May 28, 2015

Their Big Chance

The upsets sure haven't let up much at the French Open, have they? After twelve seeds dropped out in their opening rounds, we saw even more make their exits over the last two days. And that's left a couple unexpected names left in the draws and, with so many underdogs seeming to come into their own the last several months, a few have a real shot at making a break for it.

Jeremy Chardy has had some success at the Majors in the past -- the perennial second-tier player made it to the quarters in Melbourne two years ago -- but only made it to the fourth round of his homeland Slam one time. He could change that this year though -- after a string of unimpressive results, the world #48 scored his first big win of the season today, knocking out sixteenth seeded John Isner in four sets. His road doesn't get much easier from here -- he'll next face 2014 comeback kid David Goffin, but the twenty-four year old Belgian has had a little trouble keeping his momentum going, losing his first or second match at eight events this year. Goffin did make his first big run at this event a few years back -- but this time it may be Chardy's chance to shine.

Steve Johnson is only just starting to make a name for himself on Tour, and while he may still be a bit off his career high ranking, it seems like the #5 American is gathering some steam this year. He reached the quarters in Auckland, Memphis and Delray and has notched wins over big-serving Ivo Karlovic and doubles champ Marcel Granollers. In Paris, where he'd only won one match before, he opened with a huge upset of my dark horse Guillermo Garcia Lopez and then came back from a set down to oust one-time giant-killer Sergiy Stakhovsky on Wednesday. He's up against 2014 Australian Open champ Stan Wawrinka next, but the eighth seed has stumbled here in the past, and perhaps Johnson can take that opportunity to score his first ever top-ten win.

But perhaps the man who's been most impressive in the early days of this tournament is one who's barely a man at all. Nineteen-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis has seen his ranking climb from sub-#300 at this time last year to #84 in the world now and, while he still has to qualify for most ATP-level events, he did notch wins over then-#13 Ernests Gulbis in Melbourne and former top-tenner Juan Monaco to make the Indian Wells fourth round this year. In his first Roland Garros main draw, he's already been tested, dropping his first set to qualifier Nikoloz Basilashvili and earlier today having to come back from two sets down to take out former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Bernard Tomic, 8-6 in the decider. His next test is tougher still -- fresh off a Challengers' title, he'll take on Novak Djokovic, who's riding a slightly more formidable twenty-four match win streak going into the third round -- but if he can get even a few good hits in, the two-time Boys' Major finalist could gain loads of experience to carry him even higher the rest of the year.

Not surprisingly the ladies' draw has seen a few more favorites fall out early -- six, in fact, of the top fifteen seeds -- so maybe that gives young Donna Vekic extra hope for her next match. Last year's champion in Kuala Lumpur, the Croatian teenager has won just two Tour-level main draw matches this year and, at #165 in the world now, has had to qualify for ITF events. She seems to be turning things around this week though -- she opened with a stunning upset of clay powerhouse Caroline Garcia for her first win at the French Open and followed up by taking out Bojana Jovanovski on Wednesday. She's set to meet 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic tomorrow, and while the former world #1 is actually now coming off one of the best years of her career, she's been struggling a bit of late. She's lost three times in a row to Garcia and is coming off another first round loss in Rome -- and after having to come back for wins in both of her rounds so far, she might be a little vulnerable to Vekic's potential.

On the other end of the experience-spectrum is veteran Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who's been playing at Slam on and off since 1997. The winner of one of the most impressive matches in 2014, she's been a little spotty this year, reaching the quarters in Acapulco, but also losing first rounds in eight main draws. Now ranked #70 in the world, the thirty-three year old pulled off the biggest surprise so far in Paris, taking out reigning runner-up Simona Halep yesterday in straight sets -- marking a scoreline shockingly similar to her 7-6(6), 6-2 victory over the former Junior champion at the U.S. Open last year. She next faces off against Alizé Cornet, a talented player of course, but not one who's unbeatable, and another win could kick Lucic into a gear we haven't seen from her in more than a decade.

But it might be someone else who really takes this opportunity to get her career back on track. Julia Goerges had soared into the top fifteen after a standout performance in 2011 -- she was my underdog pick at Roland Garros that year -- but she had trouble staying among the elite and for some time last year fell out of the top hundred. She's never done particularly well on the French clay, but now at just #72 in the world, she might be poised for her deepest run yet -- after getting pushed by Coco Vandeweghe in her opening round, earlier today she was relentless, dominating two-time Major finalist Caroline Wozniacki in their nearly two-hour battle. She'll go up versus American Irina Falconi, who hasn't yet faced a player in the top hundred this week. A win would put Goerges in her first fourth round on these courts, and could put her on the road to get back into the top tiers of the sport.

