February 22, 2015

Taking Charge

While many of the sport's top players have used the past couple weeks to transition to clay, there was still plenty of action to be had on the hard courts. And the champions crowned this weekend took to the surface in dominating style and made some pretty big statements about what we should expect from them the rest of this season.

The draw in Delray Beach got cracked wide open quickly this week with top seed Kevin Anderson, a finalist last week in Memphis, only getting one win down in Florida and big-serving John Isner losing his opening match in straight sets. The lack of on-paper star power may have cleared the way for some -- Donald Young, on a disheartening downward spiral not that long ago, took out a talented Alexandr Dolgopolov on the way to his first Tour-level final since 2011. But he ran into a super force named Ivo Karlovic on Sunday -- the veteran Croat is one of the most over-looked players out there, but he made runs to four championship matches in 2014 and kicked of this season by winning his first. With thirteen aces and three breaks of his opponent's serve, Karlovic got the win in just over an hour, scoring his sixth career title, just his third on hard courts. But with such decisive performances all week, he might just be adding more to that kitty soon.

The players in Marseille also got a little bit of a pass -- Milos Raonic was stunned in his opening round by sub-fifty Simone Bolelli while recent Grand Slam titleist Stan Wawrinka couldn't come back against some-time giant killer Sergiy Stakhovsky in the quarters. Even defending champion Ernests Gulbis continued to struggle, remaining winless this year after a loss to Jeremy Chardy. That paved the way for two Frenchmen to make the trip to Sunday's final -- Gael Monfils, who hadn't so far kept pace with his performances from last year notched his second straight upset over Roberto Bautista Agut during his campaign, and Gilles Simon, who won the title here way back in 2007, made his way through the draw without facing another seed. But even though he was challenged throughout the week, dropping sets to both Stakhovsky and young Borna Coric, he was able to stay strong on Sunday, withstanding an ugly middle set to notch the win in a deciding tiebreak. It was his first title since 2013, but maybe more importantly for the thirty-year-old, shows he's still more than relevant at the big matches.

Simona Halep, on the other hand, is only just starting to show us what she's got. Last year's French Open finalist is coming off a career-making year and kicked off the 2015 season by winning her ninth career title in Shenzhen. She might not have gotten quite as far as she wanted at the Australian Open, but this week in Dubai she may have made up for that -- taking the top seed after Serena Williams pulled out of the event, Halep ended Daniela Hantuchova's comeback and then avenged her Melbourne loss to Ekaterina Makarova in the quarters. Against an inspired Karolina Pliskova in Saturday's final -- the Czech hadn't faced a player outside the top forty all week and caused upsets of Ana Ivanovic and compatriot Lucie Safarova along the way -- she kept her head again. Despite being broken four times, being out-served and under-faulted, she came out on top in two tight sets, adding the second truly high-profile trophy to her mantel. And it may give her just the push she needs to really deliver when it counts the most.

There's still a little time left before tennis stars make a real shift onto the clay, and this week's events gave us a good idea of what we might see in the weeks to come. And if this weekend's champions can take charge again, there's no reason we won't be seeing more of them on the winners' stands.

February 19, 2015

A Change in Scenery

The clay court season unofficially kicked off a few weeks ago in Quito, but only this week did both the men and women on Tour take to the dirt in Rio. And the change in surface may be a quite welcome one for a couple players.

Sara Errani has had decent results on hardcourts over the years -- she made the quarters in Melbourne and the semis in New York back in 2012 -- but her biggest successes by far have come on the clay. And over the last twelve months she's struggled to find her footing off the surface -- she lost her first two matches to start the year and was upset by then-#80 Yanina Wickmayer in her Australian Open third round. But she seems to be back on track in Brazil this week. The top seeded Italian opened with a solid win over Teliana Pereira on Tuesday and earlier this morning took out veteran Lourdes Dominguez Lino in straight sets. And Anna Schmiedlova, ranked just #75 in the world, might look even stronger this week. The twenty-year-old Slovakian who stunned Venus Williams at Roland Garros last year, has lost just five games in her first two matches in Rio. She's up against little-known Paraguayan Veronica Cepede Royg next -- the qualifier took out third seed Roberta Vinci in a quick two sets today -- so may have had the path cleared for her a bit, but just a little momentum on her side could go a long way.

Federico Delbonis is looking to make his own statement this week. The twenty-four year old Argentine who won his first career title in Sao Paulo last year also reached the final in Nice, notching wins over John Isner and Gilles Simon on the way. But he's been win-less so far this season and has seen his ranking drop from a high of #34 last May to sub-sixty now. He too has rebounded in Rio, staying tough after countryman Diego Schwartzman retired in the third set of their first round to drub eighth seed Martin Klizan earlier today. He'll either take on Fabio Fognini, who saved match points in his own opener, or dirt specialist Pablo Andujar next, so the road's only going to get tougher from here. Still he's shown he can perform best on these courts and might just be able to raise his game now. But the pressure might be highest on Rafael Nadal in Brazil -- the defending champion has won an astonishing forty-five titles on the surface, nine of them at the French Open. And while he's certainly made his mark elsewhere on Tour, the last few months have been more of a struggle. He survived a test from Thomaz Bellucci in his opener, though, and will be the heavy favorite in tonight's match against Pablo Carreno Busta. But he'll want to go even farther than that if he's going to show he's really back in the saddle.

It's always interesting to see who thrives during the South American clay court season -- while the stars can often get in a couple key wins, many underdogs also have a chance to pull off some big upsets. And if this week's winners can carry their momentum with them, there's no telling what they could do when the stakes get even higher.

February 16, 2015

On Their Games Again

It sure seems like it's been a while since this weekend's champions have held a trophy over their heads -- for some it's been just a month or so, for others several years, but if any of them can keep their momentum going, it could mean big things for the rest of their years.

Stan Wawrinka began the 2015 season almost the way he did the last one, picking up another crown in Chennai and rolling through his first couple matches at the Australian Open. But when he fell short of repeating his title run, he took a few steps back down the rankings. He was the fourth seed last week in Rotterdam and had trouble getting his footing, losing sets to wildcard Jesse Huta Galung and Guillermo Garcia Lopez, ultimately reaching the final by the skin of his teeth. Against defending champion Tomas Berdych on Sunday he was tested again, dropping the opening set, but he was able to rally from the deficit and clinched the win in just under two hours. It may not be as high profile a trophy as the one he gave up, but with two top ten wins this week, both over higher seeds, he might have put himself back on track to go after the big ones again.

After a similarly stunning 2014, Andrea Petkovic has had a little big more trouble getting her footing this year. A semifinalist at Roland Garros she finished off the season with a title at the Tournament of Champions, but went oh-and-three to start 2015, losing each time to players outside the top fifty. She started to get things back together during Fed Cup play, though, avenging a loss to Jarmila Gajdosova in Sydney and knocking out Sam Stosur in a 12-10 third set marathon. She continued her win streak in Antwerp last week, drubbing one-time Aussie runner-up Dominika Cibulkova and following it up with a win over always tricky Barbora Zahlavova Strycova to make the final. She was spared a contest on Sunday, though, when fifth seeded Carla Suarez Navarro pulled out of the match with a neck injury, but Petko's run was nonetheless impressive. She'll get right back to work this week in Dubai, and hopefully she'll keep her run going -- just a hair away from her career high ranking from three years ago, it's starting to feel like she can make a big push even higher this time around.

Kei Nishikori is certainly making a case for himself to keep climbing as well. Currently at his peak #5 in the world, the man from Japan is coming off a year that brought him four trophies, ten top-ten victories and his first Grand Slam final. He hasn't had bad results in 2015 by any means, but the semis in Brisbane and the quarterfinals in Melbourne don't seem quite as impressive now that we've seen what he can do. So this past week in Memphis, the two-time defending champion was under a little pressure. Qualifiers Ryan Harrison and Austin Krajicek both took sets off the top seed and even a reinvigorated Sam Querrey, who'd scored an impressive win over John Isner in the quarters, was able to push him to a decider. But Kei got his groove back in the final against big-serving Kevin Anderson, withstanding twelve aces from the South African to nab his third consecutive title in Tennessee in straight sets. And hopefully he'll be able to raise his game again when he faces even tougher opponents down the road.

