Robin Haase

Raonic, Haase Could Get Company From Compatriots in Top 100 in ‘12

It can be lonely in the top 100, especially if you’re Andy Murray, Ernests Gulbis or Jurgen Melzer.

They’re just three of the 21 players that are their nation’s sole representative among that ranking benchmark. But while some of them, such as Robin Soderling and Marcos Baghdatis, might not be getting any company from their compatriots any time soon, there are some national number-twos who could be backing up or surpassing their higher-ranked countrymen in 2012. Here’s a look at five of them.

Izak van der Merwe

Second-ranked player from South Africa behind Kevin Anderson

Over the course of the past four years, van der Merwe’s year-end ranking has improved—from 302 to at the end of 2008 to his current, and career-high, 113. In 2011, the 27-year-old South African won two Challenger titles on hard courts, and made the finals of another. He also advanced to the quarterfinals at the ATP World Tour 250 event in Johannesburg, where his countryman Anderson won their “home” tournament. Solid results at the start of 2012 could land van der Merwe alongside Anderson in the top 100.

Vasek Pospisil

Second-ranked player from Canada behind Milos Raonic

If it seems like Raonic appeared out of nowhere in 2011, the opposite should be expected of Pospisil in the year ahead. Big things are expected from the 21-year-old, who improved his ranking by nearly 200 points over the year. His most impressive feat in the past year was lifting his country into World Group play for the 2012 Davis Cup. Improving his place in the standings could be his next big accomplishment.

Go Soeda

Second-ranked player from Japan behind Kei Nishikori

The veteran reached his career-high ranking in 2011—90—with his best ATP Tour-level result coming in Thailand, where he reached the quarterfinals out of qualifying. He played in the main draw of three of the four Grand Slams during the year, and also won two Challenger events. Soeda had a solid finish to the year with quarterfinal finishes in two of his last three tournaments, giving him something to build upon in 2012.

Thomas Schoorel

Second-ranked player from the Netherlands behind Robin Haase

It’s been quite some time since the days of Richard Krajicek, Jan Siemerink and Paul Haarhuis. But a Dutch renaissance appears to be in effect based on the play of Haase and Schoorel behind him. The 22-year-old Schoorel cracked the top 100 in 2011, before finishing at 133, based on strong Challenger results, winning two tournaments in a row on clay. He also picked up wins over perennial top-100 players Jarkko Nieminen and Jeremy Chardy during the year, and made the second round of the French Open.

Andrey Golubev

Second-ranked player from Kazakhstan behind Mikhail Kukushkin

Things didn’t exactly go as planned for Kazakhstan’s former number one in 2011. After winning his first career title at the ATP World Tour 500 stop in Hamburg and making the finals in Kuala Lumpur in 2010, Golubev—whose career-high ranking is 33—notched a 6-26 record in the just-concluded season. Most of those wins came during the summer on outdoor hard courts, a sign that he began to rediscover some of his form after a rough start. A good run in the beginning of ’12 could help him fully put the memories of ’11, and that lower ranking, behind him.

The Little Match That Could

On the evening of Friday August 26, 2011 the eyes of the country were on Hurricane Irene, who was fast approaching the East Coast of North Carolina.  Tennis fans had turned their attention to New York, waiting to see how the storm would effect their favorite players and the upcoming U.S. Open.

I was about three-hundred miles inland from the storm watching one of my favorite matches of the year.

At Wake Forest University in a make-shift tennis stadium located underneath the overhang of the football stadium the 43rd ranked player in the world, 10th seeded Robin Haase, took on the 113th ranked player in the world, Qualifier Julien Benneteau, in the semifinals of the inaugural Winston-Salem Open.

As the sun set and provided some relief from the scorching August sun, approximately four thousand locals packed the temporary stadium ready for some Friday night entertainment.  Most spectators had bought their tickets long before the order of play had been announced, and were feeling a bit slighted- after all, the afternoon semifinal had been between Andy Roddick and hometown hero John Isner!

