November 30, 2015

Davis Cup Final -- 111 Years in the Making

Things sure have been tense in Belgium the last few weeks, and certainly on topics much more important than tennis. But while the world's eyes stay focused on what's happening in Brussels -- and what's happened so recently in Paris and, of course, in so many other places across the globe -- just a couple dozen miles away from the capital city in Ghent, this year's Davis Cup championship was contested, thankfully without incident. And in a rematch of the 1904 final we got a glimpse of just how hungry these two teams were to return to glory.

I've talked before about how long it's been since either the Belgians or the British got this far at Davis Cup, and it kind of makes sense. While they both have their stars -- two-time Grand Slam champ and world #2 Andy Murray and 2014 comeback kid David Goffin lead the packs -- their second place players are little farther down the rankings. Aljaz Bedene, who rose all the way to #45 this year, didn't play for the Brits in this tie, making sub-hundred Kyle Edmunnd the other singles player. And while Steve Darcis has certainly scored some big wins in the past, he's still ranked just within double digits. So to put together full teams that can get through top rate talent all year long can be a bit tough, and against all odds these guys did it.

And their big guns came out firing from the start -- Goffin, just off a career high at #16 in the world, has been a little quiet lately and was tested mightily from the start. But after dropping his first two sets to the huge underdog Edmund, he rallied in the back half, losing just three games to give Belgium an early lead. But Murray was quick to get momentum back on his side -- against largely unheralded Ruben Bemelmans, a workhorse on the Challengers' Tour, he took the first two sets easily before having to battle through the third. Ultimately though he claimed victory in straight sets and drew the Brits even going into Day Two.

In the doubles rubber Goffin paired with Darcis and Murray with his brother Jamie -- a decorated veteran in the paired discipline. The elder Murray -- a finalist at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon -- narrowly missed making the semis at the year-end championships in London, but may have made up for it here. After splitting the first two sets with the Belgians, the doubles specialist was able to take the lead, and powered his team through to the 2-1 advantage, always key in these events. And in Sunday's premier match-up, the younger sibling got right back on court against Goffin, hoping for a repeat of his Paris Masters 6-1, 6-0 drubbing of his opponent. Things weren't quite so easy this time around, but Murray nevertheless persevered, overcoming Goffin's only break of the match in the third set, and clinching the win in just under three hours, securing the Championship for him and his country.

It was the Brits' first Davis Cup trophy since before the second World War, and in an era that's been so dominated by upstart teams, it's interesting to see the reversion this year. Whether the victory is a sign that British imperialism is back in the world of tennis remains to be seen, of course -- but with the kind of firepower they brought all year long, there's no reason there isn't more to come.

November 22, 2015

Nothing Motivates Like Success

It's kind of a weird saying, right? You'd assume the sharp pain from a recent loss would be all a competitive athlete needs to improve his game and come out swinging even harder the next time he hits the court. But perhaps it's only the very best out there who can so easily shake off disappointment, proving any setback is just a minor bump on the way to even bigger achievements down the road. And at this week's ATP Championships in London, that's exactly what Novak Djokovic did.

The world #1's hiccup came during his round robin matches where, in his first defeat since August, he dropped in straight sets to Roger Federer. But a solid win over Tomas Berdych in his final group match secured him spot in the semifinals, where he took on an impressively resurgent Rafael Nadal, who'd gone 3-0 during his early rounds. But the former top-ranked Spaniard, still looking for his first ever World Tour Final championship, ran out of steam on Saturday, never ever earning a break point and ultimately falling in less than eighty minutes.

Meanwhile Federer was able to keep his momentum going a little longer -- after winning all three of his round robin matches, losing just one set to an on-the-mend Kei Nishikori, he was riding high atop his group standings. Meanwhile compatriot Stan Wawrinka's fate went down to the wire -- splitting his first two matches in London his battle Friday against hometown favorite Andy Murray was do-or-die. But the reigning French Open champion, having won the pair's last two meetings kept his streak going, closing the gap further with his rival. The effort may have taken a bit out of him, though -- despite what seemed on paper like a closer score, Roger needed even less time to score the win Saturday and earned himself a chance at a seventh ATP Championship

But Djokovic wasn't about to crumble again against the only man who's beaten him in months -- in Sunday's final, he got a break early and barely looked back, withstanding solid serving from his opponent and pouncing on his returns. After two quick sets, he'd become the only man ever to win four straight World Tour Finals and cemented his place at the very top of the ATP this season.

Nole's win this week is not unlike what Serena Williams did at the WTA Finals last year -- after a dominating end to her year, she rebounded from a stunning loss to Simona Halep in the round robins, only to crush her adversary in the championship match. Djokovic has a little ways to go before he can earn a full comparison to one of the most decorated players in the field, but after his amazing performance so far this year, it certainly seems he's well on his way.

And with the momentum he's got in his pocket already, there's no telling when he'll stop.

November 18, 2015

One to Go...

Two sets of round robin matches are in the books at the year-end championships, and now we're starting to get a clearer picture of who will ultimately be playing for the title -- and a couple men you might not have expected are really taking the chance to shine. But with everyone still having one match left, there's still a lot that can happen, and even for those who've already clinched a spot in the semis, there's still a lot on the line.

Group A

Novak Djokovic, undefeated since August, was the clear favorite among the first group of London qualifiers, but he's not the one who's been most impressive so far. Roger Federer, who's had a couple early losses since the U.S. Open had fallen to the third seed this week but came out firing anyway -- after an easy win over Tomas Berdych he absolutely pummeled Nole on Tuesday, making himself the only undefeated player among these four and securing his ticket to the semis. Nole isn't totally out of contention, of course -- he opened with a quick win over a struggling Kei Nishikori on Sunday. But the man from Japan, who only just made the cut for the World Tour Finals having lost in the first round in New York and retiring at the Paris Masters, bounced back from his early loss by notching his own win over Berdych. How these two guys perform tomorrow will mean everything -- Kei's beaten Roger more than once before and another victory could earn him a spot in the final four or push the Swiss into second place for the group. And Djokovic, still hoping to reach the semis, could even vault back into the first spot, giving him a big advantage when things really become heated.

Group B

Of course the bigger surprises came in the second group of finalists. Rafael Nadal, who despite his many honors has never won in London, has been famously up and down all year long. But he opened by avenging his Paris loss to Stan Wawrinka and then stunned Andy Murray in his second match today, scoring his biggest win since last year's French Open final. Like Roger he's now the only one in this bunch who hasn't lost this week and he's also booked his ticket to the semisfinals. He has a good shot at keeping his top spot too -- he has a solid 23-6 record against David Ferrer, his only remaining opponent -- but the veteran Spaniard did beat him last year in Monte Carlo and has arguably been the more consistent player over the last few months. But the bigger battle will certainly be between Murray and Wawrinka, a pair of powerhouses who've nearly split their head-to-head -- neither have reached the final in London yet, but both have come pretty close. And while it seems like they're just playing for second place in this group, the opportunity could still be great -- they're both gaining ground on both Roger and Nole, so whoever ends at the top of the other section will be in for a fight as soon as they get back on court

So perhaps things have gotten a bit more interesting than we were anticipating at this year's ATP Championships, but it certainly seems like we're seeing a couple players really upping their games at the end of the season. And while the competition will only get more intense from here, the ones who've shined brightest might just be the ones best able to take advantage.

November 14, 2015

London Preview: The Best of the Best

We're just hours away from the start of this year's ATP Championships, and while we certainly have an idea of who the favorites might be, there's a lot of ball to be played before the title is given away. And with the best players of the year all on court to battle it out for 2015's final trophy, everyone might just be in for the biggest fights they've faced yet this season.

Group A

These guys are the first to get to work in London, and perhaps have some of the highest credentials in the field. Top seed Novak Djokovic, with ten titles in 2015, including three Majors, is the clear favorite, but the three-time defending champion has plenty of competition. Roger Federer slipped to #3 in the world this year, despite reaching the finals in both New York and at Wimbledon, and may be hungrier than ever for a win here. He may have lost a bit early at the latter-stage Masters events, but a win over Rafael Nadal in the Basel championship shows he's still got fight left in him. But perhaps the underdogs in this group can shake things up -- Tomas Berdych has only beaten one player in this group this year, but only barely lost to Nole in Paris and could carry that momentum with him now. And Kei Nishikori, one of the last guys to qualify for London this year, has been a bit quiet in recent months, but his big-hitting got him all the way to the semis here in 2014, and has a solid five wins over top-ten players this season. If he's back in top form, there's really no one in this field he can't beat.