Uruguay's Pablo Cuevas has already proven he can turn up the heat when the pressure's on. The twenty-nine year old veteran had never cracked the top forty before last year, but then went on a solid run over the summer picking up titles in Umag and Bastad, the first two finals he'd ever contested. He finished off the season with a couple of Challengers wins and ended the year at a career high #32 in the world. After a slow start to the year though -- his only win in January came over a still-recovering Nicolas Almagro -- he pulled things together this past week in Sao Paulo. Seeded fifth at the Brazil Open, he took out the Spaniard again and added wins over upstart Jiri Vesely and world #31 Santiago Giraldo to his resum&eactue;. Yesterday against unknown qualifier Luca Vanni -- who incidentally jumped forty-one spots up the rankings thanks to his Cinderella run -- he held tough in three tight sets, notching the win in a tiebreak and keeping his record in finals a spotless 3-0. He's headed straight to Rio this week and face Almagro yet again in his opener, but having backed up his most recent win with an ultimate title, he may just have established himself as a real favorite this time.

Veteran Slovakian Daniela Hantuchova is trying to work her way back to that favored status, too. The one-time world #4 has had a rough couple of years, and in 2014 fell well out of seeding territory at the Majors. She showed some signs of progress to start this season, scoring a win over Sara Errani in Auckland and pushing Garbiñe Muguruza to a third set in Melbourne. Still almost two years removed from her last title, she was nevertheless a long shot in her return to Pattaya City. But after upsetting third seed Zarina Diyas in her opener, the 2012 champion in Thailand didn't look back again. After dropping the first set in Sunday's final to Croatian Ajla Tomljanovic, Dani's experience came through and she was able to power through for her seventh career title and first since 2013. She seems to have recovered well enough -- earlier today she won her first match in Dubai with a win over Mona Barthel in three long sets -- but she'll face an even bigger challenge from Simona Halep in the next round. But a strong performance could work wonders for her confidence -- back in the top fifty now there's no reason she can't make another move higher.

We may have a few weeks left before then next big events of the season get underway, but all of this weekend's champions have put themselves back on the radar as we head to the American hard court season. And now that they've shown they've still got some spunk left in them, there's no telling what they'll be able to do.

February 12, 2015

Veterans' Days

Over the past several years we've seen this sport transform from one dominated by youngsters to one where the over-thirty crowd can not only survive, but actually thrive. And this week in particular some older players are not only proving they're still relevant, but a couple might finally be coming into their own.

We've talked already about how Sam Groth is coming into his own so late in his career, and he really has been able to follow up early in the year. The twenty-seven year old Australian lost a squeaker to Milos Raonic in the Brisbane quarterfinals to start the year and went on to win his first matches at his homeland's Major a few weeks after that. He's still got a lot of work ahead of him though -- pro since 2006, he's only just reached his career high ranking of #70 in the world. But he certainly has a chance to improve things -- he'll take on another big server in Kevin Anderson tonight in his Memphis second round and an upset of the second seed could give him a boatload of confidence the rest of the week. With players like big John Isner and U.S. Open finalist Kei Nishikori still in the field, he's going to need it.

There are other veterans on the rise this week, but many of them are climbing back after recent time outs. Nicolas Almagro missed much of last year with a foot injury and has had some trouble getting his footing back in 2015. He lost his opener in Sydney to last season's standout Pablo Cuevas and then couldn't do much damage at all to Nishikori in Melbourne. At #82 in the world now, the Spaniard's at his lowest ranking in almost nine years. He might finally be back on track now though -- after a straight set win over little-known Blaz Rola on Monday in Sao Paulo, he stunned top seeded Tommy Robredo last night, reaching his first quarterfinal since last spring. He'll get a rematch with Cuevas for a spot in the semis, but on a surface where he's much more comfortable, he might just be able to turn the tables in his favor this time.

