July 21, 2014

The Rebirth

I have to admit I was pretty impressed by the action we saw on the tennis courts last week.

Sure we still haven't hit the sweet spot of the summer hardcourt season and most of the sport's top athletes were not yet in action. But we saw more than a couple players carry success through from one week to the next, and a few players long missing from the winner's circle made triumphant returns to glory that could right their paths for the rest of the year.

Mona Barthel was one of the standouts of the 2012 season -- a qualifier in Hobart that year, she shocked four seeded players to claim her first career title and a year later she took out Marion Bartoli and Sara Errani in her trophy run at the Paris Indoors. She peaked at #23 in the world that March, but ended the season with four straight first round losses and fell out of the top eighty for most of this spring. It wasn't an easy road for her in Bastad either -- with all but one seed losing their opening matches, the young German upset just one favorite on her way to the final, but lost a set to qualifier Gabriela Dabrowski in her second round and had to come back from 2-4 down against Sylvia Soler-Espinosa in the semis. Against Chanelle Scheepers Sunday, another woman who'd been struggling before making the trip to Sweden, she was tested too, finding herself in a 3-5 hole in their second set. But Barthel was able to stay strong and ultimately closed out the match in straight sets, capturing her third career crown and reminding the field what she's capable of.

Bernard Tomic seems to have been missing from the spotlight a little longer. Once hailed as the Next Big Thing in the sport, he hadn't won more than two matches at any tournament since losing the Sydney final -- he'd won his only previous title there a year before -- and dropped out of the top hundred after a second round loss at Wimbledon, his lowest ranking in over three years. He was unseeded in Bogota, positioned behind little-known players like Alejandro Gonzalez and Victor Estrella Burgos, and just barely eked out a win over the latter in the semis, needing three tiebreaks and nearly three hours to score the win. He ran up against big-serving Ivo Karlovic on Sunday -- the Croat was playing his second final in as many weeks, and as the second seed was the on-paper favorite this time too -- but even without converting a break opportunity, Tomic was able to secure the win in tiebreaks. It was just his second career trophy, putting him a little behind expectations, but may have been just what the young Australian needed to kick him into gear.

Over in Istanbul another former champion -- albeit one who's got a little more hardware on her mantle -- took a huge step in putting herself back on the map. Caroline Wozniacki fell out of the top ten early this year and struggled with injury, etc., for most of the spring. She was somewhat redeemed by making the semis in Eastbourne and her fourth round showing at the All England Club, but she really proved she was back this past week at the reestablished Istanbul Cup. The top seed in Turkey, she opened with a double bagel against rising star Belinda Bencic, and though she dropped sets to early opponents, ultimately made her first final of the year with a straight set win over another of the year's standouts, Kristina Mladenovic. In the final against Roberta Vinci -- playing her second straight final despite her inauspiciousstart to the year -- she took control again, never dropping serve and taking five games off her challenger. It took just over an hour to win her twenty-second trophy, but after the year she's had, it sure seems like she put up an even bigger effort than that.

Things went down a little differently in Hamburg, where unseeded Leonardo Mayer was looking less for reawakening than for a first launch. The twenty-seven year old Argentine only made his first singles final in February and had spent most of the last five years in the low double-digit rankings. He did manage a win over world #16 Tommy Robredo in Viña Del Mar, but before last week -- even with a fourth round run at Wimbledon -- he was a whopping 0-16 against top ten players. He cracked that goose egg in Germany though -- after taking out tenth seed Guillermo Garcia Lopez, he battled past a couple young guns and earned the right to meet last year's French Open runner-up David Ferrer for the title. It didn't look like it would go his way at first -- the veteran Spaniard had ceded a total of three games in his quarter and semifinal matches and came back from breaks down to take the opening set on Sunday. But Mayer rebounded in grand style, finally scoring that elusive win over an elite player and taking home that all-important maiden trophy.

And while Mayer may have just broken the seal of tennis champions, he and the rest of this weekend's victors have all recaptured the feeling of being at the top of their game. And if they can keep it up there's no telling how much more success we'll see from them down the road.

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