Unsurprising Surprises

Monday, May 05, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Spring break for most college kids was over a few weeks ago. Memorial Day, the first time of the year when you’re likely to end up with a sunburn to go along with a hangover, is weeks away. In tennis, this ought to have been a quiet week, a week when people abused the old expression, “the calm before the storm.”

Instead, this turned out to be a zany week culminating in a wild weekend. At the Munich ATP 250, Martin Klizan slashed his way through qualifying and capped off a terrific run with a win over top seed Fabio Fognini. In Oeiras, a dandy if mellow little event, Carla Suarez Navarro contested the sixth final of her career and, having lost the previous five, seemed finished when two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova ran off nine of 11 games to take a 4-1 lead in the final set. But the next thing you knew, Suarez Navarro was hoisting the title for the first time at a WTA tournament.

And that was just on Saturday. What happened next in the ATP 250 portion of Oeiras was even more unexpected. Top seed and world No. 6 Tomas Berdych blitzed No. 62 Carlos Berloq in the first set—6-0—then one of the most fearsome servers on the tour lost the plot and allowed five consecutive service breaks. He went on to lose the match, 0-6, 7-5, 6-1.

Just where do you suppose you stand in the serve-games-held stats now, Tomas?

There you have it, a wild weekend. Yet the less spectacular takeaway amounts to a contradiction in terms. Although you would have had a better chance of collecting Warren Buffet’s billion-dollar reward for completing a perfect March Madness bracket than predicting the three winners this weekend, in some ways these were unsurprising surprises.

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Let’s start with Munich. Klizan is one of the more mystifying players on tour. The Slovak is gifted; he’s incredibly smooth, and he’s got soft hands and a brimming toolbox. He reminds those of us old enough to remember him of that other silken Slovak, Miloslav Mecir.

Klizan won the French Open junior title in 2006 and then immediately lost in the first round of Wimbledon. It wasn’t just because he prefers clay to grass. He’s a player who from the get-go has experienced enormous swings in his results.

Klizan reached the No. 1 combined junior world ranking (singles and doubles) in 2007, and eagerly turned pro soon thereafter. But he simply was unprepared for the degree-of-difficulty inherent in the pro tour; he also fought bouts with injury. Yet his flashes of brilliance were impressive. In 2012 he upset Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open, and he went on to win the St. Petersburg title later in that fall on indoor hard.

Early in 2013 Klizan hit No. 26 in the rankings, at which point the wheels fell off. He won his opening-round match in just 15 of his next 20 tournaments, and he won back-to-back matches just three times from late February until the end of the year.

Ranked No. 111 last week, Klizan caught fire in qualifying, and when that happens it takes a lot of game to put out the flames. He upset third seed Mikhail Youzhny and second seed Tommy Haas, and by that time Fognini must have been feeling a little nervous. Although the Italian had a three-match winning streak against Klizan, it was Fognini whom the Slovak beat to claim his first (and until yesterday, only) ATP tour title.

And let’s not forget, Klizan can match Fognini in the craft and creativity departments despite those three recent losses.

“I am very proud of myself that it ended happily,” Klizan said of his exhausting week.

Reviewing recent history, he might have added “…for a change.”

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(For more of Pedro Mendes' pictures from Saturday at the Portugal Open, click here.)

In Oeiras, meanwhile, Suarez Navarro was the top seed, but you couldn’t blame her for not exactly relishing the role. It entails a form of pressure which is visited almost exclusively on players who have won tour-level events, yet the Spaniard couldn’t call upon the confidence of a champion. She was living in the worst of both worlds.

Suarez Navarro had every right to believe she had somehow irreversibly angered the tennis gods. She had been in five previous WTA finals—and she crashed and burned in every one of them. In fact, this was her third straight Portugal Open final. This time, she was up against a struggling but dangerous Svetlana Kuznetsova—the soulful, complex, free spirit whose career has fluctuated as wildly as her moods.

Kuznetsova was seeded No. 7, but at 28 age isn’t a factor, and she’s a two-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 2. She played every bit like an elite level contender through the middle stages of this final. With Kuznetsova leading 4-6, 6-3, 4-1, it looked like Suarez Navarro was prepared to face the inevitable. But as is so often the case, exoneration awaited when all hope seemed lost.

Just two points from falling behind 1-5, Suarez Navarro watched as Kuznetsova’s game collapsed in a heap. Her own, meanwhile, improved as she found something like a second wind. Suarez Navarro won 18 of the next 24 points and five games running to end it.

Was it pretty? No way. Did that matter to Suarez Navarro? Not at all, except in the sense that this match will go down as a episode not in the Life and Times of Carla Suarez Navarro, but in the Strange and Twisted Case of Svetlana Kuznetsova.

But here’s the final plot twist in this one, and it helps explain the outcome: Suarez Navarro actually has more WTA tour wins this year than anyone else. She has 26 now, but this undoubtedly was the sweetest and perhaps most surprising of all.

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(For more of Pedro Mendes' pictures from Sunday at the Portugal Open, click here.)

Oeiras had more in store, this time an event that bordered on the supernatural.

Certain qualities seem to generally define players from certain nations; for the French, it’s all about stylistic variety. The defining quality of a surprising number of players from Argentina has been volatility. Think of it as the Gaston Gaudio Gene—the GGG—passed on from one generation to the next.

Gaudio stunned the world when he won the French Open in 2004. Likewise, David Nalbandian promised much, but the GGG ensured that he delivered only in fits and starts. Interestingly, both of those unpredictable players won titles in Portugal—as did their more stable countrymen, Juan Martin del Potro and Juan Ignacio Chela. You almost wish they would just move this event to Mar del Plata or someplace like that.

You can now add Carlos Berlocq to the list of inconsistent champions at the Portugal Open. He’s the fifth Argentine to win in the span of a decade, and this idea of Oeiras smiling upon players from that nation is as good an explanation as any for what happened last week.

Berlocq, who’s 31, was ranked No. 61 at the start of the tournament. The top two seeds were Berdych and Milos Raonic, and Berlocq had to beat both of them to secure the title. It only adds credibility to what he achieved because, while he had won one previous ATP title in his long career, his record against Top 10 players before this event was 0-19.

I can’t think of many journeymen—for that’s what Berlocq is—who might spot Berdych a 6-0 set and then still come back to win. It leaves your mind open to all sorts of theories, the most appealing of which is that Argentines arrive in Oeiras thinking that anything is possible.

"It's very nice to know Nalbandian, Del Potro, and Gaudio won this title and that I join this list," Berlocq declared after he won. "It is very special for me to be with such great players.”

Well, it works for me, so maybe Berlocq’s win was just another of the unsurprising surprises of the week.

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