May 4, 2014

The Unexpected Victors

It seems to be turning into a more common occurrence these days, seeing the men's draws get turned on their heads early in some big tournaments. But often early upsets ultimately just open the door for #2 or #3 on the list of favorites, with ultra-underdogs simply bowing out quickly after their big wins. That didn't happen at this week's ATP events, though -- while upsets certainly took place throughout the week, the top seeds did eventually survive to the finals. But to their surprise they'd find out their opponents were far more formidable foes than they could have possibly realized.

World #6 Tomas Berdych has had some big results this season so far -- he reached the semis in Melbourne, took a title in Rotterdam and gained an early lead on Roger Federer in the Dubai final. He'd also had a few hiccups here and there, though, losing to Roberto Bautista Agut in his Indian Wells opener and to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in Monte Carlo. He seemed to have righted himself at the Portugal Open though, riding his top seed to the final with little drama. He even took the first set from Carlos Berlocq without dropping a game and looked cleared for the title.

But the thirty-one year old had his own plans. A bit off his highest ranking, Berlocq hadn't won more than one match at any event all year, but was on point when he hit the courts in Oeiras. He stunned second seeded Milos Raonic in the quarters, his first ever win over a top ten player. But unlike so many players who expend all their energy on getting that one big win, the Argentine followed up with an ouster of Daniel Gimeno Traver to reach his third final. He seemed to lose steam on Sunday, dropping the first set to Berdych in less than half an hour, but did manage a break to kick off the second. It was a tough battle for that set, but eventually Berlocq forced a decider and decided to up his game even further -- converting on four of five break chances, he rolled through the third set, notching his second top-ten victory and earning his second career title, easily the biggest win on his record.

Things got even more interesting in Munich where both defending champion Tommy Haas and top seeded Fabio Fognini were the favorites for the title. In his first matches since Indian Wells, the thirty-six year old Haas looked good early, taking out always-feisty Alejandro Falla and hanging tough against Andreas Seppi to make the semis. But it was Fognini who seemed even more in control -- just a shade off his best ranking of #13 in the world, the Italian has scored wins over Nicolas Almagro, Tommy Robredo and Gael Monfils already this year, and at the BMW Open he reached his third final of the year without dropping a set. He even got a set lead in Sunday's championship too, but again, that would soon be reversed.

Like Berlocq, Martin Klizan had tasted success over his career, but hadn't quite maintained that stance. A title in St. Petersburg nearly two years ago helped propel him to #26 in the world, but a relatively uneventful 2013 season pushed him out of the spotlight. He did have a couple chances this year, sneaking into the third round at the Australian Open and beating Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in Rio, but still languished with a triple-digit ranking. The Munich qualifier turned things around even before today's final, though -- he came back after losing the first set to Mikhail Youzhny and ended Haas's bid to repeat in the semis. And after losing his opener to Fognini -- incidentally, a rematch of the St. Petes final -- he turned the tables decisively, never losing serve again and dropping just three more games, making him the lowest-ranked player to win a title this year.

As much as the favorites have earned the right to be considered just that, sometimes it's nice to see some new faces in the mix. More important than winning the trophy, this weekend's champions proved they have what it takes to follow up one big win with another. And with so many of the most dominant forces in this sport showing they too can make mistakes, there may be no better time for these new champions to show their stuff.

No comments: