August 29, 2015

Blogcast: 2015 U.S. Open Preview

Everyone may be focused on the possibility that Serena Williams stands to make history in the Big Apple, but there are a couple other stories to watch in New York.

August 26, 2015

2015 U.S. Open: Ten to Watch

With just days to go before the start of this year's U.S. Open, we all know that we could be on the verge of making history. Serena Williams has the rare opportunity to complete a calendar year Grand Slam -- an achievement that even she, with all her career accomplishments and honors, has never even had a chance to claim.

But as much as that would mean for the world #1 -- and the sport itself -- there are certainly other story lines to follow in New York. And, more specifically, other players to keep an eye on too. Some have been a little quiet of late and are looking to launch a bit of a comeback, others are hoping to capitalize on a summer during which they were really able to shine.

And while most headlines will likely focus on just a couple of favorites, any one of these guys could make a splash of their own in Flushing Meadows.

The Women

Caroline Wozniacki

Last year's Cinderella made a stunning run to her second Major final while ranked just #11 in the world and rode her success to one of the best comebacks of the year. It's not that she's done badly this season -- she was a runner-up in Auckland and Stuttgart and even picked up a title in Kuala Lumpur, which was enough to keep her in the top five on Tour. Still her summer's been a little less than spectacular -- she squandered her top seed in Stanford, fell in her Toronto opener to eventual champion Belinda Bencic, and lost in Cincinnati to Victoria Azarenka for the fourth time this year. This week she hit the courts among a crowded and talented field in New Haven -- a place where she's had a lot of success in the past. She started out strong, though, dropping just two games to Alison Riske in her opener, and if she can at least gather some momentum, she might just be able to keep her success going in Flushing Meadows.

Jelena Jankovic

JJ is another former top-ranked player who knows what it's like to come in second in New York, but her trip to the final came a long seven years ago and she's had more than a little trouble recapturing that glory. While she managed to stay in the top ten for a few years, even finishing 2013 at #8 in the world, it's been a while since she's been a relevant feature at the Majors -- in the last five years she's only made it to the quarterfinals once and she's fallen in the first round five times, twice this year alone. She's also put together long stretches without any kind of title -- after making a surprise run to the Indian Wells crown in 2010, it took more than three years before she picked up a trophy in Bogota, and since then she only scored a 125K championship in Nanchang last month, without facing a player in the top hundred to do it. Still, with all her struggles, the Serb has shown some signs of her old self this season -- she made it back to the final in the California desert and last week scored her first top ten win of the year, taking out Karolina Pliskova in Cincinnati. She did eventually lose in the semifinals, but her performance may have reminded us of the kind of damage she can do on a hard court if she's at her best.

Sloane Stephens

I don't think I was the only one who wrote off the former Australian Open semifinalist a few months ago -- after her stellar start to the 2013 season, she had a hard time following through. Last year she lost four matches to players ranked in the triple digits and with a 2-4 record to start 2015, she saw her own position fall out of the top forty. But she's been getting her game back together more recently, it seems -- in Indian Wells she scored upsets over Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and even took a set of Serena Williams in the fourth round. She rode her momentum to the quarters in Indian Wells later that month and went on to score upsets over Coco Vandeweghe in Strasbourg, Venus Williams at Roland Garros and Carla Suarez Navarro in Eastbourne. It wasn't until the start the summer hardcourt season, though, that she really hit her stride -- unseeded at the Citi Open in Washington, the American took out both Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Sam Stosur to claim her first Tour title without dropping a set. While she fell early in Toronto, she was able to put up a nice fight against Ana Ivanovic in Cincinnati, and might just have re-established herself as a contender on the big stages again.

Anna Schmiedlova

The young Slovakian will celebrate her twentieth birthday on the same day the women's champion is crowned, and while it might be a tall order to ask that she's still around at the end of the fortnight, it might not be so far out of the question. After all, we've seen two first time Major finalists already this year, so why not add Schmiedlova to the mix. The former French Open Girls' runner-up has already made a couple big statements at the Slams -- last year she picked up a couple ITF titles on clay and went on to stun Venus Williams in Paris. This year she's proven herself on the WTA Tour too -- after reaching the final in Rio, she picked up her maiden trophy on the hard courts of Katowice and, for good measure, added another crown in Bucharest. Ranked just outside the top forty to start the month, she still had to qualify for the main draw in Cincinnati, but she rode an upset of former world #2 Aga Radwanska all the way to the quarters and a #32 ranking. While she hasn't yet made it out of the third round at a Major, I wouldn't be surprised if this was her chance to change that.

