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.

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