April 28, 2015

Back from the Brink

Okay, I realize I'm late in posting again, but that shouldn't suggest that the results from this weekend are any less important than others. And for the couple winners who'd seemed to have been long missing from the podiums, in fact, their performances may herald something even more notable.

The favorites seemed totally in charge during the early rounds in Bucharest, with only one seed falling before the quarterfinals. But things got pretty interesting pretty quickly after that -- three-time champion Gilles Simon was stunned by a surging Daniel Gimeno Traver, while big-serving Ivo Karlovic was taken out by young Jiri Vesely in the semis. And red-hot Gael Monfils, fresh off a huge win over Roger Federer in Monte Carlo, fell in a squeaker that same round to veteran Guillermo Garcia Lopez. The thirty-one year old Spaniard, who's scored wins over the likes of Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka in the past, had fallen a bit off his game the past few years, only ending a four-year trophy-less streak last April in Casablanca. But even with a trophy this year in Zagreb he was flying well under the radar in Romania, and against Vesely in the final he was pushed to the limit. The pair went two very long sets, each going to a long tiebreak, before the elder Garcia-Lopez was able to finish off the match. It was only his fifth career title, but coming so late in his career, it might just suggest there are a few more to come.

Angelique Kerber hadn't fallen quite so far down the rankings, but the two-time Major semifinalist seemed to have a few cobwebs on her at the start of the year -- with four first round losses in the first three months of the year, she'd dropped well out of the top ten by the start of the month. She's turned it around since then, though, picking up a title in Charleston and drubbing former world #13 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova during the Fed Cup semis. This past week in Stuttgart -- where favorites like Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic, and Aga Radwanska all lost early -- the still unseeded German started off with an impressive win over top seeded Maria Sharapova and followed up with another upset of eighth-ranked Ekaterina Makarova. In the final against U.S. Open runner-up Caroline Wozniacki she started off a little slow, dropping the first set, but rebounded quickly to force a decider and closing out her third top-ten win of the week. It was Kerber's second title of the year, but arguably the most significant of her career. And with a win streak now eleven matches long, you have to think she's making a pretty good case for herself to be a real force at the year's next Major.

This weekend's champions may have been clawing their way back into the spotlight for some time, but their titles on Sunday may have finally cemented their returns. And as the clay court season really gets into full swing over the next couple weeks, there may never have been a better time for them to make such strong statements.

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