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.

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