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Studs and Duds: The Best and Worst in Tennis This Week

Feb 23rd 2014

Variety continued to define the February menu, lacking a meaty main course but stuffed with tasty side dishes.  In a single week, tournaments took shape on four of the five continents and three of the four surfaces where tennis is played.  The inaugural ATP 500 event in Rio de Janeiro claimed center stage for the men, while the women completed their miniature Persian Gulf swing in Dubai. 

Venus Williams


Dubai finalists:  Left for dead years ago by many experts, Alize Cornet may have resurrected her career over the last several months.  She achieved more than one notable breakthrough in Dubai, combining her first hard-court final with her first victory over world No. 1 Serena Williams.  (Cornet also became the first woman to defeat Serena in straight sets since August 2012.) 

That startling upset merely left the 26-year-old Frenchwoman with another Williams to conquer, and Venus Williams proved a bridge too far.  Disappointing for much of 2013, Venus has started 2014 in much more optimistic form.  She did not drop a set en route to the title, losing eight total games to two top-15 opponents in Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki.  Dubai represented the most significant prize that Venus has collected in four years.

Spaniards in Rio:  Three men from the cradle of clay tennis reached semifinals last week in Buenos Aires, and three Spaniards reached semifinals this week in Rio.  Only one of them, David Ferrer, completed a “semifinal double” between the two events.  Anyone could have guessed before the week began that Ferrer would meet world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in the final.  By contrast, not everyone would have guessed that Pablo Andujar would echo his Masters 1000 semifinal on Madrid clay last spring.  Andujar did hold the eighth seed, but he had not reached an ATP semifinal since the week before Roland Garros. 

Nor was he content with gracefully yielding to Nadal at that stage.  Racing to a one-set lead against the world No. 1, Andujar did not crumble when the tension mounted late in the third set.  He erased multiple deficits in that set and eventually earned two match points in the decisive tiebreak.  Nadal needed every ounce of his grit and athleticism to survive his countryman.  The trophy that he won a day later gave him 11 consecutive seasons with at least one title on clay.

High seeds in Marseille:  Three of the top four seeds reached their projected destinations in the semifinals.  February must be the favorite month of Ernests Gulbis, who has played his best tennis then since the start of 2013.  Last season, he won the Delray Beach title to catalyze a 13-match winning streak.  This season, Gulbis has reached an ATP 500 semifinal in Rotterdam and won a smaller title in Marseille, where he defeated two top-10 opponents in straight sets to remain undefeated in finals.

The first was Marseille top seed Richard Gasquet, who has lost to a lower-ranked opponent at all five of his tournaments this year in an ominous trend.  The second was the second-seeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, able to regroup from an early exit in Rotterdam to reach the Marseille final.  Tsonga had suffered from ill-fated draws earlier this year, so he must have relished the chance to pounce on an upset-riddled section in Marseille.  On the other hand, none of his victories came against an elite opponent.

Kevin Anderson

Giants in Delray Beach:  Three of the four semifinalists at this event stood at 66” or taller.  While this would not have been surprising on the indoor hard courts this month, the outdoor hard courts in Delray Beach did not play especially fast.  The most notable result may have come from Kevin Anderson, who reached the final in his first event after a second-week appearance at the Australian Open.  Those efforts suggest that Anderson may have revived his form after a dismal finish to last season. 

Surging to a 16-1 record in February, Marin Cilic collected his second title in three tournaments.  Unlike Anderson, Cilic has shown his ability to crack the top 10 and consistently contend with the elite.  His motivation burns more brightly these days than it has since his initial breakthrough.  At his best on home soil, top-ranked American man John Isner struggled through each of his three victories.  But Delray Beach served its purpose for Isner in offering him match practice after his return from an ankle injury.  He can gain plenty of ground at Indian Wells and Miami after losing early at both events last year.

Alexandr Dolgopolov:  After a meager 2013 campaign, Dolgopolov did not seem to have turned a new leaf early in 2013.  He compiled just four victories through his first five tournaments, but Rio marked his first appearance in an ATP final since 2012.  Unseeded entering the week, the 54th-ranked Dolgopolov overcame a trio of notable clay specialists in Nicolas Almagro, Fabio Fognini, and Ferrer.  The upset over Ferrer especially impressed in view of his 1-7 record against the Spaniard.  Now the task for Dolgopolov lies in extending that momentum from clay to the Masters 1000 hard-court tournaments.

