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.

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