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

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