Group B

You can be sure the fight in the second group of Round Robins will be just as intense, though. Andy Murray returns to his homeland as the second seed, and is one of only three people in this field who's beaten Djokovic in 2015. While it's been a while since his last Major, he has won two Masters titles this year and has a 3-0 record against the other members of his Group this year. Still you can expect some push back now that the stakes are so high -- Stan Wawrinka, after all, was the surprise winner this year at Roland Garros, where he also beat Roger Federer in the quarters, by the way. Though he's also had a couple hiccups, he also has what it takes to thrive against the sport's very best. And David Ferrer, who had a stellar surge during the back half of the year, is one of the most experienced players in this group and might just be able put that experience to good use. Of course eyes will be on Rafael Nadal who, despite all his accomplishments, has never won the year-end championship. He did, however, beat Wawrinka just last month, and very nearly got the better of Federer in Basel. While he's certainly not used to being the underdog at events like this, there's no reason he can't come out swinging -- and perhaps when no one's expecting it, he might have his best opportunity to shine.

Of course, with so much talent on the courts you know that anything can happen over the next few days in London. And while a couple players have certainly established themselves as the ones to beat, on a stage like this, you can't count anyone out. And with everyone sure to be hitting their hardest, you know we're in for one of the biggest battles of the year -- so whoever comes out on top will definitely have earned it.

November 12, 2015

Fed Cup Final Preview: A Chance for Redemption

It's not often that you see so many ladies who played the postseason take such a little break before getting back to action. But with this year's Fed Cup championship tie featuring more than a few players who made the cut in either Singapore or Zhuhai -- all of whom fell a little short over the last few championship events -- we might just be in for an extra-high quality battle for this trophy.

The Russians

The five-time champions came in second at Fed Cup twice this decade, even losing the final to their current opponents back in 2011. They're bringing even bigger guns to the fight this time around, but even these stars are looking for a comeback.

Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova, doubles finalists at Wimbleon, qualified for the paired draw in Singapore but had to pull out because of a leg injury for the latter. They haven't played together since Toronto -- Makarova, in fact, clearly the more accomplished on the singles circuit, has been out of action entirely since a fourth round loss in New York. But over the years they've won five titles together, two of them Majors, and while it may be tough to rebound immediately at such a high-stakes event, these two certainly have the talent to do it.

Maria Sharapova certainly seemed well on her way to her own rebound -- after sustaining her own injury at Wimbledon and skipping the U.S. Open, she lost her first round back, retiring in the third set of her opener in Wuhan. But came out swinging at the WTA Finals, surviving a test against eventual champion Aga Radwanska before rolling through the rest of her round robins unscathed. But just when it looked like her momentum was back in full swing, she ran into a wall, falling in straight sets to Petra Kvitova in the semis. As the Russians' leader she'll get a chance to avenge that loss this weekend, and with surprise Linz champ Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova rounding out the team, there might be enough firepower to bring home the Cup.

The Czechs

Of course the defending champs will be out in full force -- and while their heavy-hitters certainly have plenty to be proud of from their postseason showings, even they're looking for a bit of a bounce-back.

Two ladies on this team actually qualified for the year-end title in Singapore -- surprise French Open finalist Lucie Safarova just barley squeezed her way into the field, qualifying despite losing every match she played since the New Haven final. She was in danger of blanking in her Championships debut too, dropping her first two round robins in straight sets. But while she was able to avoid a total shut out, notching an upset over Angelique Kerber in her last match, she'll certainly hope to up her game this weekend. And Petra Kvitova, who won the whole shebang in her first trip to the WTA Finals four years ago, will want to make up for her somewhat unexpected loss to Radwanska in the championship.

