October 6, 2014

Show 'Em Who's Boss

With all the action on court the last few weeks, it's easy to have forgotten about a couple players who've been a little quiet recently. But some long-time champions reasserted themselves in a big way this weekend and reminded us all who we really need to pay attention to as the season winds down.

Kei Nishikori hasn't really been out of the spotlight so much, but you have to be impressed that after his disappointment in the New York final he's rebounded so nicely. He walked easily away with the title in Kuala Lumpur last week and got right back to work in Tokyo days later. Seeded just fourth in his homeland, though, he had a little bigger hill to climb if he was going to keep his streak going. But even with favorites like Stan Wawrinka and David Ferrer bowing out early, Nishikori had to fight -- he came back from a set down to Benjamin Becker in the semis and ultimately faced new rival Milos Raonic for the title. The Wimbledon semifinalist, the on-paper favorite despite a 1-3 record against the man from Japan, had faced a more intimidating route to Sunday's match -- but he weathered challenges from likes of Jurgen Melzer, Bernard Tomic and former top ten player Gilles Simon, reaching the championship without dropping a set. But even with twenty-two aces in the final, Nishikori proved too much to handle -- forced to a third set he finally converted a break opportunity when it counted, closing out the two-hour plus match and securing his fourth title of the year. He's now moved up to #5 in the race to London, and the way he's been playing all year -- even against the top players -- he has a real shot at far outdoing even those high expectations.

Novak Djokovic, of course, will have something to say about that. But despite his five titles this year and a #1 ranking, the Wimbledon champ seems to be flying a bit under the radar. He's only played two Grand Slam finals this season, winning just one of those trophies, and while that's clearly something most players would be proud of, it's actually been Nole's least successful showing since 2010. But he roared back on the scene this week in Beijing, surviving a draw which saw 2014 star Marin Cilic fall in the quarters and qualifier Martin Klizan stop Rafael Nadal's comeback way short. Ultimately Djokovic, the four-time champion, met up against 2011 titleist Tomas Berdych, who's been having a pretty quiet year himself. The big-serving Czech hasn't beaten a top-ten player since the Miami Masters, but managed his fourth final of the year with wins over on-the-rebound Viktor Troicki and often-tricky John Isner. But though Berdych has been able to give Nole fits in the past, this time was no contest -- the Serb barely broke a sweat in the hour-long match, allowing his opponent to hold serve just once. It was Nole's first title since Wimbledon, and though the stakes will be raised this week in Shanghai, the win couldn't have come at a better time.

The same might be said for Maria Sharapova who, despite a #4 ranking in Beijing, had seen a few disappointments since picking up her second trophy at Roland Garros. She lost a heart-breaker to Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon, was foiled by Ana Ivanovic in Cincinnati and suffered a big set-back at the hands of Timea Bacsinszky in Wuhan. But she avenged a couple losses this week, not dropping a set against players like Ivanovic, Carla Suarez Navarro, who'd beat her in Montréal, or Svetlana Kuznetsova, who'd pushed her to the limit last week. Meanwhile in the other half of the draw, Wuhan champion Petra Kvitova's continued run was helped by the withdrawals of both Venus and Serena Williams and the upsets of Aga Radwanska and U.S. Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki. She was challenged by a resurgent Sam Stosur in the semis, though, needing three sets to set up a rematch of her first big breakthrough three years ago. And with her history against Sharapova since Wimbledon 2011 shifting so sharply to the Russian's favor, she ultimately succumbed again. MaSha withstood a second-set surge from the Czech and got a break again in the decider. She took the title, her fourth of the year making this her most prolific season since 2006, and pushed herself back up to #2 in the world. And with the ladies' trip to Singapore closing in ever so quickly, it was the perfect time to make that statement.

All of this weekend's winners have had big years already, but by showing us what they're really made of after what seems like such a long time, they really cemented their places at the top of the sport. And now that they're back in control, there's no telling how much higher they can rise.

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