August 4, 2014

Back in the Saddle

We saw a lot of players last week reassert themselves in the tennis world, and while many of them were encouragingly able to keep up their performances most of the week, when it came down to the wire it was the tried-and-true who came away the winners. But for some, it had been a long time since they tasted that kind of victory.

Milos Raonic had been putting together his most successful season to-date, but despite his first Grand Slam semi at Wimbledon and breaking into the top ten for the first time, he hadn't won a title all year. The big-serving Canadian came to the Citi Open in DC as the second seed, but faced some tough competition during his run. Despite fifty-four aces, the first five sets he played all went to tiebreaks, and it wasn't until the quarterfinals against Steve Johnson that he finally held onto a break lead. In Sunday's final versus compatriot Vasek Pospisil, who'd already come back from sets down in his previous two matches, he broke early in the match and never looked back -- after just over an hour he'd secured the win, the first 500-level title of his career. It was Raonic's first trophy since Bangkok last September, but after so many close calls this year, it might mean a little more.

Svetlana Kuznetsova has been away from the winner's circle a little longer -- the two-time Major winner claimed her last title almost four years ago and lost the only two championships she's played since then. She has remained relevant, though, reaching the quarterfinals at the last two French Opens and climbing back up the rankings from #85 in the world last January to #26 before making the trip to DC. The sixth seeded Russian was blessed with a fairly open draw, with red-hot Lucie Safarova losing her opener and two-time defending champion Magdalena Rybarikova falling quickly in her first round. But she didn't lose a set in her first three matches, beating compatriot Ekaterina Makarova in less than ninety minutes in their semi. Sunday she faced off against unseeded upstart Kurumi Nara, who'd won her first career trophy in Rio to start the year and was clearly going to put up a fight for title #2. After taking the first set, Sveta fell behind in the second to the young Japanese and was forced to a decider. And both ladies raised their games in that set, with the first and only break conversion coming at match point after more than two hours of play. The win not only ended Kuznetsova's long drought, but more importantly reminded us all of how relevant she still is as we draw closer to the last Grand Slam of the year.

Serena Williams also made a big statement this week. While the world #1 had already picked up three crowns this season, she'd been getting more attention lately for her early Slam exits and a weird Wimbledon meltdown. Though she'll still be the favorite to defend her U.S Open title later in the summer, plenty of pundits wondered whether she'd be mentally and physically fit enough to play against the top stars in the sport. She may have silenced those critics at the Bank of the West Classic, where she'd won the trophy on her last two outings. She kept that win streak going last week, coming back from a set down to Ana Ivanovic in the quarters and winning eight straight games to close out her semifinal against Andrea Petkovic. In yesterday's final she got down an early break to Angelique Kerber -- a woman who'd delivered her only loss in the in back half of 2012 -- but rebounded quickly, taking the first set in a tiebreak and allowing just two points on serve in the second. The win puts her squarely on top of the U.S. Open Series rankings, a place she's used to occupying, but more importantly proves she can't be counted out. And while there might be a few more openings for her opponents, she's not going anywhere any time soon.

With the summer hardcourt season now in full swing, it was the perfect time for this weekend's winners to get back on a winning track. Whether it'd been months or years since they last tasted victory, their recent results show us just how much in control of their games they are. And with just a few weeks left before action kicks off in New York, everyone else should stand up and take notice.

No comments: