September 27, 2015

Never Too Late

This hasn't always been the best season for all the ladies on Tour -- even when a couple stars seemed to have an opportunity to do something big, they seemed to fall just a little bit short when it counted. But luckily the year isn't quite over yet, and for a few players this week turned out to be one to put their careers back on course.

Irina-Camelia Begu has shown a lot of potential since the start of her career, but even after a breakout 2011 season, she never quite followed through. The other young Romanian did earn a title in Tashkent, but couldn't make much of a run at the Majors. She started out this year strong, strong, taking out Angelique Kerber in her Melbourne opener and going all the way to the fourth round. She got to the quarters in Charleston and Madrid too, and even scored a seed at the French Open, the first time she'd risen that high. She slowed down since then, though, upset by Olga Govortsova for the second time this summer in her U.S. Open first round. But she seems to have shaken that loss off pretty well -- this weak in Seoul she took terrific advantage of her top seed, only challenged once, dropping a set to Polona Hercog early on her way to the final. There she met super Cinderella Aliaksandra Sasnovich, a qualifier who'd already beaten Anna Schmiedlova and Sloane Stephens in Korea. But the Belorussian may have run out of steam on Sunday, and Begu was able to pounce -- breaking her opponent's serve six times she clinched the match in just under eighty minutes and picked up just the second trophy of her career. It should give a nice boost to her current #29 ranking, but more importantly might help her make a sustainable push into the top tiers of the sport. And there's no telling what she'll be able to do once she's there.

Jelena Jankovic has already had some major accomplishments during her career, reaching the final at the 2008 U.S. Open and holding onto the #1 spot for an impressive eighteen weeks -- that's only a week less than Victoria Azarenka and just three weeks short of Maria Sharapova. But those days sometimes feel very far behind us -- now the world #25, she made her way to the final at Indian Wells, but lost in the first round at Roland Garros, she picked up a 125K title in Nanchang and stunned Karolina Pliskova in Cincinnati, but fell early again in New York, this time to sub-hundred Oceane Dodin. It had been more than two years since her last main Tour title when she took the court in Guangzhou as the fourth seed, and with players like Simona Halep and surprise Tokyo International champ Yanina Wickmayer in the field, the Serb had her work cut out for her. But after handling an always-tough Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarters, she finally ended Wickmayer's win streak in the semis. Meanwhile in the top half of the draw, Denisa Allertova, ranked just seventy-fourth in the world, followed up a shocking win over Halep by taking out third seed Sara Errani to make her first Tour final. But Jankovic proved a little too much to handle -- after trading breaks early, the thirty-year-old rattled off a string of games and bageled her opponent in the second set. She may not have had to pull off any big upsets to claim her fourteenth career title, but breaking the seal should serve as a reminder of what she is still more than capable of doing.

The same can be said of Aga Radwanska, who was getting dangerously close to finishing the year outside the top ten for just the second time in eight years. The one-time world #2 started the year off huge with an exhibition win over Serena Williams, but seemed to struggle right after that -- early in the season she lost twice to both Venus Williams and Garbiñe Muguruza and fell well short of her 2014 performance at Indian Wells with a third round loss in the California desert. Even when she looked strong to start an event, she'd end up crumbling -- in Katowice, her homeland's tournament, she sailed through her first three rounds but then was stopped short in the semis by Camila Giorgi, and even during her traditionally strong grass season, she was three times upset by players ranked well below her at the time. It was the first time since 2010 she'd gone so long in a year without a title. Ranked just thirteenth in the world at the start of the week, she was given a relatively low seventh seed at the crowded Pan Pacific Open, which boasted four top-ten players and eight seeds in the top fifteen. And Aga was challenged from the start -- she opened against Wimbledon Cinderella Coco Vandeweghe and went on to beat Karolina Pliskova and a resurgent Dominika Cibulkova, last year's runner-up at the Australian Open. In the final she faced off against Belinda Bencic, the woman who not only beat her in the Eastbourne final, but who also usurped her Rogers Cup title just last month -- the young Swiss may still have been seeded slightly below, but with a win over Serena in Toronto, she arguably has had the better year and might have been the favorite in Sunday's final. But this time Aga got the better of her, taking advantage of weak serving and scoring five breaks for herself. The win may have saved her from going titleless for the first time in five years, but with so many true powerhouses in the field, it might have also reminded us all of her place among the elite.

And with a couple more weeks left in the season, after all, we might just see her -- and any of these ladies, really -- make a play to get back there.

