August 26, 2014

Momentum Lost

With a day or so of play in the books at the U.S. Open, we haven't seen a ton of big upsets yet, but that doesn't mean the action in New York has been completely devoid of surprises. Favorites like Simona Halep were pushed to three sets on Day One, upstarts like Nick Kyrgios notched huge wins over long-standing veterans, and former champions like Venus Williams were forced to brave the wilderness, swatting at bees as well as balls. But not everyone made it through early round play -- and a couple who'd been strong all summer suffered a bit of a set back just as they seemed to have been peaking.

Magdalena Rybarikova has had some of her best results on the American hardcourts, trouncing higher-ranked opponents in DC to win the title two years running, and stunning Simona Halep just last week on her way to the New Haven final. But while she was able to push former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki to a third set, she ultimately retired down a break in the decider. The on-paper underdog may not have been projected to go very far, but she certainly had the ability to shake up the draw a bit. Instead it's the 2009 runner-up who'll face qualifier Aliaksandra Sasnovich for a spot in the third round. And while Caro has certainly upped her game after a disappointing spring season, she must be relieved to have survived the challenge. And hopefully she'll be able to absorb the momentum that the Slovakian lost.

Garbiñe Muguruza has been a little more consistent this year -- since picking up her maiden trophy in Hobart, she reached the fourth round of the Australian Open, pulled off the upset of the tournament on her way to the Roland Garros quarters and made the Sweet Sixteen in both Stanford and New Haven. Her five top-twenty wins on the season have helped her rise to a career-high #26 ranking and earned her a second straight seeding at a Major. She opened against thirty-two year old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, ranked outside the top hundred, a veteran who made the Wimbledon semis way back in 1999 and was able to capitalize on that experience Monday. In about an hour and a half Lucic had recorded the win, setting up a second round with fellow vet Shahar Peer, a woman she beat in their only previous match just last year. Actually the favorite this time, the Croat could parlay her first upset into her deepest run in New York yet.

Unfortunately for 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, hopes of recapturing past glory were stopped short. The two-time Major winner ended a four-year title drought in DC earlier this month, and pulled off wins over higher-ranked Genie Bouchard and Ekaterina Makarova this summer. She was one of my dark horse picks to at least the second week at this event, but she had the bad luck to run into a hungry Marina Erakovic earlier today. Sveta jumped to an early lead, but was pushed quickly to a third set by the world #82 -- the New Zealander climbed back from a break down in the decider too, ultimately forcing and winning a tiebreak. It was Erakovic's first win at the U.S. Open and sets up a meeting with another Russian, Elena Vesnina in the next round. And with a 2-2 record against last year's Eastbourne champion, she's got more than a good shot at scoring a few more.

It wasn't just the ladies who came under pressure in early rounds. I was sure Vasek Pospisil had broken his weak streak when made the finals in DC, winning battles against the likes of Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet. He couldn't defend points he'd earned last year in Montreal, but took Roger Federer to three sets in Cincinnati and seemed ready to make a break back into the top rankings. But Italy's Simone Bolelli had other plans. After a heart-breaking five-set loss in the Wimbledon third round, the world #85 was not about to go down without a fight -- he lost the first set and squandered the lead he built when he won the next two. But ultimately Bolelli finished swinging -- he converted the only break opportunity in the fifth, winning his only match at Flushing Meadows since 2007. He'll now take on sixteenth seed Tommy Robredo, a more difficult test to be sure, but a man he's beaten in their last two meetings. If he's recovered in time, there's no reason he can't keep that run going.

Yen-Hsun "Rendy" Lu, on the other hand, wasn't able to maintain his own momentum. After taking out Tomas Berdych in Cincinnati and making a solid run to the semis in Winston-Salem last week, the man from Taipei climbed to #34 in the world, his highest ranking in almost four years. It wasn't enough for a seed at the U.S. Open, but he nevertheless presented a threat to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, ranked just ahead of him, who'd gone on a five-match losing streak in July and August. But in the pair's first meeting since 2009, the Spaniard had the upper hand from the start -- he broke Lu six times during the match, won more than eighty percent of his first serves, and out-aced his opponent 10-3. In what should have been a much closer battle, GGL secured the win in three easy sets, sending Rendy home in the first round of a Major for the twenty-second time and setting up a second round with another summer stand-out, Sam Querrey. He should be the favorite here, too, but Querrey's won every one of their last three meetings, most recently just last week in North Carolina, and he's not going to let the twenty-eighth seed rest too long on his laurels.

Lukas Rosol was certainly not allowed much of a chance to rest on his. The twenty-nine year old, best known for his then-shocking defeat of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2012, was having a pretty good season this year too. He notched three top-thirty wins on his way to the Stuttgart final, and beat Tommy Robredo a week later in Hamburg. Last week at the Winston-Salem Open, helped largely by the retirement of Ryan Harrison and a withdrawal by John Isner, he worked his way to the championship match, claiming his second career title with a three-set victory over big-serving Jerzy Janowicz in the final. He lasted three sets today, too, but this time was on the wrong end of them -- against teenage qualifier Borna Coric, last year's Boys' champion in New York, he watched twenty aces sail past him, was broken five times and was sent packing after less than two hours on court. The #204-ranked Coric will now face thirty-four year old Victor Estrella Burgos -- literally twice his age -- who won his first match at a Major earlier today. The Croat will surely be the underdog, but the way the kids are playing these days, I wouldn't put anything past him.

Of course, it wasn't all bad news for the summer's strongest players -- former champion Sam Stosur, fresh off a win over Genie Bouchard on her way to the New Haven semis, easily passed what could have been a difficult test from Lauren Davis, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga may have been on the losing end of one of the best shots of the Open so far, but ultimately got the win over Juan Monaco without breaking much of a sweat. Still, early exits for some of the most successful stars of the season might just open the doors for both their vanquishers and those looking for a turn around.

And whoever grabs the opportunity first could ride a new wave of momentum farther than they ever expected.

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