Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: Oct. 8

Monday, October 08, 2012 /by

I don’t know about you, but this struck me as a pretty big week in tennis, which is something we’re unaccustomed to saying in the fall. Things are bound to become even more intriguing, and perhaps even more resonant on the global media stage, now that the first of the autumn’s two big Masters 1000 events is underway in Shanghai. So let’s get right to it with this week's Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down awards:

No matter how you cut it, Kei Nishikori’s win in the Japan Open was one of the great personal triumphs of the year. Okay, the Tokyo event has never been mistaken for a Grand Slam. On the other hand, it may as well be for Nishikori when you put it in context.

No Japanese player had ever come even close to winning in Tokyo. The sport was almost unknown as a public spectacle in Japan until the Open era, and Japan had no reliable national championships until the early 1970s. The best Japanese player before Nishikori was much-loved Shuzo Matsuoka, a former Wimbledon quarterfinalist (1995) who was also the first Japanese player ever to win an ATP tour event (Seoul, 1992). Matsuoka’s career-high ranking was No. 46.

Nishikori, still just 22, shattered that mark late last year, and is currently a career-high No. 15 thanks to his latest title run. He burst on the scene in 2008 when he won Delray Beach, but injuries have had a serious slowing effect on his development.

The pressure of playing at home in a tennis-mad nation that has not produced many champions is a daunting task (see “M” for Murray), and the fact that Nishikori had a winnable final against another promising young man (Milos Raonic) only raised the level of expectations—and pressure. But Nishikori got the job done, and in a big way. It was great for Japan, great for the game, and—last but not least—great for Nishikori.

I’m not quite sure how Victoria Azarenka, aka Mrs. Whoooooo!, managed to NOT win a tournament in six-and-a-half months (her last win was at Indian Wells). On the other hand, her play this year simply extended the narrative established two or more years ago, when she was a consistent, ever-on-the-cusp contender whose problem partially could be put down to bad luck. I’m not sure I can think of another player who so consistently failed to get that little break or hole in the draw that can transform a contender into a champ.

But since she finally won her first Grand Slam title in Melbourne at the start of the year and vaulted to the top of the rankings, Azarenka has been able to play well enough to reclaim the No. 1 spot after losing it, and to mount the most formidable challenge to the undisputed superiority of Serena Williams.

The other day in Beijing, Azarenka won the last big tournament before the WTA Championships with a convincing drubbing of world No. 2, Maria Sharapova (see below). It was both a well-earned reward and affirmation of Azarenka’s superiority among the pros who play as or more frequently than she does.

It was a strange way for Petra Kvitova to book her way into the season-ending championships in Istanbul—a stunning loss in Beijing to diminutive (5'4") Carla Suarez Navarro, over whom Kvitova towers by a good eight inches. But it’s been a part of Kvitova’s history since she became the Wimbledon champion about 18 months ago at age 21.

The Czech from Fulnek has been inconsistent, and clearly has struggled to deal with the pressures that come with entering the elite rank of Grand Slam champions. Note, though, that the malaise didn’t hit her until this year; last fall, she roared back from her erratic post-Wimbledon play to win 12 matches in a row (and the WTA Championships). This year, she even cut back that rewarding fall schedule.

Kvitova still has a chance to redeem herself with a strong finish in her final tournament of the year, in Istanbul. But it’s looking less and less likely a conclusion to a maddening year.

Okay, it wasn’t right up there with Nishikori’s win in Tokyo, but last week wild card Zhang Ze became the first Chinese man to reach the fourth round of the China Open. It was a well-earned berth—Zhang upset Richard Gasquet in three tight sets, but then yielded to Florian Mayer in straights in the quarterfinals.

Presently ranked No. 154, Zhang is hoping to become the first man from mainland China to crack the Top 100.

Although WTA No. 4 Agnieszka is the Radwanska who most frequently appears in these citations, this week the subject is Aga’s sister, Urszula Radwanska. And it’s a most definite thumbs up. Playing with consistency her sister might admire, albeit on a slightly different plane, Urszula has worked her way up to No. 29 in the rankings. She cracked the Top 50 in July and crashed the Top 40 in September; now she’s busted through to the Top 30. At her present rate, she’ll be the best player in the world come January.

For more Tokyo and Beijing reaction, listen to the Weekend in Review podcast, featuring Steve Tignor and Ed McGrogan.

You could give Novak Djokovic a thumbs up almost every week, but isn’t it a pleasure to see a player dedicated, professional, and enthusiastic enough to go back to the same tournament—and just keep winning, and winning. . . and winning?

Djokovic won his third straight China Open yesterday, running his unbeaten streak in Beijing to 14 matches. He beat a solid Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final, 7-6 (4), 6-2, in under two hours. This adds a fifth tournament to those that Djokovic has won three times (or more); Australian Open, Dubai, Miami, and Canada are the others.

In a statement that surprised absolutely nobody, Djokovic (presumably grinning like the cat that ate the canary) said: “I am planning to come back to the China Open next year.”

And the year after, and the year after that, too, I’d bet.

There’s no question that Maria Sharapova is something like the quintessential professional. She fights, she tries, she works extremely hard at her game.

But. . .why is it that she so often plays lousy tennis against the players who can be said to have an extra, comparable dimension of mental toughness—like Serena, who routinely humiliates the Russian, or Azarenka, who busted her all up in the Beijing final (see above)?

Okay, getting to the final of a Premier Mandatory, winning the French Open, holding fast to that No. 2 ranking: All of these are good—nay, great—things. But keep in mind that, as Justin Gimelstob accurately said, “In the pros we grade on a curve.”

And by that standard, Sharapova’s performance against the very best players has too often been nothing less than abysmal.

In a brisk hour-and-a-half, Azarenka dismantled Sharapova for her sixth consecutive triumph over her nominal rival on hard courts, and her fifth victory in their six career finals. It used to be that there was just one asterisk along Sharapova’s name (the one that said, “Can’t beat Serena”). Now it looks like there must be two.

By now, most of you know that some freak off the Internet who calls himself “Blue Cat Polytheistic Religion Founder 07” posted a graphic message and death threat aimed at Roger Federer a few days before the start of the Shanghai Masters.

Federer’s reaction was classic. He told reporters in Shanghai: “It’s a little bit of a distraction, there’s no doubt about it.”

I’d hate to think what The Mighty Fed would think of as a “major distraction.”

Marcos Baghdatis is a married man and expecting his first child with wife and former WTA pro Karolina Sprem, so you can see where he might have a little extra incentive to re-invent himself. That process might be underway now, as “Baggy” made the semifinals of a tournament for the first time since February (in Zagreb), coming up short only against eventual champ Nishikori.

Baghdatis was once a Grand Slam finalist (at the 2006 Australian Open, where he lost to Federer) with seemingly limitless promise. But in the intervening years he’s seemed, at various times, overwhelmed, uninterested, out-of-shape, and sometimes downright unlucky. But we all know what an enormous change married life can bring in life, so there’s still plenty of potential upside for Baghdatis and his fans. After all, the one-time ATP No. 8 (who’s currently ranked No. 36) is just 27.

***

That’s all for this week, everyone. Enjoy Shanghai!

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