momentum

Around the corner: Baghdatis is the top seed in New Haven

Only a week to go before the final Grand Slam of 2010 and there is one last stop on the tour before we get to Flushing Meadows. This week offers the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament in New Haven where Marcos Baghdatis is the number one seed. The ATP World Tour 250 level tourney offers some lower ranked players a chance to get some match play in before the U.S. Open. While it is often a gamble to play so close to the start of the Open, it is a necessary chance that some struggling players must take in order to gain some much needed momentum.

After having a quiet mid-season stretch up until August, Baghdatis has rediscovered the game that brought him to his only Grand Slam final in Australia in 2006. He made the finals in Washington where he lost to David Nalbandian and then the semi-finals this past week in Cincinnati where he was defeated by Roger Federer. I’m a bit surprised that Baghdatis is going to play this week as he has had plenty of matches under his belt recently. Maybe he simply does not want to lose any of the progress he has been making.

Other players in his section of the draw to lookout for are Sergiy Stakhovsky and Taylor Dent. The Ukrainian Stakhovsky has been quiet of late, but did win a grass court tournament in June in the Netherlands. Dent meanwhile, continues to make small improvements in his game and played a tough match against Rafael Nadal in Cincy last week where he fell in the second round. Either one could emerge from this quarter of the draw in New Haven, especially if Baghdatis pulls out.

Mardy Fish is supposed to be the fourth seed but I would be absolutely shocked if he played. Appearing in the finals in Cincy on Sunday and playing six matches in seven days is too much tennis to then push it the week before a Slam. That leaves Germany’s Michael Berrer as the likeliest candidate to emerge from this section of the draw. The big serving Berrer impressed me in Toronto two weeks ago with his powerful game and had promising results on hard courts earlier in the season.

On the other side of the tournament we might get an intriguing second round encounter between rising star Alexandr Dolgopolov and struggling American veteran James Blake. Dolgopolov is the youngest player in the top one hundred in the world and possesses a very diverse game and lethal first serve. Blake has had a summer from hell and most recently was bounced in the first round in Cincinnati by Denis Istomin 6-3, 6-0. I pick Dolgopolov as a good darkhorse selection to be the eventual champion in New Haven

Fernando Gonzalez is also in this quarter, and the third seed is arguably the most talented player in the entire draw. Coming back from a left calf injury, it will be interesting to see how he handles himself.

The final quarter in New Haven has Xavier Malisse and second seeded Tomaz Bellucci as the favorites. I liked Malisse’s chances given his experience and hard-court talent.

Regardless of who advances this week, there will be a new champion in New Haven. Defending champion Fernando Verdasco is not present this year, allowing somebody else to hoist the trophy. While I wouldn’t put any faith in the eventual winner to go deep in New York, it could give them some confidence to at least win a few rounds and trouble some of the big guys.

Murray Gets Wimbledon Revenge on Nadal

Andy Murray enjoyed a little post-Wimbledon revenge on Saturday at the Rogers Cup in Toronto as he handled world number one Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-4 to advance to the finals.

Murray played as crisp tennis as I’ve seen from him since the Australian Open in January and appeared composed and prepared from the very opening game.

After a quick three games to start the match, the rallies began to lengthen and both players brought some of their best tennis for the Toronto crowd to enjoy.

Though the crowd was slightly more pro-Nadal, they cheered Murray as well and seemed to pull for either player when they faced a break point.

At 3-3 in the opening set, Nadal had two break point opportunities at 15-40, but Murray would bail himself out with timely serving to hold for 4-3.

Murray used that energy to break the Spaniard in the very next game and then held easily to close out the first set 6-3.

The fact that Nadal was down by a set did not seem to phase him nor the crowd. It is not exactly a rarity to watch him fight from behind and still manage to emerge victorious.

Murray apparently did not get the memo that he was supposed to hand over that second set, as he broke early to go up 2-1.

