October 1, 2015

Trying to Shake It Off

Tennis is a tough sport -- when you're out on the court by yourself, there's a lot of pressure on individual players to deliver and even the very best can feel the toll. After all Serena Williams announced today she would end her season early, pulling out of next week's China Open and saying she'd skip the season ending championships in Singapore. She mentioned a couple injuries that had been nagging her game this year, but perhaps more tellingly, acknowledged her heart was a little broken after that shocking semifinal loss in New York. And if she needs time to recover, then everybody does.

Of course not everyone had as much riding on their shoulders as Serena did at the U.S. Open, and some might be much more used to notching a loss here and there. But that doesn't make their need to rebound any less important, and this week a couple are hoping they can dust themselves off and get back on track.

At this time last year Marin Cilic was riding high off his first ever Grand Slam title, but he had a tough time reliving that glory in 2015. After a lackluster season for the most part, though, he actually put up an admirable showing in the City, getting all the way to the semis, albeit without having to face anyone in the top fifteen. But he was absolutely drubbed by eventual champion Novak Djokovic in his final four match, winning just three games and not even a third of the total points over the ninety minutes they played. In his first match since that loss this week in Shenzhen, the Croat was tested by Australian John Millman but was able to survive. Next up he'll face little-known Hyeon Chung, who's been climbing up the rankings through the Challengers' Tour and is coming off a title last week in Taiwan. He may be a tougher test for Cilic than the Croat realizes, but if he can get through it, it could put him in a position to end the year on a higher note.

Nick Kyrgios is also looking to regain momentum, though his might have been lost for a different reason. The talented Aussie, who's got wins over Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer under his belt, has made headlines more recently for his behavior rather than his performance. Once ranked twenty-fifth in the world, since that on-court run-in with Stan Wawrinka in Montreal a few months ago, he's fallen out of the top forty, was dropped from the Davis Cup semis tie, and lost three straight matches. He got back on court this week in Kuala Lumpur, though, and has already taken out Santiago Giraldo by retirement and a strong Tatsuma Ito earlier today. In Friday's quarterfinal he'll take on big-serving Ivo Karlovic, who he's beaten in their only previous meeting. But the match will be about more than just the final score -- Kyrgios needs to prove he's about more than just flare and bluster and that he can handle the stress of not only high expectations but of a high profile. And if he can get through these next few matches he might be able to put a rough summer well behind him.

Donna Vekic was unwittingly caught up in the drama that engulfed Kyrgios too, and at a time when the teen was trying to revive her career. With wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova, Dominika Cibulkova and Garbiñe Muguruza last year, she seemed primed to take off, but injury plagued her later in the season and after failing to defend her Kuala Lumpur crown this year, fell well out of the top hundred. Though she did score a nice win over Francesca Schiavone in Baku, she fell in qualifying at both the French and U.S. Opens and struggled too even on the ITF circuit. But this week in Tashkent she seems to have gotten a little spring in her step back -- she came back after dropping the first set to second seed Carina Witthoeft and has survived three deciding sets to make the semis. She'll face off against Evgenia Rodina in the next round, but at an event where no seeds are left in contention, the door may be wide open for the young Croat. And if she can take the opportunity she'll be happy to see her name in the headlines for all the right reasons.

Roberta Vinci certainly knows how a big win can put your name in the spotlight already. The surprise vanquisher of Serena Williams in New York became a household name seemingly out of nowhere, after months middling results on Tour and a drop out of the top forty. But perhaps the win took a little too much out of her -- she fell to compatriot Flavia Pennetta a match later, when even more was on the line. That hiccup doesn't seem to have had a lasting effect, though -- this week in Wuhan, among a field that included seven top ten players, the Italian picked up right where she left off, taking out Seoul champion Irina-Camelia Begu in the second round and earlier today stunning third-seed Petra Kvitova in straight sets. There are still plenty of threats left in the draw, of course, and even the unseeded players like Venus Williams and Anna Schmiedlova pose a risk. Vinci did absolutely dismantle her next opponent Karolina Pliskova the last time they met, dropping just one game to the now-#12 Czech back in 2013, so she could keep her streak going even longer. And after pulling off the biggest win of the year, there's might not be anything she can't do.

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