March 31, 2015

The Slump-Buster

The couple months leading up to Miami haven't been great for everyone. Perennial stars have fallen before they should and recent risers have struggled to find their footing as breakthrough players have come into their own. But over the last couple days we've seen some players find their games again, and it could be just what they need to turn their seasons back around.

After several months of struggling, John Isner had started to claw his way back in Indian Wells, scoring a solid win over Kevin Anderson in his third match. But with a marathon loss to world #111 James Ward in Davis Cup and upsets at the hands of Gilles Muller and Sam Querrey already this year, he's still well off his career high ranking in the top ten and only carried a #22 seed to the Miami Open. But last night he held tough against Grigor Dimitrov -- after taking the first set in a tiebreak, already his fourteenth of the year, he did what he so rarely does and broke his opponent twice to take the match in straight sets. It was his biggest win in almost two years, when he made a stellar run to the Cincinnati final, and could give him a little boost for his next test -- he'll face off against world #6 Milos Raonic tonight. Somewhat surprisingly the big serving American actually has won both of their previous matches, also both at Masters events. But a win this time might be slightly more meaningful.

Veteran Juan Monaco has seen some of his biggest successes on these courts, breaking the top ten after a semifinal run in Miami three years ago. But the thirty-one year old Argentine has given up a little of his momentum and has lost in the first round of seven Majors since. He did make the final in Buenos Aires a few weeks ago, though, and has come back from a triple digit ranking to #46 in the world now. And over the last few days he's dispatched three seeds, starting with a struggling Ernests Gulbis and culminating with an easy win over Fernando Verdasco this afternoon -- he broke the Spaniard, fresh off his second straight win over Rafael Nadal, four times and kept him well under fifty-percent on his second serves. The win earns him a quarterfinal match-up against eighth seed Tomas Berdych, a man he hasn't beaten in any of his six previous tries, but he's pulled off bigger wins before and with some of the shots he's been making this week it doesn't look like he's in any rush to slow down.

On the women's side we're also seeing a couple ladies come back from the brink. Former Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki has always seemed destined for great things. But with yet another injury-marred season last year and losses this season to players like Kristina Mladenovic and then-#94 Alexandra Dulgheru, the powerful German had seen her ranking fall almost out of the top thirty. She made up some ground in Indian Wells, scoring wins over Sara Errani and defending champion Flavia Pennetta on her way to the semis. She might have been even more impressive this week, though, repeating a win over over Errani on Monday and taking out fifth seed Ana Ivanovic in straight sets. She's up against Serena Williams next, no easy task to be sure, but we all remember that stunning win over the world #1 at the All England Club two years ago. If she is back in form there's no reason to expect she won't put up a fight again this time.

Young Sloane Stephens has fallen a little farther since the days of her big win over her compatriot. After peaking at #11 in the world a little more than a year ago, she's had a rough time on Tour, losing eight first round matches last year and falling out of the top forty earlier this month. Like some of the others I've mentioned, she had a bit of a resurgence in Indian Wells, beating Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova before taking a set of Serena in the fourth round. And this week in Miami she hasn't dropped a set yet, scoring a nice win over seventeenth seed Madison Keys before taking out Belinda Bencic on Monday. Her road, like everyone else's, also gets tougher from here -- she'll meet third seed and BNP Paribas Open champ Simona Halep next, but the twenty-two year old certainly seems to have her groove back and could give the favorite a run for her money.

It seems like it's been a long couple months for all these players, but sometimes you only need one good run to boost your confidence and get back on track. And for these guys, hopefully that's exactly what Miami will be.

March 28, 2015

The Newest Crop

It always seems that about this time of year we start to see a couple young players emerge on the tennis Tours. Some go on to accomplish big things in their careers, others fade away a little. But all are able to get in a couple wins that earn them a little more notice. And this year in Miami is no different.

We've already talked a bit about young Borna Coric. The Croatian teenager backed up his stellar 2014 season with a stunning win over Andy Murray in Dubai and a rapid rise to a career-high #59 in the world -- he was barely in the top three hundred at this time last year. Playing in just his second Masters level event in Miami, he's certainly at an experiential disadvantage, but that might not work too hard against him. After solidly beating Andreas Haider-Mauer earlier this month in Indian Wells, he had a slight hiccup against the Austrian in his opener -- he only won one game in the opening set -- but came back strong for the win. He faces eighteenth seed David Goffin next but, with a mediocre 5-6 record on the year so far, the Belgian seems to be struggling to keep the momentum from his comeback season. For a guy who's beaten two of the three top ten players he's met during his career, Coric could certainly take advantage of this opportunity too.