Nadal would use his lethal forehand to rip a winner to get back on serve and tie things up a bit later at three games apiece.

With Murray serving later at 3-4, he double faulted to hand Nadal a chance at 15-40. Again he would maintain his composure and use his serve to get back into the game and even the score at 4-4. I was most impressed with how Murray never seemed to lose his cool during the match, even when it appeared that the momentum was about to shift in Nadal’s favour.

As a few very light rain drops began to fall at 4-4, Nadal inexplicably played some loose points and gave Murray a 0-40 score to work with. The Scot would seize the moment and with a Nadal backhand into the net he jumped ahead with the break to 5-4. He would win all four points in the next game to take the match and get one step closer to defending his Rogers Cup title.

By virtue of advancing to the finals, Murray will hold on to his world No. 4 ranking. A loss would have allowed Sweden’s Robin Soderling to overtake him in that position.

Murray will face the winner of tonight’s match between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. The winning player will then hold the number two ranking in the world.

Check back later for a full report on the outcome of this world class match-up.

Berdych, Nalbandian and Federer All Prevail At Rogers Cup

The day session has wrapped-up here at the Rogers Cup on Thursday and the tournament has been fortunate thus far to avoid any major upsets. While there have been some tense moments and momentum swings that could have progressed to that level, things are still on course for the anticipated Nadal/Murray and Djokovic/Federer semi-finals this weekend. In the meantime here are a few quick hits from the action today.

Comebacks:

David Nalbandian is certainly making some waves since returning from yet another injury layoff. Today he beat Robin Soderling 4-6, 6-4, 6-1 for his 11th consecutive win. A brief lapse in concentration where he double-faulted twice in a row while trying to serve for the first set at 4-5 would ultimately cause Nalbandian to lose the opening frame. After that he seemed to regain control of the match and breezed in the third set past the 5th ranked player in the world.

It would be hard to categorize the result as an upset, despite the fact that Soderling has been quite consistent over the past year. Nalbandian lead their head-to-head 5-1 coming into the match today and has the game that can hang with the Swede shot for shot.

Future-Stars:

Lookout for Alex Dolgopolov folks, this kid has got some serious game. Appearing small in stature today against the 6’5” Tomas Berdych, Dolgopolov nearly toppled the giant by using a wide variety of shot selection and never appearing to be in awe of the 2010 Wimbledon finalist.

The youngest member of the top one hundred players in the world at age 21, Dolgopolov is a player on the rise. You wouldn’t have guessed that he was playing in his first hard court tournament since early February and I’m somewhat confused as to why he has seemingly avoided playing on the surface for so long.

This week in Toronto he managed to lose the first set in all three of his matches. Against both Philipp Petzschner and Mikhail Youzhny he failed to show up in the opening frame and fell 1-6 each time. In the second set he suddenly sprung to life against all of his opponents and especially today against Berdych where his first serve appeared to be unable to miss.

Dolgopolov’s serve is one of his real strengths as it is almost impossible to read. His toss is non-existent and he makes contact with the ball while it is still on the rise.

Also on the rise is the young Ukrainian’s ranking which since January 2009 has lept from 309th in the world to its current position at No. 49.

The variety in Dolgopolov’s game is what has impressed me the most this week. This is not your typical baseline basher and I would imagine all of his time playing on clay courts has helped develop this aspect of his play. Well timed drop-shots and lobs are a regular part of his repertoire, and his backhand slice is also quite lethal.

Against Berdych it appeared as though a final set tie-break would be required to settle the score, but Dolgopolov made a couple of tactical errors when serving at 4-5. He chose a poor time to approach the net and watched a Berdych shot whiz by him for 0-30. Berdych then charged the net during the following point which appeared to throw Dolgopolov off and force an error for 0-40. Then, in the ultimate disappointment, Dolgopolov had two first-serve lets, before double faulting to hand the match to Berdych, 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-4.

