Colombian made the semis in Viña del Mar and Houston, but really hit his stride in Barcelona where, even in a Rafa-less draw he reached the final with three top-thirty wins. A little over a week later, as a qualifier in Madrid, he stunned both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray to make his first Masters quarterfinal. He retired from his opener in Rome, though, after battling through another two qualifying rounds, so hopefully he'll be rested enough when he makes the trip to the French Open. He's only survived the first round there once before, after all, but at a career high ranking he's never had a better opportunity to make a run.

Grigor Dimitrov finally made his own run to the second week of a Major in Australia, but he has a good shot at repeating that this time around. After winning his first clay court title last month in Bucharest, he took out Tomas Berdych and Tommy Haas in Rome, surprisingly his first ever Masters semifinal. He's now at a career high rank of #12 in the world, has marked an impressive 13-3 record on clay this year and has two top-ten victories for the season -- the first came over Andy Murray in Acapulco. But he's only once made it to the third round in Paris, and it seems high time he moves the needle on that stat.

Fabio Fognini has actually already tasted success in Paris. When ranked just inside the top fifty in 2011, he snuck his way into the quarterfinals -- the only Major elite eight he's ever made -- after a four-plus hour fourth round before pulling out before his next match against Novak Djokovic. These days, he's much higher profile, sporting a #15 ranking and laying claim to three titles, all on clay. This is, not surprisingly, his best surface by far, and even when he struggles -- he lost his first ten games in Barcelona before retiring to Santiago Giraldo -- he seems to rebound nicely -- he followed that up with a second place finish in Munich. As with every Slam, his solid seeding doesn't necessarily guarantee an easy run, even early on in the tournament, but if the Italian can perform to his potential, there's no reason he can't make a good run here.

5. A phoenix rises

While some players are looking to parlay recent success into big things at the French Open, a couple others are looking to recapture long-ago glory that they haven't tasted in quite some time.

Most urgently in this camp is former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki who, with just a Luxembourg title in 2013, is coming off the least prolific year of her career since she started winning titles in 2008. She's done okay this season, reaching the semis in Monterrey and Dubai and the quarters in Miami, where she admittedly put up a nice fight against Na Li. But for a woman who used to win one tournament after another, even results that keep her at a more-than-respectable ranking of #14 seem a little lackluster. It seems, then, it's time she put up some real results -- it's been nearly five years since she made the final at a Major and while her one quarterfinal showing in Paris -- here least successful Slam by far -- may suggest she's less of a threat here, it could also mean she'll be underestimated here. And on a surface which can play so many tricks on the favorites, it could be the perfect opportunity to turn her luck around.

Jelena Jankovic has had a little more success on clay, reaching the semis in Paris three times before, and winning almost half of her thirteen titles have come on the surface. But it's been even longer since she held the runner's-up trophy in New York, so she might be even a bit hungrier. Also to her advantage is a relatively strong season so far -- she failed to defend the last title she's won in Bogota, but she did make solid runs to the semis in Stuttgart and Madrid, and while she's flown under the radar for most of the year, she's been consistent enough to hold onto a top ten ranking. All she has to do now is make good on it on the big stage.

Compatriot Ana Ivanovic might have an even better chance to do that. The world #12 made a breakthrough here in 2008 when she rocked through the Roland Garros draw to claim her one and only Grand Slam title. In the six years since then, however, she's never made it back to even a semifinal at a Major. She struggled with injury, on and off, fell out of the top fifty for a while, and lost in the first round of four of the big events between 2009 and 2011. She seems to have gotten squarely back on her feet this year, though -- after starting the season with a trophy in Auckland, she scored her first ever win over Serena Williams at the Australian Open. Just last week in Rome she earned a win over Maria Sharapova, her first in almost seven years, and pushed Serena again in the semis, forcing the eventual champion to go three sets. She may still be off her best ranking, but her results suggest 2014 could really be her year -- and she has a real shot at making another run to the final in Paris. Maybe -- dare I say it? -- even to take the title.

4. A runner-up repeats (or goes one better...)

Since we're on the subject of making finals, let's talk about a couple guys and gals who've done so recently, but maybe didn't put up the fight they're capable of when it came down to the wire. For them -- many of whom have only had one shot at a Major so far -- this could be the perfect time to prove their previous runs were no fluke. And perhaps it's an opportunity make up for their prior paltry performances.

