November 30, 2015

Davis Cup Final -- 111 Years in the Making

Things sure have been tense in Belgium the last few weeks, and certainly on topics much more important than tennis. But while the world's eyes stay focused on what's happening in Brussels -- and what's happened so recently in Paris and, of course, in so many other places across the globe -- just a couple dozen miles away from the capital city in Ghent, this year's Davis Cup championship was contested, thankfully without incident. And in a rematch of the 1904 final we got a glimpse of just how hungry these two teams were to return to glory.

I've talked before about how long it's been since either the Belgians or the British got this far at Davis Cup, and it kind of makes sense. While they both have their stars -- two-time Grand Slam champ and world #2 Andy Murray and 2014 comeback kid David Goffin lead the packs -- their second place players are little farther down the rankings. Aljaz Bedene, who rose all the way to #45 this year, didn't play for the Brits in this tie, making sub-hundred Kyle Edmunnd the other singles player. And while Steve Darcis has certainly scored some big wins in the past, he's still ranked just within double digits. So to put together full teams that can get through top rate talent all year long can be a bit tough, and against all odds these guys did it.

And their big guns came out firing from the start -- Goffin, just off a career high at #16 in the world, has been a little quiet lately and was tested mightily from the start. But after dropping his first two sets to the huge underdog Edmund, he rallied in the back half, losing just three games to give Belgium an early lead. But Murray was quick to get momentum back on his side -- against largely unheralded Ruben Bemelmans, a workhorse on the Challengers' Tour, he took the first two sets easily before having to battle through the third. Ultimately though he claimed victory in straight sets and drew the Brits even going into Day Two.

In the doubles rubber Goffin paired with Darcis and Murray with his brother Jamie -- a decorated veteran in the paired discipline. The elder Murray -- a finalist at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon -- narrowly missed making the semis at the year-end championships in London, but may have made up for it here. After splitting the first two sets with the Belgians, the doubles specialist was able to take the lead, and powered his team through to the 2-1 advantage, always key in these events. And in Sunday's premier match-up, the younger sibling got right back on court against Goffin, hoping for a repeat of his Paris Masters 6-1, 6-0 drubbing of his opponent. Things weren't quite so easy this time around, but Murray nevertheless persevered, overcoming Goffin's only break of the match in the third set, and clinching the win in just under three hours, securing the Championship for him and his country.

It was the Brits' first Davis Cup trophy since before the second World War, and in an era that's been so dominated by upstart teams, it's interesting to see the reversion this year. Whether the victory is a sign that British imperialism is back in the world of tennis remains to be seen, of course -- but with the kind of firepower they brought all year long, there's no reason there isn't more to come.

November 22, 2015

Nothing Motivates Like Success

It's kind of a weird saying, right? You'd assume the sharp pain from a recent loss would be all a competitive athlete needs to improve his game and come out swinging even harder the next time he hits the court. But perhaps it's only the very best out there who can so easily shake off disappointment, proving any setback is just a minor bump on the way to even bigger achievements down the road. And at this week's ATP Championships in London, that's exactly what Novak Djokovic did.

The world #1's hiccup came during his round robin matches where, in his first defeat since August, he dropped in straight sets to Roger Federer. But a solid win over Tomas Berdych in his final group match secured him spot in the semifinals, where he took on an impressively resurgent Rafael Nadal, who'd gone 3-0 during his early rounds. But the former top-ranked Spaniard, still looking for his first ever World Tour Final championship, ran out of steam on Saturday, never ever earning a break point and ultimately falling in less than eighty minutes.

Meanwhile Federer was able to keep his momentum going a little longer -- after winning all three of his round robin matches, losing just one set to an on-the-mend Kei Nishikori, he was riding high atop his group standings. Meanwhile compatriot Stan Wawrinka's fate went down to the wire -- splitting his first two matches in London his battle Friday against hometown favorite Andy Murray was do-or-die. But the reigning French Open champion, having won the pair's last two meetings kept his streak going, closing the gap further with his rival. The effort may have taken a bit out of him, though -- despite what seemed on paper like a closer score, Roger needed even less time to score the win Saturday and earned himself a chance at a seventh ATP Championship

But Djokovic wasn't about to crumble again against the only man who's beaten him in months -- in Sunday's final, he got a break early and barely looked back, withstanding solid serving from his opponent and pouncing on his returns. After two quick sets, he'd become the only man ever to win four straight World Tour Finals and cemented his place at the very top of the ATP this season.

Nole's win this week is not unlike what Serena Williams did at the WTA Finals last year -- after a dominating end to her year, she rebounded from a stunning loss to Simona Halep in the round robins, only to crush her adversary in the championship match. Djokovic has a little ways to go before he can earn a full comparison to one of the most decorated players in the field, but after his amazing performance so far this year, it certainly seems he's well on his way.

And with the momentum he's got in his pocket already, there's no telling when he'll stop.

November 18, 2015

One to Go...

Two sets of round robin matches are in the books at the year-end championships, and now we're starting to get a clearer picture of who will ultimately be playing for the title -- and a couple men you might not have expected are really taking the chance to shine. But with everyone still having one match left, there's still a lot that can happen, and even for those who've already clinched a spot in the semis, there's still a lot on the line.

Group A

Novak Djokovic, undefeated since August, was the clear favorite among the first group of London qualifiers, but he's not the one who's been most impressive so far. Roger Federer, who's had a couple early losses since the U.S. Open had fallen to the third seed this week but came out firing anyway -- after an easy win over Tomas Berdych he absolutely pummeled Nole on Tuesday, making himself the only undefeated player among these four and securing his ticket to the semis. Nole isn't totally out of contention, of course -- he opened with a quick win over a struggling Kei Nishikori on Sunday. But the man from Japan, who only just made the cut for the World Tour Finals having lost in the first round in New York and retiring at the Paris Masters, bounced back from his early loss by notching his own win over Berdych. How these two guys perform tomorrow will mean everything -- Kei's beaten Roger more than once before and another victory could earn him a spot in the final four or push the Swiss into second place for the group. And Djokovic, still hoping to reach the semis, could even vault back into the first spot, giving him a big advantage when things really become heated.

