June 30, 2014

Fits and Starts

At the end of today we were supposed to have all our Wimbledon quarterfinalists decided.

But with six matches suspended or outright cancelled just before Middle Sunday, and another bout of bad weather stopping action a few more times today, much of Monday was spent playing catch up with only a handful of fourth round matches completed. And the players who survived the interruptions may have set themselves up for even more success down the road.

Andy Murray's win today might be the least surprising of the bunch -- the defending champion might have been flying under the radar since his loss at Queen's Club, but he's looking good so far at the All England Club and hadn't dropped a set yet in his first three matches. He was 1-1 against today's big-serving opponent Kevin Anderson in past meetings, and it had been almost three years since their last contest which the South African won in straights. But Murray built a quick double break lead in the second set after taking the first when play was stopped to close the roof on Centre Court, and Anderson had a chance to draw back even when play resumed. But ultimately the Scot kept the cooler head after the delay, maintaining the early lead and then taking a third set tiebreak for the win. He'll next face potential spoiler Grigor Dimitrov, who came out ahead in his own rain-delayed match, so the task only gets tougher from here. But it sure looks like he's gonna keep fighting for this title, and it might mean his opponents are the ones who'll have to raise their games even higher.

Sabine Lisicki certainly knows how to play her best tennis at Wimbledon. Last year's runner-up had only advanced past the second round at one event all year and saw her ranking fall to #19 in the world, but has already been able to turn things around at the All England Club. She'd lost her only previous match against former #1 Ana Ivanovic, in Stuttgart just a few months ago, but took the first set before play was called for darkness on Saturday. She seemed to lose a little momentum when they resumed, getting down a break in the second and losing the second set after another rain delay today. But ultimately Lisicki stayed stronger, closing out the decider in under a half hour to make her fifth straight fourth round in London. And her prospects actually look better from here -- she's never lost her first match in the second week of this Major, and with a date against unseeded Yaroslava Shvedova next, I don't expect that stat to change this time around.

Feliciano Lopez might have relished the delay in his matches a little more than these guys. Fresh off a final in London and a second title in Eastbourne, the break between his second round on Friday and his third round today must have been appreciated. And another pause after splitting tiebreaks with John Isner this morning seemed to give him even more energy -- after about two and a half hours of play, the veteran Spaniard converted the only break point of the match, upsetting the on-paper favorite and setting up a meeting with Stan Wawrinka in the fourth round. Lopez has traded wins with the Aussie champion, but he is by far the better player on this surface, and like with his head-to-head against Tomas Berdych, it's his turn for the win. Victory would give him a ticket to his first quarterfinal in three years, and the way he's playing I wouldn't be surprised to see him go even further.

Of course for every player that capitalizes on his or her opportunity, there is one that can't. And unfortunately for Alize Cornet, at this year's Championships, that player was her. The former world #11 -- she's five years removed from that achievement -- was coming off the win of her career on Saturday, her second straight win top-ranked Serena Williams in her third round. She was still the on-paper underdog against 2014 standout Genie Bouchard, but with the adrenaline pumping and a first Major quarterfinal in her sights, she seemed primed to pull off another upset. But after play was halted with the pair on serve early in the first set, Bouchard came out the stronger. She took the first set in a tiebreak and then rebounded from a break down in the second, rattling off four straight games to reach her third Slam elite eight in as many tries this year. But as disappointing as the loss must be for the Frenchman, you can't discount the accomplishments of the young upstart. One big tournament after another she's proving she belongs with the elite players and that she can stay there for the long haul, and though she'll likely face now-favorite Maria Sharapova for a spot in yet another semi, I'm expecting she won't be intimidated by this opportunity either.

None of today's winners will have a lot of time to savor their victories -- many of them get right back to work tomorrow as the tournament tries to get back on schedule. But as the skies clear at the All England Club, prospects for any of these players look just as bright. And now that they're revved up, there's no reason they can't keep going.

June 27, 2014

The Rising Class

Remember the days when we used to marvel at how young tennis champions were?

Well these days, they seem to get older and older -- Serena Williams has won four Majors since turning thirty, David Ferrer made his first Slam championship at thirty-one, last year's U.S. Open semifinalists had a combined age of a hundred and seven.

But this year we've finally started to see the next generation step up to the plate -- whether it was Grigor Dimitrov finally reaching the second week of a Major, Genie Bouchard shocking her way to two consecutive semis or Simona Halep finishing runner-up at the French, there have been more than a couple new faces hanging around the final rounds, and many of them are bringing down the average age of the field. And this week in particular, we've seen even more young players give us a taste of what the future of tennis will look like.

Andrey Kuznetsov is a little older than the rest of this bunch, but the 2009 Juniors champ at Wimbledon hasn't yet made a real splash on the big boys' Tour. Ranked well out of the top hundred, he hadn't qualified for an ATP-level event since Barcelona, but he did beat veteran star Radek Stepanek at a Czech Challenger event in April. And this week at the All England Club he notched his first career win over a top ten player, trading sets with David Ferrer before closing him out 6-2 in the fifth. He lost earlier today to Leonardo Mayer, though, but having now scored his best Slam performance to date, he might have the confidence he needs to do even better down the road.

Still alive is Jiri Vesely, who's been on my radar for a while this year. He won his first match at a Major last month in Paris, but the 2011 Juniors champion in Melbourne looks even better on the lawns of the London, despite having no pro record on the surface before this week. Just a shade off his highest career ranking at #68 in the world, the twenty year old Czech survived a five set battle with former top ten player Gael Monfils in his second round, by far the biggest win of his career. And if he recovers in time there's no reason he can't go further.

He'll actually face another young standout next -- Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios, who won the Boys' Aussie crown just last year. This past January he won just his third match on the ATP Tour, beating last week's Den Bosch finalist Benjamin Becker in his Melbourne opener, and then pushed twenty-seventh seed Benoit Paire to the limit in their late-night second round. He's been tested in London too -- the Wimbledon wildcard needed more than three tiebreaks against Stephane Robert on Tuesday and came back from two sets down to take out Eastbourne runner-up Richard Gasquet a match later. With almost six and a half hours on court already, he might not have much more gas this fortnight, but prospects sure look good for what he can do going forward.

A couple young ladies have also been rising to the occasion this week. Nineteen year old Madison Keys is riding a seven match win streak going into her third round, having defeated Jelena Jankovic and Angelique Kerber on the way to her maiden title in Eastbourne last week. So far at the All England Club, she avenged a loss to eventual Strasbourg champ Monica Puig in her opener and then took out low seed Klara Koukalova to match her performance here last year. And while there will be plenty of challenges ahead, the now #30 player in the world should stand a good chance against Yaroslava Shvedova in tomorrow's match and could very well ride that momentum even longer.

The same applies to last year's Wimbledon Girls' champion Belinda Bencic, who'd shown promise on the adult Tour before hitting the lawns this week. The seventeen year old, the youngest player in the top hundred, beat Kimiko Date-Krumm, the oldest, in her Australian Open first round and then notched wins over Maria Kirilenko and Sara Errani on her way to the Charleston semis. So far in London she survived a tough test from dark horse Magdalena Rybarikova and earlier today finished off her second round with a win over fellow young gun Victoria Duval. She's going to be challenged even more from here -- her next opponent, French Open runner-up Simona Halep, a rising star herself, is 15-2 at her last three Majors. But something tells me the young Swiss is going to put up a fight.

Perhaps, though, the biggest surprise of the tournament so far has been little-known Tereza Smitkova, ranked just #175 in the world. The young Czech qualified for her first Major main draw at Wimbledon and then beat doubles #1 Su-Wei Hsieh and 's-Hertogenbosch champ Coco Vandeweghe in quick succession. In a nearly three hour match today -- the decider took almost a hundred minutes -- she came back after losing the first set to Bojana Jovanovski, who'd already ousted two-time Slam titleist Victoria Azarenka Wednesday, to become the by far biggest Cinderella left in the bottom half of the draw. And though she'll only face her first seed in the fourth round, #22 Lucie Safarova, she might just be able to prove her luck's not about to run out.

Of course the trick for all these players will be to repeat their success not only in the later rounds, but later in the season and even after that. It's always a shame to see Cinderellas' momentum fizzle out as they fail to repeat past success. But most of these guys and gals have been building up some strong resumes all this year, and the others, hopefully they can do the same.

After all, it won't be long before it's their time to take over the reins in this sport. And they're going to want to lay the groundwork now.

June 25, 2014

All Seems Right With the World...

Last year at Wimbledon five of the top ten men's seeds and six of the top women did not make it out of the second round.

That's kind of a lot.

We still have more than a day left to see whether we mark the same numbers so quickly this year, but while the first couple rounds of the French Open certainly suggest even the most decorated players are vulnerable at the Majors, so far the favorites have been performing up to expectations, with Jelena Jankovic the only casualty in the top ten.

But that doesn't mean they're out of the woods yet -- plenty of unseeded players have already shown what they can do at the All England Club, and they might just keep their streaks running.

Kaia Kanepi is traditionally a strong player on grass, but the two-time quarterfinalist, plagued again by injury, has dropped a bit down the rankings the last few months. Still her straight-set, barely one-hour victory over Jankovic on Tuesday reminds us she can't be counted out. She'll have a tough road forward, though, facing fellow Cinderella Yaroslava Shvedova next and possibly Eastbourne champion Madison Keys next, but she has the talent to make a big run in spite of those challenges.

So does 2010 runner-up Vera Zvonareva, who missed all of last season and more with a shoulder injury and had only won one match in her return this year. But the Wimbledon wildcard held tough against hometown girl Tara Moore in their two-day first round, finally finishing her off 9-7 in the third. It was her first Major match win in two years and sets up a meeting with world #87 Donna Vekic, a threat on grass, yes, but one the former top-two player should be able to handle if she plays to her ability.

Michelle Larcher de Brito hasn't had quite the same success as these two, but the twenty-one year old Portuguese -- known more for her screeching grunts than her on-court performance these days -- managed a shocking defeat of Maria Sharapova last year at the All England Club, posting her second third round appearance at a Grand Slam. She's only pulled off one WTA-level match since then, though, and had to qualify for the main draw in London. But she's exceeded expectations so far, taking out two-time Major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in her opener. She next faces wildcard Jarmila Gajdosova who she beat two years back in Stanford, the pair's only meeting, so she has a good shot at matching, if not beating, her previous best results here.

On the men's side, 2002 champion Lleyton Hewitt proved he's still someone to be reckoned with -- playing his sixteenth consecutive Wimbledon, the veteran Australian is back in the top fifty and in January won his first title in almost four years in Brisbane. But seven of his trophies have come on the lawn, and after his three-hour win over Michael Przysiezny we were reminded of why. He'll next face last year's surprise semifinalist Jerzy Janowicz, who could still pose a threat despite a 10-14 record coming into this week. But the Pole was pushed the distance in his first round and that could create an opportunity for the on-paper underdog to cause a stir.

Sergiy Stakhovsky is out to prove he can do the same. The former world #31 is now barely ranked in double digits, but his shocking win over Roger Federer in last year's second round -- the seven-time champion's earliest Slam exit since 2003 -- showed us what the 2010 Den Bosch champ can do on the surface. This year he beat Vasek Pospisil and took Kevin Anderson to a third set tiebreak at Queen's Club, and earlier today he scored a drama-free win over world #10 Ernests Gulbis to get back into the third round. He's never progressed farther at a Major, but with 2013 quarterfinalist Fernando Verdasco kicked out early, he won't meet another seed until at least the fourth round, and I like his chances to get there.

Another big Cinderella from year's past is looking to recapture former glory at the All England Club -- and he already has proof that he can do it. Lukas Rosol, he who started the whole trend of sending the favorites home early, took out recent world #24 Benoit Paire in his first round and set up a rematch against top-ranked Rafael Nadal tomorrow. Rafa did get revenge over the Czech a couple months ago in Doha, but his early exit in Halle reminds us this is not his best surface. Rosol is having a pretty good year, too -- he beat Stakhovsky on his way to a Challengers' title in Irving, Texas and took out Jarkko Nieminen and Gilles Simon in Bucharest. He's also now ranked just outside the top fifty, a far cry from the #100 position he held in 2012. And while Nadal, at least having surpassed his performance here last year, struggled against Martin Klizan in his opener and might have a little case of nerves against his nemesis.

We may not have had any truly big fireworks yet this year, but the favorites shouldn't get too complacent. After all we should be well aware of how many surprises occur at the Slams, and any of these guys or gals has the ability to cause them. Whether they realize their potential or not remains to be seen, of course, but there may be no better place than on the grand courts of the All England Club to do just that.

June 22, 2014

Blogcast: 2014 Wimbledon Preview

We may have just crowned the French Open king and queen, but the top stars in tennis get right back to work at Wimbledon, and after all the action we've seen this season, things are bound to get interesting at the All England Club.

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

June 19, 2014

Wimbledon: 10 Things I Want to See

I know what you're thinking: "Oh my God, didn't we just go through this? We're barely a week out from the French Open and we're already gearing up for another Grand Slam?!"

I promise -- next year, we'll have a little more time to catch our breath between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but 'til then let's gear up for another rundown of things I'd like to see over the next fortnight. Now I'm not promising anything, but my top two wishes for Paris did come true. So maybe -- just maybe -- I'll have as good, or even better luck this time around, and hopefully you'll be just as excited by that action as I will be.

So, here we go! Fingers crossed...

10. Rafa makes it past the second round

Now this should almost be a given -- for a man who ranks #1 in the world, has made twenty-seven Major quarters, is second on the all-time list of Grand Slam singles titleholders and claims two trophies here himself, early rounds -- even at an event like this -- shouldn't require much effort.

We know, though, that that's not always the case -- uber-champions like Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova have all fallen in the first week before, across the four Majors, and not always to top players. And Nadal -- well, two years ago he crashed out in the second round to then-#100 Lukas Rosol in a season-ending shocker and went one better worse in his 2013 return, losing his opener this time to world #135 Steve Darcis. So despite an otherwise impressive 36-9 record at the All England Club, his eighty percent win rate here is actually worse than at any other Slam.

And frankly, I'm a little worried about this one -- despite his top ranking, he was only given the second seed, and he's had little match play on grass this year, and not by choice. Days after leaving Paris he made the trip to Halle and crashed out in his opener to wildcard Dustin Brown. That might be a red flag -- in the years he's reached the final at the All England Club he's made at least the quarters of a warm-up event. But hopefully he'll be able to buck tradition and turn his luck on grass around -- it's been a while since he's shown what he can do on this surface, and now's as good a time as any to remind us how he won that career Grand Slam.

9. Sabine Lisicki reaches the quarters -- at least

Did you forget Lisicki was runner-up here last year? I almost did.

But let's all remember this is by far the German's best Slam, and likely her favorite. Back in 2009 when ranked just #41 in the world, she reached the quarterfinals with wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova and Caroline Wozniacki in the process. She was even more of an underdog two years later, coming back from injury, but made it all the way to the semis where she ultimately fell to Maria Sharapova. She avenged that loss the next season, though, and last year took out both 2012 finalists Aga Radwanska and five-time titleist Serena Williams on her way to her first -- and so far only -- Major championship match.

Lisicki's been a little quiet this year, though -- her best performance has been a third-round showing in Madrid -- and she's battling her health again. She retired during her second match in Paris with a wrist injury and subsequently pulled out of Birmingham. Hopefully the couple weeks' rest will be enough to recover -- the twenty-four year old has way more talent than her recent results and ranking suggest, and it would be great to see her finally rewarded for it.

8. An American has a breakthrough

This country has been looking for its Next Big Thing Slam after Slam, and while players like John Isner and Sloane Stephens certainly have had the most consistent success, it sure would be nice to see a little more depth in the U.S. field. And for whatever reason, it feels like Wimbledon, more than the other Majors, is the most likely venue for that to happen.

On the men's side Steve Johnson might be our best hope -- just off his peak ranking of #63 in the world, he's actually the second best American on the ATP Tour. He's certainly more of a hard court player -- he reached the third round of the U.S. Open a few years back and beat Tommy Haas and Feliciano Lopez on his way to the Delray semis this past February -- but he did put up a fight in the Halle quarters and got in another match win in 's-Hertogenbosch. Patrick McEnroe picked him as a dark horse for Roland Garros, which might be giving him a little too much credit, but with five first round losses at his last six Slams, he should at least pull himself together enough for a couple big match wins at a Major.

Madison Keys is also due for a breakout performance -- the nineteen-year-old got a couple Slam match wins last year and, despite a middle-of-the-road #47 ranking, she's had some solid results this year. She's one of a handful of players to beat Simona Halep this year, riding that momentum to a semi in Sydney, before upsetting Alison Riske and former world #15 Julia Goerges in Strasbourg. She's never done much at a Major, though, but after stunning former world #1 Jelena Jankovic and defending champion Elena Vesnina in Eastbourne this week, she could be ready to change that. And any success here could put her further on the path to take over the reins of U.S. tennis when the time comes.

7. A grass-courter steps up to the plate

Both these guys have shown some promise on Tour, but neither has much hardware to show for their efforts. Meanwhile a couple players who first joined the winners' circle with trophies on grass have an opportunity to finally parlay that into results on a big stage.

Magdalena Rybarikova has hung around the mid-double digits in the sport for years, and while she has picked up a handful of hardcourt titles during her career, her first trophy came in Birmingham five years ago. Still, somewhat surprisingly, in her six appearances in the All England Club's main draw, she's never won a match. She seems to be getting her act together this week, though -- unseeded in Den Bosch, she's already bean French Open semifinalist Andrea Petkovic, and stands a good chance against Annika Beck in her quarterfinal today. She's still out of seeding territory at Wimbledon, but depending on how the draws shake out, she could present an early threat to some of the favorites.

Thirty-two year old Nicolas Mahut made his first splash on Tour a little later than most, but captured his first career trophies just last year, both on grass. Of course he's most known for that epic loss at the All England Club a few years back, but he spent more time on this surface in that one match than most players in the field ever have, so he's certainly got experience on his side. He's actually won a solid sixty-plus percent of his matches on the lawn, and though he's the on-paper underdog against 2014 standout Roberto Bautista Agut in his quarterfinal today, he might just be able to pull off the win and keep on going.

6. Half the semifinalists play their Final Four debut

This is really a variant of a wish I have at every Slam -- for someone to have a breakthrough on a big stage, surprise a couple the favorites and maybe make a new name for themselves that lasts a little past the end of this fortnight. And after the Wimbledon we saw last year, there's plenty of opportunity for anything to happen.

Alison Riske hasn't yet had a lot of luck at the Majors -- the twenty-three year old notched a career-best fourth round showing in New York last year -- but she's a two-time semifinalist on the lawns of Birmingham and comes to London just a shade off her career high ranking. She lost her opening round in Eastbourne, but put up a good fight against a tough Angelique Kerber, and with wins over players like Elena Vesnina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova this year, she could be ready to finally make a splash when it counts.

Slightly -- and only slightly -- more tested is Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, who defeated three seeded players on her way to the Birmingham final last week. More known for her doubles results -- she has seventeen titles in the paired discipline versus just one in singles -- the Czech's run was by far her best performance at a Premier-level event, and pushed her nearly twenty spots up the rankings. Like Riske, she's never had great showings at the Majors, and she might have lost some momentum after a first round loss in 's-Hertogenbosch, but two of her three third round showings have come at Wimbledon, and she could go a little further this time around.

Alejandro Falla also broke his streak this week, falling to Jurgen Melzer at the Topshelf Open immediately after his Cinderella run in Halle. But the veteran Colombian has had some success at the All England Club before -- in 2012 he opened with a win over marathon man John Isner, and a couple years before that he was up two sets on defending champ Roger Federer in their first round. He's only once made the fourth round of a Major -- in Roland Garros back in 2011 -- but it's never too late to change that history.

World #9 Milos Raonic is, on paper, the most likely of this group to meet these expectations, but somewhat surprisingly he seems to keep falling short, especially on grass. Despite a game that's been likened to that of Pete Sampras, he's actually lost more on this surface than he's won, and he's coming off a opening round loss to Peter Gojowczyk in Halle. His performance at Wimbledon has been even more lackluster -- even with his big-service game and consistency at the top of the sport, he's lost in the second round here three years in a row. He did finally break the second week seal in Paris though, reaching the quarters before losing to Novak Djokovic, so he might just have the confidence to live up to his potential.

5. A former Cinderella gets back to the ball

But as great as it is to see new faces get in the mix at the Majors, you really want to see players carry success into subsequent years. And this can be difficult for a variety of reasons -- a loss of adrenaline, sidelines for injury, etc. -- I'm hoping a couple athletes who've gone farther than we expected in the past make another run this time around.