After their performances so far in Paris, all of these players have an opportunity not just to push even further through their brackets, but also to change the entire trajectory of their careers. And while the challenges some face will be much tougher than others, there's no telling what any of them will be able to do.

May 26, 2015

How the Mighty Have Fallen

We really shouldn't be that surprised when top players are caught off guard at the French Open -- after all, the clay doesn't suit everyone, and just last year we saw plenty of players who usually thrive on the surface stumble right out of the blocks in Paris. And with one round of play in the books so far at Roland Garros, that trend seems more than alive and well in 2015.

In my preview pieces leading up to the year's second Grand Slam, I almost regretted omitting Venus Williams as a potential dark horse. The former world #1 has been staging quite a comeback over the last several months, kicking off the season with a title in Auckland and climbing to her highest ranking since 2011. But the American champion has never really fared that well on the French clay --since finishing runner-up to her sister in 2002, she's only made it past the fourth round twice. And this go-round she struggled again -- against an unseeded Sloane Stephens yesterday, she put up a fight in the first set, narrowly losing the tiebreak after more than an hour of play, but then crumbled in the second, winning just fifteen points. For Sloane, it could be a huge opportunity -- she's reached the Round of Sixteen the last three years -- but she'll likely face big threats from the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Venus's younger sister, who she hasn't beaten since that amazing campaign in Melbourne two years ago. Still after taking down another giant, she might just have a little more confidence for the rest of her run.

Feliciano Lopez never rose quite as high as Venus, of course, but after a stellar 2014 season, he was still holding close to his highest career ranking. He reached the quarters in Indian Wells with a win over Kei Nishikori and took out an on-point Nick Kyrgios a few weeks back in Rome. And though he's got plenty of first and second round losses at the French Open, with a #11 seed, you might have thought he was ready to change that. But he was stunned yesterday by fellow veteran Teymuraz Gabashvili, a Russian he'd only met once before, way back in 2006. The world #76 has lost his opening round at sixteen Majors, but didn't seem intimidated by the heavy favorite -- on the heels of two clay Challengers titles, he kept his momentum going, earning the only two breaks of the match and setting up a second round against dirt specialist Juan Monaco. It won't be an easy task -- Gabashvili has lost their two previous matches -- but he did put up a fight in their last one at Indian Wells and after the tight match the Argentine endured in his opener, could be the more rested and ready for this battle.

Aga Radwanska has been a little more of her game recently than these guys, but the one-time Wimbledon finalist has had a rough couple months -- she failed spectacularly to defend runner-up points at Indian Wells and lost early at lead-up events in Madrid and Rome. She came to Roland Garros at a #14 ranking, her lowest in four years, looking to reclaim the momentum that saw her through to the quarters in 2013 -- she was upset last year, you may remember, by then-#72 Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round, but to no avail. Against an often spotty Annika Beck -- the twenty year old picked up her first career title last fall in Luxembourg but had won just three matches this year before coming to Paris -- Aga had a shot. After dropping the opening set she fought back to force a decider, but with a pathetic eleven winners to the German's forty-one, she stood little chance of clinching the comeback. It was her first first-round loss at a Slam since 2009, but perhaps during her traditionally lackluster clay season, it wasn't such a big deal. For Beck, on the other hand, who's never made it out of a Major second round, the opportunity could be huge -- she'll meet qualifier Paula Kania in the next round and there's no reason she won't be able to go even farther after that.

And as surprising as these upsets were, things got even more interesting today. Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov, who'd established himself as a threat at most of the big events last year, has had a slightly less impressive season in 2015. Though he's still just a hair outside the top ten and has notched a couple wins over former Australian Open champ Stan Wawrinka, he's also been upset by the likes of Pablo Cuevas, Gilles Muller and triple-digit ranked Ryan Harrison. He didn't have a lot on the line in Paris -- he got beat in last year's opener by then-unseeded Ivo Karlovic -- but he surely wanted to set things right. But in an ugly match against American Jack Sock, he couldn't seem to find his groove. After a tight first set, he let loose twenty errors and dropped serve three times, handing the U.S. men their first win over a top ten seed since 2000. The barely unseeded Sock has a good chance at staying alive a bit longer -- he next faces world #61 Pablo Carreño Busta and then either young Borna Coric or veteran Tommy Robredo. But the Houston champion's shown he can hit hard on this surface too and could establish himself as a real force this fortnight.

But as surprising as Dimitrov's early exit might have been, perhaps we should be a little more shocked at what we saw from a 2014 semifinalist. Genie Bouchard was riding high at this time last year, having just picked up her first career title in Nürnberg and riding her momentum all the way to a second straight final four at a Major. But the world #6 has struggled mightily in the last few months, winning just one of her last seven matches heading into Paris, and notching embarrassing losses to little-known Andreea Mitu and on-the-rebound Alexandra Dulgheru at Fed Cup. To be fair, she was dealt a pretty tough draw at Roland Garros, opening against Strasbourg finalist Kristina Mladenovic, one of my sleeper picks for the event. The Frenchwoman had already established herself as a giant killer at this event before, and on Tuesday she was even more impressive -- taking advantage of weak serving from her opponent, she won more than half her return points and broke the Canadian five times. Pressure will be on Kiki to keep her momentum going from here, of course, but she won't face another high seed for a few more rounds, and after her performance the last few weeks she looks well-poised to make a real splash now on the singles circuit.

Of course these won't be the only upsets we see over the next two weeks -- nor will they likely be the biggest -- but it sure seems like a lot of the recent heavy hitters took a couple of real blows in the early days of the Open. They'll need to regroup quickly to make sure their slides don't go much further, though.

And as for those who vanquished them, they'll have to celebrate their victories quickly and get straight back to work. After all, there's a lot more ball left to be played.

May 23, 2015

2015 French Open: Ten to Watch

Well things sure got interesting this clay court season, didn't they?

With the 2015 French Open just around the corner, we've seen some stunning runs from a couple unexpected sources, a few real comebacks from one-time superstars, and of course, a stumble or two along the way. And even though the heaviest favorites always find a way to bring their best on the Slam stages, we've seen even them struggle a bit in recent weeks.

And that could opens the door for plenty others -- whether they're underdogs who've been able to shine on their own the last few events, or once high-profile players looking to redeem themselves for recent missteps, I wouldn't be surprised to see a couple unfamiliar faces hanging around the later parts of this tournament.

And a few might just be worth keeping an extra close eye on this time around.

The Women

Angelique Kerber

The German has been staging something of a comeback the last few months. Despite some decent results in 2014 -- her Wimbledon showdown against Maria Sharapova was one of the best matches of the year -- she also notched some surprising losses throughout the season -- to Flavia Pennetta in Australia, to then-#47 Madison Keys in the Eastbourne final, to Genie Bouchard at both the French Open and Wimbledon. In 2015 she was upset at every tournament she played through March and fell out of the top ten by the time the clay court season really kicked in. But she seemed to get her groove back on the dirt -- a low seed in Charleston, she took out defending champion Andrea Petkovic in the semis and then avenged her loss to Keys in the final, picking up her first title in over a year. Then, unseeded in Stuttgart, she knocked out three top-ten players, including Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki, to clinch her biggest crown in years. She lost a little early in both Madrid and Rome, but seemed to get back on course this past week in Nürnberg. Though she withdrew from the semis, she might just have bought herself recovery time before hitting the bigger courts.

Svetlana Kuznetsova

Svetlana Kuznetsova has already tasted success on Tour -- the 2009 champion at Roland Garros has been as high as #2 in the world, but a series of injuries and hiccups has put her on a bit of a roller coaster over the years. Since falling dangerously close to a triple digit ranking early in 2013, she ended a four year long title-less streak last year in Washington, but has also lost in the first round of four of the last five Majors she's played. But the scrappy veteran always seems to fight her way back. Unseeded in Madrid at the start of the month, she faced a tough draw of one top-thirty player after another, and upset each one in turn, starting with Ekaterina Makarova in her opener and then shocking Maria Sharapova in the semis -- her first win over her compatriot since 2008. She ultimately lost to Petra Kvitova in the final, but must have given herself a nice little confidence boost during her run. Sure it's been a long time since she's been at the very top of her game, but she seems to do her best when she's most overlooked -- and with her only Slam wins in over a year coming on these courts there's no reason she won't be able to do some damage again.