Countrywoman Karolina Pliskova also fell just one match short of a big win herself. After a strong start to 2015, during which she reached finals in Brisbane and Dubai, she rose to #7 in the world. While she stumbled a bit later in the season and didn't quite make the cut in Singapore, for the second year in a row got to play for the consolation prize, and this time won both of her round robins in Zhuhai before rolling over Elina Svitolina in the semis. Her run was finally ended by Venus Williams in the title match, but if she gets back on track, she might just be the clincher this weekend. And with always-feisty Barbora Strycova on deck to help out, this team looks to be in a good position to repeat.

As always there's a lot on the line when Fed Cup finals roll around, but this year, with an extra special slate of talent on board, the stakes may be even higher. And with so many looking for that one more win to make up for recent losses, we might be in for some of the biggest battles we've seen all year.

November 8, 2015

The Long Road Back

It's been more than five years since Venus Williams was ranked in the top ten -- but when the new WTA ranking come out on Monday the veteran American, thirty-five years young will have climbed back into the tennis elite, an accomplishment that may have seemed out of reach not that long ago.

The seven-time Grand Slam champion has struggled with injury and illness over the past several seasons, revealing in 2011 that she'd been diagnosed with Sjögren's Syndrome, which might have hampered her ability to endure long matches and fight against the younger, more energized hitters. She dropped for a time into triple digits and lost a couple first round matches at the Majors. But she started to launch her comeback in earnest in 2012 -- she stunned third seed Petra Kvitova in Miami and scored wins over players like Sam Stosur, Jelena Jankovic and soon-to-be-powerhouse Simona Halep a couple times that year. She capped off that season with a title in Luxembourg, bringing her ranking from #134 when she first got back on court to #24 by the time she stepped off it.

Williams has been up and down since then -- the following year she put together a streak of first round losses and dealt with another injury that forced her to skip Wimbledon for the first time since 1996 -- but she still couldn't be counted out. In 2014 she fell just short of picking up a title in Auckland and then upset five players in a row to claim the title in Dubai. But her biggest win, of course, came a few months later when she took out little sister Serena in Montreal, for her first win over the world #1 since 2009. And after starting this year by making up for that loss in New Zealnd, she went on to reach the quarters in both Melbourne and New York and then battled through an impressive draw to claim the trophy in Wuhan.

Her performance earned her the top seed at the inaugural WTA Elite Trophy this past week in Zhuhai -- while qualification was slightly different from that of previous Tournaments of Champions, the event nevertheless attracted an impressive field of rising stars, former Slam champions, and a couple one-time #1s. But Venus was not intimidated -- she powered through her round robin matches and in Saturday's semi absolutely trounced the woman who'd shocked Serena at the U.S. Open. She had a bit more of a challenge against Karolina Pliskova today -- the talented Czech hit back from a 1-4 deficit in the first set to even the score and after narrowly dropping the opener, ran off to a 4-2 lead to start the second. But Williams came back swinging too, and closed out the match in a tight, two-hour two sets.

Venus's return to the top ten seems like a fitting way to end the best season she's had in quite some time -- her three titles this year are the most she's won since 2008 and her forty-one match wins are her best since 2007. Her showing this season shows that not only is she more than able to hit with and even outlast her opponents, but more importantly that she's still hungry on the court. And while she certainly may be one of the elder statesmen out there, there are probably few more capable of translating that hunger into even more lasting success.

November 5, 2015

The Paris Preview

Anyone else notice something interesting about the third round matches in Paris? Maybe not unsurprisingly, every player who's qualified for the year-end championships was in action, contesting their right to a spot in the quarterfinals. And perhaps their performances gave us a little hint of what we might expect from them in Paris.

The Long Shots

Kei Nishikori started the year off strong, backing up his stellar 2014 season with titles in Memphis, Barcelona and Washington -- but he's struggled a bit recently, falling spectacularly in the first round of the U.S. Open and losing early again in Shanghai. Though he secured his spot at the ATP Championships at the start of the week, against Richard Gasquet in Paris today he was down a set before retiring with an abdominal strain -- hopefully he's just buying himself some time to rest before making the trip to London, but if the injury plagues him, there might be more trouble ahead.

