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.

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