Report Card: Kei Nishikori makes history in Japan
The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. Last week saw Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka win titles at the China Open and Kei Nishikori break through in Tokyo.
Kei Nishikori: A-plus. Special Kei, indeed. The 22-year-old was an absolute buzzsaw last week in becoming the first Japanese man to win the Tokyo title, dismissing No. 2 seed Tomas Berdych 7-5, 6-4 in the quarterfinals, Marcos Baghdatis 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinals and No. 6 seed Milos Raonic 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-0 in the final. The final itself was something to watch, as Nishikori and the 21-year-old Raonic, the two youngest men in the top 20, clashed for the first time in the youngest ATP final of the season. Raonic, coming off a strong 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4) win over Andy Murray in the semis, had been broken only once entering the final. But Nishikori broke the Canadian four times to capture his first title in more than four years. We can only hope the impressive display of shotmaking is a sign of things to come. Nishikori was able to beat two of the biggest hitters in the game in Berdych and Raonic, putting on quite a show in front of the home crowd.
Novak Djokovic: A. The Serb resumed his quest to reclaim the No. 1 ranking with a workmanlike defense of his Beijing title. He dropped just one set on his way to the title and beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 (4), 6-2 in the final. The win, worth 500 points, goes a long way toward helping him regain the No. 1 ranking, putting pressure on Roger Federer over the next few weeks to defend his heap of points from the post-U.S. Open tear last season.
Victoria Azarenka: A. Vika didn't drop a set on her way to her first title since Indian Wells in March, making her the first woman to win two Premier Mandatory titles in the same season since the events were put into place in 2009. But perhaps more important for her was that she absolutely dominated Maria Sharpova in the final, notching her sixth straight hard-court win over the Russian, 6-3, 6-1. It was an impressive statement after Sharapova made headway at the U.S. Open, pushing Azarenka deep into a third set. This "rivalry" is shaping up to look a whole lot like Sharapova's matchup against Serena Williams, a player she hasn't beaten since 2004.
Milos Raonic: B-plus. A Tokyo title would have put Raonic at No. 10 in the Race to London. Yet despite a high-quality match against Murray, Raonic was clearly second-best in the final, surrendering a bagel in the third set to Nishikori. With that, the book on Raonic doesn't change. There's so much to like about the Canadian's game and he's clearly capable of the upset. But he has yet to put it all together. The waiting game continues.
Mike and Bob Bryan: A. Their third Beijing title in four years was also Mike's record 84th career doubles title, one more than Todd Woodbridge and two more than Bob. The brothers didn't have a drop set while improving to 59-9 with seven titles this year.
Maria Sharapova: C-plus. The truth is she had no business being in the Beijing final, her eighth of the year. Her tennis was generally sketchy over the last two weeks. It was her fight and resiliency that got her past Li Na in the semifinals, battling back from a break down in the first to oust the local favorite 6-4, 6-0 in a battle of the past two French Open champions. Sharapova's fight helped her keep the final as close as it (sort of) was, but Azarenka's tenancy in Sharapova's head was abundantly clear. This is a pure matchup issue. Sharapova finds it difficult to hit through Azarenka due to her movement, and the No. 1 has a tremendous ability to absorb Sharapova's power and redirect it deep. That ability puts so much pressure on Sharapova to go for broke, a tactic she has yet to execute successfully on faster surfaces.
Andy Murray: B-minus. To be fair, it was a solid performance by Raonic that ended Murray's run in Tokyo, with the Scot losing 7-4 in the final-set tiebreaker. But we expect more from our Grand Slam-winning Big Four. Federer hasn't lost to a player ranked outside the top 10 since Halle (Tommy Haas) and Djokovic hasn't since Indian Wells (John Isner). Murray knows the importance of doing well at the smaller events. Time will tell if this result is a speed bump or a pattern.
Li Na: B. What looked like the homecoming she needed turned into a nightmare in the semifinals when Li, who outplayed Sharapova for most of the first set, somehow let it get away from her, losing 6-4, 6-0. The manner of the loss, a study in Li's ability to play superb tennis only to allow her frustration to take over, put a damper on what was a fine week. No one on either the men's or women's tour is under more scrutiny than the 2011 French Open champion, who plays for a country that is still learning how to walk in terms of its tennis knowledge. Li had a banner week, defeating Tokyo champion Nadia Petrova and countrywoman Peng Shuai and crushing Agnieszka Radwanska 6-4, 6-2. Li also qualified for the year-end championship in Istanbul.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: B. Hard to fault the guy for making the finals of Beijing. But then again, having a good run then coming up short against a player ranked ahead of him is par for the course when it comes to our expectations of Jo.
Zhang Ze: A. Capping off a huge week for Asian players, Zhang became the first Chinese male to beat a top 20 player, upsetting No. 16 Richard Gasquet in the second round of the China Open. Zhang jumped to a career-high No. 154 after a quarterfinal loss to Florian Mayer.
Richard Gasquet: D. Wins Bangkok one week and then loses to No. 165 Zhang the next. That's Gasquet for you.
Dmitry Tursunov: B. Huge credit to Tursunov for making the quarterfinals of Tokyo by playing through qualifying and then beating Bernard Tomic and Ito Tatsuma in the main draw. The 29-year-old Russian has spent much of the year toiling away in the ATP Challenger circuit, and this was great validation that the hard and unglamorous work was worth it. He climbed from 117th to 95th.
The Fed Cuppers: D-plus. Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic finished the Asian swing winning a combined five completed matches. The good news? Their Czech opponents for next month's Fed Cup final, Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova, won a combined two.
Sam Stosur: C-minus. The Aussie's chances to snag the No. 8 spot at the WTA Championships were doused when she lost to Julia Goerges in the second round of Beijing. She'll still head to Istanbul as an alternate.
Angelique Kerber: F. Having shown no signs of injury throughout the match, Kerber was down 0-6, 0-3 to Sharapova in the quarterfinals when she called the trainer and abruptly retired. Unless you suffer an acute injury that renders you immobile, you don't retire at 0-6, 0-3. Stand there for three games and take your beating. Disappointing effort.
Laura Robson and Genie Bouchard: A. Robson is seeded for the first time in Osaka and Bouchard
made it through qualifying lost in the last round of qualifying. Whatever. Did you see this video the childhood buddies put together to kill time last week? Phenomenal.