Group B

Of course the bigger surprises came in the second group of finalists. Rafael Nadal, who despite his many honors has never won in London, has been famously up and down all year long. But he opened by avenging his Paris loss to Stan Wawrinka and then stunned Andy Murray in his second match today, scoring his biggest win since last year's French Open final. Like Roger he's now the only one in this bunch who hasn't lost this week and he's also booked his ticket to the semisfinals. He has a good shot at keeping his top spot too -- he has a solid 23-6 record against David Ferrer, his only remaining opponent -- but the veteran Spaniard did beat him last year in Monte Carlo and has arguably been the more consistent player over the last few months. But the bigger battle will certainly be between Murray and Wawrinka, a pair of powerhouses who've nearly split their head-to-head -- neither have reached the final in London yet, but both have come pretty close. And while it seems like they're just playing for second place in this group, the opportunity could still be great -- they're both gaining ground on both Roger and Nole, so whoever ends at the top of the other section will be in for a fight as soon as they get back on court

So perhaps things have gotten a bit more interesting than we were anticipating at this year's ATP Championships, but it certainly seems like we're seeing a couple players really upping their games at the end of the season. And while the competition will only get more intense from here, the ones who've shined brightest might just be the ones best able to take advantage.

November 14, 2015

London Preview: The Best of the Best

We're just hours away from the start of this year's ATP Championships, and while we certainly have an idea of who the favorites might be, there's a lot of ball to be played before the title is given away. And with the best players of the year all on court to battle it out for 2015's final trophy, everyone might just be in for the biggest fights they've faced yet this season.

Group A

These guys are the first to get to work in London, and perhaps have some of the highest credentials in the field. Top seed Novak Djokovic, with ten titles in 2015, including three Majors, is the clear favorite, but the three-time defending champion has plenty of competition. Roger Federer slipped to #3 in the world this year, despite reaching the finals in both New York and at Wimbledon, and may be hungrier than ever for a win here. He may have lost a bit early at the latter-stage Masters events, but a win over Rafael Nadal in the Basel championship shows he's still got fight left in him. But perhaps the underdogs in this group can shake things up -- Tomas Berdych has only beaten one player in this group this year, but only barely lost to Nole in Paris and could carry that momentum with him now. And Kei Nishikori, one of the last guys to qualify for London this year, has been a bit quiet in recent months, but his big-hitting got him all the way to the semis here in 2014, and has a solid five wins over top-ten players this season. If he's back in top form, there's really no one in this field he can't beat.

Group B

You can be sure the fight in the second group of Round Robins will be just as intense, though. Andy Murray returns to his homeland as the second seed, and is one of only three people in this field who's beaten Djokovic in 2015. While it's been a while since his last Major, he has won two Masters titles this year and has a 3-0 record against the other members of his Group this year. Still you can expect some push back now that the stakes are so high -- Stan Wawrinka, after all, was the surprise winner this year at Roland Garros, where he also beat Roger Federer in the quarters, by the way. Though he's also had a couple hiccups, he also has what it takes to thrive against the sport's very best. And David Ferrer, who had a stellar surge during the back half of the year, is one of the most experienced players in this group and might just be able put that experience to good use. Of course eyes will be on Rafael Nadal who, despite all his accomplishments, has never won the year-end championship. He did, however, beat Wawrinka just last month, and very nearly got the better of Federer in Basel. While he's certainly not used to being the underdog at events like this, there's no reason he can't come out swinging -- and perhaps when no one's expecting it, he might have his best opportunity to shine.

Of course, with so much talent on the courts you know that anything can happen over the next few days in London. And while a couple players have certainly established themselves as the ones to beat, on a stage like this, you can't count anyone out. And with everyone sure to be hitting their hardest, you know we're in for one of the biggest battles of the year -- so whoever comes out on top will definitely have earned it.

November 12, 2015

Fed Cup Final Preview: A Chance for Redemption

It's not often that you see so many ladies who played the postseason take such a little break before getting back to action. But with this year's Fed Cup championship tie featuring more than a few players who made the cut in either Singapore or Zhuhai -- all of whom fell a little short over the last few championship events -- we might just be in for an extra-high quality battle for this trophy.

The Russians

The five-time champions came in second at Fed Cup twice this decade, even losing the final to their current opponents back in 2011. They're bringing even bigger guns to the fight this time around, but even these stars are looking for a comeback.

Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova, doubles finalists at Wimbleon, qualified for the paired draw in Singapore but had to pull out because of a leg injury for the latter. They haven't played together since Toronto -- Makarova, in fact, clearly the more accomplished on the singles circuit, has been out of action entirely since a fourth round loss in New York. But over the years they've won five titles together, two of them Majors, and while it may be tough to rebound immediately at such a high-stakes event, these two certainly have the talent to do it.

Maria Sharapova certainly seemed well on her way to her own rebound -- after sustaining her own injury at Wimbledon and skipping the U.S. Open, she lost her first round back, retiring in the third set of her opener in Wuhan. But came out swinging at the WTA Finals, surviving a test against eventual champion Aga Radwanska before rolling through the rest of her round robins unscathed. But just when it looked like her momentum was back in full swing, she ran into a wall, falling in straight sets to Petra Kvitova in the semis. As the Russians' leader she'll get a chance to avenge that loss this weekend, and with surprise Linz champ Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova rounding out the team, there might be enough firepower to bring home the Cup.

The Czechs

Of course the defending champs will be out in full force -- and while their heavy-hitters certainly have plenty to be proud of from their postseason showings, even they're looking for a bit of a bounce-back.

Two ladies on this team actually qualified for the year-end title in Singapore -- surprise French Open finalist Lucie Safarova just barley squeezed her way into the field, qualifying despite losing every match she played since the New Haven final. She was in danger of blanking in her Championships debut too, dropping her first two round robins in straight sets. But while she was able to avoid a total shut out, notching an upset over Angelique Kerber in her last match, she'll certainly hope to up her game this weekend. And Petra Kvitova, who won the whole shebang in her first trip to the WTA Finals four years ago, will want to make up for her somewhat unexpected loss to Radwanska in the championship.

Countrywoman Karolina Pliskova also fell just one match short of a big win herself. After a strong start to 2015, during which she reached finals in Brisbane and Dubai, she rose to #7 in the world. While she stumbled a bit later in the season and didn't quite make the cut in Singapore, for the second year in a row got to play for the consolation prize, and this time won both of her round robins in Zhuhai before rolling over Elina Svitolina in the semis. Her run was finally ended by Venus Williams in the title match, but if she gets back on track, she might just be the clincher this weekend. And with always-feisty Barbora Strycova on deck to help out, this team looks to be in a good position to repeat.

As always there's a lot on the line when Fed Cup finals roll around, but this year, with an extra special slate of talent on board, the stakes may be even higher. And with so many looking for that one more win to make up for recent losses, we might be in for some of the biggest battles we've seen all year.

November 8, 2015

The Long Road Back

It's been more than five years since Venus Williams was ranked in the top ten -- but when the new WTA ranking come out on Monday the veteran American, thirty-five years young will have climbed back into the tennis elite, an accomplishment that may have seemed out of reach not that long ago.

The seven-time Grand Slam champion has struggled with injury and illness over the past several seasons, revealing in 2011 that she'd been diagnosed with Sjögren's Syndrome, which might have hampered her ability to endure long matches and fight against the younger, more energized hitters. She dropped for a time into triple digits and lost a couple first round matches at the Majors. But she started to launch her comeback in earnest in 2012 -- she stunned third seed Petra Kvitova in Miami and scored wins over players like Sam Stosur, Jelena Jankovic and soon-to-be-powerhouse Simona Halep a couple times that year. She capped off that season with a title in Luxembourg, bringing her ranking from #134 when she first got back on court to #24 by the time she stepped off it.

Williams has been up and down since then -- the following year she put together a streak of first round losses and dealt with another injury that forced her to skip Wimbledon for the first time since 1996 -- but she still couldn't be counted out. In 2014 she fell just short of picking up a title in Auckland and then upset five players in a row to claim the title in Dubai. But her biggest win, of course, came a few months later when she took out little sister Serena in Montreal, for her first win over the world #1 since 2009. And after starting this year by making up for that loss in New Zealnd, she went on to reach the quarters in both Melbourne and New York and then battled through an impressive draw to claim the trophy in Wuhan.

Her performance earned her the top seed at the inaugural WTA Elite Trophy this past week in Zhuhai -- while qualification was slightly different from that of previous Tournaments of Champions, the event nevertheless attracted an impressive field of rising stars, former Slam champions, and a couple one-time #1s. But Venus was not intimidated -- she powered through her round robin matches and in Saturday's semi absolutely trounced the woman who'd shocked Serena at the U.S. Open. She had a bit more of a challenge against Karolina Pliskova today -- the talented Czech hit back from a 1-4 deficit in the first set to even the score and after narrowly dropping the opener, ran off to a 4-2 lead to start the second. But Williams came back swinging too, and closed out the match in a tight, two-hour two sets.

Venus's return to the top ten seems like a fitting way to end the best season she's had in quite some time -- her three titles this year are the most she's won since 2008 and her forty-one match wins are her best since 2007. Her showing this season shows that not only is she more than able to hit with and even outlast her opponents, but more importantly that she's still hungry on the court. And while she certainly may be one of the elder statesmen out there, there are probably few more capable of translating that hunger into even more lasting success.

November 5, 2015

The Paris Preview

Anyone else notice something interesting about the third round matches in Paris? Maybe not unsurprisingly, every player who's qualified for the year-end championships was in action, contesting their right to a spot in the quarterfinals. And perhaps their performances gave us a little hint of what we might expect from them in Paris.

The Long Shots

Kei Nishikori started the year off strong, backing up his stellar 2014 season with titles in Memphis, Barcelona and Washington -- but he's struggled a bit recently, falling spectacularly in the first round of the U.S. Open and losing early again in Shanghai. Though he secured his spot at the ATP Championships at the start of the week, against Richard Gasquet in Paris today he was down a set before retiring with an abdominal strain -- hopefully he's just buying himself some time to rest before making the trip to London, but if the injury plagues him, there might be more trouble ahead.

And I realize it might be a little blasphemous to call Roger Federer a long shot for anything, but the six-time year-end champion has been a little spotty since the U.S. Open final. He notched a huge loss to Albert Ramos while trying to defend his Shanghai crown, but rebounded to pick up a seventh title in Basel. And this week after easily avenging his Melbourne loss to Andreas Seppi in his Paris opener, he fell today in three sets to John Isner. It's not his only loss to the American #1, but on such a big stage, might be his most surprising -- and it could give everyone else in the London field a little more hope of their own.

The Redeemers

Meanwhile a couple other players are putting together the kind of late-season run that might just bode well for their chances in London. David Ferrer was the last man to qualify for the World Tour Finals, but the one-time runner-up hasn't let that bother him. After sitting out at Wimbledon and losing early in New York, he's scored trophies in Kuala Lumpur and Vienna. Seemingly rejuvenated, he took out an always-tough Alexandr Dolgopolov in Paris, came back from a set down to a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov to score another today, and with a Isner earning the right to be his surprising next opponent, the veteran Spaniard could stay alive a bit longer. And that might be just the kind of momentum he's looking for as he finishes prepping for London.

Tomas Berdych is also getting momentum back on his side -- though he put together a couple decent runs to start the year, he really seemed to struggle to close the deal. But he got his game back after the U.S. Open, rebounding from a shocking opening round loss in St. Petersburg to claim titles in Shenzhen and Stockholm during the fall -- somewhat surprisingly his first trophies of the season. He's gotten right back to work in Paris, battling past tricky Frenchman Edouard Roger-Vasselin before handling former finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga earlier today. And while he's got a tough road ahead of him, he might have gotten the confidence he needs to fight through tougher challenges down the road.

Stan Wawrinka, meanwhile, will look to scrounge up the strength that brought him his surprise second Grand Slam title earlier this year. While he's been far from a disappointment -- he did reach the semis in New York and earn a title last month in Tokyo, albeit without beating a top-thirty player -- he's also shown some vulnerabilities, needing five sets against world #177 Thiemo de Bakker in Davis Cup play and losing his homeland's opener in Switzerland last week. He's looked good so far in Paris though, getting past solid players like Bernard Tomic and Viktor Troicki in his early matches, and will look to avenge his Shanghai loss to Rafael Nadal on Friday. All that's good practice for his return to London -- after all, he'll want to make up for that razor-thin loss to Roger Federer in last year's semis and maybe this time last a couple matches longer.

Of course the player most in need of redemption is one of the most decorated in the field. It's not news that Rafael Nadal has has a slightly less-than-spectacular season, but he might just be starting to turn things around -- after almost dropping out of the top ten for much of the summer, the former world #1 has pulled himself back together the last few weeks. He made he way to the finals of both Beijing and Basel, and picked up his first wins over top ten players since May on his way to the Shanghai semis. The seventh seed in Paris, he's one of the longer shots this week, but drubbed former nemesis Lukas Rosol in his opener and then rallied against a talented Kevin Anderson to earn a spot in the quarters. From so far back in the pack it'll be hard for him to translate recent success into his first title in London, but if anyone's able to rise to the challenge, it's certainly him.

