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.

No comments: