October 29, 2015

Maybe Next Year

There are still a few spots left at the ATP Finals in London, but for the vast majority of men on Tour, their hopes of qualifying at this point are slim at best. Still a couple guys this week might just be making a case to put themselves in the conversation next season.

In Valencia some long shots were actually given a bit of a helping hand from the field's favorites. With Feliciano Lopez losing today to Vienna standout Steve Johnson and players like Bernard Tomic and even giant-killer Fabio Fognini getting upset early, the draw has been opened wide. That could present an opportunity for veteran Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, who's quietly picked up two titles this year and actually climbed back to near his career-high ranking. He powered through a tough opener against Fernando Verdasco, and while he's actually lost his only previous meeting with Johnson, his quarterfinal opponent, he's been riding a pretty hot streak this fall and might just keep it up. Then there's Roberto Bautista Agut, who's been picking up steam himself in recent weeks -- he's had a tough draw, facing off against former top-ten player Nicolas Almagro in his first round and then battling talented teen Andrey Rublev earlier today. If he keeps up his level of play, not only could he walk away with the title, but he might just put himself back on track to do even more damage next year.

There's a little more on the line in Basel, where -- despite the noticeably more-stacked draw -- some of the contenders do still have an outside chance of making this year's cut. Marin Cilic, fresh off a successful title defense in Moscow, is currently eleventh on the London leaderboard and would need a lot of things to go his way if he wants to make his second trip to the ATP Championships -- still, straight set wins this week, including one today over an always-tough Teymuraz Gabashvili, could help him make a stronger case next year. And David Goffin, who took out Andreas Seppi and Adrian Mannarino already this week, seems to be building on the success made him one of the best comeback stories of 2014. But the real story in Switzerland might be Richard Gasquet, who could earn himself a ticket this year if he keeps his run going a little while longer -- the Wimbledon semifinalist has wins over Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka already this year, and has picked off two rising stars this week too. He'd have to win titles in Basel and Paris next week, what would be his first Masters trophy ever -- but he might be better off saving his energy to come out swinging when the new year starts.

After all, it won't be long before everyone wipes their slates clean and starts over -- and if any of these guys can bring their current momentum with them into 2016, there's no reason they can't really shake up the standings from the start.

October 26, 2015

Opening Salvos

This year's WTA Finals could be one of the most interesting year-end championships we've seen in years -- with the most dominant player on Tour sitting out the postseason, nearly half the qualifiers making just their first appearance at this event, and each and every entrant showing a little vulnerability since the U.S. Open, it really is anybody's game. And with the first round robin matches in the books, we've gotten a glimpse of who might be most willing to take advantage of the opportunity.

Play kicked off Sunday with a rematch of the first shocking semi in New York this year -- eventual champion Flavia Pennetta, who at thirty-three has said this would be the last professional event of her career, hoped to repeat against top seed Simona Halep. Both have been below their best recently -- the Italian was upset by a qualifier in Tianjin and withdrew from the Moscow quarters with a foot injury, just after clinching her entry to Singapore, while the world #2 retired from the draw in Beijing after early losses in both Guangzhou and Wuhan. That could have presented an opportunity for Pennetta to pounce, but this time the Romanian was able to take charge, dropping just three games in the barely hour-long match. It was an important start for the favorite, who in her debut last year reached the final with a victory over Serena Williams in the early rounds. If she wants to go one better this time, she'll need to show her recent struggles were just a fluke and such a decisive win to start off may have done just that.

The second match in Singapore was just a little more challenging -- Maria Sharapova, by far the most experienced of the field, took on Aga Radwanska, who'd made a solid late-season push to qualify for her seventh appearance here. MaSha, who won this event an entire eleven years ago, started the year off strong, but a leg injury sustained during her Wimbledon semifinal lost forced her out of summer events and the U.S. Open -- when she finally did return to play in Wuhan, she retired in the third set of her opener with an arm ailment. The Pole meanwhile, who'd fallen as low as #15 in the world after a weak start to 2015, made a nice jump higher with a semi showing at the All England Club and titles in Tokyo and Tianjin. While she pulled out of Moscow last week, she seemed to have the momentum that could take her far at the Finals, but Sharapova may have stopped that. After dropping the first set the Russian roared back in the second and fought off a late surge from her opponent in the decider and, in the nearly three-hour match, Sharapova was the one left somewhat unexpectedly standing. But she'll have to regroup quick if she's going to keep up her streak -- with a match against a decidedly more rested Halep on Tuesday, she'll need every ounce of energy she's got.