September 24, 2015

Time to Get Crackin'

The 2015 Grand Slam season may be in the books, but that doesn't mean there isn't more ball to be played. And a couple ATP stars that came up a little short at the U.S. Open seem to be taking the opportunity this week to turn things around.

Not everyone was successful of course -- in St. Petersburg top seed Tomas Berdych, who fell in the fourth round in New York, didn't make it even that far and dropped in straight sets to Simone Bolelli -- but others may fare a bit better. Milos Raonic, who's had some trouble coming back from foot surgery earlier in the year, opened with an easy win over Evgeny Donskoy. And Dominic Thiem, winner of back-to-back titles to start the summer but was dismissed quickly by Kevin Anderson at the Open. He seems back on track in Russia though, scoring his fourth straight win over compatriot Andreas Haider-Maurer to start his run. But perhaps the player under the most pressure to rebound is last year's standout Roberto Bautista Agut, who in 2014 boasted wins over the likes of Berdych and Juan Martin Del Potro but this season only has one win over a top-twenty player, and that by retirement. Earlier today against hugely talented Teymuraz Gabashvili he saved match points before closing out the win in an over two-and-a-half hour match. Next up he faces young Lucas Pouille, who's had some big wins himself over the past several months -- but if the Spaniard recovers in time, he might just be able to end this year on a higher note.

Over in Metz a couple more heavy hitters are looking to make up ground. Some didn't have terrible showings at the U.S. Open -- surprise French Open titleist Stan Wawrinka made it all the way to the semis but ultimately lost in a quick three sets to countryman Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a semifinalist in Paris, took defending champ Marin Cilic to five sets in the quarters. But both have been tested this week though -- top-seeded Wawrinka came back after dropping his first set to Dustin Brown and Tsonga needed two tiebreaks and a decider to take out qualifier Mischa Zverev -- and will want to show they haven't lost any steam. But the player really looking to recoup is Gilles Simon who, despite climbing back into the top ten, has been on a bit of a lull this summer. He'd won just two matches since Wimbledon and was stunned in his New York first round by a resurgent Donald Young. But he finally stopped his losing streak in his homeland, taking out Edouard Roger-Vasselin in straight sets earlier today. He's slated next to face off against Gilles Muller, who had a promising start to the year and already took out seventh seed Fernando Verdasco -- he's won the pair's only previous meeting about a year ago, and there's no reason he can't do it again and perhaps put himself on course to ultimately claim the title.

After all there are still a couple more months left in the 2015 season, and plenty of big titles still up for grabs. And while these guys may have been a little quiet of late, there's plenty of time to turn up the volume now.

September 20, 2015

The Way, Way Back

Over the last couple years we've seen some new names and faces make some big statements at Davis Cup. Whether they ushered in a new era of domination on the world stage or finally rewarded efforts that had so far only been successful on the singles circuit, the countries that hoisted the trophies at the end of the year were breaking new ground.

But this year's final will turn back the clock more than a bit and bring back two teams who've long been missing from this battle. In fact, you have to rewind all the way to 1904 to find a championship contested by the two nations who'll be out for long-awaited glory this year.

Great Britain, in fact, despite deep talent over the years, last reached the Davis Cup final in 1978. And after years of being relegated to the World Group playoffs, the one-time world power finally made it back to the big leagues just last year. They were up against a tough Australian team, though, which might have been missing a recently verboten Nick Kyrgios, but still boasted young, albeit brash, talent from Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis -- so the Brits knew they had to bring their A-game. Andy Murray got off to a good start, easily handling Kokkinakis in the first rubber, but the lead was erased when Tomic felled Daniel Evans in four sets. On Day Two though, Murray teamed up with his brother Jamie and in a marathon doubles match against veteran Lleyton Hewitt and 2014 standout Sam Groth came back from dropping the fourth set tiebreak to claim the win and a 2-1 lead. The world #3, clearly over his surprise dismissal at the U.S. Open earlier in the month, went on to score another decisive win over Tomic on Sunday, clinching the tie for his country and, more importantly, their first trip to a Davis Cup championship in almost four decades.

There they'll face a team whose had an even longer drought at these events. Belgium's won just six ties at the World Group level and their only trip to the final came those hundred-plus years ago when they faced off against what were known as the British Isles at the time. But led by last year's comeback kid David Goffin, this year they've taken out the defending champion Swiss in their first round and then blanked the Canadians back in July. In this weekend's tie against Argentina, Goffin again put his team ahead with a tight win in the first rubber, but saw his team fall behind as Steve Darcis lost both his singles and Saturday's doubles rubber to Leonardo Mayer & Co. He kept Belgium alive though on Sunday, dropping just a handful of games to Diego Schwartzman, making Darcis' deciding match against Federico Delbonis that much more important. But this time Darcis stood up to the challenge -- after dropping the second set and failing to serve out the match in the fourth, he rolled through a tiebreak to pull off the win and give his teammates a chance they haven't had in a long, long time.

