Report Card: Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka cruise to titles
Roger Federer won his first title of the year, beatin Juan Martin del Potro for the Rotterdam title. (Peter Dejong/AP)
The Champions: A-minus. It's hard to argue with what last week's top tournament winners did, coming in as the favorites and walking away with trophies in one hand and, if you're Milos Raonic, a bottle of maple syrup in the other. So let's break down the week's biggest winners, starting with the one and only Maestro:
Roger Federer: We've talked a lot about Petra Kvitova's indoor hard-court prowess (she's on a 26-0 run), but how about Roger Federer's? He's won the last five indoor events he's entered, dating to the World Tour Finals in November 2010. That's 24 straight ATP wins for Federer (not including Davis Cup or a walkover in Rotterdam), who defeated Juan Martin del Potro 6-1, 6-4 in the Rotterdam final for his first title of the season.
"It's nice to pick up the momentum after the indoor season I had last year," Federer said.
It wasn't a week without speed bumps, though. Nikolay Davydenko looked to have Federer on the ropes in the semifinals, outplaying Federer to build a 6-4, 3-1 lead before choking himself out of the second set. Federer looked all out of sorts during that match, misfiring on his forehand with surprising regularity. But he was still able to put just enough pressure on the Russian to get him to blink. Buoyed by the win, he rolled over Del Potro, who still hasn't been able to get a set off Federer since he's returned from wrist surgery.
"He played much better than me," Del Potro said after losing in just one hour and 26 minutes. "I didn't take the break points when I had them. It's really difficult to beat Federer if you have the chances and don't take them. He was more confident and concentrated than me in the important moments and I think that was the key."
Victoria Azarenka: In her first tournament as No. 1, Azarenka passed with flying colors. She didn't drop a set all week and trounced Samantha Stosur 6-1, 6-2 in a windy final in Doha. She improved to 17-0 on the year with three titles and four dropped sets.
Since a three-set victory against Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open semifinals, Azarenka has been untouchable, decisively winning matches against quality opponents. Sure, the players she beat have been her pigeons as of late (she's 3-0 against Agnieszka Radwanska in 2012 and 6-0 against Stosur for her career), but when you're trying to establish yourself as a dominant No. 1, isn't everyone supposed to be your pigeon?
Azarenka still hasn't faced three key players during her 2012 run: Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki. She won't have a shot at Williams until Miami, nor Kvitova until Indian Wells, but she could see her friend Wozniacki this week in the Dubai semis.
Milos Raonic: The 6-foot-5 Canadian turned in a dominant weekend performance. He successfully defended a title for the first time in his career with a 7-6 (3), 6-2 win over Denis Istomin in the finals of the SAP Open in San Jose, Calif. Raonic didn't lose a set all week (in fact, he's never dropped a set in two appearances in San Jose), was broken just once and allowed only four points on his serve in the final.
Raonic, 11-1 this season, became the first man to win two titles in 2012 (he won Chennai in January without being broken in 48 service games). Granted, he didn't need to beat anyone ranked higher than No. 35 in San Jose, but the 21-year-old took the title in such convincing fashion that you hardly noticed.
"I feel like I’m a much better tennis player than I was last year," Raonic said after Sunday's match. "I feel last year I was sort of playing probably higher than my potential. This year, I felt like I came in a much better player."
Nicolas Almagro: For those of you, like me, who do a double-take when perusing the ATP rankings and seeing Almagro closing in on the top 10, this is an important three-week swing. Last year, Almagro almost ran the table on three straight early-season clay-court tournaments, winning the Brazil Open and Buenos Aires and reaching the final in Acapulco. Now he's working to defend those points. Well, one down, two to go for Almagro, who defended his title in Sao Paulo with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win over Filippo Volandri. Next up, defending Buenos Aires.
The Runners-Up: B-plus. They fell short in the end (well short, if we're being honest), but there are a lot of positives for last week's tiny plate-holders. Del Potro notched an emphatic 6-3, 6-1 win over Tomas Berdych in the Rotterdam semis, which seemed to show that he's well on his way to re-entering the top eight as a permanent member of the ATP elite.
Similarly, Stosur rebounded from a disappointing January, headlined by a first-round exit from Melbourne, to march to her first final since the U.S. Open. In both cases, Stosur and Del Potro were reminded in the finals that the gulf between them and the best in the game is still a wide one. Stosur is now 3-11 in finals, a shocking statistic for a woman who has a Grand Slam title to her name.
And huge kudos to surprise San Jose finalist Istomin. He flew to San Jose from New Zealand, where he represented Uzbekistan in Davis Cup, and beat Sam Querrey, Michael Russell, Andy Roddick and Julien Benneteau to reach his second career final.
Nikolay Davydenko: B-minus. If we're grading on a curve, a B-minus is the equivalent of an A for Davydenko given his form over the last two years. He looked like his former top-five self for a set and a half against Federer, moving well and consistently taking the ball early to put pressure on the Swiss.
Del Potro famously said that playing Davydenko when he's at his best is like playing against a PlayStation, with the Russian's ability to get the ball back with consistent depth and pace. But if "PlayStation" is Davydenko at his best, "Xbox" is Davydenko at his worst. Just like the powerful but glitchy gaming system, Davydenko's propensity to freeze and power down in the most crucial moments came back to bite him eventually.
Junior Rivalries: B. When junior rivals meet on the pro Tour, it's hard not to wonder how much the emotional baggage affects the outcome. The rivalry between Raonic and Ryan Harrison will surely play out for years to come and it will be a premier one down the road as the guys mature and the old guard phases out. Raonic's big serve and forehand versus Harrison's athleticism harks back to the days of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi (though Harrison has a way to go to get his return game to that level). Harrison came out on top last year at Indian Wells in a feisty three-set match that felt like a juniors match brought out to the big stage, with their frustrations and desires to win boiling over. Move ahead one year and both have matured enough to treat their semifinal showdown in San Jose as just another match. That's a good thing going forward.
On the other side of the coin are Azarenka and Radwanska. They've enjoyed a fierce rivalry on the WTA Tour, having now played a whopping 11 times in their still-young careers. Azarenka owns the head-to-head 8-3, with three straight wins already in 2012. Radwanska's frustration was on display in their semifinal match in Doha, where Azarenka tweaked her right ankle early in the second set but played on. Radwanska seemed unimpressed with her friend's demonstrative and, some might argue, over-the top histrionics as the Belarusian seemed to struggle to play through the injury. After Azarenka won the match in straight sets, Radwanska gave her the coldest handshake I've seen in quite some time. BFFs no more, I say. Ankles: D. Roddick, Azarenka and Williams all suffered ankle injuries during the week, with Serena being forced to withdraw from the Monterrey Open in Mexico. I know ankle braces can be cumbersome, as can heavy tape jobs, but what's a little bit of discomfort when the alternative is rolling an ankle that can take you out of a tournament and leave you rehabbing through the season?