James Duckworth has been around a little longer, but outside his native Australia he hasn't garnered too much attention. The twenty-three year old has won a couple Challengers titles but has made much less headway on the bigger stages. He's struggled to qualify for most Majors and hasn't won any main draw matches outside of his homeland. He did manage a nice victory over Gilles Simon to start this season in Brisbane, though, and after beating Dominic Thiem in the first round of the BNP Paribas Open he finally cracked the top hundred. He had to manage through preliminaries in Miami too but managed a good win over fellow qualifier Damir Dzumhur in his opener. He's on serve early in his rematch against Fernando Verdasco now -- Duckworth lost a fairly quick two sets to him a few weeks ago in Indian Wells -- but we all know how inconsistent the Spaniard can be and maybe the underdog will get a chance to pounce.

There's plenty of fresh talent on the women's side too, but perhaps the most notable name is one we got a quick glimpse of not too long ago. Catherine Bellis was ranked #1208 in the world when she drubbed Melbourne finalist Dominika Cibulkova in the first round of last year's U.S. Open. She had a shot at going even further when she bageled Zarina Diyas in their second set and seemed to have momentum to manage even that win. She ultimately lost to the underrated Kazakh -- but she was able to get revenge. Fresh off a ITF title in Racho Santa Fe, the fifteen-year-old Cici only dropped just three games to the twenty-ninth seed yesterday, needing barely an hour to score the win. The road gets much tougher from here of course -- she'll most likely face two-time defending champion Serena Williams -- she's won a total of seven titles in Miami -- next. But she still seems destined to climb much higher than her current #211 ranking and even getting a couple good shots in on Serena, who incidentally won her first U.S. Open a few months after Bellis was born, could put her well on the road to do just that.

Unlike some of these other guys, Daria Gavrilova hadn't had many high-profile wins on the WTA Tour before this week, but the 2010 U.S. Open Juniors champ but was quick to change that in Miami. The Russian wildcard, whose first round opponent retired in the middle of their opening set, didn't seem hampered by the lack of match play. Facing second seed Maria Sharapova -- five times a finalist here but still unable to capture the one big crown that's eluded her -- the world #97 was relentless. She took advantage of weak serving from MaSha, keeping her well below fifty percent on second serve and firing off the only two aces of the match herself. The five-time Grand Slam champ was sent packing in straight sets, marking by far her earliest loss at this event since 2003. For her efforts Gavrilova will have to handle Kurumi Nara, a titlist in Rio last year, and while the lady from Japan can be a tricky player to be sure, there's no reason the lesser-known Russian can't follow up her big upset with another one.

The question for these guys, of course, is whether they can follow up success in Miami not just with more wins over the next week, but much more importantly, wins in the months to come. And hopefully they'll all be able to stick around and show us just how much they've got to give us.

March 23, 2015

At the Top of Their Games

The last couple months have given plenty of under-the-radar players a chance to shine on Tour, but over the last week or so in Indian Wells, we got to see the very top players really show us what they've got. And for one of this weekend's champion, we got a glimpse of just how much more she's capable of.

We haven't seen too much of Novak Djokovic since he won his fifth Australian Open in January -- the world #1 has only played one event since, falling in the Dubai final to Roger Federer. Not surprisingly the top two players in the sport fought their way through the draw in the California desert too, setting up their thirty-eighth career meeting. Djokovic was barely challenged in his first five matches, getting a walkover from a back-in-form Bernard Tomic in the quarterfinals and drubbing Andy Murray for his sixth straight win over the Brit. Roger had a similarly easy road to Sunday's match -- after avenging his Melbourne loss to Andreas Seppi he quickly dismissed Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic, who'd just a day before eked out a win over former champ Rafael Nadal. But their final was not nearly so straightforward -- Nole got the first break of the match early, converting for once after squandering all seven opportunities he held in the Dubai final, but Federer fought back and took the second set in a tiebreak. After trading breaks again in the decider, Djokovic finally took hold of the match, winning the last four games in a row to claim his fiftieth title and his twenty-first Masters 1000. And with momentum now squarely back in his corner -- he and Roger have alternatively won all of their last nine meetings -- he might just be able to swing things back in his favor for many more matches to come.

