Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: Oct. 14-20

Monday, October 21, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

It’s a real dilemma, handing out accolades this week. You don’t want to cheapen the product by giving out kudos to everyone, but in many ways this was an exceptional week on the tours, with numerous players earning a Thumbs Up in finals—even if they didn’t win. Let’s get it started so you know just what I mean:

Moscow finalists Richard Gasquet and Mikhail Kukushkin present a stunning contrast. Gasquet is No. 10 in the ATP rankings and was the top seed at this event. Yet he was coming off a bad, first-round loss last week in Shanghai (to Vasek Pospisil) and has been under considerable pressure to qualify for the eighth and final slot at the ATP World Tour Finals.

Give Gasquet credit for shoring up his chances. He’s now No. 9 in the race, just 25 points behind No. 8 Roger Federer. But because world No. 3 Andy Murray will sit out the World Tour Finals, Gasquet is less concerned with catching Federer than staying ahead of his fellow countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and two long shots, Milos Raonic and Tommy Haas.

But don’t neglect Kukushkin, a qualifier who was ranked just inside the Top 100 at the start of the week. He won seven matches to reach the final and stretched Gasquet to 6-4 in the third before he capitulated.

In another contrast, both Caroline Wozniacki and 19-year old German newcomer Annika Beck deserve acclaim, even though the Dane had little trouble handling the world No. 57 in the Luxembourg final. Wozniacki hadn’t won a title this year—not even New Haven!—and, having dropped to No. 9, was in real need of ending the year on a high note.

Beck demonstrated why she’s the highest ranked 19-year-old on tour (now No. 48). While she benefitted from Stefanie Voegele having to retire in the semis, Beck’s gut check, 6-4 in-the-third, second-round win over No. 28 Lucie Safarova proved a game-changer. The wide-eyed finalist said, “Caroline (Wozniacki) and I practiced once here and I was very nervous, and I was nervous today too! But I never expected I'd be here until Sunday.”

In the fall of 1993, the Fayetteville-Manlius girls’ tennis team lost a 4-3 dual match to fellow Syracuse, N.Y.-area high school Liverpool. They have not lost since.

The Hornets have won 328 consecutive matches over the span of 21 seasons to book the longest winning streak in the history of high school tennis—girls or boys—according to the National Federation of State High school Associations. The coach at the helm all that time has been Phil Rudolph, a 52-year old social studies teacher at F-M. He’s just finishing his 30th season as head coach, and has amassed a record of 420-6.

Auburn High School girls’ tennis coach Shelly Connors told Syracuse.com: “Honestly, it’s unbelievable. When I talk to people, I’ll say, ‘They (F-M) haven’t lost in 20 years.’ They’ll say, ‘yes they have.’ I say, ‘They’ve haven’t lost.’ People don’t understand the magnitude of that streak.”

Rudolph is philosophical about the team’s success: “We know this isn’t like Florida tennis or some huge hotbed for tennis. But I think it’s pretty good tennis. It’s not the best in the country but not the worst in the country, either.”

We all love Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but he’s struggling and apparently balking at the challenge of making a run for the coveted eighth spot at the ATP World Tour Finals, presently held by his pal Gasquet.

Tsonga’s semifinal loss to Novak Djokovic in Shanghai was understandable, but he had a chance to make up for it last week at the Vienna ATP 250. Instead, he immediately struggled against No. 57 Daniel Brands then almost lost to qualifier Dominic Thiem in the quarterfinals, but squeaked by, 7-6 (3) in the third. Finally, Tsonga collapsed against the talented but erratic No. 63, Robin Haase.

Tsonga is currently 10th in the race, and currently trails Gasquet in the race by 65 points. But he’ll need to make his final push at the Paris Indoors, as Tsonga isn’t entered in either the Basel or Valencia ATP 500 draw. (According to Carole Bouchard of L’Equipe, Tsonga doesn’t want to risk injury by overplaying.) Time to step up, Jo!

It isn’t just that 22-year-old Grigor Dimitrov won in Stockholm, it’s who he beat—and how. Dimitrov outlasted No. 3 David Ferrer, by far the highest ranking player in action last week, 6-4 in the third. 

Ferrer had been on the verge of going up a set and 4-2, but Dimitrov held fast against one of the most relentless players on the tour. He said after the dogged comeback and win: “Even if I would have lost the match, the most important thing was to test myself to the limits and try to control what I can. This (to win) was icing on the cake.”

Are we ever going to be able to rely on Sam Stosur? It seems strange to give her this mark, for she had quality wins in Moscow—in order: Kaia Kanepi, Alize Cornet, Ana Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova. Yet she’s a former U.S. Open champion and recent No. 4, and while currently ranked No. 19, she had a great chance to establish her seniority over up-and-coming Simona Halep in the final. She failed, losing a first-set tiebreaker, after which she faded away.

In another of those results that makes you wonder who gets the most credit, Tommy Haas dispatched Robin Haase to win Vienna. Give the nod to the Haas lacking the “e”, and not just because he’s 35 years old. The win keeps alive his hopes (albeit remote ones) to qualify for the World Tour Finals, and keeps him within striking distance of the Top 10, at No. 12. Remarkably, Haas won this title 12 years ago. He said, “I’m very happy. Obviously it’s a great feeling to win a title. . .To do it here after (also winning in) 2001, it’s special.”

But credit Haase, too. He came into the tournament ranked No. 63, and upset three higher-ranked players to make the final: Pospisil, Fabio Fognini, and top-seeded Tsonga.

Beloved Gabriela Sabatini, now 43, told Argentina’s daily La Nacion that in her youth she deliberately lost matches in order to avoid reporters, and that she was so competitive that after losing the first set as a junior she would sometimes tank the second one just to spite . . . herself.

Sabatini also won the U.S. Open in 1990, but she never did reach No. 1, of which she said: “I think my fame and my public profile had something to do with the fact that I did not become world number one. To be so famous would also have been a problem if I had been world number one.”

That’s a strange speculation, given that Sabatini probably couldn’t have become more famous had she beaten John McEnroe in straight sets. And it totally skirts the fact that Steffi Graf simply had too much game for her. She was 29-11 against Sabatini, and won 15 of their last 17 despite being a year older.

When will people stop asking if Simona Halep is for real? She won her fifth WTA title of the year, all of them in the months after she battled her way to the Rome semifinal against Serena Williams in May. Only Williams, with a mind-boggling 10 titles, has more this year.

Before wiping out Stosur in straight sets in the Moscow final yesterday, Halep crushed two Russians, Alisa Kleybanova (who’s still struggling to find her form after a long layoff due to illness) and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (who’s still struggling, period). The Romanian dropped a combined five games in those late-round victories.

It was understandable that the tournament director in Vienna would offer a wild card to Dominic Thiem. After all, he’s a promising, homegrown 20-year-old already ranked inside the Top 150. But it was downright baffling when Thiem, who’s played almost exclusively on the Challenger and Futures circuit this year, forgot that “local interest” players are supposed to maybe win one round and then take their bows. Thiem instead went three rounds and came within a whisker of beating Tsonga, losing the third set of their quarterfinal in a tiebreaker.

***

That’s it for this week, folks.

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