Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: Oct. 7-13

Monday, October 14, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

It’s as predictable as the leaves suddenly popping with color at this time of year. Once we start edging into October, players begin to pop up to claim places in the ATP and WTA year-end championships. Sometimes these are just formal affirmations of the inevitable, sometimes they’re surprising performances from players who had not been expected to contend.

Whichever the case, the WTA field for Istanbul was fleshed out this week, and the ATP found another qualifier. You have to hand it to the men; with just weeks left in the regular season, fully four of the World Tour Finals slots remain up for grabs. So let’s start out by doling out accolades to the players who qualified for the respective elite eights.

Angelique Kerber enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2012, and began this year ranked No. 5. But like so many before her, she learned that hitting a high note is somewhat easier than sustaining it. By mid-summer, Kerber was desperately clinging to the last spot in the Top 10. 

But in truth, Kerber suffered very few of what we like to call “bad” losses. So she was top-seeded in Washington, but upset by Magdalena Rybarikova. Well, Rybarkiova went on the win that tournament. Most of the players Kerber lost to were at least in the “dangerous” category—Sorana Cirstea, Ekatarina Makarova, Mona Barthel, etc.

Still, Kerber won plenty of matches, too. She qualified for the WTA Championships thanks to an autumn run in which she won 11 of 13 matches, capped with a final-round, 6-4, 7-6 (8) victory over Ana Ivanovic at Linz. It was just Kerber’s third WTA title, but it earned her the final berth for the grand finale in Istanbul.

Juan Martin del Potro may have spoiled what was to be one of the most intriguing match-ups in recent memory, Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic for the second week in a row at a fascinating moment in the careers of both men. He did so with an upset of Nadal that was timely and perhaps ominous (for his rivals), for it also assured him of a place in the ATP World Tour Finals (joining Nadal, Djokovic, and David Ferrer).

“The most important thing is the way I qualified,” del Potro suggested after beating , who regained the world No. 1 ranking a week ago. “I’ve been playing really well. I’m so glad to show good tennis and I’m looking forward to closing a good year in London.”

Those may sound like boilerplate, but del Potro’s attitude and diligence are so dialed in that it would be a mistake to take them as such. After extending Djokovic to a third-set tiebreaker before bowing in the Shanghai final, del Potro also declared: “I think I’m playing even better than 2009 or 2008 or last year. That’s important [and] a good thing for the future.”

The Tunisian Tennis Federation ordered the best player in Tunisia to withdraw from a Challenger tournament in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The reason? Malek Jaziri was scheduled to meet Israel’s Amir Weintraub in the quarterfinals. Arab countries periodically do this kind of thing to protest the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel, even though the only real victim here may well be Jaziri. I’ll look at this a little more closely in a dedicated post later this week.

The highest ranked teenager in the WTA came within a whisker of winning her first WTA title in Osaka, but Eugenie Bouchard fell just short. Bouchard had won the first set 6-3 and had a point to hold for 6-5 in the second set when Sam Stosur woke up, lifted her game, and won going away, 3-6, 7-5, 6-2. 

Bouchard is part of the Canadian invasion, and at 19 years of age she has time to develop into the WTA answer to ATP No. 11 Milos Raonic. While she can only gaze upon Raonic’s atomic serve with envy, Bouchard is a tall (5’10”), rangy, well-rounded baseliner. And she’s already accomplished something Raonic never did, and never will, even with that smoking serve: She won the junior Wimbledon title.

It isn’t often that I get to give a thumbs up to an entire state, but Connecticut certainly seems to have earned one. State officials announced last week that the state is purchasing the rights to put on the New Haven tournament for what seems like a bargain basement price (at least in terms of state expenditures) of $618,000. That’s not very much, given the $26 million worth of “economic impact” the tournament is said to generate.

That EI number always seems a little dodgy, but even so—the tournament does undeniably create 300 jobs, and it does rake in almost exactly twice the cost of the rights in state tax revenue. Of course, buying the rights is just the tip of the financial iceberg, so we’ll see how things work out once state bureaucrats and politicians begin to do something that isn’t exactly in the job description: Run a pro tennis tournament. 

Elena Vesnina is going to play the WTA Tournament of Champions (the more accurate title might be: Tournament of the Also-Rans and a Beauty Queen) instead of the Fed Cup final in Sardinia against Italy.

Granted, Fed Cup isn’t as resonant or widely popular as Davis Cup, but then the Tournament of Champions is a painfully contrived exhibition masquerading as a tournament—heck, it even takes place after the top-tier WTA year-end championships. 

But also, the Italian squad has written a Cinderella story—this is their fifth final in eight years—while Russia hasn’t won the Fed Cup since 2008. I understand that the easy money is in Sofia, and Vesnina has done a reasonable amount of Fed Cup duty in the past. But if you’re wondering why Russia hasn’t won since 2008, look no further than the lack of real commitment implied by Vesnina’s decision.

Going into Shanghai, a number of people were breathing down No. 8 Stanislas Wawrinka’s neck, hoping to overtake him for the eighth and final berth for the ATP World Tour Finals. The most dangerous might have been hard-charging, No. 11-ranked Raonic, who found himself opposite Wawrinka in the third round of the aforementioned Masters tournament. It was a put-up-or-shut-up kind of moment, and Wawrinka put up alright; he handled Raonic in straights and dealt his hopes of qualifying a crippling blow. 

You have to hand it to Novak Djokovic; he hasn’t wasted much time pitying himself for falling to the No. 2 ranking below his rival Nadal. Yesterday, Djokovic completed the Beijing-Shanghai double—and keep in mind that Beijing is as high-quality a 500-level event as there is. 

Djokovic is 16-1 on hard courts since the start of the U.S. Open, the only loss coming in the final at the American Grand Slam. The loss to Nadal in New York undoubtedly hurt, as did the inevitable passing of the No. 1 baton into Nadal’s hands after Beijing. But if anything, it appears that having to surrender his ranking to Nadal has served mainly to motivate and perhaps even replenish Djokovic’s focus.

It’s a pity that del Potro got between Nadal and Djokovic in Shanghai; it would have been compelling to see how it would have worked out had the top two players in the world met in the final. Make no mistake, though, Nadal fans: Djokovic is waiting, and he appears to be in no mood to play around.

Speaking of those bitter wars to determine the final World Tour Final qualifiers, Richard Gasquet may have blown it, big time. Going into Shanghai, he trailed Wawrinka by a meager 20 points, which isn’t even half of the 45 points awarded to a guy who makes the second round of a 64-player, one-week Masters 1000. 

Seeded No. 9, Gasquet lost in the first round of Shanghai to Vasek Pospisil, while Wawrinka picked up 180 points with his quarterfinal run. Wawrinka went one round further in Shanghai than last year, while Gasquet won a match last year and none last week. When you tabulate the numbers, Wawrinka now holds a 190-point lead over Gasquet, a substantial margin with just one Masters left on the docket.

Dudi Sela won the Tashkent Challenger. Sela is from Israel. 

That’s all for this week, folks.

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