Of course the Brits won that championship a century ago by a score of 5-0, but something tells me this time around things could be a little closer. After all both teams have some real talent on their side and, perhaps, even a couple vulnerabilities. And with a chance neither has seen in several lifetimes, you can bet both will bring their very best to this year's final, and perhaps set a brand new stage for what's to come

September 17, 2015

The Minor Leagues?

It's always kind of fun in the immediate aftermath of a Grand Slam to see the players who jump right back into action once the pressure is off. Whether they're trying to gain some headway while the very best in the sport take a break, or to make up for missing an opportunity in New York, a couple ladies this week are doing their part to show that, while they may not have been a contender for the title last week, they might just be one the next time around.

Up in Quebec City more than a few players were looking for redemption -- second seed and defending champion Mirjana Lucic had fallen out of the top hundred after her first round exit at the U.S. Open, and Anna Tatishvili -- who stunned Karolina Pliskova in her Big Apple first round -- dropped just as easily a round later. Both are still alive and kicking, but perhaps some others are worth a mention too. Eighteen year old Jelena Ostapenko made it through qualifiers in New York and took a bagel set off Sara Errani in their second round -- she got right back to work this week with an upset of third seed Mona Barthel in her opener. Now ranked just out of the top hundred, she seems ready to make a real play into double-digits soon. And then there's her next opponent Paula Kania who didn't quite make the main draw of the year's last Major. The little-known Pole did get a win over eighth seed An-Sophie Mestach this week, though, and still hasn't dropped a set in Canada. At #150 she's the on-paper underdog in her quarterfinal match, but this might just be the perfect stage for an upset. But perhaps the greatest opportunity lies with young American Louisa Chirico -- the New Jersey teen had a very busy summer, entering every event between Wimbledon and the Open and even notching a win over Alizé Cornet in Washington. She fell to Cinderella Johanna Konta in New York, but could rebound now. She faces Tatishvili today, a woman she lost to earlier this year in Auckland, but perhaps this is her chance to turn things around.

The field in Tokyo is arguably a little more intimidating, but with top seeded Carla Suarez Navarro losing in her first round, the opportunity is just as great. Kateryna Bondarenko, who pulled off that upset, was one of my dark horses for the U.S. Open, but she ran into a feisty Simona Halep in her second round and was sent home earlier than she might have otherwise been -- after all, she's scored other big wins this year, stunning Venus Williams on her way to the Istanbul quarters. Next up for the Ukrainian is one-time New York semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer, who's been languishing in the low double digits for a few years now, and something tells me Bondarenko might be up for the challenge. But there's opportunity too for some of the seeds still standing -- Ajla Tomljanovic, who beat Jelena Jankovic to start the year in Brisbane and made it to the final in Pattaya City, has been a little quiet recently, and lost in three sets to Karin Knapp in her first round in Flushing Meadows. She's been tested a bit in Japan, needing three sets in her opener and a couple tiebreaks to make the quarters, but she seems to have her game back in shape. And her next opponent, third seed Madison Brengle -- who the Croat beat in Strasbourg -- is also trying to rev her season back up. After reaching the final in Hobart as a qualifier and stunning players like Andrea Petkovic in Melbourne and Petra Kvitova in Stuttgart, she's slowed down noticeably, going just 1-10 through the spring and summer. She hasn't faced huge threats yet, but she's only lost seven games this week, which could do a lot for her confidence.

Of course whether these ladies can keep up their performances when the big guns get back on court will be another matter entirely. But these smaller events are as good a chance as any to get their names on the map. And maybe by the time they get bumped up to the big leagues, they'll be able to make an even bigger statement.

September 13, 2015

Chasing History

With all eyes on the ladies at the U.S. Open this year, it's easy to forget that there was also plenty on the line for the two men contesting the other singles trophy in New York this fortnight. And while the men's draw certainly boasted its share of surprises and upsets too, ultimately, here, it was the top two ranked players in the world who battle it out for the trophy. And what a battle it would be.