Things were just as interesting in Monday's contests, where the first match-up in the White Group pitted two newbies against each other. Wimbledon finalist Garbiรฑe Muguruza faced off against Roland Garros runner-up Lucie Safarova, both of whom scored their best Major results this year, and both of whom are also playing the doubles event in Singapore. Here too though, there were some questions hanging above the players -- the Spaniard retired from the final in Wuhan, seemed to recover for a title in Beijing a week later, and then pulled out of Hong Kong. Safarova, meanwhile, has struggled a bit more -- the last woman to qualify for this event lost openers in Linz and Moscow, not to mention at the U.S. Open and now hasn't won a match since New Haven. And that gave Muguruza the opening she needed -- the twenty-two year old fired off ten aces and forced fifteen break opportunities -- and even though the Czech was able to keep things tight at the end, the second seed may have shaken off her debut nerves a bit better and be in the prime spot to power through from here.

The last round robin might have resulted in the only real surprise we've seen at the tournament so far. Relative veterans Petra Kvitova, the only one in this group to beat Serena Williams this year, and Angelique Kerber, who's very quietly picked up four titles in 2015, might have been two of the most closely matched opponents to open against each other -- all but one of their six previous meetings have gone three sets. Still Kvitova lost early in both Wuhan and Beijing and Kerber, after reaching the final in Hong Kong skipped out on Moscow, leaving her fate in qualifying for Singapore in other players' hands. But the sixth seed came out swinging in her opener, grabbing the first set without allowing a break opportunity. Though things were closer in the second, Kerber was able to stay more focused in the tiebreak, able to score her first win over the Czech in more than three years. The only player to have notched an upset, the German is actually at the top of her round robin group and if she keeps hitting the way she did Monday, she might just stay that way.

Of course there is still plenty more ball left before this year's final trophy is awarded. And while the ladies who opened their campaigns with a win are certainly at an early advantage, anything can still happen from here. And in just about a week one of these players might have just established herself as the one to beat in the new year.

October 25, 2015

A Week to Remember

There are still a couple weeks left for the guys this tennis season, but as we've learned it's never too late to make a stand. And this week, even the men who came in second place have something to be proud of.

It's been a bit of a disappointing year for 2014's unexpected U.S. Open winner -- after taking a few months off to nurse an injury, he spent some time getting his groove back. Though he made a couple deep runs at tournaments here and there, and even got all the way back to the semis in New York, he didn't score one win over a top-ten player all season and was utterly dismantled by Novak Djokovic in Flushing Meadows. But this week he had a chance to put that all behind him -- returning as the defending champ in Moscow, the Croat had one last opportunity to reclaim a title this year. He stumbled early against Denis Istomin, but got through later rounds without much of a struggle, ultimately reaching his first final of the year on Sunday. There he met second seed Roberto Bautista Agut, another man who's had his own troubles following up his breakthrough 2014 and has seen his ranking fall from a career-high #14 this time last season to out of the top twenty-five now. He had a decidedly tougher route in Russia too, facing off against an always-tough Philipp Kohlschrieber in the semis, but he too got through the challenge to set up a repeat of last year's championship match. And Cilic took the lead this time too -- grabbing the only two breaks of the match, the top seed was able to finish off his opponent again in straight sets and capped the year the way he must have hoped to have started it. And if he's able to stay healthy this time, there's no reason he won't be able to make up ground in the months that come.

