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.

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