Margarita Gasparyan

Don't worry, you're not the only one who's never heard of the twenty-year-old. The little-known Russian has spent most of her time on the ITF Tour and hasn't gotten much action at all against the sport's elite. But she has quietly picked up a trio of titles on that circuit and put together a 37-8 record so far this year, climbing from a sub-two hundred ranking to #71 now. She even managed to qualify for both the French Open and Wimbledon, playing the first two Major main draws of her career. Her big break, though, came this summer when she took to the courts of Baku -- a lower-tier tournament which has nevertheless boasted champions from Elina Svitolina to Vera Zvonareva. She opened with a solid win over one-time Grand Slam runner-up Dominika Cibulkova and then took out Karin Knapp, who was fresh off a solid showing in Bad Gastein. In her WTA-level final debut, she was challenged a bit by also-unknown Patricia Maria Tig, but came out on top to claim her maiden Big Girls' trophy which might give her the confidence she needs in the Big Apple. Gasparyan has a little work left to do to make the main draw, though -- the top seed in qualifying tournament, she rolled through her opening round opponent on Tuesday, but still could face plenty of challenges, including one-time New York darling Melanie Oudin. But maybe this time she's finally primed to get that all important win when it counts.

The Men

Marin Cilic

It's not often that the defending champion is as far off the radar as this Croat is, but the man who unexpectedly ran off with his maiden Major title twelve months ago has had a hard time keeping the momentum going. Though he did manage to pick up another title at the end of the year in Moscow, he lost all three of his round robin matches at his first year-end championship and was forced to skip the first Grand Slam of this season with injury. Since he returned to action at Indian Wells he's lost in his opening round four times and racked up a barely break-even 18-13 record. There have been some glimpses of what he's capable of, though -- he reached the quarters at Wimbledon and put up a nice fight in a rematch against Kei Nishikori in the Citi Open semis. Still he's got a lot to lose in his return to New York, and if he's not truly back in form he could potentially fall well down the rankings by the time this fortnight is over. But if he can put together even a decent run -- which we know he can -- he might just be able to set the stage for an even bigger rebound down the road.

Nick Kyrgios

I haven't spent a lot of time writing about the scandal that overtook the young Australian -- and kind of the entire sport -- the last few weeks, and while I have absolutely no desire to get into the details here, I can't help but wonder what it will mean for his performance in New York. The twenty-year-old had been putting together a more-than-impressive season through the start of the summer -- he reached the quarters at his homeland's Major and reached his first career final in Estoril. More impressively, though, he took out 2014 semifinalist Milos Raonic at Wimbledon and two-time champion Roger Federer in Madrid. His early successes got him all the way to a career high #25 ranking in early June, but he's taken a bit of a tumble since then. After grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons in Montreal, he lost his next match in straight sets to John Isner, and a week later in Cincy, he only managed to take three games off Richard Gasquet in his opening round. He's now fallen out of seeding territory for the U.S. Open, which could make him vulnerable from the get go -- and while he only has third round points at stake in his return to New York, if he's not able to shake off the stink that's been cast over him this month, he might be an easier target this time than he would be under other circumstances.

Alexandr Dolgopolov

It was about this time last year that the Ukrainian star's season began to implode -- after a year in which he'd stunned Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells and took out recently crowned Grand Slam champ Stan Wawrinka in Miami, he'd re-established himself as a legitimate force on Tour. But knee surgery in July kept him out of the draw in New York and off the courts until late September, since when he only won one match the rest of the year. It took a while for him to get his footing back this season -- after failing to defend points during the spring hardcourt sweep he fell to #80 in the world and had to qualify for the Rome Masters event. Things got a little better in the summer though -- he took out four higher ranked players on his way to the semis in Nottingham, and after qualifying again for Cincinnati last week, was two points away from defeating Novak Djokovic for a spot in the final. He may have run out of steam a bit in Winston-Salem though -- still unseeded, despite his post-Ohio boost, Dolgo lost two tiebreaks to young Thanasi Kokkinakis -- but perhaps that will give him the time and rest he needs to make a real push in New York.

Marcos Baghdatis

As much as I always root for the veteran Cypriot, I can hardly believe myself that he's still alive and kicking these days. A finalist at the Australian Open nearly ten years ago, the former world #8 has dealt with one injury after another, falling out of the top hundred several times since hitting his peak. In fact at the start of 2014 he'd gone as low as #155 in the world. But he's nothing if not resilient -- after a second round loss at Wimbledon last year, he picked up a trio of Challengers' titles to end the season and this year pushed Grigor Dimitrov through a long five sets in their Melbourne third round. He continued his momentum with a semi run in Zagreb and even beat David Ferrer in Nottingham. Back in the top fifty again after a trip to the All England Club, he made his way to the final in Atlanta, his first Tour-level championship since 2011. He too had a bit of a hiccup this week in Winston-Salem, losing to qualifier Pierre-Hugues Herbert in his opener, but given how he's pulled his game together this year, there's no reason to believe he won't be able to rebound again.

