Ivan Dodig

To Each Their Own: Previews of ATP Atlanta, Gstaad, and Umag

The US Open Series kicks off this week in the sweltering summer heat of Atlanta.  Perhaps uninspired by those conditions, most of the leading ATP stars have spurned that stop on the road to New York.  But Atlanta still offers glimpses of rising stars, distinctive characters, and diverse playing styles.  For those who prefer familiar names, two tournaments on European clay offer more tantalizing fare.

Atlanta:

Top half:  The march toward the final major of the year starts with a whimper more than a roar, featuring only two men on track for a US Open seed and none in the top 20.  Fresh from his exploits at home in Bogota, Alejandro Falla travels north for a meeting with Ryan Harrison’s younger brother, Christian Harrison.  The winner of that match would face top seed John Isner, a former finalist in Atlanta.  Isner, who once spearheaded the University of Georgia tennis team, can expect fervent support as he attempts to master the conditions.  He towers over a section where the long goodbye of James Blake and the rise of Russian hope Evgeny Donskoy might collide.

Atlanta features plenty of young talent up and down its draw, not all of it American.  Two wildcards from the host nation will vie for a berth in the second round, both Denis Kudla and Rhyne Williams having shown flashes of promise.  On the other hand, Ricardas Berankis has shown more than just flashes of promise.  Destined for a clash with third seed Ivan Dodig, the compact Latvian combines a deceptively powerful serve with smooth touch and a pinpoint two-handed backhand.  His best result so far came on American soil last year, a runner-up appearance in Los Angeles.  Berankis will struggle to echo that feat in a section that includes Lleyton Hewitt.  A strong summer on grass, including a recent final in Newport, has infused the former US Open champion with plenty of momentum.

Semifinal:  Isner vs. Hewitt

Bottom half:  The older and more famous Harrison finds himself in a relatively soft section, important for a player who has reached just one quarterfinal in the last twelve months.  Ryan Harrison’s disturbingly long slump included a first-round loss in Atlanta last year, something that he will look to avoid against Australian No. 3 Marinko Matosevic.  Nearby looms Nebraska native Jack Sock, more explosive but also less reliable.  The draw has placed Sock on a collision course with returning veteran Mardy Fish, the sixth seed and twice an Atlanta champion.  Fish has played just one ATP tournament this year, Indian Wells, as he copes with physical issues.  Less intriguing is fourth seed Igor Sijsling, who upset Milos Raonic at Wimbledon but has not sustained consistency long enough to impress.

Bombing their way through the Bogota draw last week, Ivo Karlovic and Kevin Anderson enjoyed that tournament’s altitude.  They squared off in a three-set semifinal on Saturday but would meet as early as the second round in Atlanta.  Few of the other names in this section jump out at first glance, so one of the Americans in the section above might need to cope with not just the mind-melting heat but a mind-melting serve.

Semifinal:  Fish vs. Anderson

Final:  Hewitt vs. Anderson

Gstaad:

Top half:  As fellow blogger Josh Meiseles (@TheSixthSet) observed, Roger Federer should feel grateful to see neither Sergei Stakhovsky nor Federico Delbonis in his half of the draw.  Those last two nemeses of his will inspire other underdogs against the Swiss star in the weeks ahead, though.  Second-round opponent Daniel Brands needs little inspiration from others, for he won the first set from Federer in Hamburg last week.  Adjusting to his new racket, Federer will fancy his chances against the slow-footed Victor Hanescu if they meet in a quarterfinal.  But Roberto Bautista Agut has played some eye-opening tennis recently, including a strong effort against David Ferrer at Wimbledon.

A season of disappointments continued for fourth seed Juan Monaco last week when he fell well short of defending his Hamburg title.  The path looks a little easier for him at this lesser tournament, where relatively few clay specialists lurk in his half.  Madrid surprise semifinalist Pablo Andujar has not accomplished much of note since then, and sixth seed Mikhail Youzhny lost his first match in Hamburg.  Youzhny also lost his only previous meeting with Monaco, who may have more to fear from Bucharest finalist Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the second round.

Semifinal:  Federer vs. Monaco 

Bottom half:  Welcome to the land of the giant-killers, spearheaded by seventh seed Lukas Rosol.  Gone early in Hamburg, Rosol did win the first title of his career on clay this spring.  But the surface seems poorly suited to his all-or-nothing style, and Marcel Granollers should have the patience to outlast him.  The aforementioned Federico Delbonis faces an intriguing start against Thomaz Bellucci, a lefty who can shine on clay when healthy (not recently true) and disciplined (rarely true).  Two of the ATP’s more notable headcases could collide as well.  The reeling Janko Tipsarevic seeks to regain a modicum of confidence against Robin Haase, who set the ATP record for consecutive tiebreaks lost this year.

That other Federer-killer, Sergiy Stakhovsky, can look forward to a battle of similar styles against fellow serve-volleyer Feliciano Lopez.  Neither man thrives on clay, so second seed Stanislas Wawrinka should advance comfortably through this section.  Unexpectedly reaching the second week of Wimbledon, Kenny de Schepper looks to prove himself more than a one-hit wonder.  Other than Wawrinka, the strongest clay credentials in this section belong to Daniel Gimeno-Traver.

Semifinal:  Granollers vs. Wawrinka

Final:  Federer vs. Wawrinka

Umag:

Top half:  Historically less than imposing in the role of the favorite, Richard Gasquet holds that role as the only top-20 man in the draw.  He cannot count on too easy a route despite his ranking, for Nice champion Albert Montanes could await in his opener and resurgent compatriot Gael Monfils a round later.  Gasquet has not played a single clay tournament this year below the Masters 1000 level, so his entry in Umag surprises.  The presence of those players makes more sense, considering the clay expertise of Montanes and the cheap points available for Monfils to rebuild his ranking.  Nearly able to upset Federer in Hamburg last week, seventh seed Florian Mayer will hope to make those points less cheap than Monfils expects.

In pursuit of his third straight title, Fabio Fognini sweeps from Stuttgart and Hamburg south to Gstaad.  This surprise story of the month will write its next chapter against men less dangerous on clay, such as  recent Berdych nemesis Thiemo de Bakker.  An exception to that trend, Albert Ramos has reached two clay quarterfinals this year.  Martin Klizan, Fognini’s main threat, prefers hard courts despite winning a set from Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.

Semifinal:  Gasquet vs. Fognini

Bottom half:  Although he shone on clay at Roland Garros, Tommy Robredo could not recapture his mastery on the surface when he returned there after Wimbledon.  Early exits in each of the last two weeks leave him searching for answers as the fifth seed in Bastad.  A clash of steadiness against stylishness awaits in the quarterfinals if Robredo meets Alexandr Dolgopolov there.  The mercurial Dolgopolov has regressed this year from a breakthrough season in 2012.

The surprise champion in Bastad, Carlos Berlocq, may regret a draw that places him near compatriot Horacio Zeballos.  While he defeated Berlocq in Vina del Mar this February, Zeballos has won only a handful of matches since upsetting Nadal there.  Neither Argentine bore heavy expectations to start the season, unlike second seed Andreas Seppi.  On his best surface, Seppi has a losing record this year with first-round losses at six of eight clay tournaments.

Semifinal:  Robredo vs. Berlocq

Final:  Fognini vs. Robredo

Bliss for the Bryans: Bryan Brothers Win Wimbledon and Make History

bryans 2-4

(July 6, 2013) Coming into the Wimbledon final, Mike and Bob Bryan had won 23 consecutive matches. The last time the twins saw defeat was April 21, 2013 when they failed to capitalize on seven match points against Nenad Zimonjic and Julien Benneteau in the Monte Carlo Masters final.

Less than 15 minutes into today’s final, the Bryan’s opponents, Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Marcelo Melo of Brazil, were playing like the team that hadn’t lost a match in nearly three months. In Bob Bryan’s first service game, the overwhelming underdogs quickly created two break points and converted the second after Dodig nailed a marvelous return at Bob’s feet nd the 6’8 Brazilian put away the response with an overhead.

On their own serve, Dodig and Melo were serving huge facilitating many short points finished by simple volleys and overheads. In addition, Dodig and Melo were varying their formations and really did an effective job keeping the Bryan’s guesing especially with the I-formation. For those not familiar, the I-formation is when the server’s partner crouches down hovering over the center service line as the server moves near the center mark on the baseline. This formation is a difficult one to consistently execute but it keeps the returners guessing because they aren’t sure where the net player and the server will move. Thus, if you have a team like the Bryan’s who can drill cross court returns all day long, it helps to keep them honest and prevents them from entering a rhythm off the return.

Five games in and the Bryan’s were in paramount danger of losing a 6-0 set for the first time since the 2012 Australian Open as they fell behind 5-0. Amazingly enough, the Bryan’s have only ever lost five 6-0 sets during their professional career. The Bryan’s were able to escape from a 0-5, 15-30 hole, break their opponents, and hold once more before dropping the first 6-3 in 31 minutes.

Looking back, the three games the Bryan’s rallied off at the end of the first set were crucial. It was abundantly clear the Bryan’s had gained a sizeable amount of momentum despite losing the set.

This transition in momentum translated into a fast start to the second set. The Bryan’s broke serve after Dodig, who had been extremely potent on serve in the first set, gifted away the break with a double fault.

To make matters worse for Dodig and Melo, their cogency off the return completely vanished in the second set. Daren Cahill of ESPN astutely pointed out that the Bryan’s began to introduce the body serve with increased regularity in the second stanza of the match. This tactic seemed to jam Dodig and Melo both physically and mentally. Not only were the Bryan’s hitting more unreturnable serves, but they seemed to draw Dodig and Melo into a major state of confusion. The Brazilian and the Croatian, when given a chance to cleanly hit a return, continually kept going down the line at the net player. And almost every time they did this, the Bryan’s made sure to make them pay for their mistake and end the point then and there. Such a bizarre strategy, whether decided upon or forced by the powerful serves of the Bryan’s, is not bound to work considering how swift the Bryan’s hands are at net.

All the Bryan’s needed in the second set was one break, and behind 15/16 first serve points won, they closed out the set 6-3 without facing a break point.

As the third set commenced, one of the notes I wrote to myself was “Not seeing too many down the line returns from the Bryans.” Ultimately, one of the main factors in the Bryan’s success in the match was their ability to consistently strike dipping, cross-court returns. Dodig and Melo continually returning at the net player really made breaking serve nearly impossible.

In addition, on serve, Dodig and Melo seemed less willing to stray from standard formation as the Bryans started to dial in on their returns. The lack of formation variation extended to serve placement as Dodig and Melo hit almost all of their serves into the Bryan’s backhand. Serving into the Bryan’s backhand is definitely the smart play but if you do it over and over and over, it becomes far too predictable. The Bryan’s broke to go up 2-1 and were cracking the backhand returns that failed them earlier in the match. Needless to say, the twins had Dodig and Melo right where they wanted them.

The patterns I previously described held suit for the rest of the third set. The only inroad Dodig and Melo made in a service game was when the Bryan’s were serving at 3-2 30-30. Mike Bryan quickly eradicated any notions Dodig and Melo had of breaking nailing a body serve and then an ace to hold for 4-2.

Winning the third set 6-4, the result seemed inevitable. The fourth set was definitely duller than the other sets and was characterized by a series of quick holds. The Bryan’s eventually broke through at 4-4 and put the match in the hands of Bob Bryan’s reliable lefty serve. Bob hit a monstrous serve down the middle at 30-15 and ended the match just like Marion Bartoli did in the Women’s Singles Final– with an ace.

The Bryan’s celebrated the win with their trademark chest-bump. With the victory, the Bryan’s became the first doubles team in the open-era to hold all four majors at the same time. With a win at the U.S. Open in September, the Bryan’s would be the first team to complete the calendar year slam since Ken McGregor and Frank Sedgman did it 1951 and be only the second doubles team in tennis history to do so.

Wimbledon Rewind: Thoughts on Marion Bartoli’s Magical Fortnight, and More

Six of the ten Wimbledon finalists took to Centre Court on Saturday, spearheaded by a first-time women’s champion in singles.

Stage fright:  Since the start of 2010, the WTA has produced several first-time major finalists.  Some have dazzled in their debuts, such as Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros 2010, Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon 2011, and Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open 2012.  Others have competed bravely despite falling short, such as Li Na at the Australian Open 2011 and Sara Errani at Roland Garros 2012.  Still others have crumbled under the stress of the moment, and here Sabine Lisicki recalled Vera Zvonareva’s two major finals in 2010 as well as Samantha Stosur’s ill-fated Roland Garros attempt that year.  In an embarrassingly one-sided final, Lisicki held her formidable serve only once until she trailed 1-5 in the second set.  One hardly recognized the woman who had looked so bulletproof at key moments against world No. 1 Serena Williams and world No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska.

