It was some week in tennis. Who would’ve thought Karolina Pliskova would beat Bethanie Mattek-Sands in the Kuala Lumpur final?
Alright, so maybe that’s not the first thing that popped into your mind. Perhaps you were fixated on the big doings in Dubai, where Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were presented an opportunity to get a piece of each other without Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray lurking in the wings. Or maybe, following your sentimental interest in traditional red clay—I couldn’t have called it that before the advent of blue clay—and more likely Nadal himself, your tournament of choice was Acapulco.
But let’s face it, Pliskova’s breakout in Kuala Lumpur, Monica Niculescu’s triumph in Florianapolis, Nadal’s blowout win in Acapulco, and satisfyingly competitive battles in Dubai as well as the least exotic of these sites, Delray Beach, made for a diverse and colorful week in tennis. Let’s survey it.
Dubai, ATP: This was the blue-ribbon event of the week, with Djokovic and Federer seemingly on a collision course for the final—until Tomas Berdych got in the way. Berdych upset Federer in the semifinals in a match highlighted by Federer’s inability to find the antidote to Berdych’s raw power and, more unexpectedly, the Czech’s outstanding will and nerve. Berdych staved off three match points before finally subduing the all-time Grand Slam singles champion on his third match point, 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4.
Berdych was unable to corral Djokovic in comparable fashion, losing 7-5, 6-3. But he certainly had his chances. In fact, the “old” Berdych re-emerged at some inconvenient times to seal his fate—a double fault pretty much cost him the first set; a smash belted wide cost him the decisive break in the second.
This tournament unfolded quietly (although Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was upset in the first round by Michael Llodra), but the takeaway has significant implications for immediate future. Regardless of the details and score, it was sobering to see Djokovic do what the Swiss could not: Plant his feet and stand firm against the Berdych onslaught, giving as good as he got—in stark contrast to Federer, who looked for the most part like a man on the run.
They used to say that Nadal was in Federer’s head. Perhaps Berdych moved in when Nadal moved out.
Acapulco, ATP: No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal (it just doesn’t seem right writing that) crushed top-seeded David Ferrer (there, that’s better) to win in Mexico. The win completed a triumphant three-stop tour of secondary markets on the still expanding South American clay-court circuit.
What about those famous Rafa knees, you ask? For weeks now, Nadal has beaten nearly everyone in his path—most of them distinguished clay experts in their own right, including David Nalbandian in the Sao Paulo final—and then issued updates that could only be called inconclusive about the state of his knees. Some fans and pundits became as addicted to these advisories as they are to the hit TV series, “The Walking Dead.”
In Acapulco, Nadal didn’t lose a set all week, and he tossed Ferrer a bone of just two games in the final (both in the second set). Sheesh. And here Ferrer was the three-time defending champ, toting a 19-match winning streak at this event. It’s got to hurt him. All of Mexico now knows that for three years, Ferrer was just a seat filler, like they use at award shows (and ought to use at tennis tournaments).
Elsewhere in the draw, a hat tip goes to Fabio Fognini, who upset Stanislas Wawrinka and rolled all the way to the semis, where he took a set off Ferrer.
The question left hanging is, what will Nadal do about Indian Wells?
Nadal is scheduled to play on the hard courts in the desert after an exhibition Monday night in New York against Juan Martin del Potro. Nadal reportedly will pocket $1.5 million for making the quick stopover in Gotham en route to southern California. He may even have time to do a little shopping on Fifth Avenue before moving on, although Gucci and Hermes will be hard-pressed to impress a guy who not only owns a watch that sells for $690,000, but wears it to his day job as a glorified manual laborer.
Will Nadal really finish his planned trip?
“Indian Wells is one of my favorite tournaments and I want to keep competing because the knee is holding up and my heart says that I can do it, and compete is what I want to do now,” Nadal said. “Those seven months are in the past, hopefully forever. I played like that did not happened [against Ferrer], but it did happen.”
Acapulco, WTA: One of the larger long-term questions after Sara Errani reached the final of the French Open last June was whether, at a mere 5’4”, 132 lbs, she’d have the staying power to sustain a Top 10 ranking. Errani answered with a resounding “yes.”