Still, winning two rounds at a Masters level tournament will give Dolgopolov a few ranking points that should help him progress towards the top-thirty. While I doubt a seeding at the U.S. Open is in the works, Dolgopolov will likely be on the list of players most would rather avoid at Flushing Meadows.

I’ll be keeping an eye on his progression the rest of the year and would encourage anyone attending any ATP tournaments to make the effort to check this guy out. Watching an up and coming player like Dolgopolov on the outside courts is a treat you can talk about one day if he makes it big.

Having Some Fun:

Finally, for fans looking for some good ol’ fashioned serve and volleying with a side of the absurd, look no further than the Centre Court match that took place between Roger Federer and Michael Llodra.

These two apparently have quite a friendly history from their junior days when they were both very familiar with each others games. Since that time they have only played one professional match prior to today, and that came back in 1999 at a Challenger tournament in France where Federer prevailed in straight sets. The result was the same today with Roger winning 7-6, 6-3.

Llodra didn’t manage to take a set from the world No. 3 player, but he did walk off with his shirt. The Frenchman asked Federer for it at the end of the match and revealed that he did it because, “You know, for me, you know, Rogers is (a) legend, so it’s a good present for my kids.”

After fighting back in the first set and recovering from being down a break, Federer cruised in the tie-break while Llodra seemed to implode with a variety of double-faults, poorly executed drop shots and volleys that missed the mark as well.

In the second set when it appeared inevitable that Federer would take the match, Llodra even tried to surprise him with a rarely seen underhanded serve.

Asked if he had ever done that before, Llodra replied, “Yeah. But not in the match!”

Federer was all smiles in the post-match press conference where he revealed that, “It’s the first time I got an underarm serve; third time somebody asked me for the shirt.”

The light-hearted questions continued for Federer as he was later asked about the pink shirt he’s sporting this week here in competition.

“I don’t know where my head was when I chose pink, but I like it, you know. Honestly I’ve gotten a lot of praise for it. People apparently like it…so that’s a good thing. It’s only for, unfortunately or luckily, only for two tournaments because I’m going to be changing again for the Open, and I thought it was going to be something fun for the summer. That’s kind of how it goes.”

Roger will be hoping that his fun summer includes another U.S. Open title in September. His first true test since returning from a six week layoff will be tomorrow night at 7pm ET as he faces Berdych in a re-match of their Wimbledon quarter-final tilt that was won by the Czech.

Stay tuned to Tennis Grandstand for full coverage of that match and the other quarter-finals as well.

AUSSIE OPEN WOMEN’S QUALIFYING 2010

The women’s qualifying draw packs more heat than on the men’s side for one main reason: Yanina Wickmayer. Despite being ranked 16th in the world, the Belgian is being forced to grind it out through three qualifying matches in order to secure a spot in the main draw.

Wickmayer was suspended by the Flemish Anti-Doping Tribunal in her home country in early November for apparently failing to report her whereabouts at certain times during the season.

The twenty year old rising star appealed the decision and had it overturned by a civil court in Belgium. Unfortunately for Wickmayer the new ruling came after the December 7th cut-off date for entries into the Australian Open.

That left Wickmayer with the option of applying for a wild-card from the tournament, but when it was not extended, it left her with no other option but going through the qualifying draw.

It’s disappointing that such a talented player is being forced to jump through hoops in order to qualify for the main draw. While I certainly feel that Wickmayer will make it through the qualies, it will place a greater physical strain on her body ahead of an already grueling Grand Slam schedule. Hopefully it will instead serve as a motivator for her and help her gain some momentum for a memorable tournament. She is obviously seeded number one in the qualifying draw and won a tough opening match on Thursday by a score of 4-6, 6-0, 7-5.

Aside from Wickmayer, the qualifying draw has a few other players worth following.

Alexandra Stevenson will best be remembered for her surprising run to the semi-finals at Wimbledon as a qualifier in 1999. That was a long time ago and Stevenson never built upon that success. Several injuries would creep up in 2002 and slow her progress and then a right-shoulder injury would derail her career at the end of 2004 and cause her ranking to plummet. Stevenson has been back to playing a full schedule for a couple of years now, but has not been able to regularly make it past qualifying draws and challenger-level tournaments.

Fifteen year old Laura Robson teamed up with Andy Murray at the Hopman Cup earlier this month and acquitted herself quite well. Born in Australia (Melbourne in fact) but playing for Great Britain, Robson lost to Daniela Hantuchova in three sets in the first round of Wimbledon last year, her first appearance at a Grand Slam. The youngster will turn sixteen during the Aussie Open and represents the future of female tennis in the U.K.

Canadians: I have to give a shout-out to the numerous Canadian women who are represented in the qualifying draw in Melbourne this year including, Valerie Tetreault, Heidi El Tabakh, Rebecca Marino and Sharon Fichman. Our country does not have much representation in the upper rankings of the tennis world, but these ladies are showing that Tennis Canada does have some talent in the mix just below the surface.

Federer Rallies To Defeat Ferrer In Cincinnati; Murray, Nadal Advance

World No. 1 Roger Federer rallied from a break down in the final set to edge past unseeded Spaniard David Ferrer, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, in extremely windy conditions Thursday afternoon to advance to the quarterfinals at the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters 1000 in Cincinnati.

Federer, who is one victory away from winning his 200 win at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament, quickly broke the Spaniard in the opening game of the match but was then broken back in the fourth game. Ferrer followed it up by breaking Federer’s serve in the eighth game, before holding serve to win the opening set.

Federer, who lost to Ivo Karlovic last year in the third round in Cincinnati, remained steady despite being down a set and was able to secure a break at 4-3, before holding serve to take the match to a deciding set.

“I think at the beginning maybe my footwork was just a touch off,” said Federer, who reclaimed the No. 1 ranking in July after winning Wimbledon for a sixth time. “After that I think I got it together and started to play better and better.”

In the final set, the 27-year-old Spaniard jumped ahead 3-1 but could not consolidate the break. Ferrer, who had beaten Stanislas Wawrinka and No. 14 seed Marin Cilic earlier in his first two matches, then smashed his racquet in frustration after not being able to take a 4-1 lead.

Federer, who has won a record 15 Grand Slam singles titles, picked up his game tremendously after leveling the match at 3-3. The momentum shifted towards Federer as the Swiss broke Ferrer in the ninth game to take a 5-4 lead. Federer then served out the match at ease to advance to his tenth quarterfinal of the season.

“I thought he played a good match,” said Federer, who has won three titles this season.

Federer, who improved to 9-0 against Ferrer, smashed six aces and just two double faults compared to three aces and two double faults by the Spaniard. Federer won 75 percent of first serve points and was able to break serve on four of nine opportunities. Ferrer, who reached the finals earlier this year in Barcelona and Dubai, won 69 percent of first serve points and broke serve on three occasions.

Federer will next face unseeded Australian Lleyton Hewitt, who edged past American Sam Querrey, 6-1, 2-6, 6-3, in one hour and 26 minutes in the final match of the day session on Stadium court.

Also on Stadium Court at the Lindner Family Tennis Center, No. 3 seed Andy Murray of Scotland, who overtook the No. 2 ranking earlier this week from Rafael Nadal, rolled past No. 16 seed Radek Stepanek of Czech Republic, 6-4, 6-1, in one hour and 16 minutes.

The 22-year-old Scot, who is the defending champion in Cincinnati, broke Stepanek’s serve in the second game of the opening set, but was broken on his own serve when he tried serving out the set at 5-3 up. Despite the hiccup near the end of the set, Murray quickly broke back to take the opening set, 6-4.

“I started the match very well, serving well and not giving him any chances,” said Murray, who won the Masters 1000 Montreal tournament last week. “The wind picked up at the end of the first set and he managed to break me. But I played a good game to break back.”