Straight down the line:  Pause for a moment to think about this fact:  Marion Bartoli won the Wimbledon title without losing a set or playing a tiebreak in the tournament.  The wackiest major in recent memory found a fittingly wacky champion in one of the WTA’s most eccentric players.  Detractors will note that world No. 15 Bartoli did not face a single top-16 seed en route to the title, extremely rare at a major.  But she could defeat only the players placed in front of her, which she did with gusto.  Bartoli lost eight total games in the semifinal and final, assuring that the words “Wimbledon champion” will stand in front of her name forever.

Greatest since Seles:  Bartoli became the first French player of either gender to win a major title in singles since Amelie Mauresmo captured the Venus Rosewater Dish in 2006.  More intriguingly, she became the first woman with two-handed groundstrokes on both sides to win a major since Monica Seles in 1996.  One wonders whether more tennis parents and coaches will start to think seriously about encouraging young players to experiment with a double-fisted game.  That might not be a bad development from the viewpoint of fans.  Bartoli’s double-fisted lasers intrigue with their distinctive angles, despite their unaesthetic appearance.

Walter vindicated:  Earlier this spring, Bartoli served a deluge of double faults in a first-round loss to Coco Vandeweghe in Monterrey.  She had attempted to part ways from her equally eccentric father, Walter, only to find that she still needed his guidance.  Within a few short months of his return, Bartoli secured the defining achievement of her career.  One need not like the often overbearing Walter, or his methods, but his daughter is clearly a better player with him than without him.

Greatest since Graf:  Lisicki became the first German woman to reach a major final since Steffi Graf in 1999.  That fact might come as a surprise, considering the quantity of tennis talent that Germany has produced since then.  Andrea Petkovic and Angelique Kerber have reached the top ten, while Julia Goerges has scored some notable upsets.  Yet none of them has done what Lisicki has, a tribute to the finalist’s raw firepower and ability to overcome injury upon injury.  One wonders whether Petkovic in particular will take heart from seeing Lisicki in the Wimbledon final as she battles her own injury woes.

The grass is greener:  In her last four Wimbledon appearances, Lisicki has recorded a runner-up appearance, a semifinal, and two quarterfinals.  She has not reached the quarterfinals at any other major in her career.  While the grass suits her game more than any other surface, Lisicki has the talent to succeed elsewhere as well.  For example, the fast court at the US Open should suit her serve.  Will she remain a snake in the grass, or can she capitalize on this success to become a consistent threat?

Rankings collateral:  Into the top eight with her title, Bartoli will start receiving more favorable draws in the coming months.  If she avoids a post-breakthrough hangover, she will have plenty of chances to consolidate her ranking in North America, where she usually excels.

Holding all the cards:  Two other finals unfolded on Centre Court today, both more competitive than the marquee match.  In the first of those, Bob and Mike Bryan claimed the men’s doubles title as they rallied from losing the first set to Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo.  This victory not only brought the Bryans their third Wimbledon but made them the first doubles team ever to hold all of the four major titles and the Olympic gold medal simultaneously.  They stand within a US Open title of the first calendar Slam in the history of men’s doubles.

Tennis diplomacy:  In a women’s doubles draw almost as riddled with upsets as singles, eighth seeds Hsieh Su-Wei and Peng Shuai prevailed in straight sets over the Australian duo of Casey Dellacqua and the 17-year-old Ashleigh Barty.  The champions did not face a seeded opponent until the final, where the joint triumph of Chinese Taipei citizen Hsieh and People’s Republic citizen Peng illustrated how tennis can overcome rigid national boundaries.

Question of the day:  Where does Bartoli’s triumph rank among surprise title runs in the WTA?  I would rate it as more surprising than Samantha Stosur at the 2011 US Open but less surprising than Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros 2010.

 

Wimbledon Rewind: Thoughts on the Semifinals in Women’s Singles and Men’s Doubles

At the end of a chaotic fortnight, a Wimbledon women’s final has emerged that almost nobody expected.  Here is a look at how it took shape on Thursday, and some key facts about the matchup, plus a detour into men’s doubles.

A tale of two semifinals:  Notching her sixth consecutive straight-sets victory, Marion Bartoli surrendered just three games to Kirsten Flipkens en route to her second Wimbledon final. Far more drama awaited in the three-set sequel, which brought Wimbledon patrons their money’s worth.  Extending to 9-7 in the third set, the epic clash between Sabine Lisicki and Agnieszka Radwanska twisted through several ebbs and flows from both players.  Each woman let opportunities slip away, and each extricated herself from danger more than once before Lisicki slammed the door.

A tale of two routes to the final:  A rare opportunity awaits Bartoli to win a major without facing any top-16 seed, any major champion, or any former No. 1.  The highest-ranked opponent to meet the world No. 15 this fortnight was No. 17 Sloane Stephens, much less experienced on these stages.  For her part, No. 23 Lisicki has upset three top-15 opponents, including two members of the top four in Serena and Radwanska.  All three of those victories came in three sets, exposing her to much more pressure than Bartoli has felt so far.

Back from the brink, again:  For the second time this tournament, Lisicki won the first set from a top-four opponent, played a dismal second, and fell behind early in the third.  For the second time, she erased that 0-3 deficit in the decider, held serve under duress late in the set, and scored the crucial break before closing out the match at the first time of asking.  The key break came at 4-4 against Serena and at 7-7 against Radwanska, both of whom played well enough to win their final sets against most opponents.  But not against this woman at this tournament.

Still Slamless: This loss may sting Agnieszka Radwanska for some time, considering the magnitude of the opportunity before her.  Not many Slam semifinal lineups will feature her as the only woman in the top 10.  The world No. 4 stood two points from a second straight Wimbledon final with Lisicki serving at 5-6 in the third set.  Radwanska would have entered that final as the clear favorite on account of her 7-0 record against Bartoli.  For all of her consistency, and all of her titles at lesser tournaments, that one major breakthrough continues to elude the Polish counterpuncher.  Once again, she will watch from the sidelines as someone with a much less impressive resume does what she cannot.

No time like the first time:  First-time major finalists have achieved some stunning results on the women’s side over the last few years.  Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka shone on their first trips to the second Saturday, both against the more established Maria Sharapova, while few can forget what Francesca Schiavone achieved during a memorable fortnight in Paris.  On the other hand, others have not risen to the occasion as well as they might have hoped in their first major final:  Sara Errani, Samantha Stosur, and Li Na among them. (Stosur and Li would find redemption with their second chances, though.)  Only a slight underdog, if an underdog at all, Lisicki should embrace the moment with her relaxed demeanor and fearless ball-striking.  She might start slowly, but she probably will not go quietly.

The magic number 23:   Both of Bartoli’s finals at majors, Wimbledon in 2007 and in 2013, have come against the 23rd seed after she defeated a Belgian in the semifinals (Henin, Flipkens).  Last time, the legendary Venus Williams held that seed, so the then-No. 18 Bartoli reached the final as a heavy underdog notwithstanding her ranking.  The double-fister has plenty of reason to fear this No. 23 seed as well, however, having lost to Lisicki at Wimbledon two years ago.

Stat of the day:  Saturday will mark just the second Wimbledon final in the 45 years of the Open era when both women seek their first major title.  The adrenaline will flow, the nerves will jangle, and somebody will walk off with the Venus Rosewater Dish who never expected to hold it a few weeks ago.

Dream alive, barely:  Switching to doubles for a moment, Bob and Mike Bryan stayed on course for a calendar Slam by reaching the Wimbledon final after winning the first two majors of 2013.  The inseparable twins have profited from the instability besetting many other doubles teams.  Nevertheless, they have won Wimbledon only twice in their career and needed five sets to escape the 14th seeds, Rohan Bopanna and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.  Even if the Bryans do not win the US Open, they would hold all four of the major titles and the Olympic gold medal simultaneously with one more victory, for they won their home major last fall.

Flavor of the fortnight:  Pitted against the history-seeking twins are the 12th seeds Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo, who upset Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek in a five-setter of their own.  Wimbledon has featured plenty of surprise doubles champions in the last several years, such as Jonathan Marray and Frederik Nielsen, so one should not underestimate Dodig and Melo.  The latter also defeated the Bryans in Davis Cup, albeit with a different partner on a different surface.  And Dodig has enjoyed an outstanding Wimbledon fortnight, having reached the second week in singles as well.

 

 

Wimbledon Rewind: Serena Stunned, Djokovic Dominant, Radwanska Resilient, Li Lethal, Ferrer Fierce on Manic Monday

Monday got manic in a hurry with a titanic upset in the women’s draw, only to settle down into more predictable outcomes for most of the day.  Catch up on any of the fourth-round action that you may have missed with the daily Wimbledon rewind.

ATP:

Match of the day:  Twists and turns pervaded the clash of rising star Jerzy Janowicz and grizzled veteran Jurgen Melzer.  In the intimate surroundings of Court 12, Melzer started the match on fire but gradually lost his momentum in the second set and later trailed two sets to one.  Able to rally in the fourth, he secured a clutch break in the tenth game to force a deciding set.  With his first major quarterfinal on the line, though, Janowicz refused to let the opportunity escape him as he edged across the finish line 6-4 in the fifth.

Comeback of the day:  The other half of an all-Polish men’s quarterfinal, Lukas Kubot trailed Adrian Mannarino by a set and later by two sets to one in the most important match of his career so far.  Nobody would have expected Kubot to reach a major quarterfinal in singles, yet he wrested away this five-set encounter from his fellow journeyman.  His semifinal chances may hinge on whether Janowicz or he can recover from their draining victories more efficiently.

Upset of the day:  None.  Tomas Berdych deserves credit for snuffing out the most plausible upset threat in Bernard Tomic.  Splitting the first two sets in tiebreaks, Berdych gradually asserted himself against the Aussie talent in the next two sets and avoided the nerve-jangling scenario of a fifth set.

Gold star:  Before 2013, Juan Martin Del Potro never had reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.  This year, he has reached the quarterfinals without losing a set.  Del Potro overcame a knee injury to defeat Andreas Seppi after wondering whether he would be fit to play on Monday.  Despite all of the surprises at Wimbledon this year, all of the top-eight seeds in the men’s top half reached the quarterfinals.

Silver star:  Winless in two previous grass meetings with Tommy Haas, Novak Djokovic seized control of the third from the outset and never let the veteran catch his breath.  Like Del Potro, Djokovic has not lost a set en route to the quarterfinals, but this victory impressed more than those that came before because of his history against Haas.  He will seek his fourth straight Wimbledon semifinal, not bad for a man whose worst surface is grass.

What doesn’t kill you…:  …makes you stronger?  World No. 4 David Ferrer has not won any of his four matches in straight sets, three of them against unseeded opponents.  Struggling with a painful ankle injury, Ferrer fell behind early again on Monday before dominating the latter stages of the match, as he had in the third round.  Wimbledon is the only major where he has not reached the semifinals, so he will aim to end that futility by repeating last year’s victory there over Del Potro.

Foregone conclusion of the day:  Even with Nadal’s early exit, two Spaniards reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals.  Joining Ferrer there was Fernando Verdasco, who rolled past Kenny de Schepper in straight sets.

Stat of the day: In addition to Agnieszka Radwanska in the women’s draw, the quarterfinal appearances of Kubot and Janowicz gave Poland more Wimbledon quarterfinalists than any other nation.

Question of the day:  World No. 2 Andy Murray again took care of business efficiently today, dispatching 20th seed Mikhail Youzhny.  Can Murray continue his uneventful progress to the final, his path barred only by Verdasco and one of the Poles?  Or will the escalating pressure of the second week lead to some unexpected drama in the bottom half?

WTA:

Match of the day:  One of the greatest grass specialists in WTA history, Sabine Lisicki reached her fourth Wimbledon quarterfinal by shocking heavy title favorite, defending champion, and world No. 1 Serena Williams in three sets.  Serena had not looked as sharp in the first week as she had at Roland Garros, but one expected her to prevail once she recovered from a dismal first set.  The defending champion dominated Lisicki in the second set and rolled to an early lead in the third, at which point many underdogs might have surrendered.  Lisicki is a different player on this court than she is anywhere else, though, and she swung freely with the match in the balance at 4-4 in the final set.  Hitting through her nerves and a staggering Serena, she scored perhaps the biggest upset in an upset-riddled draw.

Comeback of the day:  When Tsvetana Pironkova claimed the first set from Agnieszka Radwanska, Wimbledon suddenly looked in danger of losing all of the top five women before the quarterfinals.  But grass specialists would split their two meetings with top-four seeds on Monday as Radwanska ground through a second straight three-set victory.  As has been the case with much of her 2013 campaign, she has not shown her best form while doing just enough to win.

Gold star:  Li Na had survived consecutive three-setters to end the first week, including an 8-6 epic against Klara Zakopalova.  She needed to fasten her teeth into the tournament more firmly, and she did by losing just two games to the 11th seed, Roberta Vinci.  Having defeated Radwanska in a quarterfinal at the Australian Open, Li will hope to repeat the feat in a Tuesday match between the two highest-ranked women remaining in the draw.