And I realize it might be a little blasphemous to call Roger Federer a long shot for anything, but the six-time year-end champion has been a little spotty since the U.S. Open final. He notched a huge loss to Albert Ramos while trying to defend his Shanghai crown, but rebounded to pick up a seventh title in Basel. And this week after easily avenging his Melbourne loss to Andreas Seppi in his Paris opener, he fell today in three sets to John Isner. It's not his only loss to the American #1, but on such a big stage, might be his most surprising -- and it could give everyone else in the London field a little more hope of their own.

The Redeemers

Meanwhile a couple other players are putting together the kind of late-season run that might just bode well for their chances in London. David Ferrer was the last man to qualify for the World Tour Finals, but the one-time runner-up hasn't let that bother him. After sitting out at Wimbledon and losing early in New York, he's scored trophies in Kuala Lumpur and Vienna. Seemingly rejuvenated, he took out an always-tough Alexandr Dolgopolov in Paris, came back from a set down to a resurgent Grigor Dimitrov to score another today, and with a Isner earning the right to be his surprising next opponent, the veteran Spaniard could stay alive a bit longer. And that might be just the kind of momentum he's looking for as he finishes prepping for London.

Tomas Berdych is also getting momentum back on his side -- though he put together a couple decent runs to start the year, he really seemed to struggle to close the deal. But he got his game back after the U.S. Open, rebounding from a shocking opening round loss in St. Petersburg to claim titles in Shenzhen and Stockholm during the fall -- somewhat surprisingly his first trophies of the season. He's gotten right back to work in Paris, battling past tricky Frenchman Edouard Roger-Vasselin before handling former finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga earlier today. And while he's got a tough road ahead of him, he might have gotten the confidence he needs to fight through tougher challenges down the road.

Stan Wawrinka, meanwhile, will look to scrounge up the strength that brought him his surprise second Grand Slam title earlier this year. While he's been far from a disappointment -- he did reach the semis in New York and earn a title last month in Tokyo, albeit without beating a top-thirty player -- he's also shown some vulnerabilities, needing five sets against world #177 Thiemo de Bakker in Davis Cup play and losing his homeland's opener in Switzerland last week. He's looked good so far in Paris though, getting past solid players like Bernard Tomic and Viktor Troicki in his early matches, and will look to avenge his Shanghai loss to Rafael Nadal on Friday. All that's good practice for his return to London -- after all, he'll want to make up for that razor-thin loss to Roger Federer in last year's semis and maybe this time last a couple matches longer.

Of course the player most in need of redemption is one of the most decorated in the field. It's not news that Rafael Nadal has has a slightly less-than-spectacular season, but he might just be starting to turn things around -- after almost dropping out of the top ten for much of the summer, the former world #1 has pulled himself back together the last few weeks. He made he way to the finals of both Beijing and Basel, and picked up his first wins over top ten players since May on his way to the Shanghai semis. The seventh seed in Paris, he's one of the longer shots this week, but drubbed former nemesis Lukas Rosol in his opener and then rallied against a talented Kevin Anderson to earn a spot in the quarters. From so far back in the pack it'll be hard for him to translate recent success into his first title in London, but if anyone's able to rise to the challenge, it's certainly him.

The Favorites

It's a little strange to say, but it feels like Andy Murray has very quietly risen to #2 in the world without a lot of fanfare -- while he has picked up a couple Masters titles, beating Novak Djokovic in Canada and Rafael Nadal in Spain, even reaching the final in Australia, he's been largely overshadowed by many of his colleagues. But this week he's been out to remind us just what he's capable of -- after an easy win over talented teen Borna Coric in his opener, he absolutely drubbed David Goffin on Thursday, losing just one game and winning all but two points on his first serve. It's been a while since he's done well in the post-season, skipping the championships in 2013 and falling in round robins last year. But it sure looks like this could be his year to sneak through that draw as well.