During the second point of the match, as the sky was turning orange and the crowd was still settling in, Haase’s forehand clipped the net and dribbled over.   Benneteau scampered to the net and made it just in time, awkwardly pitching the ball back over the net.  The two men stayed at the net for a twenty shot sensational yet clumsy exchange of volleys and returns before Haase finally was able to angle the ball out of Benneteau’s reach.  The Winston-Salem crowd leapt to their feet in appreciation and the two men smiled and laughed before Benneteau jovially reached across the net to shake Haase’s hand.  Then the umpire, Somat Madgi, intervened.  Apparently during the exchange Haase had reached his racket over the net and therefore the point was automatically awarded to Benneteau.  Haase and Madgi had a heated exchange before Haase finally settled back in at the baseline and signaled he was ready to move on- to the third point of the match.

Winston Salem, meet Robin Haase and Julien Benneteau.


Robin Haase, 24, is a talented Dutchman often recognized as one of the big underachievers in tennis.  He hits big and plays aggressive, reminiscent of James Blake at his best only with a little more variety.  Coming into the Winston-Salem Open he was soaring at a career high ranking and with his first tournament victory freshly under his belt.  He made it to the semifinals with easy victories over James Blake and Pierre Duclos, and with an upset win over #3 seed Dolgopolov in the quarterfinals.

Julien Benneteau,29, is an effervescent Frenchmen, who prances around the court and makes power and precision seem graceful.  In 2010 he reached a high ranking of 31 before a wrist injury derailed him, and he came into the Winston Salem Open on the comeback trail.  He had to qualify just to get into the tournament and on this Friday night he was playing his eighth match in seven days following three-set come-from-behind escapes against Igor Andreev and Sergiy Stakhovsky.

Early on Haase was clearly rattled from Madgi’s call and Benenteau easily raced out to a 3-1 lead despite not being able to find a first serve. However once Haase started getting balls in play he quickly won five games in a row to win the first set 6-3.   When Haase went up a break early in the second set things seemed grim- the excited crowd became restless, worrying that their night might end way too soon. Would Benneteau be able to pull off another magical escape or would the second point of the match be the highlight?

That’s the phenomenal and infuriating thing about tennis- nothing is a guarantee.  Anything can happen.  Every match has an equal opportunity to be an epic or a complete dud.  The most dramatic match can have no memorable rallies and a blow-out can contain points for a highlight reel.  You just never know.

Luckily on this beautiful night things were far from over. Benneteau finally found his first serve midway through the second set and managed to take it to a tiebreak, where he saved two match points to extend the match to a third set. It wasn’t without drama though.  At one point Benneteau disagreed with one of Madgi’s calls so fiercely that he sat in the back of the court and tried to wait the decision out.  (This tactic was not successful, in case you’re wondering).

In the third set, like clockwork, Benneteau fell behind a break.  Robin Haase served for the match at 5-4 but his nerves found him once again and he was broken.  Benneteau faced one more match point in the third set tiebreak before winning the last three points of the match.  Julien Benneteau defeated Robin Haase 6-3 7-6(7) 7-6(6) to make it to the finals of the Winston-Salem Open.

After a two hour and thirty-two minute sometimes sloppy, sometimes sensational, and always dramatic match the Winston Salem crowd was wild with applause.  This sport of tennis, with two players most had never heard of before, had made it’s way into their hearts.  The energy in the stadium that night was electric and it gave me chills.  There are few things more heartwarming than seeing people fall in love with the sport for the first time. As cheesy as it sounds, it makes me fall in love with the sport all over again.

When all was said and done Benneteau danced, and it was unlike anything Winston-Salem had ever seen- I’d call it a mix of the chicken, the robot, and the electric slide.  People shouted “Allez” in a southern accent. The man I had seen in qualification rounds on a side court had made it all the way to the finals. It was a magical moment.

For Robin Haase, however, it was another memorable collapse.  Every single time he had control he let the match go.  When his game is on it’s indescribable, leaving opponents on the other side completely helpless.  When his brain turns on and he overthinks things his game often falls to pieces and it’s hard to watch without wincing.

In the big scheme of things this little match didn’t mean much in the narratives of 2011. Maybe the more interesting story to most is whether or not Rafael Nadal win one or two majors this year, if Federer can get to seventeen slams, or whether Djokovic will have the best-ever season or merely a top-5-ever season.  But to me that’s like seeing the rich get richer. No disrespect to the top athletes of this sport, but sometimes I think it means more when the players have less.  For these two players, for this inagural tournament, for this Friday night crowd this match meant everything.

