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.

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