Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down: May 5-11

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Sure, Maria Sharapova won in Madrid, and she deserves all praise for that. But Simona Halep keeps making believers out of skeptics, and demonstrating that she’s a competitor of the highest order.

A semifinalist at Indian Wells, Halep withdrew from Miami with a toe injury, then bounced right back in Madrid, where she showed absolutely no sign of feeling the pressure brought on by her No. 5 ranking. She knocked off Ana Ivanovic and Petra Kvitova, then won the first set of the final from Sharapova—who hasn’t lost to anyone but Serena Williams on clay since the 2011 Roland Garros semifinals—before capitulating.

All things considered, there may not be a tougher out in the WTA these days than Halep.

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has deep-sixed the rowing machine he once had in his office (he held meetings dressed in shorts and a t-shirt), and he’s quit the kickboxing lessons he once used “to get stuff out of my system.” Instead, Clegg has embraced and become an evangelist for tennis, according to The Daily Mail.

The Lib Dem leader famously lost a match to Prime Minister David Cameron on the court at Chequers (the country retreat of the Prime Minister), but since then he’s claimed to have shed his spare tire by playing with, as one source put it, “anyone willing to give him a game. . . although Andy Murray would probably batter him.”

Ya think?

Daniel Nestor has labored, like almost every other doubles player, in the shadow of the Bryan brothers, Mike and Bob. But then Nestor doesn’t have the built-in advantage of having a twin brother just juiced about doubles as he is. And Nestor is also 41 years old, which is getting up there, even for a doubles specialist.

In Madrid, Nestor teamed with another exceptional doubles player, Nenad Zimonjic, to halt the Bryans’ winning streak at 24 matches (which included five titles). This was Nestor’s 84th title, third on the all-time list, trailing only les freres Bryan (Mike has 100 titles, Bob 98).

Perhaps Andy Murray ought to think of challenging Nick Clegg (see above) to a challenge match of some kind. He could use the W. As difficult as it may be to recover from back surgery—even “minor” surgery, as in Murray’s case—the fact is that the Scot pronounced himself fit way back in February after a nice little run at Acapulco. But since then, Murray has been playing terribly inconsistent tennis.

Murray was seeded No. 7 in Madrid, and he had a promising win against Nicolas Almagro in the second round. But after that admirable performance, he came up flat against Santiago Giraldo. Granted, the Colombian has been on a nice little run of his own, but he hadn’t beaten a Top 10 player in his previous 19 attempts. And while Giraldo was a finalist the previous week in Barcelona, Murray’s 24 unforced errors in a match that lasted a mere 70 minutes tells you that he didn’t even give his opponent a chance to get nervous.

Kei Nishikori is injury-prone, but also tough as nails. Unfairly criticized in some quarters for pulling out of the semifinals of Miami (groin pull), Nishikori then missed Japan’s Davis Cup tie in Tokyo against the Czech Republic. He didn’t return until Barcelona two weeks ago, but the now-world No. 9 won that event, and he advanced to the final last week in Madrid.

Nishikori won the first set from top seed—and back in form—Rafael Nadal yesterday, but he was forced to quit with a bad back after losing the second set and falling behind 0-3 in the third. Nishikori’s effortful game and off-the-charts work ethic may have something to do with his rate of injury. But how often have we seen a youngster play so hard and so well while plagued so frequently by injuries serious enough to make him abandon matches?

Thailand's politicians have been unable to bring together the royalist establishment and its populist foes, leading to months of increasingly volatile anti-government protests. Because of the turmoil, the organizers of the International Premier Tennis League have had to abandon plans for an event in Thailand.

“We had to divert from the original franchise owner in Bangkok as the political unrest forced us to look for an alternative city to ensure the safety of all stakeholders,” league founder and former doubles specialist Mahesh Bhupathi said in a statement.

Instead, the IPTL will move the event, to be played Nov. 28-30th, to the Philippines. We all know that the Thai people have much graver things to worry about than this minor upheaval, but I mention it partly because it’s yet another ominous sign for the country.

Caroline Garcia is just 20, but it’s been three whole years since Andy Murray, after watching her play, tweeted that he believed he was watching a future WTA No. 1. But something happened—or didn’t—to Garcia on the way up. She stalled and had been stuck in ITF and qualifier-land until recently.

Then in Feburary in Acapulco, she put up a win over Canadian sensation Eugenie Bouchard and reached the semis. In Miami she lost to Serena Williams 6-4 in the third, in the third round. After a first-round loss in Charleston, she defeated former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic to win Bogota, then humiliated the U.S. Fed Cup squad by beating Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys in back-to-back matches without the loss of a set.

Garcia qualified for last week’s Madrid Premier event and made the quarters, where she pushed Agnieszka Radwanska to the limit in yet another three-setter. As a result, Garcia is now inside the Top 50.

If there’s a dark-lining to this otherwise silver cloud, it’s in the trouble Garcia has had closing out matches. In addition to those main-tour cliffhangers, she’s lost three of the four titles she’s played for on the ITF circuit.

Chris Kermode, currently heading up the ATP, recently announced that the tour would beef up the prize money for players on the Challenger Tour, through which the vast majority of pros play their way onto the main tour. Prize money on the ATP World Tour jumped 57 percent to almost $86 million in the past 11 years, but in that same period the Challenger events gained only 31 percent (up to $9 million).

“The cost for players now of playing professionally, with coaches and physios and nutritionists, is significant,” Kermode, a 49-year-old former tennis pro, said in an interview.

Rafael Nadal’s forehand because. . . well you all know why, and saw it demonstrated as Rafa bounced back from a few frustrating weeks to win in Madrid.

Petra Kvitova, seeded No. 5 at the Madrid tournament, had a fantastic opportunity to kick her game up that much-needed notch when her quarterfinal opponent, Serena Williams, withdrew before their match with thigh injury.

Furthermore, Kvitova’s semifinal opponent was No. 4 seed Simona Halep. After wining the first set in a tiebreaker, Kvitova lost the next two, 6-3, 6-2.

As much as I admire Halep (see above), you simply expect more from a Wimbledon champion, which is what Kvitova is—an honor that, while thoroughly earned and undeniable, seems more and more like a millstone around her neck with each passing tournament.

Robby Ginepri and Taylor Townsend, who earned French Open wild cards that are part of a formal exchange between the U.S. and France. Both American players earned the free pass thanks to their results on the USTA Pro Circuit. Ginepri is ranked No. 442 and, at age 31, the former U.S. Open semifinalist is in the twilight of his career. Townsend, just 18, has been the top-ranked junior in the world.

Former WTA pro Mirka Federer gave birth last week to a second set of twins—this time boys, named Leo and Lenny. Both twins and father Roger, also a tennis player but still active, are doing fine.

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