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Monday, July 14, 2008
Time for the little people

So, is this going to be the start of something big for Alize Cornet? How about for Victor Hanescu, Juan del Potro or Sara Errani? All of those obscure players (and a few others) won tournaments on Sunday, although you wouldn't necessarily know it if you looked in the sports section of your local newspaper. After all, it was "hangover" week -- the week we all recover from Wimbledon.

It's funny how the only Grand Slam that adds to the momentum of the game is Roland Garros, and that's because the elapsed time until Wimbledon is minimal. One day, the icons of the game are traipsing around on the red clay; the next, it seems, they're battling quality opponents on green grass in the warm-up events for Wimbledon. But once the gathering in London is finished, the stars draw back to recuperate, leaving a host of small tournaments for the also-rans to battle over.

This is not such a bad thing. In the game's present structure, the two or three weeks after the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are when-the-cat's-away-the-mice-will-play weeks -- a time when tennis comes close to embracing the everybody-gets-a-trophy sensibility. Oh, sure, they often throw Davis Cup in there somewhere (but not any longer after Wimbledon), which is usually a good thing. But generally, hangover weeks are the ideal time for promising young players to make a move -- or for frustrated vets to exact a little revenge for poor Grand Slam campaigns.

Look at poor Tommy Robredo, a perennial top-10 player who pretty much tiptoes out the back door at Grand Slams. He won last weekend at Bastad for the second time in his career. And in all fairness, he beat a solid opponent in the championship match -- Tomas Berdych. But all in all, this is a little bit like collecting bottles from recycling bins to raise a little extra cash. I know, I know, you'd be surprised at how fast those nickels add up, right?

But let's look at the upside: At least two of last week's winners, Cornet and the Argentinean del Potro, have been tabbed as potential stars, but neither had won a tournament until Sunday. Cornet made the most of the moment, winning both singles and doubles. Del Potro is just 19, and while nobody is going to confuse Stuttgart with Roland Garros or the Italian Open, del Potro earned his stripes with a quality win over Richard Gasquet. It's going to give him confidence on his journey in the game.

Hanescu, who won at Gstaad, Switzerland (not to be confused with Bastad, Sweden), is neither a young gun like del Potro nor a wily bottle-collecting veteran like Robredo. He is about as good an example of a tennis "journeyman" as you could want -- a 26-year-old Romanian whose previous career-high ranking was No. 35 and who had won a grand total of five ATP matches this year going into Gstaad.

En route to the final, Hanescu had to fend off match points versus ace-machine Ivo Karlovic. But when the smoke finally cleared, he was left standing as the first Romanian player to take an ATP title since Andrei Pavel won at Montreal (a Master Series event, no less) in 2001.

You want to tell Victor -- or Alize or Errani -- that all he or she did was earn some chump change for collecting bottles discarded by the high rollers? That's the beauty of these hangover events. They give the "little people" of the game a chance, sometimes a jump start on a promising career, at least when there isn't a Robredo or Fabrice Santoro (the wily veteran defended his singles title at Newport on Sunday) poking through the recycling bin, as well.