November 23, 2014

Net Non-Neutrality

Historically the Swiss have not taken sides in most world conflicts. But this year on the tennis courts the entire country was out to make a statement -- not only do they have some of the best individual soldiers in the world, but their whole team is capable of winning the war.

It had been a while since Switzerland and France have had a ton of success at Davis Cup -- though the latter got to the final in 2010, they haven't come away with the trophy since 2001. And the former, who've largely been left out of the World Group enitrely, had only made the last round once, losing pretty handily to the U.S. way back in 1992. But with two players in the top five, the long-time also-ran finally breaking through on the big stage, and the even-longer time Head of State storming back to the top of the game, the Swiss came to this weekend's championship tie on a mission.

In what started out as a predictably close showdown, Stan Wawrinka opened against an always-tough Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a man whose career has been remarkably similar to his own. The Australian Open champ slightly lagged in their head-to-head, but was just coming off his second semifinal run in London, reclaiming the momentum he'd had to start the year. For the first time in the pair's head-to-head, a decider wasn't needed to determine the winner -- Wawrinka lost serve just once in the two-and-a-half, four-set match and gave his country the early lead.

But in a rematch of one of the most exciting matches of the year, France's Gael Monfils was able to pull his homeland even -- against Roger Federer, taking the court again after pulling out of the year-end final a week ago, this time he didn't let a two-set lead slide from his grasp. The world #19 scored just his third win over the great Fed in a surprisingly quick, decidedly one-sided second rubber, giving the French a lot of hope going into the weekend.

Unfortunately for them, though, the Swiss turned the tables back in their favor on Saturday and never looked back. The 2008 Olympic Gold Medal team of Federer and Wawrinka subbed in for the doubles rubber against Richard Gasquet and London semifinalist Julien Benneteau and chugged through a tight three sets to retake the lead. Roger took the court again on Sunday, seemingly no longer affected at all by his back problems, and this time demolished Gasquet and clinched the win for the Swiss, putting their names in one of the only record books they hadn't occupied before.

For the stars on the Swiss team -- who delivered not just this weekend, but at ties all year long -- it was a historic victory that appropriately capped off an amazing season for not just individual players, but for each of then together. And with their momentum going so strong for so long, you can bet they'll be back in the new year, firing on all cylinders again.

November 20, 2014

Davis Cup Final Preview: Tensions Running High

A lot has been said about the little spat between Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka after their semifinal battle in London last weekend. But even as both players have put to rest rumors of any hard feelings that may have existed, there's plenty of pressure on everyone as we head into this weekend's Davis Cup championship tie. The Swiss are going for their first ever trophy while the homecourt-advantage French are looking for title #10, but their first since 2001. And we'll be treated to some banner match-ups from the start.

Wawrinka opens play Friday against former world #5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who declined an alternate spot to the World Tour Finals to focus on exactly this match. The Frenchman has a slight edge in their head-to-head, but every one of the pair's five meetings have gone the distance, including their two Roland Garros encounters which combined for ten sets, three tiebreaks and more than eight hours of play. Tsonga's been a little quiet since the U.S. Open and Wawrinka did somewhat redeem his late-season slump at the O2, but with these guys' history, I'd expect this to a be a battle too.

But the rubber everyone will be watching Friday will certainly be the rematch between Roger and Gael Monfils. Federer, you're remember, narrowly eked out a win over the big-time showman in New York, coming back from two sets and a break down in the quarterfinals before powering through for the win. LeMonf has only played a couple events since then, but he has conquered threats like Jerzy Janowicz and John Isner, so seems more than match ready. And Roger, despite a run to the final at the year-end championships, is still contending with the back injury that forced him out of the title match in London. It took a couple days before he was able to get back on court and, if he's not a hundred percent, Monfils is more than capable of exploiting any weakness.

Of course everything could get wrapped up by Saturday in the doubles rubber. Julien Benneteau and Richard Gasquet, both accomplished on the singles circuit themselves, will take on the much lesser-known Swiss team of Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer. But something tells me the matches on Day Two will both be crucial to this weekend's outcome. In the early rubber we'll get a rematch of the Toronto final in which Tsonga stunned Fed after already beating not one, not two, but three top ten players in a row. The pair have put on some classic displays in the past, and the Frenchman has walked away the winner on a couple big stages. He might still trail Roger in their overall history, but expect him to step up to the plate again when so much is on the line.

