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.

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