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.

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