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.

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