Wednesday February 29th, 2012

Milos Raonic

Milos Raonic started the year at No. 31 but is now up to No. 24 after becoming the first man to win two titles in 2012. Tannen Maury/EPA

With the first two months of the season winding down, and the men and women preparing for two major tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, let's pause for a moment to take stock on how the season has played out so far.

Here's a look at five players, in no particular order, who have overachieved out of the gates. They've made significant rankings climbs, scored some big scalps, or are carrying a good amount of momentum into the spring hard court season.

Milos Raonic: Has Raonic really overachieved? Admittedly, it's a debatable point, mainly because he's been on the radar since early 2011, when he qualified to earn a spot in the Australian Open main draw and then made a run to the fourth round. Even though a hip injury sidelined him for good chunk of 2011, Raonic still finished 2011 as the ATP Newcomer of the Year.

Still, Raonic has only lost twice this season. He put up a sub-par performance against Lleyton Hewitt at the Australian Open, and his other loss came in the Memphis final to Jurgen Melzer. Other than those two, he's been on fire in 2012. The lanky Canadian is the first man to win two titles in 2012 after winning Chennai (beating two top 10 players and never dropping serve) and San Jose.

He started the year at No. 31 and is now up to No. 24, not a bad climb considering he spent much of the last two months defending points, particularly during the U.S. indoor season. He slumped a bit during this part of the season last year, so the opportunity is there to continue climbing the rankings. Expect him to break into the top 15 this season.

Angelique Kerber: It's a lot harder to maintain consistency over the course of a number of tournaments than to make a single breakthrough run. Kerber shocked everyone last year when she made the semifinals of the U.S. Open while ranked No. 92 in the world. It was a strong two weeks for Kerber, but the draw clearly opened up for her. After beating Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round, she didn't face another Top 20 player until the semifinal, where she lost to Samantha Stosur.

At the time it was easy to label her run a fluke and move on, but Kerber has continued to build on that confidence boosting result to break into the top 20 this year. She started the year by making back-to-back semifinals in Auckland and Hobart, then lost to eventual finalist Maria Sharapova in the third round of the Australian Open. Kerber was already playing above her rank, which is impressive considering the bulk of her ranking points came from her U.S. Open semifinal run.

Then came her title run in Paris, where she not only captured her first career WTA title, but did so by beating the top two seeds, Sharapova and Marion Bartoli, and overcoming three other very tricky opponents, in Lucie Safarova, Monica Niculescu and Yanina Wickmayer. That Kerber is a top 20 player still takes some getting used to. It's happened so quickly and during a time when the German women are surging forward en masse into the Top 30. When you see her play it's easy to assume deficiencies. She's not terribly tall and she looks strong rather than swift. But her ability to cover the court is remarkable given her build and she's getting fitter as the season goes on.

Jurgen Melzer: The Austrian's late-blooming tendencies are still in full effect. He started the year winless in Brisbane and the Australia Open, but has rebounded nicely since then, working his way through qualifying in Zagreb to make the quarterfinals, before going on a seven-match win streak. He came through huge for Austria in their Davis Cup tie against Russia, winning both his singles rubbers, and then marched his way to the title in Memphis, beating the top three seeds (Raonic, John Isner and Radek Stepanek) to win his first title since Vienna in 2010. As a result, he's back into the Top 20. Now can we please get the guy a new ATP profile pic?

Daniela Hantuchova: Hantuchova is a complicated one. On one hand, she has some of the purest, most effortless groundstrokes in the game. She combines that easy power with an ability to perfectly time the ball and redirect it for a winner. But her movement has always been suspect, her serve not effective enough, and while she has great hands at the net, she just doesn't have the athleticism to get up there quickly enough. Counterpunchers can break her down and big hitters can hit her off the court.

While she's only made a marginal climb in the rankings (she started the year at No. 24 and is now at No. 21), her match-by-match results have been consistently solid. She began the year by beating her countrywoman, Dominika Cibulkova in Brisbane, and then reached the final (benefitting from a walkover from Serena Williams and a retirement from Kim Clijsters). In Sydney, she beat Francesca Schiavone in the second round before losing in straight sets to No. 2-ranked Petra Kvitova.

She got a tough draw in Melbourne and fell to Kim Clijsters in the third round, but then went on a seven-match win streak through Fed Cup and Pattaya City where she defended her title. That's a solid start to the season for the 28-year old, who is still showing there's something left.

Mona Barthel: Seriously, what are they putting in that German water? Ever since Andrea Petkovic broke out in 2011, her countrywomen have been fighting hard to follow suit week in and week out. If it wasn't Petkovic it was Lisicki, if not Lisicki, than Goerges, if not Goerges, than Kerber. Along comes 21-year-old Mona Barthel, who began the year ranked No. 69 and has now cracked the top 40, thanks to her first career title in Hobart. She came through qualifying there and beat four of the top five seeds to win. Since then she's been a victim of the Azarenka Bulldozer, drawing her at both the Australian Open and in Doha. But she has done well to back up her form in Hobart, working her way through qualifying again in Paris to make the quartefinals. I like watching Barthel play. There's something very simple about her game and she has great composure for someone who's been thrust into big matches.

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