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.

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