Carina Witthoeft

Of course, it's sometimes more fun to watch new talent emerge at the Slams, and that might just happen here. This would be just the fourth appearance at a Major for the young German, but since jumping from the triple digit rankings at the start of the year to #61 in the world now, she could make a real run at this one. She's already shown she isn't fazed on the big stages -- Witthoeft rode an easy win over Carla Suarez Navarro in her Melbourne opener to the third round, and a few months later made it to the Kuala Lumpur quarters with a win over former top-twenty player Klara Koukalova. She also picked up her ninth and tenth ITF titles this year, making good on her top seed on the Cagnes-sur-Mer clay to start the month. She made a nice run to the quarterfinals this week in Nürnberg, ultimately losing to relative veteran Lara Arruabarrena, but should be able to recover by the time she heads to France. She opens against a rough Katerina Siniakova and would likely face 2012 finalist Sara Errani right after that -- but she's had worse draws in the past and still powered through. This time, I wouldn't count her out either.

Daria Gavrilova

Like Witthoeft, the twenty-one year old Russian really has been coming into her own this year -- a top-ranked Juniors player not so long ago, she's been putting up a nice fight against some of the sport's best. The Girls' champ in New York in 2010, this year she's already taken Angelique Kerber to three long sets in Sydney, picked up a couple ITF titles after the Australian Open and then stunned Maria Sharapova in the Miami second round. She made some progress on the clay too -- unseeded even in qualifying rounds in Rome, she made it to the main draw where she beat both red-hot Timea Bacsinszky and one-time French Open champion Ana Ivanovic during a Cinderella run to the semis. She wasn't able to repeat her upset over Sharapova this time, though, but did pick up enough points to move to #45 in the WTA rankings heading to Paris. Her first big test at the French is likely second round opponent Sabine Lisicki, but I wouldn't be surprised if she far outplayed her opponents for a few matches even after that.

Kristina Mladenovic

The Frenchwoman has become something of a giant-killer in recent months -- since one of her most notable successes on these courts just last year, she's gone on to beat the likes of Sabine Lisicki, Lucie Safarova, and most recently Garbiñe Muguruza, on her way to the semis in Marrakech a few weeks back. That last one was one of the few times she's been able to back up one solid win with another though, which probably explains why her ranking is still languishing outside the top fifty -- but she has seemed a little more consistent of late, taking a set of Ekaterina Makarova in Rome and reaching the final in Strasbourg this week, so she may be about to turn things around. The former French Open Juniors champion -- she beat Gavrilova in the 2009 final -- also has some impressive doubles results under her belt, including two mixed Major titles and a women's final at Wimbledon in 2014. That kind of match play could give her the experience she needs to finally find her game on the singles circuit too. She'll face off against 2014 breakout Genie Bouchard in her opening round -- kind of a tough blow -- but last year's semifinalist has been struggling in recent months and if Mladenovic can power through that she might really be able to make a push into the top tiers of the sport.

The Men

Ernests Gulbis

It's not just about players looking to make their first real mark at a Major, though -- and those who've done well in Paris in the past could come under pressure to prove that one deep run was not a fluke. High on that list is the twenty-six year old Latvian, who rose to a career high ranking after his performance here last year -- Gulbis made the semis with stunning wins over Tomas Berdych and Roger Federer, only the second time he'd even made it past the first week of a Major. He struggled with injury at the end of the season, though, and had to decline an alternate's spot at the year-end championships. And when he got back on court in 2015 he had even more trouble gaining traction -- he's lost pretty much every opening round he's played this year. He seemed like he might be turning things around -- out to defend a title this past week in Nice, he opened with a three-set victory over former world #13 Alexandr Dolgopolov, just his second match win of the year -- but after a third round loss to young Dominic Thiem on Thursday, he might have lost that momentum. His weak performance over the last several months has dropped his ranking back down to #25 in the world -- certainly not something to be ashamed of, but if he doesn't get his act together in Paris, he's in danger of seeing an even more precipitous drop.

Fabio Fognini

The feisty Italian hasn't yet made it that far at a Major, but the 2011 quarterfinalist in Paris has had some of his best results on these courts -- in fact five years ago he stunned then-#15 Gael Monfils in a four-hour slugfest that practically lasted until the sun went down. But after picking up a couple titles at smaller clay events ahead of the 2014 French Open, he's had a little trouble keeping his momentum. This season alone he's lost five opening round matches and seen his ranking nearly double to #29 in the world. Strangely, though, despite a slew of losses to what should have been easy opponents he has found a way to succeed against a most unlikely foe -- he's beaten King of Clay Rafael Nadal both in Rio and Barcelona, his only two top-ten wins of the year. And while he might not quite be a contender for the title he might just be able to cause some trouble for the favorites.

