The week in tennis (25th Feb - 3rd March)
The tennis tour is now heading to the American hard courts for the back-to-back Indian Wells – Miami events – two of the biggest tournaments outside the Grand Slams. And with as many as six events taking place across the globe last week, there are plenty of talking points and grades to hand out.
Novak Djokovic – A fourth title in Dubai, an 18-match winning streak dating back to the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November, and back-to-back wins over Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro – the Serb has proved that he is the best hard court player in the world. Djokovic should be high on confidence heading into Indian Wells, and has set his sights on the one Slam missing in his resume – the French Open. Even with Nadal back, Djokovic could be tough to beat on the red dirt in this sort of inspiring form.
Rafael Nadal – Slowly but surely, Nadal is regaining his mojo. The Spaniard won his second consecutive title this week in Acapulco (clay court title No. 38) and absolutely destroyed compatriot David Ferrer in the finals. The win was morale –boosting enough for Rafa to confirm that he will play in Indian Wells. The Spaniard proved that when it comes to clay, he is still the man to beat.
Mahesh Bhupathi – Career title No. 52 for the 38-year-old Indian who won in Dubai for the fifth time in his career – and for good measure, all five have come with different partners – 1998 (w/Paes), 2004 (w/Santoro), 2008 (w/Knowles) , 2012 (w/Bopanna) and now in 2013 with Michael Llodra. This is likely to be Bhupathi’s last season on tour, and the Indian will be desperately hoping to win a Slam one more time before hanging up his rackets.
Tomas Berdych – A three-set win over Roger Federer in the semi-finals after seeing off three match points is just the kind of win Berdych would need more of if he wants to get rid of the choker tag that he has been stuck with for a while now. Berdych lost in straight sets to Djokovic in the final (his second in as many weeks) – no shame in losing to the best player in the world on his favourite surface. That one big title still eludes the Czech, and with Rafa back in the equation, he will need to upset the big guys back-to-back if he hopes of having a shot at a Slam or Masters Series title.
Like the Hayley’s comet, Ernests Gulbis lights up the tennis firmament every few years and leaves everyone amazed at his potential – only to then disappear into oblivion. Gulbis, ranked outside the top 100 entering this week, won his third career singles title and his second in Delray Beach and earned his way back into the top 70. Gulbis recently said that he has become more serious about training and the results seem to show it. The question is – just how long will this new-found commitment last?
Karolina Pliskova – The 20-year-old Czech is one half of the Pliskova twin,s who both won junior Grand Slam singles titles. Karolina defeated Laura Robson for her Australian Open junior title in 2010, and has since been rising up the ranks through the ITF circuit. On Sunday, the Czech won her first WTA singles title beating Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the final. The Pliskovas are also regular partners on the doubles court, with sister Krystina also ranked just outside the top 100. Watch out for another sister act in women’s tennis.
Sara Errani – Not many expect Errani to make another deep run in Paris this year. But let’s not forget that Schiavone reached the finals a second time after her surprising run in 2010. One week after going down to Petra Kvitova in the Dubai finals, Errani lived up to her top billing in Acapulco, winning the title there – her first of the season and the seventh of her career.
Monica Niculescu – If you get a chance, make sure to watch Niculescu in action. The Romanian plays some of the best junk tennis in the game – using a variety of slices and spins to outfox her opponents. Niculescu saved match points in her first round match in Florianopolis and then went on to beat Russian Olga Puhckova to win her first career singles title.
David Ferrer – The Spaniard does not believe he is of the same calibre as Nadal and the others in the Big Four, and that shows in his head-to-head with them. Ferrer fell to 4-18 lifetime against Nadal and while not many expected him to beat Nadal on clay, winning just two games in the finals in Acapulco only re-confirms the notion that Ferrer is a stop-gap World No. 4.
16-year-olds Ashliegh Barty and Beatriz Haddad Maia – The teenagers continue to make strides on the women’s circuit. 16-year-old Australian Ashleigh Barty won two matches in Kuala Lampur to reach her first WTA level quarter-final. Barty is already one of only two 16-year-olds in the world’s top 200, and could join the other 16-year-old, Donna Vekic, in the top 100 soon. Meanwhile in Florianopolis, 16-year-old wild card Beatriz Haddad Maia won a round and held three match points in the second round against Hungarian Melinda Ciznk before bowing out. Haddad Maia is coached by Larri Passos – the former coach of Gastavo Kuerten, and with that kind of backing, she could certainly go a long way.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands – A former top 30 player – Mattek-Sands is now ranked No. 197 in the world after hip, foot and back injuries derailed her 2012 season. Taking advantage of a wild card, the American reached her first singles final since 2011, beating some decent players on the way- Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and defending champion Su-Wei Hseih.
Carla Suarez Navarro – The Spaniard is known to be a dangerous floater in the big tournaments, and her one-handed backhand is one of the best in the business. But consistency has always been a problem for Suarez Navarro, who is now 0-4 in singles finals on the tour. Let’s hope she builds on this in the months ahead to earn a seeding in Paris. If not, watch out for her to take out a seed or two in the early rounds.
Edouard Roger-Vasselin – For a 29-year-old Frenchman ranked No. 105 in the world, it was a good week for Roger-Vasselin. The journeyman upset top seed John Isner in the semi-finals to reach his first ATP final on tour and lost to Gulbis in the finals. Vasselin gets rewarded with an entry into the top 100 next week.
Francesca Schiavone – Schiavone earns her C+ grade for winning two matches this week at a low-key clay court event. It goes to show you just how far she has fallen from her days as a top 10 player. The Italian had won only 2 matches in her last 12 tournaments, and had not won back-to-back matches since last August. Her wins this week will help her regain some confidence heading into the major clay court events. Schiavone is 32 years old and can hardly be enjoying being one of the rank-and-file players on the circuit after scaling such heights in Paris. Don’t be surprised if the Italian decided to call it quits at the end of this season.
Roger Federer – Earlier in the week in Dubai, Federer said he was playing well enough to get back to the No. 1 ranking. But the Swiss’ struggle in 2013 continued as he let go off three match points and lost to Berdych in the semi-finals – his fifth loss to the Czech in their last eight meetings, following a quarter-final loss in Marseille to Julien Benneteau. Federer now heads to Indian Wells with the immediate need for a good result to keep the obituary writers off his back and Andy Murray off his No. 2 ranking.
Caroline Wozniacki – In recent weeks, Wozniacki has seen her father hurl a verbal lashing at a chair umpire, and then be fined for talking to her father (who doubles up as her coach) during another match. A semi-final appearance in Dubai notwithstanding, the Dane’s slide continued this week in Kuala Lampur with a first round loss to a qualifier who was ranked No. 186 in the world. The Dane was suffering from illness during the loss, but she did have a match point in the match. This was her sixth event of the season, and appearance fees notwithstanding, the Dane needs to be smarter about her scheduling if she wants to be a serious contender at the big ones.