Andrea Beck:  Her first WTA final came last fall at an indoor tournament in Luxembourg, when all but the diehard fans had stopped paying attention to tennis.  February is a relative lull in this sport as well, but more eyes should start to notice Beck after she recorded consecutive top-20 victories in Dubai.  The first came in the qualifying draw against Australian Open semifinalist Eugenie Bouchard, while the second came in a three-set comeback against former US Open champion Samantha Stosur.

Steve Johnson

Qualifiers in Delray Beach:  Winning the Dallas Challenger title over a strong field this month seemed to embolden Steve Johnson for his return to ATP action.  The former USC star reeled off five victories between the qualifying and main draws, of which the most significant came against top seed Tommy Haas.  Experience might have seemed likely to carry the 35-year-old veteran past the home underdog in a third-set tiebreak, but Johnson brought more grit and fire when it mattered most.

Almost as promising for American men’s tennis was the quarterfinal run of another qualifier, Rhyne Williams.  He breezed through the qualifying draw and showed grit in shrugging off early adversity against Marcos Baghdatis, a much more experienced opponent.  While Williams showed the rough edges of his game against Isner, taking a set off the top-ranked American man in an ATP quarterfinal showed progress. 

Thomaz Bellucci:  Tournament organizers in Rio got more than they ever could have hoped from Bellucci, who had won exactly one ATP main-draw match since last summer.  Granted, that slump stemmed in large part from nagging injuries.  At his home tournament, Bellucci gave compatriots both drama and happy endings by rallying to win three-setters against Santiago Giraldo and Juan Monaco.  Those are solid clay specialists but not dirt devils at the level of David Ferrer.  Yet Bellucci threw a scare into the fifth-ranked Spaniard as well, playing an impressive first set before fading late in the second.

Jan-Lennard Struff:  Entering Marseille ranked No. 117, he never had won a main-draw match at an ATP event on a hard court.  Struff racked up his first three wins in that category, including upsets over fast-court specialists Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra.  Like Igor Sijsling in Rotterdam last week, Struff earned ranking points with an improbable semifinal run that could lay a foundation for more opportunities ahead.


Doha finalists:  A foot injury sidelined last week’s champion Simona Halep in the first round of Dubai, while runner-up Angelique Kerber bowed out in the second round to Ana Ivanovic.  To her credit, Kerber battled into a third-set tiebreak before yielding.  These results extended an ongoing trend of women who shine at the first Persian Gulf event but withdraw or exit early at the second. 

Agnieszka Radwanska

Agnieszka Radwanska:  She had cruised through her previous three meetings with Flavia Pennetta, a veteran approaching her 32nd birthday.  While Pennetta has recorded some of her best results ever over the last several months, the world No. 3 has endured a puzzling start to her season.  Radwanska defeated long-time nemesis Victoria Azarenka en route to an Australian Open, but she has lost to three opponents outside the top 20 in four 2014 events.  And none of those defeats has been especially close.

Tommy Robredo/Fabio Fognini:  The Rio quarterfinals produced a series of routs.  Nadal did not raise any eyebrows by demolishing Joao Sousa 6-0 6-1, but a pair of top-20 men proficient on clay fell by identical 6-1 6-1 scores that day.  A title and a final in the two previous weeks suggest that fatigue influenced Fognini’s loss to Dolgopolov.  Robredo’s results have fluctuated wildly since appearing in a Roland Garros quarterfinal.  In six clay events, he has recorded a title, a tight semifinal loss to Fognini, three opening-round exits, and this meltdown against compatriot Pablo Andujar.

Petra Kvitova:  Sampling all flavors of adversity this year, the former Wimbledon champion has lost consecutive matches in opposite fashions.  Kvitova won just four games from Jelena Jankovic last week, but this week brought one of her familiar three-set rollercoasters.  This week also brought Kvitova’s second opening-round loss in three tournaments as she learned the hard way not to play epics against Carla Suarez Navarro.  Undefeated in third-set tiebreaks, Suarez Navarro rallied from the brink of a straight-sets loss to force another of those tiebreaks and sweep its last five points.  

WTA event in Rio:  At times, it was hard to remember that this tournament existed.  Thoroughly overshadowed by Nadal, Ferrer, & Co. at the ATP companion event, the WTA International event seemed like an afterthought.  Only three top-50 players made the trip to Brazil, none of them a familiar name to anyone but diehard fans.  It was a muted way to inaugurate an event designed to build buzz for the 2016 Olympics there.