Over in Vienna David Ferrer also capitalized on his top seed -- after dealing with his own injuries this year, the one-time Roland Garros runner-up seems to have more than gotten his form back. Since skipping Wimbledon and losing in the third round in New York, he picked up career title #25 in Kuala Lumpur and reached the semis in Beijing. He dropped a set early this week at the Erste Bank Open, but nevertheless made it to his fifth final of the year without breaking a sweat. But the real story here might have been the surge we saw from eventual finalist Steve Johnson -- the young American has long been on the outskirts of the sports elite, but this year has finally been making a play to get some more consideration. He made it to the semis in DC with wins over Bernard Tomic and Grigor Dimitrov and took out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Winston-Salem too. This week, still outside of seeding territory, he stunned U.S. Open standout Kevin Anderson and took out a seemingly-revived Ernests Gulbis on Saturday. In his first ever ATP final he even ran off to an early lead against Ferrer, grabbing the first set off the heavy favorite -- but even though he did eventually lose the closer-than-you-might-imagine championship match, he might have finally proved he's got what it takes to hit with the big boys. And as he starts to prep for the new year, there may never have been a better time for him to do it.

Second place didn't seem so bad in Stockholm either. Top seed Tomas Berdych prevailed here too, picking up his second title of the year and solidifying his case for another post season appearance. But the bigger breakthrough in Sweden came for another young American, Jack Sock -- the twenty-three year old may be more decorated in doubles, but he's also making a stand on the solo circuit, winning his first career title early this season in Houston and putting up a nice fight against Rafael Nadal this year in his French Open fourth round. He'd risen up the rankings enough to earn himself a seventh seed this week, but he outdid even those expectations, staying strong against an always feisty Fernando Verdasco before taking out two heavy favorites, Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet, to make Sunday's final. Like his compatriot in Austria, he also put up a fight in the championship, getting a break early to start the match. And while he wasn't able to keep his momentum going quite so long, he certainly shown he can give the top guys a run for their money. And if he can take that confidence with him into the new season, there may be many more -- and bigger -- rewards to come.

October 22, 2015

Final Statements

The field may be set for this year's WTA Finals, but that doesn't mean the large majority of players who didn't make the cut aren't still trying to end their season with a bang. And whether they're hoping to recapture former glory or soar to new heights, this week a couple ladies could show us they're worth watching too.

There was only one player in Luxembourg who had an outside shot at qualifying for Singapore, but Timea Bacsinszky, whose meteoric rise this year brought her two titles, a top-ten ranking and a first Grand Slam semifinal, retired in the first set of her opener. But the beneficiary of that withdrawal has certainly capitalized -- twenty-seven year old Laura Siegemund peaked at a barely double-digit ranking just last month and only made the main draw here thanks to Lucie Hradecka pulling out. And after she got the win over the top seed, the German scored a solid upset over Kirsten Flipkens to reach the quarters. She's actually the on-paper favorite versus her next opponent, world #165 Stefanie Voegele, and with the other seeds in her half of the draw already eliminated, she stands a pretty good shot at reaching the final. Of course there's a bigger challenge in the bottom section of the bracket -- former #1 Jelena Jankovic is coming off her fifteenth career title in Hong Kong and her second trophy since the U.S. Open. She's kept her win streak going this week too and, as the highest ranked player left, she might just be able to gather up the momentum she needs to return to the elite in the new season.

The field was a little more stacked in Moscow where the original entry list boasted six players contending for the final four spots in Singapore -- but it's been those a little below the radar who're causing the biggest stir. Defending champion Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova had fallen out of the top forty at times this year, but started regaining ground in the second half, defeating Belinda Bencic on her way to the Washington final and taking out U.S. Open champ Flavia Pennetta in Beijing. Last week she ran off with the title in Linz, dropping just one set, and then got right back to work in her homeland -- unseeded in Russia, she took out French Open finalist Lucie Safarova and rising star Margarita Gasparyan. In the semis she'll face Daria Kasatkina, last year's Juniors champ in Paris, but might just have what it takes to keep her run going. But perhaps the bigger story here is that of veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova who, after a fairly lackluster season, stands to win her first title of the year this week. She hasn't faced a seed yet, and certainly will be challenged by a talented Lesia Tsurenko for a spot in the championship match. But if she can use her experience to her advantage, there's no reason she can't prove that she's still more than just a contender.

