Battles of the Have-Nots

Friday, March 21, 2014 /by
AP
AP

Regular visitors to this space know that lately I’ve been banging the drum about a potential changing of the guard on both tours. Starting tomorrow, I’ll have a firsthand opportunity to see how my theory is working out, as I travel to Miami to cover the tournament right through the final.

The first few days have been somewhat inconclusive when it comes to any potential upheaval in the pecking order.

On the WTA side, Serena Williams survived a scare that rates about a five on a scale of 1 to 10 in her match against volatile Yaroslava Shvedova, she of the “golden set.” You can catch up on that if you read my Racquet Reaction elsewhere.

The outstanding detail yesterday came out of the ATP draw, in which “Aussie Battler” Lleyton Hewitt became just the 21st ATP player to record 600 wins. He did it by virtue of — what else — a bitterly contested 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 win over Netherlands’ Robin Haase.

But yesterday also was a tale of two Aussies. For Bernard Tomic, the compatriot once hailed as a successor to former world No. 1 Hewitt, lost his first-round match in record-setting time.

Tomic was beaten by Jarkko Nieminen 6-1, 6-0 in just 28 minutes — the shortest completed match in ATP history. True, Tomic is coming off surgery on both hips. But if you’re anything like me you may be asking yourself if that had anything to do with how things worked out.

Beyond that, the ATP wild cards and qualifiers had an impressive passel of wins, so let’s give these guys a moment in the sun before some cloud named Djokovic or Monfils or Isner sails in to relegate them to shadows once again. And then we’ll check in on some have nots on the WTA side as well.

Wild card Ryan Harrison d. Federico Delbonis — He’s still just 21 and ranked right on the cusp of direct entry into Grand Slam events (No. 112), so it’s hard to call Harrison’s plight tragic. But nobody now — or ever — has been more gung-ho and totally dedicated to becoming an elite pro than Harrison. And while there was a fair amount of hype surrounding him a few years ago (much of it generated by the champion-starved U.S. media), he seemed to be drifting into irrelevance over the past year or two.

Like the next man under consideration, Harrison has never had a big weapon, although his second serve has always impressed. He does many things well if none exceptionally well, and there’s always been room on the tour for a guy like that. He had a good win over a talented player, perhaps it’s the start of a new phase for Harrison.

Wild card Marcos Baghdatis d. Santiago Giraldo:  Baghdatis, once an Australian Open runner-up,  has been one of the more baffling — and to many, disappointing — players of our era. After that great performance Down Under in 2006 (losing to Roger Federer in the final) he’s more or less disappeared for long stretches interrupted only by brief — extremely brief — resurgences. He often looked jiggly and out of shape.

There are all kinds of theories for what happened to Baghdatis, starting with the fact that being not just a big cheese but the only one in his native Cyprus went to his head. But to me the major part of his story is that the game simply left him behind. As the power surge increased over recent years, his native quickness and ball-striking abilities simply couldn’t keep up pace with the change. This was a good, confidence-building win for “Baggy,” who had to claw his way back after Giraldo played lights-out tennis in the first set.

Qualifier Jack Sock d. wild card Guido Pella — Granted, a first-round win over a wild card doesn’t warrant a ticker-tape parade for the winner, but Pella has been ranked high as No. 75 and, as an on-the-cusp direct entry candidate (he’s No. 113), he had every reason to be stoked to find himself opposite a mere qualifier in the main draw.

And let’s face it, Sock played a boneheaded match at Indian Wells (l. to fellow American Tim Smyczek). The grumblings about Sock getting too many wild cards grew louder after that one. Sock has needed to go out and fight his way through some matches and a few tough draws (at whatever level). This is a good start.

Qualifier Dominic Thiem d. Lukas Rosol — The 6-foot-1 20-year old from Wiener Neustadt, Austria, is a player to watch this year, even if Grigor Dimitrov will be the attracting most of the attention. Thiem jumped to No. 86 thanks to a great Indian Wells (two main draw wins after qualifying), but he still had to qualify for Miami because of the deadlines in the entry system. You know what? Having to qualify when in theory you don’t have to qualify is difficult and laden with pressure. But Thiem handled it beautifully, and backed it up with a first-round win over the explosive if erratic Rosol.

Now, on the WTA side:

By my count, qualifiers and wild cards went 11-9 in the first round, a good record that also includes a few matches that cancel out each other (qualifier vs. qualifier or wild card). It’s a tough assignment to beat another qualifier with second-round ranking points and prize money so near at hand. So let’s look at noteworthy battles among the have-nots:

Qualifier Coco Vandeweghe d. Marina Erakovic — This was a terrific win for Vandeweghe, because Erakovic is gifted and experienced. Vandeweghe has always suffered from inconsistency, but perhaps she’s ironing out more and more of the kinks in her game. Vandeweghe is 6-foot-1, so there have always been kinks, probably always will be (just look at Maria Sharpova, not the worst model for a six-footer). But Coco is just 21 and still has much to give — and learn. Vandeweghe also won a main-draw match at Indian Wells, so her ability to build on that is encouraging.

Qualifier Virginie Razzano d. wild card Heather Watson — Not many players can claim to have a winning record against Serena Williams, and the one match Razzano won in their only encounter to date was a doozy — a first-round upset of La Serena at the 2012 French Open. Razzano is well-positioned at No. 91, while Watson, apparently still trying to find her mojo after a bout of glandular fever, is No. 121. Still, the 6-4, 6-0 scoreline against a player as erratic as Razzano has to be troubling for Watson.

Qualifier Donna Vekic d. qualifier Kimiko Date-Krumm — It surely had to be strange for prodigy Donna Vekic to find herself playing a fellow qualifier who’s more than twice her age. Date-Krumm is 43 and still going strong, while Vekic is 17 and just coming on. You can expect Vekic to keep coming, too. The Croatian youth is No. 94 already, and accumulating experience in leaps and bounds. She’s a great pick if you’re looking for a potential break-out player for 2014.

That’s all for today, folks. The next time you hear from me it will be with the dateline, Miami.
 

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