July 10, 2014

Take a Step Back

It's that weird time in the tennis season again, where -- after a month of playing on grass and several weeks still before the final hardcourt Major of the year -- we're forced to turn the clocks back a few weeks and revisit the clay court action of the spring. And the change of scenery may have suited some more than others.

To be fair, Phillipp Kohlscreiber's bad luck in Stuttgart wasn't entirely his fault -- the hometown favorite was the victim of a schedule marred by nearly two days of rain and had to play back to back matches today to start his Mercedes Cup campaign. After completing his opener against Jan-Lennard Struff, he fell in two tight sets to giant-killer Lukas Rosol. Some lower seeds have made a better transition back to dirt, though. Barcelona runner-up Santiago Giraldo, who beat both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray in Rome, fell quickly to Roger Federer at Wimbledon. He seems to have gotten back on track this week -- after an easy win over qualifier Mate Delic in his opener he stayed tough after dropping a second set tiebreak today to ultimately set up a quarterfinal against top seed Fabio Fognini. And Federico Delbonis, who hadn't won a match since his Cinderella run to the Nice final, turned his luck around too. After ousting veteran Juan Monaco in his first round, he came back from a set down against Benjamin Becker, and will now face a struggling Mikhail Youzhny for a spot in the semis. And with some big wins in both their pockets already this year, either could make a real run for this title.

Over in Sweden it's some less-surprising names that most benefit from the switch of surfaces. Last year's French Open finalist David Ferrer suffered an inglorious defeat at the hands of then-#118 Andrey Kuznetsov in his Wimbledon second round and needed to rebound on the clay of Bastad, and he's off to a good start. He needed just over an hour to dispatch Victor Hanescu earlier today and though Carlos Berlocq will certainly present a bigger challenge in next, the Argentine has lost opening sets in his last two matches and should be easily handled. And countryman Fernando Verdasco, almost a semifinalist last year at the All England Club, fell quite a bit earlier this time around. But the Spaniard has won four of his six titles on clay, and after taking out Albert Ramos-Viñolas Thursday, he shouldn't face any real challenge until the final. Meanwhile last year's Wimbledon standout Jerzy Janowicz has had a little more trouble -- he played three five-set matches this year at the All England Club and only won two of them. Now out of the top fifty, he didn't make a strong case to move back up the rankings this week and lost his opener to one of this season's up-and-comers Dusan Lajovic. He'll need to pull his game together a bit better once he hits the hardcourts if he wants to show he belongs among the elite.

Slightly more consistent this year, Simona Halep didn't exactly have a disappointing Wimbledon, but with a 5-1 record against the other semifinalists she arguably blew her best recent chance at claiming that first Grand Slam crown -- and it's a bit of a let-down since her stellar run in Paris. She seems to have her groove back in Bucharest -- she's needed about two and a half hours to dismiss her first two opponents and with many of the other seeds falling early, she's the heavy favorite in the field. Petra Cetkovska has a little more heavy lifting to do -- the one time fourth-rounder at the All England Club has almost tripled her all-time high ranking of #25 in the world, but she's had some well-fought wins this week in Romania. And as one of the few seeds left in the draw, she has a real shot at making it to the final. I originally thought Silvia Soler-Espinosa did too -- the twenty-three year old Spaniard reached the final in Strasbourg as a qualifier and defeated Yanina Wickmayer to make the third round in Paris. Against still-struggling Roberta Vinci today, I figured her as the favorite, but after taking the opening set she eventually succumbed to the second seed -- maybe not an on-paper upset, but certainly a squandered opportunity.

Perhaps, though, the most surprising loss by a clay court specialist this week was that of my Roland Garros dark horse Carla Suarez Navarro. Having finally won her maiden title on the dirt at the start of May, she seemed to have broken the seal and, though she experienced an understandable loss early at Wimbledon, I expected her to do a bit better in Bad Gastein. But after being pushed to three sets by qualifier Laura Siegemund, she lost quickly today to world #147 Shelby Rogers. Other seeds have been performing a little better in Austria. Camila Giorgi, who's taking out big names like Maria Sharapova in Indian Wells and Victoria Azarenka in Eastbourne, is the most immediate beneficiary of CSN's early exit and might finally be able to put a loner string of wins together. And Sara Errani, who's cut her teeth on this surface with seven titles on clay, may be able to end his year-long trophy-less streak -- she hasn't dropped a set yet in her first two matches here, and with so much of the draw cleared out for her, she's by far the favorite left in the field. And if she can capitalize on that status she might just be able to make a move back into the top ten.

Of course, we should expect that the players who've seen their best results on clay to be most successful this week too -- but clearly it takes a little something extra to shift as seamlessly as these guys and gals have done. Whether they can ride their momentum to titles this weekend remains to be seen -- but more importantly, hopefully it bodes well for what we'll see from them in the weeks and months to come.

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