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.

No comments: