September 11, 2014

Separated at Birth: U.S. Open & Summer Stars

It's been a while since my last "Separated at Birth" post, and with the surge of new talent emerging on the tennis scene in recent months, and especially at the U.S. Open, I thought it might be time for an update.

After all, while these players may be rising to new heights in the sport, you can't help but feel like you've seen them somewhere before.

In Mirjana Lucic-Baroni's case, that time came over a decade ago. The 1999 Wimbledon semifinalist and 1998 Australian doubles champ had been out of the game for years, battling personal and financial problems and contending with an abusive father. She returned to WTA plan in the late 2000s, but only won a handful of Slam matches since then and had lost eight straight matches coming into the U.S. Open. She was ranked just #121 in the world, but managed to qualify for the main draw and took out two of the biggest stars of the year in early rounds. And it wasn't just her high quality of play that served as a callback to nineties -- hopefully her Comeback is just starting.

Aleksandra Krunic is a little newer on the scene, but the U.S. Open qualifier -- her only WTA-level win before New York came in Bucharest over then-#131 Alexandra Panova -- had an amazing run of her own over the past two weeks. She held tough against twenty-seventh seed Madison Keys in the second round and then stunned New Haven and Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova a match later. In her first ever Major fourth round, she came back from a big deficit against two-time runner-up Victoria Azarenka and very nearly won the match. Her stealth performance was almost as impressive as certain girl with a dragon tattoo.

A couple other ladies who made a mark in Flushing Meadows bare resemblances less to Hollywood stars than to erstwhile tennis champions, some of whom are not at all far removed from the sport. Monica Puig, the highest ever ranked player from Puerto Rico, has certainly been making a name for herself this year, winning her first career title in Strasbourg last May and taking Andrea Petkovic to three tough sets at the Open. But even in the promo posters hanging all over the New York subways this week, I kept mistaking her for a recent Hall of Famer who actually made it all the way to this year's doubles final.

And former Junior #1 Belinda Bencic, the youngest teenager in the top hundred, made a big push into the women's circuit with a run to the quarters this fortnight. Wins over Angelique Kerber and Jelena Jankovic propelled her to #33 in the world, a stone's throw from being seeded during next year's Slam season. Perhaps the seventeen-year-old standout is well on her way to a career that rivals another young phenom, 2009's Newport inductee.

First time Slam semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova also put together the event of her career, first withstanding the blistering heat to take out seventh seed Genie Bouchard, the most consistent performer at the Majors this year, and then powering through former world #1 Victoria Azarenka in the quarters. Though she couldn't repeat her big upset of Serena in the final four, she did ride her momentum to a career-high #15 in the work and took home her second Slam doubles title to boot. Her performance isn't unlike another record-holding champion -- one who also excelled in both the singles and doubles games.

There were a couple almost-twins on the men's side as well. David Goffin had one of the best summers of his career, putting together a twenty-five match win streak after Wimbledon, picking up his maiden ATP trophy, and winning his first Major matches in over two years. He's probably more comfortable on the courts than on the red carpet, but he sure could pass for a younger version of a Parenthood and Six Feet Under star.

Nick Kyrgios has had a little more success at the Slams this year, stunning Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon and upsetting Mikhail Youzhny in his New York opener. He had a big lead on Tommy Robredo in the third round, too, ultimately falling short, but like another grass court specialist with a funky haircut, something tells me we've only just started to see what he can do.

Gael Monfils has really been mounting a comeback this season, winning his first title since 2011 in Montpellier and climbing to his highest ranking in two years after his U.S. Open run. He so very nearly reached the semifinals in Flushing Meadows, holding a two-set-to-love lead and match points against Roger Federer -- what would have been his best Slam showing since 2008. The question now is whether his look-alike will see a similar resurrection in his career.

While these guys all reached new highs in New York, 2011 champion Novak Djokovic fell a little short of expectations. Titleless since winning the Wimbledon crown to start the summer, the top seed got through the early rounds barely breaking a sweat, but was upset in the semis by an Energizer Bunny named Kei Nishikori. Still you can't ignore how much his game, and his look, has evolved since the first time he was featured here -- these days he reminds me much more of another newlywed.

Of course the big story at the U.S. Open was that of unlikely champion Marin Cilic, whose defeat of three favored players in a row -- including one five-time champion -- brought him his first career Major trophy. I've racked my brain for ages trying to figure out who he resembled -- I used to think it was contemporary ATP star Gilles Simon, then I kind of saw a likeness to his new coach Goran Ivanisevic. But it wasn't until I was watching an old episode of Jeopardy! that the true nerd in me came up with the answer -- or rather, the question.

If you want to share your favorite tennis look-alikes, send me a note, and be sure to check out my other "Separated at Birth" pairs here!

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