Dominika Cibulkova had the most recent breakthrough of the bunch, cracking the top ten for the first time in her decade-long career shortly after making the final in Melbourne this past January. She's ridden a bit of a roller coaster since then, though, losing three straight matches after leaving Australia, but winning a title in Acapulco and beating Petra Kvitova and Aga Radwanska in during the American hardcourt season. She hasn't won on clay yet this year, but the French Open was the site of her only other Major semifinal back in 2009 and she's beaten players like Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka here in the past. She still has the ability to be spotty, but if there's any place where she could keep her groove going, this is it.

Sara Errani certainly seemed to get her mojo back this past week. The tiny Italian won three titles on clay heading to the 2012 French Open, and even followed up her shocking run to that final by making the semis in New York at the end of the summer and, impressively, Paris again a full year later. She'd struggled a bit this year, though, and by March she'd fallen out of the top ten. But a run to the Rome final, which included wins over former world #1 Jelena Jankovic and two-time Major winner Na Li, a woman she'd never beaten before, proves she's still a contender at the big events. She was hampered by injury, yes, and had to retire from the doubles final later in the day, but hopefully she'll recover in time to perform for the early rounds.

But perhaps one of the darkest horses with a real shot here is last year's runner-up, David Ferrer. The fifth seed was blessed with a fairly easy draw last year and only faced one top ten player on the way to his first Major final, but the underrated Spaniard has been more consistent than many of the favorites in the field and has reached at least the quarters of the last nine Slams he's played. He only has one title so far this year -- a smallish trophy he claimed in Buenos Aires -- but he did surprise Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo and take a set off eventual champion Novak Djokovic in Rome. Ferrer may lay claim to the dubious honor of being the best player without a Major title -- but, far from done with his career, there's no reason he can't change that now.

3. A first-time Major winner is crowned

Ferrer isn't the only one with a real shot at taking home the big prize once this fortnight is through. The lead-up tournaments to Roland Garros, as they are wont to do, gave us plenty of fodder for the always-entertaining discussion: "If someone's gonna win their first Slam, who's most likely to do it?" Well here are a couple thoughts.

Carla Suarez Navarro is certainly a long shot for a title, but weirder things have happened before. The top-ranked Spaniard in the women's game -- wow, isn't that weird? -- qualified for her very first Slam here in 2008 and, not one to make a quiet debut, ousted Amelie Mauresmo and Flavia Pennetta on her way to the quarterfinals. She had other impressive showings over the years too, but in her first five final appearances, she came up empty each time. Her luck finally turned around in 2014, though, when she finally broke the seal in Oeiras, beating a quality player -- and a former French Open titleist, by the way -- in the championship match. She comes to Paris at #15 in the world, a shade off her career high ranking, so she's gonna have a lot of work to do. But she's established herself as a real threat to the favorites, and if the chips fall in her favor, she might be able to pull it off.

Kei Nishikori also lays claim to some of the biggest wins in the sport over the past year. The newest initiate to the ATP top ten has scored four wins over the elite in 2014, including two take-downs of David Ferrer and his second straight win over Roger Federer. He won his fifth career title in Barcelona and even took the first set from Rafael Nadal in the Madrid final before ultimately retiring with a hip injury. His ailment forced him to pull out of Rome, too, but hopefully the rest will do him good ahead of his fourth trip to the French Open. His best performance was a fourth round appearance last year, but he has the potential to do much better than that, and it would be a shame for that opportunity to be scuttled when he's otherwise at his prime.

But given how wide the door has swung open at Roland Garros, perhaps it's most fitting if the first time winner is someone who hasn't registered high on the radar yet this year. Tomas Berdych may be sitting at a #6 ranking, but he's grabbed more headlines this year for early losses in Indian Wells and questionable fashion choices at the Australian Open. But he's also quietly picked up a title in Rotterdam and bagged a couple runner's-up trophies to boot. His record at the clay court Masters isn't bad, either -- he took out two top twenty players before losing to Rafael Nadal in Madrid and lost to more-than-solid Grigor Dimitrov in Rome. He's even made the semifinals here once before, and though he lost the only Major final he's played so far, something tells me he has the potential to do something big this time around.

2. MaSha doubles up

Now I hate to say this, but when Maria Sharapova made her way back to the Wimbledon final a few years back, I found myself thinking, "I never thought this girl would win two of the same Major." It's strange, I know -- she'd already amassed twenty-three titles at the time, laid claim to trophies in Australia and New York, and went on, somewhat surprisingly, to round out the career Grand Slam just a year later. But she'd been up and down so much, come back from several injuries, and despite eventually climbing back to #1 in the world, couldn't repeat her breakthrough win over Serena Williams after 2004.

