Report Card: Praise for Rafael Nadal, Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams
The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. This week, Rafael Nadal won his first tournament since the French Open and Victoria Azarenka topped new No. 1 Serena Williams in Doha. Milos Raonic three-peated in San Jose's farewell and Juan Martin del Potro took advantage of Roger Federer's early exit in Rotterdam.
Rafael Nadal: B-plus. Nadal was nowhere near his best at the Brazil Open, his second tournament since Wimbledon. He even looked a few notches lower than Chile the previous week. Part of that may have been due to conditions in Sao Paulo. Players complained about the dangerous courts and quick balls all week. Given Sao Paulo is about 2,500 feet above sea level, that meant a surprisingly quick court despite the surface (e.g., Nicolas Almagro served 28 aces in a three-set loss). These were not ideal conditions for Nadal, and with his knees hurting all week, it was a good effort to win his 51st career title and the first since Roland Garros, beating David Nalbandian 6-2, 6-3 in the final.
Here's match point. No idea what he said to umpire Carlos Bernardes, but I don't think they were exchanging pleasantries.
It wasn't easy. Nadal was pushed to three sets in back-to-back matches by Carlos Berlocq (No. 78) and Martin Alund (No. 111) before capturing his 37th clay title.
“It's very nice and important because at the end of your career what’s left are the titles, and depending on certain moments there are some titles that you appreciate very much,” Nadal said, according to ATPWorldTour.com. “This one I appreciate it the most because of all the struggles I went through during the week, with some problems with my knee some days.”
Nadal will take a week off to rest before heading to Acapulco, Mexico, for the final stop on his three-tournament clay swing.
Victoria Azarenka: A-plus. It's undeniable that the subtext underneath the "Serena's back at No. 1" talk last week was the long-running skepticism directed at Azarenka's vise-like grip on the top ranking for more than a year. Her two Australian Open titles, a 26-match winning streak and reliable foray into the final four almost every weekend were shunned in favor of Williams' flashes -- much more consistent flashes, as the latter half of 2012 proved -- of brilliance. So in her last day at No. 1 (at least for now), leave it to Azarenka to finally break through and upend the woman who supplanted her Monday, beating Williams 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3 in the Doha final.
Azarenka defended her Doha title, ran her 2013 winning streak to 14 and ended her run of nine straight losses to Williams since 2009. But more important, she proved how small the gap is between them -- yes, this can now officially be designated a rivalry -- and all this talk about Williams being so obviously the "real No. 1" is a load of bull. At their best, Williams is still the better player -- she was nowhere near her best all week, appearing to struggle with a cold. But how about acknowledging the fact that she has to be at or near her best to beat Azarenka? That's not the case against anyone else on tour right now, and Williams knows it.
If you needed more proof that Azarenka might be worming her way into Williams' head, look no further than the end of the first set of their final when Williams complained to the umpire about Azarenka holding her hand up during her service motion and slowing her down. That's the stuff Williams typically ignores, but against Azarenka she let it get to her.
Serena Williams: A-minus. It was nice to see Williams show just how much No. 1 meant; she was reduced to tears after beating Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals to seal the deal. We always say that a fit and motivated Williams is the best, so seeing that emotion validated her decision to get off the couch and play Doha and Dubai and gun for that top spot. She's in no position to coast now. Azarenka is on her heels to recapture the No. 1 ranking and challenge her at any tournament in which they play. Williams found great motivation in being the hunter. Now we get to see her respond to being the hunted.
Juan Martin del Potro: A. Rotterdam may have lost its big draw early when Julien Benneteau upset Federer, but Del Potro quietly decimated the rest of the field by doing something Federer couldn't: hold serve. Entering Sunday's final, Del Potro hadn't dropped a set or his serve all week against quality players Gael Monfils, Ernests Gulbis and Grigor Dimitrov. He lost his serve twice in the first set of the final but still defeated Benneteau 7-6 (2), 6-3 to win his first title of 2013. He was also utterly charming in his interactions with the crowd. I know the "Gentle Giant" nickname seems cliché, but nothing suits him better.
Milos Raonic: A. Dominant as always in San Jose, Raonic closed the 125-year history of the SAP Open by winning his third straight title, beating Tommy Haas 6-4, 6-3 in the final. In his three-year run, Raonic went 12-0, won all 24 sets and held serve in 122 of 124 games.
The SAP Open: B. A piece of tennis history ends with the tournament relocating to Memphis next year (the current Memphis tournament will relocate to Rio de Janeiro). Though sentimentality surrounded the tournament last week, it also highlighted how far it has fallen over the years. HP Pavilion was embarrassingly empty during the day, and the night sessions didn't fare much better. As sad as it is to see the tournament leave, there's no denying there was nothing for it here.
