September 25, 2014

Caught Off Guard

It seems funny, doesn't it, when we're getting this late into the week and the top seeds are only just starting to see action on the tennis courts? And the lack of match play seems to have taken a couple favorites by surprise, opening the door for a few underdogs on this leg of the Asian tour.

In Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, second-seeded Ernests Gulbis survived his opening round by the skin of his teeth. The recent top ten player, who beat Roger Federer on the way to his first Grand Slam semi in Paris, was pushed to three sets in his return to play -- he'd last squandered a two-set lead at the U.S. Open to hitting partner and 2014 upstart Dominic Thiem. Other seeds, including New York runner-up Kei Nishikori, have had an easier time so far, but that doesn't mean it's all smooth sailing ahead. Marinko Matosevic kicked off his run with an upset of compatriot Nick Kyrgios, which may have given him confidence to put up a fight against Nishikori next -- he currently has a less-than-impressive 0-4 record against the man from Japan. But the real sleeper in this draw might be Pablo Cuevas, the fifth-seeded Argentine who quietly picked up his first two career titles in consecutive weeks this summer. Set to face Julien Benneteau next and likely Gulbis a round later, he has a more than manageable path to the title match, and might just round out what's been his most successful season to date.

The drama was even higher in Shenzhen where David Ferrer, upset in the first week of his Big Apple campaign, was stunned in his first round today by former world #12 Viktor Troicki. The Serb, suspended for a year for not submitting to a blood test, has spent most of his time back on the Challengers' circuit. But he has picked up two titles since July and cut his ranking from way down in the eight hundreds to a more modest #174. He's got a couple more seeds to deal with in his section, but having already dispatched the biggest threat, his chances to continue look good. There's room for fireworks in the bottom half too, where Andy Murray is playing ranked outside the top ten for the first time in more than six years. While that might not be enough to make him vulnerable, per se, it could give potential opponents a little boost -- Juan Monaco, for example, a former top ten player himself, may have fallen in the first round of the U.S. Open, but did reach the semis in Kitzbühel and the final in Gstaad this summer. He's already scored wins over Nice finalist Federico Delbonis and DC runner up Vasek Pospisil, and though he's surprisingly never met next opponent Richard Gasquet before, he could have the momentum to carry him through. And with a 2-2 record against Murray, he might just be able to cause an upset in the semis too.

After all, the 2014 tennis season may be getting ready to wind down, but there's still plenty of opportunity for the underdogs to make a statement. And for those that can take advantage of weaknesses among the favorites, there's no reason they can't finish off the year with a bang.

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