The sound of a beautifully struck forehand is somewhat muted these days, overwhelmed by a nation's passion for the NFL and the upcoming baseball playoffs. It's particularly strange to see Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray playing separate stops on the Asian tour this week.
The China Open, in Beijing, marks one of the few calendar slots featuring both men and women. Normally, in cases such as Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome or Cincinnati, it's a Masters 1000 event for the men, a must-attend in terms of ranking points and prestige. Oddly, that's not the case this week. Beijing is a 500 event for the men, as is the Japan Open, being held concurrently in Tokyo.
So here we have Djokovic, David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, among many other top players, in China. Murray, Tomas Berdych, Janko Tipsarevic and Milos Raonic headline the field in Japan. There's no question that Beijing and Tokyo deserve their slots on the calendar, but this is an unfortunate turn of events, depriving TV viewers of watching all of the top men and women in the same place.
The casual fan might wonder what all the commotion is about -- didn't that fan tune out after the U.S. Open? -- but for the players, this is a crucial time of year. Four spots remain for the men's year-end championship tournament in London, and it would be nice to get the best head-to-head matchups along the way. To separate Murray and Djokovic, in particular, just seems wrong.
Heartbreak in Tokyo
When the top women assemble for a $2 million-plus event, and Nadia Petrova winds up the winner, it means there was plenty of heartbreak along the way. Tokyo revealed the extremes of that category, with a remarkable number of top players straying out of character.
Maria Sharapova lost to a player she generally dominates, Samantha Stosur. Victoria Azarenka had to depart with a bout of dizziness, putting a question mark next to the rest of her year. Petra Kvitova suffered the latest in a series of baffling defeats, to Petra Martic. Hsieh Su-Wei, whose stunning rise to the No. 38 ranking included a victory over Laura Robson in the Guangzhou Open, lost 6-1 in the third to Klara Zakopalova.
There was so much more. Yanina Wickmayer and Andrea Petkovic were one-and-done. Sabine Lisicki lost to a qualifier, Heather Watson (although the British player is definitely on the rise). Ana Ivanovic, whose U.S. Open left great promise for the remainder of the year, lost in the second round to Ursula Radwanska. Angelique Kerber, who become the tournament favorite in some quarters in the wake of so many upsets, took a horrendous 6-1, 6-1 loss to Agnieszka Radwanska. Stosur, after that dramatic conquest of Sharapova, couldn't get past Petrova.
With Serena Williams missing and Vania King departing in the first round, the U.S. hopes were left in the hands of Jamie Lee Hampton, the German-born, Alabama-raised player who pleasantly describes herself as a "mutt" (mother from Korea, father from Arkansas) and has largely flown underneath the radar while training with the USTA development program in Boca Raton, Fla.
Hampton has impressed observers with her touch and variety, and she knocked off Caroline Garcia -- the French teenager who nearly upset Sharapova at the 2011 French Open -- in Tokyo's first round. Then she scored an even more significant win, a three-setter over 24th-seeded Kaia Kanepi, before losing to Agniesza Radwanska in the third round.
A hard decision for Rafa
Rafael Nadal made the smart call on Monday, announcing that he wouldn't be back on the court until December, joining Djokovic, Murray and Ferrer in an exhibition tournament in Dubai. It had to be difficult for him to bypass the Davis Cup final next month against the Czech Republic, but it's now abundantly clear that his injured left knee isn't up to the test.
The Czechs, led by the rocket-blasting Berdych, have chosen a lightning-fast hard court at the 02 Arena in Prague -- and that's the worst possible development for Nadal, who has become so disgusted with hard courts, he actually told reporters that "they are a mistake with our game. I am 100 percent sure it is wrong."
A rather inappropriate statement, to be sure, but Nadal has reached the stage of physical vulnerability, and the way he attacked the game with such fury over the years, everyone saw it coming. This extended layoff will give him time to "answer all the questions" about his health, as he said recently, and perhaps he needn't worry too much about the Davis Cup. With the Spanish leadership in Ferrer's capable hands, a stirring road victory seems well within reason.
Let it go
The ATP Tour made a fascinating decision last month, announcing that no-let serving will be used on an experimental basis at the Challenger level over the first three months of 2013. The idea is to speed up play and create an additional element of drama, but this is a stunning alteration to the game's traditional rules.
"Some of my colleagues think it would speed up play, but hardly," said tennis writer Joel Drucker via e-mail. "The reason I suspect it's being done at certain Challenger events is the same reason there's a no-let rule in college tennis: to eliminate cheating. Just about all college and a great many Challenger events do not have officials. So what happens, too often, is the guy returning will cry 'let!' as he's being crushed by a big serve.
"At the major-league level, I see zero value," Drucker said. "What, it would save 30 seconds per match? Please."
It would seem odd, as well, to introduce this radical change at the majors after more than a century of continuity. Picture this: It's a fifth-set tiebreaker between Djokovic and Murray at the U.S. Open, one of the most dramatic matches anyone can recall. It goes to 14-13, Djokovic with a second serve at match point, the crowd in an uproar before he sets to deliver.
And his serve hits the tape, barely trickling over the net. Match over. Murray couldn't have reached that ball with his racket on a 20-foot pole.
Or, on the flip side, Djokovic is down 13-14, and as his second serve clips the tape, it sits up perfectly for Murray to crush an easy forehand match-winner.
It would certainly be different. But where's the need, the outcry? How often has any top player made a case for no-let serving, in any era? This idea would best be left in the Challenger hinterlands, well out of sight.