October 18, 2015

Total Domination

We've seen a lot of amazing things on Tour this tennis season -- some late bloomers finally breaking through, a couple long-standing champions show their human side, a one-time one hit wonder prove his worth and maybe a comeback or two. But when you get down to it, there's only one man on the ATP who's come through when it counts the most -- and this week he reminded us why.

That's not to say there weren't other story lines worth following in Shanghai this year -- defending champion Roger Federer was stunned in his first match since the U.S. Open final, losing to qualifier Albert Ramos in the opening round. And Rafael Nadal, fresh off a runner-up showing in Beijing, scored arguably his best two wins of the year, taking out Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka back-to-back on his way to the semis. And even Jo-Wilfried Tsonga made up for a largely quiet year, rebounding after losing a bagel set to take out Rafa and make his first Masters final of the year.

But in spite of the hugely talented field, it was Novak Djokovic who came out on top -- the two time champion here has been unquestionably the strongest force on Tour in 2015, winning three of the four Majors, four more Masters crowns, and reaching at least the final of all but one tournament he's played. This week in Shanghai he picked up right where he left off last week, tested only once when Bernard Tomic pushed him to a tiebreak in the first set. But he wasn't fazed at all, trouncing newly-minted world #2 Andy Murray in the semis and taking out Tsonga with little more effort in Sunday's championship.

Sunday's win earned Nole his ninth trophy of the year, and puts him just one shy of that breakthrough 2011 season that really put him on the map. He's also spitting distance from Nadal's record twenty-seven Masters titles, and the way he's been playing all year it doesn't seem like we'll have to wait much longer before he hits either goal.

And when he does, he might just set himself apart in an era dominated by some of the greatest athletes the sport has ever seen -- and notch himself a place in history in his own right.

October 15, 2015

On the Bubble

We've gotten to that time of year when players are looking to put in their last arguments to qualify for the year-end championships. And with Serena Williams withdrawing from the event in Singapore, perhaps the field is more wide open than its been in ages, so it's no surprise everyone still in contention -- even a couple new faces -- is fighting for those last available spots.

Lucie Safarova didn't do too much to strengthen her case this week, but she still might be in good shape to qualify for her first ever season-ender. Long among the second tier players in the sport, the veteran Czech had a breakthrough last year when she reached the Wimbledon semis. And in 2015 she scored her biggest title to date in Doha, scoring wins over Ekaterina Makarova and Victoria Azarenka in the process. Her real crowning achievement, though, came in Paris where she stunned two former titleists in Maria Sharapova and Ana Ivanovic on the way to her first Major final and even took a set off Serena in the championship match. She's slowed down a bit since then -- after a first round loss at the U.S. Open, she only got back on court this week in Linz and lost her opener to fellow Roland Garros standout Andreea Mitu. Still, at #7 on the year-end leaderboard with just a week of play left, she's in a solid spot -- after all she's already qualified for the doubles draw, winning crowns in Melbourne and France with Bethanie-Mattek Sands, so why not make the most out of her trip?

Angelique Kerber has a little more experience in postseason play, and is trying to wrap up her case for a third appearance at the WTA Finals this week. After a shocking first round loss in Melbourne and more than a few tough draws early in the year -- Victoria Azarenka in her Doha opener, Sam Stosur in Madrid -- she got herself back on track with some top-notch wins. She beat Maria Sharapova on her way to the Stuttgart title, and Aga Radwanska in Stanford. She's currently ranked #9 in the world, but with four Premier-level titles this year she leads the pack of bubble contenders, and her performance this week could seal her spot. The second seed in Hong Kong, she was tested early by former Grand Slam champion Francesca Schiavone in her first round, but scored an easy win over Kurumi Nara earlier today. Next up she'll face always tricky Caroline Garcia, but if she lives up to her potential she could not only walk away with this trophy but also make a return to the season finale. She missed the cut last year and has only won one match in her previous two appearances, but she's shown she's got the ability to cause a stir among the highest ranks and might just be able to turn around her luck this time.