The Favorites

It's a little strange to say, but it feels like Andy Murray has very quietly risen to #2 in the world without a lot of fanfare -- while he has picked up a couple Masters titles, beating Novak Djokovic in Canada and Rafael Nadal in Spain, even reaching the final in Australia, he's been largely overshadowed by many of his colleagues. But this week he's been out to remind us just what he's capable of -- after an easy win over talented teen Borna Coric in his opener, he absolutely drubbed David Goffin on Thursday, losing just one game and winning all but two points on his first serve. It's been a while since he's done well in the post-season, skipping the championships in 2013 and falling in round robins last year. But it sure looks like this could be his year to sneak through that draw as well.

Of course the top seed will certainly have something to say about that. Novak Djokovic was running a three title win streak coming into Paris and, judging from his performance so far, he's well on track to tie Rafael Nadal's record twenty-seven Masters titles by the end of the week. He's already survived tests from tough opponents like Thomaz Bellucci and Gilles Simon and with only one loss before the final of any tournament this year, there's no reason to expect him to stop now. And unlike in the past when he's run out of steam in the middle of a match, or like his breakthrough 2011 season, where he didn't win a title after picking up the crown in New York, Nole is showing few signs of slowing down -- and with the hope of marking his most prolific year to date if he finishes with eleven trophies this season, he's got a little extra motivation to keep going strong.

Of course all these guys have made the trip to London before, some of them many, many times, and they've all had more than enough experience facing off against each other over the years. But the next few days will give them -- at least the ones still standing -- a good taste of what's they're in for next week. And while success in Paris won't necessarily translate into a title at the year-end championships, the fact that these guys are upping their games sure suggests we're going to see some amazing battles when we get there.

November 1, 2015

Against All Odds

Now I know I've talked about how wide open the draw was in Singapore, but I'm not sure anyone expected things to go the way they did. From the opening blows, to stellar debuts, to surprising upsets we saw a little bit of everything at the WTA Finals this year. And at the end of it all not only was it one of the most unlikely candidates left standing, but she had nabbed by far the biggest win of her already successful career.

And the road wasn't easy for Aga Radwanska -- the former world #2 had for some time this year fallen well out of contention for the postseason, dropping out of the top ten this summer for the first time in years. But she rallied strong in the fall, picking up titles in Tokyo and Tianjin and came to the year-end championships with a little more momentum than most. But she struggled early, losing a marathon to a surprisingly strong Maria Sharapova, who'd scored her first match win since Wimbledon in their opener, and then getting bested again by U.S. Open champ Flavia Pennetta to build a 0-2 deficit. But a win over top seed Simona Halep on Wednesday kept her hopes alive and Sharapova's staying perfect in the round robins got the two of them tickets into the semifinals.

Things came down to the wire in the other draw group as well, and were turned a little on their heads there too. While Garbiñe Muguruza, fresh off a title in Beijing, seemed to sail through her postseason debut -- she dominated her round robin matches, only dropping one set late in the week, and secured her spot in the semis with little drams -- the fate of everyone else remained up in the air until the end. And Petra Kvitova, who won this title during her groundbreaking 2011 season, was kept on the edge of her seat -- after losing her first match to Angelique Kerber, she was constantly playing catch up, only securing her spot in the final four after Singapore newbie Lucie Safarova shocked Kerber for her only win of the event, and sealing an entry for her compatriot.

The biggest surprises, though, came in Saturday's semifinals which pitted the two players who'd rocketed through their early rounds against a couple ladies who barely made it out of their group matches. But Radwanska brought her late burst of momentum with her -- against Muguruza, a woman who'd won every one of their meetings this year, including one just weeks ago in Beijing, the Pole was finally able to turn the tables, coming back after dropping a tight first set and powering through for the three-set win. And Kvitova, who'd largely struggled against Sharapova since that unexpected victory at Wimbledon years ago, had an even easier time, finally ending the long-ago champion's impressive run in Singapore. With both of the favorites getting a little spooked in their Halloween matches, we were treated to a final no one could have predicted.

Aga was the underdog there too -- with a disappointing 2-6 record against the two-time Major winner, and only one win over a top ten player this year before coming to Singapore, her chances were pretty slim. But the world #6 built herself an early lead, taking the first set and grabbing an early break in the second. Kvitova fought back and even got ahead in the decider, but Radwanska stayed strong, committing just five errors throughout the match and breaking her opponent an astonishing seven times. And after another two hours on court, the lady who hadn't claimed her spot at the WTA finals until just a week before it began, was triumphantly -- and frankly, by the skin of her teeth -- the one walking away with the trophy.

It's quite an ending for a woman who for so much of the season looked like her best days were behind her. And even if she started off slow this week, by finishing with some of the biggest wins of her career, she's certainly reasserted herself as a real force in the sport for when the new year starts. And while the threats will surely be bigger in the months ahead, perhaps the opportunities will be too -- and after she battled her way through this draw, there's not much else I expect she can't handle.

October 29, 2015

Maybe Next Year

There are still a few spots left at the ATP Finals in London, but for the vast majority of men on Tour, their hopes of qualifying at this point are slim at best. Still a couple guys this week might just be making a case to put themselves in the conversation next season.

In Valencia some long shots were actually given a bit of a helping hand from the field's favorites. With Feliciano Lopez losing today to Vienna standout Steve Johnson and players like Bernard Tomic and even giant-killer Fabio Fognini getting upset early, the draw has been opened wide. That could present an opportunity for veteran Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, who's quietly picked up two titles this year and actually climbed back to near his career-high ranking. He powered through a tough opener against Fernando Verdasco, and while he's actually lost his only previous meeting with Johnson, his quarterfinal opponent, he's been riding a pretty hot streak this fall and might just keep it up. Then there's Roberto Bautista Agut, who's been picking up steam himself in recent weeks -- he's had a tough draw, facing off against former top-ten player Nicolas Almagro in his first round and then battling talented teen Andrey Rublev earlier today. If he keeps up his level of play, not only could he walk away with the title, but he might just put himself back on track to do even more damage next year.

There's a little more on the line in Basel, where -- despite the noticeably more-stacked draw -- some of the contenders do still have an outside chance of making this year's cut. Marin Cilic, fresh off a successful title defense in Moscow, is currently eleventh on the London leaderboard and would need a lot of things to go his way if he wants to make his second trip to the ATP Championships -- still, straight set wins this week, including one today over an always-tough Teymuraz Gabashvili, could help him make a stronger case next year. And David Goffin, who took out Andreas Seppi and Adrian Mannarino already this week, seems to be building on the success made him one of the best comeback stories of 2014. But the real story in Switzerland might be Richard Gasquet, who could earn himself a ticket this year if he keeps his run going a little while longer -- the Wimbledon semifinalist has wins over Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka already this year, and has picked off two rising stars this week too. He'd have to win titles in Basel and Paris next week, what would be his first Masters trophy ever -- but he might be better off saving his energy to come out swinging when the new year starts.