Top seed Novak Djokovic was the on-paper favorite at the Open, but he's had surprisingly little hardware to show for his efforts in New York -- despite reaching the final five times before this year, he'd only picked up one trophy. And his summer might not have been exactly what he'd expected -- since taking the title at Wimbledon, he'd finished as runner-up at both hardcourt Masters events, exposing some possible vulnerabilities in his game. But the world #1 came out swinging in the Big Apple, dropping just three games in his opening round and later scoring a hugely lopsided victory over defending champion Marin Cilic in the semis. The win gained him entry to his fourth Slam final of the year and a chance to join an illustrious group of double-digit Major winners.

Standing in his way, though -- as he so often is these days -- was Roger Federer. The Swiss superstar hadn't dropped a set during his run in New York and, fresh off a win over Nole in Cincinnati, had some much needed confidence on his side. Still, it'd been more than three years since his last Major victory, and six since he got as far as the final here. But the thirty-four year old has managed to stay more than relevant over the past several seasons, and having not dropped a set in his first six matches -- he only dropped serve twice heading into the final -- it looked like he was in good shape to claim what would be an astounding sixth title at the U.S. Open.

In Sunday's final, though, it was Nole who took the early lead. After exchanging breaks with Roger to start off, he took advantage of somewhat lackluster play from his opponent and grabbed the first set. But Federer seemed reenergized in the second -- with the crowd clearly on his side, he kept Djokovic at bay on his service games and secured the only break of the set to force a best-of-three situation. Both players raised their games in the third, though, and after the second seed failed to covert a slew of break opportunities, it was the Serb who rattled off a couple games in a row to get the two-set-to-one lead. He built a nice cushion in the fourth too, but Federer clearly wasn't about to give up -- he finally broke Novak on his first attempt to serve out the match and nearly did it again on his second. But eventually it was Djokovic who proved the stronger -- with some of the most amazing, heart-stopping play of the entire tournament, he held on to claim victory again, surprisingly just his third in a Major final, and put a cherry on top what might just be his best season yet.

The win now puts Djokovic among the ranks of Pete Sampras, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver -- and of course Roger Federer -- with ten or more Grand Slam trophies to his name. And the way he's playing, even at the ripe old age of twenty-eight, it seems like he's primed to rack up even more. Whether he ultimately goes down in history as one of the greatest players of all time remains to be seen -- but when he's putting up the performances he has against the very best in the world, it sure seems like he could be a contender for that title.

The Anti Anti-Climax

We were supposed to watch history happen this weekend at the U.S. Open. And with tickets to the ladies' final selling out before the men's for the first time in recent memory, it seemed clear most fans believed the one storyline everyone was chasing was inevitable. Serena Williams was going to win the calendar year Grand Slam, tie Steffi-Graf for an Open Era record twenty-two Major wins, and cement her place as the greatest women's tennis player in history.

Well things didn't go quite as we might have expected, but that doesn't mean we didn't see some amazing action during the closing days in New York. In fact, we may have seen a different kind of history made instead.

On the women's side of the draw, the drama got amped up during Friday's rain-delayed semifinals. It started when Flavia Pennetta, who's had some of her best results in Flushing Meadows, took the court against second seeded Simona Halep -- the heavy favorite had battled through some of her previous matches, needing three sets against both Sabine Lisicki and two-time runner-up Victoria Azarenka on her way to the Final Four. But the twenty-sixth seed had been tested too, taking out former champ Sam Stosur and Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova during her run too. And she was even more impressive against Halep, needing less than an hour to oust the heavy favorite and make her first ever Slam final.

Of course it was the second semi that really captured everyone's attention. Serena was taking on Roberta Vinci, a woman who'd never taken a set off her -- never even won more than four games in a set -- and who'd been mightily struggling with her singles career over the past eighteen months. The Italian was coming off first first Major quarterfinal win, having only made it that far two times before, but she hadn't really been challenged during her run in the Big Apple. With Genie Bouchard pulling out of their fourth round, she didn't face a single seed until Friday, and at just #43 in the world, few thought she had any chance against the most dominating top seed possible. But after squandering an early break and dropping the first set, Vinci didn't give up -- she grabbed a break again in the second and this time held on to force a decider, and then even came back from an early deficit in the third to nab the lead again. With the supreme underdog serving for the match at 5-4, most may have expected Williams to roar back under the pressure and obliterate her opponent, but somehow the Italian held at love to score the biggest win of her career and stop Serena's two match wins short of her goal.

