Report Card: Grading the Italian Open
The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. This past week, most of the top players completed their French Open preparation in Rome, where Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal won titles.
Rafael Nadal: A. Nadal heads into the French Open as the clear favorite after beating Novak Djokovic 7-5, 6-3 in Monday's rain-delayed final to win his sixth Italian Open. The Spaniard, who will return to No. 2 this week, didn't drop a set while collecting clay-court titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome, a run of dominance interrupted only by a loss to Fernando Verdasco on the blue clay in Madrid.
Novak Djokovic: B-plus. Djokovic was frustrated against Nadal, but the Serb still gets high marks for beating Roger Federer in the semifinals rather handily. He may go into the French Open with no clay titles this year, but it's hard to throw shade at a guy who made two finals and lost to the best dirtballer in history both times.
Maria Sharapova: A-minus. The Russian successfully defended her title in Rome but she didn't look that great throughout the week and she got a lot of help from Li Na in a 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory in the final. Sharapova had no answers when Li was playing well. She couldn't get the ball through the slow court and her movement suffered as Li yanked her around the court. But as it is, Sharapova's two titles in 2012 have come on clay (in fact, four of her last five titles are on clay) and she's beaten some good opposition to do it, saving match points en route to both titles. Needless to say, she's a front-runner for the French Open if she can avoid drawing Serena Williams.
Li Na: B. The defending French Open champion made her second final of the year, no doubt thanks in large part to Williams' withdrawal in advance of their semifinal. She looked in top form against Sharapova in the final, building a 6-4, 4-0 lead before suffering from the type of mental lapse that has plagued her all year. The good news is that she was able to fight her way out of it, coming back from 4-1 down in the third set to force a decisive tiebreaker in torrential rain. But after a two-hour rain delay, Li got bullied in the tiebreaker.
Caroline Wozniacki: F. Wrap your mind around this fact: Four months ago, Wozniacki was ranked No. 1 in the world and the top seed at the Australian Open. Next week she won't even be a top eight seed at Roland Garros. Wozniacki has tumbled to No. 9 after retiring from her first match in Rome down 6-4, 4-0 to Anabel Medina Garrigues because of an upper respiratory problem.
Victoria Azarenka: D. After rolling over Shahar Peer 6-1, 6-2 in her first match, Azarenka withdrew from the tournament, citing a shoulder injury. That's all well and good given the French Open starts next week and Azarenka, who made the finals of Stuttgart and Madrid, clearly has enough matches under her belt. But taking to Twitter to say she only played Rome to avoid a rankings penalty and blasting the WTA rules? Completely unnecessary and disingenuous. Let's be clear here: Azarenka's decision to withdraw was a smart one. Telling the public that she was strong-armed into playing because of the rules? Less so.
Tomas Berdych: B-plus. Another fine week for Berdych, another brick wall in the form of a top three player. He beat Andy Murray to make the semifinals of Monte Carlo, only to lose a three-setter to Djokovic. He powered past Juan Martin del Potro in Madrid, only to lose a three-setter to Federer in the final. And this past week he didn't drop a set on his way to the quarterfinals, where he played an excellent match and still lost to Nadal in straight sets, 6-4, 7-5.
David Ferrer: B. After defeating Fernando Verdasco, Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet in straight sets, Ferrer played a great first set against Nadal -- and lost 7-6 (4), 6-0 in the semifinals. It's not particularly fun to watch Ferrer's matches against Nadal. They begin with such earnest optimism and eager effort and end with Ferrer's blank and hopeless stare.
John Isner: D. Still waiting, John. Still waiting.
Serena Williams: B. She got what she came for: a few matches on the red clay. And she left with her clay winning streak intact (17 matches). Even though Williams withdrew from the semifinals with a back injury, she has moved up one spot this week, to No. 5.
Petra Kvitova: C. The irony of all the high-profile withdrawals last week is the fact that the one player who probably should have pulled out or retired didn't. Kvitova has struggled with illness and injury all year and was clearly hampered by an abdominal injury in her quarterfinal loss to Angelique Kerber, spinning in serves at 70 mph. But Kvitova has never given a walkover or retired from a match in her career and I guess she wasn't going to start in Rome. Credit to her for staying out there and giving Kerber a complete victory at 7-6 (2), 1-6, 6-1 , but I'm concerned about her body going into Paris and London.
Roger Federer: B. He looked to be the in-form man all week as he blitzed through the field to make the semifinals. Then the wheels came off, as Federer was nowhere near his best against Djokovic in a 6-2, 7-6 (5) loss. Federer said afterward that he was "pretty exhausted" and that he welcomed a break before the French Open.
Andreas Seppi and Flavia Pennetta: A. The two Italians ran out of steam in the quarterfinals, with Seppi losing in 50 minutes to Federer and Pennetta retiring to Williams after re-aggravating a wrist injury. But the two gave the locals something to cheer about and turned Court Pietrangeli into their stage. Seppi came back to knock off Isner and, most memorably, Stanislas Wawrinka, whipping the Italian crowd into a frenzy you only see at soccer games. Tack on a doubles title for Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci -- both of whom have had stellar years in singles and doubles -- and it was a pretty good week for the host nation.
Andy Murray: C-minus. Murray had the toughest of draws, but that's no excuse for a guy who decided to skip Madrid to rest and heal up. After losing to Gasquet 6-7 (1), 6-3, 6-2, Murray revealed that he's been struggling with a back injury since December. Troubling times for Murray.
Richard Gasquet: B. In eliminating Murray, the talented Frenchman scored his first top five win since beating Federer in Rome last year. Gasquet has actually had a pretty consistent couple of months of avoiding early-round upsets. In his last four events he's lost to Djokovic, Federer, Ferrer and Del Potro. Trust me, that counts as consistency in Gasquet's book.
Agnieszka Radwanska: D. Clay just ain't her thang. Radwanska finally lost to someone other than Victoria Azarenka, falling in the second round to Petra Cetkovska 6-4, 4-6, 6-1. Though she complained about being fatigued and dealing with a back injury, Radwanska has decided to play a tournament in Brussels this week instead of resting.
Angelique Kerber: B-plus. A week after leapfrogging Andrea Petkovic to become the No. 1 German, Kerber broke into the top 10 for the first time on the heels of a semifinal appearance in Rome. Her victory against Kvitova gave her six wins against top 10 players this year.
Venus Williams: B-plus. Venus now has two victories against top five players since launching her comeback after ousting Sam Stosur 6-4, 6-3 in the round of 16. More important, a quarterfinal run made Williams the No. 3 American and boosted her ranking to No. 52, well inside where she needs to be to qualify for the London Olympics. Barring a surprise run by Vania King or Varvara Lepchenko in Paris, it looks like it's mission accomplished for Venus. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: D. Tsonga reportedly told the French sports daily L'Equipe that there's no chance a Frenchman will win Roland Garros. With confidence like that, what's the point?