Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: Oct. 15

Monday, October 15, 2012 /by

My main question this Monday is, Just how full are the British ICU’s with cases of cardiac arrest? What with the dramatics and heroics of the weekend, the one thing we can say for sure is that this isn’t your daddy’s United Kingdom. Two of our big winners were British players Heather Watson and Andy Murray, but more about that later.

So let’s get on with it:

Novak Djokovic had an excellent run in Shanghai, fending off five match points in his three-set, three-plus hour win over Andy Murray. The win may have also given the Serb an enormous boost in his hunt for the year-end No. 1 ranking (see below).

“I’m trying to focus now on the end of the season,” said Djokovic. “I need to play well indoors. I need to try to stay consistent with my results and eventually get a shot at No. 1 of the world. It’s my biggest objective in this moment. It’s something I’m aiming for. Obviously this is going to be a huge confidence boost and is going to help me in the race for No. 1. As I said, it’s still not done. I still have to play well indoors.”

What a terrific mix of sober confidence and well-warranted caution about the coming weeks, when the indoor surfaces will certainly give Roger Federer his best shot at clinging to the top spot.

A few weeks ago, Heather Watson could only watch as Laura Robson threatened to become the first British woman to win a WTA title since Sara Gomer in 1988—a remarkable hex of just under a quarter-century. Robson was a finalist at Guangzhou, but she wound up losing a bitterly-contested three setter to Su-Wei Hsieh.

Last week, Robson and Watson both played in Osaka (Watson was unseeded, Robson was No. 8), and while Robson lost a three-setter to Kei-Chen Chang in the quarterfinals, Watson beat the same woman in the final—after failing to convert a second-set match point. Watson may have committed a cardinal sin by double-faulting with the match on her racquet, but she recovered nicely, saving four match points to record a historic win.

As a result, Watson vaulted some 20 places in the rankings to No. 50—two ticks ahead of. . . Robson.

Enough already with the GITC, or Great Indian Tennis Controversy. In the past week, we’ve had hot-headed, difficult Leander Paes gloating over the “personal” nature of his doubles win in Shanghai over the Indians who refused to team with him in the Olympics, former partner Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna.

Sania Mirza even got into the act, albeit not of her choosing, telling the Indian Broadcasting Network (IBN) just the other day in a broadcast interview that she was “dragged into something” when she became embroiled in the in-fighting swirling around the male players and AITA president Anil Khanna.

You know what? Who cares. Let’s grow up, everyone—including the media—and just move on.

Sure, Roger Federer lost in the semis of Shanghai to the surging Murray, but this week he’s gone where no man has ever gone before. He reached the magic number 300, in weeks ranked No. 1. Now he’s looking at a very tough assignment if he hopes to finish the year holding that ranking, with Djokovic closing, and fast. Federer is manning up, though, and looking the task right in the proverbial eye. In fact, let’s give both men a thumbs up for how they’re approaching the year-end battle.

Federer said after losing in Shanghai, “I would love to finish No. 1 as well for the end of the year. For that it’s going to take a great stretch again, winning Basel, Paris, and London I assume to give myself a chance. I’m relaxed about it. I’ll give everything I can. I want to get through this season well and finish strong.”

It looks like Victoria Azarenka is hellbent on ending the year the way she started it, ripping through a series of tournaments. If she continues like this, Azarenka will certainly validate the No. 1 ranking she earned with her great start in 2012.

Since a quarterfinal hiccup in Tokyo in September (a loss to Angelique Kerber), Azarenka has been on fire. She won Beijing with back-to-back wins over Marion Bartoli and Maria Sharapova, and she marched to the Linz title last week without losing a set (defeating Julia Goerges in the final).

Azarenka and her seven cohorts in the Top 8 of the WTA rankings are off this week, and preparing for the season-ending championships in Istanbul. But the final WTA shootout will give Azarenka one more crack at Serena Williams.

A victory over her nemesis combined with the title would go some distance to balancing out the disappointments of Azarenka’s summer.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has declared that he’s in the hunt for a new coach. Given that he’s been without one for a year-and-a-half, my first inclination is to ask, “What on earth took you so long?”

The top name on the short list appears to be that of Larry Stefanki, who’s coached, among others, John McEnroe, Marcelo Rios, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and—most recently—newly retired Andy Roddick.

Stefanki, however, says he’s enjoying this current break from the touring and coaching life, and is content for now to watch his third and youngest son, Joe, finish out his high school years as a catcher on the baseball team. But you have to wonder, is that a negotiating ploy by a man who has also admitted that he doesn’t feel as if his work in tennis is done?