The majority of Winston-Salem may never learn how to properly pronounce Benneteau or Haase, but I know that none of them will ever forget the match that night- and shouldn’t that count for something?

 

(Photos c/o Fred and Susan Mullane/Cameraworks USA)

A Sunday match preview of the US Open – Around the corner

Let’s take a quick look at the matches set for Sunday at the U.S. Open on the men’s side. The third round is set to finish-up and there are some great battles to keep an eye on.

Alex Bogomolov Jr. is having a career year and has made the third round of his second consecutive Grand Slam. At the age of 28 he is a career high of 44th in the world and that is likely going to rise even further following the completion of this tournament. Just how well has Bogo been playing this year in comparison with his previous years on tour? In this one season alone he has amassed almost a third of his career earnings!

Bogo’s run will likely come to an end against John Isner who is also having a terrific summer and has had more success in big-time matches. Isner has won both their career head-to-head matches on the ATP World Tour and both of those victories were earlier this year. I’ve got Isner in straight sets in this one.

Juan Martin Del Potro will continue to strive for another strong showing at the Open as he faces 12th seeded Gilles Simon of France. Despite being seeded 18th himself, Del Po will be considered the favorite in this one. Del Potro has lost to Ernests Gulbis, Marin Cilic and Roger Federer this summer and has yet to get on a roll since Wimbledon ended. Still, those are all quality opponents and he is no-doubt feeling comfortable at the site of his only Slam win.

Del Potro has a 2-1 head-to-head advantage against Simon and beat him here in New York in 2008 as well as in June of this year at the All-England Club. I’ll take the Argentine in four sets.

Donald Young is having the break-out moment of his career here at the Open as evidenced in his stunning come-from-behind victory over Stan Wawrinka in the second round. Young is going to take-down Juan Ignacio Chela in the next round to continue on his impressive form. Four sets is likely, but Chela could use his experience to push to five in a failing effort.

Andy Murray came back with a vengeance against Robin Haase in a strange second round encounter. He pulled out the victory in five sets and with a day to rest should be ready to go against Feliciano Lopez. Murray in three this time.

David Ferrer saw-off a potentially tough challenge from James Blake in the previous round. He’ll face Florian Mayer, a player who is having career-best results but ultimately is not talented enough to take it any further. With Ferrer’s tenacity and game that is tailor-made for best-of-five sets, the Spaniard will breeze through this one in three.

Andy Roddick has admitted he is still not back to where his game is capable of being, yet he finds himself in the third round against French vet Julien Benneteau. Andy should be able to use the home-crowd to his advantage, but Benneteau did reach the finals at Winston Salem a week ago and could be capable of an upset. Roddick’s serve will have to be sharp and he cannot hesitate to charge the net when the timing is right. Roddick holds a 3-1 advantage against Benneteau but the duo have not played each other in three years. I’ll take Roddick in four, but would not be shocked if Benneteau comes up with a surprise.

Coin-toss in the Gilles Muller vs. Igor Kunitsyn match. This should have been a Mikhail Youzhny vs. Jurgen Melzer match if the seedings had held true, but neither of those players were able to fend off their challengers.

Most casual tennis fans won’t be too familiar with these two guys, so here’s a quick breakdown:

Kunitsyn is 29 years old and is ranked 62nd in the world. He reached a career-high of 35th in the world in 2009 and attaining the third round here is his best result at a Grand Slam.

Muller is best remembered for stealing Andy Roddick’s mojo at the Open back in 2005. He is 28 years old and ranked 66th in the world at the moment. His career high ranking is 59th which he reached back in 2005. His best Slam result was here at the U.S. Open in 2008 when he reached the quarter-finals before falling to Roger Federer.

Kunitsyn leads their previous matches by a 1-0 margin coming by way of a victory in Washington earlier this summer. I’m going to go with Muller in this one due to his previous Slam experience and results but it’s gonna go the distance for sure.

Last but not least we have a match that would have been a whole lot of fun to watch about four or five years ago. Talented but oft-injured David Nalbandian takes on 2nd seeded Rafael Nadal.