By the time Saturday's final came around, I'm not sure anyone knew what to expect -- Pennetta and Vinci had a combined age of fifty-five and a combined ranking of sixty-nine. Not unlike last year's men's final, when two heavy favorites were both shockingly upset by relative underdogs, we were seeing two players who'd never contested a Major championship match. And nerves were high from the start -- Pennetta, the seeded and slightly more experienced of the pair, seemed a little shaky at the start, ceding an early break herself in the opening set. But she regained composure as the game went on, claiming the tiebreak and taking a two-break lead in the second before claiming the win over her good friend and countrywoman. And after what can only be described as the most surprising of Cinderella runs, the thirty-three year old -- incidentally, the oldest ever first time Slam winner -- surprised us again. Just before accepting the trophy, she announced she'd decided a month ago this would be the last match of her tennis career. Maybe that explains how she was able to hit so freely during the last two weeks, but whatever the driver behind her inspiring campaign in New York, there's certainly no better way to say good-bye than by putting up the very best performance of her career.

So maybe things didn't work out the way many might have wanted, but you can't deny how amazing the performances from these two women were over the past fortnight. And while something tells me we haven't heard the last from Serena as she starts back on her quest in the coming months, maybe what we saw the last few days proves there's hope for everyone out there to make history themselves.

And that it's never too late to pick up the biggest title of your career.

September 8, 2015

The Long Shots

Maybe we shouldn't be that surprised by what's gone down so far at the U.S. Open. After all over the past two years we've seen a slew of first-time finalists and even a couple new champions at the Majors. So it seems only fitting that the underdogs continue to thrive in New York. Sure, there's a lot more game to be played before anyone's crowned a champion, but if their performances so far are any indication, there's no reason they can't keep going.

Richard Gasquet is probably the most decorated among the men in this group -- he made a solid run to the semis here two years ago and even reached the final four at Wimbledon this season. He's still ranked outside the top ten, but with two titles and wins over the likes of Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, he's playing much above his level. He's had a couple challenges so far in the Big Apple, being forced to five sets against upstart Thanasi Kokkinakis in his first round and dropping his opening set to Robin Haase a match later. But he's been on point in later rounds -- he needed less than ninety minutes to dispatch Bernard Tomic and late last night came back after losing the first set to Tomas Berdych to notch his seventh win over the sixth-seed. Next up for the Frenchman is Roger Federer, who he's only beaten twice in sixteen previous matches, but if he's feeling inspired he might just surprise us again.

Spain's Feliciano Lopez seems pretty inspired himself -- the eighteenth seed had been struggling a big ahead of the Open, failing to defend points during his traditionally strong grass court season, and falling a bit from his career-high #12 ranking in March. But he also notched his second straight win over compatriot Rafael Nadal and reached the quarters in Indian Wells. He was pushed to the limit early in New York, coming back against a retiring Mardy Fish in an emotional second round, but quickly proved himself against both Milos Raonic and, most recently, Fabio Fognini, who'd scored his own win over Nadal in the third round. Facing off against Novak Djokovic tonight, Feli's road forward certainly won't get any easier -- but the veteran likes the fight at these events and certainly won't give up now.

Of course the biggest -- recent -- surprise in the men's draw came last night when highly underrated Kevin Anderson took the court against Andy Murray. The South African has had trouble in the clutch throughout his career, picking up only two titles in ten finals before August. But he picked up his first trophy in over three years in Winston-Salem, climbing back to a #14 ranking. Despite an easy win over formerly red-hot Dominic Thiem, he was clearly the underdog versus Murray -- but that didn't seem to bother him. Anderson eked out the first set in a tiebreak and jumped out to an early lead before claiming the second. After he squandered a break in the third and the Scot rolled through the tiebreak, it seemed the 2012 champ was primed to pull off his second comeback of the tournament. But this time it was the fifteenth seed's turn to dominate a tiebreak -- blanking the heavy favorite in the fourth set, he claimed his first ever Major quarterfinal slot. And while his next opponent Stan Wawrinka is again the on-paper favorite, Anderson's won all of their last four meetings and might just have extra motivation to keep his streak going.

The ladies' draw also claims a couple surprising names among the quarterfinalists, but perhaps the best story is that of a woman who's actually claimed this title twice before. Venus Williams hasn't been much of a factor at the Majors in recent years, of course, ceding her claim to the big trophies to younger sister, but she's remained a dangerous force on Tour in spite of her lowered ranking. Now #23 in the world, she picked up a title to start the year in Auckland and notched top-ten victories over Aga Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki this season. Something of an elder statesman at the Open -- her wins here came at the turn of the century -- she's handled threats from the upcoming generation of stars with little problem. After being pushed to three sets by both Monica Puig and Irina Falconi early, she thumped Toronto champ Belinda Bencic, in a way avenging her sibling's loss to the Swiss in the Rogers Cup semis. Of course she'll meet Serena in tonight's spotlight match, which seems fitting given what her sister is trying to do in New York. The younger Williams has dominated Venus over the last five years, of course, but the top seed was upset last year in Montreal, so we could be in for another stunner here. Whatever the outcome, though, it seems appropriate that this would be the stage for their latest -- but maybe not last -- battle.