Guillermo Garcia Lopez

Veteran Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, on the other hand, seems to be squarely back on the upswing. The thirty-one year old made his best Slam showing here last year, reaching the fourth round after stunning Stan Wawrinka in his opener. Since then he's climbed back into the top thirty and picked up a couple titles to boot -- on the Bucharest clay last month, he notched upsets over Lukas Rosol and Gael Monfils, before outlasting young Jiri Vesely in the final. He's also defeated top-twenty players like Marin Cilic and Kevin Anderson on the surface this season, and has almost reclaimed his highest career ranking. He's disappointed me in the past -- five years ago I picked him as a dark horse semifinalist at Roland Garros, and he lost in the second round -- but it feels like he has gotten a little more consistent in recent months and might just surprise me, this time for the better.

Pablo Andujar

Garcia Lopez's fellow Spaniard is a little more under the radar. Andujar has spent much of the last several years with a middle-of-the-road ranking, never climbing high enough to score a seed at a Major, but always pulling off just enough wins to stay relevant. And if he's ever going to make a statement at a Slam, this could be his best shot -- he's picked up a trio of titles on the surface and this year scored wins over Felicano Lopez and David Ferrer on his way to the Barcelona final. And this past week in Geneva he put up a nice fight against Portugal's Joao Sousa before losing in the quarters. But despite his strength on clay, Andujar has only made it as far as the second round in Paris, and the last two years he lost his opener. Still, maybe low expectations are exactly what he needs to get something done -- he has a couple relatively easy early rounds, with the first seeds he's slated to face Phillipp Kohlschreiber and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, neither of whom have had stellar results recently. The barely unseeded Spaniard could give any one of them a run for the money.

Victor Estrella Burgos

The thirty-four year old veteran made history in February when he became the oldest first-time titleist on Tour -- and after his victory on clay in Quito, he picked up a Challengers' crown in Mexico. He didn't let up once the season kicked into full gear in -- he beat U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic in Barcelona and took out both Viktor Troicki and on-the-rebound Janko Tipsarevic, before falling in three to 2014 breakout star Roberto Bautista Agut in Munich. He dropped a tight match to young Dominic Thiem in Nice this week, but that could give him some much-needed time to recover before heading to Paris. This will be just his second appearance at the French Open of his long career -- he lost last year's opener to Jerzy Janowicz -- and a shade off his highest career ranking now, he could just be biding his time before pouncing.

All these players come to the French Open with different expectations -- some are looking for a breakout, others for redemption, and maybe a few have a real shot at taking home the title. But there are plenty out there who could spoil the fun -- we saw deep runs this week from the likes of Federico Delbonis and John Isner, and one-time standouts like Andrea Petkovic and Sabine Lisicki might be poised for a comeback.

Whatever the case, it sure seems like the favorites will have their work cut out for them at Roland Garros, and no one's road to the titles will be easy.

May 21, 2015

Blogcast: 2015 French Open Preview

Rafael Nadal's dominance at Roland Garros could be at risk as Novak Djokovic goes for the career Grand Slam. Serena Williams looks to make a winning return in Paris, while Maria Sharapova hopes she can finally take out her long-time rival. There's sure to be a lot to talk about at this year's French Open.

May 17, 2015

Serving Notice

We've seen a lot of new faces on the winners' blocks over the last few weeks. But with the French Open now just a week away, a couple players took their opportunity to make a real statement in Rome. And it might have been the perfect time to do it.

Carla Suarez Navarro has long been a threat on the clay courts, but it seems she's really only coming into her own now. After finally picking up her first career title last year, she's quietly sneaked into the top ten on the heels of a stellar run to the championship match in Miami. And this week in Italy she was equally impressive, taking out, in turn, Genie Bouchard, Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep on the way to her third final of the year. Not a bad showing as she looks to improve on her run to the quarterfinals in Paris last year.

But ultimately CSN ran into a slightly more immovable force in Maria Sharapova, who in a week will set out to defend her Roland Garros title. She'd been a little more quiet than usual this clay court season, losing her opener in Stuttgart and getting shocked in the Madrid semis by Svetlana Kuznetsova. But she made it through the Rome draw without losing a set, even against real threats like Victoria Azarenka and young Daria Gavrilova, who beat her just a few months ago on the American hard courts. She started off shaky Sunday though, letting the Spaniard get an early lead and even giving back a break in the second set -- but she was able to fight back, rolling through the decider and after more than two and a half hours finally sealed the win. It was her third title in Rome and her second of the season. But after so many close calls this year, this one really seems to put her back on the map.