Roger Federer: C-minus. Federer never looked 100 percent comfortable in Rotterdam, losing to Benneteau in the third round 6-3, 7-5. Benneteau has played Federer tough in the past, beating him at the 2009 Paris Masters and pushing him to five sets at Wimbledon last year. But Federer dropping serve five times to Benneteau was surprising. "If you lose your serve five times, like I did today, you can't win indoors," Federer said.
Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska: B. The WTA's Big Four is starting to turn into the Big Two, with Sharapova and Radwanska making the Doha semifinals only to lose quietly to Williams and Azarenka, respectively. At this point, these losses are just as mental as they are technical. Sharapova again looked intimidated facing Williams, losing for the 10th straight time since 2004, 6-3, 6-2. Radwanska fell for the seventh time in a row to Azarenka, 6-3, 6-3.
Julien Benneteau: B-plus. The 31-year-old Frenchman had a great week, beating Federer and Gilles Simon and not dropping a set heading into his eighth career ATP final. Unfortunately, he came out of that final with the same result as his previous seven: a loss.
John Isner & Ryan Harrison: D. The Americans lost their opening-round doubles match in San Jose 6-2, 6-1 to Alejandro Falla and Robert Farah in ... wait for it ... 37 minutes. I'm still trying to figure out how you lose a match that quickly. Even if Falla and Farah registered a perfect match, they'd have to win 48 points. When you factor in changeovers and set breaks, there was only about 25 minutes of play. Head-scratcher.
Petra Kvitova: B-plus. We finally, finally, saw glimpses of the Kvitova of 2011 in her 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 quarterfinal loss to Williams. I can only hope that match triggers something. She's the only woman on tour who can match Williams power for power. It's a whole new ballgame if she can play that kind of tennis consistently.
David Nalbandian: B-plus. In his first tournament of 2013, Nalbandian beat Almagro 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (3) in the Brazil quarterfinals before losing quietly to a subpar Nadal in the final. Looking fitter than ever at 31, could Nalbandian have one more quality year in him?
Brazil Open: D. Potentially dangerous security breaches. An overselling of tickets that left fans crammed into aisles. Numerous complaints about the court conditions (Nadal almost turned an ankle when it he got stuck in the clay) and the light balls. All told, the Brazil Open was an organizational disaster this year. Maybe they weren't ready for the attention and interest that came with Nadal's participation. The president of the Brazilian tennis federation blamed "bloggers" for complaining about the court conditions. Last time I checked, Nadal wasn't a blogger.
Dubai Duty Free: C-minus. The tournament has barely started, but I question the decision to award 18-year-old Yulia Putintseva, ranked No. 101, a main-draw wild card over two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who played her way in via qualifiers. Putintseva made the finals of Dubai's $75,000 ITF tournament in December but has yet to post back-to-back WTA wins this year. Kuznetsova, ranked No. 51, made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and has two top-10 wins. She is also a three-time finalist at the event, including as recently as 2011. Her dismay is understandable.
Sara Errani & Roberta Vinci: A. Azarenka's not the only one with a winning streak going. The No. 1 doubles team made Doha its third title of the year and has won 14 consecutive matches if you include Fed Cup.
Christina McHale: B. The American, trying to find her top-25 form since being diagnosed with mono after the 2012 Olympics, scored back-to-back wins for the first time since August. She defeated Vera Dushevina and Lucie Safarova before suffering a 6-0, 6-0 demolition at the hands of Azarenka. The victory against Safarova was her first top-20 win since June.
David Goffin: D. Proof double bagels aren't just a WTA phenomenon.
Piotr Wozniacki: F. His yelling at a chair umpire to effectively bully her to change a call in his daughter's favor was bush league. He made Caroline look like a child. She can argue her own calls.
Ernests Gulbis: B. Could it be less than a year ago that Gulbis routed Tomas Berdych in the first round of Wimbledon? Now No. 132, Gulbis qualified for Rotterdam and won his first ATP main-draw match since October, rolling past Robin Haase 6-2, 6-1. Amazing what you can do when you quit smoking.
Mona Barthel: B. She's beaten three top-10 players in the last two weeks, including a 6-1, 6-2 victory against fellow German Angelique Kerber in the Doha second round before losing to Wozniacki. Check out this cold handshake exchanged with Kerber after that beatdown:
Sloane Stephens: C. It was a tough return for Stephens after she withdrew from Fed Cup, citing an abdominal injury. In her second match since the Australian Open, Stephens had four match points in the second set and served for the match twice but was unable to close out Klara Zakopalova, losing 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (5). That's a tough loss, but Zakopalova is ranked just seven spots behind her. Stephens then fell to Sorana Cirstea in the first round of Dubai on Monday.
Grigor Dimitrov's shoes: D. How is he supposed to get traction in his game when he can't get any traction on the court? He looks like Bambi on ice.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lf2Lz731JJQ Watch List: Azarenka, Williams may meet again this week