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Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Under the radar

During tennis' quiet February, we tend to focus our attention on the small tournaments dotted around the United States and on the Euro-Asian lineup featuring events like star-crossed Rotterdam and star-studded Dubai.

But there's a third swing also taking place, winding its way through South America and wrapping up with a joint event in Acapulco this week. Rarely short of color, it's a circuit populated mostly by South Americans and players from Europe's warmer climes. A few happenings of note:

• Remember David Nalbandian? He was going to take the world by storm in 2008 after back-to-back wins over Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the end of last season. That hasn't quite materialized, but the nationalistic Argentine did achieve one milestone last week, winning Buenos Aires for his first title on home soil.

During the week, he was cheered on by soccer legend Diego Maradona, whose partisan barracking infuriated quarterfinal opponent Potito Starace. "Maradona insulted me as soon as the match began," said Starace. "I went to the umpire and I said to him, 'Either you throw him out or I'll go bash a racket in his teeth.'"

• Speaking of Starace, he made his return to the tour two weeks ago in Costa do Sauipe after serving a six-week suspension for betting on other players' matches. Despite the clear rules against players gambling on tennis and relatively short length of the punishment, Starace also fumed about the treatment he's received, calling it "horrible" and a "disaster."

• Nalbandian isn't the only Federer-beater who's fallen back. After capping a comeback from a doping suspension by ousting Federer in both Indian Wells and Miami last year, Canas has struggled and was initially expected to miss the first few months of the season after being diagnosed with wrist tendinitis. But he's making his return a little earlier than expected by playing Acapulco this week -- fortunate timing for him, since the Miami finalist has lots of ranking points to defend over the next few weeks.

• Flavia Pennetta continues to rebound nicely after recent troubles, including a wrist problem at the end of 2006. She re-established her claim as the WTA queen of this part of the circuit by winning the inaugural WTA Vina del Mar event to go with former titles at Bogota and Acapulco.

• 2004 French Open winner Gaston Gaudio continues to spiral down and mutter about retirement, but 2004 French Open finalist Guillermo Coria is making baby steps towards a comeback. He won his first ATP match in a year and a half at Costa do Sauipe, and was practicing with fellow pros at Buenos Aires last week in preparation for a challenger in Morocco. You'll be able to read all about it in El Mago's forthcoming book -- publication date unknown.

• Struggling phenom Juan Martin del Potro was also hitting in Buneos Aires. Sidelined since the Australian Open with a back injury, he plans to make a return in Miami.

• Pablo Cuevas produced one of the circuit's breakout performances by reaching the semifinals of Vina del Mar. His run ended at the hands of local favorite Fernando Gonzalez, but not before he hit one of the season's best shots -- stumbling, recovering and then diving to stab a passing shot down the line.