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.

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