I've changed my tune on her abilities a little, but it's still somewhat shocking, even to myself, that I'd call for her to win a second crown on the surface she's said makes her feel like a cow on ice. But ever since her title here two years ago, Sharapova's proven herself to be something of a force on clay. This season already she's won her third straight trophy in Stuttgart and beat the second, third and fourth seeds during her Madrid run -- a feat made more impressive since she was seeded just eighth at the event.

Her biggest threat, though, remains Serena Williams who has won their last fifteen meetings, dating all the way back to 2005, and she's only taken one set of the world #1 in the last five years. And while there is some question over Serena's strength after a thigh injury forced her out of Madrid, she's coming strongly off a drama-free run to the Rome title, a trophy she's also won the two times she's gone home with Roland Garros gold.

So it'll be a tough task MaSha's faced with, but certainly not an insurmountable one. The Russian will still be at her lowest seeding at a Slam in three years, and there's no telling how tough her draw will be. But her performance over the last few weeks makes me think she could overcome those obstacles, and there's no reason she won't add Major #5 to her mantle.

1. Rafa takes home #9

Speaking of lots of hardware...usually this one is practically a given but, man, have things gotten out of whack this year.

The eight-time champion at Roland Garros and long-heralded King of Clay Rafael Nadal has come down to earth a bit in 2014, losing his stranglehold in Barcelona and Monte Carlo -- not to the man who proved his foil in finals past, but in the quarters to players whose numbers he's had throughout their careers. He's gone entire seasons without a loss on this surface, but suddenly the Great One seems almost human again.

Rafa is still the favorite of course -- ranked and seeded #1 in Paris for the third time in his career, he's one of only two men in the field who's claimed the title here. But top billing hasn't always worked out well for him -- his one and only loss at the French Open came after his rise to the top in 2009, and with a slew of early exits already this season, other top stars could find an opening for themselves. Roger Federer, of course, the only other man to win the title here since 2004, has the most experience, but Stan Wawrinka, who notched a stellar win over the Spaniard in Melbourne, and David Ferrer, the 2013 runner, up also have a shot.

But of course Novak Djokovic might be hungriest for this title. One of the few opponents who's consistently bested Nadal on clay over the past four years, his most recent victory came in the Rome final just this past weekend. He got oh-so-close to beating him in the semis last year, too, but this remains the only Major at which the Serb has never scored a victory over his rival. As added incentive, he's got a return to the #1 ranking and the prospect of a career Grand Slam in his sights. And if anything's gonna serve as motivation, those points certainly rank high up there.

Now I'm not saying it wouldn't be nice to get some new blood in the mix in Paris. Still, I can't help but feel the need for a little comfort in the familiar here. Of course some day, maybe soon, Nadal will have to cede his claim to Roland Garros for good, but I really would like to see that he has one more big win in him.

Sure plenty of the things I'm hoping to see at Roland Garros seem a little far-fetched now, but while we've become accustomed to a certain way of life, it seems this might be the year we see something different -- and even something a little unexpected.

Of course, there's a lot of stuff I haven't covered here, so be sure to check back later this week for a full preview of what to expect in Paris this fortnight. And in the meantime, let me know what you're hoping to see at this year's French Open.

May 19, 2014

No Pain, No Gain

Honestly, I don't know why I was worried.

Last week both Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic made their return to court in Rome after (admittedly short) injury time-outs. But while some players need a little time to get their groove back, the statements these two made were nothing short of emphatic.

Serena hadn't been out of contention long -- after a surprise loss in her Charleston opener, she pulled out of the quarterfinal in Madrid with a thigh injury. But there was no sign of that when she hit the courts in Italy -- she dropped less than five games in each of her first three rounds, only hiccupping once in her semifinal against Ana Ivanovic, who shockingly won their last meeting.

Meanwhile hometown heroine Sara Errani had put together her own impressive run in Rome. She'd falling out of the top ten in the last few weeks, but seemed resurgent this past week -- in her quarterfinal match against two-time Major winner Na Li, she put an end to a 0-6 losing record and then rolled over former world #1 Jelena Jankovic to make her biggest final of the year.

Unfortunately the Italian was dealing with her own injury issues in Sunday's final and Serena was able to pounce. She was up 5-3 in the first set when Errani took a medical break, and didn't lose a game once her opponent came back on court. It was the third title in Rome for the world #1 -- interestingly, a title she's only won in years she's also gone the distance at Roland Garros. Of course, one victory doesn't guarantee another, but the way she's played through the pain sure solidifies her as the favorite as she makes her way to Paris.

Things were a little more tricky on the men's side of things. Novak Djokovic was going after title #3 in Rome as well, but he'd been out of competition a few weeks longer. After losing to Roger Federer in the Monte Carlo semis, wrist heavily taped and serve and return severely hampered, he'd pulled out of Madrid entirely, and was a little rusty when he kicked off his Italian campaign. He lost his opening service game to Radek Stepanek and dropped sets to Phillipp Kohlschreiber, David Ferrer and Milos Raonic on his way to the final.