Of course the top seed will certainly have something to say about that. Novak Djokovic was running a three title win streak coming into Paris and, judging from his performance so far, he's well on track to tie Rafael Nadal's record twenty-seven Masters titles by the end of the week. He's already survived tests from tough opponents like Thomaz Bellucci and Gilles Simon and with only one loss before the final of any tournament this year, there's no reason to expect him to stop now. And unlike in the past when he's run out of steam in the middle of a match, or like his breakthrough 2011 season, where he didn't win a title after picking up the crown in New York, Nole is showing few signs of slowing down -- and with the hope of marking his most prolific year to date if he finishes with eleven trophies this season, he's got a little extra motivation to keep going strong.

Of course all these guys have made the trip to London before, some of them many, many times, and they've all had more than enough experience facing off against each other over the years. But the next few days will give them -- at least the ones still standing -- a good taste of what's they're in for next week. And while success in Paris won't necessarily translate into a title at the year-end championships, the fact that these guys are upping their games sure suggests we're going to see some amazing battles when we get there.

November 1, 2015

Against All Odds

Now I know I've talked about how wide open the draw was in Singapore, but I'm not sure anyone expected things to go the way they did. From the opening blows, to stellar debuts, to surprising upsets we saw a little bit of everything at the WTA Finals this year. And at the end of it all not only was it one of the most unlikely candidates left standing, but she had nabbed by far the biggest win of her already successful career.

And the road wasn't easy for Aga Radwanska -- the former world #2 had for some time this year fallen well out of contention for the postseason, dropping out of the top ten this summer for the first time in years. But she rallied strong in the fall, picking up titles in Tokyo and Tianjin and came to the year-end championships with a little more momentum than most. But she struggled early, losing a marathon to a surprisingly strong Maria Sharapova, who'd scored her first match win since Wimbledon in their opener, and then getting bested again by U.S. Open champ Flavia Pennetta to build a 0-2 deficit. But a win over top seed Simona Halep on Wednesday kept her hopes alive and Sharapova's staying perfect in the round robins got the two of them tickets into the semifinals.

Things came down to the wire in the other draw group as well, and were turned a little on their heads there too. While Garbiñe Muguruza, fresh off a title in Beijing, seemed to sail through her postseason debut -- she dominated her round robin matches, only dropping one set late in the week, and secured her spot in the semis with little drams -- the fate of everyone else remained up in the air until the end. And Petra Kvitova, who won this title during her groundbreaking 2011 season, was kept on the edge of her seat -- after losing her first match to Angelique Kerber, she was constantly playing catch up, only securing her spot in the final four after Singapore newbie Lucie Safarova shocked Kerber for her only win of the event, and sealing an entry for her compatriot.

The biggest surprises, though, came in Saturday's semifinals which pitted the two players who'd rocketed through their early rounds against a couple ladies who barely made it out of their group matches. But Radwanska brought her late burst of momentum with her -- against Muguruza, a woman who'd won every one of their meetings this year, including one just weeks ago in Beijing, the Pole was finally able to turn the tables, coming back after dropping a tight first set and powering through for the three-set win. And Kvitova, who'd largely struggled against Sharapova since that unexpected victory at Wimbledon years ago, had an even easier time, finally ending the long-ago champion's impressive run in Singapore. With both of the favorites getting a little spooked in their Halloween matches, we were treated to a final no one could have predicted.

Aga was the underdog there too -- with a disappointing 2-6 record against the two-time Major winner, and only one win over a top ten player this year before coming to Singapore, her chances were pretty slim. But the world #6 built herself an early lead, taking the first set and grabbing an early break in the second. Kvitova fought back and even got ahead in the decider, but Radwanska stayed strong, committing just five errors throughout the match and breaking her opponent an astonishing seven times. And after another two hours on court, the lady who hadn't claimed her spot at the WTA finals until just a week before it began, was triumphantly -- and frankly, by the skin of her teeth -- the one walking away with the trophy.

It's quite an ending for a woman who for so much of the season looked like her best days were behind her. And even if she started off slow this week, by finishing with some of the biggest wins of her career, she's certainly reasserted herself as a real force in the sport for when the new year starts. And while the threats will surely be bigger in the months ahead, perhaps the opportunities will be too -- and after she battled her way through this draw, there's not much else I expect she can't handle.