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.

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