It sounds like it was quite a day of tennis in China and Japan—there were upsets, near-upsets, and a healthy share of three-setters. The fall’s main story lines also continued to develop: Rafael Nadal moved one match closer to No. 1, Serena Williams added another win to her career-best 2013 count, and Milos Raonic and Petra Kvitova stayed hot. The only bummer, from an atmosphere standpoint, was that China’s own Li Na went out, to Kvitova, in Beijing.
Unfortunately for me, I saw almost none of this here in New York. So I’ll use my column today to give a few thoughts on five players who are still around in Beijing and Tokyo, and what the weekend might mean for them.
1. Rafael Nadal
There had been a few tight moments in his straight-set win over Fabio Fognini at Roland Garros this year, but nothing that would have led you to believe he would go down 2-6, 1-4 to the Italian yesterday. Maybe Fognini’s 0 and 2 win over Lleyton Hewitt earlier this week was as much about the winner as it was the loser.
But Rafa survived, and is one win from No. 1. I’ll be interested to see how he does when he gets back to the top. The consensus is that he doesn’t like to be in that position, that he’s better as the hunter than he is as the hunted. It’s true that struggling and “suffering,” as he says, are at the core of his success, but I never thought he seemed uncomfortable at No. 1, either. In 2009, he lost the top spot in part because of injuries to his knees and abdominals, and in 2011 Djokovic was just better than he was.
This would seem, finally, to be Rafa’s time to have a long run at No. 1; having no points to defend at the Australian Open and Wimbledon won't hurt. But we'll see; in fact, we might see right away. Nadal could play the man whose spot he’s taking, Djokovic, in the final on Sunday. The last time that happened was on the WTA side earlier this season in Doha. There Victoria Azarenka beat Serena Williams just as the American was moving ahead of her, for good.
Next opponent: Tomas Berdych (Nadal leads their head to head 16-3, and has won their last 15 meetings.)
2. Serena Williams
Speaking of Serena, she beat Caroline Wozniacki last night to win her 71st match of 2013. Her appearance alone in Beijing is semi-remarkable; she hadn’t made the trip since 2009, when she lost to Nadia Petrova in the quarters. That now seems like a very different Serena Williams from the healthy, consistent one we see playing a full schedule today. The WTA is much healthier for her revival, too.
Next opponent: Agnieszka Radwanska (Serena leads their head-to-head 6-0; their last match, in Toronto in August, was a decent one. Serena won 7-6 (3), 6-4.)
3. Novak Djokovic
This weekend represents an opportunity for Djokovic. Yes, he’s eventually going to be deposed no matter what happens, but he won’t get many better chances at knocking off the new king. If he meets Nadal in the final, not only will be it on a hard court, Djokovic's favorite surface, it will be on one where he has already won three titles. Nadal also might be vulnerable to a letdown on Sunday. He will have reached No. 1 less than 24 hours earlier.
To me, all Djokovic needs to begin to turn the tables back around on Rafa is one victory. In 2011, he beat him because he was confident that if he hung in points long enough, he would ultimately win them. He hasn’t had that sense or that confidence much against Rafa in the last two years. A victory here would begin to give them to him again.
Next opponent: Richard Gasquet (Djokovic leads 9-1; Gasquet’s one win came in 2007.)
4. Petra Kvitova
I’m guessing I speak for a lot of people when I say I’d like to see the women’s event in Beijing end with a final between Serena and Kvitova. Their last match, in Doha, was a good one; Serena lost the first set before coming back to win 7-5 in the third.
The bigger question for Kvitova, and for WTA fans, is whether her late-season surge—she won in Tokyo last week and beat Li Na yesterday—means anything for her future. The answer is: Definitely not yet. As her three-set wins have proven this week, Kvitova is still terminally inconsistent, and it’s hard to imagine that ever changing. For now, we should enjoy her good play while it lasts. Her semifinal with Jelena Jankovic, a hitter versus a runner, could be especially entertaining.
And if she does win that, and does beat Serena in the final...maybe we can start to think a little bigger.
Next opponent: Jelena Jankovic (Kvitova leads their head to head 2-0.)
5. Milos Raonic
What a difference four months can make. Milos Raonic will tell you himself. Tonight he plays Ivan Dodig in the semis in Tokyo. I watched these two play at Eastbourne in June, and Raonic, the tournament’s top seed, was dreadful in a two-set loss. After his early exit a week later at Wimbledon, I gave him a D grade for that tournament and said his career at that stage reminded me of the Jon Stewart segment, “Please tell me we've hit rock bottom.”
Raonic will be a different man when he faces Dodig this time. He’s on a seven-match winning streak, and is coming off a solid fourth-round run at the U.S. Open and a gutty performance in a Davis Cup win over Janko Tipsarevic. He’s poised to reach the Top 10 and stay there. Dodig is no pushover, but it’s the type of match Raonic must win if he’s going to become the player he thinks he is.
In Beijing, I’m hoping for finals between Nadal and Djokovic and Serena and Kvitova. A Tokyo finale between Raonic and Juan Martin del Potro would also be nice. They say they’ve made up after Raonic’s “Touch the net? Who, me?” performance in their match in Montreal. But something tells me del Potro would take a little extra satisfaction in a win this time.
Next opponent: Ivan Dodig (Dodig leads their head to head 2-0.)