The men's draw in Rome shook out a little more as you'd expect -- while there were certainly a couple upsets along the way, the top two seeds were the ones eventually showing down in Sunday's final. Roger Federer, who'd backed up his first red clay title in six years with a shocking loss to Nick Kyrgios in his Madrid opener, was quick to rebound. He easily took out both Tomas Berdych and compatriot Stan Wawrinka to make his fifth final of the year. With such dominating games against the sport's best it's not that long a shot to expect him to keep it up in Paris.

Of course there's one man who stands in his way. World #1 Novak Djokovic had taken it easy for most of this clay court season, skipping Madrid and smaller events after picking up a second trophy in Monte Carlo. He seemed a little rusty to start, though -- riding a seventeen match winning streak coming in to Rome, he dropped sets to both Nicolas Almagro and Thomaz Bellucci in his early rounds. He even survived a test against Kei Nishikori, the man who vanquished him in New York just last year. Against Federer in the final, though, he was at the top of his game -- he dropped just a handful of points on serve, fended off seven aces from his opponent and saved the only break point he faced. After just over an hour he'd dismissed the all-time great, putting him back just a game away from tying their all-time head-to-head. But, more importantly, with just a few days before he makes another go at capturing his very first French Open -- and becoming the third active player on the ATP to complete the career Grand Slam -- he may have cemented his place as the real favorite this time and set himself on a course to really change history.

There are only a few days left before the first shots are taken at Roland Garros this year, and both this weekend's champions and runners-up have shown they mean real business in Paris. The road ahead will certainly be full of challenges, but it seems all of them have proven they're more than up to the task.

And maybe this year they'll finally be able to overcome the biggest obstacles they've faced their entire careers.

May 14, 2015

Back in the Groove

As we come down to the wire for this year's French Open, plenty of top stars are on the courts in Rome this week to get in those last couple hits before heading off to the season's next Major. And more than a few are looking to make, surprisingly, their first big statements of the season.

After all, you can't help but notice that a couple of perennial favorites have been missing from the winners' stands this clay court season. But so far this week they seem to be making a pretty good effort to change that.

Victoria Azarenka may be somewhat excused from her relatively quiet year to date -- the former world #1 missed most of last season with injuries and took a pretty big tumble down the rankings as a result. Her comeback has been a little spotty -- she opened the year with a surprising loss to then-largely unheralded Karolina Pliskova in Brisbane, but did make the final in Doha and put up a big fight against Serena Williams last week in Madrid. Still unseeded in Italy she faced a potentially tough draw, but pulled off her third win of the year over good friend Caroline Wozniacki in the second round, her seventh top-twenty win this season -- more impressive now that she's barely within the top thirty herself. And if she gets past young Irina-Camelia Begu later today, there's no telling what that could do for her confidence.

Of course that win would set up a meeting against long-time rival Maria Sharapova, who's been struggling too of late. The defending Roland Garros champion lost opening rounds in both Miami and Stuttgart and was stunned by compatriot Svetalana Kuznetsova in Madrid -- the latter two, events she'd won last year. She's been solid so far in Rome, building a solid lead in her opener before Jarmila Gajdosova had to retire and then dismissing Bojana Jovanovski in straight sets today. And she could keep her streak going -- she's won her last three matches versus Vika, finally drawing even in the pair's head-to-head, and with super-nemesis Serena pulling out on Thursday, the road may be cleared for her to pick up another title on the dirt.

Roger Federer hasn't exactly been having a bad year, picking up a trio of titles so far, including his first on red clay since that history-making Grand Slam six years ago. Still he notched a second straight loss to Gael Monfils in Monte Carlo and in Madrid became the second top-ten upset of teenager Nick Kyrgios's career. Roger's rebounded in Rome, though -- he easily won a rematch of the Istanbul final against Pablo Cuevas in his opener and took out big-serving Kevin Anderson in two quick sets today. He has a tough road though -- if he wants to pick up hie first title in Italy, one of the few Masters he hasn't yet won, he could face the likes of Stan Wawrinka or Tomas Berdych, both of whom have already reached the quarters. And there's an even bigger threat in his half of the draw.