Young Simona Halep may only be just starting to build her momentum, but by following through on her breakout 2014 season, she's certainly given us reason to believe she's here to stay. The third seed at Indian Wells, she actually faced more than a few challenges during her run -- she dropped her opening set to qualifier Daria Gavrilova, went the distance against a tough Varvara Lepchenko and needed another comeback versus Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarters. She got a big break on Friday, though, when Serena Williams pulled out of the semis with a knee injury, but with a win over the world #1 not that long ago, she might have been able to pull off another if given the chance. It was the other half of the draw where things got really interesting though -- with players like Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki and Genie Bouchard all getting shocked early, 2009 champ Jelena Jankovic, just 2-4 on the year before this tournament, was the surprising final contender. She looked like she would pull off the upset here too -- up a set and a break on the heavy favorite -- but Halep regrouped late in the second and was able to even the score. The ladies kept it close in the third too, but the Romanian was finally able to get the only break of the set -- surprising since they'd lost serve a combined seventeen times in the first two -- and clinched her biggest trophy to date after more than two and a half hours on court. And with the next round of Majors quickly approaching, there may never have been a better time to make such a big statement.

Sure both of these champions were tested during their runs in Indian Wells. But by coming out on top they showed they can truly triumph in the face of adversity. And as the stakes get higher in the weeks to come, they've each made a case for themselves as the ones to beat.

March 19, 2015

Making a Stand

There are plenty of favorites still alive and more than kicking in Indian Wells, but with many quarterfinal matches left to play you may notice a couple unexpected names in the mix. And these players haven't just sneaked through the draws this time -- they're pulling off the big upsets themselves.

Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised to see Feliciano Lopez standing -- the veteran Spaniard is coming off the best year of his career, having climbed to his highest ever ranking at the start of the month. He did struggle a bit during his early rounds in Melbourne, though, and was stunned by Victor Estrella Burgos in the Quito final. So maybe we didn't expect a big fight when he met an on-point Kei Nishikori -- who'd reached the final in Acapulco and won his third straight title in Memphis. But Feli scored his first win over the fifth seed in nearly two years on Wednesday to set up a quarterfinal clash against Andy Murray, a man who's beaten him in all nine of their previous meetings. Still he's scored more than a few wins over top ten players in the past year, so it's certainly not out of the question for him to keep his run going.

A little more impressive has been the performance of Bernard Tomic in the California desert. The one-time Wimbledon wunderkind had fallen way down the rankings in the years after, grabbing more headlines for his behavior off the court than on it and dropping briefly back into triple digits last year. He seems to have turned things back in his favor this season though -- he beat world #24 Philipp Kohlschreiber twice in a row in Australia and reached the semis in Delray. Just inside seeding territory at the BNP Paribas Open, he scored his first top-ten win since 2013, ending David Ferrer's eleven-match win streak in the third round. He's got a tough task ahead of him, of course, meeting top seed and defending champion Novak Djokovic next. But he might be able to put up a bigger fight than you'd think this time around.

The women's draw, not shockingly, has seen a few more upsets throughout, but the bottom half of the bracket boasts a foursome of ladies who many had started too -- or completely -- written off. Former Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki had only managed one win all year long and saw her ranking fall from a high of #12 in the world a few years back to a less-than-stellar #30 now. But so far in Indian Wells, she's already taken out doubles specialist Roberta Vinci, Rio champ Sara Errani, and most recently a red-hot Caroline Garcia. For a spot in the semis, she'll meet defending champion Flavia Pennetta, who pulled of an impressive upset of Maria Sharapova on Tuesday night. She too needed the confidence boost -- her only notable win this year came over an also-struggling Angelique Kerber in Dubai, and with so much on the line at this event, she's under more pressure than most. Lisicki and Pennetta have never faced off before, but with both so hungry for the win, this could be a good one.

But we may see even more fireworks in the other quarter being contested today. Jelena Jankovic, who won the title here in 2010, was a disappointing 2-4 so fart this year and had dropped pretty soundly out of the top ten. She's been tested throughout her early matches, going three sets in each round so far, but pulled off a solid win over a now-higher ranked Madison Keys on Monday and followed up by avenging her first round U.S. Open loss to Belinda Bencic a day later. Even more impressive, though, has been the run of her next opponent, qualifier Lesia Tsurenko, ranked just #85 in the world. The Ukranian has taken sets off Angelique Kerber and Timea Bacsinszky this year, but hasn't done much of note during her career -- her biggest win to date may have come over then-#23 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at the 2013 Australian Open. But she began her BNP Open campaign with a huge win over Antwerp champ Andrea Petkovic, held strong against an always tricky Alizé Cornet, and on Tuesday stunned sixth seed Eugenie Bouchard. This is by far her best result at a Tour-level event, and while she'll surely be the underdog in today's match, she's pulled off bigger and more impressive upsets before.

It's always great to see players persevering through some tough challenges -- and over the last few days in Indian Wells we've really gotten to see some surprising stars shine. Hopefully they'll be able to keep it up -- after all, the statements they make at an event this big could serve them well for many more months to come.

March 16, 2015

The Boys Are Back

While the 2015 tennis season has certainly seen its fair share of breakthroughs already, not everyone's gotten the results they'd hoped for.

But in the first couple days of the BNP Paribas Open, a couple guys who've been struggling of late have been able to recapture the strength that's given them so much success at Indian Wells in the past.

Rafael Nadal has won this title twice in the past, but last year he made a rather ignominious exit in the third round -- his first upset in a string of early losses in 2014. He hasn't done too much better this year either -- after getting drubbed by Andy Murray at pre-season exhibition he was stunned by world #127 Michael Berrer when defending his Doha title, barely squeaked past Tim Smyczek in Melbourne and lost to a struggling Fabio Fognini in Rio. He seems back on track now, though, thumping Igor Sijsling in his Sunday night opener. The road gets harder from here, of course -- he'll take on a reinvigorated Donald Young next. The once-flailing American seems back on course, reaching the semis in Memphis and the final in Delray. Rafa's won the only match these two have ever played -- on these courts seven years ago -- but this time could me much different. A win, though, could give him a lot more confidence as the tournament goes on.

Alexandr Dolgopolov may not have earned as much hardware in Indian Wells as Nadal has, but he was the one who managed the upset of the then-#1 here last year. The young Ukranian rode the win all the way to the semis and followed up with a win over Aussie champ Stan Wawrinka a few weeks later in Miami. A knee injury during the summer, though, really hampered the back half of his season and he only won one match after July. He's struggled in 2015 too, losing to Bernard Tomic in Memphis and Paolo Lorenzi in his Melbourne opener. Now #41 in the world, he's back out of seeding territory in California, but he has managed two straight set wins so far, taking out low seed Santiago Giraldo yesterday. He'll get a rematch of last year's quarterfinal against Milos Raonic next, and that will certainly be a challenge -- the Canadian is at a career-high #6 in the world and made at least the quarters of the first three events he's played this year. But Dolgo did get the underdog win last year and if he can put up a fight again this time, it could do loads for his confidence again.

John Isner could certainly use a little boost to his morale too -- the big-serving American may be best known for one match in his career, but he's actually had a couple huge wins on these courts too. In 2012 he took out world #1 Novak Djokovic in the desert on the way to his first Masters 1000 final and last year he came oh-so-close to doing it again in the semis. It's been a rough couple months since then though -- after taking the title in Atlanta last year he hasn't done too much, losing to sub-#60 players in Washington and Toronto and never winning more than two matches at an event since. He hasn't played a lot this year, but lost pretty handily to a rising Gilles Muller in Melbourne and last weekend in Davis Cup action, couldn't hold on to a two-set lead over world #111 James Ward, losing 13-15 in the fifth. Things might be looking up, though -- Isner opened with a win over an on-the-rebound Jurgen Melzer and, after a tight first set against Kevin Anderson earlier today, rolled through the second set and finished off the South African in an uncharacteristically quick 80 minutes. He's now likely set up a rematch with Novak Djokovic in the fourth round, but he should know by now he's more than capable of the upset. And this could be his best chance to make something of the opportunity.

It's not that these guys have been out of the picture for so long -- in fact, it was only recently that they were each making some big statements on the courts of Indian Wells. But they've all fallen on rough times over the last few months, and what better way to erase those memories than by cementing their comebacks this week.

March 12, 2015

Look Who's Back!

The ladies have about half a round of play in the books at Indian Wells, but all eyes will be on one player this week.

Serena Williams makes her first appearance at the BNP Paribas Open since 2001 tomorrow, ending a fourteen year ban on a tournament she once vowed she would never play again.

You remember what happened -- after losing to Venus in the quarterfinals, Elena Dementieva made a comment about how Richard Williams is really the one who decides who wins the siblings' matches, and when the elder sister pulled out of the semi minutes before the start of the match, fans suspected something fishy. They booed Serena mercilessly during the final, allegedly slung racial slurs at her father and ultimately caused her to break down in the locker room. Serena was so traumatized by the experience she refused for years to return to the California desert.

But that changes in 2015. In a letter to Time Magazine this past February, she acknowledged how much things -- she, the fans, tennis itself -- have changed in the last decade and a half and that she was finally ready to come back.

She opens against Monica Niculescu in Friday's night match, and as the top seed and undisputed world #1, Serena will be the heavy favorite. She may have to shake off a few cobwebs of course -- we've seen how she can be a little off her game during early rounds before finally finding her groove, and this time more than ever nerves could play a factor. But she's won the title in Indian Wells twice -- including in 2001 when she withstood the jeers of the crowd to beat Kim Clijsters in the final -- and she's riding an eleven match win streak into the tournament. As with most events she enters -- this trophy is hers to lose.

Of course there are a few who may be a little less excited to see Serena return -- in Williams' absence, players like Daniela Hantuchova, Vera Zvonareva, Jelena Jankovic and, most recently, Flavia Pennetta have been able to thrive, notching some of the biggest wins of their respective careers. And 2013 champ Maria Sharapova, still unable to get the upper hand versus her long-time rival, may have to face her again in a final if she wants to reclaim this crown.

But while the road may be tougher for pretty much everyone entered in the draw, with Serena back, whoever does walk away with the title will know just how much she earned it.

March 8, 2015

The Also-Rans

Of course the ultimate goal of any tennis tournament is to walk away with the title. But for a vast majority of entrants who don't make it quite that far there's also plenty to gain. And this week the ladies who fell a bit short still walked away with a lot more than many would have expected.

Caroline Wozniacki was the top seed in Kuala Lumpur and certainly did not disappoint, picking up her first title of the year and marking her best start to a season since 2011. But during her run she met up with a couple player who may have been even more impressive this week. Young Carina Witthoeft -- she just turned nineteen last month -- first made a name for herself in Melbourne by beating world #17 Carla Suarez Navarro on her way to the third round. This week she opened with a win over Misaki Doi and then took out former top-twenty player Klara Koukalova to make her first Tour-level quarterfinal. She lost to Wozniacki in straight sets on Friday, but still made real strides against the Big Girls and is poised to make a big jump from her current sub-eighty ranking. Alexandra Dulgheru could rise even higher -- the former world #26 has struggled with knee and wrist injuries over the last several years and had dropped out of the top three hundred just two years ago. But she's had bursts of brilliance, nearly beating Maria Sharapova at the 2014 U.S. Open and taking out Alizé Cornet just last week in Doha. She started her campaign in Malaysia with an upset over one-time Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki and followed up by beating Julia Goerges and rebounding from a huge deficit versus Jarmila Gajdosova to reach the final -- her first since 2010. In a rematch of her Qatar Open second round -- she'd retired down 1-6, 0-3 to Wozniacki -- this time she did manage to win the first set before finally falling in the nearly two-hour match. It may not have been the result she hoped for, but it seems to cement the comeback she's been launching for months. And she might just be able to go one better the next time she gets here.

Timea Bacsinszky certainly has made good on her comeback plans this season -- ranked all the way down at #176 in the world just a year ago, the Swiss Miss has staged some big wins over the past couple months and has made her way all the way into Grand Slam seeding territory for the first time. Last weekend she won her first title since 2009 in Acapulco, and later today she'll get a chance to repeat that victory when she meets Caroline Garcia again in the Monterrey championship. And there's no reason to believe she won't get the win again -- despite some challenges early during her run, she stayed tough against former New York semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer and came back against Lesia Tsurenko in the second round. Last night she bagelled Sara Errani in their first set and toughed through an almost three hour semi before scoring the win. But she's not the only one who's re-proven herself this week -- Urszula Radwanska had also fallen well off her career best ranking -- the one-time Den Bosch finalist also had to deal with injury and didn't win a main draw match on the WTA Tour until July last season. She started to pull things together at the start of 2015 though, beating Francesca Schiavone and Daneila Hantuchova on the way to the Auckland quarters. A qualifier again this week in Mexico, she beat the Pattaya City champ before losing to Bacsinszky on Friday. The twenty-four year old is still a ways away from recapturing her best form, but if she can keep momentum on her side it may not be long before she does get back there.