And the potential final rubber between Wawrinka and Monfils could be just as exciting. The two don't have a long history -- they've met every couple years, but not since 2011 and have split their four previous meetings. The Swiss might be the on-paper favorite in this one, but again he's notched some surprising losses in the final weeks of the regular season -- to Mikhael Kukushkin in Basel, Tatsumo Ito in Tokyo -- and could find himself a little vulnerable at the hands of his opponent. Gael may not have won a title since very early in the season, but he's got three top-ten wins on his résumé this year and might just be primed to add number four to that list.

The last couple Davis Cup championships have all gone down to the wire, and I wouldn't expect any less this weekend. With history on the line and so much talent on the courts, you know everyone's going to power through any obstacle they face. And whoever comes out the winner will have certainly earned their spoils.

November 16, 2014

An Unfortunate Ending?

After a breath-taking, star-making, record-setting season, it's a bit of a shame that the most anticipated match of the post season never got played.

After a week at the World Tour Finals in London, world #1 Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, just a bit behind in the rankings, had characteristically gotten through the Round Robin matches largely unscathed. Both went a perfect 3-0 in early rounds, with Nole losing just nine games and Roger decimating a suddenly back-in-form Andy Murray in their final contest. They were finally tested in Saturday's semis -- Djokovic faced a rematch with his U.S. Open vanquisher Kei Nishikori, dropping his first set of the event before reaching his eighth final of the year. And Fed battled through a late-night nail-biter, saving four match points during his nearly three-hour marathon against compatriot Stan Wawrinka on the way to his eleventh. The effort ultimately proved too much, though -- the thirty-three year old legend had to pull out of today's final with a back injury, only the second time in his storied career he's withdrawn from a title match. And while it may not have happened the way he wanted, Novak Djokovic was crowned year-end champion for the third straight year.

It's unfortunate, of course, since the entire tennis world was hoping for another historic match between the two greats. And though Nole had already secured his third season-ending #1 ranking, Roger was still slightly ahead in their head-to-head and actually led in their five encounters this year. But it doesn't take away what Djokovic has accomplished during the year -- six seven titles, another Grand Slam, not to mention the life-changing events he's had off the court. While Roger could have put up a great fight, it's hard to argue anyone else deserved this trophy more.

And we'll just get to look forward to what these two will give us in the new year.

November 13, 2014

The Final Countdown

We're getting down to the wire at this year's ATP Championships in London, with just a few more round robins left before the final four are determined. And while we might not have yet seen a lot of drama on court this week -- only one match so far has gone three sets -- as the very best in tennis try to keep their seasons going a little longer, almost everyone still has a chance to make it to championship weekend. And that just might mean the most excitement is still to come.

World #1 Novak Djokovic is looking for a three-peat at the O2 and hasn't lost a set since the Shanghai semis. This week he's dropped just five games, seven fewer than his nearest competitor, and has notched wins over the other two players who've won Grand Slams this year. With a 16-2 record against his last remaining opponent Tomas Berdych, it seems inevitable he'll make it out of his group. The Czech, meanwhile, will likely vie with Stan Wawrinka, who made the semis here last year. Berdych lost to the Swiss #2 pretty handily on Monday, but managed a one-sided win over post-season newbie Marin Cilic just yesterday, when Nole got some definitive revenge over his Australian Open vanquisher. Things could get interesting tomorrow when the foursome take the court -- Cilic doesn't have a great record against Wawrinka, but the big man has struggled in recent weeks and might be a little vulnerable this time around. And while Cilic is disappointingly 0-2 in his London debut so far, he has certainly shown he has the ability to shake things up.

Meanwhile standings in the second set of World Tour Final qualifiers all come down to tonight's headline show. Six-time champion Roger Federer, perfect so far this week, will take on Andy Murray, who's been making quite a push in the latter parts of the season. The two are dead even at eleven wins apiece in their head-to-head, and with so much on the line now, they'll each be bringing their A-games to tonight's battle. Waiting patiently in the wings will be Kei Nishikori, the only London first-timer still in contention for a final spot -- earlier today he squeaked past David Ferrer, Milos Raonic's replacement, in the only three-setter played this week. With his own straight set win over Murray in the round robins, the U.S. Open runner-up still stands a chance of reaching the semis if Roger falters tonight.