Francesca Schiavone has been doing the same at the resurrected tournament in Antwerp. The one-time Grand Slam champion has struggled in her early thirties, losing in the first round of all but one of the last ten Majors she's played. Now ranked #81 in the world, she was winless this year before playing qualifying rounds in Belgium, but powered through rising star Oceane Dodin on her way into the main draw at the Diamond Games. She opened her campaign with an easy win over Klara Koukalova and earlier today trounced second seed Angelique Kerber in under an hour, dropping just two games to the top-ten German. The road gets tougher from here of course -- she'll take on Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarters -- but the fifth seed has already survived two three-set matches this week and the much more experienced Italian might have what it takes to score another upset.

Down in Pattaya City a couple more much-decorated vets are jumping back into the spotlight. Vera Zvonareva and Daniela Hantuchova, who combined to win the first three titles contested in Thailand, had fallen off the map over the last few year. Dani, injured or ill for much of the last two years finished 2014 at her lowest ranking of the century, while the Russian, who skipped an entire season after shoulder surgery, has struggled to regain her top form since her return. But both players have pulled off wins over low seeds this week -- Vera taking out China's Shuai Zhang and the Slovakian upending a talented Zarina Diyas. With only one seed left in the draw, either one of these comeback stories could keep going quite a while longer.

But perhaps the real story of this season has been the rapid ascent of thirty-one year old Gilles Muller who'd never before this year cracked the top forty. The Luxembourger, one of just two men from his country ranked in the top thousand -- the other is #781 in the world, reached the semis in Sydney, took out both John Isner and Roberto Bautista Agut at the Australian Open and began his run in Rotterdam with a tight win over comeback kid David Goffin. Last night he stunned Grigor Dimitrov in straight sets, notching his biggest win since taking out then-#10 Richard Gasquet nearly two years ago. Of course, with a likely meeting against Stan Wawrinka in the quarters, he'll have to raise his game even higher from here. But it sure looks like all the time he spent slugging away on the Challengers' Tour has paid off, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him keep his momentum going.

With thirty-four year old Victor Estrella Burgos's historic win in Quito last weekend, maybe we shouldn't be surprised to see players like these only just beginning to blossom. Hopefully, whether they're on the rebound or just peaking, they'll be able to keep up for months and years to come. After all, there's no reason that just the young guns should have all the fun.

February 8, 2015

The Clinchers: Fed Cup First Round

It's not just the men who had something to atone for in the days after the Australian Open. This weekend a couple ladies who may have fallen a little short of expectations in Melbourne -- either their own or others' -- stormed back onto the courts for the first round of Fed Cup action. And a few of their wins may have gone a long way to make up for their recent losses.

Germany vs. Australia

There was plenty of talent on display at the tie between Germany and Australia, but most these players got off to a slow start in 2015 -- together the four singles entrants had combined for just two wins Down Under. But they were all hungry for redemption this weekend -- Jarmila Gajdosova, who scored her first ever win at her homeland's Major last month, opened by stunning heavy favorite Angelique Kerber in three sets, but Andrea Petkovic, winless since taking the trophy in Sofia late last year, endured a marathon third set against former U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, closing out the win after more than three hours of play. She proved the more resilient on Sunday, too -- after Kerber gave the Germans a slight lead in the first reverse singles match, beating Stosur in straight sets, Petkovic went the distance again, edging Jarkka 8-6 in the third, and securing her country a return to the semis. Last year's runners-up haven't won a Fed Cup trophy since 1992, and while there's a lot more play left before a champion is decided, this group of ladies has certainly shown they have the will to put up some big numbers for their team.