March 5, 2015

A Long History: Davis Cup First Round Preview

Is it just me, or do the pairings for some of this weekend's Davis Cup ties seem to hold a little more historic significance than usual? Whether the battles bfacring up political tensions, reminders of centuries-old imperialism, or long-standing rivalries, you can't help but feel this weekend won't be the first time a couple of these combatants have faced off.

Germany vs. France

The two euro zone superpowers have a long political and economic history with each other as they jockeyed for control of the Continent, and things could get just as exciting on the tennis courts this weekend. Both teams are bringing their best, but despite homecourt advantage the Germans might find themselves struggling. Top ranked Philipp Kohlschreiber has only won two matches this year, both against sub-#90 players. And Benjamin Becker hasn't done much better, scoring a nice upset of Julien Benneteau in Melbourne, but failing to rebound from a long second round against Lleyton Hewitt a match later. Meanwhile, while the French are missing top dog Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, they do have both Marseille finalists Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils to helm their squad. Simon, who beat his compatriot for the title, also has a win over Andy Murray under his belt this year. With results like that, they'll have a pretty good shot at making a run back to the final.

Great Britain vs. U.S.

Over in Scotland the Americans will make another bid to get out from under British reign, and they may have had the firepower to do it. While big-serving John Isner has fallen a bit off the highs of his game recently, once-struggling Donald Young seems to have re-found his. After briefly falling out of the top two hundred in 2013, he's clawed his way back to relevance, reaching at least the quarters of three events already this year. It's been a while since he's beaten anyone in the top twenty, though, but he might have the momentum to change that this weekend. Of course world #5 Andy Murray will be standing in both their ways -- but the Australian Open runner-up has lost to both Gilles Simon and emerging star Borna Coric in recent weeks and notched a loss to Young in Indian Wells a few years back. Still, he's more than capable of carrying the team on his own. It may ultimately come down to the doubles rubbers and there the U.S. could rely heavily on its beacon Bryan Brothers -- the twins picked up their 106th title together in Delray and have clinched wins for their country on more than one occasion. There's no reason they can't do it again.

Argentina vs. Brazil

We're probably more used to seeing the South American soccer heavyweights face off on a different kind of battleground, but this weekend they'll concentrate instead on the clay courts. And while the surface certainly suits both teams, it's hard to give either one a clear edge. Argentina has the stronger roster on paper, but they are missing their big guns -- former world #4 Juan Martin Del Potro is still recovering from wrist surgery while Juan Monaco, last week's finalist in Buenos Aires, is sitting out this tie. The Brazilians, meanwhile, are bringing their best, but their top player Joao Souza is only just peaking at #75, and Thomaz Bellucci, once so close to the top twenty, hasn't had too many big wins over the last year. The Argentines do bring Leonardo Mayer, one of the more underrated players in the sport, and Diego Schwartzman, who won the year-end Challengers' title last season -- the Brazilians counter with a couple highly-ranked doubles players in Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares. At the end of the day Buenos Aires might provide a slight homecourt advantage, but it could go all the way down to the wire.

Serbia vs. Croatia

The two former Yugoslavian states faced off once before at Davis Cup, with the Serbs winning handily 4-1, and this time might not be much different. The Croats are still without their big star, U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic who continues to recover from a shoulder injury, and are instead led by young Borna Coric. That's not so bad, though -- the eighteen year old beat Rafael Nadal last year in Basel and is fresh off a win over Andy Murray in Dubai. At a career-high #61 in the world, he might just be able to add one more top-ten scalp to his take. Still you have to give a strong edge to the Serbs, who bring world #1 Novak Djokovic and rapidly rebounding Viktor Troicki to the mix. The former followed up a title in Melbourne with a run to the final in the UAE, while the latter picked up his first title since 2010 as a qualifier in Sydney. Add to that Nenad Zimonjic who, at thirty-eight years of age, is still a solid force on the doubles circuit and it's tough to see the home team having too much trouble.