Maria Kirilenko is probably the longest shot of this group, not because she doesn't have the potential to repeat her 2012 quarterfinal run, but because she's struggled to come back from a knee injury that took her out of the Australian Open this year. She's only played a handful of matches at all this year, winning a single one in Madrid before withdrawing, and this week bowed out of her Den Bosch opener against qualifier Mona Barthel. She's now ranked #87 in the world, a far cry from her peak in the top ten about a year ago. But she's had some of her best results on these courts -- she was also an Olympic semifinalist that year -- and with virtually nothing to lose this go-round, she might be able to really shine.

Kirsten Flipkens, the 2003 Girls' champion here, saw her best main draw results a little more recently, sneaking into the semis at Wimbledon just last year with wins over a resurgent Flavia Pennetta and former champion Petra Kvitova. She's lost eleven first round matches since then, though, and fell Wednesday in her attempt to defend finalist points at 's-Hertogenbosch. It would be great to see her regroup over the next few days, if only to prove last year's run was no fluke.

There were a couple Cinderellas to choose from on the men's side last year, but Jerzy Janowicz's performance so far this year makes him less likely to repeat. Instead I'm watching Fernando Verdasco, who, while ranked outside the top fifty, took a two-set lead over Andy Murray in last year's quarterfinal. After a title in Houston and a fourth round in Paris, he's at his highest ranking in almost two years. And if he can keep the momentum he gathered in Den Bosch -- he's got a winning 6-2 record against today's quarterfinal opponent Jurgen Melzer -- he could make another run here too.

It's been a little longer since Bernard Tomic had his miraculous quarterfinal run at Wimbledon -- he was a qualifier in 2011 when he beat Nikolay Davydenko and then-#5 Robin Soderling in London. Now, though, with a 5-6 record on the season before this week, he's at his lowest ranking since then, #82 in the world. He might be ready to come back though -- he only made the second round in Eastbourne, but took top seeded Richard Gasquet to three tight sets. He still has his best record on grass, too, so if there's any Major where he'll see his comeback, this one's it.

4. The defeated get redemption

There's one good thing about the quick turnaround after the French Open: top stars who walked away in the early rounds with their tails between their legs -- and there was certainly plenty of that this year -- have an immediate opportunity to erase those memories with a deep run at another Major. And I'm hoping some of the guys that dropped early at Roland Garros are able to get momentum back on their side.

It's been a tough couple months for Mikhail Youzhny -- though still ranked in the top twenty, the veteran Russian has compiled a weak 7-11 record on the year, and after barely making it out of the first round in Paris, he fell in four to Radek Stepanek a match later. Clay's not traditionally his best surface though, so he's got much better prospects on the lawns of England. Though he lost his opener last week in Halle -- a slightly worse result than his runner-up finish in 2013 -- he has made at least the fourth round at Wimbledon eight times before. That makes this his most consistent Slam and possibly the best opportunity he has to turn his season around.

Stan Wawrinka has an even tougher ask -- with a 17-19 record on the grass, this is actually his worst surface. He's lost his opening match at the All England Club five times, including on his most recent two trips here, probably why he was only granted a fifth place seeding -- two spots below his rank. To be fair, those losses came to more-than-solid players -- then-#35 Jurgen Melzer in 2012 and 2002 champ Lleyton Hewitt last year -- but only one of his wins came over someone ranked in the top fifty. After the newly-minted Grand Slam holder failed dramatically to defend quarterfinal points in Paris, he's got to prove he's no one-hit wonder. He got a couple match wins in his London semi run last week, but he'll need to up his game if he's gonna do something big this fortnight.

Roberta Vinci may have a slightly better shot at redeeming herself than these two gentlemen. While the Italian did manage to reach the doubles final at Roland Garros, she didn't come close to realizing her potential in the singles draw and, much as I'd feared, crashed out in the first round. But she's historically been a decent grass court player, reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon the last two years and even picking up a title on the surface three years back. She lost her opener in Eastbourne this week, so clearly troubles persist, but this might be the best surface for her to turn things around.

But perhaps the player I'd most like to see do something big at Wimbledon is former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki. Yes, I was hoping for a resurrection in Paris, but circumstances being what they were, that was not in the cards and she couldn't manage to get past Yanina Wickmayer in her opener there. But I hold out hope that she'll bounce back stronger now -- not just because her game is much better than what she's shown us the last few months, but also because her ex deserves to see her not only succeed, but triumph. This will be a hard venue for her, though -- it's the only Slam at which she hasn't made the quarterfinals, and she's run into some tough opponents early the last two years -- but that would make her victory so much sweeter. But she's notched some big wins in Eastbourne this week, taking out both Sam Stosur and Sloane Stephens already, and, with a quarterfinal meeting against still-rising Camila Giorgi, she has plenty of opportunity to go further. And I'm betting I'm not the only one hoping she does so.

3. Two first-timers take home the trophies

This might be asking for a lot, but we've already had one virgin win a Major this year and two more reach the finals. Would it be that big a stretch to go a little further?

It's already pretty unlikely we'll see a defending champion repeat in the first place -- 2013 women's champion Marion Bartoli, after all, retired from the sport just weeks after claiming her only Slam last July, and Andy Murray, who surprisingly did make the Roland Garros semis earlier this month, suffered two long five-setters to get there and then failed to defend the Queen's Club title, falling in his opener to doubles specialist Radek Stepanek. And while Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and other former winners certainly lead the rest of the field, they're also capable of being surprised. And more than a couple contenders vying for that spot.

There are plenty of ladies who could realize this dream -- French Open runner-up Simona Halep won one of her first career titles on the surface less than a year ago while 2012 finalist Agnieszka Radwanska may not have won a title yet this year, but still has by far her best record at this Slam. Still you gotta like the chances of 2012 Juniors champ Eugenie Bouchard who, at this time last year, was ranked outside the top fifty and had only won one match at a Major. Yes, her run in Melbourne was largely luck -- the highest ranked player she faced before the quarters was #68 Lauren Davis -- but she more than backed it up with wins over Angelique Kerber and dark horse Carla Suarez Navarro on her way to the Paris semis. She had a surprising first round loss in Den Bosch this week, but maybe a little rest before heading over to London is just what she needs to do something big.

It'll be a little harder for a man to penetrate the Slam stranglehold of the ATP stars -- only nine different players have made the last twenty Grand Slam finals compared to sixteen different women, and just five men have combined to win all those trophies. Still there are a couple guys who could make an impact -- Tomas Berdych has reached the final here before and Kei Nishikori has managed some big wins already this year. But my little-less-dark horse has to be Grigor Dimitrov, who's made my "10 Things" list twice already this year. The 2012 Juniors champ at the All England Club finally made the second week of a Major in Australia and is fresh off his first grass court title at Queen's Club. If he keeps up his momentum, I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a real play for this title.

Of course, if either of these two meet their potential this fortnight, my top two wishes can't possibly come true...

2. A ten year reunion in the ladies' final

A full decade ago a seventeen-year-old Maria Sharapova, ranked just fifteenth at the time, stunned practically the entire world when she defeated the top seed at Wimbledon, two-time defending champion Serena Williams, and claimed the first of her five Grand Slam trophies.

On the ten year anniversary of that fateful day, wouldn't it be great to see a rematch?

Of course, these two have seen each other plenty since, but the Russian has won just one of their fifteen subsequent meetings -- in fact, she's only taken a single set off Serena since 2010.

This time I want to see a battle -- and, truth be told, I wouldn't mind the same scoreline we got in 2004.

Sure, even beyond the head-to-head record, Serena is the favorite -- the top seed holds five trophies here and, if history is any indication, she'll likely take out aggression from her early loss in Paris on all her opponents the rest of the year.

But she's certainly fallible, too, and if Maria makes the final -- as the fifth seed, she could meet Williams as early as the quarters -- she might be able to take advantage of that. Since her injury-induced second round exit last year, she's put together a solid 31-7 record and now leads this year's race to the season-ending championships. She's healthy, should have tons of confidence after her French run, and will be eager to end a long stretch of losses to her rival.

And if you remember how many streaks have already come to an end this year, there may be no better time to do it.

1. A six year reunion in the men's

Yeah, I wish the numbers rounded out a little better here too, but it's been a while since one-time arch-rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal met for a Major title, and I won't stand on formality. As happy as I am to see new stars rise in this sport, sometimes I long for days of yore, and Wimbledon, more than any other Slam, is the place where you expect to see tradition upheld.

Of course it's gonna be tough for either of these guys, to say nothing of both, to reach finals weekend -- they've each had their troubles here recently, and Roger, despite his seven titles here already, hasn't even played for a Major title since 2012. But I'm holding out hope for Rafa, and Fed did just capture his seventh title in Halle. Neither is ready to walk off into the sunset yet, and hopefully they'll put together at least one more big campaign here.

It's probably too much to ask for these guys to put up the kind of battle they used to -- their 2007 and '08 Wimbledon finals combined for more than nine-and-a-half hours of court time, but five of their six most recent meetings have been decided in straight sets, mostly going in Nadal's favor. But there's no reason that on this surface, under these circumstances, these two can't keep us on the edge of our seats for a few hours Championship Sunday. And, as much as I usually root for Rafa, a win by the veteran sure would be sweet after the drought he's had recently. So it would only be fitting that it comes against the man who's proven his foil so many times before.

As usual, for some of my wishes to come true in London, others obviously cannot. But as much as a couple of these seem like long shots, some crazy things have happened at Wimbledon before -- and at all the Slams, in fact this year -- so there's no reason to believe even the most far-fetched are well within reach.

But there's plenty more stuff sure to catch our attention over the next fortnight, so be sure to check back later this week for a full preview of Wimbledon 2014. And in the meantime, let me know what you're hoping to see this year at the All England Club.

June 15, 2014

Laying the Groundwork

There's not a lot of time between the French Open and Wimbledon, so top players need to get right back to work if they want to establish themselves as real contenders for the year's most prestigious Grand Slam. And this weekend's champions did exactly that, taking big steps to remind us just how powerful they can be in the couple weeks ahead.

Ana Ivanovic's run in Birmingham was quite a breakthrough for her -- the former French Open champ had captured titles on hardcourt and clay already this year, but had never made a final on grass throughout her career. And even though she was the on-paper favorite at the Aegon Classic, with seeds like Sam Stosur and Daniela Hantuchova getting ousted early, her status was far from safe. But the Serb dismissed her early opponents easily, losing an average of four games a match on her way to the final. And Sunday against Barbora Zahlavova Strycova -- a Cinderella, to be sure, she'd single-handedly taken out three seeds on the way to her first Premier level championship match -- she showed no mercy, completing her straight-set win in just under eighty minutes. Ivanovic's first lawn tennis trophy comes at a perfect time -- the 2007 Wimbledon semifinalist hasn't made it out of the fourth round since, but she's arguably playing the best tennis of her life these days, and this trophy goes one step further in cementing her as a real threat at the All England Club.

