Taking Down The Best on the Road to the “Fifth Slam”
At some point it will start to happen with more regularity.
Rafael Nadal won’t muster the will to come back from 6-1 down in a tiebreak, and go on to win a semifinal match on clay against a hometown favorite such as Carlos Berlocq in Buenos Aires. Roger Federer won’t school Borna Coric with such effortless efficiency in Dubai. Down the road, the 18-year-old will transform his liabilities to assets and take out a man with 17 Grand Slams – plus a couple hundred other records, including, from Dubai, his 84th career title, and a coveted membership into the 9,000 Aces Club.
Coric is just like any number of players biding their time until the shape of the learning curve turns positive. “But that’s tennis and that’s life, and another day,” the Croat said, reported the Associated Press.
The attitude is a wise one, from such a young man.
Signposts such as these were scattered throughout tournaments over the last two weeks. The air is plump with expectations for more revelatory performances, more unlikely faces to raise eyebrows and reverse the trend those few firmly entrenched, certainly on the men’s side.
On the women’s side, Simona Halep held her nerve and exhibited her high-grade athleticism to hold off Karolina Pliskova in the final of Dubai, 6-3, 7-6(4). Though she finished second, Pliskova inched closer to fulfilling dreams and becoming a fixture on the big stadiums where the Top 10 compete. The Dubai final was her first at that level, up-ending a fellow fast-riser in Garbiñe Muguruza in a thrilling semifinals. She demonstrated a champion’s attitude, never letting the score stop her from pressuring the expected winner.
She was rewarded with a No. 13 ranking last Monday.
Pliskova is among many new names to remember at Indian Wells. Her 17-5 season record she has been successful and that she’s played a lot of tournaments — second only to Halep. The 6’1″ Czech has wracked up some remarkable wins, too. In Dubai she defeated Ana Ivanovic and Lucie Safarova (for the second time in 2015), in addition to Muguruza. In Sydney, Pliskova lost in the final to Petra Kvitova, but not before breaking down Angelique Kerber’s game to a two-set thrashing in the semifinal. We also can’t forget her win over Victoria Azarenka in the former No. 1’s comeback match in Brisbane: a three-set, three-hour ordeal, ending at, 4-6, 7-6(7), 6-4.
Azarenka is a two-time major champion and another we have watched win with regularity. Though she made the final in Doha yesterday, she did not win it. A disappointment for her, but it represented only part of the week. In the semifinals she took out No. 7 seed Venus Williams, 2-6, 2-6, 6-4. Azarenka had never taken a set from the American icon, let alone a match.
Her hitherto flagging rank will move from No. 48 to somewhere closer towards the Top 40 come Monday. It’s likely not enough to get a seed at Indian Wells, which will then present similarly harrowing draw scenarios as in Melbourne or Doha.
Azarenka will once again be labeled a ‘dangerous floater’ in the most serious of terms.
Lucie Safarova, though, has inched as close to the Top 10 ever in her 13-year career. Ending 2014 at No. 17, she will soon move to No. 11.
The Czech veteran proved that perseverance and confidence pay off, silencing Azarenka’s hopes in Saturday’s final, 6-4, 6-3, after going winless against the Belorussian in six previous meetings. She had never even won a Premier Level tournament. She did, though, win the women’s doubles title at the Australian Open, a moment of extraordinary inspiration she seems to have pulled on since.
Back to the men’s side, quite a few in addition to Coric made the watch list.
America’s Ryan Harrison, who started his year winning a Challenger in Happy Valley, Australia, upset defending champion, and No. 3 seed, Grigor Dimitrov in Acapulco, 7-5, 4-6, 60. It was the the once touted youngster’s first Top 10 win. At the US Open and Wimbledon last year, Harrison lost to Dimitrov in the first rounds. Those results characterized much of Harrison’s 2013 and 2014, pocked by early-round losses and struggles with injuries and poor mental fortitude.
Harrison entered Acapulco’s qualification tournament as an alternate, a hair’s breadth away from being a lucky loser. After beating Dimitrov, he backed up the win to topple Delray Beach winner Ivo Karlovic, 4-6, 7-6(0), 7-6(4).
The run would come to an abrupt end to David Ferrer in their semifinal; after a strong start, Harrison won just 18 points in the final two sets. Ferrer went on to defeat new No. 4, Kei Nishikori, 6-3, 7-5 in the final. It was Ferrer’s fourth from Acapulco, his third of the year, and 23rd overall.
Simone Bolelli and Fabio Fognini, Australian Open men’s doubles champions, used their major league confidence to break through career ceilings. Bolelli scored his first Top 10 win at the Open 13 in Marseille, out-gutting Milos Raonic in a final set tiebreak.
Donald Young, too, showed signs of maturation in Delray Beach. He worked his way to his first final since 2011. Over the week he ousted Ivan Dodig, Alejandro Gonzalez, the No. 3 seed Alexandr Dolgopolov, and Bernard Tomic, before losing to Karlovic, 6-3, 6-3.
Coric, though, seems to have made the most noise over the last two weeks, outside of Fognini’s upset of Nadal on clay in Rio de Janeiro, as we look toward the Coachella Valley next week and The BNP Paribas Open.
The young Croat brought new meaning to the phrase, “Lucky Loser” in Dubai. He thumped an errant Andy Murray, 6-1, 6-3. Murray committed 55 unforced errors, but Coric kept focused and served out the win, continuing to show off his ability to walk through doors left open by the best in the game.
His eventual conqueror told the press that he had figured out what to expect from Coric after five games. But Federer also acknowledged why Coric has attracted attention.
“I can see why he has caused difficulties for some the top guys and he still has a lot of room for improvement in his game,” he began. “He does a really good job for a big guy who moves well. It’s unbelievable how now in the last 10 years we have seen so many big guys moving well from the baseline. I think he returns well, especially off second serves, and that’s such a huge part of today’s game.”
Even with outstanding results from rising stars, the biggest names ultimately hogged the most spotlight, locking out five of six finalist spots in three tournaments (Dubai, Buenos Aires, Acapulco).
The title holders are familiar names, survivors, ones who consistently come through all obstacles. They hit bumps, but rarely falter. With regularity they continue to win and make inroads difficult to pave.
The next test, for A-List or otherwise, is Indian Wells. You can bet eyes will be on those that would like to prove themselves, and those who have proven so much.
The chances of a huge upset in California still seems small, but the odds are not forever in their favor.
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