Indian Summer: It might be the best-sounding phrase in the English language (which means any language to a uni-lingual American like myself). We got a taste of Indian Summer this weekend in humid NYC. Maybe it was a little too close to summer itself to qualify, but that’s what I’ll call it, just because I like saying it.
As a phrase, "Asian Hard-Court Swing" doesn’t have exactly the same calming ring, does it? Nevertheless, that is where find ourselves as September winds down, and we must face that fact head on. Rafael Nadal, Fernando Verdasco, and Juan Martin del Potro have traveled to Bangkok, while many of the top women are in Tokyo. There’s even been an upset with some local flavor already: Wild card Kimiko Date Krumm beat Maria Sharapova in their opening-rounder.
I realize it’s a little late to “preview” two events that have already begun. But it’s been a long few days at the office, so you’ll have to cut me a break. If all goes as planned, I should be posting and commenting here much more often in the future.
This must be the first 32-draw tournament that I've broken down. Where’d the other half go? The event is an appearance-fee special, of course. I can remember watching Andy Roddick and Marat Safin casually zip, exhibition-style, to a third-set tiebreaker in Bangkok a few years ago. Neither of them had ever, or would ever, play more quickly than they did that day. At the same time, this not the worst thing in the world. There are no massive expectations for an event like this, and likely no titanic ramifications for the future of the sport. It's there to be played, enjoyed while it lasts, and forgotten.
Nadal has had Bangkok on his schedule a couple times in the past and not made the trip. He’s in town this time, fishing, not riding an elephant, and getting ready for either Ruben Bemelmans or Frederik Nelson in the second round.
More intriguing and newsworthy is the presence of Juan Martin del Potro for the first time since January. Del Potro, who comes in as the fifth seed, could have gotten an easier start: He plays Olivier Rochus in the first round, and then possibly Mikhail Kukushkin, who is coming in on a high after helping Kazakhstan knock Switzerland out of the Davis Cup World Group last weekend.
The names that stand out in the rest of the draw are Gulbis, Troicki, Melzer, de Bakker, and the second seed, Verdasco. The surface is hard, which doesn’t favor anyone in particular. Other than the U.S. Open champion, of course.
Here’s where the big draw is. This time 64 seems to be the magic number, as there are a lot of interesting match-ups and potential match-ups right away. Wozniacki is the first seed; in the next round she might get Pavlyuchenkova, who is coming off a quality win over Cibulkova. Kuznetsova and Petkovic face each other next. Bartoli vs. Ivanovic, Azarenka vs. Safarova, Hantuchova vs. Date Krumm, and, possibly, Zvonareva vs. Dementieva in one of the quarters. Plus the French Open finalists, Stosur and Schiavone, are here. That’s not a bad lineup for a tournament sans Serena, Kim, and Justine, and it will be a meaningful title for whoever survives, in terms of prestige, points going into Doha, and, of course, cash.
Sharapova earned all of those when she won here in 2009, and it seemed at the time that she was setting herself up for a major return to form in the new year. The new year came and went, and here we are, back in Tokyo, and Sharapova’s top form never came close to materializing. There were shoulder and elbow problems, as well as racquet issues, but she also simply didn’t play as well she had in the past. She plays the same game, with just a notch less consistency, which is enough to turn wins to losses. After her loss today, Sharapova said that Date Krumm liked pace and was good at changing the direction of the ball. That’s true, but Sharapova had no answer for it. She’s always ridden on one tennis track: Hit hard, flat, close to the net, and close to the lines. But what she's won with mostly is all-consuming desire. After seven years on tour and many, many millions in the bank, nothing all-consuming can be easy to summon each week. For the moment, Sharapova can only hope Tokyo will be as much of sign for the future as it was for her last year.