Denis Kudla

As we Americans wait (and wait) for the next big star to take over the reins from Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and even Andy Roddick, there have been a couple names that have come up as potential contenders -- John Isner, Sam Querrey, and, what now seems like a long time ago, James Blake. And while a couple of the young guns surely still have an opportunity to make a splash, this year it could be someone way farther down the radar that causes a stir. The twenty-three year old Kudla put up a huge fight against Feliciano Lopez at the Australian Open and then endured a couple more five-set marathons on his way to the fourth round at Wimbledon, the only man from the U.S. to get that far. He kept up his success at the start of the summer, too, qualifying for the main draw in Atlanta and beating compatriot Jack Sock on his way to the semis -- where he, incidentally, took a set off eventual champion Isner. He qualified for Montreal and Cincy too, and managed to climb to a career high ranking of #74 in the world at the start of this week. While he may be a little older than his contemporaries were when they made their first impact in New York, he might just have the experience and maturity now to make a more lasting impression.

Bonus Round

Okay, I know I've been limiting these lists to five men and five women all year long, but with the U.S. Open being the final Major of 2015, this is the last chance players have to make any sort of real statement this season. So I'm expanding the field this one time to include a couple athletes who might not be quite on the radar in New York, but nevertheless could prove to be big spoilers.

Roberta Vinci

The two-time quarterfinalist in the Big Apple has fallen well off the radar in the last several months -- both on the singles circuit and on the doubles Tour, which she and former partner Sara Errani dominated for years. After a disappointing 2014, she began this year barely ranked inside the top fifty and notched surprising losses to players like world #113 Tatjana Maria and #168 Veronica Cepede Royg. Though she made a somewhat surprising run to the final in Nürnberg, she lost four straight matches after that, even going 0-3 during her traditionally strong grass court run. But something seemed to click one the seasons turned -- she took out a strong Daria Gavrilova to make the elite eight in Toronto, and earlier this week as a qualifier in New Haven, trounced former Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard in a barely hour-long opening match. Though she'll now face off against three-time champion Caroline Wozniacki, she's certainly shown she still has the capability of pulling off big upsets and could keep proving that for a few more matches to come.

Mardy Fish

Now I realize the veteran American hasn't made as big an impact at the Majors as others, but as the one-time world #7 gets ready for his last U.S. Open run, you can't help but appreciate all he's accomplished. Long a middle-of-the-road player, he had a breakthrough in 2010 -- dropping some thirty pounds, a fact many commentators seemingly could not get over, he soared to new levels in the game, stunning Andy Murray three times in a row, in Miami, Queen's Club, and Cincinnati and racking up a slew of other top-ten wins. He cracked the single digit rankings himself less than a year later, rode his momentum to a quarterfinal showing at Wimbledon and surpassed Andy Roddick as the top-ranked player in the U.S. But just as he was peaking, Fish was dealt an unfortunate blow -- diagnosed with severe anxiety and a heart condition that required surgery, Fish skipped the entire 2014 season and has only played three singles matches since his return at Indian Wells -- winning just one last week in Cincinnati -- but that might not be the worst harbinger. Remember how well a struggling Andy Roddick did after announced his retirement a few years back? Of course, it'll be much tougher for Fish to put together a big run, but with the crowd certainly behind him in the Big Apple, I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a little splash.

Well there you go -- ten or so players who may not be super high on the radar this year at the U.S. Open, but nonetheless could stir things up a bit. And while we're all so focused on the favorites, any of these guys could surprise us while our eyes are trained elsewhere.

Of course, with a few days left before the draws are released, who knows yet how challenging any of their roads in New York will be -- but there's no reason one or more of them can't rise to the occasion.

After all, with this being their last big opportunity to make a name for themselves in the 2015 season, expect all of them to put up their biggest fight now.

August 23, 2015

A Quick Recovery

As the last big event before the start of the 2015 U.S. Open wound down, you couldn't help but think we might have been give a glimpse of what to expect at the final Major of the year. We certainly saw a couple upsets throughout the week in Cincinnati, but ultimately it was the top two seeds -- the top two ranked athletes, as it turned out -- left playing for the titles. And while the eventual champions were pushed to their limit, they both proved they've got more than enough fight in them to keep their streaks going for much longer.

