June 11, 2015

A Fresh Start

After a long and grueling clay court season -- successful for some, of course, but devastating for others -- we've finally made the transition to grass, and a couple players who've been struggling over the last few months may be happy for the switch. They may not all traditionally fare best on this surface, but with a couple of brand new events to herald in the change, this might be just the opportunity they need to turn things around.

The Aegon Open in Nottingham got a nice upgrade this year, climbing from the ITF circuit to the WTA Tour, and with the higher profile attracted some higher-level players. Former Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska takes the top seed, but after a first round exit in Paris and a tumble to #13 in the world, she'll be under pressure to raise her game. She's looked good so far, taking out a qualifier in her opener and then ousting former top-thirty player Christina McHale today in just over an hour. Set next to meet Lauren Davis, who's coming off two straight three-setters, she should be well poised to reverse her recent string of disappointing results. So too could one-time U.S. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer, now dangerously close to exiting the top hundred for the first time since 2008. She started her Nottingham campaign with a win over fourth seed Karin Knapp and dropped just four games to Bojana Jovanovski earlier today. She's only made it as far as the fourth round at Wimbledon once before, but if she can get a little traction now she might be able to turn things around even past the grass court season.

Stuttgart isn't technically a new stop on Tour, but the men's tournament made the switch from clay to grass for the 2015 season, and that certainly helps some players more than others. Sam Groth really launched his late-career breakthrough on this surface last year, making the final of a Challenger event before qualifying for Wimbledon and then reaching the semis in Newport. He lost in the first round at Roland Garros, but rode a smaller title in Nottingham to his highest career ranking, #66 in the world. So far at the Mercedes Cup he's come back from losing opening sets to both one-time giant-killer Sergiy Stakhovsky and lawn-specialist Feliciano Lopez. And with a fairly open bottom half of the draw, there's no reason his road should get too much harder from here. Of course, the real story in Stuttgart is that of Rafael Nadal, who's second ever loss at the French Open knocked him down to his first double-digit ranking in ten years. He's not generally strong on grass, to be sure, but with two Wimbledon titles to his name, you know he can find a way to thrive -- and after his clay season, maybe the new surface will be a nice change. He was pushed in his first round, needing three sets and two tiebreaks to get past Marcos Baghdatis. But hopefully now that he's shaken the cobwebs off he'll be even stronger and more ready for his next challenge.

With a couple weeks left before the next Grand Slam, it's important that all these guys pull themselves together and rebound from recent results. They might not be able to ultimately walk away with the titles -- this week or, even less likely, at the All England Club -- but with a few more solid results, they might just be able to finish their year off on a high note.

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