Monday October 17th, 2011

Andy Murray moved up to No. 3 in the rankings after his title at the Shanghai Masters. (Zumapress)

The Report Card hands out grades for the best and worst from the week in tennis.

Andy Murray: A. The Scot's performance in Shanghai was quintessentially Murray: He didn't play his best but he played well enough to win, beating David Ferrer 7-5, 6-4 in the final to collect his third tournament title in three weeks on the Asian swing and improve to 25-1 since mid-August. Murray admitted to being nervous throughout the week, feeling the pressure to extend his post-U.S. Open winning streak, and it showed in his play. But he was able to serve big at key times and he moved remarkably well for a man who's been competing all month.

More than racking up another title and his eighth career Masters shield, the news of the weekend was his overtaking Roger Federer to become No. 3 in the rankings. And the conversation quickly turned to wondering what this means in the broader tennis narrative. Often considered (if he's lucky) the Ringo to the Big Three's John, Paul and George, Murray has never been able to put these types of performances together for a seven-match, two-week run at the Grand Slams, and until he does he'll always be the odd man out, one notch below the true elite.

But perhaps what's more important is what the achievement means for Murray himself. Murray's career has never been defined by breakthrough performances but more a steady and gradual climb toward improvement. For all the talk of his questionable year, in which he virtually disappeared after his sorry outing against Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final and suffered repeated losses to Rafael Nadal at the remaining three majors, Murray now has empirical evidence that he's had a better 2011 than Federer. Barring an epic collapse next month at the Paris Masters or the World Tour Finals in London, Murray should finish the year at No. 3 and that is no small feat.

Sure, he won the three titles in three weeks against a depleted field with Djokovic and Federer sidelined and Nadal out of sorts. If one were feeling particularly cruel, asterisks could be placed on Murray's accomplishments. But as Djokovic has proved this year, the simplest of wins can be a springboard to greatness. Who knew that the Serb's Davis Cup victory last December would propel him to such heights in 2011? It's too early to expect as much from Murray (this could all be a blip if he gets doused by the Big Three in London in a month), but you never know. Andy Murray is a confidence player and he's returning to Europe with loads of it.

Snapping slumpers: B-plus. Take that, you slump talkers (read: me)! Petra Kvitova finally notched her first post-Wimbledon title, in Linz, defeating Dominika Cibulkova 6-4, 6-1 in the final. Kvitova's victory came on the heels of a disappointing Asian swing in which she squandered a 5-1 first-set lead in a 7-6 (2), 6-0 loss to Vera Zvonareva in the Tokyo semifinals and dropped her first match in Beijing the following week.

While the Linz final was routine, it was Kvitova's hard-fought semifinal win over Jelena Jankovic that truly made you believe she had rediscovered her game and her desire. Jankovic's subpar 2011 belies her ability to throw the WTA's big hitters into fits (see her run to the Cincinnati final). Sure enough, Jankovic brought her A-game, using her movement to make the Czech hit extra ball after extra ball and employing her groundstrokes to yank Kvitova around the court. But when things got tight, Kvitova was still willing and able to step into her shots and blast away. The only difference is that this time the balls were landing in.

Kvitova is streaky and there's no telling whether the form will hold up through the WTA Championships in Istanbul next week. A good appearance there could solidify her Player of the Year candidacy, which features five titles (including at least one on all four surfaces -- indoor, clay, grass, hardcourt). She's only 400 points from catching Maria Sharapova for the year-end No. 2 ranking.

While Kvitova snapped her slump in Austria, Sam Stosur was one match away in Japan from taking her first title since winning her first major. The U.S. Open champion had a dicey start to her Osaka campaign, needing three sets to dispatch qualifier Noppawan Lertcheewakarn, but she ended up reaching her first final since New York. Rain forced the semifinals and final to be played on the same day, and Stosur lost easily to Marion Bartoli in the final 6-3, 6-1. We'll see if the run gives the Aussie some confidence in Istanbul.

Marion Bartoli: A. You have to give her credit: Just when you think she's out of it, she somehow finds a way to become relevant again. Bartoli entered the week needing back-to-back titles in Osaka and Moscow to have any hope of qualifying for Istanbul. Well, she's still alive. She didn't drop a set in Japan, where the Frenchwoman had to win the semifinal and final in one day, just as she did in her other title this year, at Eastbourne in June.

Agnieszka Radwanska has to win only one match in Moscow this week to secure the eighth and final spot in Istanbul. If that happens, Bartoli would be eligible as an alternate. With her herky-jerky two-handed game that, when on, can make the top players look futile, no one in the Championships field would want to see Bartoli across the net.

David Ferrer: B-minus. You have to feel for Ferrer. He's now 0-3 in Masters finals, and you can't shake the feeling that the hard-grinding Spaniard deserves one. This was his best opportunity (his other two chances were against Nadal on clay), playing a nervous Murray in the final, and for most of the first set he looked up to the task. But as jittery as Murray may have been, Ferrer was worse, missing overheads left and right and seemingly being unable to get a first serve into the court when it mattered.

It all came to a head at 5-5 in the first set. Ferrer played a horrible service game filled with tight forehands that found the net. He eventually double-faulted the break to Murray, who then served out the set. It was a disappointing way to end a strong week for Ferrer, but the good news is that he clinched his spot for London. China crowds: F. As I learned in college, you can't pass a class if you refuse to show up. So I'm not saying the Chinese crowd was bad; I'm just saying it was nonexistent. For all the recent talk about the growth of tennis in Asia (whether actual or potential), you would be excused if you thought it was all a lie given the pathetic attendance in Beijing and Shanghai. Here's a tip, China organizers: If the Chinese government can recruit seat fillers at the Olympics, surely your sponsors have enough spare cash to hire a few thousand.

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