Silver star:  Only one woman has reached the quarterfinals without losing a set or playing a tiebreak.  Take a bow, world No. 15 Marion Bartoli, who has threatened only occasionally at majors since reaching the Wimbledon final in 2007.  Granted, Bartoli has faced no opponent in the top 50 to this stage.  She participated in a bloodbath of Italians by ousting Karin Knapp for the loss of just five games.  (None of the four Italians who reached the fourth round won a set on Manic Monday.)

What doesn’t kill you…:  …makes you stronger?  The only former Wimbledon champion left in the women’s draw, Petra Kvitova had dropped sets in both of her first-week victories and easily could have done so again on Monday.  Former nemesis Carla Suarez Navarro took Kvitova to a first-set tiebreak and the brink of an emotional meltdown, but the Czech steadied herself once she survived it.  Kvitova can look ahead to a quarterfinal against Kirsten Flipkens, also fortunate to avoid losing a first set for which her opponent served twice.  Flipkens won their previous meeting this year in Miami.

All eyes on Andy:  A round after she upset Angelique Kerber, Kaia Kanepi sent home local darling Laura Robson in two tight sets.  The match could have tilted in either direction, so Kanepi’s experience probably proved vital in securing her second Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance.  She also earned the last laugh on British tabloids that lampooned her burly physique before the Robson match.

Americans in London:  In the wake of Serena’s loss, the United States plausibly might have gone home without a single quarterfinalist in either singles draw.  Sloane Stephens averted that disappointment by winning a second straight three-setter, this time against Monica Puig.  Trailing by a set, Stephens showed resilience in battling through a tight second set and then dominating the third.  She has won twelve matches at majors this year, more than many higher-ranked women.

Stat of the day: In Lisicki’s last four Wimbledon appearances, she has defeated the current Roland Garros champion every time.  Her repeated denials of Channel Slams protect a record held by compatriot Steffi Graf, who completed the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double four times.

Question of the day:  The first three majors will crown three different women’s champions for the third straight year.  With all of the top three gone before the quarterfinals, who becomes the new title favorite?  One might favor Kvitova, the only woman who has won here before, but conventional wisdom has taken it on the chin all fortnight.

 

Buy, Hold, Sell: The Unseeded Thirteen (Plus Memo on Wimbledon’s Middle Sunday)

Although I enjoy most Wimbledon traditions, one of the exceptions is the Middle Sunday.  Before I launch into today’s topic, the unseeded players who have reached the second week, I wanted to share some thoughts about this lacuna.  Feel free to jump down below the asterisks if you’d prefer.  Otherwise, let me explain why I would dispense with the Middle Sunday.

Not just because Great Britain is a secular state, and the AELTC a secular organization.

Not just because it seems capricious to toss aside a quarter of your tournament’s weekend days.  (You know, the days when people are best able to actually sit on their couches and watch things like tennis.)

Not just because it seems slightly elitist to separate the haves of the second week so sharply from the have-nots of the first.

Not just because arbitrarily removing an entire day from your schedule makes every rain delay loom that much larger.  (This is exacerbated by the tournament’s refusal to start play on show courts earlier than 1 PM, leaving room for only three matches on each.)  Nature has a sense of humor, by the way.  Rarely does it rain on Middle Sunday.

Not just because “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way” is one of the worst possible justifications for doing anything.

No, my main issue with Middle Sunday, and really the only issue that matters, is its impact on the schedule for the rest of the tournament.  Almost a tradition in its own right, Manic Monday has a certain gaudy appeal at first glance.  Lots of exciting stuff is happening!  All at the same time!  Everywhere!  It’s a channel-surfer’s paradise:  instant gratification, saturating the senses.

But the day rushes past before you know it, leaving no time to thoroughly savor and digest the delicious matches on the menu.  We could appreciate each of these fascinating encounters better if the tournament divided the fourth round, the round that usually separates contenders from pretenders, into two days of four ATP and four WTA matches apiece.

Even more importantly, Middle Sunday and Manic Monday result in a gender-based bifurcation of the entire second week.  At other majors, for example, fans can watch two men’s and two women’s quarterfinals on Tuesday, and the same lineup on Wednesday.  At Wimbledon, fans must watch the ladies on Tuesday, the gentlemen on Wednesday, and so forth alternating each day to the end.  Doubles is an exception, of course.

While I never have attended Wimbledon in person, I know that I prefer watching tournaments that interweave the men and the women in their schedules.  General fans who follow both the ATP and the WTA appreciate the variety that the rich contrasts between them offer.  The Australian Open has the ideal schedule in my view:  two quarterfinals from each Tour on Tuesday, the rest of the quarterfinals on Wednesday, women’s semifinals and one men’s semifinal on Thursday, the remaining men’s semifinal on Friday, and night sessions for each of the singles finals.  By the time that Friday arrives, obviously, there is almost no alternative to splitting the Tours.  But starting that rigid alternation on Tuesday takes away part of what makes a major feel like a major:   the chance to see the best players of both genders trading places with each other on the same court.

The US Open has scrapped its version of Middle Sunday, the “Super Saturday” on the second weekend that forced the men’s finalists to play best-of-five matches on consecutive days.  That version of cruel and unusual punishment died a slower death than it should have.  It’s time for Middle Sunday to start dying its slow death too.

***

At any rate, on to the tennis!  The chaos of the first week has left us with thirteen unseeded players in the fourth round.  This article takes a look at how each of them reached Manic Monday, the biggest stage on which many have starred.  And we discuss which of these underdogs you should buy, hold, or sell.

ATP:

Bernard Tomic:  Into the second week of Wimbledon for the second time, he knocked off top-25 opponent Sam Querrey to start the tournament.  Unlike many of those who started the tournament with a bang, Tomic used that victory to light the fuse of two more. His latest came against world No. 9 Richard Gasquet.  Now looms his first career meeting with Tomas Berdych at the ATP level.  While Berdych enters that match as the favorite, dark horses have intercepted him at majors before.

Buy, hold, or sell?   Buy

Ivan Dodig:  A bit of a Typhoid Mary last week, Dodig received two retirements in three matches.  The Croat fell behind Philipp Kohlschreiber by two sets in the first round, but he recovered to sneak out the next two before Kohlschreiber’s odd “I feel tired” retirement.  Not one to let this sort of opportunity go for naught, Dodig has not lost a set since.  Now he faces David Ferrer, who has not had an easy win in the tournament and needed five sets to escape Alexandr Dolgopolov.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Hold

Lukas Kubot:  Sandwiched around a walkover were two straight-sets victories, the second against a seeded opponent in Benoit Paire.  Kubot’s game fits the grass neatly with his reliance on quick strikes and ability to open the court.  He looks to arrange an intriguing all-Polish quarterfinal in the section where everyone envisioned an epic Nadal-Federer collision.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Buy

Adrian Mannarino:  The man who vies with Kubot for that quarterfinal berth never had reached the second week at any major before.  Like Kubot, Mannarino enjoyed a second-round boost when his opponent withdrew.  John Isner’s retirement opened the door for him to exploit the sequence of upsets when Dustin Brown defeated Lleyton Hewitt, who had defeated Stanislas Wawrinka.  Mannarino’s presence here thus seems more fortuitous than ferocious.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Sell

Jurgen Melzer:  Emerging from Roger Federer’s section of the draw, Melzer has advanced this far at a major before.  A Roland Garros semifinalist in 2010, the veteran lefty has played exactly four sets in each of his three matches.  He slew the man who slew the defending champion, benefiting from Sergiy Stakhovsky’s predictable lull.  Jerzy Janowicz’s thunderous serve and youthful exuberance should prove a test much more arduous.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Sell

Fernando Verdasco:  2013 could not have started much worse for Verdasco, who sagged outside the top 50 by the clay season.  Wimbledon could turn his entire season around if he can take care of business against the anonymous man below him on this list.  Verdasco did not benefit from the injuries of those around him, straight-setting both Julien Benneteau and the dangerous Ernests Gulbis.  If his lefty serve keeps firing, his attitude of relentless aggression should play well on grass.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Buy

Kenny de Schepper:  Ranked somewhat higher than Mannarino, de Schepper is only the tenth-best Frenchman in the ATP.  His presence in the fourth round reveals his nation’s tennis depth.  Although he ousted the grass-averse Juan Monaco to end the first week, his debut in the second week of a major pits him against the far more experienced Verdasco.  De Schepper’s best hope consists of a Verdasco letdown, which is not implausible, but he also must manage a moment to which he is unaccustomed.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Sell

WTA:

Laura Robson:  The darling of local fans caused British hearts to palpitate when Marina Erakovic served for the match against her in the third round.  Lackluster in the early stages of that encounter, Robson found the poise to regroup as she turned the fraught atmosphere to her advantage.  She upset world No. 10 Maria Kirilenko to start the tournament and can penetrate the grass smoothly with a massive lefty forehand.  But she faces a daunting test in the next round against former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Kanepi.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Buy

Kaia Kanepi:  Eager to engage in a slugfest with Robson, Kanepi knows what it feels like to reach this stage of this tournament.  A quarterfinalist as a qualifier in 2010, she built on those memories by upsetting the seventh-ranked Angelique Kerber in the second round.  Kanepi showed as much toughness in that match as Robson did against Erakovic, mounting a similar comeback from a deep deficit.  She struggled against a British journeywoman in her opener, which might not bode well for Monday, but Robson can expect a battle.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Hold

Tsvetana Pironkova:  Perhaps the least surprising of the unseeded women in the second week, Pironkova announced her presence by nearly double-bageling top-25 opponent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to start the tournament.  Her form has dwindled a bit since then, including a three-setter against Petra Martic, and Radwanska has owned her for most of their careers.  Pironkova lacks the power to hit through the Pole consistently, but she did defeat Radwanska on grass last year.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Hold

Monica Puig:  Scoring an upset against a top-five opponent is an excellent achievement in itself, as Puig did against Sara Errani.  Building upon it is even more impressive, and that is where Puig separated herself from Steve Darcis, Sergiy Stakhovsky, and Michelle Larcher de Brito last week.  Her lack of experience at majors may catch up with her against the suddenly seasoned Stephens, one of only three women to reach the second week at every major this year.  Still, Stephens looked far from formidable in a three-set struggle against qualifier Petra Cetkovska.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Hold

Karin Knapp:  A victory over the ever-enigmatic Lucie Safarova highlighted Knapp’s unexpected three-match winning streak.  The world No. 104 won just a single game from Marion Bartoli in their only previous meeting, though, and she would shock the tennis world if she solves the 15th seed.  A 2007 finalist here, Bartoli has played surprisingly steady tennis and did not lose a set in the first week.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Sell

Flavia Pennetta:  When world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka withdrew, Pennetta sniffed a chance to reassert her presence.  Her ranking has tumbled outside the top 150 after injury, but the Italian veteran twice before reached the second week at Wimbledon and can threaten on any surface.  A stirring comeback against Alize Cornet brings her into a Monday match with the 20th-ranked Kirsten Flipkens.  Reaching the final at the Dutch Open a week ago, Flipkens has won all of her matches in straight sets as the grass has rewarded her deft touch and forecourt skills.

Buy, hold, or sell?  Sell

Wimbledon Rewind: Favorites and Fifth Sets (Mostly) Dominate on Day 2

The first round concluded at Wimbledon today without any seismic shock similar to Day 1 but with many more tightly contested matches than yesterday.  Check out the intriguing events below.

ATP:

Match of the day:  The top-ranked American squared off against the top-ranked Australian in a five-set rollercoaster of two giants.  After Bernard Tomic eked out the first two sets in tiebreaks, he characteristically lost the plot and allowed Sam Querrey to win two routine sets.  But Tomic got the last word, repeating his 2012 Australian Open victory over the American by zoning back into the action for the final set.  When he catches fire, he can ignite a draw.

Comeback of the day:  An Eastbourne semifinalist last week, Ivan Dodig fell behind 16th seed Philipp Kohlschreiber two sets to none and came within a tiebreak of losing in straights.  Dominating that tiebreak, Dodig carried that momentum through the fourth set and reaped the reward of his perseverance when Kohlschreiber retired early in the fifth.

Trend of the day:  The first day featured only one five-setter, but the second day brought fans no fewer than nine.  Five Americans played fifth sets.  In four of those nine matches, one player won the first two sets before letting the opponent back into the match.  None of the nine extended past 6-6 in the final set, however, and two ended in fifth-set retirements, a strange anticlimax.

Symmetry of the day:  On the same day that Tomic defeated Querrey, a different American defeated a different Aussie in the same manner.  Denis Kudla won the first two sets, lost the next two, and then recovered to win the fifth from James Duckworth.  Taken together, those results accurately reflect the superior promise of Australian tennis at the top and the superior depth of American tennis overall.

Gold star:  A three-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist and a champion at Eastbourne, Feliciano Lopez plays his best tennis on grass.  He extended his winning streak to the All England Club by knocking off the tenacious Gilles Simon in straight sets.  The upset recalled Lleyton Hewitt’s victory over Stanislas Wawrinka yesterday, in which an unseeded grass specialist also defeated a seeded counterpuncher.