Time is quickly ticking down at this year's World Tour Finals, and pressure is high across the field -- while things look good for a championship showdown between the top-two, most decorated players out there, there's plenty of room for others to spoil the favorites' fun. And if we've learned anything this tennis season, it's that no one is safe for long.

November 9, 2014

Czech Mate: Fed Cup Final Round-Up

There was plenty of room for drama at this weekend's Fed Cup final, with two recent powerhouse teams going head-to-head for the trophy. But, even with a solid slate of top-twenty players and recent titleists on the German team, the Czechs barreled through their opponents, picking up their third championship in four years, and asserting themselves as a real force in tennis.

Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova opened the final tie against Sofia champion Andrea Petkovic on Saturday, but even with her higher ranking, this promised to be a close match. Petko had climbed back to her highest ranking in three years, picked up a trio of trophies on the season, and, with a 4-3 career record against the Czech, certainly knew how to get the better of her. But Kvitova came out swinging, keeping the German on the baseline while she rushed the net -- she broke serve five times and fired off twenty-five winners during the match, pushing her team to an early lead. Germany had a good shot at evening the score, though, as they pitted their top player Angelique Kerber, an alternate for the year-end final in Singapore, against Lucie Safarova, whose biggest accomplishment to date was a semifinal showing at the All England Club. But the world #16 was able to surprise again -- she took advantage of some weak serving by the four-time runner-up this season to notch her third top-ten win of the year.

With the Czechs taking a dominant 2-0 lead into Day Two, it was up to Kerber again to keep her team -- playing in their first Fed Cup final since 1992 -- alive, and she very nearly did it. Her first set against Kvitova lasted well over an hour and eventually went to a tiebreak, and though she did ultimately succumb, Kerber roared back in the second to give the Germans their first set win of the tie. It was too little, too late, though, as Kvitova stayed tougher in the dramatic decider, but with just four points separating the two women, this rubber really could have gone either way. The Germans did finally get on the board, with Sabine Lisicki and Julia Goerges teaming up to score a surprising win over long-time doubles champs Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, but the 3-1 score was just enough to give the Czechs the win and rise back to the winners' circle they occupied just two years ago.

With so many of the tennis headlines this year dominated by the likes of Serena Williams, Simona Halep and Maria Sharapova, it's easy to have lost sight of the lower-profile Czechs. But with three of the five Fed Cup titles this decade going to the same country, it's hard to ignore their consistency and strength of their team. And I wouldn't be surprised if they make an even bigger name for themselves in the months to come.

November 5, 2014

A Chance to Shine

Perhaps I don't cover the WTA 125K events as much as I should, but when you look at what's going on at this week's tournaments, you really get a glimpse of some of the players who could become big factors on the main Tour in the months and years to come.

Let's start in Taipei, where previous champions Kristina Mladenovic and Alison Van Uytvanck have certainly scored some big wins since. This year top seeds Anna-Lena Friedsam and Luksika Kumkhum have so far lived up to expectations, but there are a couple others also making a stand. Russia's Vitalia Diatchenko had picked up a couple ITF titles already this year before she stunned top Moscow seed Dominika Cibulkova in their Kremlin Cup opener. This week, a hair off a career high ranking of #105 which she achieved some five years ago, she's dropped just a handful of games to veteran Melinda Czink and China's Ying-Ying Duan. She'll face off against Kumkhum next,but might just have the momentum to pull off an upset. And Poland's Magda Linette, fresh off her biggest title at a 125K event in Ningbo last week, opened her week in Taipei with a straight set win over Tadeja Majeric. Next up she gets a rematch of Sunday's final against Qiang Wang, so she should have confidence on her side. If she pulls off the win she might be able to end the year with quite an impressive winning streak.

There's arguably a little more star power on the courts of the inaugural Open GDF Suez de Limoges, with former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and heavyweights like Monica Niculescu and Caroline Garcia all in the draw. But it's a couple lesser-known names that may have a bigger opportunity in France. Netherlands' Richel Hogenkamp just broke into the top hundred-fifty this week, but she's had some encouraging results earlier in the year -- she beat Yanina Wickmayer at an ITF event in May and picked up a trophy in Clermont-Ferrand in September. The twenty-two year old has yet to qualify for a Major, but with wins this week over veteran Lourdes Dominguez Lino and seventh-seed Stefanie Voegele she might be ready to change that. And Tereza Smitkova, who quietly sneaked her way into the fourth round at Wimbledon has cut her ranking from sub-#200 to start the year to #83 now. Unseeded in Limoges, she opened with a straight set win over on-the-mend Urzsula Radwanska and earlier today came back from a set down to upset Belgium's Van Uytvanck. With world #20 Alizé Cornet pulling out of the event and Niculescu losing her opener, the Czech won't meet another seed until at least the quarters, and that could be just the chance she needs.