Belgium vs. Switzerland

Of course not all the match-ups this weekend are so fraught with historical undertones, but everyone still has parts to play. The traditionally neutral Swiss are likely to remain typically unbiased this weekend, event as they should be mounting a defense of their first ever Davis Cup title. Roger Federer decided to sit out the 2015 season, while fellow top-tenner Stan Wawrinka, who's also skipping this weekend's action, has yet to decide whether he'll play later in the year. That leaves a host of relative unknowns to make any kind of stand for Switzerland -- the highest ranked player is #292 Yann Marti. That could give Belgian's comeback kid David Goffin an opportunity to make up for some recently lackluster results -- he's lost twice in a row to veteran Marcos Baghdatis and has only gotten past the second round of one event this year. Even Steve Darcis, who notched his biggest career win over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon two years ago, could step up to the plate and notch a couple wins off the Challengers' circuit this year.

Czech Republic vs. Australia

Meanwhile the Czechs will try to reclaim the crown they ceded to the Swiss last year, but they too might have a bit of trouble. While rising star Jiri Vesely and one-time giant killer Lukas Rosol could certainly deliver, they are without their biggest stars, Melbourne semifinalist Tomas Berdych and doubles specialist Radek Stepanek. And the men from Down Under could take advantage of those holes -- players like Sam Groth and a resurgent Bernard Tomic have been rallying of late. And while veteran Lleyton Hewitt is far from his career highs, he's more than proven he can never be counted out. With a little more star power on the Aussies' side, they could stop the Czech's comeback cold.

Canada vs. Japan

We could see some fireworks in the match-up between a couple countries that haven't had a lot of experience in Davis Cup. Canada and Japan have combined for just a dozen years in the World Group -- but in this rematch of last year's first round they're both out to prove they belong. Kei Nishikori climbed to a career high #4 in the world after reaching the final in Acapulco and is coming off what's easily been the most prolific twelve months of his career. He'll be joined by Tatsumo Ito, who beat Stan Wawrinka last year in Tokyo and might be primed for another upset. The Canadians are slightly more armed, though -- Milos Raonic has always had tough matches against Nishikori, but he won their last meeting in Brisbane in three tight tiebreaks. And he'll have back-up from Vasek Pospisil, a man who's beaten John Isner already this season and made a nice run to the Washington semis last year. He's also an accomplished doubles player and might just be called on, with veteran star Daniel Nestor, to serve as a ringer.

Kazakhstan vs. Italy

And in the final tie being contested this weekend, a relatively inexperienced Kazakh team goes up against the long-time also-rans. The Italians have a lot to be proud of -- Andreas Seppi scored an enormous win over Roger Federer at the Australian Open, Simone Bolelli stunned Milos Raonic in Marseill and recently struggling Fabio Fognini pulled off a huge upset of defending champion Rafael Nadal in Rio. While none of these players is quite at their best, they certainly seem to have a little momentum on their side. There could be some surprises this weekend -- Andrey Golubev did take out Stan Wawrinka last year in Davis Cup and veteran Mikhail Kukushkin has had his moments in the past -- but this is really Italy's battle to lose. And there's no reason they shouldn't live up to expectations.

Whether this weekend's Davis Cup ties rekindle old rivalries or start to flame new ones, there's more than enough potential for some combative contests. And whoever emerges as the victors will have to recover quick -- this is just the beginning of what could be a long, drawn-out war.

March 1, 2015

A Day for the Underdog

There was plenty of top-notch talent on the courts over the past week, but it wasn't always the favorites who made it all the way to the weekend's finals -- and even when they did, the results came out a little different than you might have expected.

Even if the outcome in Buenos Aires was, on paper, what was supposed to happen, for so for long recently we couldn't be completely sure. Rafael Nadal has continued to struggle in his comeback this year, needing to stage a massive comeback against Tim Smyczek in his Australian Open second round, before ultimately falling to Tomas Berdych in the quarters and falling short of defending his title in Rio when he was shocked by a flailing Fabio Fognini in the semis. But he may have got his footing back in Argentina -- he sailed to his first final of the year without dropping a set, arranging a championship match against former top-ten player Juan Monaco. The homegrown hero had already ousted third seeded Pablo Cuevas and an on-the-rebound Nicolas Almagro, who'd already dismissed Tommy Robredo in the second round. But Rafa proved too much to handle on Sunday -- after breaking in the middle of the first set, he rattled off eight wins in the next ten games clinching his record-tying forty-sixth clay court title. And with so many questions surrounding his game these days, there may not have been a better time for it.