There are actually more than a few ladies trying to make the Singapore cut in Tianjin this week, and their experience runs the gamut. Veteran Flavia Pennetta, who unexpectedly picked up her first and likely only Grand Slam trophy in New York last month, is on the verge of qualifying for her first year-end championships at the very twilight of her career. She lost her first round in China, but at #8 on the Road to Singapore, there's a chance she hasn't yet played her last match on Tour. Trying to usurp her position, though, is 2015 breakout star Karolina Pliskova, also looking for her WTA Finals debut. The young Czech rose to a career high #7 in the world just ahead of the U.S. Open, with wins over formerly top-ranked players like Victoria Azarenka and Ana Ivanovic and trips to five finals this year -- she picked up her fourth career title in Prague. She lost a little ground last week, dropping points she won in Linz last year, but she's alive and kicking in Tianjin and could make them up quickly. Aga Radwanska certainly rebounded herself -- after falling to a recent low #15 in the world over the summer, a title in Tokyo brought her back up into the top eight, and she's well in the running to make her seventh postseason appearance. She's lost just three games this week, and if she keep her play at this level, it might not be long before she seals the deal.

There's a lot at stake, after all, for the four ladies who have yet to make the year-end final -- of the four already there, three have been struggling with injuries and form in the last few months, and any one of these women could certainly pounce on that opening. And who knows when they'll get another opportunity to close out the year with a bang.

October 11, 2015

Not For Nothing

Tennis is such an individual sport, and when players spend so much time on the court by themselves, of course the ones that are able to walk away with the titles should be lauded for their achievements. But every now and then it's worth looking at the guys who came in second place too -- after all, those who fall just short of the win may have nevertheless done something big too.

The door swung wide open early for the ladies in Beijing, with Serena Williams pulling out, top seed Simona Halep retiring from her opener and two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova getting knocked out in the first round. And with powerhouses like that out of the mix, maybe it wasn't so unexpected to see Wuhan runner-up #Garbiñe Muguruza ultimately walk away with the title -- but that doesn't diminish the showing we saw out of second place finisher Timea Bacsinsky. One of the biggest comeback stories of last year started 2015 off strong too, reaching the semifinals at Roland Garros and taking a set off Serena there too. But she'd slowed down a bit since, losing four straight matches after Wimbledon and skipping the trip to Wuhan where she had her breakthrough twelve months ago. She got back on track at the China Open though, taking out Carla Suarez Navarro in the third round and stunning a revived Ana Ivanovic a few matches later. She put up a fight in Sunday's championship too, keeping the Spaniard in check on serve and winning just a handful fewer points than her opponent. She may have just missed picking up her third title of the year, but at an event that attracts the best in the sport, she may have given herself a bigger boost that either of the others have.

The men's draw in China wasn't cracked quite so open this year, with three of the four top seeds making it to the semis. And Novak Djokovic, who's continued to dominate the ATP this year with seven titles, three of them Majors, and only five losses, kept his streak going on these courts as well. The five time champion in Beijing added trophy number six to his shelf without dropping a set over the past week, in fact losing less than twenty games during his run. But it was still refreshing to see him take on Rafael Nadal in a final again -- the Spaniard, after all, has been famously spotty in 2015, claiming just a couple trophies at smaller tournaments and scoring just two wins over top ten players this season. He didn't do any better on that front this week -- as the third seed he didn't face another favorite until Sunday's final against Nole -- but he may have gotten an even bigger chip off his shoulder. After easily handling Vasek Pospisil and coming back from a set down to an always-tough Jack Sock, the former #1 got revenge against Fabio Fognini, the man who so shockingly took him out at the U.S. Open last month. He's still lost to the feisty Italian in three of their five meetings this year, but he might be about to get things back on track after this mental win.

