Report Card: Grading the Pros on March
Head of the Class
Top honors are usually reserved for tournament winners, but an exception is in order this month for Alisa Kleybanova, who played her first match on the tour after missing 10 months to treat Hodgkin's lymphoma. And she won, too—an incredible achievement considering all that time away, the seriousness of her sickness, and the emotion of returning. Congrats to her, and welcome back. Keeping with the theme: Top honors also for Venus Williams, who had a fine return after a six-month absence due to Sjogren's syndrome (four wins in Miami that lifted her ranking to No. 87).
A is for…
Nole. He wasn’t at his best. He looked a little tired. His patience wasn’t as evident as last year, and his serve wasn’t quite as steady. And still, Novak Djokovic won the Sony Ericsson Open without losing a set. At times, he was dazzling—and if he can play that way a little more often, he’ll be the favorite to win the French Open, even with Rafael Nadal in the field.
Azarenka. A young WTA pro who likes being No. 1, and even thrives because of it? Meet Victoria Azarenka, who won another title in Indian Wells before ending her 26-match winning streak in Miami.
Aga. Agnieszka Radwanska, she of the 60-plus mph second serve, won the most important title of her career in Miami, where she beat Maria Sharapova in the final. Can her mix of angles, lobs and guile work over seven matches at a Grand Slam? I’m not convinced, even though she has only lost to Azarenka so far this year. But it’s more and more enjoyable to watch her try.
A-Rod. Andy Roddick can still play big and win big—even against Roger Federer. A run of good health and he could be in fine shape for a nice summer, starting at Wimbledon.
30 years young…
Impressive win for Federer in Indian Wells, where he had to battle illness and some fast-changing weather, not to mention Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. Is the U.S. Open now his best chance at another major?
Serena Williams is back in the Top 10. This is good. But how much is it going to take for her to win majors, or get back to No. 1? For the first time in her career, we can legitimately ask, has a younger generation gotten too far ahead, to the point where she can’t catch up? I think she can, but I’m not so sure she will.
25 years old, old, old
Remember how unhappy Rafael Nadal seemed before he won last year’s French Open? And then how positive he seemed after this year’s Australian Open, where he lost in five sets to Djokovic? Well, the Nadalometer is tilting toward weary again. He had to forfeit his semifinal match in Miami to rest an aching knee. Good news: The clay season is here. Bad news: This is going to be the toughest clay season of his career.
John Isner beat Novak Djokovic, No. 1 player in the world. I repeat, John Isner beat Novak Djokovic, something Rafael Nadal hasn’t been able to do in 37 years.
What’s wrong with Petra Kvitova? It’s time to start playing like a Wimbledon champion.
F is for…
Faux pas. Caroline Wozniacki—usually a class leader in class—refused to shake the chair umpire’s hand after she couldn’t challenge one of his overrules (because she had used all her challenges already). The overrule was correct.
And flawed. Grigor Dimitrov, otherwise known as “Baby Federer,” is still young (21) and still learning. But the more I watch him, the less I’m convinced that he’s a potential Top 5 player. One reason stands out: His one-handed backhand, which isn’t as much of a weapon and breaks down quite a lot.
And falling short. Another final for Maria Sharapova, another loss. Of all the fates I would have predicted for this former No. 1 and three-time Slam winner, consistent runner-up was not one of them.
Skip a Grade
Great month for Sloane Stephens, who is now No. 75 in the rankings. Same for Ryan Harrison, who is back up to No. 66 and excited to start this weekend’s Davis Cup tie against France.
D is for…
Doubles. Indian Wells has the best doubles event in the world; now it’s time to get it on television. Nothing like watching Nadal smash forehands as his partner Marc Lopez hovers around the net and picks off winning volleys.
Reading: A+. Reading Comprehension: TBD
Andy Murray stumbled in Indian Wells but recovered nicely in Miami, where he made the final (with the help of two walkovers). His performance against Djokovic, though, was hardly convincing. There were openings, many chances to move to the net, and lots of moments where he should have made Djokovic struggle, yet Murray didn’t do much to pressure Djokovic in this match. He and coach Ivan Lendl have work to do (shameless plug: I have more on their partnership here).
And the Jeremy Lin Award goes to…
Against Azarenka in Miami, Dominika Cibulkova was, out of nowhere, a sight to be hold. Pace. Angles. Winners everywhere. She couldn’t sustain it, and you were left wondering if she’ll ever play that well again. But what talent. Here’s hoping she shows more of it.
Juan Monaco was the surprise of the spring hard court season. He benefited from good timing (Roddick upsets Federer, then runs out of steam) but he made the most of it.
Department of Dedication
Janko Tipsarevic continues to get the most out of his game. He’s now ranked No. 8 in the world, a career high.
Department of Anagrams
She hits with two hands, jumps, fidgets and bounces all over the court. She’s irrepressible and irresistible. Why, if you were nutty enough to dislike Marion Bartoli, you’d have to be in an _______________. Send your answers to me via email and via Twitter.
And here’s last month’s question/answer…Daniela Hantuchova, winner in Thailand in February, flies to Beijing and is congratulated with a free meal of delicious cow (not exactly traditional Chinese cuisine, but play along—we’re supposed to be having fun here!). This is what you would call a China veal handout.
Tom Perrotta is an editor-at-large at TENNIS.