Nalbandian has again struggled with injuries this season and has been burdened with lacklustre results all summer long. Nadal has been less than his usual stellar self since reaching the finals of Wimbledon, but has still performed decently on hard-courts leading up to the Open.

While Nalbandian is one of the few players who boasts a solid record against Nadal, he is in over his head Sunday. The pair stand tied at two wins each, with all four matches coming on hard court. Nalbandian has lost the last two however and has not beat Rafa since 2007. Nadal will take this one in three relatively easy sets.

Enjoy the long-weekend tennis everyone. Check back with us again soon for more updates and analysis.

El Aynaoui Makes a Comeback (Again)

Once again on the futures circuit this week, another former ATP standout bravely swallowed his pride and started back at square one in the hopes of turning back the clock.

It’s hard to tell how many comebacks Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui has had. The 36 year old has overcome financial destitution and just about every injury in the book to achieve a top 15 ranking and reach the quarterfinals at both the Australian Open and US Open. This week, El Aynaoui returned from a seven month injury layoff at the $15,000 event in Castelldefels. Appearing as a late entrant, he was forced to go through the qualifying rounds before surviving several tough three set matches in the main draw. In the end, El Aynaoui won his first title in almost 12 months by beating Adam Chadaj of Poland 6-3 7-6 in the final.

At the notoriously strong $100,000 event in Sunrise, Dutchman Robin Haase won a rain-delayed final that was pushed into Monday. Haase came back from being down a set and a break to defeat Frenchman Sebastian Grosjean 5-7 7-5 6-1. For Haase, who has already scored wins over Andy Murray and Ivan Ljubicic this year, this is the biggest title of his career. He hopped in a car directly after the final to head to Miami, where he layer played in the qualifying rounds of the Sony Ericsson Open (he won his first round match in Miami Monday evening).

Another player on the comeback trail is Mariano Puerta of Argentina, who’s still trying to rebound after a second doping suspension that almost ended his career. Competing at the $50,000 event in San Luis Potosi this week, Puerta showed glimpses of the form that took him to the French Open finals as he cruised through the draw without the loss of a set. However, injury derailed his good form as he was forced to withdraw from the final before striking a single ball, which allowed Brian Dabul of Argentina to win his first title of year. Both Dabul and Puerta are scheduled at the next $50,000 event in Mexico this coming week, held in the city of Leon.

In other challenger news on the men’s side, Ivan Navarro of Spain won his first event in two years at the $35,000 event in Meknes, while Andreas Beck of Germany won the $35,000 event in Sarajevo.

With her ranking just outside of the top 100, Israeli Tzipi Obziler decided to drop back down to the challengers for the $25,000 event in Tenerife. The decision proved to be wise as she dropped just 14 games in her last four matches and overwhelmed Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain 6-2 6-3 in the final. The win puts Obziler back inside the top 100 and, with little to defend over the next few months, she should see her ranking continue to climb.

In other challenger news on the women’s side, Barbora Zahalova Strycova of the Czech Republic won her second title of the year at the $25,000 event in Redding, while Melanie South of Great Britain won a nail biting three-set final to take the title at the $25,000 tournament in Sorrento. Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova won the $25,000 event in St. Petersburg, and Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova won her first challenger event at the $25,000 tournament in Noida.

The men keep the spotlight with two $50,000 tournaments this coming week. Werner Eschauer of Austria is the top seed in Barletta and Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer takes top billing in Leon. On the women’s side, Nuria Llagostera Vives of Spain accepted a late wild card and is the top seed at the $50,000 event in Latina. Once again this week, there are also several $25,000 women’s events. Anna Lapushchenkova of Russia will hope to keep her local fans happy at the $25,000 event in Moscow, while China’s Shuai Zhang hopes to reverse her losing streak at the $25,000 tournament in Hammond. Anastasia Yakimova of Belarus is the clear favorite a  the $25,000 event in La Palma, while Estonia’s Maret Ani takes top billing at the $25,000 event in Jersey. Finally, Tessenderlo hosts its first professional event as veteran Selima Sfar of Tunisia is the top seed at this $25,000 tournament.