In the men's draw, where eight of the sport's top ten players were vying for the title, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer dispatched each threat they faced -- the world #1 easily dismissing Stan Wawrinka, the man who'd foiled his best chance yet to complete the career Grand Slam, and the defending champion never even allowing Montreal titleist Andy Murray a chance to break during their semifinal meeting. So Nole and Roger set up their forty-first career match-up, having evenly split their previous forty, but with Djokovic winning the last three, momentum certainly seemed to be on his side. But he'd been tested a bit more during the week, dropping sets to both David Goffin and Alexandr Dolgopolov at the Western & Southern Open, while Fed had gotten to the final with four straight-set wins. And he stayed strong through Sunday's match too -- after a tight opening set where he again didn't allow his opponent a chance to break, he ran off with the tiebreak and then got an early lead in the second. After that, Federer didn't look back -- in just over ninety minutes he'd claimed his seventh crown in Cincinnati and shown he can not only still compete with the sport's best, but beat them definitively too. And while the pressure will certainly be turned up more once he hits the courts in the Big Apple, he might just have the hunger he needs to finally break a three-year dry spell at the Slams.

Serena Williams, meanwhile, is looking to make her own history at the U.S. Open, and her performance in Cincinnati showed she's not going to let a stumble or two along the way derail her plans. The twenty-one time Major winner seemed to rebound immediately from her surprising loss in the Toronto semis just last week, sailing past Tsvetana Pironkova in her opener and handing a spunky Karin Knapp a bagel in their first set. She struggled a little against a rejuvenated Ana Ivanovic on Friday, losing the first set and finding herself down a break in the second, but as she so often does, Williams was able to rally for the win. Meanwhile Simona Halep, who had to retire during the third set of last weekend's final, seemed more than recovered herself, surviving early tests from Kristina Mladenovic and Andrea Petkovic before finally reaching Sunday's championship match and securing a return to the #2 ranking. She even grabbed an early lead in the final, breaking Serena to start, but the heavily-decorated champion fought back to take the first set, and, even after ceding a lead in the second, was able to push the young Halep to a tiebreak. Serena kept her cool then too, and despite some gutsy play from her opponent -- the Romanian never seemed to count herself out of the match -- Williams was able to capitalize for the win, picking up her fifth title of the year. And as she makes the trip to Flushing Meadows to try to complete her calendar year Grand Slam, it seems she's far from allowing any pressure to slow her down.

Of course, there are only eight days left before action starts in New York, and all of these guys will need to make sure they don't run out of steam too early. Still with their dominating performances over the last week show none of them are willing to lie down easily -- and the way they've been playing, there's no reason to believe they won't come out swinging right from the start.

August 21, 2015

The Clock is Ticking...

With the last Grand Slam of the Year just about a week away, it's no wonder we're seeing everyone up their games just a little this week in Cincinnati. Whether it's the heavy favorites or the ones who've been largely counted out in recent months, there seems to be a little more spark in players' steps these days. And while it could certainly serve as great prep for their performances in New York, there's no reason they can't take more immediate advantage of their opportunities at the Western & Southern Open now.

Serena Williams didn't seem much disturbed by her early exit from the Toronto championships last week -- after losing just her second match of the year in the semis, she got right back to work, losing just two games yesterday to always-spunky Karin Knapp. But she's not the only lady worth watching in Ohio. Elina Svitolina's success in 2015 has come in fits and starts so far -- after taking a set off Williams in Australia she reached her first Major quarterfinal in Paris, but lost her second round at Wimbledon and her opener at the Rogers Cup. She was barely seeded in Cincy, but scored an easy win over a tough Caroline Garcia and even took out one-time wunderkind Genie Bouchard in straight sets. She'll now face off against Roland Garros finalist Lucie Safarova, who's been a little quiet since that Cinderella run and could allow the Ukrainian a chance to sneak through. And we can't ignore former world #1 Jelena Jankovic, fresh-ish off a title in 125K title in Nanching -- her first in more than two years. The unseeded Serb, who reminded us of her relevance in Indian Wells, has already notched a couple upsets at the W&S, first over a talented Madison Keys, then against season-breakout Karolina Pliskova. She's up next against young Anna Schmiedlova, who's certainly coming into her own herself this year, but if the former champion is able to get in a few early hits she might just make a case for her return to the podium.

Things could get just as interesting on the men's side of the draw. Andy Murray kept right on swinging after his big win in Montreal over the weekend, yesterday surviving quite a scare from Grigor Dimitrov to clinch the win in a nearly three-hour match. And top seed Novak Djokovic, who dropped a set Thursday to David Goffin rallied too to set up another meeting with Stan Wawrinka, a man who's now beat him on the way to both of his Grand Slam titles. And while there will certainly be fireworks in the favorites' matches, you can't ignore the underdogs who've sneaked into the quarters. Alexandr Dolgopolov, a legitimate threat on Tour at this time last year, had to qualify for the main draw in Cincy, but he's upset both Bernard Tomic and big-serving Jerzy Janowicz already this week. Next up he faces Tomas Berdych, a man who's won all four of their previous meetings -- still, if the Ukrainian is truly back in form, he could certainly pull off the win. And then there's Feliciano Lopez, the Spanish veteran who hit a career high ranking last year at age thirty-two. He's been a little quiet too, of late -- winning just a couple matches at every event he's played since March and falling out of the top twenty now -- but last night he pulled off a huge come-from-behind win over Rafael Nadal, his second straight win over his compatriot. Setting up a meeting today against Roger Federer, he won't have much time to recover before he's tested again. But with so much on the line this week, he might just have the motivation to get in a few more shots.

And for all these guys, there's no better time to make a statement. As they wrap up their warm-ups for the U.S. Open, they really could show everyone in the field what they're made of.

August 16, 2015

"Más Pelotas que Nadie"

I had a friend in college with a t-shirt brandishing that slogan attesting to his gutsiness. Funny thing -- he had no idea what it meant. But the guys and gals who walked away with the titles in Canada this weekend sure understand it -- whether coming from behind, pulling off upsets or taking on the very best in the sport, they showed they not only have the skills, but the nerve and mental toughness they need to not only have one successful run, but to possibly climb even higher up the ranks than they ever have before.

Up in Montreal the men, despite some early drama that had nothing to do with the game, certainly brought their A-games to Rogers Cup play. While plenty of upstarts were able to make a bit of a dent in the draws -- long-struggling Erensts Gulbis actually had match points against Novak Djokovic in their quarterfinal match and little-heralded Jeremy Chardy launched a huge comeback against John Isner to make his first Masters semi -- ultimately it was the top two seeds who made it to Sunday's championship match. World #1 Djokovic was going for his sixth title of the year, having lost at just three events all season long and seemed to survive every test he was handed. Andy Murray, meanwhile, fresh off an opening round loss at the Citi Open, rolled through his half of the draw, easily dispatching recent nemesis Tommy Robredo and defending champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, both in straight sets. Still with an 0-8 record against the powerful Serb over the last eighteen or so months, he might have been a little less than confident -- as an example of his nerves, after getting an early break he squandered a couple chances to build an even bigger lead and then gave the break right back. He managed to take the first set but then dropped the second and could have easily let the match slip away. But the newly-expecting Scot was able to up his game again. Fighting off opportunities Djokovic had to even out the decider again, Murray ultimately was able to serve out the three-hour match and claim his fourth trophy this season. And while it may not have been the most significant title of his career, by ending a long losing streak against the top player in the world, it could be just as meaningful.

But this weekend's finals weren't just about players reasserting themselves on court -- over in Toronto we were treated to seeing what might be the biggest breakthrough of the season. Teenage phenom Belinda Bencic may have been one of the most improved players of last season, but she's really been able to shine in 2015. After a kind of slow start to the year -- she lost her first round qualifying in Doha and six openers during the first five months of the year. But she really hit her stride once the grass court season, reaching the final in Den Bosch and picking up that all-important maiden title in Eastbourne, beating Aga Radwanska in the final. This week she racked up a couple more top ten wins -- Caroline Wozniacki in the second round, Ana Ivanovic in the quarters and -- stunningly -- Serena Williams in the semis. To put that in perspective, the eighteen-year-old was only two when the world #1 won her first Grand Slam title and now, sixteen years later, handed her just her second loss of the season. And even after all that, in the final against second seed Simona Halep, the Swiss Miss still seemed in better shape. She eked out the first set in a tiebreak and seemed in control of the second, but a struggling Halep fought back from the brink multiple times to force a third. Despite the huge effort from her opponent, though, Bencic stayed that much tougher -- when the Romanian came back from a break between the second set and the decider looking even more depleted than before, the unseeded teen pounced and ran off to a 3-0 lead before the world #3 retired. It may not be the way she wanted to claim the trophy, but after the wins she scored all week, you can't discount how much she accomplished.

