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.

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