In the second set, Murray had little trouble keeping the momentum on his side, as he broke Stepanek in his first two service games of the set before winning the match on his serve to advance.

Murray, who improved to 3-0 against the 30-year-old Czech Republic native smashed eight aces and won 29 of 38 first serve points. Stepanek, who has won titles earlier this year in Brisbane and San Jose, didn’t have his best serving outing, hitting three aces, three double faults and winning just 51 percent of first serve points.

The Scot, who has won five ATP World Tour titles this year, will next face lucky loser Julien Benneteau, who edge past Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(4), in a three hour and three-minute thriller on the Grandstand court.

In the late match, No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal recovered from a 0-3 deficit to roll past Frenchman Paul-Henri Mathieu, 7-5, 6-2, in one hour and 55 minutes.

The Spaniard was able to break serve on four of 12 opportunities, while smashing five aces and winning 32 of 41 first serve points. Mathieu was only able to break Nadal’s serve once, which occurred in the early stages of the opening set. The Frenchman hit three aces, three double faults and won 33 of 49 first serve points.

Nadal, who improved to 9-0 lifetime against Mathieu, will take on Czech Republic’s Tomas Berdych on Friday night for a place in the semifinals. Nadal leads the head-to-head 4-3, winning most recently in 2008 in the semifinals in Miami.

Other Winners on Thursday in Cincinnati
Third Round
No. 4 Novak Djokovic def. Jeremy Chardy, 7-5, 6-3
No. 9 Gilles Simon def. No. 8 Nikolay Davydenko, 6-7(6), 6-4, 6-4
Tomas Berdych def. Chris Guccione, 6-4, 6-3

Kim Clijsters Victorious In Return To Sony Ericsson WTA Tour

Kim Clijsters’ highly anticipated comeback to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour after a two year hiatus was marked by an impressive, 6-4, 6-3, victory over No. 12 seed Marion Bartoli on Monday night at the Western & Southern Financial Group Women’s Open in Cincinnati.

Clijsters, the 2005 US Open champion, came out firing, jumping out to a 4-0 lead by running down every shot in sight and smashing winners from all across the baseline. The former world No. 1 then saw her lead slip away, as Bartoli evened things at 4-4. But Clijsters broke Bartoli’s serve to take a 5-4 lead and then consolidated the break to take the opening set in front of the pro-Clijsters crowd.

The momentum stayed with Clijsters throughout the second set as the Belgian maintained her high-level of play by breaking serve for a 3-1 lead. Although she faced 10 break points, the 26-year-old and mother of 18-month-old daughter, Jada, won 20 of 30 first serve points and broke serve on four of six occasions en route to victory.

“I was really excited to be out there,” said Clijsters. “I’m excited I will be playing another match.”

Monday’s match was Clijsters’ first match since May 2007, when she lost to Julia Vakulenko in straight sets in the first round in Warsaw, Poland, and later that month announced her retirement from professional tennis citing injuries.

With a compelling victory over a Top 15 player, who just beat Venus Williams to win the title in Stanford, Clijsters’ peers will immediately feel her presence on the tour.

“Without playing a match for two years, it is pretty amazing the level she already has right now,” said Bartoli.

Although her entourage will be with her all week in Cincinnati, as well as next week in Toronto and at the US Open, Clijsters indicated that she will have to balance the physical demands of competitive tennis and family life on the road before she can commit to a full-time schedule.

“I’m not going to have the same type of schedule, 20, 21 tournaments,” said Clijsters, a winner of 34 career singles titles. “I want to see where I am and what is possible, how many weeks I can be away, those are the type of details I need to work out. It is very hard for me to say these are my long term plans.

Awaiting Clijsters in the second round is Patty Schnyder, who beat Gisela Dulko, 6-4, 6-0. Clijsters owns a 5-2 edge against the lefty from Switzerland and has won three of the meetings on hardcourts.