And with both of this year's Rogers Cup champs proving just how strong they can be when pushed to the limit, there's no telling how much more they can do.

August 13, 2015

The Comebacks

Is it just me, or have we seen a couple of recently-forgotten stars find a way to shine again on the courts of Canada?

Sure, some hometown heroes are still struggling in their native land -- both Genie Bouchard and Milos Raonic lost their Rogers Cup openers -- but a couple other players who've been underperforming of late seem to have gotten their games back together this week. And that could bode well for their future.

Sabine Lisicki hadn't fallen so far off the radar, but the former Wimbledon runner-up has been a little quiet of late. The German powerhouse has scored wins over the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova, even Serena Williams, but despite a couple solid runs during the early spring hardcourt season, had dropped to #24 in the world coming into Toronto. That wasn't high enough to earn a seed this week, but so far she's proven to be a dangerous spoiler -- she lost just three games to Venus Williams in her first round and yesterday took out last year's comeback kid, Barbora Strycova in a tight two sets. She'll face off against young Belinda Bencic today -- the Swiss breakout is coming off an upset of Wozniacki herself -- but with a win in the pair's only previous meeting, Lisicki is more than capable of keeping her streak going.

Perhaps Roberta Vinci will be able to do the same. The one-time world #11 has notched more than a few surprising losses over the past few seasons, this year going 0-3 on the grass, what's traditionally been her strongest surface. She did manage a final run in Nürnberg, but has also lost to players like Tatjana Maria and Veronica Cepede Royg, both ranked in triple digits. She came to Toronto still outside the top fifty herself, but opened with a double bagel of compatriot Karin Knapp, the woman who beat her for that title in Germany, and on Wednesday scored a huge win over recent giant-killer Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. Next up for the Italian veteran is Daria Garvrilova, a former Junior champion who's already beaten Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova this year. The unseeded Russian is also coming off a huge win over surprise Roland Garros finalist Lucie Safarova, so she certainly can't be discounted -- but a win in their match today could give Vinci the confidence that seems to have been missing from her game for quite some time.

There have been a couple resurrections at the men's tournament in Montreal too. Former U.S. Open semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny has put together a middling 6-18 record this year, losing eight straight matches since late May, and hasn't gotten out of a Major second round in almost two years. Now ranked at #107 the Russian qualifier could have been well out of contention at the Rogers Cup, but he took out 2014 standout Viktor Troicki in his opener and yesterday pulled off his first win over ninth seed Gilles Simon since 2011. His road only gets tougher from here, of course -- the thirty-three year old will meet Rafael Nadal for a spot in the quarterfinals and while the also-struggling has shown a few kinks in his armor of late, he dismantled Youzhny in what had the potential to be a very tough first round in Melbourne. Still the ten-time Tour titleist is playing better than he has in quite some time and might just be able to take advantage of any opportunity he's given.

But perhaps the biggest surprise of the week has come from former French Open semifinalist Ernests Gulbis, who's had more than a little trouble coming back from a shoulder injury that hampered the back half of his season in 2014. A disappointing 5-13 this year, he only made it to the second round in Paris and has fallen from a #10 ranking last September to a whopping #87 now. But the Latvian might be proving it's never too late to shake off the cobwebs -- also a qualifier in Montreal, he started his campaign by avenging a U.S. Open loss to red-hot Dominic Thiem and then picked up another win over Lukas Rosol. Slated next to face Donald Young, launching his own comeback after taking out Tomas Berdych on Wednesday, Gulbis could sneak even further through his draw. And while there's no shortage of threats left in the bracket, this could be the perfect time for him to cement his return.

Whether these guys can continue their runs not only in Canada, but throughout the rest of the year of course remains to be seen. But it sure is nice to see each of them putting together a couple wins in a row this week. And if momentum stays with them, who knows what they'll be able to do when the stakes get even higher in a few weeks' time.

August 10, 2015

Stealing the Spotlight

As the summer hardcourt season kicks into full gear, it's no surprise we saw so many of the sport's top women in action last week -- even with Serena Williams still recovering from an elbow injury and unable to defend her title in Stanford, nearly half of the players in the top twenty hit the courts. But ultimately it wasn't the top favorites who walked away with the titles -- and in one case, a first-timer make have just scored the breakthrough we've been waiting for.

