Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The overlooked contenders

In every major tournament, there is always that handful of contestants who seem to somehow remain entirely overlooked. Robin Soderling would be one of them had he not beaten Rafael Nadal. Entirely ignored until that match, Soderling could easily have exited Roland Garros as just another entrant, just another of the pawns that Nadal stomped over on his way to making history.

Instead, because of his historic win, Soderling has become noticed, his big game appreciated, the topic of international conversation. No matter what else he does in this tournament, he will forever be the Swede who denied Rafa his fifth.

It is no different on the women’s side. You’d swear that only Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, and Dinara Safina had entered this tournament. This is the trio who have been constantly talked about.

With each of her amazing three-set comebacks, Sharapova has guaranteed that the media would sit up and take notice of her. With every issue of her self-admitted drama, Serena Williams has assured that she does not need to put on a catsuit to get noticed. And of course the story of Dinara remains that of the # 1 player in pursuit of her first Slam. Everyone else in the women’s draw also ran.

Ignored on the men’s side -- at least until now -- is the sweet accomplishment of Fernando Gonzalez, the big-hitting Chilean who worked for a while with star-maker Larry Stepanki and reformulated his game into a winning formula. Admittedly, Gonzo did not have the most difficult draw at Roland Garros. But waiting for him in the quarterfinals was Andy Murray, the # 3 player in the world, the one who Brad Gilbert keeps insisting is destined to be # 1. Or at least he used to. It’s been a while since I bothered listening to anything that Brad Gilbert had to say. When Gonzo silenced Murray today in 4 sets, making him swallow a bagel in the third, he stopped being overlooked. All of a sudden he has become a serious contender for the trophy.

On the women’s side of the draw, Kutnetzova continues her unnoticed run. This is not new territory for Sveta. I’ve commented before on her knack for going under the radar. Sometimes the best fruit lies hidden in the branches, I say. Sveta is no flashy Azarenka, submitting to a fluff-piece as she poses awkwardly against a tree. She’s no Sharapova, wearing the very latest in tennis fashion even if it does not suit her body. Sveta is certainly no drama queen. She is a quiet and quietly excellent tennis player. The type who gets overlooked as the paparazzi go instead for the Ivanovic crotch shot.

And then there is Samantha Stosur [photo left]. Samantha who? Right. She’s Aussie. She was the # 1 doubles player in the world in 2006, along with Lisa Raymond. And she is in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros. She beat Elena Dementieva and Virginie Razzano along the way. I don’t know how because I have not seen a single one of her matches. She is one of the overlooked contenders. Tomorrow she faces Cirstea, another also-ran who took out Jankovic. One overlooked player facing another for the pleasure of possibly making it to the finals. What a story that would be if either one succeeds.

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