Six-time champion Rafael Nadal is looking to turn around the least-prolific season of his career since 2004, and seems better poised to do so than he has in a while. Despite picking up a title in Buenos Aires at the start of the clay court circuit, he's had some struggles at the bigger events, losing twice to Fabio Fognini on the surface dropping out in the semis on a court he once dominated in Monte Carlo. Last week in defense of his crown in Madrid, he was stunned by Andy Murray in the final. But perhaps he's back on track now -- he dropped just two games in his first round in Rome and today ended John Isner's streak of eighty-four straight service holds to reach the quarters. Next up for him, though, is Wawrinka, who famously beat him in last year's Australian Open final. They haven't faced off since, and on the dirt we should expect Rafa to thrive -- but the way he's played recently, every win seems like a major victory for him. And if he can survive this test, it could bode well for him over the next several weeks.

It's just about the last chance for all these guys to make a big stand before the French Open -- but thankfully for them it seems like they've each gotten their games back after a few missteps. And if they can keep their momentum going, we might get a chance to really see them shine in Paris.

May 10, 2015

Beating the Best

Winning a tennis tournament is always a great feat, but a title might mean slightly more when you have to face the toughest challenges yourself. All the heavy hitters were out in force, no one cleared the road for you, and you still managed to defy the odds and bring home the trophy.

And not only did this week's champions in Madrid manage to add a little more bling to their mantels, but they had to get through the very best the sport has to offer to do it.

There were lots of upsets in the women's draw, maybe unsurprisingly, with former French Open Juniors champion Simona Halep losing her opener to Alizé Cornet and a still-struggling Genie Bouchard building a 6-0 lead over Barbora Strycova before falling in three sets. But the biggest shockers were saved for the final two rounds -- two-time Major winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, now barely in the top thirty, faced one big threat after another, dispatching in turn Ekaterina Makarova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Sam Stosur and Lucie Safarova before stunning defending Roland Garros champ Maria Sharapova in the semis. They were her first top-ten wins of the season and got her to her first final since Washington last year.

There she met a woman who'd been equally stunning this week -- Petra Kvitova, though still ranked #4 in the world, hasn't played a lot this year, taking March off to recover from a hectic 2014 schedule. But she hit the ground running in Madrid -- after dropping her first set to qualifier Olga Govortsova, she rebounded quickly for the win and cruised the rest of the week. In the semis the young Czech stunned Serena Williams in straight sets, handing the top-ranked player her first official loss of the season and scoring her first ever win over the nineteen-time Slam champion. Playing in the final again for the first time since 2011, Kvitova was on-point -- she lost only three games to Kuznetsova, needing just over an hour to earn her second title of the year. And as much as the trophy must mean -- it's probably the road she took to get there that means even more.

The same can be said on the men's side, where the undisputed King of Clay was out to defend his crown. Rafael Nadal may have come to Madrid ranked fourth in the world, a lower spot than what he's been used to, and he may have been hoping to turn around what's been a relatively disappointing season so far. But that doesn't make him any less of a force on this surface. And with a couple weak-for-him showings in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, it felt like his run in Madrid carried a little extra meaning. And he looked more than motivated at the outset -- easily handling a potential test from Grigor Dimitrov and then taking out Tomas Berdych in the semis, he seemed ready to add clay court title #47 to his trophy chest, which would get him that much closer to Guillermo Vilas's record forty-nine.

But Andy Murray had other plans -- fresh off, astonishingly, his first clay court title last week, the second seed was focused on keeping his streak going. He won a tight rematch against Munich runner-up Philipp Kohlschreiber in his opener, but didn't drop a set again, losing serve just one time in his next three matches, against such formidable opponents as Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori. He faced a much tougher task against Rafa, of course -- the decorated Spaniard had only lost a handful of clay court finals in his career. But the Scot wasn't preturbed, and on Sunday he kept his cool under pressure, breaking his opponent three times and delivering him a straight set loss in less than ninety minutes. To back up his maiden Munich crown with a Masters-level win over such a formidable foe, might just put Murray on a path we didn't expect from him so long ago.

This weekend's champions may have higher-profile trophies on their shelves, but by vanquishing the very best in the field to score victories in Madrid, they may have accomplished something even more important. And that could just further shake things up when even bigger titles are on the line in just a few weeks' time.

May 2, 2015

The Big Fight

Okay, I realize that most eyes will be trained on one particular bout in Vegas tonight, but the face-off between Pacquiao and Mayweather isn't the only one worth mentioning these days. And for a couple players contesting this weekend's championships, the opportunity is just as great.

