Wednesday March 21st, 2012

Roger Federer made the BNP Paribas Open his third title in a row. (Harry How/Getty Images)

The Report Card hands out grades for the best and worst from the week in tennis. This week, we focus on the last two weeks at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif.

Roger Federer: A. Federer had already accepted the fact that maybe this wasn't going to be his tournament when he arrived under the weather. So he stayed focused on the task immediately in front of him and didn't look ahead to any potential showdown with Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic or anyone else. Through his first three matches, Federer looked all kinds of wrong as he misfired badly from both wings, particularly the forehand.  But much like a pilot might do to a sputtering plane, Federer knew exactly which engines to shut down, how to regulate his fuel over the long haul and which weapons to engage while he fought through to the quarterfinals. Once he got there, all systems were go and Federer didn't drop a set in dismissing Juan Martin del Potro, Nadal and John Isner to capture his third straight title and improve to 39-2 since last year's U.S. Open.

Victoria Azarenka: A. I'm beginning to wonder what would have happened if Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka swapped brains. Overall, they have the same tools: above-average movement, good court sense, an average serve and solid groundstrokes. The difference is how they choose to use them. On a medium-paced, slightly short ball, Wozniacki doesn't mind rolling it in at an angle to open up the court in hopes of goading her opponent into an error. On the other hand, Azarenka skips toward the ball and simply puts it away. Being offensive comes naturally to Azarenka and it's something that Wozniacki hasn't convinced herself to do.

John Isner: A. Welcome to the top 10, Johnny. Now to reel in the Big Fish and become the No. 1 American. If Isner's Davis Cup win over Federer didn't convince you, his gutsy performance against Djokovic in the Indian Wells semifinals should have. The forehand-return winner he hit to go up 4-2 in the third-set tiebreaker is everything you need to know about Isner right now: He has the confidence to go for that shot in big moments and the skill to execute it.

Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber: A. Add this pair to the group of streakers. Raymond and Huber have won four consecutive tournaments, a string of 16 victories in a row, and are making a very good case for being selected as the No. 1 doubles team to represent the United States at the London Olympics.

Rafael Nadal: B. Good progress from Rafa in his first tournament since the Australian Open; he didn't drop a set until the quarterfinals against David Nalbandian. But he looked vulnerable against an in-form Nalbandian, and it was surprising to see him fail to handle the elements in his chilly, wind-tunnel semifinal against Federer. Nadal said he realized too late that he needed to be aggressive in those conditions, as opposed to retrieving behind the baseline. If it was an issue of tactics, then there's little to be worried about. But Nadal was missing a good number of forehands and backhands that led me to think there's more rust in the system than he might let on.

Andy Murray took an unexpected early exit in Indian Wells. (EPA)

Andy Murray: D. Granted, No. 92 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez played very well in stunning Murray 6-4, 6-2 in the second round. But Murray's bafflement in his post-match news conference said it all. He has no idea where that came from or why he couldn't elevate his game to meet Garcia-Lopez's intensity. "I am going to have to go away and think about what happened," Murray said. This was a huge opportunity for Murray to pick up some points (he lost in the same round last year) and take some pressure off himself as he approaches the clay swing.

Maria Sharapova: B. Sharapova took advantage of a relatively easy draw to make the final, and she looked her sharpest in the high-quality first set of her semifinal against Ana Ivanovic. But against Azarenka in the final, a frustrated Sharapova was caught between not wanting to take unnecessary risks and realizing she had to be the aggressor to win points. The result was an Azarenka rout and further proof that Sharapova simply doesn't bother Vika on hard courts. She hasn't come close to beating her in their last four meetings on the surface.

Novak Djokovic: B-plus. His loss to Isner in the semifinals could have easily gone his way, so it shouldn't put too much of a taint on his tournament. That said, with semifinal losses to Murray and Isner already in 2012, it's clear now that Djokovic doesn't have the air of invincibility he had around this time last year. He's still playing great, but that edge isn't as sharp as it once was.

Ana Ivanovic: B-plus. Ivanovic's partnership with Nigel Sears is paying dividends and she's beginning to look a lot like her 2008 self. Except for one significant difference: 2012 Ana is significantly weaker than 2008 Ana, and that's a problem. Ivanovic is noticeably skinny these days, and while she insists that it's good for her movement, it's hard to ignore the fact that her body keeps breaking down, like it did against Sharapova in the semifinal. Ivanovic needs to get stronger.

