Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: Oct. 1

Monday, October 01, 2012 /by

Agnieszka Radwanska, seeded third in Tokyo last week, dropped 20 winners and hit just four unforced errors in a 59-minute, 6-1, 6-1 semifinal rout. What makes the stats even more amazing is that the opponent was world No. 6 Angelique Kerber.

Alright, it’s not quite up there with a “golden set,” but it’s a heck of an effort. Aga, clubbing winners like a regular Serena Williams—who knew?

He’s 30 years old and just last week was ranked No. 30, only four ticks under his career high. Julien Benneteau has also never won an ATP tournament, despite seven career trips to the championship round.

That elusive first title escaped him yet again in Kuala Lumpur, where Benneteau was beaten by Juan Monaco, the world No. 10 who’s working on a career year. But give “Bennet” credit: He’s overcome injury and kept the faith, still looking to punch through. In the final, he forced Monaco to play a three-hour epic before bowing out, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3.

Serena Williams withdrew from the China Open a few days ago. Okay, may the gods forgive me for wrongfully accusing Serena if she is truly sick; all we have to go on (should we want to “go on” anything) is her brief Twitter missive: “Flu no fun.” But did anyone else notice that this is the second consecutive year Serena has pulled the plug on Beijing, citing illness?

I’ve always been a supporter of players’ rights in the sense that I don’t believe much in making people do what they don’t want to undertake. On the other hand, players and their representatives go into the lucrative, highly-organized culture of pro tennis with an awful lot to gain, and most of them will tell you (if not always backing it up with their actions) that they’re willing to accept some measure of obligation in order to keep the game coherent, credible and—lest we forget—profitable for all parties.

The reality is that you can’t make players do anything they decide to avoid, but creating the impression that they’re going to fulfill their commitments—and then looking the other way when, for whatever reason, the player welches—isn’t fair to the ticket-buying public and tournament promoters. If you want to know how big a problem this is for the WTA, and to what lengths the organization goes to create at least the illusion of control, just read the WTA rulebook regarding commitments.

You can argue that Serena has earned the right to pick and choose where and when she wants to play, and I’m fine with that. It’s just the wink-wink nature of such withdrawals that irritates me, and that shortchanges expectant fans and tournament personnel. I rather that a player refrain from entering and then ask for a wild card at the 11th hour, should she change her mind, than have her enter and inevitably withdraw.

In her last event before last week’s Japan Open, Nadia Petrova had to pull out of Seoul with a bad back after winning just one match. She bounced back in Tokyo with not just the best tournament win of her long career, but an emblematic one.

Over the years, the 30-year-old, 5’10”-plus Russian has hit more peaks and valleys than you might find in the Ural mountains. She was the year-end No. 6 in 2006, but in the ensuing years she’s fluctuated between No. 11 and 29, and somewhere along the way managed to hit a career-high No. 3 ranking while never coming within sniffing distance of a Grand Slam singles final anywhere beyond Roland Garros (where she’s a two-time semifinalist).

You might call this Tokyo title her masterpiece. She beat two Top 10 players in the same event (Sara Errani and Sam Stosur) for just the second time in her career, and collected her third when she toppled Radwanska to win it all.

Jarkko Nieminen is a native of Masku, Finland. At 31, he’s been a tennis pro for over a dozen years and recorded his career-high ranking of No. 13 more than six years ago. Nieminen served in the Finnnish army, and he’s been married for seven years to Finland’s top female badminton player, Anu Weckstrom. He’s also grown tired of explaining how he came to play tennis (it’s not like the Finns go ga-ga over the sport), but he just keeps plugging away and winning matches. Now ranked No. 35, Nieminen made the semis last week in Bangkok, and that included a quarterfinal win over serving demon Milos Raonic.

Reuters, in a piece that ran today under the by-line of Alastair Himmer, claims that Nick Bollettieri of the eponymous tennis academy has been accused of teaching grunting as “a ploy to distract opponents,” noting that Bollettieri trained a number of the most voluble grunters, including Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova.

The piece goes on to say that Bollettieri “denies the accusation,” but claims that Caroline Wozniacki’s complaints about grunting led the WTA to approach Bollettieri about finding a way to discourage young players from grunting—all of which makes Bollettieri look like he’s responsible for the grunters on tour.

Nothing could be further from the truth (full disclosure: Nick is a long-time friend and we’re a video team during the U.S. Open). Sharapova and Seles will be the first to tell you that what marching orders they took came from their fathers, Yuri and Karolj respectively, not Bollettieri. And Bollettieri has produced as many non-grunters as he has screamers (Jelena Jankovic and Kei Nishikori come to mind immediately). Injecting Bolletieri in the story so prominently was neither accurate nor fair.

Players grunt because it feels good to do it (as anyone who’s tried may find), and it’s a ploy only in that it makes players feel like they’re hitting the ball harder, putting in more effort, and declaring their do-or-die commitment with every swing. It’s got less to do with an opponent than the player herself engaging in a form of self-affirmation—or is it self-hypnosis?

I don’t like grunting any more than the next person, but let’s keep it in perspective. It’s up to opponents of shriekers to lodge a complaint if they feel it’s used as a ploy against them.

Unseeded Abigail Spears and Racquel Kops-Jones won their third WTA doubles title of the year in Tokyo. En route, they upended the third-seeded team of Katarina Srebotnik and Jie Zheng, and in the final knocked off fourth-seeded Anna Lena Groeneveld and Kveta Peschke.

Kops-Jones and Spears now have won five WTA doubles titles, going all the way back to Estoril in 2009. Spears is 31 and Kops-Jones is 29, so while they pose no threat to the doubles legacy of Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver, or Venus and Serena Williams, the women are enjoying the time—and run—of their lives.

As Kops-Jones said after they took Tokyo: "We were trying to contain ourselves after we won—we kind of wanted to dance. It's not a Grand Slam, but for us it's pretty close. We put in a lot of work this year and it's our biggest win ever."

The win also put the lunchbucket team into contention for one of the four prized doubles spots in the WTA Championships. They currently trail the Russian team of Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko by just over 100 points, with up to 1000 points still up for grabs in Beijing. Kops-Jones and Spears earned a seeding (No. 8) thanks to their most recent performance, while Petrova and Kirilenko are seeded second.

***

And that’s all for this week, folks.

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