Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: Sept. 16-22

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Recapping the week that was in professional tennis:

When it comes to Ernests Gulbis, the new champion of St. Petersburg, the thinking tends to run in one of two directions: He’s either a highly gifted, outspoken flake—a kind of head-case agent provocateur—or a loudmouthed, out-to-lunch, spoiled rich kid.

But I ask you, friends, what’s wrong with recognizing Ernie as  . . . both?

The Latvian won his title in what might be called predictably unpredictable Gulbis fashion, ripping through 11 consecutive games to rout Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, 3-6, 6-4, 6-0, and then promptly lavished praise on his own bad self, saying: “I’ve been very consistent especially in finals; I’ve never lost in a final. I’m proud of that record.”

Of course, the 25-year-old, world No. 27 has played just four ATP finals in his career, all of them in lower-level events, whereas Rafael Nadal (a fella Gulbis criticized earlier this year for being, essentially, consistent) has played and won 10—this year. And two of those were in Grand Slam events.

But never mind. Gulbis also waxed philosophical on his potential, declaring that if only he were a little more consistent himself, he’d be Top 10. And hey, if I were four feet taller I’d be playing in the NBA.

Some of you may wonder, after all this, why Gulbis gets a thumbs up, and that’s an easy one—he’s a refreshing personality in a sport filled with what you might call increasingly “corporate” guys. He’s a charming rogue, even if he’s so full of it that it’s coming out of his ears.

Who says American men’s tennis is dying, and that we can’t win big international events on clay? Brian Connor just returned from Krakow, Poland, where won the first International Tennis Championships of Priests (45-and-over division). Yep, that’s Father Brian Connor, who tends to the flock at the North American Martyrs Church in Lincoln, Neb.

A year ago, Father Connor was given a rosary by the opponent who beat him on the same red clay, Father Fernando Suarez of the Philippines (whether this was gamesmanship or Christian charity Connor did not say). “I kept it as motivation to come back the next year and win the tournament,” Connor told Lincoln’s Journal Star. “Last year, I got on the big stage and didn’t play very well. I felt like there was definitely some unfinished business for me there.”

The WTA Tournament of Champions is a woeful afterthought to the tour season, scheduled after the true year-end championships in Istanbul. The event is theoretically a shoot-out between worthy players who didn’t qualify for the WTA Championships, but won at least one WTA International Series event.

Now held in Sofia, Bulgaria, it features an eight-player round-robin format, but only six of the players actually earn their way into the draw. The other two—that’s 25 percent of the field—are wild cards. This year the free passes went to local talent Tsvetana Pironkova and media magnet Ana Ivanovic, who twice won the tournament when it was held in Bali.

Neither woman is (thus far) one of the nearly 20 WTA players who has won International Series events this year. This wouldn’t be so bad if the tournament didn’t actually offer ranking points and a hefty purse—Nadia Petrova, last year’s winner, carted away $270,000 and 375 ranking points. Events that are neither fish nor fowl are poison, and terribly unfair to the players who have a legitimate claim to one of those two wild card slots.

She was ranked just No. 112, but Zhang Shaui thrilled her Chinese countrymen and women by winning in Guangzhou. If you know anything about China, you know how intensely focused the Chinese are on domestic events and competitions. Wimbledon is all well and good, but how did you do in the inter-provincial, Chinese National Games?

Shuai beat Su-Wei Hsieh and Yvonne Meusburger, two players ranked well above her, and capped her great week with impressive poise, taking out qualifier Vania King in straight sets.

The record will show that top-seeded Fabio Fognini had to quit his second-round match in St. Petersburg against Michael Przysiezny with a foot injury. The score went in the books as 3-6, 3-5, ret.

The reality is that the tempestuous Italian hothead abruptly quit when he was just two points away from losing the match, and on the heels of a lengthy argument with the chair umpire at the end of the previous game. Apart from anything else, it was unfair to deny Przysiezny a legitimate win so close to the end of the match. But then, we saw in Cincinnati that Fognini can tank with the best of them:

After an outstanding summer in which Fognini made three ATP finals in a row—he won Stuttgart and Hamburg before losing to Tommy Robredo in Umag—he hasn’t won successive matches since Umag and his ranking is already slipping from the career-high of No. 16 he reached this summer.

It’s always a great achievement to win a tournament on home soil, but Gilles Simon would probably tell you that it’s even sweeter when you take the big prize over a fellow countryman. That’s just what Simon did at Metz, beating not one but two fellow French rivals en route to the title. First, he knocked off volatile Nicolas Mahut in the semifinals. Then he took the title from the top seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Granted, Tsonga was playing in his first tournament since Wimbledon (left knee injury), but he loves Metz and was striving for his third title there in as many years. It also was Simon’s first victory over Tsonga on hard courts in six attempts.

Vania King has won just one singles title in her entire WTA career, that in Bangkok, in 2006; she was 17 at the time. Going into Guangzhou qualifying, King was ranked No. 124 and hadn’t won back-to-back singles matches in a WTA event this year. But King slashed her way to the title round, winning six matches—including triumphs over Jie Zheng, Monica Puig, and Bojana Jovanovski—before she was beaten by Zhang.

Novak Djokovic joined an exclusive club this week, as he became just the ninth ATP player to be ranked No. 1 for at least 100 weeks. It was in a nick of time, too, as Rafael Nadal is closing on that ranking, pronto. The eight other members of the 100-week club are: Andre Agassi (101 weeks), Nadal (102), Bjorn Borg (109), John McEnroe (170), Jimmy Connors (268), Ivan Lendl (270), Pete Sampras (286), and Roger Federer (302).

I assume that Djokovic will inch ahead of at least two men on that list, including—ironically—the one (Nadal) poised to take away his top ranking by November. It’s interesting that Nadal and Djokovic are so close in this department, and it means that despite Nadal’s towering lead in Grand Slam singles titles count, the weeks-at-No. 1 race is pretty much deadlocked.

If you enjoy reading Pete Bodo at, you might also be interested in his latest novel, The Reckoning. A revised version of this father-son story set in the Rocky Mountains has just been issued by e-publisher Diversion Books. Click here for more on this grand adventure tale, or to download the book.

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