Silver star:  The volatile game of Florian Mayer does not make the easiest way to settle into a major, especially for a man who had not played a match on grass this year.  In his first match since the epic Roland Garros loss to Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic stood tall as the Wimbledon top seed in dispatching Mayer uneventfully.

Americans in London:  Beyond the previously noted Querrey and Kudla, the stars and stripes produced mixed results on Tuesday.  Ryan Harrison unsurprisingly fell to Jeremy Chardy, although he did win a set, while James Blake unexpectedly dominated Thiemo de Bakker for the loss of just six games.  Bobby Reynolds cannibalized Steve Johnson, who now has lost a five-setter in the first round of every major this year.  Court 9 saw the little-lamented departures of Wayne Odesnik and Michael Russell to a pair of fellow journeymen.

Question of the day:  While rivals Djokovic, Tomas Berdych, and Juan Martin Del Potro all advanced in straight sets, David Ferrer struggled through a four-setter against an unheralded South American.  He also lost his opener last week at the Dutch Open.  Do these struggles suggest an early exit for the other Spanish finalist at Roland Garros, or will Ferrer find his grass groove with time?

WTA:

Match of the day:  Former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi sought to continue building her momentum in a comeback from a long injury absence.  Home hope Tara Moore sought to justify her wildcard and earn her first main-draw victory at Wimbledon.  The two waged a relentless 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 duel in the confines of Court 17, which ended in hope for Kanepi and familiar heartbreak for Moore.

Comeback of the day:  The pugnacious Barbara Zahlavova Strycova refused to fade after dropping a tight first set to Magdalena Rybarikova.  Over the next two sets, the Czech yielded one total game to the Slovak who had reached the Birmingham semifinals (and won that tournament before).  Compatriot and Birmingham champion Daniela Hantuchova also fell to a Czech opponent in Klara Zakopalova as the western half of the former Czechoslovakia held their neighboring rivals in check.

Upset of the day:  Not the highest-ranked player to lose today, Nadia Petrova suffered the most surprising loss in falling to Katerina Pliskova in two tepid sets.  Petrova owes her top-15 status to a series of strong results last fall, but she could not consolidate them this year and now has little margin for error in the second half.

Gold star:  Thorny draws often have awaited Laura Robson at Wimbledon, and this year proved no exception with world No. 10 Maria Kirilenko awaiting her on Court 1.  The leading British women’s hope delighted her compatriots with her second victory over a top-ten opponent at a major this year.  Robson now eyes a relatively open draw after that initial upset, although she cannot relax her guard.

Silver star:  Both of last year’s finalists advanced with ease, Serena Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska losing six games between them.  But perhaps even more impressive was the double breadstick that Li Na served to Michaella Krajicek, a player whose massive weapons could threaten on grass.  Li has struggled for most of the spring, and she has not shone on grass since 2010, so this victory might raise her spirits for the challenging road ahead.

Wooden spoon:  A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year, Tamira Paszek fell in the first round this year to the anonymous Alexandra Cadantu.  She has dropped nearly 1,000 points in two weeks, combining Eastbourne with Wimbledon, and will plummet from the top 30 in May to outside the top 100 in July.

Americans in London:  Outside Serena, most of the main American threats are (or were) in the other half of the draw.  Two youngsters suffered contrasting fates on Tuesday, Madison Keys dismissing British talent Heather Watson and Mallory Burdette falling short in a tight three-setter to Urszula Radwanska.  The only other American woman in action, Birmingham semifinalist Allison Riske, earned an upset of sorts over clay specialist Romina Oprandi when the latter retired in the third set.

Question of the day:  It’s grass season, which means that it’s Tsvetana Pironkova season.  The willow Bulgarian, twice a quarterfinalist or better at Wimbledon, routed top-25 opponent Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for the loss of just one game.  How far can Pironkova’s grass magic carry her?

Roland Garros Rewind: Memorable Moments from a Rainy Day 3

Welcome back for the overview of a rainy Tuesday in Paris, where a shortened order of play unfolded.

ATP:

Match of the day:  The first two days had featured plenty of five-setters but no matches that reached 6-6 in the fifth set.  On a non-televised court, journeymen Ivan Dodig and Guido Pella finally produced the first overtime of the tournament.  Dodig deserves the lion’s share of the credit, for he trailed by two sets to one, trailed by a break early in the fifth set, and saved a break point at 5-5.  Pella then escaped a situation when he stood two points from defeat and eventually earned the decisive break at 10-10.

Comeback of the day:  Nobody rallied from two sets down to win, so this award goes to Mikhail Youzhny for winning three relatively routine sets after dropping the first frame to Pablo Andujar.  Consecutive semifinals in Madrid and Nice had ranked the Spaniard among the tournament’s dark horses, whereas Youzhny usually struggles on clay.

Surprise of the day:  Bookended by two 9-7 tiebreaks was Dmitry Tursunov’s straight-sets upset of Alexandr Dolgopolov.  Tursunov had stunned David Ferrer on Barcelona clay last month to continue an encouraging early 2013, but he had lost a two-tiebreak match to Dolgopolov in Munich.  The mercurial Ukrainian fell in the first round for the second straight major.

Gold star:  Playing with the initials of two deceased friends on his shoes, the 20-year-old Jack Sock won the first Roland Garros match of his career.  Sock knocked off veteran Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in straight sets despite his relative inexperience on clay.

Silver star:  Another Spanish dark horse in the same section as Andujar, Fernando Verdasco cruised through an uncharacteristically uneventful victory over local hope Marc Gicquel.  A path to the second week or even the quarterfinals could lie open for Verdasco if he maintains this form (always a big “if”).

Last stand of the day:  Trailing two sets to love against much superior clay talents, Thiemo De Bakker and Vasek Pospisil won third-set tiebreaks to extend their matches.  De Bakker would lose a tight fourth set just before darkness, while Pospisil parlayed the momentum into an early fourth-set lead that he will carry into Wednesday’s completion.  We’re curious to see if he can come all the way back.

Americans in Paris:  Counterbalancing Sock’s breakthrough was the disappointment suffered by the recipient of the Roland Garros reciprocal wildcard, Alex Kuznetsov.  After he had toiled through three April challengers to earn this main-draw entry, Kuznetsov lost to unheralded Frenchman Lucas Pouille.  Still, he should feel proud of earning the wildcard for its own sake rather than as a means to an end.

Question of the day:  Four men retired from first-round matches in singles on Tuesday, a high number for a single day.  Did the increase of prize money for first-round losers dissuade players from withdrawing who knew that they were unfit to compete?