Flavia Pennetta may not have as much metal to show for her efforts in New York, but that doesn't mean she hasn't had any success here. She reached her first -- and so far only -- Slam semi in New York two years ago and has now made the quarters in six of her last seven tries. She's been a little up-and-down in 2015, though -- the defending champion in Indian Wells did beat Maria Sharapova there this year, but she also fell in the first round at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. She got a little bit of a break during her early rounds this fortnight -- last year's runner-up Caroline Wozniacki was upset for her by Petra Cetkovska, and she didn't have to meet a seed until yesterday. But she held tough against a seemingly rejuvenated Sam Stosur, winner here in 2011, and scored an upset of her own. Next up for the feisty Italian is fifth seed Petra Kvitova, who's riding a nice win streak of her own after picking up a title in New Haven -- but with a 3-3 record against the two-time Wimbledon champ, Pennetta might just be the one to end it.

But perhaps the greatest opportunity at this year's U.S. Open lies with unseeded Kristina Mladenovic, who never before made it out of a Major third round -- at least not in singles. A mixed doubles champion at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, the Frenchwoman has had huge successes at the Slams -- at lesser tournaments too -- but has always seemed to have trouble following up one win with another, and without the follow through she's been relegated to a mediocre #40 ranking. But she's still a threat -- especially now that she's reached the quarterfinals. While she hasn't had to face a favorite quite as intimidating as she's had in the past, she did open with a win over 2004 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and she took out last year's semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova on Sunday night. She's up next against a recently strong Roberta Vinci, another doubles specialist, but one she's never faced on the solo Tour. Mladenovic has certainly taken out bigger and better opponents in the past, and hopefully she'll be able to keep her cool when the stakes are so high. But with a chance to finally make a dent at the Majors, you'd have to assume she'll come out swinging as hard as she ever has before.

Of course, there's a big difference between the success any of these guys has seen and what they'll still need to do to make a real play for the titles. And with the very favorites still out in full force, their greatest challenges are yet to come. But perhaps one or more of them could cause a little more damage before their runs in New York are over. And after so many have already broken through at the Slams, why not add a couple more names to that list

September 6, 2015

U.S. Open Catch-Up: Week One Standouts

Okay, I realize I've been a little out of pocket the last few days, but that definitely doesn't mean there wasn't a ton going on at the U.S. Open's early rounds. And now with the battle for the quarterfinals about to start, you can't help but notice a few unexpected faces still in contention.

So far it seems Serena Williams is well in control of her destiny -- though she was well-tested by doubles specialist Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her third round, she came back strong to close out the match with a bagel set. Other favorites in the top half of the women's draw weren't so fortunate, though -- Belinda Bencic, one of my dark horse picks to win this tournament was stunned by an in-form Venus Williams on Friday, punching the American veteran's ticket to the fourth round in New York for the first time since 2010. And Aga Radwanska fell too, maybe not so surprisingly, to a tough Madison Keys, the first time she's lost to the twenty-year-old in five meetings. Other players, though, have really stepped up to the plate -- Genie Bouchard, who'd put together a more-than-disappointing 9-17 record this season before the Open, seems to have finally found her game again. While she hasn't faced another seed yet, she's taken out tough opponents from Alison Riske to former Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova. Next up she'll face Roberta Vinci, another woman who's looking for a comeback, but if the Canadian performs at her best there's no reason she can't make a real play for the only Major semi she didn't reach last year. But of course the real standout here is little-known Anett Kontaveit -- the nineteen year old qualifier is ranked outside the top one-fifty and has spent most of her time on the ITF circuit this year. But in her first week in Flushing Meadows, she notched a nice upset of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and followed through by beating a tough Madison Brengle. Of course she'll face a bigger challenge today against Venus, but she's had a lot of match play this season and may just have the energy to score another win.

It seems like there have been a few more upsets on the bottom half of the ladies' draw. Last year's runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, who'd already been struggling this year, bowed out early again, this time to world #149 Petra Cetkovska. And while it may not have been too surprising, Angelique Kerber, who'd been having a super-strong season, picking up her fourth Premier-level title of the year in Stanford, put up a huge fight before eventually succumbing to two-time finalist Victoria Azarenka in what's at least an on-paper upset. And with such big holes in this section, a couple underdogs may be able to take advantage. Always talented Varvara Lepchenko will face Vika next, and while the Ukrainian-born American is a bit off her career high #19 ranking, she's nevertheless a real threat in New York. She beat both Sam Stosur and Madison Keys to start the year in Brisbane and on the summer hardcourts in Stanford, took out Wozniacki in straight sets. In her first week at the Open, she battled past my other long-shot Lesia Tsurenko and yesterday came back from a set down to beat Mona Barthel. Her road forward will be tough -- it's been ten years since her only win over Azarenka, but after the energy the Belorussian expended in her third round, Lepchenko may be able to prevail. And then there's Johanna Konta, the twenty-four year old who's riding a ten match win streak coming into the Open. After reaching the quarters in Eastbourne, the Brit picked up ITF titles in Granby and Vancouver and this week scored her second straight win over Wimbledon finalist Garbiñe Muguruza and followed up by taking out Andrea Petkovic yesterday. She'll have to face New Haven champ Petra Kvitova next, and while the fifth seed has put together a nice run of her own, an upset here isn't out of the question.

Not surprisingly the men have been a little less susceptible to early exits, but not entirely immune. Kei Nishikori, of course, dropped out in his first round and David Ferrer, who'd only played one match since Roland Garros, seemed on point for a while but was eventually defeated by Jeremy Chardy on Friday. Of course the big shock came very early Saturday morning, when two-time champion Rafael Nadal squandered a two-set and a break lead to Fabio Fognini and allowed the thirty-second seed his third win over the former #1 this year. The feisty Italian, who'd never made the fourth round in New York before, now faces Feliciano Lopez, who stunned an out-of-form Milos Raonic in his lat match. The two have never met before, but if they play up to their potential this could be a big fight. But there are opportunities for others in the top half of the bracket too. Defending champion Marin Cilic hadn't been having the best season to date, but he made his way through early matches without much drama -- it wasn't until the third round against Mikhail Kukushkin that he was actually challenged, needing five sets and more than four hours to clinch the win. But the Croat likes long matches -- he's won seventy percent of the thirty he's played -- and seems able to bounce back well from the effort. He's just split his first two sets against Chardy, as one of the most under-the-radar returning titleists I can remember, he might just be able to surprise us again.

The bottom half of the men's draw has been largely in tact so far with all of the top seeds advancing as planned. While Andy Murray was dealt a bit of a scare early -- he was down two sets to Adrian Mannarino in his second round -- he rebounded quickly and took out Thomaz Bellucci last night in straight sets. But while Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka and even Tomas Berdych have advanced with relative ease, there might be a few more battles in store down the road. Donald Young continues his strength this fortnight, yesterday racking up his second upset of the tournament over Viktor Troicki. He actually beat Wawrinka here four years ago, and might just have the confidence to do it again. But the Swiss #2's bigger threat may lie a match later -- severely underrated Kevin Anderson is coming off a solid run to the trophy in Winston-Salem, and he fought through early-summer standout Dominic Thiem without dropping a set. He has one career win over Murray, his next opponent, but if he manages to squeak by, he's got a much better shot against Wawrinka, who he's beaten in their last four meetings. It might be a tough ask to take out two top-ten players in a row, but the South African is long overdo for a big run at a Major, and this might just be his chance. Same too for John Isner, who hasn't come close to repeating his quarterfinal run here in 2011. But the Atlanta champion has been impressive so far in New York -- long known as a big server, he's finally getting breaks against strong opponents, and reached the fourth round without dropping a set. He'll meet Federer next, which will be no easy task, of course -- but the American has one five-set win over the living legend, and he might be able to give him a run for the money again.

There's a lot of ball left to be played, of course, but any one of them might just be able to cause a stir as the stakes get higher in New York. And after the wins they've already been able to score, there's not much I wouldn't put past them.

September 1, 2015

Rife With Upsets

The first couple of days of the U.S. Open were not very good for the seeded players, and even some of the true contenders for the title proved vulnerable in their first rounds.

Of course, most of the heavy favorites sailed -- both Serena Williams and Simona Halep were squarely in control of their matches when their opponents retired, and players like Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer -- even embattled Rafael Nadal -- got through their opening rounds with little drama. Others were not so lucky.

The upsets actually started even before any balls were hit in New York, but perhaps that set the stage. Maria Sharapova announced Sunday that the leg injury that forced her out of Cincinnati and Toronto would keep her from playing at the Open too. That should have been a huge break for her slated first round opponent, Daria Gavrilova, the Girls' champion here in 2010 -- the twenty-one year old Russian stunned her compatriot in Miami and made it all the way to the semis in Rome. She came to Flushing Meadows near a career-high ranking of #38 in the world and now, instead of playing a former champion, was gifted a match-up against lucky loser Daria Kasatkina. Unfortunately for Gavrilova, she wasn't able to capitalize -- her namesake grabbed the first set and stayed tougher after being pushed to a third. She now has a huge opportunity of her own -- with Svetlana Kuznetsova already ousted by giant-killer Kristina Mladenovic, she won't face a seed until at least the fourth round. And the way things are going, maybe even after that.

After all, one of the first matches played resulted in the biggest upset we've seen so far. Ana Ivanovic, who reached the semis in Paris and came oh-so-close to defeating Serena in Cincinnati, carried the seventh seed in New York and could have been a dark horse this fortnight. But she was dealt a tough blow, drawing former Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova in the first round. The Slovakian had been a little quiet this year, taking a break during the spring due to injury and only winning a couple matches since her return -- the lack of play sent her ranking out of the top fifty. But Domi didn't have much to lose at the Open -- she was unceremoniously ousted in her opener last year by teenage phenom Cici Bellis, and so could take her chances. After taking the first set from Ivanovic, Cibulkova could have easily let the match slip away from her -- she often does -- but for once she stayed strong, finishing out the match in just under two hours. Next up for the one-time top-tenner -- qualifier Jessica Pegula. The young American may get the crowd on her side, but maybe this time Domi will be able to power through.

It hasn't been just the top women who were susceptible to early exits either. Kei Nishikori, the surprise runner-up in 2014, this year made as surprising a move when he dropped his first round. Maybe it shouldn't have been that shocking, though -- after a solid run to the title in D.C. and a win over Nadal in Montreal, the fourth seed was demolished in the Rogers Cup semis and pulled out of Cincinnati with injury. So on day one in New York, Benoit Paire, who won his first title last month in Bastad, was able to take advantage -- he came back from two-sets-to-one down to notch what was just his third win over a top-ten player. The Frenchman now has a pretty decent path paved for him -- with Gael Monfils retiring from his first round, far short of his performance from last year, the only seeds in Paire's immediate section of the draw are wholly beatable Tommy Robredo and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He's never gotten out of the second round at this Major, but this might just be his best shot at doing it.

The upsets, of course, continued on Tuesday. Czech veteran Lucie Safarova had been having an incredible run already this year, picking up a title in Doha and a putting in a top-rate performance in the Roland Garros final. She did well during the summer too, narrowly losing in the New Haven final last Saturday. And with a win over her first round opponent Lesia Tsurenko in the Connecticut semis, she might have had momentum on her side. But the Ukrainian underdog was out for revenge -- having also lost to Safarova in the U.S. Open first round two years ago, this time she was able to turn the tables and in just about an hour scored her fifth top ten win of the year. She too has seen her section of the draw open up nicely -- with Irina-Camelia Begu losing in three today to Olga Govortsova, her first real threat will likely be either 2011 standout Angelique Kerber or two-time runner-up Victoria Azarenka. And with those two likely to put up a big fight against each other, it wouldn't be out of the question to see Tsurenko pounce on whoever comes out the winner.

Gilles Simon may not have been as highly favored as some of these other guys, but ranked just outside the top ten, he could have been a very dangerous second tier threat. The Frenchman had put together a pretty solid season, picking up a title to start the year in Marseille and reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon with wins over Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych. He'd never made it out of the fourth round in New York, but it seemed like this could be his opportunity to change that. Unfortunately for him, though, brash American Donald Young had other plans. The one time prodigy turned bitter disappointment has clawed himself back to #68 in the world, and though he did score a nice win over Berdych himself in Montreal, it's been years since he's done anything notable at a Slam. That changed today though -- after dropping the first two sets to Simon, he roared back to take the next three in the three and a half hour match. He might have had a tricky next match, too, but Britain's Aljaz Bedene dispatched a struggling Ernests Gulbis for him, and potential third round opponent Viktor Troicki, despite a strong 2014 comeback season, hasn't been so impressive this year. If Young can keep his cool he might finally live up to the potential he once so clearly had.

There have been other upsets worth mentioning too, of course -- U.S. Open Series winner Karolina Pliskova was demolished in her first round and one-time finalist Jelena Jankovic lost her lead to little-known Oceane Dodin. And there will be plenty more to come. But the big question, as always, will be whether the vanquishers can keep their performances up as the stakes get higher.

After all, there's a lot on the line for everyone in New York. And whoever can take advantage will be hugely rewarded.