August 14, 2014

A Few Familiar Faces

This year, really, has been about the next generation of tennis greats. With players like Genie Bouchard, Simona Halep and Nick Kyrgios making such big strides, it's been easy to lose track of some long trudging champions.

But this week in Cincinnati, we've seen the vets come back into the spotlight after some seemingly long absences. And they might just have what it takes to keep on going.

Sloane Stephens was long heralded as the Next Big Thing in American women's tennis, and she seemed destined to live up to that reputation when she stunned Serena Williams at the Australian Open last year. But she fell a few rounds short of the semis this time around and had only managed one top-twenty win all season, beating Ana Ivanovic in Indian Wells, while she lost to a handful of players ranked outside the top hundred. This week at the Western & Southern Open, though, she seems to have gotten her stride back -- she kicked off her campaign with a straight-set win over French Cinderella Andrea Petkovic and then took out Wimbledon standout Barbora Zahlavova Strycova. She next faces a rematch with Jelena Jankovic, the woman who beat her in Montreal just days ago, but she went three long sets in that battle and could turn the tables in her favor now that she's playing on her own homecourt.

Sabine Lisicki has also struggled since her career high last July. Consistently a threat at Wimbledon, she final reached the championship match in 2013, but didn't win more than one match at an event until Madrid this season. Even when she was breaking service records in Stanford, she was still losing matches she should have won. She also may be back on track in Cincinnati, though, taking out both Roberta Vinci and her co-#1 doubles partner Sara Errani to start the week. And like Sloane again, she'll meet her Rogers Cup vanquisher in tonight's late match -- she was the only player to take a set off Aga Radwanska last week in Montreal, and might now have the fire to go one better this time.

While these unseeded ladies have outlasted expectations already in Cincinnati, David Ferrer is looking to give himself a bit of a boost. Last year's runner-up in Paris has remained consistent this year, reaching the quarters in Australia and at Roland Garros and remaining squarely in the top ten of the ATP. But he's also suffered some surprising losses -- to Teymuraz Gabashvili in his Barcelona opener and to Andrey Kuznetsov in the second round at Wimbledon. And even when he's won, he's had a tough time doing it -- yesterday against Phillipp Kohlschreiber in Cincy, he needed three tiebreaks and nearly three hours to advance. Up next for the sixth seed is Mikhail Youzhny -- a man who's been struggling himself this year, but encouragingly followed up a win over Toronto champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga by beating Andreas Seppi on Wednesday. Ferrer has a less-than-spectacular 3-5 record against the Russian, but if he can rally for the win there's no telling what it would do for his morale.

Gael Monfils can't really ever be accused of having too little confidence, but he's struggled to come back from injury over the last several months, and success has come in fits and starts. He did claim a title early in the year and took Andy Murray to five sets in the Roland Garros quarters, but he also was dealt a early exit at the hands of Jiri Vesely at Wimbledon. Last week in Toronto he pushed Novak Djokovic to the limit, ultimately losing in the almost-three hour match, but it might have lit a fire under him for the Western & Southern -- he went three sets in his opener, but rebounded quickly to upset 2014 breakout Roberto Bautista-Agut. It's only going to get tougher from here, of course -- he'll take on Roger Federer this evening -- but Monfils actually won the pair's last meeting at the Shanghai Masters and might have the momentum to pull off another big upset.

Of course it's great when new talent crops up in the tennis world, but there's something reassuring about seeing these guys and gals hitting back so strong against the tide. They might not be the favorites in the field, but they've all scored some huge wins in the past and could certainly find the strength to do it again. And if they keep it up, things could get really interesting in the weeks to come.

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