The upsets at the Bank of the West Classic started pretty early. Top seeded Caroline Wozniacki, struggling a bit to keep the momentum from a successful 2014 season, lost her opening round to Varvara Lepchenko. And Carla Suarez Navarro, who broke into the top ten after an unexpected final run in Miami, lost her fourth match in a row in Stanford, this time dropping to world #59 Alison Riske. By the time we got to Sunday's final it was this year's breakout Karolina Pliskova facing off against under-the-radar Angelique Kerber. The more experienced German was the on-paper underdog in this fight, seeded fifth to her opponent's #4 spot -- but she had the advantage of a 3-2 record head-to-head, and after already beating two seeds during the week, was arguably more battle tested. In a break-filled match, Kerber eventually got the edge in the opening set, and even after the Czech pushed her to a third, stayed strong enough to score the win. It was, you may be surprised to hear, Angie's fourth trophy this year, making this her most prolific season despite the fact that she's still off her best ranking at #11. But with what's traditionally been her strongest stretch still ahead of her, she might make a play to climb even higher.

Over in Washington a couple ladies even further off the grid were able to shine. But even with defending champ Svetlana Kuznetsova pulling out with injury early, the eventual finalists had to stage some big wins during their runs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, out of the top thirty for most of this year, was looking to end a slump which saw her lose to world #154 Patricia Maria Tig a week earlier in Baku and win only one Major match in 2015. In the second round she scored a solid win over Belinda Bencic, who'd won their only previous meeting, and came back after losing the opening set to Ekaterina Makarova before the top seed retired in the semis. The win earned the Russian her first final of the year, and a shot at picking up her eighth career title -- but she'd be foiled by an unlikely foe. American Sloane Stephens, once just a hair outside the top ten, with high-profile wins over the likes of Maria Sharapova, Venus, and of course Serena Williams, had a tough time keeping up her performance last year and for a couple weeks in 2015 had fallen out of the top forty. She did score some big wins -- over Kerber in Indian Wells, Jelena Jankovic in Strasbourg -- but nevertheless came to DC without a seed. She's working to change that though -- after getting the walkover from Kuznetsova she stunned Sam Stosur in the semis and dropped just three games to Pavlyuchenkova in Sunday's final. The win gave her a nice boost in the rankings, but more importantly awarded her that long-awaited maiden trophy. And perhaps it's just the first of many.

Neither of this weekend's champions were expected to walk away with the titles, but with both scoring some big wins during the week, they each reminded us all of the damage they can do. And as we get closer to the final Grand Slam of the year, it might be time we see them up their games even more. After all now that they're back in our sights, pressure will be really on for them to deliver.

August 6, 2015

Shaking Things Up

It's never fun when things go exactly as planned at a tennis tournament, and while the top men have certainly been less prone to big upsets than their counterparts on the women's Tour, even the favorites are certainly capable of surprising us from time to time. And this week, more than others it seems, the underdogs are capitalizing on any opportunity they get.

Dominic Thiem hasn't made it easy for the other guys in Kitzbühel, as last year's finalist has extended his win streak to ten straight matches with his win today over Albert Montanes. But his run has to end some time, and a couple hopefuls in Austria could make a case to be the one to do it. Thiem's next opponent Philipp Kohlschreiber, who started the year off kind of slow, reached the championship match in Munich and notched a nice upset over Hamburg runner-up Fabio Fognini in the quarter. He's never faced off against the rising star, but the veteran German might just have the experience to get the win. More of a threat, though, might be Nicolas Almagro, whose injury addled season has dropped him well out of the top hundred -- the clay court specialist hasn't done too much in his comeback, but so far this week has scored wins over 2014 breakout Jiri Vesely and hometown favorite Jurgen Melzer. He may have a less-than-encouraging 1-2 record against his next opponent, qualifier Paul-Henri Mathieu, but if he's really back in form he should be able to make a play for not only the final, but maybe even the title.

Over on the hardcourts of Washington, D.C. there's been even more drama -- and even bigger surprises. American Steve Johnson, who's already given us a glimpse of his potential this year, notched his second straight win over world #26 Bernard Tomic, having beaten him earlier this summer in Halle. He'll face a bigger challenge against Grigor Dimitrov next, but the talented Bulgarian has struggled more than a little this year and could be more vulnerable than his sixth seed suggests. Then there's teenager Alexander Zverev who, despite a semifinal run in Bastad, is still just inside the top hundred. But on Wednesday he stunned big-serving Kevin Anderson to set up a third round against Alexandr Dolgopolov, a man who's had a hard time recapturing form since knee surgery last year -- there's no reason the young German can't take advantage of his opponent. But of course the biggest opportunity in D.C. comes courtesy of Teymuraz Gabashvili, who last night pulled off the biggest upset of his career so far, beating top seeded Andy Murray -- the first and only one of the Big Four to ever play in the U.S. capital -- in a nearly three-hour match. While there are more than a few seeds still in this half of the draw, the thirty year old Georgian by far cleared out the biggest threat. While anyone left could benefit from the big hole in the bracket, Gabashvili might just have established himself as the one to beat.