Czech Republic vs. Canada

The Czechs, on the other hand, have had a little more success of late, winning the title three of the last four years. But without some of their biggest stars -- both defending Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova and underappreciated Lucie Safarova sat out this contest -- there was no certainty in this rubber. But the Canadians were missing their biggest star too, and without Genie Bouchard, their top player was world #185 Gabriela Dabrowski. But the twenty year old proved no match for Karolina Pliskova on Sunday -- the rising star, one of my dark horses for Melbourne, fell surprisingly quickly to eventual Aussie semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova in the third round. But she made up for it this weekend, first trumping eighteen-year-old Francoise Abanda on Saturday and then clinching the win for her country with a straight set win over Dabrowski. The Czechs may not have brought their A-team to this rubber, but with a field as deep as theirs it doesn't seem to matter.

Italy vs. France

Things were a little closer between the 2013 champion Italians and the upstart French team, who made the World Group this year after a playoff win over the U.S. last spring. The favorites got off to a good start on Day One with former Roland Garros finalist Sara Errani bouncing back from a third round upset at the Open to Yanina Wickmayer for a win in the first tie and Camila Giorgi, who fell just short of a monstrous win over Venus Williams, pulled off her own victory over world #19 Alizé Cornet. But the 2-0 lead did not prove insurmountable -- on Sunday, doubles specialist Kristina Mladenovic, who's had some huge wins at the Majors herself, kept the Frenchwomen alive with a win over Errani and young gun Caroline Garcia drew her country even with a three-set win over Giorgi. The two then paired up against the top-ranked doubles team of Errani and long-time partner Roberta Vinci, stunning the Italians for the come-from-behind win. Neither had been able to follow up defeats of low seeds in Melbourne, but their wins this weekend may have shown they still have a lot more to give.

Russia vs. Poland

But perhaps the one player who was most anxious to get back on the court was the one who fell just short of taking the title Down Under. Maria Sharapova made it all the way back to the final at the Australian Open, but despite her best efforts just couldn't get the upper hand against Serena Williams during their nearly two-hour match. But she got right back out there this weekend, playing on the Fed Cup team for only the third time in her decorated career. She kicked off win a quick and easy win over Urszula Radwanska, but even with a 2-0 lead over the Poles, the pressure was on Sunday. Maria faced off against long-time rival Aga Radwanska, a woman who had notched her first ever victory over Serena already this year, and should have been eager to add another high-profile win to her resumé. But Sharapova was undaunted, rolling through the first set and staying the more focused in a tight second. The victory clinched a return to the World Group semis, where the Russians will face off against Germany in April. But more importantly, it erases the bad taste of Maria's loss just a week ago and may have replaced it with a hunger for even bigger wins down the road.

February 4, 2015

Up and at 'Em!

You may relish what seems like a short break after the Australian Open, but there's really no time to relax for the players, is there? And especially for those who didn't make it quite as far as they would have liked in Melbourne, this first week of action is a huge opportunity to redeem themselves. So it's no surprise so many got right back to work even after all the excitement we saw Down Under.

A slew of clay court specialists made their way to the inaugural Ecuador Open in Quito with Feliciano Lopez, who slunk his way through the early rounds at the Aussie, taking the top seed. But a couple others didn't have quite as much luck as the Spaniard the last few weeks and will want to rebound -- Martin Klizan fell one match short of his mini-Cinderella run from last year and retired in the fourth set of his second round. He'll open today against Daniel Gimeno-Traver, a man who's coming off a Challenger's title in Colombia. The Slovakian lost the pair's only previous meeting, but they've never faced off at the ATP level so things could be much different this time. And last year's young standout Dusan Lajovic came so close to a first round win in Melbourne this year but ultimately lost to one-time giant-killer Sergiy Stakhovsky in their three and a half hour match. The Serb opened his South American campaign with a win over little-known Italian Luca Vanni and gets a slight pass next facing qualifier Nicolas Jarry, #219 in the world. While his road will certainly get tougher after that, the twenty-four year old might just seize the chance to make a deep run here.

