Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: February's Final Week

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Well, it was quite the week in tennis. The ATP featured three resonant finals, while the WTA produced two competitive finals, one of them featuring recent Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova. That was just part of the noteworthy news, though, so let’s get right to it.

World Tennis Day is a work in progress, but this may be the year that the concept really develops legs. Just take a quick trip around social media starting with Twitter (#WorldTennisDay) and you’ll see how many events are going on around the world today, and how many tennis icons and enthusiasts are taking part. Credit the USTA, ITF, and visionary promoters like Jerry Solomon of StarGames for making all this happen. I’ll have more to say about it after I attend tonight’s BNP Paribas Showdown here in New York (featuring the McEnroes vs. the Bryans and Novak Djokovic vs. Andy Murray).

Serena Williams will spend the next two weeks ranked No. 1 on the WTA computer, thereby passing her childhood idol Monica Seles in total weeks atop the charts. That also moves Williams into fifth place on the all-time list for longevity at the top. “I never thought it would happen,” Williams remarked.

The 98-square inch Wilson ProStaff is the racquet that Roger Federer has struggled for months to master, and it finally paid off with his first title of 2014, and his first since Halle last year. It was no chippie, either. Federer had to put up back-to-back, come-from-behind, three-set wins over Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych in a loaded field in Dubai to get it done.

And if you think Federer amazes you, just think how much he amazes his own self judging by this quote about his racquet and recent fortunes:

“I’m happy that the results are paying off, especially in quick succession. I have only just switched (racquets), and here I am, already getting to the finals in Brisbane, semis at the Australian Open, I won my Davis Cup match, and now here I am with a trophy.”

Federico Delbonis broke a six-year stranglehold on the Brasil Open (Sao Paulo) by Spanish players. But the 23-year-old Argentinean known as Delbo couldn’t care less about that, because this was his first ATP World Tour title.

You may remember that Delbonis gave us a foretaste of this day in Hamburg last year, where he qualified and didn’t lose until the final. Along the way, he beat Roger Federer in two tiebreak sets.

Delbonis said that experience helped him survive a very tight three-set final in Sao Paulo with, of all people, Paolo Lorenzi, after Delbo had done the heavier lifting in earlier rounds. He upset second-seeded Nicolas Almagro to start his run, and took down Albert Montanes along the way.

Just in case you don’t think that the World TeamTennis concept has become sufficiently bizarre, we now have the International Premier Tennis League. The league is set to is set to launch in the brief off-season this year (starting Nov. 28 and ending Dec. 14).

And what happened to those chronic complaints by the top players about the crowded tennis calendar?

Well, the backaches and sore arms apparently became manageable when an unidentified group of investors plonked down some $24 million to convince 28 top players—including Murray, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Serena Williams—to form four city-based teams, each of which will play six matches (Nadal reportedly is pulling down a cool $1 million per night).

You can flesh out the concept elsewhere, but trust me when I say it’s deeply flawed and heavily compromised (for example, the top stars will have to play “home” matches in the cities they represent). And check out this story from the Daily Mail. This is an oddball exhibition series straining for unattainable credibility through the use of a highfalutin name and a team concept. It’s just about money, and nothing else.

But it will be interesting to learn the names of the thus- far secret set of investors.

You have to hand it to Grigor Dimitrov, he has a flair for the dramatic. Just about the time when lots of people were beginning to give up on him, he appears to be making that long-awaited breakthrough. The 22-year-old Bulgarian, now ranked No. 16, had back-to-back, tiebreaker-in-the-third wins over Murray and Kevin Anderson to win Acapulco. Dimitrov now has a better record on the year than Murray: 11-3, with a title, to the world No. 6’s 12-4 mark, sans hardware.

Mary Carillo has signed a three-year extension of her contract with Tennis Channel. That’s good news for tennis, given how versatile Carillo is, and how well-connected she is at the big networks.

The thing I like best about Carillo, beyond even her quick wit and peripatetic interests, is her integrity. She’s one of the very few talking heads who isn’t afraid to say what she really thinks. And she’s open to the world beyond her own nose, unlike frequent booth-mate and smug parochialist Bob Costas.

Sorry, Novak Djokovic, but let’s face it—that loss to Federer in the Dubai semis was truly disappointing. Not because you lost; who on earth would be ashamed of losing to the all-time Grand Slam singles champ?

It’s because of the way he lost, failing to marshal anything like the intensity we routinely expect of him. This was Djokovic’s chance to win his first title of the year before the two big U.S. Masters 1000 events, and an opportunity to even his head-to-head record with Federer at 16-16.

Isn’t the young predator supposed to run down the aging one, like a cheetah bringing down an old Wildebeest? Every day it seems more likely that something is wrong in Noleland.

The “Indo-Pak” express team of Rohan Bopanna and Aisam-Ul-Haq-Qureshi won Dubai with a quality win over fellow doubles specialists Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic. Bopanna, from India, and Qureshi, of Pakistan, first attracted fame simply because of the socio-political “Stop War, Play Tennis” message sent by their partnership. Their nations have a tense, sometimes violent history, yet the the two men partnered up partly as a plea for peace and understanding between their homelands.

The team broke up for about two years and only got back together early this year. They lost the final at Sydney to Nestor and Zimonjic, but evened the score last week with their first title as a reunited team.

While Dominika Cibulkova edged closer to cracking the top 10 for the first time in her career (she’s now No. 11) by winning Acapulco, she was, after all, the Australian Open finalist and No. 1 seed in Mexico. So lets give the thumbs up to unseeded Christina McHale, who had a great tournament and pushed top-seeded Cibulkova to 6-4 in the third before she capitulated.

Once ranked No. 24, McHale couldn’t handle her success and slumped terribly. She’s still up-and-down, but appears to be pulling it together. She’s now ranked No. 55—a 15-tick jump from her previous ranking.

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