A little further north on the Acapulco hardcourts, things went a little less according to plan -- especially on the women's side of things. Top seed Maria Sharapova had been rolling along, but pulled out of her semifinal match with a viral illness while Sara Errani, fresh off a trophy in Rio, was drubbed by Monica Puig in her second round. Ultimately two lesser seeds made their way to Saturday's final Young Caroline Garcia, slowly but steadily climbing the rankings over the past year, got some solid wins early before receiving walkovers from both Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the quarters and MaSha on Friday. And Timea Bacsinszky, one of the most surprising standouts of the 2014 season, was coming off wins over Petra Kvitova in Shenzhen and Jelena Jankovic in Melbourne -- with most seeds in her section eliminated for her, she didn't face much of a challenger in her first few rounds in Mexico. But she was far from unprepared for the favorite Garcia on Saturday -- she lost just three games in the hour-long final, picking up her first title since 2009. And if she keeps playing like she has there's no reason she can't add a couple more this year.

Most of the top seeded men at the Abierto Mexicano meanwhile fared a little better -- while defending champion Grigor Dimitrov was shocked by a finally-in-form Ryan Harrison, both Kei Nishikori and David Ferrer, each riding their own win streaks, lived up to expectations. The man from Japan, with wins over Alexandr Dolgopolov and Kevin Anderson, secured a rise to a career high #4 in the world, while Spanish champ in Rio won twelve games in a row after dropping the first set to Harrison in the semis. Still Ferrer had a tough task in Saturday's final -- he lost all four of his meetings with Nishikori last year and fell again to the U.S. Open runner-up in straight sets to start off this season. But this time he was able to turn the tables in his favor -- in a surprisingly break-filled final, Ferrer nearly squandered leads in both sets, but was ultimately able close out the match in straights. It was his third title of the year and his fourth in Acapulco and quite a solid argument for the thirty-two year old to make a return to the top five.

Over in Doha the competition was even fiercer -- with five top ten players among the field, there was no lack of talent on the courts, but that set up some more-than-interesting first round matches and opened the door for a bunch of upsets. A still on-the-mend Victoria Azarenka took out last year's runner-up Angelique Kerber in her opener and picked up another win over Caroline Wozniacki a few matches later. And barely unseeded Lucie Safarova started off with yet another win over one-time Grand Slam champion Sam Stosur before taking out Ekaterina Makarova, Andrea Petkovic and Carla Suarez Navarro to reach the final. The Czech may have had the higher ranking in Saturday's championship, but with two Major titles to her name and a 6-0 record against Safarova, Vika was probably still the heavy favorite. But Lucie was able to take care of business too -- ceding just one break of serve and winning more than forty percent of her return points, she was able to walk away with the crown in straight sets, claiming only her second title since 2008, but by far the biggest one of her career.

The men who battled for the trophy in Dubai have a little more hardware on their mantels, but that didn't make their contest any less thrilling. With world #1 Novak Djokovic and his long-time nemesis Roger Federer combining to win the last seven titles in the UAE, it was almost a certainty they'd both make Saturday's final again. And while the draw was not without its upsets -- recently on-fire Andy Murray was stunned by teenager Borna Coric in the quarters and last year's surprise French Open semifinalist Ernests Gulbis remained winless on the year when he lost his opener to Denis Istomin -- the two favorites did ultimately set up the championship match we all wanted. But here again it wasn't the top seed who prevailed -- with Roger and Nole trading wins over their last seven meetings, it was Federer's turn again, and by fighting off all seven break points he faced, he never really gave Djokovic much of a chance to dispute that. It was his second straight and seventh total trophy in Dubai, and while it may not have been quite enough to push him up the rankings yet, it surely suggests he could make a play to climb back to the top before the year's up.

It might not take much to imagine this weekend's champions coming away with the titles, but given the challenges they and their colleagues faced all week, surely nothing was for certain. And by triumphing against the very tough odds they each faced will hopefully make them even stronger the next time around.