Grigor Dimitrov has tasted victory on this surface before -- albeit on a slightly smaller scale -- but the 2008 Wimbledon Junior champion hasn't made it past the second round of the big boys' event yet. His performance in London last week might signal that's about to change, though -- with defending champion Andy Murray going out in the third round and players like Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga also defeated early, the Bulgarian was ready to pounce. He was pushed hard by Feliciano Lopez in Sunday's final, needing three tiebreaks and two and a half hours to defeat the grass court specialist, but ultimately picked up his third title of the year at Queen's Club, rounding out his own all-surface triple crown for the season. And if he can keep that momentum going next week, he might finally deliver on the high expectations set for him on the Grand Slam stage.

He is, after all, said to have the same game as Roger Federer, a man who still holds the record with seventeen Major titles. The long-time world #1 has been a little more quiet lately, but turned up the volume this past week in Halle. With only two seeded players winning their opening round matches in Germany, the field was a little more sparse than expected, but Federer successfully handled Kei Nishikori in the semis, ending the streak of a man who'd beaten him their last two meetings. And against Alejandro Falla in Sunday's final there was no repeat of the 2010 Wimbledon match in which the Colombian took a 2-0 set lead on the defending champion. While Federer, too, needed tiebreaks to close out the match, he finished off his opponent in straight sets, adding trophy #79 to his mantle, just in time for what could be a very successful return to the All England Club.

With just a few days left before the start of Wimbledon, this weekend's champs certainly did a lot to raise their profiles among a very talented field. It's only the first step, of course, and the bigger challenges lie down the road, but something tells me we're going to see them all stick around deep into the draws in London.

And if any of them goes home with the trophy, they'll know they put the pieces in place with their wins this week.

June 12, 2014

Time to Pounce

For years the warm-up season for Wimbledon has been woefully short, so it's no surprise that players, even those who made it deep into the draws of the French Open, get right back to work at the grass court tournaments. But it sure looks like the sudden switch to lawn tennis has caught a couple stars off guard this week -- and those left standing should take full advantage of the opportunity presented to them.

Many of the top seeds have survived so far in Birmingham -- Ana Ivanovic, after a break early in her opener, has lost a total of just three games in her last three sets and made the quarters without much drama. And Sloane Stephens, who had been struggling early this year, may be back on the rise after she survived a big challenge from grass court specialist Allison Riske earlier today. But it wasn't easy for all the favorites. Third seed Lucie Safarova lost her opener to Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, while defending champion Daniela Hantuchova fell to uber veteran Kimiko Date Krumm on Thursday morning.

And while either of these dark horses could ride their momentum farther, perhaps the greatest beneficiary will be barely seeded Casey Dellacqua. After a fourth round in Australia and a quarterfinal in Indian Wells, the veteran Australian has climbed close to a career high ranking of #43 in the world. At the Aegon Classic this week she needed less than two hours total to dismiss her first two opponents, and today against compatriot Sam Stosur she fought back after losing the first set to keep her record against the former Grand Slam champion a perfect 3-0. She'll meet Kimiko for a spot in the semis, and while the feisty Japanese can't be overlooked, Dellacqua is still the favorite, and she might just be ready to make an even bigger statement as the week draws to a close.

As surprising as the results on the ladies' side have been, we've actually seen the bigger upsets at the men's tournaments this week. Defending Queen's Club and -- lest we forget -- Wimbledon champion Andy Murray was fresh off a semifinal showing in Paris, fell in two quick sets today to Radek Stepanek. And Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a semifinalist at the All England Club two years ago, didn't last much longer against world #60 Marinko Matosevic. But the Australian is still the only unseeded player to reach the quarters, so his road forward will only get tougher from here.

Instead watch for grass court specialist Feliciano Lopez to take advantage of the holes left in the draw. The thirty-two year old has had some strong results this year -- he reached the fourth round in the California desert and the quarters in Madrid, but with a 63% win record on this surface this is where he's been most successful. Feli won the title in Eastbourne last year, and he boasts his best Major performances -- two quarterfinals -- at Wimbledon. So even though he'll next face second seeded Tomas Berdych -- a finalist in London four years ago -- the Spaniard has more than a decent shot at scoring the win. The pair have actually traded wins in their eight previous meetings, and it seems to be Lopez's turn.

But perhaps the biggest opportunities lie on the lawns of Halle where just two seeds made the quarterfinals -- six-time champion Roger Federer and his recent foil Kei Nishikori. Jerzy Janowicz, Mikhail Youzhny and Richard Gasquet all lost in the first round while Milos Raonic went out in his opener yesterday. Of course the real shock occurred this evening when Roland Garros conquerer Rafael Nadal, jumped right back into action -- and lost to German wildcard Dustin Brown.

The total dearth of seeded players that exit left in the top half of the draw opens the door for many -- world #27 Phillipp Kohlschreiber is clearly the favorite, and Alejandro Falla, who nearly beat Federer at Wimbledon back in 2010, is capable of big things himself. But watch out too for Germany's own Peter Gojowczyk -- the twenty-four year old broke into the top hundred this year after a run to the semis in Doha, beating Kohli and Brown in the process, and shocked Jo-Wilfried in his Davis Cup quarterfinal rubber. He'd been pretty quiet since then, but his win over Raonic Wednesday shows he might have more fight left in him. And with the path so nicely cleared before him, there's no reason that won't result in some more big wins this week.