Sabine Lisicki: C-minus. Lisicki tearfully insisted that she was healthy after her surprising 6-1, 6-4 loss to Lourdes Dominguez-Lino in the second round. But she's another player who has a tremendous opportunity to pick up points right now and she's simply not playing well.

Juan Martin del Potro: B-minus. And here I thought the Argentine would finally break through against Federer, having gotten progressively closer to the Swiss in their three meetings this year. But after a bad missed call from umpire Mohamed Lahyani in the first game of the quarterfinal, Del Potro just couldn't get himself back into it.

Christina McHale knocked off No. 3 Petra Kvitova in the third round and held match points before losing to Angelique Kerber in the fourth. (Reuters)

Christina McHale: B-plus. McHale isn't the most talkative player I've ever been around (journalists feel like they've earned their keep if they can get more than four sentences from the 19-year-old at her press conferences), but she's quietly building a reputation as a steely fighter. She could have blinked when Petra Kvitova worked her way back from 1-4 to 3-4 in the third set of their third-round clash, but McHale beat back the Czech with some great defense. The American wasn't able to back it up in her next match, squandering three match points against Angelique Kerber. But as a work in progress, she keeps improving. That's all you want to see from the young ones.

Petra Kvitova: C-plus. The "C-plus" might seem generous, but let's remember what it's supposed to represent: average. Kvitova's getting no further than the second round at Indian Wells? Check her results. That really is her average. If Rafa has a Novak problem, and Maria has a Vika problem, Petra has an American hard-courts problem.

Li Na: B-minus.  Kerber's lefty spin and surprising defense caught the 2011 French Open champion off guard, resulting in a quarterfinal loss. Too bad, because Li has played well this year and a semifinal duel with Azarenka could have been very interesting.

Michael Llodra: F. Duh.

Pablo Andujar: B. If there is one thing I learned during the first week at Indian Wells, it's that people are starting to pay attention to the 26-year-old Spaniard. Let's just say he's easy on the eyes. And if he keeps making the third and fourth rounds of big events like Indian Wells, I'm guessing that fan base will continue to grow. Andujar bounced back after getting bageled by Djokovic to actually take a set from the world No. 1 in the fourth round.

Kei Nishikori: C-minus. After making the Australian Open quarterfinals and cracking the top 20, Nishikori has been a bit of a disappointment. He's gone 4-4 since then, including a 7-5, 6-2 loss to No. 58 Santiago Giraldo in his first match at Indian Wells.

Matthew Ebden: B.  The 24-year-old Aussie, whose build and backward cap are awfully reminiscent of Lleyton Hewitt, made it through qualifying and beat Julien Benneteau and Mardy Fish on his way to the fourth round. Good run from Ebden -- much better than that of his flashier countryman, Bernard Tomic, who lost in the first round to Gilles Muller, getting a bagel in the third set.

Mardy Fish: D. Still no back-to-back wins this year for Fish, whose post-loss press conference resembled a therapy session. He's completely lacking in confidence and his play reflects that. There's no clear game plan or conviction at the moment, meaning Fish is looking pretty average. Can he turn it around?

David Nalbandian: B-plus. Nalbandian, known to carry a little extra weight, has noticeably slimmed down and it shows in his match fitness. The prickly but oh-so-talented Argentine made good use of his Indian Wells wild card, winning consecutive three-set matches against Marin Cilic, Janko Tipsarevic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to make the quarterfinals before losing to Nadal in three. He played beautiful tennis against Nadal for two sets, hitting his backhand with such ease and elegance. The game looks so easy when Nalbandian is playing well, and it's just a shame that the 30-year-old hasn't been able to play it well consistently.

Jamie Hampton: B-plus. It's hard to tell if the 22-year-old American is overachieving or not when she puts together back-to-back wins over Jelena Jankovic and Jarmila Gajdosova and battles back to take a set from Agnieszka Radwanska in the fourth round before retiring because of cramping. But her game reminds me so much of a smoother Andrea Petkovic, and if she can keep this up, she's easily a top 50 player. (Hampton moved up from 99th to 85th this week.) Agnieszka Radwanska: D. You can't run your mouth like that and then get crushed 6-0, 6-2. That was uncomfortable to watch.

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