Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: Apr. 29

Monday, April 29, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Last week, the WTA once again rolled out one of its major spring tournaments in Stuttgart, the relevance of the event qualified only by the fact that it takes place indoors. But here’s a subtle yet important point: The event comes very close to alleviating Madrid promoter Ion Tiriac’s conviction that the draws at Grand Slam and Masters events are too large, too laden with fat. The draw in Stuttgart was 32 deep, with the four top women awarded byes.

Thus, top seed Maria Sharapova won just four matches in her successful quest to defend her title. The WTA is more flexible about such “custom” tournament tweaking—the men’s event in Barcelona, where Rafael Nadal just won his eighth title in nine tries, featured a 48-player draw, with 16 byes. Yikes!

In fact, Nadal had to win five matches to pocket yet another Barcelona trophy. Does the ATP tour have that much more depth, or is it merely more bent on maintaining tradition, or job opportunities? Should the WTA rank-and-file be upset by this apparent “rich get richer” mentality in Stuttgart?

One big difference, before we jump to any conclusions, is that Stuttgart is an indoor event. It has limited court space, and that may be why the WTA continues to give its blessing to a “Premier” event that really begins with the equivalent of the fourth round of a Grand Slam—the first, bye-heavy round serving as a qualifier.

Barcelona was the only ATP 500 tournament last week; this week there are none. These weeks are a welcome relief from the Masters 1000 events where the elite players so routinely dominate. On that relevant note, let’s get on with our awards:

Who would have thought Lukas Rosol could steal Rafael Nadal’s thunder twice within a span of a year, and once on clay no less? But that’s just what the 6’5” Czech, who bounced Nadal out of Wimbledon’s second round last year, did when he won his first-ever ATP final in Bucharest.

It wasn’t so much that Rosol won, although breakthroughs are always fun. It was more the fact that Rosol’s father, who had always supported his son’s career ambitions, died just 10 days before the final. Rosol managed his emotions beautifully and turned in just the tribute he had hoped when he’d decided, “I wanted to dedicate this tournament to someone (my father). But I didn’t know what to expect of myself, so I’m pretty satisfied. . . it was very emotional and that was very special to me.”

The Lady Black Knights of the United States Military Academy (aka, Army—from West Point) lost the first singles match of the Patriot League championship against arch-rival Navy, but bounced back to win the title, 4-1.

Showing distinctly Nadal-like tendencies, Army has won nine straight Patriot League titles. Navy made the final for the third year in a row, and won 23 of its last 25 matches leading up to the championship. But if you know anything about the Army-Navy rivalry, you know that all that really matters at either elite academy is who wins when Army meets Navy.

Lest I appear to be picking on Caroline Wozniacki a little too often, let’s split this award between Caro and Samantha Stosur, both of whom are nominally excellent clay-court players. Both of them lost in the first round in Stuttgart, and while I can see how sixth-seeded Stosur went down to Jelena Jankovic, it’s hard to figure how seventh-seeded Wozniacki managed to lose to 5'4", slump-shouldered Carla Suarez-Navarro. Wozniacki needs to be careful, lest she end up actually having to caddy for boyfriend Rory McIlroy—for real, not as a publicity stunt—to make ends meet!

Rafael Nadal bounced back from failing to win his ninth consecutive title in Monte Carlo by claiming his eighth title in nine tries in Barcelona. That’s mind-blowing, or would be if we weren’t so accustomed to Nadal’s insane level of insane success on red clay.

How do you spell “tough” in WTA speak? Try S-H-A-R-A-P-O-V-A, as in Maria Sharapova. She didn’t defend her Stuttgart title in Rafa or Serena-esque style, crushing opponents left and right. She had to do it the hard way, through a series of tense and closely fought matches. She endured three demanding three-setters—outlasting Lucie Safarova, Ana Ivanovic, Angelique Kerber in succession—before rolling through Li Na in the final, 6-4, 6-3. For that, she gets special mention.

I don’t know if this raspberry goes to the ATP or tournament promoters of Barcelona, but having a schedule so tight that a single, lengthy rain delay at almost any point in the week compels pros to play two matches on an ensuing day—as Nadal and others did— is really an invitation to disaster.

Imagine the second guessing had Nadal tweaked his left knee during his second match of the same day? (Fortunately for Nadal, he routed Albert Ramos, 6-3, 6-0, in under an hour after he dispatched Benoit Paire earlier in the day). I know that the honor of being an ATP 500 tournament implies a certain degree of gravitas, but do the folks in Barcelona really need to cram a 48-player draw with 16 byes into a single week?

Bethanie Mattek-Sands played seven matches in Stuttgart, the equivalent of making the final at a Grand Slam tournament, before she lost in the semifinals to eventual runner-up Li. Along the way, she upset last year's French Open finalist, Sara Errani. Ranked outside the Top 200 as recently as the start of Doha, Mattek-Sands is now safely ensconced in direct-acceptance territory at No. 72.

Rosol wasn’t the only player steal some of the limelight aimed at Nadal last week. The other spotlight stealers were the Barcelona doubles champs, Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares. They also had to play two matches on the same day, but they were obliged to do so on championship Sunday.

But it gets better: Unseeded, the squad took out the No. 2 and No. 3 seeded teams back-to-back on Sunday; furthermore, they overcame a match point in the second of those matches, snatching the trophy away from Robert Lindstedt and Daniel Nestor, 5-7, 7-6 (7), 10-4. Speaking for the mixed-nations team—Peya is Austrian, Soares hails from Brazil—Peya said: "It was weird to play two matches in a row, but we are very happy."

It is almost taboo to criticize David Ferrer, who is half the size of some players but has twice as big a heart as many of them. The Spaniard was the top seed in Barcelona, but the gritty ATP No. 4 was upset in the second round—his first match, thanks to his bye—by Dmitry Tursunov. Afterwards, Ferrer said: “It was the worst match I’ve played in a couple of years.”

That’s a little uncharitable toward the Russian winner, because there’s no such thing as an easy win over Ferrer, especially not on red clay in Europe. And it wasn’t like Ferrer just couldn’t find the court; the scores were 7-5, 3-6, 6-1. That’s a great effort by Tursunov, no matter how you cut it—or how badly Ferrer feels he played.

There are numerous walls between the ATP and the WTA, and sniping over the fence between the two groups isn’t uncommon. That’s why it’s refreshing to see former ATP pro Hicham Arazi as tournament director of the first-year event in Marrakech.

But let’s give Francesca Schiavone a big thumbs up as well. She’s closing on 33 years of age, and her ranking has been in free fall. Yet she pulled through to win the tournament and was at her gracious best afterward, saying: “I want to give many thanks to everyone who helped make this tournament happen. It’s the first year in Marrakech, and the first year is always difficult, but the tournament was fantastic and I felt like I was at home. And of course to the Tournament Director, Mr. Arazi, it was an honor for me to be here with him.”

That’s a classy way to honor your hosts, especially in so traditional a nation. Well done, Francesca.

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