In the Acapulco final, the top-seeded and No. 8-ranked Italian was up against her equally diminutive Spanish doppelgänger, No. 2 seed Carla Suarez Navarro. Errani played taller, though. She reeled off eight straight games and mastered her opponent, 6-0, 6-4. Suarez Navarro did regain some respect when she stretched the final set to an hour.
Errani didn’t drop a set all week at the competitive event, in which three of the top four seeds made the semifinals—something of a rarity in lesser WTA events. More impressive, Errani pulled off one of the more difficult feats in the game for all but the elite Grand Slam champions: A successful title defense.
Delray Beach, ATP: Give Ernests Gulbis credit. He put his foot in his mouth early last week by complaining that many players ranked in the Top 100—which did not include Gulbis before this tournament—“didn’t know how to play tennis.”
But with his racquet, Gulbis also ended up making a statement amounting to, “I told you so!”
Gulbis beat wild card James Blake (a former world No. 4) and then third-seeded Sam Querrey in his first two matches. And just as he had at the U.S. Open months earlier, the free spirit found a way to stop resurgent Tommy Haas (who was seeded No. 2)—if only just barely, via third-set tiebreaker—to reach the final.
What with top-seeded John Isner, Kevin Anderson, Kei Nishikori, and veteran Xavier Malisse in the mix, who would have guessed, “I think we’ll see Ernests Gulbis and Edouard Roger-Vasselin fighting it out in the final.” But that’s how it played out, largely because the talented but flaky Gulbis stepped it up, and Roger-Vasselin found a way to tear down Isner in the semifinals, 6-4 in the third.
Kuala Lumpur, WTA: Bob and Mike Bryan soon may not be the only celebrated twins in tennis. We now have the Pliskova sisters, a pair of 20-year-olds from the Czech Republic. Not only are they already a formidable doubles team—and, like the Bryans, composed of a lefty (Kristyna) and righty (Karolina)—they may go the Bryans one better and shine in singles as well.
Kristyna was already in the Top 100 when this tournament began, and Karolina will jet to No. 84 following her win over Mattek-Sands.
The Pliskova twins are built on the Petra Kvitova-Tomas Berdych model, and the Kuala Lumpur final demonstrated that 6’1” Karolina knows how to make the most of it all. Blitzed 6-1 in just 23 minutes in the first set, Karolina settled in and rained down aces (10 in all) and unreturnables that helped her to win at the 11th hour in three sets, 1-6, 7-5, 6-3. It was a high quality match—there were no breaks in the second set until the 12th and final game—but in the end, Pliskova’s range and power proved too much for Mattek-Sands to overcome.
Mattek-Sands was ranked No. 197 going in, but that’s largely because she’s had some hard luck since hitting her career-high ranking of No. 30. The American has been sequentially impaired by hip, back and foot injuries. This showing is sure to boost her confidence, given that she also turned in a pair of notable upsets, beating defending champ Hsieh Su-Wei and third-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in back-to-back matches to reach the final.
The top seed at this event was two-time year-end No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, but she was beaten in the upset of the week by qualifier Qiang Wang—no relation to Wang Chung, who record one of the most irritating songs in all of pop music history.
Florianopolis, WTA: The inaugural Brasil Tennis Cup was a wild and wooly affair, a graveyard for seeded players. Ultimately, unseeded Monica Niculescu, who survived triple match point in her first-round upset of Anabel Medina-Garrigues, won the title, wresting it away from another unseeded finalist, Olga Puchkova, 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
Puchkova had upset top-seeded Venus Williams in the semis in a tight, 7-5 in-the-third battle, and No. 2 seed Yaroslava Shvedova met the same fate as Medina Garrigues in the first round. Third-seeded Kirsten Flipkens also stumbled out in round one, and the No. 4 seed, ChanelleScheepers, lasted just one round longer.
Now everyone must push back from the table, the feast is over. This week, the entire tribe reconvenes at Indian Wells, where at the end of the next two weeks there will be just two champions left standing. Enjoy the variety while you have it.