Of course it's one thing for any of these players to score one big win during a tournament -- what really makes a difference is if they can follow it up with another. But any one of them has the potential to make things even more interesting than they already have been this week -- and hopefully keep their momentum going even longer.

August 3, 2015

Not to Be Forgotten

Sure, Serena Williams is on the verge of making history this tennis season, and Novak Djokovic may be putting himself further and further ahead of the rest of the pack on Tour. But other champions have been decidedly less bold in 2015, and a couple have struggled a bit to keep their footing on the big courts.

Things could be changing for them, though, if this week's action is any indication -- as both the men crowned and even the ones who came in second proved that they might not only be able to put the last few months behind them, but also come out swinging on the other end.

Of course, not everyone was looking for a true comeback this week -- Umag champ Dominic Thiem was trying to keep up a solid win streak and maybe erase the memory of some disappointing results to start the summer. Since falling in the second round at Wimbledon and dropping both ties to much lower-ranked players in Davis Cup play, the Austrial went on to upset Gael Monfils last week in the semis and pick up his second career title. The third seed in Gstaad, though, was looking to outperform even those expectations. Despite dropping sets to both Pablo Carreno Busta and last year's standout Feliciano Lopez during his campaign, Thiem kept his win streak going to Sunday's final. There he met top seeded David Goffin who, at this time last season was putting together his own impressive run. The young Belgian had won all three of the pair's meetings in 2014, including a three-setter in the Kitzbühel championship match, but his opponent was able to turn the tables on him this time. After a tight opening set this weekend, Thiem ran off with the second, successfully putting together eight straight match wins and climbing to a career high #21 in the world. He might not have fallen so far off the radar as others, but by rebounding so quickly he seems to have shown just how big a force he can be.

The men in Atlanta, meanwhile, were trying to show that their heydays weren't so far behind them. John Isner had kind of been plodding away on Tour this year -- in Miami stunning Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori, albeit while both were struggling a bit with injury, and reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid, but also losing early in Paris and failing to close out a marathon against Marin Cilic at the All England Club. And in Newport, where he's had success in the past, he lost right off the bat to eventual champion Rajeev Ram. But the two-time defending titleist at the BB&T Open was able to up his game down south -- after edging out Radek Stepanek in two tiebreaks to start, he managed a win over the tournament Cinderella Dennis Kudla in three big sets. In Sunday's final he faced off against veteran Marcos Baghdatis, a long-ago Grand Slam finalist who's having a bit of a resurgence this season -- the Cypriot topped second seed Vasek Pospisil in the quarters and outlasted a talented Gilles Muller in the final four. But big-serving Isner was too much for him in the final -- the American fired off thirteen aces and won more than ninety percent on serve. After barely over an hour, he was able to close out the match, claiming his first title of the year and getting his hardcourt summer off to a pretty solid start. He's had trouble translating success here into results where it really counts before -- but perhaps this win will give him the confidence to change that now.

Rafael Nadal's struggles this year have been a little more well-documented, and a little higher-profile. Even the couple of trophies he's picked up -- a nice haul for almost anyone else on Tour -- were overshadowed by his disappointments. But the former world #1 made a big show of shaking the cobwebs off this week in Hamburg -- the top seeded wildcard was in danger early of losing his third straight match to compatriot Fernando Verdasco, but rallied from a set down to notch the win. He had a relatively easy time after that, never dropping a set and losing just three games to Andreas Seppi in the semis. Ultimately he set up a final showdown against Fabio Fognini, a man who'd become his unlikely nemesis over the course of the season. The brash Italian had fallen out of the top twenty and took at eighth seed at the bet-at-home Open, but with Tommy Robredo, Roberto Bautista Agut and Juan Monaco all ousted before him, he reached the final without facing another seed. He put up a fight there too -- in a surprisingly break-filled match, Rafa dropped serve five times, Fognini seven. But after more than two and a half hours, it was the higher seeded Spaniard who came out on top. He might have been the favorite to walk away with the title, but by beating two men who've had his number so recently, might have made a statement worth more than the title itself.

All of this weekend's champions sealed in a comeback of sorts with their wins -- whether they've been long-missing from the podiums or were just trying to get their seasons back on track, they each stamped themselves back on the map by picking up their respective trophies. And if they can keep momentum going -- like some of them have already -- it might not be long before they're having even bigger successes down the road.