His opponent in the championship match had an even tougher time, though. Taken down a notch this season, Rafael Nadal seemed redeemed with his win in Madrid last week. But the seven-time titleist struggled in his defense. Somewhat cursed with a tough draw -- former world #6 Gilles Simon was his first round challenger -- he didn't have a straight-set victory until the semis, looking wholly out of sorts against Andy Murray in the quarters, before defeating upstart Grigor Dimitrov in straight sets.

But Nole got the upper hand again on Sunday. Having won every meeting between the two since last year's U.S. Open, he stayed tough after dropping the opening set and in an uncharacteristically break-filled match -- serve was lost ten times in total -- went on to win his third title of the year. It's still a far cry from the ultimate victory -- beating Rafa at Roland Garros which, let's not forget, has only happened once -- but with a quickly narrowing gap versus the world #1, it's certainly becoming more of a possibility.

There's always a little question mark over the heads of players -- even the heavy favorites -- who come back after an injury absence, but both this weekend's winners prove they're more than in contention for the big titles not far down the road. And a win by either would really put a big exclamation point, not only on their resumes, but on the entire season for this sport

May 15, 2014

Let This Serve as a Reminder

There's been a lot of drama on the clay courts this season, what with first-time champions being crowned and long-running win streaks coming to an end. But while we were all looking elsewhere, a couple perennial powerhouses have been plugging away in Rome, quietly doing what they do best, and may just have established themselves as big threats for this week and going forward.

Sara Errani is probably the least familiar to this position, but the one-time French Open runner-up won four titles that season, all on the dirt, and even reached the semis in Paris last year too. She's been a little less fruitful this year, losing the only final she's played and dropping just a hair outside the top ten. She hasn't faced a seed yet in her homeland, but she hasn't dropped a set yet either, handling an always-tricky Ekaterina Makarova in the second round without even allowing a break opportunity. She's got a tough task ahead if she wants to make it out of the quarters -- she next squares off against former Roland Garros winner Na Li, a woman she's never beaten. But on what's easily her best surface, she might just have the confidence to pull off the upset this time around.

After all Ana Ivanovic reversed her own fortune against a long-time rival just today. The former world #1 who started the year with a tidy 9-0 record, including a title in Auckland and a stunning win over Serena Williams in Melbourne, had put together a solid performance on the dirt as well this year. This week in Italy she survived a tight match against Alize Cornet in the second round, but had a much easier time on Thursday against 2012 champion Maria Sharapova -- a woman riding a two-title wave, and one whom the Serb hadn't beaten in almost seven years. It's her fourth top-ten victory of the year, maybe not her biggest, but certainly one that reaffirms she can hit with the power players. With a quarterfinal meeting against newly-anointed trophy-holder Carla Suarez Navarro, she might even have the upper hand now and could establish herself as a favorite for this title.

Countrywoman Jelena Jankovic has already tasted victory here before -- she won the title back in 2008, but more impressively pulled off two amazing victories over both Williams sisters two years later. It's been a while since those successes, of course -- over a year, in fact, since her last title -- but she's hung onto enough points to maintain a #8 ranking and a sixth seed in Rome, and so far she's performed up to task. She was well ahead in her opener when one-time French Open victor Svetlana Kuznetsova retired, and earlier today delivered a drama-free loss to Indian Wells champ Flavia Pennetta. She doesn't have a great head-to-head against quarterfinal opponent Aga Radwanska, but she did take their one and only meeting on this surface, and put up a nice fight in their latest battle in the California desert. And flying as far under the radar as she is, there's no reason she couldn't catch everyone off their guard.

There have been just as many men quietly making their ways through the draws. Milos Raonic is just off his career high ranking at #9 in the world, but with an ankle injury keeping him largely off Tour early in the season, he hasn't put up quite the numbers you'd expect from the big-serving Canadian. He did fairly well during the American hardcourt season, reaching the quarterfinals of Indian Wells and Miami, but was upset by Carlos Berlocq in Oeiras and eventual runner-up Kei Nishikori in Madrid. Earlier today, though, he may have turned around his luck, taking out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who'd just recorded his three-hundredth career win, in straight sets. And with the other seeds in his immediate section of the Rome bracket already taken care of for him, there's no reason to think he's going to stop there.

