Report Card: Rafael Nadal's return at VTR Open offers room for improvement
The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. Last week, it was all about Rafael Nadal's comeback at the VTR Open, though the women drummed up some dramatics in the Fed Cup.
Rafael Nadal: B-plus. Was Nadal rusty in his return to the court in Chile? Absolutely. Was his play a serious cause for concern? Absolutely not. The most important result of the week was that Nadal completed his matches, didn't have to call a trainer and, on the whole, did not seem overly cautious or hesitant with his left knee. As Rafa emphasized all week, winning the title was secondary to the diagnostics.
“A week ago we didn't know how the body would respond,” he said. “[Now] at least I know we can compete at a certain level. I think that was a positive week. … I will try to keep improving my physical sensations day by day, which is the most important thing because I don't feel that my tennis level is bad. I need more time on court."
The idea that Nadal needs time to get back into match mode was clear. After cruising through four relatively straightforward matches, Nadal ran into Horacio Zeballos. The 27-year-old Argentine was riding high on confidence after beating three seeds to make the final, running his tally to 14 consecutive wins on clay (including ATP Challengers) in the process. Zeballos went for broke in gunning for the lines, and, more often than not, he made his shots. It was "Rosol on Clay" if you were so inclined, and Zeballos exploited Nadal's rusty movement and lack of confidence by stepping in on anything left short.
It will take some time before Nadal gets the measure of his forehand in match shape (his depth was woeful throughout the week), and he'll need some more play to regain his split-second decision-making clarity. There were too many drop shots left unchallenged by Nadal, which could have been more mental than physical. Just give him some time.
Horacio Zeballos: A-plus. Congratulations, Horacio. You are now the answer to at least five pub trivia questions. With his 6-7 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-4 win over Nadal in the VTR Open final, Zeballos became only the third man to beat Nadal in a clay-court final (Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are the other two); the first Argentine to beat Nadal on clay since 2005 (Gaston Gaudio); the first man outside the top 50 to beat Nadal on clay since 2004 (Olivier Mutis); the first lefty to beat Nadal on red clay; and one of only three men to beat Nadal on clay after losing the first set. All that to win his first career ATP title.
"I tried to aim at all the lines and make all of them," he said afterward. "I also think I was a little lucky."
All the focus will be on Nadal today, but let's not allow Zeballos' effort to go overlooked. He played a tremendous match. Nadal didn't give it to him. He took it.
Richard Gasquet: A. If you had Gasquet's name in the "First Player to Win Two Titles in 2013" pool, then congratulations, you're a winner. It was another solid week for Gasquet, who beat Benoit Paire 6-2, 6-3 in front of his friends and family to win the title in Montpellier, France. Gasquet is making mid-level title runs look routine. That's new for him.
Marin Cilic: A. Who says home-court advantage doesn't exist in tennis? Gasquet won in France, and Cilic captured his third Zagreb title, beating Jurgen Melzer 6-3, 6-1. Yet in both situations I'm left with the same nagging question: So what? It'd be nice if they could bring this focus to the Slams.
Christian Garin: A. You're forgiven if you're sheepishly pretending you know who I'm talking about here. Garin is a 16-year-old Chilean who won his debut tour-level match last week, beating Dusan Lojovic in Chile. He joins Nadal, Ryan Harrison, Bernard Tomic and Gasquet as the only men to have won a tour-level match at age 16 since 2000. He didn't stop there. Garin followed up his win by taking a set from Australian Open quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy.
Agnieszka Radwanska: C-minus. On one hand, Radwanska deserves credit for being the only top-five player to actually compete in the Fed Cup last week, in a Zonal tie for Poland against Croatia. She almost single-handedly put Poland through to the World Group Playoffs in April by winning all her singles matches and pairing with her sister, Urszula, in doubles. But then came this frostier than frosty post-match press conference. No matter what her reasons were, it's just a complete lack of professionalism.
Varvara Lepchenko: A-plus. The USA couldn't get past Italy in its opening-round Fed Cup tie, but Lepchenko certainly had a debut to remember in the international team competition. She kept the Americans in the tie with a hard-fought 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 win over Roberta Vinci on Saturday, and then she scored her first top-10 victory by upsetting Sara Errani 6-2, 7-5 on Sunday. U.S. captain Mary Joe Fernandez rightfully tapped Lepchenko to play with Liezel Huber in the decisive doubles, but the pair were no match for the No. 1 team of Errani and Vinci. They lost 6-2, 6-2.
Team Germany: A. After two years of bad luck for the Germans, who were undone by tough draws and injuries, it was good to see them finally get an easy win, this time over France. Julia Goerges and Sabine Lisicki went undefeated in singles to secure the win in a tie that turned out to be less tricky after Marion Bartoli was struck down with flu and unable to take the court.
Marion Bartoli: B-plus. Speaking of Bartoli, this would have been her first Fed Cup since 2004, and I have no doubt much of the reconciliation between Bartoli and the FFT came thanks to Amelie Mauresmo's new appointment as captain (the rift was due to Bartoli's demand that her father, Walter, be allowed to coach her during Fed Cup). If that wasn't enough to signal a change, Bartoli also announced that her father, who has coached the 28-year-old her entire career, will no longer be traveling with her.
Team Great Britain: A. Judy Murray's team once again earned a spot in the World Group Playoffs behind a true team effort, as Heather Watson, Laura Robson, Anne Keothavong and Johanna Konta all contributed to wins over Bosnia/Herzogovina, Hungary, Portugal and Bulgaria. Here's a video of the team bouncing along to Gangnam Style and talking about their nails. Captain Murray sure does keep things light.
Dominika Cibulkova and Bojana Jovanovski: B. Both women withdrew from Doha this week because of injuries sustained over the weekend in a dramatic tie between Serbia and the Slovak Republic. Cibulkova retired from her first match on Saturday when she suffered a debilitating leg cramp while serving for the match at 6-4, 5-3 against Vesna Dolonc, which left the teams even at 1-1 after Day 1. Jovanovski then battled through a back injury for more than three hours before losing to Jana Cepalova 5-7, 7-5, 11-9. The Serbs, who were without Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, eventually lost the tie 3-2. Tough luck for both.
Ayumi Morita: A. Japan's No. 1 carried a 14-match Fed Cup winning streak into Sunday's decisive doubles match against Russia, as the Japanese were on the verge of pulling out a monster upset. That was all thanks to Morita, who beat Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina in straight sets over the weekend. Unfortunately, her partnership with Misaki Doi wasn't enough, and the Russians squeaked out the victory. Still, that's a pretty incredible under-the-radar stat for Morita. Tennis Channel: A. Kudos to Tennis Channel for scrambling to get all the pieces in place to air Nadal's first match back in Chile last week. That was great mobilization, and I have no doubt tennis fans appreciated it.