Monday, August 20, 2012

Upsets in Cincinnati: Few of Many in 2012

By Mert Ertunga

Now that the last big test before the last Slam of the calendar year has ended in Cincinnati with Roger Federer winning the men's draw and Li Na winning the women's draw, we have finally arrived to the week preceding the U.S. Open during which a plethora of detailed analysis will appear all over the media wires. This analysis will provide various critical commentary on what the 2012 season has unfolded for us and explaining why the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park will have the last word on the debate regarding who are the best players this year.

On the men's side, they will be right one hundred percent: including the Olympic Games, we have had the "big four" split the titles at the Australian Open (Novak Djokovic), the French Open (Rafael Nadal), Wimbledon (Roger Federer), and the Olympic Games (Andy Murray). The U.S. Open title would certainly constitute the end of the debate on who is the best player of 2012, and we already know that it will not be Nadal, who pulled out of the U.S. Open citing a knee injury. On the women's side, however, it seems like Serena Williams already has the best player of 2012 title displayed in some corner of her residence with her Wimbledon and Olympic titles.

Instead of doing what most tennis pundits do this week (see above), watching Andy Murray lose to Jeremy Chardy and Serena Williams lose to Angelique Kerber has inspired me to look back at the upsets so far this year. Surprise results happen every year and there is nothing extraordinary about them except that, well, an upset is "extra-ordinary" by nature. I might add that, if anything at all, 2012 has provided an unusual amount of "extraordinary upsets," if you will.

History of tennis is filled with stunning single-match upsets such as Alex Corretja defeating Pete Sampras on grass in 2002. I don't care that it was Pete's retirement year, or that Corretja was a regular top-10 player for a few years. Corretja's grass-court career is about as good as my grandmother's career after the age of 70 on the bowling alley, and Sampras losing to Corretja especially after winning the first two sets is as wild and unlikely as a single-match upset gets.

Or is it? Have you heard of Marek Semjan? Yes, you read correctly. The name is Marek Semjan.

The biggest upset in 2012 so far is neither Lukas Rosol, ranked No. 100 in ATP at the time, defeating Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, nor the victory by then-111th-ranked Virginie Razzano over Serena Williams in the first round of French Open Women's Draw. Even Albano Olivetti from France, then-ranked-388th player in ATP, who defeated top-10 player Mardy Fish in Marseille in February, has nothing on the 24-year-old Semjan from Slovakia. When Semjan defeated the No. 16 player in the world Fernando Verdasco, 6-4, 6-7, 6-4 in the Prostejov Challenger in Czech Republic, in my book he put his name in the history books as the hero of what is arguably the biggest upset win in tennis history.

How stunning of an upset win was it? Let's begin with the obvious: Semjan was No. 1,166 in the world at the time versus Verdasco's top-20 ranking. Yes, the guy was outside the top 1,000! Let me continue with the less obvious, but one on which many conspiracy theorists would love to jump: the match was not fixed, and first-hand reports by an ATP level player and a coach assure me that Verdasco did not tank the match and did everything he could to avoid getting upset (and the score alone would seem to confirm that).

Let's put this upset in perspective. Semjan entered the tournament from the qualifying rounds as an unseeded player, and had to win three matches to earn the right to play Verdasco in the first round of the main draw. At the time he walked on the court in Prostejov to face Verdasco, who was looking to earn a few extra points after unexpectedly exiting early from the French Open, Semjan was playing his first challenger of the year, because it made sense to play only futures up to that point in the year due to his extremely low ranking. His last ATP-level tournament — entered as a qualifier — was 16 months ago in January of 2011. Furthermore, he had a dismal 10-34 record in 2011 and 2012 combined, a period that included a disastrous 17-match losing streak.

There are still 10 weeks of tournaments and hundreds of matches to be played in 2012. Even during a year in which surprises have been popping up in abundance throughout the calendar year (I almost overlooked then-216th-ranked Brian Baker's run to the finals of Nice, France ATP tournament), I can hardly see any player equaling or surpassing Semjan's stunning upset of Verdasco.

But don't expect to see Semjan at the U.S. Open, not even in qualifying. He is too busy playing $10,000 futures in Slovakia and Croatia to be traveling to the U.S., not to mention his ranking of 530 being too low to enter the U.S. Open at any level, except as a spectator.

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