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Steve Flink: Breakthroughs

7/21/2008 5:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

We could have had an all-American clash between James Blake and Sam Querrey at the Indianapolis Tennis Championships, but it didn't happen. We thought that Serena Williams might bounce back forcefully at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, California after suffering a final round loss at Wimbledon against her older sister Venus, but that was not the case. We figured that last week just might be a time for some big names to step forward as the 2008 U.S. Open Series was launched, but the better known players did not prevail.

And yet, the fact remained that some very impressive individuals achieved career milestones, and from this corner that did not go unnoticed. In Indianapolis, an opportunistic Frenchman named Gilles Simon captured his first ATP title in the U.S. with a string of hard fought triumphs. The 23-year-old Frenchman was pushed to three sets in all four of his matches en route to the final. In that championship match, Simon toppled defending champion Dmitry Tursunov 6-4, 6-4. At the end of that remarkable week, no one could say that Simon had not earned his keep.

They say that the mark of a top notch player is how well he or she plays the big points, and Simon was an extraordinary big point player as he closed out his campaign under intense summer heat. The 23-year-old Frenchman overcame the big serving Querrey 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the semifinals, saving eight break points in the final set of that victory, holding on gamely from 4-4,0-40 in the final set. He saved nine more break points in his duel with Tursunov. To fight off 17 break points in a three set span and not get broken is no mean feat. Simon came into Indianapolis ranked a respectable No. 25 in the world, but he came away with his second tour title of 2008, and moved up three places in the rankings.

Meanwhile, in Stanford, qualifier Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada came through to win the Bank of the West Classic. She upended 2007 Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli of France 7-5, 6-3 in the final. The day before, Serena Williams-hindered by an injured knee--- had to retire during her semifinal with Wozniak with the Canadian leading 6-2, 3-1. Bartoli was hampered by a bothersome left hip in the final, and so Wozniak had some good fortune in her championship run. The fact remains that she won eight matches in an arduous nine day stretch, capturing three of those contests in the qualifying, taking the rest in the main draw. Wozniak moved significantly from No. 85 in the world all the way up to No. 45.

Wozniak became the first Canadian to win a WTA Tour singles championship since Jill Hetherington won at Wellington in February of 1988. Only three other Canadian players in the modern professional era have recorded tournament triumphs. Patricia Hy-Boulais won Taipei in 1986, Helen Kelesi was victorious at Tokyo in 1986, and Carling Bassett-Seguso was the winner at Strasbourg in 1987. Bassett-Seguso--- a U.S. Open semifinalist in 1984--- reached the top ten in the world. She was the finest Canadian women's player of the lot, but maybe, just maybe, Wozniak will be of the same ilk. So Wozniak's breakthrough victory in California was much appreciated in Canadian tennis circles.

To be sure, the exploits of Simon of France and Wozniak of Canada were highly significant, and uppermost in the minds of the game's closest followers. But not to be ignored was the Austrian Open triumph in Kitzbuhel registered by none other than Juan Martin del Potro, a 19-year-old from Argentina. Del Potro, who stands 6'5", crushed the experienced Jurgen Melzer 6-2, 6-1 in the championship match in that event. Only one week earlier, he took apart the gifted Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the final of Stuttgart. And so Del Potro is the only player other than Rafael Nadal to have captured men's ATP Tour titles back-to-back in 2008. He has surged to No. 25 in the world after winning two titles in a row.

Del Potro garnered his two titles on clay, but I have no doubt that he can transfer his talent over to hard courts and start posting great results on that surface in the near future. Here is a player who cracked the top 100 in the world in 2006, and moved into the top 50 in 2007. His steady rise is a clear indication that he belongs in the game's upper regions, and he will get there soon enough. He is breaking out of the pack, and seems to have an inner belief that he can keep progressing rapidly. He is tall, imposing, and seemingly as eager as any young player on the horizon.

So, in the final analysis, the week we just left behind us in the middle of July was a good one in many ways. Simon took his first American title. Wozniak put the women's game back on the map in Canada. And Del Potro demonstrated that he is a player of considerable promise. They all explored new boundaries, realized some large dreams, and gave us much to enjoy in the middle of a scorching summer.

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