May 8, 2014

A Coming Out Party

Madrid has always been one of those big events that catches us all off guard a little. Whether it's the weird blue clay, some strange whiffs on match point, or just your run-of-the-mill upsets, you never know what you're going to get.

And this year is no different.

Though many of the favorites have survived so far -- fingers crossed -- many have been tested thoroughly. And a couple of spoilers have showed surprising strength, and might just be able to propel themselves to a new level in the sport.

Grigor Dimitrov has long been considered a "Next Big Thing" in tennis, winning the Wimbledon and U.S. Open Juniors titles in 2008 and earning the nickname "Baby Fed" -- not exactly a no-pressure moniker. And while he's picked up a handful of Tour titles over the last several months -- and has wins over Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray to boot -- the best he's ever done at a Major was a third-round showing at the French Open last year. He comes to the Mutua Madrid Open at his highest ever ranking, #14 in the world, so expectations will be high. So far, he's delivered -- he put together a decisive win over Pablo Carreno Busta, something of a Cinderella this year in Monte Carlo, and held tough against tricky wildcard Marius Copil on Wednesday. While he just lost his set lead on sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych, he still has an opportunity to make his second Masters quarterfinal -- and the way things have been going this season, he has the potential to go even further.

Caroline Garcia also comes to Spain at the highest ranking of her career, though at #51 on the WTA, she's still far less accomplished than Dimitrov. But the twenty-year-old Frenchwoman has proven herself worthy over her short career -- back in 2011 she very nearly stormed over Maria Sharapova in the Roland Garros second round, running off with a set and a break lead on the soon-to-be-crowned champion, and this season, after pushing Serena to three sets in Miami, captured her first career title with a win over former world #1 Jelena Jankovic in Bogota. She's had a little bit of a pass so far in Madrid -- seventh-seeded Angelique Kerber retired down a set and a break in their opener and Maria Kirilenko, playing just her second tournament of the season, pulled out before the second round began. She next faces off against Sara Errani, clearly a clay-court favorite, but one who's been slightly more spotty this year. The two have never met before, but something tells me Garcia could just give the Italian a run for the money. And at as high-profile an event as this, there may be no better chance for her to do so.

But the real story this week in Madrid may be that of twenty-year-old Dominic Thiem. The one-time Juniors #2 reached the final of the French Open Boy's tournament three years ago and went on to win seven ITF Futures and Challengers trophies. Now #70 in the world, he's pushed Andy Murray to three sets in Rotterdam and beat Gilles Simon in Indian Wells, but his real breakthrough came just this week. After taking out a tough Dmitry Tursunov in an hour-long opener, he came back after losing a breadstick set to dominate Australian Open titleist Stanislas Wawrinka in the back half of their second round. It was just his third meeting with a top ten player, and importantly his first win over one. Later today he'll face Feliciano Lopez, certainly a big threat, but one far less intimidating than what the Austrian's seen already in Spain. If he plays like he did on Tuesday, he could just put himself on everyone's radar in the weeks that come.

It's always nice to see new talent really prove themselves in this sport, but it's even more impressive when it happens at an event where stakes are so high. As they each graduate to the next level, the pressure is only going to get higher, but if they can keep their cool, there's really no telling what they can do.

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