The field is a little more stacked over in Zagreb where so far Andreas Seppi has successfully followed up with his monster Melbourne upset, surviving a squeaker versus Robin Haase in his opener, and comeback kid Viktor Troicki, who fell short of my expectations for him in Australia, toughed out a challenge from qualifier Illya Marchenko in his first round. But perhaps a bit more interesting will be the fortunes of former world #8 Mikhail Youzhny, who didn't put up much of a fight at all against Rafael Nadal Down Under. But he's finally won his first two matches of the year this week, earlier today trouncing Stakhovsky in straight sets to make the quarters. And Marcos Baghdatis, who proved he's not out of the mix yet, getting to the final in Happy Valley and stunning David Goffin at the Open, took Grigor Dimitrov to five sets in their third round. He'll face off against one of my Aussie dark horses, Ivo Karlovic, this afternoon and if he can manage an upset over the top seed, there's no reason he can't go even farther.

The stars are shining even brighter in Montpellier where homegrown Gael Monfils, a shocker last year both in the Davis Cup final and the U.S. Open quarters, is looking to redeem himself from a second-round exit in Melbourne at the hands of Jerzy Janowicz. The Pole on the other hand, who lost immediately after beating the Frenchman, survived six match points in his opener this week, just eking out the win over a talented Dustin Brown. The fifth seed at the Open Sud sets up a meeting against another man looking for resurrection, Benoit Paire, but if he can pass the test he might be back on the right track. But the most intriguing match might just be a battle between the generations. Two-time Major semifinalist Richard Gasquet got two easy wins in Australia before receiving a similar drubbing from big-serving Kevin Anderson in the first round, while twenty-year-old Lucas Pouille lost a squeaker to Monfils in his opener. Still looking to crack the top hundred, he is the clear underdog, but if he puts up a fight we could see more than a few sparks fly here.

All of these guys got a pretty early wake up call at the Australian Open, and it didn't take them long to get right back to work. Hopefully a quick turnaround will keep them wide awake for the rest of the year -- after all, it's still so early in the season that anything can happen.

February 1, 2015

Superb Ball

All eyes may be focused tonight on what's going down in Phoenix tonight, but we may have already seen the best ball play we're going to get this weekend. Over the last two days, the 2015 champions at the Australian Open both reasserted their positions at the top of the sport, waiving off some big challenges from their opponents in dominating style and capturing trophies that have been missing from their mantels for, seemingly, quite some time.

Serena Williams, who last won this trophy five long years ago, was inspired in Saturday's final against an also-hungry Maria Sharapova. Chasing Grand Slam #19, which would tie her for third on the all-time list with Helen Wills-Moody, she climbed to an early lead and never looked back. Even in a tight second set during which the Russian fought off all four break chances against her and saved championship point late in the tenth game, Serena held strong, acing Sharapova in the tiebreak for her Open Era record sixth Melbourne crown. The world #1 certainly bobbled here and there and even lost a few tense points, but she remained in control from the get-go and never once looked ready to cede her advantage. It was Williams' seventeenth win versus her would-be rival -- she's only lost two sets to her over the past decade -- and cemented her dominance over the second-ranked player in the WTA. And there doesn't seem any stopping her -- with just three Majors now separating her from Steffi Graf, she's one Serena Slam away from putting her name in a few more record books.

Novak Djokovic had a slightly tougher time sealing his deal, but it doesn't make his effort any less impressive. After a long, five-set semifinal against the man who unseated the four-time champion last year, the world #1 seemed a little sluggish to start against Andy Murray. Though he did manage to get the first break in the match he quickly gave it back and only squeaked out the opening set in a tiebreak. He squandered a lead in the second, too, this time dropping the breaker and, after over two-and-a-half more hours on court, only found himself tied with the three-time runner-up in Melbourne. But when Nole found himself down 0-2 in the third set, he was finally able to kick into high gear, winning twelve of the next thirteen games to claim his record-setting fifth crown at the Australian Open. It was his fiftieth match win Down Under, making this by far his most successful Slam, but something tells me he's primed to deliver more on the other surfaces now too. And it's going to be even harder for anyone else to stop him.

It may be only the first Major of 2015, but this weekend's champions sure set the bar high for what we should expect the rest of the season. Hopefully the rest of the field will be able to raise their games to the same level -- after all, as good as this start to the year was, you can't help but wish it's just a jumping off point for bigger and better things to come