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Monday, April 13, 2009
Threesome dig their way out of tailspin

This weekend was about resurrection, in more ways than one. In tennis, three former world No. 1 players, two of whom had been written off by many as long dead and buried, suddenly showed new signs of life that could complicate matters for the front-runners during the European clay-court season.

The least likely Lazarus in the bunch was Juan Carlos Ferrero, the former French Open champ and No. 1 (September 2003) who won in Casablanca over Florent Serra yesterday. Ferrero hadn't won a title since October 2003, but he made up for some of that lost ground by breaking Serra six times in that final, no doubt leaving the loser to wonder, "Hey, what'd I ever do to you?"

Ferrero, now 28, is one of the more intriguing cases of burnout in recent years. Known as "Mosquito" early in his career because of his tireless buzzing around the court, many considered him a shoo-in to win multiple titles at the French Open. He wasn't exactly a grinder, or a player who relied on exaggerated spins and consistency to cultivate good results on clay. His game was (and apparently still is) clean and well-rounded, as his solid record on hard courts suggests.

Remember, this is the guy who reached the U.S. Open final on hard courts in 2003 -- becoming the first Spaniard to accomplish that feat since Manuel Orantes over a quarter-century ago. Within weeks of that result, he became just the second Spanish player ever to hold the No. 1 ranking (Carlos Moya was the first), although he had just as much trouble hanging onto it. Their combined total stay at No. 1 is a paltry 10 weeks.

Ferrero had tough luck in 2004; among other things, he had a bout with chicken pox, and then he suffered wrist and rib injuries practicing for Roland Garros, where he lost in the second round. The word in the street, though, was that Ferrero also became a little too fond of life in the fast lane and neglected his game. And when Rafael Nadal appeared on the scene, Ferrero was said to be disillusioned by how quickly the youngster stole his thunder.

The other male player who had a big Sunday was Lleyton Hewitt, who won his first title in two years on clay in Houston, beating Wayne Odesnik of the U.S. Hewitt got bucked off his top-10 horse by a bum hip that required surgery in 2007, and last year he failed to win an event for the first time in all his years as a pro. (He spent a healthy 75 weeks at No. 1 starting in the fall of 2001.)

But while the flesh might not always be willing, Hewitt's spirit has never been weak: Winning this minor event in Houston may have hurt his chances in this week's Masters Series 1000 event in Monte Carlo. (He missed his flight overseas and is supposed to play his first match Tuesday.) But he said: "It's going to be hard now, but this is the why I came here [to Houston]. To win the tournament."

And then there's Jelena Jankovic, who finished 2008 at No. 1 but bulked up in the offseason and started this year in a tailspin. She hadn't won a tournament since October in Moscow until she found her game again in Marbella on Sunday and took out Carla Suarez-Navarro. Now she's got a few weeks to play her way into shape to contend for Roland Garros.

Jankovic is young enough and has remained close enough to the top that nothing she does could really be called a surprise. But it would certainly add spice and interest to the men's game if those two old hands, Ferrero and Hewitt, could build on what they've done and remind us once again of why they once ruled the rankings.