The events on the WTA 125K circuit might not have the highest stakes, but for all the ladies involved, they sure are a great opportunity to pick up some always-appreciated match experience, a couple ranking points and, in some cases, perhaps a title or two. And these rising stars in particular might just use their wins in these weeks to springboard to a whole new level in their careers.

November 3, 2014

All Set...?

The regular season ATP schedule wrapped up this weekend at the Paris Masters, with Novak Djokovic successfully reclaiming his title and the last few spots for the year-ending championships finally being decided. And while some of the theatrics involved in clamoring for those places and selecting alternates may have made more headlines than the on-court action in Bercy, we still got a glimpse of some of the surprises we could be in store for at the O2. And even those players who've had their tickets to London booked for weeks or months could be in for more than they expect.

Djokovic, of course, gave himself a bit more cushion in his attempt to end the year at #1 for a third time. In his first event as a father, he didn't drop a set all week and beat three fellow London qualifiers in the late rounds to capture his sixth trophy of the year. More impressively he got revenge against Kei Nishikori, the man who stunned him in New York a few months back, and stopped Andy Murray's autumn resurgence cold with a straight set win in the quarters. But Roger Federer's hopes for his own return to the top ranking were put on hold a bit -- after picking up his sixth title in Basel, he was in good shape to close the gap between himself and Nole. But after a close opening match against Jeremy Chardy in Paris, he notched his first ever loss to Milos Raonic, largely helping the Canadian into his post-season debut as well and falling slightly behind in the standings.

In a slightly more tenuous position is London's third seed Stan Wawrinka who shot into the spotlight with his first Grand Slam title in Melbourne. While he slowed down quite a bit after that, his performances recently have been downright disappointing -- he lost to triple-digit ranked Tatsuma Ito in Tokyo and world #84 Mikhail Kukushkin in his homeland of Basel. While he did manage a win over rising star Dominic Thiem to open this week, he subsequently lost for a third time this year to South Africa's Kevin Anderson. The six-foot-eight collegiate star, who had a very slim chance of qualifying for London himself, then took it to Tomas Berdych, on the bubble this week too, forcing the Czech through three tight sets before finally succumbing. Both Berdych and Wawrinka will have to raise their game if they want to see much success at the World Tour Finals.

Andy Murray certainly has been bringing his A-game recently -- ranked as low as #12 in the world right after the U.S. Open, the two-time Grand Slam winner really turned things around in the fall. He claimed titles in Shenzhen and Vienna and put on one of the best shows of the year to take the Valencia title a week ago. He may have lost in the quarters in Paris, but he's shown he still has what it takes to make a winning return in London. Kei Nishikori too, qualifying for his O2 debut, has certainly rebounded well after his New York disappointment -- he picked up titles in Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo and came back from a set down against eventual alternate David Ferrer to make the semis this week. He may still be getting used to the rarefied air of the sport's elite, but something tells me he won't be intimidated when he takes the court in London.

Joining Kei in the year-end newbie category is Milos Raonic, who followed up his win over Federer with his third top-ten victory of the season, beating Tomas Berdych in the semis. While he couldn't put up much of a fight against Djokovic when the title was on the line, his performance in Paris ended a streak of surprising losses in October. If he can keep up the momentum, he could cause a couple more surprises in London. And U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic, the fourth first-timer at the World Tour Finals, may not have played in Paris, but he's coming off his fourth title of the year in Moscow and a season during which he's scored five top-ten wins of his own. With victories over the likes of Federer, Murray, Berdych and close calls against Nole, he certainly can't be counted out in the post-season.

Of course there will be favorites in London, and experience certainly favors those who've been there before. But if results in Paris -- and for the entire year, for that matter -- are any indication, it sure looks like nothing is certain. So we should get ready for what's going to be a big season-ending battle -- one where, this year perhaps more than others, anything can happen.