Sure, French fatigue could have played a big factor in some of the losses we've already seen this week, but it's nice to see some of the underdogs step up to the plate when they get the chance. With just over a week left before the start of the next Grand Slam, this might be the perfect time to show the field what they've got. And if they keep momentum on their side, they could effect some big changes to the tennis landscape for a long time to come.

June 9, 2014

Not Just About the Trophies

I was out of town most of last week and got home just in time really to catch the men's final at the French Open. But though I may have missed some of the particulars, I'm fully aware of how exciting things got as we got down to the wire at Roland Garros. And as impressive as the champions' campaigns were, there were plenty other stand-outs in the second half of the Paris fortnight -- even among those that fell just a little short of taking home the trophies.

On the ladies side, so many of the uber-favorites were knocked out early so we were given early warning that we should expect some new faces hanging out in the later rounds. Croatia's Alja Tomljanovic, who defeated third seed Aga Radwanska, made a fourth round appearance at her first French Open, and Garbine Muguruza rode her defeat of Serena Williams all the way to the quarterfinals. And three of the ladies who reached the semifinals had combined for only one previous Grand Slam Final Four -- Genie Bouchard won her first career title in Nice just days before making the trip to Paris, and backed up her performance in Melbourne by taking out a toughened-up Julia Goerges, world #9 Angelique Kerber and my dark horse pick for the title, Carla Suarez Navarro. And Andrea Petkovic, who'd made the quarters here on her last visit -- three long years ago -- cemented her comeback with a decisive win over 2012 finalist Sara Errani, marking her longest Major run to date.

Simona Halep did them both one better though -- the 2008 Juniors champion at Roland Garros had put together one of the most impressive twelve-month runs on Tour. Since June of last year, the petite Romanian has picked up a field-leading seven titles, the biggest coming in Doha this past February, and this season she'd already notched five wins over top-ten players. She'd climbed all the way up to #4 in the world, and was actually ranked higher than everyone she faced in Paris. Unfortunately, though, she ran into a much more experienced Maria Sharapova, seeded just seventh, but after trophies in Stuttgart and Madrid combined with the exits of Serena and 2011 champ Na Li, a likely favorite for this title.

And Sharapova did not disappoint. Pushed to three sets in every one of her second-week matches, she went the distance again on Saturday's final -- Halep kept things interesting, grabbing the second set in a tiebreak and trading service games in the decider. But after more than three hours on court, the Russian emerged the winner, adding the second Roland Garros trophy to her mantle, and maybe more importantly doubling up the Slam she might never have thought she'd win. Despite injuries and coaching changes over the last several months -- and years, to be sure -- her Grand Slam career now spans a full decade and she's proven her consistency on all surfaces. Adding that fifth Major title to her resum´ is certainly nice, but her ability to endure so long in this sport puts her in a league many cannot achieve.

The performances on the men's side were no less impressive -- while they were blessed, too, with their fair share of early upsets, perhaps the biggest came in Sunday's fourth round when 2009 champion Roger Federer, the only man other than Rafael Nadal to win this title in the past ten years, fell at the hands of often-volatile Ernests Gulbis. The eighteenth seed had made the quarters in Paris way back in 2008, and while he too was a long-shot pick of mine, he hadn't gotten past the third round of any Major since. He followed up his defeat of Federer by taking out Tomas Berdych, becoming the third first-time Slam semifinalist in both brackets.

But while the ladies' draw certainly featured more greenness in the final few days, ultimately it was the more battle-tested men who won out. World #1 and #2 Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic made Sunday's final as was widely expected -- their twenty-second match where a title was on the line. Rafa was going, of course, for his ninth Roland Garros crown and had won their last meeting at a Major, but Nole had momentum on his side, taking their last four meetings, most recently on the clay of Rome. And with a return to the top ranking and his own career Grand Slam on the line, he had plenty of motivation to dethrone the King of Clay.

And at the start it sure looked like we were about to see a changing of the guard at the French Open -- Djokovic more than doubled the number of winners Nadal hit in the opening set and never allowed his opponent much of a look on his own serve. But Rafa was able to turn the tables in the second -- though he gave back an early break he held tough to close out the set and dominated the third to gain the lead. Things went back and forth in the fourth, again, but after building a 30-0 lead in the tenth game, the Serb lost four straight points, the last on a double fault, to lose the match and what's been his best shot at making history. Instead, Nadal surpasses his own record -- his nine singles titles here are two more than any other man has won at the same Major -- and matches Pete Sampras for fourteen Slam trophies overall, second to and just three behind Federer's seventeen. Whether he can eventually surpass that number remains a question of course -- like Sharapova he's missed months at a time with injury, and the toll his game takes on his body certainly can't be ignored -- but by rebounding from a less-than-stellar season to dominate an event as big as Roland Garros shows he's not ready to slink off into the sunset any time soon.

While the physical prize at a Grand Slam is ultimately the trophies and checks awarded to the champions, this weekend's winners at Roland Garros -- and even those who fell a little short of the that -- accomplished so much more than their on-paper results suggest. Big upsets, big breakthroughs, big comebacks, big efforts -- these are just some of the stories told by the performances during the latter half of this year's French Open. Win or lose, all these athletes did something great in Paris. And hopefully it's just a sign of so much more to come.