July 28, 2014

Back in the Spotlight

This weekend's champions had been flying a bit under the radar this year. With so many young stars emerging and a couple tried-and-true veterans showing their still more than relevant, their names have stayed largely out of the headlines. But with wins this week, it seems they're all ready to grab back some of the attention, and maybe change the course of the rest of their years.

Former Junior #1 Elina Svitolina is the second highest ranked teenager in the WTA, but her successes have largely been overshadowed by the likes of Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard -- the woman to whom she lost the 2012 Girls' title, incidentally -- world #3 Simona Halep, and even Madison Keys, the nineteen-year-old champion at Eastbourne. But the Ukrainian has had some big wins on Tour this year, taking out Svetlana Kuznetsova in her Melbourne opener and forcing Aga Radwanska into three sets in the Miami fourth round. Last week she returned to defend her only super-125K level title in Baku as the second seed. And with many of the favorites falling early, she did face much of a challenge during her run -- she dropped one set to 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in the semis and and met just one seed, a resurgent Bojana Jovanovski in the final. After a quick first set, Svitolina needed a tiebreak to close out the match, but never dropped her own serve and in under ninety minutes was again raising the trophy. If she can keep the momentum up at the higher-profile events down the road, she might just be able to launch herself into the next level.

John Isner has been flirting with the elite for years, but since breaking into the top ten over two years ago, he's only reached the fourth round of a Major one time -- surprisingly at Roland Garros this year. He has kept winning titles, two a year in fact since 2011 and opened this season with a trophy in Auckland, but none above the 250 level, and his biggest win in 2014 was a four-set, three-tiebreak battle against then-#14 Tommy Robredo in Paris. But he's been a little more consistent than normal this year, reaching the quarters in Nice and Newport and the semis in Indian Wells, and he's much more comfortable on the American hardcourts, too. Twice a finalist in Atlanta he finally broke the seal here last year. This week the top seed at the BB&T Open held tough versus wildcard Robby Ginepri in his opener and got the upper hand on recently rising Jack Sock in the semis. And Israel's Dudi Sela, who'd already taken out two seeds during his campaign down south, couldn't keep up in Sunday's final. Isner fired off a not-unusual fifteen aces and, more surprisingly, converted both break points he got to recapture the title. And while history doesn't necessarily suggest the win will lead to a successful U.S. Open Series, his persistence this season may just indicate that's about to change.

Pablo Andujar's been a little farther removed from the winner's circle. The twenty-eight year old Spaniard won his only two previous titles in Casablanca, but the last one came back in 2012. Since then he'd fallen briefly out of the top hundred and despite a solid run to the Madrid semis last year and very nearly beating Rafael Nadal this past February in Rio, he hadn't made it back to another championship match. He changed that last week in Gstaad, though -- after getting a pass from Gilles Simon in his opener, he took out both Marcel Granollers and Fernando Verdasco, setting up a clash with former top-ten veteran Juan Monaco in the final. And it was quite a close battle too -- the Argentine, who'd pulled off a couple upsets himself on the way to Sunday's match, had break point early and then lost a solid lead on his own serve to give up the first set. Monaco fought hard in the second too, building a 4-1 lead to start, but ultimately Andujar proved the stronger -- he rattled off four straight games to clinch the win and claim his third career trophy. And while he still needs to find a way to translate that success onto another surface, he might just have found the confidence he needs to make the switch.

Pablo Cuevas might have given himself even more confidence with the performances he's put up this month. Though he lingered around the low double digits in the latter part of the last decade, the Uruguayan was ranked well outside the top hundred at just the start of the month. And though he'd been on Tour for a full decade and captured nine titles on the Challengers' circuit, he'd never reached an ATP-level final before July. Even after beating Fernando Verdasco on his way to his first big boy's trophy in Bastad, he had to qualify for last week's action in Umag. But he kept his win streak going in unexpected style -- he ran over sixth seeded Andreas Seppi in his second round and then trounced world #15 Fabio Fognini in the semis. Against defending champion Tommy Robredo in the final he again didn't drop a set, taking less than an hour and a half to stop the second seed in his tracks and extend his run to a maybe lucky thirteen match wins. Like Andujar, he'll need to transition his came to a new surface in the coming weeks, but with his surprising successes lifting him to #40 in the world -- his highest ranking to date -- there's no reason to believe he won't keep rising higher.

All of this weekend's champions put themselves back on the map with their title runs, for the first time in months for some and in years for others. With the summer hardcourt season now in full swing, and many of the players who've been in the spotlight getting back on court, we'll see whether momentum will stay on their side or if they'll fall back to the sidelines. And now that they've shown what they can do, they'd better be ready for a lot more attention.

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