The same might be said for fifth seeded David Ferrer who, it's easy to forget, came in second in Paris last year. The veteran Spaniard claimed a title in Buenos Aires in February and had put together a more-than-solid 14-4 record on clay before making the trip to Italy, but he nevertheless isn't high on many lists to win this trophy. Like Raonic, Ferrer received a bye in the first round but won his first two matches in barely over an hour each, today taking out a quite capable Ernests Gulbis with five breaks of his opponent's serve. For a spot in the semis, he'll probably square off against Novak Djokovic, whose run here in 2011 capped a 37-match win streak to start that year. It's certainly not an easy ask, but Ferrer has won most of the pair's meetings on this surface, and if Nole hasn't fully recovered from the wrist injury he sustained in Monte Carlo, the underdog certainly has a fighting shot.

Somewhat of a surprising underdog the last few months has been Andy Murray, whose back surgery late last year kept him from defending his U.S. Open title and pushed him to a #8 ranking, his lowest in almost eight years, despite still reigning as a Grand Slam champion. His comeback has come in fits and starts -- his lower seed means he's battling the favorites earlier than he'd become used to, so he's only gotten as far as a semifinal once this year, but he's also posted losses to players like world #40 Florian Mayer and #46 Santiago Giraldo just last week. He may have gotten back on track in Rome, though, opening with a win over clay court specialist Marcel Granollers and today trumping also-rebuilding Jurgen Melzer, after a tight two sets. He'll take on seven-time champion Rafael Nadal tomorrow, and the King of Clay has certainly proven he's not quite done yet. But I always get nervous when these two face off, and this will be no exception.

It might be their colleagues grabbing the headlines recently, but with their performances this week, all of these guys have shown they have a shot at taking the trophies in Rome. After all, flying under the radar a little could be just what they need to gather up steam. And when they finally explode, we're all sure to sit up and take notice.

May 11, 2014

Now, That's More Like It

Things got a little crazy there the last couple weeks, didn't they?

Across the board during the early clay court season, we saw long-standing champions fall and new victors crowned -- many capturing their maiden trophies, others coming seeming to come back from the grave, and, even more surprising, some long-dominating forces falling by the wayside. But this week at the Mutua Madrid Open, order seemed to be restored in the tennis world. And with just a few weeks left before the start of the French Open, it might be the perfect time for that to happen.

That's not to say everything went as planned. A still-injured Serena Williams, champion here two years in a row, pulled out of her quarterfinal against Petra Kvitova and Na Li, whose first Major breakthrough came on this surface three years ago, gave up her lead to Maria Sharapova and fell in a two-and-a-half hour battle. Ultimately the Russian, at her lowest ranking since 2011, was able to fight her say to the final and faced off against risen star Simona Halep, playing in her eighth final in twelve months. The Romanian upstart came out swinging, too, taking advantage of weak serving by her opponent for a 6-1 first set. But Sharapova was able to right herself in the second, losing just six points on serve to force a decider. She took control there too, holding onto an early break and closing out the match in just under two hours. It was her second title of the year and went one better than her performance last year, pushing her back to #7 in the world. It's still well off her career best, of course, but it certainly puts her back on the track we're used to seeing her on. And it could give her just the confidence she needs if she's going to make a real play for another Roland Garros title.

Rafael Nadal certainly has more of those trophies than anyone conceivably needs, but after his performance early this part of the season, his potential to take home trophy #9 was coming into question. He wasn't losing to top-tier players like Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer, but to compatriots like David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro -- the latter of whom he'd never lost to before. In Madrid, though, he put the applecart back on its wheels -- with Nole withdrawing with injury and Fed skipping the event to have a couple more twins, Nadal was the clear favorite here. To make things easier Stanislas Wawrinka, who bested him in the Melbourne final, was stunned by young Austrian Dominic Thiem in his opener, and even Andy Murray, always a threat but sort of struggling this year, fell in straight sets to Barcelona finalist Santiago Giraldo. Ultimately Rafa faced off Sunday against a surging Kei Nishikori, whose run to the final hoisted him to a career high #9 ranking. The Japanese star, a winner in Barca and Memphis already this year, had upset Milos Raonic and David Ferrer this week and even took the first set from Nadal. But the King of Clay rebounded in the second and was able to pounce when Nishikori called for the trainer to treat his back. He was ahead 3-0 in the decider, too, when his opponent was forced to retire, clinching the win in a way no one wants, but at least shaking some of the cobwebs out of his game.

While this weekend's champions certainly have the resumés that make everyone take notice when they hit the courts, their prospects at the big -- and bigger -- events down the road had come into question in recent weeks. But their wins today did a lot to remind us just what they're capable of.

And while we all love a little bit of drama here and there, it's sort of nice to know things are getting back to normal.