June 14, 2015

Getting an Early Start

The grass court portion of the tennis season always seems a little strange to me -- with less than a month of prep before the big guns come out swinging at Wimbledon, it's easy even for players who are well-suited to the surface to lose their momentum before it really starts. But the extra week added to the schedule last year may give this weekend's champions in 's-Hertogenbosch a little buffer -- with two players who generally see their best results on the lawn putting their names on the map as we get ever closer to the year's next Grand Slam.

Nicolas Mahut may be best known for a match he lost on this surface, but the fact that he could go three days/eleven hours/a hundred eighty-three games against the biggest server on Tour should speak volumes about his potential. The thirty-three year old Frenchman got a little bit of a late start, but scored the first two titles of his career in 2013, both on grass, and climbed to a career high #37 in the world a year ago. He's fallen a bit since then, dropping well into triple digits by April, and despite a solid showing at Roland Garros -- he took Gilles Simon to five sets in the third round -- he still had to qualify for the main draw in Den Bosch. But the underdog powered through, dismantling perennial powerhouse Lleyton Hewitt in his opener and then stunning third seed Roberto Bautista-Agut a round later. In Sunday's final against David Goffin he was similarly relentless -- after a tight first set he rolled over the young Belgian, breaking three times in the second to score the win. Of course, warm-up success hasn't often helped Mahut when he heads to the All England Club -- his best performance was a third round showing nine years ago -- and with a ranking that still promises to be well outside seeding range, he could get some tough matches right off the bat. But the big wins he pulled off this week in the Netherlands could at least give him some confidence to push through early challenges.

Camila Giorgi hasn't been around quite as long, and so hasn't had as much opportunity to make her mark yet. Still, the young Italian has had some solid results at Wimbledon -- three years ago as a qualifier, she made the fourth round after taking out Flavia Pennetta and then-#20 Nadia Petrova. She's since had some ups and downs, reaching the final in Katowice the last two years, but also losing six first round matches so far this season. Still, she managed a climb to #35 in the world, and after her run at the Topshelf Open she's got a shot at being seeded at the All England Club this year. She had some obstacles during the week, needing to come back after dropping sets to Michaela Krajicek and always-tough Yaroslava Shvedova early in the tournament. But in the last few days she managed to up her game -- against fourth seeded Belinda Bencic in Sunday's final she didn't allow a single break opportunity and easily avenged the loss the Swiss teenager had given her a year ago on the Madrid clay. It was Giorgi's first career title, and on a surface where she seems most comfortable, it might have come at the perfect time. And if the draw shakes out in her favor, there's no reason she won't be able to put up her best performance yet at a Slam.

With just two weeks to go before the start of Wimbledon, both these champions may have been smart to get in a couple early blows. And while the competition will certainly be stiffer once they make it to London, they might just be able to surprise us all with how well they perform.

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