There were some impressive performances outside of Beijing too -- at the Japan Open in Tokyo, top seed Stan Wawrinka was able to avenge the loss he suffered to homegrown Tatsuma Ito here last year, and ultimately rode that momentum to his fourth title of the year. And while that may have cemented his place among the sport's elite in 2015, Benoit Paire may have made a case for himself to someday get there too. Once ranked just inside the top twenty-five, the young Frenchman dropped into triple digits late last year and spent much of his time early in 2015 on the ITF and Challengers' circuits. But it wasn't until midyear that he finally was able to catch a break when playing with the big boys -- unseeded in Bastad he stunned David Goffin and perennially strong veteran Tommy Robredo to capture his first ATP title and went on to stun New York runner-up Kei Nishikori at the U.S. Open. And this week, after opening with an upset of eighth seed Grigor Dimitrov, he took out Marcos Baghdatis and Nick Kyrgios before notching a second straight victory over the Japanese champion -- each win coming in three sets. Though he did eventually lose to Wawrinka on Sunday, his showing throughout the week may be enough to get him back up the rankings -- and perhaps this time he has what it takes to stay there.

Of course we can't ignore the performances of the guys and gals who won the titles this weekend, but even those who came in second deserve a little bit of notice. After all just because they didn't walk away with the trophies doesn't mean they didn't accomplish something meaningful over the last several days. And if they keep it going, there's no telling what they'll be able to do the next time they hit the courts.

October 7, 2015

Out of Steam

Well, things haven't been going too well for a couple players who really shined last week, have they? While Kuala Lumpur champ David Ferrer and Wuhan runner-up Garbiñe Muguruza have so far stayed alive in early action, others have not been quite so lucky and seem to have immediately lost the momentum that pushed them so far just a few days ago.

Feliciano Lopez, a finalist at the Malaysian Open, took the courts in Tokyo this week, but lost his opening round in three sets to Joao Sousa, and that might create a nice opportunity for the Portuguese. Sousa, ranked #45 in the world, has been biding his time on the fringes for some time, but after reaching three finals this year, including one last month in St. Petersburg, he could be ready to break through. He's scored wins already over Roberto Bautista Agut and Dominic Thiem, but Wednesday's win marks his first over a top fifteen player since 2013. He now faces off against American Austin Krajicek, but his bigger test should come a round later, when he takes on French Open titleist Stan Wawrinka, who's won all three of their previous meetings. Still the Swiss was tested by mini-nemesis Tatsuma Ito in the second round and could be a little vulnerable now if Sousa gets an opening.

Lopez wasn't the only recent finalist to fall, though -- over in Beijing compatriot Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, who came in second in Shenzhen was also ousted early, falling in two tight sets to Ivo Karlovic. Tomas Berdych, too, who'd beaten GGL in Sunday's title match, was shockingly upset by Pablo Cuevas earlier today. Ironically these two vanquishers will face each other in the second round, but whoever comes out on top could be poised to shine. Karlovic is the obvious favorite, of course -- at #18 in the world the big-serving Croat was just outside of seeding territory -- but the feisty Uruguayan can't be counted out. Cuevas went on a fourteen match win streak last summer, picking up back-to-back titles on the clay of Umag and Bastad and then added title #3 to his kitty this year in Sao Paolo. It's been almost six years since the two last faced off, but he might just be the stronger one this time around.

Inertia was hard to keep on the women's side too. Venus Williams, who beat four seeded players in Wuhan last week, propelling her back to #14 in the world, got a first round bye in Beijing but still didn't enough have time to recover. Sixth seed Ana Ivanovic, who actually fell below the American in the rankings after failing to defend a title in Tokyo, put in one of her best performances of the year to score the win and followed up today by taking out always-tough Svetlana Kuznetsova. The former Roland Garros champ now could face the unenviable task of trying to end the career of Flavia Pennetta -- but that might be the biggest challenge she has left. After all, Serena Williams pulled out of the event a week ago and the remaining top seeds Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova both lost in their opening rounds, making the draw much less intimidating. So if Ivanovic can keep her cool a few matches more, she might quickly regain the ground she just lost.

