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.

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