After all, it won't be long before everyone wipes their slates clean and starts over -- and if any of these guys can bring their current momentum with them into 2016, there's no reason they can't really shake up the standings from the start.

October 26, 2015

Opening Salvos

This year's WTA Finals could be one of the most interesting year-end championships we've seen in years -- with the most dominant player on Tour sitting out the postseason, nearly half the qualifiers making just their first appearance at this event, and each and every entrant showing a little vulnerability since the U.S. Open, it really is anybody's game. And with the first round robin matches in the books, we've gotten a glimpse of who might be most willing to take advantage of the opportunity.

Play kicked off Sunday with a rematch of the first shocking semi in New York this year -- eventual champion Flavia Pennetta, who at thirty-three has said this would be the last professional event of her career, hoped to repeat against top seed Simona Halep. Both have been below their best recently -- the Italian was upset by a qualifier in Tianjin and withdrew from the Moscow quarters with a foot injury, just after clinching her entry to Singapore, while the world #2 retired from the draw in Beijing after early losses in both Guangzhou and Wuhan. That could have presented an opportunity for Pennetta to pounce, but this time the Romanian was able to take charge, dropping just three games in the barely hour-long match. It was an important start for the favorite, who in her debut last year reached the final with a victory over Serena Williams in the early rounds. If she wants to go one better this time, she'll need to show her recent struggles were just a fluke and such a decisive win to start off may have done just that.

The second match in Singapore was just a little more challenging -- Maria Sharapova, by far the most experienced of the field, took on Aga Radwanska, who'd made a solid late-season push to qualify for her seventh appearance here. MaSha, who won this event an entire eleven years ago, started the year off strong, but a leg injury sustained during her Wimbledon semifinal lost forced her out of summer events and the U.S. Open -- when she finally did return to play in Wuhan, she retired in the third set of her opener with an arm ailment. The Pole meanwhile, who'd fallen as low as #15 in the world after a weak start to 2015, made a nice jump higher with a semi showing at the All England Club and titles in Tokyo and Tianjin. While she pulled out of Moscow last week, she seemed to have the momentum that could take her far at the Finals, but Sharapova may have stopped that. After dropping the first set the Russian roared back in the second and fought off a late surge from her opponent in the decider and, in the nearly three-hour match, Sharapova was the one left somewhat unexpectedly standing. But she'll have to regroup quick if she's going to keep up her streak -- with a match against a decidedly more rested Halep on Tuesday, she'll need every ounce of energy she's got.

Things were just as interesting in Monday's contests, where the first match-up in the White Group pitted two newbies against each other. Wimbledon finalist GarbiƱe Muguruza faced off against Roland Garros runner-up Lucie Safarova, both of whom scored their best Major results this year, and both of whom are also playing the doubles event in Singapore. Here too though, there were some questions hanging above the players -- the Spaniard retired from the final in Wuhan, seemed to recover for a title in Beijing a week later, and then pulled out of Hong Kong. Safarova, meanwhile, has struggled a bit more -- the last woman to qualify for this event lost openers in Linz and Moscow, not to mention at the U.S. Open and now hasn't won a match since New Haven. And that gave Muguruza the opening she needed -- the twenty-two year old fired off ten aces and forced fifteen break opportunities -- and even though the Czech was able to keep things tight at the end, the second seed may have shaken off her debut nerves a bit better and be in the prime spot to power through from here.

The last round robin might have resulted in the only real surprise we've seen at the tournament so far. Relative veterans Petra Kvitova, the only one in this group to beat Serena Williams this year, and Angelique Kerber, who's very quietly picked up four titles in 2015, might have been two of the most closely matched opponents to open against each other -- all but one of their six previous meetings have gone three sets. Still Kvitova lost early in both Wuhan and Beijing and Kerber, after reaching the final in Hong Kong skipped out on Moscow, leaving her fate in qualifying for Singapore in other players' hands. But the sixth seed came out swinging in her opener, grabbing the first set without allowing a break opportunity. Though things were closer in the second, Kerber was able to stay more focused in the tiebreak, able to score her first win over the Czech in more than three years. The only player to have notched an upset, the German is actually at the top of her round robin group and if she keeps hitting the way she did Monday, she might just stay that way.

Of course there is still plenty more ball left before this year's final trophy is awarded. And while the ladies who opened their campaigns with a win are certainly at an early advantage, anything can still happen from here. And in just about a week one of these players might have just established herself as the one to beat in the new year.

October 25, 2015

A Week to Remember

There are still a couple weeks left for the guys this tennis season, but as we've learned it's never too late to make a stand. And this week, even the men who came in second place have something to be proud of.

It's been a bit of a disappointing year for 2014's unexpected U.S. Open winner -- after taking a few months off to nurse an injury, he spent some time getting his groove back. Though he made a couple deep runs at tournaments here and there, and even got all the way back to the semis in New York, he didn't score one win over a top-ten player all season and was utterly dismantled by Novak Djokovic in Flushing Meadows. But this week he had a chance to put that all behind him -- returning as the defending champ in Moscow, the Croat had one last opportunity to reclaim a title this year. He stumbled early against Denis Istomin, but got through later rounds without much of a struggle, ultimately reaching his first final of the year on Sunday. There he met second seed Roberto Bautista Agut, another man who's had his own troubles following up his breakthrough 2014 and has seen his ranking fall from a career-high #14 this time last season to out of the top twenty-five now. He had a decidedly tougher route in Russia too, facing off against an always-tough Philipp Kohlschrieber in the semis, but he too got through the challenge to set up a repeat of last year's championship match. And Cilic took the lead this time too -- grabbing the only two breaks of the match, the top seed was able to finish off his opponent again in straight sets and capped the year the way he must have hoped to have started it. And if he's able to stay healthy this time, there's no reason he won't be able to make up ground in the months that come.

Over in Vienna David Ferrer also capitalized on his top seed -- after dealing with his own injuries this year, the one-time Roland Garros runner-up seems to have more than gotten his form back. Since skipping Wimbledon and losing in the third round in New York, he picked up career title #25 in Kuala Lumpur and reached the semis in Beijing. He dropped a set early this week at the Erste Bank Open, but nevertheless made it to his fifth final of the year without breaking a sweat. But the real story here might have been the surge we saw from eventual finalist Steve Johnson -- the young American has long been on the outskirts of the sports elite, but this year has finally been making a play to get some more consideration. He made it to the semis in DC with wins over Bernard Tomic and Grigor Dimitrov and took out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Winston-Salem too. This week, still outside of seeding territory, he stunned U.S. Open standout Kevin Anderson and took out a seemingly-revived Ernests Gulbis on Saturday. In his first ever ATP final he even ran off to an early lead against Ferrer, grabbing the first set off the heavy favorite -- but even though he did eventually lose the closer-than-you-might-imagine championship match, he might have finally proved he's got what it takes to hit with the big boys. And as he starts to prep for the new year, there may never have been a better time for him to do it.

Second place didn't seem so bad in Stockholm either. Top seed Tomas Berdych prevailed here too, picking up his second title of the year and solidifying his case for another post season appearance. But the bigger breakthrough in Sweden came for another young American, Jack Sock -- the twenty-three year old may be more decorated in doubles, but he's also making a stand on the solo circuit, winning his first career title early this season in Houston and putting up a nice fight against Rafael Nadal this year in his French Open fourth round. He'd risen up the rankings enough to earn himself a seventh seed this week, but he outdid even those expectations, staying strong against an always feisty Fernando Verdasco before taking out two heavy favorites, Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet, to make Sunday's final. Like his compatriot in Austria, he also put up a fight in the championship, getting a break early to start the match. And while he wasn't able to keep his momentum going quite so long, he certainly shown he can give the top guys a run for their money. And if he can take that confidence with him into the new season, there may be many more -- and bigger -- rewards to come.

October 22, 2015

Final Statements

The field may be set for this year's WTA Finals, but that doesn't mean the large majority of players who didn't make the cut aren't still trying to end their season with a bang. And whether they're hoping to recapture former glory or soar to new heights, this week a couple ladies could show us they're worth watching too.

There was only one player in Luxembourg who had an outside shot at qualifying for Singapore, but Timea Bacsinszky, whose meteoric rise this year brought her two titles, a top-ten ranking and a first Grand Slam semifinal, retired in the first set of her opener. But the beneficiary of that withdrawal has certainly capitalized -- twenty-seven year old Laura Siegemund peaked at a barely double-digit ranking just last month and only made the main draw here thanks to Lucie Hradecka pulling out. And after she got the win over the top seed, the German scored a solid upset over Kirsten Flipkens to reach the quarters. She's actually the on-paper favorite versus her next opponent, world #165 Stefanie Voegele, and with the other seeds in her half of the draw already eliminated, she stands a pretty good shot at reaching the final. Of course there's a bigger challenge in the bottom section of the bracket -- former #1 Jelena Jankovic is coming off her fifteenth career title in Hong Kong and her second trophy since the U.S. Open. She's kept her win streak going this week too and, as the highest ranked player left, she might just be able to gather up the momentum she needs to return to the elite in the new season.

The field was a little more stacked in Moscow where the original entry list boasted six players contending for the final four spots in Singapore -- but it's been those a little below the radar who're causing the biggest stir. Defending champion Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova had fallen out of the top forty at times this year, but started regaining ground in the second half, defeating Belinda Bencic on her way to the Washington final and taking out U.S. Open champ Flavia Pennetta in Beijing. Last week she ran off with the title in Linz, dropping just one set, and then got right back to work in her homeland -- unseeded in Russia, she took out French Open finalist Lucie Safarova and rising star Margarita Gasparyan. In the semis she'll face Daria Kasatkina, last year's Juniors champ in Paris, but might just have what it takes to keep her run going. But perhaps the bigger story here is that of veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova who, after a fairly lackluster season, stands to win her first title of the year this week. She hasn't faced a seed yet, and certainly will be challenged by a talented Lesia Tsurenko for a spot in the championship match. But if she can use her experience to her advantage, there's no reason she can't prove that she's still more than just a contender.

October 18, 2015

Total Domination

We've seen a lot of amazing things on Tour this tennis season -- some late bloomers finally breaking through, a couple long-standing champions show their human side, a one-time one hit wonder prove his worth and maybe a comeback or two. But when you get down to it, there's only one man on the ATP who's come through when it counts the most -- and this week he reminded us why.

That's not to say there weren't other story lines worth following in Shanghai this year -- defending champion Roger Federer was stunned in his first match since the U.S. Open final, losing to qualifier Albert Ramos in the opening round. And Rafael Nadal, fresh off a runner-up showing in Beijing, scored arguably his best two wins of the year, taking out Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka back-to-back on his way to the semis. And even Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made up for a largely quiet year, rebounding after losing a bagel set to take out Rafa and make his first Masters final of the year.

But in spite of the hugely talented field, it was Novak Djokovic who came out on top -- the two time champion here has been unquestionably the strongest force on Tour in 2015, winning three of the four Majors, four more Masters crowns, and reaching at least the final of all but one tournament he's played. This week in Shanghai he picked up right where he left off last week, tested only once when Bernard Tomic pushed him to a tiebreak in the first set. But he wasn't fazed at all, trouncing newly-minted world #2 Andy Murray in the semis and taking out Tsonga with little more effort in Sunday's championship.

Sunday's win earned Nole his ninth trophy of the year, and puts him just one shy of that breakthrough 2011 season that really put him on the map. He's also spitting distance from Nadal's record twenty-seven Masters titles, and the way he's been playing all year it doesn't seem like we'll have to wait much longer before he hits either goal.

And when he does, he might just set himself apart in an era dominated by some of the greatest athletes the sport has ever seen -- and notch himself a place in history in his own right.

October 15, 2015

On the Bubble

We've gotten to that time of year when players are looking to put in their last arguments to qualify for the year-end championships. And with Serena Williams withdrawing from the event in Singapore, perhaps the field is more wide open than its been in ages, so it's no surprise everyone still in contention -- even a couple new faces -- is fighting for those last available spots.

Lucie Safarova didn't do too much to strengthen her case this week, but she still might be in good shape to qualify for her first ever season-ender. Long among the second tier players in the sport, the veteran Czech had a breakthrough last year when she reached the Wimbledon semis. And in 2015 she scored her biggest title to date in Doha, scoring wins over Ekaterina Makarova and Victoria Azarenka in the process. Her real crowning achievement, though, came in Paris where she stunned two former titleists in Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic on the way to her first Major final and even took a set off Serena in the championship match. She's slowed down a bit since then -- after a first round loss at the U.S. Open, she only got back on court this week in Linz and lost her opener to fellow Roland Garros standout Andreea Mitu. Still, at #7 on the year-end leaderboard with just a week of play left, she's in a solid spot -- after all she's already qualified for the doubles draw, winning crowns in Melbourne and France with Bethanie-Mattek Sands, so why not make the most out of her trip?