Of course, any one of these guys could lose momentum just as quickly as the champions they beat, so the trick will be in holding on to what they've got on their sides now. And with the 2015 season so close to winding down, hopefully they'll be able to keep the juices flowing in the new year.

October 4, 2015

Back from the Dead

We should know by now that in tennis, no one should ever be counted out. With some of the best players still thriving well into their thirties -- and a couple even first breaking through when they hit that ripe "old" age -- even those who seem like their best days are behind them, somehow find a way to make a statement late in their careers. And this weekend a couple veterans proved that, while they may have been a little quiet in recent months and years, they're certainly not yet ready to be forgotten quite yet.

There's still one match left to be played in Shenzhen but it might surprise you to learn which of the thirty-plus year old contenders is looking for his first title of the year -- Tomas Berdych has reached final in Monte Carlo, Rotterdam and Doha, but hasn't yet picked up that all-important crown. Still he's looking about as strong as he has all season, rebounding from an opening round exit in St. Petersburg to roll through his early matches in China, pulling off solid wins over the likes of Jiri Vesely and always strong Tommy Robredo. In this week's rain-delayed final championship match, he'll take on Guillermo Garcia-Lopez who, despite a lower #29 ranking, has managed wins in Zagreb and Bucharest in 2015, and is actually pretty evenly matched with Berdych at 3-3 all-time. While the top-ten Czech does still boast better results on the big stages, he may have his work cut out for him in this match and he'll want to show he can still close out a win when it really matters.

David Ferrer may have done just that in Kuala Lumpur. The one-time French Open runner-up had a really strong start to the year, picking up a trio of titles in the first two months of the season and even reaching the quarters at Roland Garros. But injury forced him out of Wimbledon and he didn't play a hardcourt match through the summer before the U.S. Open, challenged there too by unknown Moldovian Radu Albot before losing in the third round to unseeded Jeremy Chardy. He seems to have gotten his game back on track though -- the top seed at Malaysian Open, he quickly dispatched early opponents, dropping just one set to always tricky Benjamin Becker in the semis. Meanwhile second seed Feliciano Lopez seemed primed to continue his resurgence this fall -- after a run to the quarterfinals in New York, the thirty-four year old Spaniard finally ended Nick Kyrgios's comeback on Saturday. But Ferrer proved too much for him in the final -- he was able to create eleven break opportunities, and though he just converted on three, it was enough to clinch the win and his unexpected fourth trophy of the year. Still in more-than-good shape to qualify for the year-end championships, the Spaniard has now won six games in a row since New York, and may have made his best case to date that he's still part of the sport's elite.

Over in Wuhan, Venus Williams certainly showed she's still part of that group. The former world-#1 has remained relevant during the latter stages of her career, running to the trophy in Auckland at the start of this season and making it all the way to the U.S. Open quarterfinals last month. This week the thirty-five year old took the courts among a crowded field which included seven top-ten players, but didn't seem daunted by that fact. While many of the favorites were ousted early -- Maria Sharapova retired from her first match since Wimbledon and Simona Halep was stunned by Johanna Konta in the third round -- Williams battled her way past Tokyo champ Aga Radwanska in their opener and then stopped short Roberta Vinci, the woman who'd stunned her sister in New York. In Saturday's final against Garbiñe Muguruza, who'd also scored a win over Serena not that long ago, the veteran American came out the stronger too, taking the first set and getting a break in the second before her opponent retired. It was one of Williams' biggest titles in years, but at this point in her career, may be her most valuable.

Of course this weekend wasn't all about the vets -- in Tashkent, twenty-year-old Nao Hibino, who's picked up a couple of ITF titles during her short career but had never done much to speak of on the WTA Tour, worked her way through the draw and finally ousted Donna Vekic in Saturday's final. Whether that's enough to propel the now-#117 ranked player into greater fortunes is yet to be seen. But if her fellow winners this weekend are any indication, she's got plenty of time left to do it.

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.