Whether or not Stefanki and Tsonga would be a good fit is hard to determine, given that etrangers don’t have a particularly good history coaching French players. One reason for that, though, may be that French players and coaches enjoy a higher degree of camaraderie than the pros of other nations, and bringing a foreigner into the mix could well make the player in question feel a little, well, funny. But bear in mind that Stefanki had a long and successful relationship with Kafelnikov, as well as a shorter one with Rios, so he knows how to navigate cultural differences.

It’s for certain an interesting situation, because for all the truth in what I just wrote, you have to wonder if a dramatic coaching change wouldn’t be a good thing for the obviously talented Tsonga, who hasn’t played a Grand Slam final since his first and only one—way back in early 2008. As for the man who beat him in that one, Djokovic, we know what he’s done in the intervening years.

How about mighty little Taiwan, aka Chinese Taipei? Suddenly, the island that is still at loggerheads with the People’s Republic of China has three Top 100-grade players, led by No. 25 Su-Wei Hsieh.

The other two are Osaka finalist Kai-Chen Chang, who just cracked the Top 100 at No. 96, and the woman she may have helped displace from the No. 99 spot, Yung-Jan Chan, who fell this week to No. 101.

Mainland China also has three players in the Top 100, all of them firmly ensconced in the Top 40, led by No. 7 Li Na (the others are No. 28 Zheng Jie and No. 39 Peng Shuai).

Julia Goerges of Germany had an excellent run in Linz, blasting her way to the final where she was fairly competitive against Azarenka, despite a straight-sets defeat. Sometimes, being highly seeded (Goerges was No. 5) but not really of the same class as the top two or three seeds is a less desirable fate than being a top seed—or a rank journeywoman.

A rankings outsider can catch lightning in a bottle (see: Osaka), surprise a few people, and slash her way to a final—usually aided by a draw that breaks her way. A No. 5 seed, though, is usually a familiar quantity who no longer has the element of surprise on her side—and who also figures as a good win for any unseeded player, which is a good motivational tool for her rivals.

Plagued by injuries, feisty Bethanie Mattek-Sands was down to No. 201 at the beginning of last week. Yet she made it through Linz qualifying and posted two excellent wins in the main draw (defeating Tamira Paszek and Carla Suarez Navarro) before stumbling in the quarterfinals—the American eliminated in three sets by lucky loser Irina-Camelia Begu.

Can you say, “Irony?”

Love him or hate him, Ion Tiriac makes things happen. And his latest move is another brilliant stroke. He’s joined forces with former German player Rainer Schuettler to acquire the rights to host an ATP 250 event in Dusseldorf, Germany, the week before the French Open.

The new event (the Power Horse Cup, named for the energy drink, not the world-famous pressure washer) will replace the ATP World Team Cup, which had a 35–year run at the storied Rochusclub but never really got sufficient traction as the ATP’s challenger to the Davis Cup.

That’s a very long history for an event that never really caught on in a big way, which tells you something significant—that locally, the World Team Cup became a regular fixture on both the sports and social calendars. That means Tiriac and Schuettler ought to have no trouble whatsoever mounting a solid, profitable event. And that’s great for German tennis.

Note, too, that the promoters have already locked in Eurosport as a partner; it’s the first time the European TV giant will be the host broadcaster for a tennis event. That’s Tiriac—he moves smart, and he moves quickly.

If this ever turns out to be an accurate or true condemnation, I’m going to owe Yannick Noah a giant double thumbs up—not to mention an apology. But for the moment, I have to go the other way on his latest salvo about doping in tennis.

You’ll remember that about a year ago, he all but accused the Spanish players, wholesale, of being deep into the doping culture. Noah had no proof of this, of course, which is why most people thought it an irresponsible and hurtful charge to make.

Apparently, Noah’s newest blast at Spain, as reported today in The Australian can be put down to the fact that disgraced doctor Luis Garcia del Moral, who was a principal in the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, also had worked with tennis players at the TennisVal academy in Valencia, Spain. The players affiliated with that establishment, or with del Moral, include WTA No. 8 Sara Errani, ATP No. 5 David Ferrer and former world No. 1 Dinara Safina.

Still, disturbing as these implied links may be, it’s irresponsible to make blanket statements and charges without a shred of evidence that isn’t highly circumstantial. Noah’s allegations would be laughed out of a court of law, but the court of public opinion is a more volatile, irrational place—why is why Noah, along with everyone else, ought to be very careful of the aspersions they cast.

Before commenting, please read our Posting Guidelines.

Top Ranked Players
More Rankings