July 27, 2015

Breakthroughs and Comebacks

It seems to be a common occurrence in the weeks right after a Major, where the pressure is a little off, that we see players who've been struggling with form come out swinging. And yesterday we saw a couple champions crowned after what seems like a long, long time out of the spotlight, and, in come cases, completely out of contention.

We've seen Bernard Tomic climb and fall in the rankings -- and in life -- for years, surging into the low twenties after a Cinderella run to the Wimbledon quarters four years ago, dropping well out of the top hundred at this time last year, and grabbing as many headlines for his off-court behavior as for his play. But despite all the distractions, the one-time Australian wünderkind came to Bogota to defend a title at near his highest career ranking. He wasn't without his challenges though -- the second seed dropped sets against little-known Adrian Menendez-Maceiras and triple-digit ranked Michael Berrer, and even was tested by underrated Adrian Mannarino in the final. The Frenchman, who'd avenged a loss to Newport champion Rajeev Ram in his opener and scored a huge win over big-serving Ivo Karlovic in the semis, was able to push Tomic to a third set, but ultimately succumbed. Tomic's win gives him his third career title but may have also proved he's an even bigger threat when he seems most down-and-out.

Sam Stosur had climbed even higher than her compatriot during her heyday, but the former Grand Slam champion has seemed well off her career best the last few months. She hadn't won more than three matches at any Major since 2012 and had spent most of this year ranked outside the top twenty. The thirty-one year old veteran had picked up a title in Strasbourg in May, but was pushed to a decider in her last three matches and didn't play a top-forty player during her campaign. On paper her draw in Bad Gastein may not have been much more intimidating, but she nevertheless did face off against some heavy-hitters -- she dropped just one game to recent star Klara Koukalova and ended Anna Schmiedlova's impressive run in the semis. In the final against Karin Knapp -- a woman who was playing her second double-header of the week, having taken out top seed Sara Errani earlier on Sunday -- she was arguably better rested, but nonetheless challenged again. The Italian won the first set and took the second to a tiebreak, but Stosur didn't give up -- she ploughed through the third set and come out the winner in the two and a half hour match. It earner her a eighth career title and pushed her back up to #21 in the world -- if she keeps it up on her favorite summer hard court season, the former U.S. Open titleist might just be able to make a case for another strong showing in New York.

Dominic Thiem is much earlier on in his career so doesn't have quite the same spoils to show for his efforts -- but the young Austrian is certainly coming into his own this year. He'd been a little quiet since breaking the title seal in Nice, winning just three matches between that and his trip to Umag last week, but the twenty-one year old was able to turn things around in Croatia. After winning his first two matches by retirement, he scored a solid comeback win against tournament favorite Gael Monfils, setting up a championship bout against barely unseeded Joao Sousa. The Portuguese workhorse had already taken out Andreas Seppi, Fabio Fognini and Roberto Bautista Agut on the way to his first final of the year and may have been a little spent by the time he met up against Thiem. The fourth seed powered through a tight first set, but then rolled over his opponent in the second for his third straight win over Sousa and his second crown of the year. Now at a career-high #24 in the world he may be in a position to really make a statement at the big events now -- and if he can put up the same kind of performances against the very top players, it won't be long before the more prestigious titles start coming too.

Elsewhere on Tour a couple players were trying to make their first big impressions on championship Sunday. Lesia Tsurenko had picked up a couple ITF titles during her career, but had never reached the final on the Big Girls' circuit. The twenty-six year old Ukrainian did make a great run to the Indian Wells quarterfinals with wins over Genie Bouchard and Andrea Petkovic to name a few, but only won three matches since then and was ranked outside the top seventy when she hit the courts in Istanbul. That didn't seem to phase her much, though -- after taking out a tough Daria Gavrilova in her opener, she trounced both Daniela Hantuchova and Kirsten Flipkens. Meanwhile Urszula Radwanska, well off her career best since dealing with a slew of injuries the last few seasons, was also going for her first title -- she'd made the final in Den Bosch three years ago -- and stood a pretty good shot at picking one up earlier in 2015 than her more decorated older sister. She'd taken out Jelena Jankovic to start and then powered past a strong Tsvetana Pironkova in the quarters. She put up a fight too on Sunday, but Tsurenko proved the more ready -- after a 7-5 first set, she ran away with the second, closing out the match in just over ninety minutes. The win rocketed her into the top fifty for the first time in her career may just make others sit up and take notice the next time she takes the court.

Up in Bastad a one-time top-thirty player was trying to prove he's still worth paying attention to. Benoit Paire had topped out at #24 in the world early last year but since dropping into the triple digits spent a lot of time this season on the Challengers' and Futures circuit. He did manage a win over Fabio Fognini at the French Open and over Mikhail Youzhny at Wimbledon, but he came to the Swedish Open an unseeded #62. Still, he impressively stopped David Goffin, who was coming off quite a successful Davis Cup showing over the weekend, and then took out an often overlooked Pablo Cuevas in the semis. His biggest test waited for him in the final, though, where veteran Tommy Robredo was seeking his third crown at this event. With a much lower ranking and having lost the pair's only previous meeting -- and, not unimportantly, playing his first career championship match -- Paire was a heavy underdog. But he didn't let that trouble him -- after eking out the opening set in a tight tiebreak, he scored the only break of the match in the second and clinched the first really big win of his career. Now back in the top fifty, he's still well off his best. But after seeing him finally power through a draw like he did last week, he might finally be able to push his way higher.

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