WTA:

Match of the day:  A former semifinalist at Roland Garros, Marion Bartoli survived 12 double faults (not a shocking quantity for her these days) in a three-hour drama on Court Philippe Chatrier.  Having propelled Monfils to victory the day before, the Paris crowd redoubled its energies to help the top-ranked Frenchwoman edge Olga Govortsova.  Bartoli struck fewer winners and more unforced errors than her opponent, won fewer total points, and failed to achieve all three of the supposed “keys” that the IBM Slamtracker identified for her.  Tennis is a strange sport sometimes.

Comeback of the day:  None.  The woman who won the first set won every match, and only two of ten completed matches reached a third set.

Oddity of the day:  After rain postponed the majority of the women’s singles schedule, top-eight seeds Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova will not make their Roland Garros 2013 debuts until Wednesday, the fourth day of the tournament.  Azarenka opens play on Chatrier at 11 AM after organizers had scheduled her to end play on Chatrier today.

Gold star:  Les bleus may have struggled today, but les bleues more than compensated.  While Guillaume Rufin and Florent Serra fell, and Benoit Paire dropped his first set in an incomplete match, Strasbourg champion Alize Cornet and Kristina Mladenovic followed Bartoli into the second round.

Silver star:  Three times a Roland Garros semifinalist, Jelena Jankovic started her 2013 campaign in promising fashion by winning a tight two-setter from Daniela Hantuchova.  Jankovic saved set points in the second set when another of her tortuous three-setters loomed.  Her ability to close bodes well for her future here in a year when she has shone sporadically on clay.

Statement of the day:  Kimiko Date-Krumm stood little chance from the outset against the weaponry of Samantha Stosur, who bludgeoned everyone’s favorite old lady in 64 minutes.  Stosur needed just 21 of those minutes to serve a first-set bagel, extending her streak of consecutive matches with at least one bagel or breadstick to four.

Americans in Paris:  After the undefeated record to which they soared on Monday, Tuesday brought everyone back to earth with a salutary if unwanted dose of reality.  Coco Vandeweghe and Lauren Davis each ate first-set bagels en route to losses, although Vandeweghe did swipe a set from 2012 quarterfinalist Yaroslava Shvedova.  On the other hand, neither Vandeweghe nor Davis ranks among the front ranks of American prospects.

Question of the day:  Could Bartoli’s victory become the moment that turns her season around?

 

ATP Munich Gallery: Dodig Defeats Cilic; Dolgopolov and Kohlschreiber Also Thru

MUNICH (May 1, 2013) — Defending BMW Open champion Philipp Kohlschreiber took just 63 minutes to defeat world No. 195 Evgeny Korolev in his opening match, 6-2, 6-4. Croat Ivan Dodig also found himself in the quarterfinals after ousting tournament No. 2 seed and fellow Croat Marin Cilic in an easy two sets, 6-4, 6-2. Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov defeated Dmitry Tursunov, 7-6(2), 7-6(3) as Viktor Troicki took out Radek Stepanek, 6-4, 6-4.

Full gallery of the day’s matches by photographer Moana Bauer below.

[nggallery id=119]

Baby Steps for a Big Man: Isner Survives Miami Opener

March 23, 2013 — It has been barely a year since John Isner defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of Indian Wells to reach his first career final at a Masters 1000 tournament.  While he could not claim the title there, Isner appeared to have notched a decisive breakthrough in his career that would propel the top-ranked American man forward.

Events since then have questioned this interpretation of that memorable fortnight in the desert, especially over the last few months.  Struggling for form from the US Open onward, Isner absorbed a serious blow when a knee injury forced him to withdraw from the Australian Open.  That injury, not unexpected for a player of his height, disrupted the rhythm of his preparations for the 2013 season and undermined his confidence.  At the Memphis indoor tournament in February, he lost his opener in straight sets to Denis Istomin, a player who normally should not have troubled him.  But his slump reached its nadir at Indian Wells, the scene of his greatest triumph to date.  Returning to the California desert, Isner lost his first match to Lleyton Hewitt as virtually every component of his game abandoned him at critical moments.  With that loss came the loss of his status as the top-ranked American man, now held by Sam Querrey.

A man who shines most on home soil, Isner desperately needed to avoid a similar exit at the outset of the Miami tournament.  With the long European swing ahead, he could not afford to let his confidence sink any lower before the inevitable setbacks on the red clay that dulls his greatest weapons.  The Sony Open thus loomed large in the trajectory of his season as his last chance to regroup before the US Open Series in July.  Against the occasionally dangerous Croat Ivan Dodig, who has defeated Nadal on North American hard courts before, Isner needed all of his perseverance and first-strike power to survive.

While he dropped serve four times across the three sets, an uncharacteristic number for him, the towering man from the University of Georgia showed resilience in rallying from losing the first set and from the brink of defeat in the third.  Breaking Isner at 5-5 in the final set, Dodig served for the match at a stage when the reeling competitor across the net might well have resigned himself to a third straight loss.  Despite the sweltering heat and his inconsistent form, Isner persevered to strike some of his best returns and play some of his most opportunistic tennis in the twelfth game and in the tiebreak that followed.  Taking a lead at the outset, he never trailed in the tiebreak as he approached the net aggressively behind his serves and stayed just consistent enough from the baseline to earn the crucial mini-break that he needed for a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(5) victory.

Finishing the match with a thunderous first serve out wide, Isner showed just how much the victory meant to him by leaping in the air on his way to the net for the handshake.  Even in view of the match’s airtight scoreline, that reaction might have surprised some onlookers because of his favored status and the early-round setting.  But the context in which this victory came provided ample explanation for Isner’s delight in eking out the type of nail-biting epic that he has played so often in his career.  These are the matches that can restore a player’s confidence in his ability to deliver at key moments, so the tenuous nature of his triumph in fact might have boosted him more than a routine win would have.

Always a perfectionist who demands a lot from himself, Isner expressed disappointment about losing his serve so often on a day when he otherwise had strong serving statistics.  But he found it “a positive that I lost my serve four times and was still able to win the match.”  Isner also acknowledged that he “needed [the win] for sure” because of a difficult season in which he had “lost matches I feel like I could have won,” always a demoralizing feeling for a tennis player.

It will not get any easier from here for the tall American, who faces another imposing server in Marin Cilic next and likely would meet Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round should he reach that stage.  But, considering how his 2013 season has gone, Isner should continue to take one step at a time and see how far each of them can lead him.  As he put it, “I’m just happy to get through.  I certainly could have easily lost that match.”  “But once I got that little spark, gave me a little extra energy, and you know, it went from there.”