Aces and Faults: Sharapova, Djokovic prevail; Murray's hilarious expressions
Aces and Faults recaps the week in tennis. Last week, Maria Sharapova won in Beijing, Kei Nishikori won in Japan and was rewarded with soup and Andy Murray's facial expressions made for a hilarious Vine.
Maria Sharapova: The Russian is back up to No. 2 after winning her fourth title of the season in Beijing. It had been 19 months since she won a hard court title, and before last week, all of her titles since winning Indian Wells last year had come on clay. She ended that drought emphatically with her fifth straight win over Petra Kvitova to capture her first China Open title. She was the fitter and smarter player in the final and her return statistics throughout the week were outstanding, as she notched 90% of her returns in play in the third set. This was the confidence-boosting run she needed before finishing her season at the WTA Finals, where she'll be the No. 2 seed.
A solid week for Maria in China:
Novak Djokovic: The No. 1 was a point away from potentially making history. He had match point on his own serve at 6-0, 5-0 against Tomas Berdych in the final and ended up getting broken to give up what may have been the first double-bagel in an ATP final. He would go on to win 6-0, 6-2 in one of the most emphatic ATP finals we've seen in a long time. "This has been, under the circumstances, probably the best performance in all finals in my career I played," Djokovic said. "It was incredible." The title was Djokovic's fifth at the China Open and extended his unbeaten streak to 24-0 at the tournament. After the beatdown, Berdych said, "I probably played maybe over, what, 600 matches in my career, and I met guys like Andre [Agassi], Roger [Federer], all those probably in their best times. But I have never, ever experienced anything like that."
Kei Nishikori: After his incredible run to the U.S. Open final, it was great to see Nishikori get a hero's welcome when he returned to compete at the Japan Open. He is undoubtedly physically and mentally fatigued from the last five weeks but he was once again triumphant, beating Milos Raonic for the fourth time in five meetings 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4 in the final. He rises to a career-high No. 6 and has put himself in very good position to become the first Asian to qualify for the singles championship at the ATP World Tour Finals. It's good to be Kei.
Rafael Nadal: The Spaniard returned with mixed results but the point is that he returned. Playing his first tournament since Wimbledon, Nadal looked solid through his first two rounds before things got complicated...
Martin Klizan: The Slovakian went big early and quickly got into Nadal's head as he blasted ball after ball deep and into the corners. Klizan lost the first set in a tiebreaker but he pressed on and came back from a break down in the next two sets to score the biggest win of his career. To add another layer to the myth, Klizan was actually down a set and 1-5 in the first round of qualifying to a Chinese wildcard ranked No. 926. He saved three match points won the match, qualified, and went on to play Nadal.
Petra Kvitova: After winning the Wuhan Open and then fighting hard in the semifinals to make her second straight final, Kvitova was bound to run out of gas. She couldn't sustain her level through a tough three set final against Sharapova. But Kvitova leaves China full of confidence. If she takes the next two weeks off and arrives in Singapore healthy, it will be hard to bet against her there. She's the Queen of Indoors. Oh, and her tearful speech at Li Na's retirement ceremony was a well done.
Sam Stosur: She's still erratic, but the Aussie has quietly been playing some much-improved tennis over the last two months. Her 6-4, 7-6 (9) win over Caroline Woniacki in the second round might have been her best win of the season with how well she was striking the ball and hitting her backhand. And she definitely had her chances against a tired Kvitova in the semifinals, where she lost 6-3, 5-7, 6-2.
Tomas Berdych: Yes, he was completely demolished in the final. But it was a very good week for Berdych, who quietly mowed down the field in Beijing. He lost just 20 games in four matches before the final, beating Feliciano Lopez, Victor Troicki, John Isner and Klizan.
Marin Cilic: Every first-time Slam champion is entitled to a honeymoon and Cilic's straight-set loss to Andy Murray in the China Open quarterfinals is nothing to panic about. The same can be said about his three-set loss to Ivo Karlovic in the first round of the Shanghai Rolex Masters on Monday. Sponsored by a Chinese clothing company, Li Ning, Cilic has had his fair share of off-court activities while in China.
Stan Wawrinka: The No. 4 lost in straight sets to Japanese qualifier Tatsuma Ito, ranked No. 103, in the first round in Tokyo.
Agnieszka Radwanska: Who is in more of a rut: Radwanska or David Ferrer? She's now down to No. 7 after taking a second round loss to Roberta Vinci in Beijing. She's 6-5 since winning the Rogers Cup in Montreal.
Richard Gasquet: The Frenchman had the bad luck of drawing Nadal in the first round and lost 6-4, 6-0. If you want to see what it looks like for a player to play with zero belief, rewatch the second set.
Photo of the week
Vine of the week
(h/t Arjun Jethwa)
In case you missed it
• Venus Williams could be done for the season. She withdrew from the China Open with a viral illness and is not entered in any more tournaments for the rest of the season. Though she won the Premier-level Dubai Championships and she's not qualified for the WTA's Tournament of Champions in Sofia, Bulgaria, but I wouldn't be surprised if they offer her a wildcard.
• How should players handle mid-tournament injury withdrawals? That was the subject of debate last week after Simona Halep battled to a tough three-set win over Andrea Petkovic in the third round only to withdraw from the tournament due to injury within hours after the match. Later that night Serena Williams fought through a knee problem to beat Lucie Safarova in three sets, skipped out on her press conference and then announced her withdrawal a few hours before her quarterfinal match the next day. Halep was criticized. Serena was not. What's the difference?
It all comes down to optics and the business side of tennis. There's nothing wrong with how Halep handled her situation. If anything, she was just too honest, too soon. Pulling out of a tournament right after you win a match looks bad. And it doesn't exactly encourage much positive sentiment from your colleagues in the locker room, especially when this was the second time this year Halep has immediately withdrawn after a three-set win. If Halep had waited 24 hours like Serena no one would have batted an eye. Give the tournament a head's up that you might have to withdraw and they can plan the match schedule accordingly. That's done all the time.
On the flip side, Halep did right by the fans. Withhold withdrawal news for even a few hours and you mislead fans into buying tickets to see a match that isn't going to happen. That's one reason why tournament withdrawals usually aren't announced until right before the tournament, so the events can continue to use the player for marketing purposes and ticket sales.
• The upside of having the WTA Finals field set so early is that players can (hopefully) rest up and arrive in Singapore fit and ready to compete. The downside is the final two weeks of the WTA regular season feel incredibly irrelevant.
• If you haven't read it yet, I can't recommend this SI roundtable with three prominent Chinese tennis reporters enough. It gives you a glimpse into the highs and lows of Chinese tennis, both on and off the court.
• In the same week Li Na held her retirement ceremony in Beijing, Kei Nishikori got a warm homecoming in Tokyo and walked away with his second title in two weeks and a career-high No. 6 ranking. No one can replace Li's impact in Asia, but there has to be some quiet fist-pumping in the ATP corporate offices as Nishikori keeps winning. He's critical for their success and growth in Asia.
• Djokovic-Murray matches are compelling. But are they entertaining?
• Have to tip my cap off to the passionate Chinese fans. Nearly every top player has their dedicated small tribe of fans, who come bearing flags, banners, signs, t-shirts and the works. The players genuinely appreciate it.