Angelique Kerber has a little more experience in postseason play, and is trying to wrap up her case for a third appearance at the WTA Finals this week. After a shocking first round loss in Melbourne and more than a few tough draws early in the year -- Victoria Azarenka in her Doha opener, Sam Stosur in Madrid -- she got herself back on track with some top-notch wins. She beat Maria Sharapova on her way to the Stuttgart title, and Aga Radwanska in Stanford. She's currently ranked #9 in the world, but with four Premier-level titles this year she leads the pack of bubble contenders, and her performance this week could seal her spot. The second seed in Hong Kong, she was tested early by former Grand Slam champion Francesca Schiavone in her first round, but scored an easy win over Kurumi Nara earlier today. Next up she'll face always tricky Caroline Garcia, but if she lives up to her potential she could not only walk away with this trophy but also make a return to the season finale. She missed the cut last year and has only won one match in her previous two appearances, but she's shown she's got the ability to cause a stir among the highest ranks and might just be able to turn around her luck this time.

There are actually more than a few ladies trying to make the Singapore cut in Tianjin this week, and their experience runs the gamut. Veteran Flavia Pennetta, who unexpectedly picked up her first and likely only Grand Slam trophy in New York last month, is on the verge of qualifying for her first year-end championships at the very twilight of her career. She lost her first round in China, but at #8 on the Road to Singapore, there's a chance she hasn't yet played her last match on Tour. Trying to usurp her position, though, is 2015 breakout star Karolina Pliskova, also looking for her WTA Finals debut. The young Czech rose to a career high #7 in the world just ahead of the U.S. Open, with wins over formerly top-ranked players like Victoria Azarenka and Ana Ivanovic and trips to five finals this year -- she picked up her fourth career title in Prague. She lost a little ground last week, dropping points she won in Linz last year, but she's alive and kicking in Tianjin and could make them up quickly. Aga Radwanska certainly rebounded herself -- after falling to a recent low #15 in the world over the summer, a title in Tokyo brought her back up into the top eight, and she's well in the running to make her seventh postseason appearance. She's lost just three games this week, and if she keep her play at this level, it might not be long before she seals the deal.

There's a lot at stake, after all, for the four ladies who have yet to make the year-end final -- of the four already there, three have been struggling with injuries and form in the last few months, and any one of these women could certainly pounce on that opening. And who knows when they'll get another opportunity to close out the year with a bang.

October 11, 2015

Not For Nothing

Tennis is such an individual sport, and when players spend so much time on the court by themselves, of course the ones that are able to walk away with the titles should be lauded for their achievements. But every now and then it's worth looking at the guys who came in second place too -- after all, those who fall just short of the win may have nevertheless done something big too.

The door swung wide open early for the ladies in Beijing, with Serena Williams pulling out, top seed Simona Halep retiring from her opener and two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova getting knocked out in the first round. And with powerhouses like that out of the mix, maybe it wasn't so unexpected to see Wuhan runner-up #Garbiñe Muguruza ultimately walk away with the title -- but that doesn't diminish the showing we saw out of second place finisher Timea Bacsinsky. One of the biggest comeback stories of last year started 2015 off strong too, reaching the semifinals at Roland Garros and taking a set off Serena there too. But she'd slowed down a bit since, losing four straight matches after Wimbledon and skipping the trip to Wuhan where she had her breakthrough twelve months ago. She got back on track at the China Open though, taking out Carla Suarez Navarro in the third round and stunning a revived Ana Ivanovic a few matches later. She put up a fight in Sunday's championship too, keeping the Spaniard in check on serve and winning just a handful fewer points than her opponent. She may have just missed picking up her third title of the year, but at an event that attracts the best in the sport, she may have given herself a bigger boost that either of the others have.

The men's draw in China wasn't cracked quite so open this year, with three of the four top seeds making it to the semis. And Novak Djokovic, who's continued to dominate the ATP this year with seven titles, three of them Majors, and only five losses, kept his streak going on these courts as well. The five time champion in Beijing added trophy number six to his shelf without dropping a set over the past week, in fact losing less than twenty games during his run. But it was still refreshing to see him take on Rafael Nadal in a final again -- the Spaniard, after all, has been famously spotty in 2015, claiming just a couple trophies at smaller tournaments and scoring just two wins over top ten players this season. He didn't do any better on that front this week -- as the third seed he didn't face another favorite until Sunday's final against Nole -- but he may have gotten an even bigger chip off his shoulder. After easily handling Vasek Pospisil and coming back from a set down to an always-tough Jack Sock, the former #1 got revenge against Fabio Fognini, the man who so shockingly took him out at the U.S. Open last month. He's still lost to the feisty Italian in three of their five meetings this year, but he might be about to get things back on track after this mental win.

There were some impressive performances outside of Beijing too -- at the Japan Open in Tokyo, top seed Stan Wawrinka was able to avenge the loss he suffered to homegrown Tatsuma Ito here last year, and ultimately rode that momentum to his fourth title of the year. And while that may have cemented his place among the sport's elite in 2015, Benoit Paire may have made a case for himself to someday get there too. Once ranked just inside the top twenty-five, the young Frenchman dropped into triple digits late last year and spent much of his time early in 2015 on the ITF and Challengers' circuits. But it wasn't until midyear that he finally was able to catch a break when playing with the big boys -- unseeded in Bastad he stunned David Goffin and perennially strong veteran Tommy Robredo to capture his first ATP title and went on to stun New York runner-up Kei Nishikori at the U.S. Open. And this week, after opening with an upset of eighth seed Grigor Dimitrov, he took out Marcos Baghdatis and Nick Kyrgios before notching a second straight victory over the Japanese champion -- each win coming in three sets. Though he did eventually lose to Wawrinka on Sunday, his showing throughout the week may be enough to get him back up the rankings -- and perhaps this time he has what it takes to stay there.

Of course we can't ignore the performances of the guys and gals who won the titles this weekend, but even those who came in second deserve a little bit of notice. After all just because they didn't walk away with the trophies doesn't mean they didn't accomplish something meaningful over the last several days. And if they keep it going, there's no telling what they'll be able to do the next time they hit the courts.

