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.

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