Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: Sept. 23-29

Monday, September 30, 2013 /by
Joao Sousa became the first Portuguese to win an ATP tournament in Kuala Lumpur. (AP Photo)
Joao Sousa became the first Portuguese to win an ATP tournament in Kuala Lumpur. (AP Photo)

The tribes have gathered once again in Beijing, at the rich dual event that is both a Premier Mandatory tournament for the women and an ATP 500. But let’s be honest here; this is really the ATP’s 10th Masters 1000 event. It doesn’t matter what the rankings or prize-money tables say; when you have Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the draw, you know you’ve got a tournament that matters.

I can think of a few reasons why Beijing might be happy that it lacks Masters prestige. The financial buy-in is significantly lower, and appearance money can be liberally doled out to ensure participation. It sure beats investing all the money in a Masters 1000 and then sitting on the edge of your chair, waiting to see who’s going to pull out.

In any event, now that things are heating up on the ATP tour—two Masters 1000 events follow Beijing—and the flare of the last significant WTA regular-season event lights up the skies in China, let’s hand out some accolades and admonishments for last week—a pretty eventful "uneventful" week:

When Joao Sousa became the first Portuguese to win an ATP tournament in Kuala Lumpur, it punctuated a spectacular nine-match run. Just two weeks earlier, Sousa was ranked No. 89, but he knocked off No. 34 Dimitry Tursunov to reach the semifinals in St. Petersburg and earned a special exemption into the Malaysian tournament. Five matches later, he claimed his maiden title and also hit a new rankings high for his nation, No. 51.

And did I mention that Sousa knocked off top-seeded and world No. 4 David Ferrer before he performed his historic feat in a two-hour and 18-minute final against Julien Benneteau? Or that Sousa survived a match point in beating the Frenchman, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4?

Sousa himself was hard-pressed to explain this spectacular breakout. He could only say: "I stayed calm and tried to do my best. My coach (Frederico Marques) is the best of my career. I have been working with him two years and I have made good results with the support of my friend, girlfriend, and him." The 24-year-old resident of Barcelona added, “My favourite surface was clay court but after seeing these results I don’t know what to tell you.”

You probably couldn’t hunt up a more unlikely player to serve as the bookend opposite Sousa on the awards shelf than 32-year-old former WTA No. 1 and seven-time Grand Slam champion, Venus Williams. Past her prime and suffering from a condition (Sjogren’s syndrome) that causes, among other things, fatigue, Williams stunned us with a spectacular run to the semifinals of Tokyo.

It isn’t like Williams knocked off a succession of stiffs on her way, either. Her victims, in order, were the always dangerous Mona Barthel, top seed and world No. 2 Victoria Azarenka, an on-fire No. 13 seed Simona Halep, and Canadian prodigy Eugenie Bouchard. After that, she took eventual champion Petra Kvitova to three sets—and a dramatic final-set tiebreaker (Kvitova won it, 7-2)—before she yielded.

The really good news? Williams played three successive three-set matches. She obviously rebounded from the first two with plenty of energy despite her condition, and almost survived the third one. It was a fantastic effort, and suggests that Venus isn’t quite done yet.

How did the Lawn Tennis Association (the USTA of Great Britian) celebrate Andy Murray’s breakthrough win at Wimbledon? By freezing funding for grass-roots British tennis programs.

Instead of awarding capital grants, the LTA is offering clubs and other facilities looking to expand (to accommodate the upsurge of interest in tennis) only interest-free loans. A spokesman for the LTA told the Independent on Sunday newspaper in England only that the organization is in the midst of creating a new funding strategy, but is presently targeting areas with a high population and “latent demand” for the game.

Critics say that the LTA is ignoring the grass-roots game and focusing far too heavily on the elite level—thereby undermining the potentially broad growth of the game.

Canada’s Milos Raonic took a big step toward becoming the first player from his nation to qualify for the year-end ATP World Tour Finals. He did it with a pair of high-quality, back-to-back wins in the semis and final of Bangkok, knocking off No. 9 Richard Gasquet and then-No. 6 Tomas Berdych to win the fifth singles title of his career and his second this year.

The title was worth 250 ranking points, and it leaves Raonic trailing Gasquet by almost exactly 400 points. It’s a lot of ground to make up, and No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is in the hunt too, but Raonic will have a significant advantage on the hard courts, especially when the tour moves indoors in the waning days of the season. And remember, finishing ninth in the Race to London should be enough to qualify, assuming that world No. 3 Andy Murray calls off his season while recovering from surgery.

Korea’s Junior Davis Cup squad lost a close final, 2-1, so why does the losing team get a thumbs up instead of the winner? Well, because Korea is barely a dot on the international tennis map and it put up a great fight against Spain, the top tennis nation on the planet.

The Junior Davis Cup is for 16-and-under players, and is contested in a single location over a concentrated period—this year, it was in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. There are just three matches in a tie, two singles and a doubles.

The star for Korea was Seongchan Hong, who won the second singles in three sets. But Spain’s Pedro Martinez Portrero and Juame Antoni Munar Clar (who lost to Hong in the singles) proved too tough for Kukeon Kang and and Yun Seong Chung in the decisive doubles match.

The Associated Press wasn’t alone in utterly ignoring Sousa’s landmark win yesterday in Kuala Lumpur, but as a news agency that generally does a great job in reporting on tennis events around the world, the oversight was striking. You can read our write-up of Sousa’s victory here.

Let’s not jump to any insidious conclusions; the bureau was probably short-staffed, or perhaps some editor fell asleep at the night desk and simply forgot to move the story. In any event, it was a shame that Sousa’s achievement (see above) went unheralded.

It must be fall, for Petra Kvitova is playing like a champion again. Kvitova, one of the most baffling players in tennis, is a major talent who shocked everyone when she won Wimbledon in 2011, then proved that it probably was the fluke it first appeared.

In that magical year, Kvitova struggled after her Slam win on American hard courts but had a spectacular fall. She won Linz and the WTA Championships (and the Fed Cup final) to creep within a few swings of the No. 1 ranking. But she let the opportunity slip away early in 2012, and she hasn’t been a legitimate threat to the pecking order ever since.

This week in Tokyo, the No. 7 seed played Big Babe tennis again, crushing everyone in her path until she ran into resurgent Williams. Kvitova pulled that one out in a third-set tiebreaker, then almost collapsed in the final against No. 5 seed Angelique Kerber, producing a scoreline that will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Czech’s wildly erratic game—6-2, 0-6, 6-3.

But Kvitova won it, and it was enough to push her back into the Top 10.

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