Tomorrow's final in Munich pits two players who've had very different seasons so far against each other. Top seeded Andy Murray, fresh off his second final of the year in Miami, is back at #3 in the world and finally seems in contention again at the big events. Veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber, on the other hand, was struggling to win many matches at all -- he's lost three opening round matches, all to players outside the top fifty, and before this week had a losing record on the year. He's been able to turn things around this week though, taking out Bucharest runner-up Jiri Vesely in his first round and then notching an upset over David Goffin in the quarters. He'll certainly be the underdog against the Scot on Sunday, with his only win coming more than five years ago -- but he does, surprisingly, have a chance. He took a set off Murray a few weeks ago in Indian Wells, and pushed him for four long hours at Roland Garros just last year, barely losing 12-10 in the fifth. If he can find that game again, he just might be able to capitalize on this chance to turn his season around.

The German's run in his homeland may have been unexpected, but the draw in Estoril shook out even less predictably, with both top seeds falling in their opening rounds. Instead Richard Gasquet, a little quiet this year despite a title in Montpellier, took out an on-the-rebound Nicolas Almagro and finally ended the impressive win streak of Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the semis. And young Australian Nick Kyrgios, this year's Cinderella in Melbourne, managed his way to the first ATP final of his career. He hasn't had to face any real challenge though -- both Feliciano Lopez and Gilles Muller were eliminated before he had to meet them -- so tomorrow's match will be his be the first test he has all week. And with the specter of his maiden trophy looming over him the pressure will surely be on -- but I wouldn't be surprised to see him come out on top this time, and there's no telling what that could lead to for the rest of his season.

There's a little more experience on the court in Istanbul, though, where world #2 Roger Federer will be going for his awe-inspiring eighty-fifth career title. Having already picked up two crowns this year, he's rebounded nicely from an early loss in Monte Carlo and, despite challenges from Daniel Gimeno Traver and even Challenger heavyweight Diego Schwartzman, made good on his top spot in Turkey. The bigger surprise happened in the bottom half of the draw where wholly under-appreciated Pablo Cuevas stunned second seed Grigor Dimitrov in Saturday's semi. The Uruguayan my be flying way under the radar, but he has won the last three finals he's contested, and with an impressive 10-4 record on clay this year, he might be more at home on this surface than his opponent. It's always a tough ask to try to beat Roger, of course, but Cuevas has been slowly making a name for himself too and might just have the motivation to pull off what would easily be the biggest win of his career.

The ladies, meanwhile, have already crowned their champions, but even these favorites were given some unexpected challenges. At the reinstated Prague Open the upsets started early and kept going all week long -- second seed Lucie Safarova was eliminated by world #65 Tereza Smitkova in her opener while Svetlana Kuznetsova, Alizé Cornet and Belinda Bencic all fell quickly after. Only Karolina Pliskova was able to live up to expectations, surviving some early challenges to make her eighth final in eighteen months. The big surprise though was the performance of Lucie Hradecka, mostly known as a doubles star, but after stunning Ana Ivanovic in Melbourne, really making a name for herself on the singles circuit too. She ousted former stars like Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Klara Koukalova on her way to the final, and even took the opening set off Pliskova in the championship match. She did lose eventually, but may have given herself the confidence she needs to really break out in the solo game this year.

There were surprises too in Marrakech where top seed Garbiñe Muguruza and red-hot Timea Bacsinszky both lost earlier than they would have liked. Instead a different Timea -- Hungary's Babos, who made a stellar run to a title in Monterrey more than three year ago -- took out Mona Barthel, Flavia Pennetta and giant-killer Kristina Mladenovic, marking the first time all year she'd won more than one main draw match at a single event. She would ultimately face off against fourth seed Elina Svitolina -- the former French Open Girls' champion has been slogging through the WTA Tour, picking up a couple titles in Baku and even taking a set off Serena Williams Down Under. Babos put up a fight against the heavy favorite, too, dropping the first set in a squeaker and pushing the Ukranian to a tiebreak for the second. It may not have been the result she wanted, but after years spent languishing in the rankings, it might finally be the push she needs to make a real move into the elite.

Not all of this weekend's finalists will come out as winners, of course, but for the underdogs, especially, who were able to deliver a couple big blows to their opponents all week long, they might have just put themselves on the road to bigger and better things the rest of the season. And maybe sometime soon they'll be the ones handing out the knock out punches.