July 20, 2015

When the Pressure's Off

Of course it's not that little known names or rising stars can never make a splash at the Grand Slams, but sometimes it helps when the spotlight's turned slightly away, allowing players who might have buckled a bit on the big stages a chance to redeem themselves. And this weekend, just seven days removed from the end of the latest Major, we saw a couple champions seem to easily shake off some less-than-stellar results from the previous fortnight.

Young Anna Schmiedlova has had some success at the high-profile events, and even picked up her maiden title in Katowice a few months ago. And though she did get a big upset over Timea Bacsinszky in Marrakech, this year she seemed to struggle when it really counted -- she dropped her opener in Roland Garros and at Wimbledon fell in straight sets to Cinderella Coco Vandeweghe. But she seemed to regroup on the clay of Bucharest -- still ranked outside the top sixty she managed a low seventh seed and, with Roberta Vinci and Julia Goerges both handed early exits, didn't have to face another favorite until the final. And even against top seed and former French Open runner-up Sara Errani in Sunday's championship she was unintimidated -- having lost to the world #19 earlier this year in Rio, the twenty-year-old this time got the upper hand in the tight two sets. Despite solid serving from her opponent and losing serve herself three times, Schmiedlova was able to close out the match in just over two hours, scoring her second career title and pushing herself up to her best yet ranking at #44. And if she can keep her confidence up, might just be poised to climb even higher.

Sweden's Johanna Larsson was a little farther off her best game when she took the court in Bastad. A finalist here twice before, she was still looking for the first trophy of her career. She'd made some nice runs this year, stunning Lucie Safarova in Miami and reaching the semis in Rio, but she'd also dropped a bunch of first rounds -- Daria Gavrilova in Paris, Christina McHale at the All England Club -- and came to her homeland's tournament at a #73 ranking. But that didn't stop her either -- she got a bit of a break with Serena Williams, the woman who beat her here in 2013, pulling out with an elbow injury and second seed Sam Stosur getting drubbed early, but she did get a solid win over last year's comeback kid Barbora Strycova on her way to the final. She was the underdog there, too, but again didn't let that get to her -- on Sunday against fourth seed Mona Barthel, a woman who'd won all three of their previous meetings, she grabbed the opening set and didn't look back. And to add to Larsson's success this weekend, not only did she break the seal on the singles' circuit, she picked up a doubles crown in Bastad as well. And at #46 in the world now, perhaps she can add more to that total.

Off the radar American Rajeev Ram, meanwhile, has had most of his success on the doubles tour, picking up eight titles with partners like Scott Lipsky and, most recently Raven Klassen. But he's struggled a bit more on his own -- since picking up his only previous trophy in Newport a full six years ago, he's spent most of his time in the triple-digit rankings and has only won three main draw matches at the Majors. This season, he's had some success on the Challenger's Tour, but was 0-0 when playing with the big boys and was down at a ranking of #161 in the world. A flip must've switched when he came back to the Hall of Fame tournament, though -- after taking out top seed John Isner in his opener, he scored big wins over Adrian Mannarino and Aussie upstart John-Patrick Smith. In the final against another big-server, last year's runner-up Ivo Karlovic, he was again the clear underdog, and even though he was the only one of the pair to drop serve during the match, after holding tough in both the first and third set tiebreaks, he was the one eventually crowned the winner. The win helped Ram nearly halve his ranking, but maybe more importantly proved he could still hit with the top dogs in this sport. And if he's planning to stay relevant past thirty-one years of age, making a statement like that could be huge.

Of course there's only a so much time before this weekend's winners are joined on the courts by the brightest stars, and only a few more weeks before the stakes are raised even higher. But hopefully their momentum will continue when the pressure gets turned up. Winning in the shadows of a Grand Slam event may do a little to boost confidence, but if they keep it up they might be able to accomplish so much more.

No comments: