Report Card: Nishikori shows his mettle
Kei Nishikori upset Novak Djokovic before losing to Roger Federer in the Basel final. (EPA)
The Report Card hands out grades for the best and worst from the week in tennis.
Kei Nishikori: A. How many times this year have we seen opponents crumble when Novak Djokovic appears to be on a roll? Another such situation appeared at hand in the Swiss Indoors semifinals, where Djokovic had taken the first set against Nishikori 6-2 and looked to be on his way to a much-anticipated clash with Roger Federer in the final.
But, unlike many who have come before him, Nishikori refused to fold, even when he was two points from losing the match. Trailing 4-5, 0-30 on his serve, Nishikori buckled down to play a grueling point that he won at the net; he eventually held to pull even at 5-5. And in the second-set tiebreak, Nishikori was down a mini-break and still fought back to win and force a third set, which he swept 6-0.
Sure, Djokovic may have mentally checked out in that third set, understandably choosing to manage his shoulder injury. But Nishikori's composure and willingness to battle to even get there was what won him the match. He became the first Japanese man to beat a reigning No. 1 and joined Federer as the only players to defeat Djokovic in a fully contested match this year (the Serb's other two losses came from retirements).
Nishikori couldn't back it up in Sunday's final, losing to his idol Federer 6-1, 6-3. But he's had an impressive fall run in climbing to a career-high No. 24. Now that he's injury-free, the 21-year-old has shown that he's a young talent with a lot of upside.
Roger Federer: B-plus. Sometimes you just have to go home to find your mojo. Federer didn't face much competition on his way to his fifth title in his hometown of Basel, but he shook off any rust from being out of competition for a month and a half, and played better and better as the week progressed. And lest we think winning another title (his 68th) would be old hat, let it be known that he shed some tears after Sunday's victory. As we all know by now, it's not a significant Federer moment unless tears are shed.
Czech Fed Cup team: A. The Czech Republic won its first Fed Cup as an independent nation and its first since 1988, when it competed as Czechoslovakia. Petra Kvitova won both her singles matches to finish her year 6-0 in Fed Cup and 21-0 on indoor/hardcourts. With Lucie Safarova unable to secure either of her singles rubbers, the doubles match proved decisive. Wimbledon champion Kveta Peschke teamed with Lucie Hradecka to knock off Maria Kirilenko and Elena Vesnina 6-4, 6-2. Peschke announced her retirement from Fed Cup afterward. Not a bad way to go out.
Ana Ivanovic: B-plus. Ivanovic didn't even qualify for the WTA Tournament of Champions in Bali, a season-ending event reserved for the top-eight players who have won an International title this year. Ivanovic hadn't even made a final, let alone won a tournament, but she was granted a wild card, presumably because she was the defending champion (and because her face looks nice on brochures).
Lo and behold, Ana Ivanovic is title-less no more. She cruised without dropping a set or even being challenged in three matches, dismantling Anabel Medina Garrigues in the final 6-3, 6-0. Ivanovic, who also celebrated her 24th birthday on Sunday, will finish the year at No. 22 and head into 2012 with some confidence. It seems her partnership with coach Nigel Sears is slowly paying off.
Andy Murray: D. It was already odd to see Murray decide to add a tournament to his schedule, given his complaints about the length of the season. But Murray's last-minute decision to play Basel resulted in more collateral damage than just a gluteal muscle strain. In order to accommodate his request, the tournament had to withdraw a wild card promised to Swiss No. 3 Marco Chuidinelli. So I'm sure Chuidinelli was ecstatic to get the call to suit up and take the court immediately to play a first-round match after Murray pulled out with a freak injury. Chuidinelli lost to Robin Haase.
Marcel Granollers: A. The Spaniard upended four top-20 players -- Alexandr Dolgopolov, Marin Cilic, Monfils and del Potro -- on his way to the Valencia final, where he overcame Juan Monaco 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 (3) in more than three hours. It's always great to win a title, but it's even sweeter when you can do it on home soil in front of your family and friends. ATP: D-plus. With the WTA wrapped up for the year and the players jet-setting across the globe for some offseason R&R, the men are still competing for another month. I love tennis as much as anyone, but how can I miss you if you won't go away? Thankfully, the ATP will finish two weeks earlier in 2012. These guys deserve a break.