October 7, 2015

Out of Steam

Well, things haven't been going too well for a couple players who really shined last week, have they? While Kuala Lumpur champ David Ferrer and Wuhan runner-up Garbiñe Muguruza have so far stayed alive in early action, others have not been quite so lucky and seem to have immediately lost the momentum that pushed them so far just a few days ago.

Feliciano Lopez, a finalist at the Malaysian Open, took the courts in Tokyo this week, but lost his opening round in three sets to Joao Sousa, and that might create a nice opportunity for the Portuguese. Sousa, ranked #45 in the world, has been biding his time on the fringes for some time, but after reaching three finals this year, including one last month in St. Petersburg, he could be ready to break through. He's scored wins already over Roberto Bautista Agut and Dominic Thiem, but Wednesday's win marks his first over a top fifteen player since 2013. He now faces off against American Austin Krajicek, but his bigger test should come a round later, when he takes on French Open titleist Stan Wawrinka, who's won all three of their previous meetings. Still the Swiss was tested by mini-nemesis Tatsuma Ito in the second round and could be a little vulnerable now if Sousa gets an opening.

Lopez wasn't the only recent finalist to fall, though -- over in Beijing compatriot Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, who came in second in Shenzhen was also ousted early, falling in two tight sets to Ivo Karlovic. Tomas Berdych, too, who'd beaten GGL in Sunday's title match, was shockingly upset by Pablo Cuevas earlier today. Ironically these two vanquishers will face each other in the second round, but whoever comes out on top could be poised to shine. Karlovic is the obvious favorite, of course -- at #18 in the world the big-serving Croat was just outside of seeding territory -- but the feisty Uruguayan can't be counted out. Cuevas went on a fourteen match win streak last summer, picking up back-to-back titles on the clay of Umag and Bastad and then added title #3 to his kitty this year in Sao Paolo. It's been almost six years since the two last faced off, but he might just be the stronger one this time around.

Inertia was hard to keep on the women's side too. Venus Williams, who beat four seeded players in Wuhan last week, propelling her back to #14 in the world, got a first round bye in Beijing but still didn't enough have time to recover. Sixth seed Ana Ivanovic, who actually fell below the American in the rankings after failing to defend a title in Tokyo, put in one of her best performances of the year to score the win and followed up today by taking out always-tough Svetlana Kuznetsova. The former Roland Garros champ now could face the unenviable task of trying to end the career of Flavia Pennetta -- but that might be the biggest challenge she has left. After all, Serena Williams pulled out of the event a week ago and the remaining top seeds Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova both lost in their opening rounds, making the draw much less intimidating. So if Ivanovic can keep her cool a few matches more, she might quickly regain the ground she just lost.

Of course, any one of these guys could lose momentum just as quickly as the champions they beat, so the trick will be in holding on to what they've got on their sides now. And with the 2015 season so close to winding down, hopefully they'll be able to keep the juices flowing in the new year.

October 4, 2015

Back from the Dead

We should know by now that in tennis, no one should ever be counted out. With some of the best players still thriving well into their thirties -- and a couple even first breaking through when they hit that ripe "old" age -- even those who seem like their best days are behind them, somehow find a way to make a statement late in their careers. And this weekend a couple veterans proved that, while they may have been a little quiet in recent months and years, they're certainly not yet ready to be forgotten quite yet.

There's still one match left to be played in Shenzhen but it might surprise you to learn which of the thirty-plus year old contenders is looking for his first title of the year -- Tomas Berdych has reached final in Monte Carlo, Rotterdam and Doha, but hasn't yet picked up that all-important crown. Still he's looking about as strong as he has all season, rebounding from an opening round exit in St. Petersburg to roll through his early matches in China, pulling off solid wins over the likes of Jiri Vesely and always strong Tommy Robredo. In this week's rain-delayed final championship match, he'll take on Guillermo Garcia-Lopez who, despite a lower #29 ranking, has managed wins in Zagreb and Bucharest in 2015, and is actually pretty evenly matched with Berdych at 3-3 all-time. While the top-ten Czech does still boast better results on the big stages, he may have his work cut out for him in this match and he'll want to show he can still close out a win when it really matters.

David Ferrer may have done just that in Kuala Lumpur. The one-time French Open runner-up had a really strong start to the year, picking up a trio of titles in the first two months of the season and even reaching the quarters at Roland Garros. But injury forced him out of Wimbledon and he didn't play a hardcourt match through the summer before the U.S. Open, challenged there too by unknown Moldovian Radu Albot before losing in the third round to unseeded Jeremy Chardy. He seems to have gotten his game back on track though -- the top seed at Malaysian Open, he quickly dispatched early opponents, dropping just one set to always tricky Benjamin Becker in the semis. Meanwhile second seed Feliciano Lopez seemed primed to continue his resurgence this fall -- after a run to the quarterfinals in New York, the thirty-four year old Spaniard finally ended Nick Kyrgios's comeback on Saturday. But Ferrer proved too much for him in the final -- he was able to create eleven break opportunities, and though he just converted on three, it was enough to clinch the win and his unexpected fourth trophy of the year. Still in more-than-good shape to qualify for the year-end championships, the Spaniard has now won six games in a row since New York, and may have made his best case to date that he's still part of the sport's elite.

Over in Wuhan, Venus Williams certainly showed she's still part of that group. The former world-#1 has remained relevant during the latter stages of her career, running to the trophy in Auckland at the start of this season and making it all the way to the U.S. Open quarterfinals last month. This week the thirty-five year old took the courts among a crowded field which included seven top-ten players, but didn't seem daunted by that fact. While many of the favorites were ousted early -- Maria Sharapova retired from her first match since Wimbledon and Simona Halep was stunned by Johanna Konta in the third round -- Williams battled her way past Tokyo champ Aga Radwanska in their opener and then stopped short Roberta Vinci, the woman who'd stunned her sister in New York. In Saturday's final against Garbiñe Muguruza, who'd also scored a win over Serena not that long ago, the veteran American came out the stronger too, taking the first set and getting a break in the second before her opponent retired. It was one of Williams' biggest titles in years, but at this point in her career, may be her most valuable.

Of course this weekend wasn't all about the vets -- in Tashkent, twenty-year-old Nao Hibino, who's picked up a couple of ITF titles during her short career but had never done much to speak of on the WTA Tour, worked her way through the draw and finally ousted Donna Vekic in Saturday's final. Whether that's enough to propel the now-#117 ranked player into greater fortunes is yet to be seen. But if her fellow winners this weekend are any indication, she's got plenty of time left to do it.