Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: Oct. 29

Monday, October 29, 2012 /by

Serena Williams won the two most coveted Grand Slam titles in 2012, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Olympic gold medals in singles and doubles. Four other titles, including the WTA Championships. Nine straight wins against both Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova, the two women ranked above her. Best serve in the history of women’s tennis and she knows how to use it. ‘Nuf said.

Could this one become the game changer for Juan Martin del Potro, boosting him back up among the elite to help make it a Big Five? Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago (the end of 2009) that he seemed to be right there, shoulder-to-shoulder with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, in possession of something other contenders like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych still don’t have—a Grand Slam title.

We know what happened: Del Potro was derailed by injury. And even after a lengthy re-acclimatization, he still hasn’t seemed entirely right—as attested by a string of seven consecutive losses to Federer, dating all the way back to just before his wrist injury. Some of those performances were baffling, but the two-hour and 45-minute, final-set tiebreaker win over his recent nemesis was a great effort and suggests that the 6’6” gentle giant has found his A-game—and his A-mind and heart—again.

The frères Bryan, Mike and Bob, are 34 years old but still rolling like a couple of teens. At a time when the tour has spawned some dedicated doubles specialists, and the ATP itself has made a concerted effort to promote the doubles game, the twins will end the year ranked No. 1 for a record eighth year, and fourth consecutively.

You have to just bow to the Bryans’ dedication and fidelity, as well as their sustained excellence. It was a year in which the brothers also equaled the all-time Grand Slam doubles title record, with 12 (tied with Aussies John Newcombe and Tony Roche), and won Olympic gold.

Victoria Azarenka clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking as perhaps the ultimate testament to the WTA rankings model: She played numerous tournaments, did well in almost all of them, and ensured her credibility at the top by winning a major.

Of course, she didn’t beat Serena (she lost all five of her matches to the year-end WTA No. 3), but that’s a whole ‘nother story (see below). But give Azarenka credit, not just for amassing an admirably consistent record (69-10), but for averting potential disaster by defeating Li Na in their final round-robin match at the WTA Championships—the win secured a semifinal berth and final No. 1 ranking for Vika, who became just the 11th player in the tour’s history to bag the honor.

An email from Jens Whermeister of 80s-tennis.com informs me that the outfit is flogging three Bjorn Borg “personal” Bancroft racquet frames, signed by the great man himself on the grip. It appears that Niclas Bergelin, presumably a relation of Borg’s long-time coach, Lennart Bergelin, is in partnership with the website, which is also offering some test racquets Borg never used. Just how “genuine” or “collectible” a memento is one of these racquets (after all, it’s not like Borg won Wimbledon with any of them), and how on earth can it be tested for authenticity? Bancroft must have made a zillion of those frames.

I don’t get it, but maybe some of you see it differently and would feel closer to your idol if you sold your first-born into servitude to get hold of one of these racquets. Just be prepared to fork over 1,750 euros (plus shipping!) for the stick.

The WTA ranking system needs to be re-thought. Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ current coach, put it best (and certainly most politely) when he told Reuters, “It's surprising to win two Grand Slams, the Olympics, Madrid and the WTA Championships and be No. 3. If there is a bug somewhere, someone has to find it."

My advice: Find it. Fix it. This is not rocket science. I think it’s fair to reward women for playing a full schedule (among other things, it means they must show stamina and injury-defying grit), but the best 16 rule, and the relatively high number of ranking points awarded for so-so performances have conspired to skew reality. Williams just completed one of the best years in the history of women’s tennis, and the big story for historians may be that she was only ranked No. 3 in the world, even by year’s end. That’s pathetic.

Lleyton Hewitt had never played in Valencia until this year, when he made the trip solely out of affection and respect for fellow former Grand Slam champion and ATP No. 1, Spain’s Juan Carlos Ferrero. He made the trip because Ferrero, a partner in the Valencia tournament, was going into retirement after his final match in this year’s event.

During a ceremony honoring Ferrero, Hewitt spoke: “It’s been an absolute privilege to be here this week in Juan Carlos’ home town. He has been trying to get me here to Valencia for a long time and really the only reason I’m here is to honour you this week.

“For me, it is a very special time, we grew up playing together and we have had some of our biggest highs and biggest lows against each other on the other side of the net. Obviously in Grand Slams, Davis Cups, and fighting for world No. 1 at different times. I would love to call you one of my great mates on tour, so thank you for all the memories, thanks mate.”

Aw, Rusty, that’s so sincere (in your typical awkward way) that it’s almost enough to make me tear up. And did you see that Hewitt’s loyalty to his one-time rival was rewarded with a first-round win over No. 10 Juan Monaco?

Okay, this will incense some Roger Federer fans, but I didn’t like his decision to pull out of the Paris Masters, even if does enhance his chances at the ATP World Tour Finals. By bypassing Paris, he’s run up the white flag in his battle for the year-end No. 1 ranking with Novak Djokovic.

Okay, Djokovic has pretty much had a lock on that ranking since the early fall—his lead in the ATP race points has been that large. But it would have been nice to see Federer make Djokovic work as hard as possible to secure it anyway. And it isn’t as if Federer is a dead man walking.

Sure, Federer lost the aforementioned Basel final to del Potro yesterday in a match that fell just 15 minutes shy of three hours. And he is 31 years old, an age at which conserving energy becomes increasingly important. But Roger has played just two tournaments since early September (Shanghai and Basel), so his claim that it’s “just too much” to play Paris as well as the World Tour Finals rings a little hollow. Federer has earned the right to do whatever he wants. But until now we’ve been more inclined to be appreciative, rather than critical, of his decisions.

Of course, if Federer goes out on a high note with a win in London, he’ll feel further justified in taking this decision. But I wish he would have sucked it up and played out the string, the way the rules that he so vociferously supports (mandatory participation in Masters events) require.

Let no one suggest that Sara Errani, the tiny dynamo from Bologna, Italy, doesn’t have a huge heart. Out-gunned and at a decided physical disadvantage at 5’4½” (you know a player is small when she takes pains to add that half-inch to her bio), Errani battled it out with the more familiar names at the WTA Championships in both singles and doubles.

Granted, she didn’t win either event—in fact, her willingness to fight out every last point, game, set, and match to the bitter end probably worked against her, preventing Errani and her partner Roberta Vinci from winning the doubles. They were the two top-ranked doubles players on the tour this year, but the Italians lost to the women they had defeated in the French Open final, Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko.

The compressed Championships schedule hurt Errani, who lost an epic three-set battle with Agnieszka Radwanska in the round-robin portion, but atoned for it was a three-set win over alternate Sam Stosur. But the cumulative effect of those back-to-back matches appeared to have an impact on her fitness, and surely played a role in the doubles defeat (in the match-tiebreaker).

But tip your hat to Errani, the iron woman of the WTA Championships.

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