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.

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