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

Feb 16th 2014

A busy week witnessed the first WTA Premier Five tournament of 2014 as well as three ATP events on three different continents.  Relive the highs and lows of Doha, Rotterdam, Memphis, and Buenos Aires, distilled into a series of convenient capsules.

Simona Halep


Doha finalists:  Seven titles in nine months is impressive for any player at any level, even Serena Williams.  But that is what Simona Halep has accomplished by claiming her first Premier Five crown in the Persian Gulf.  She defeated two top-10 opponents in straight sets to earn that breakthrough, which confirmed her own standing as a legitimate member of the top 10.  Halep’s last victim, Angelique Kerber, reached her second final of 2014 already and her second Premier Five final overall.  Kerber still lacks a title at an outdoor tournament, but she has started this year more promisingly than she did a disappointing campaign in 2013.  Both women could be intriguing dark horses to follow at Indian Wells and Miami next month.

Memphis finalists:  Defending champion and top seed Kei Nishikori squared off with Croatian giant Ivo Karlovic in a true David-Goliath matchup for the title.  Indoor tournaments like Memphis usually reward mighty servers like Karlovic, who did not drop his serve all week en route to the final.  Two weeks from his 35th birthday, he continues to show a hidden virtue in his monochromatic style of play:  durability.  But Nishikori weathered the giant’s barrage with the tenacity that has allowed him to overcome chronic injuries and become the highest-ranked Japanese man ever.  His title defense marked a smooth transition for the tournament from its former 500 status to the lesser but more appropriate 250 level.

Last week’s ATP champions:  Gael Monfils may have fallen victim to a vicious Rotterdam draw, but Marin Cilic extended his indoor winning streak longer than most expected.  Reaching the final in Rotterdam, an ATP 500 tournament, Cilic built upon yet another home title in Zagreb better than he had in previous years.  He transitioned smoothly from the role of the underdog to the role of the heavy favorite, outlasting an unseeded Dutchman a round after upsetting Andy Murray.  After a long suspension last season, Cilic has recaptured his groove faster than anyone could have hoped. 

Few observers ever would have envisioned Fabio Fognini reaching five consecutive finals on clay.  The champion in Chile last week found the energy and motivation to muster a runner-up showing in Buenos Aires.  Not known for discipline or focus, Fognini remains an enigmatic competitor but much more dangerous (at least on clay) than he was a year ago.

Unseeded semifinalists in Rotterdam:  For the second straight year, Igor Sijsling pulled off a notable upset at his home tournament in Rotterdam.  Sijsling’s explosive serve shines most on indoor hard courts, and in doubles.  Having knocked off Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last year, he demolished Mikhail Youzhny this year.  To his credit, Sijsling built on the upset by reaching his first hard-court semifinal.

Ernests Gulbis

That upset barely registered on the ATP seismogram compared to what Ernests Gulbis achieved this week, however.  He struck his first blow against Grigor Dimitrov, who turned heads by reaching his first major quarterfinal at the Australian Open.  Gulbis tends to play his best tennis against the best opponents, having conquered nearly everyone of note in his generation.  The latest evidence came in a quarterfinal upset over world No. 4 del Potro. 

Czechs in Doha:  Battling past Spain in a dramatic Fed Cup tie did not deplete the energies of Klara Zakopalova and Lucie Safarova.  They transitioned without a tremor from winning hard-fought battles on clay last weekend to winning hard-fought battles on hard courts this week.  Czech No. 1 Petra Kvitova also bounced back from a respiratory illness and a first-round loss at the Australian Open, recording two solid wins. 

But the most impressive effort came from the least expected source.  Petra Cetkovska entered Doha as the 13th seed—in the qualifying draw.  Able to reach the main draw, the world No. 133 made the most of her opportunity by upsetting two top-20 en route to the quarterfinals, including top seed and Australian Open champion Li Na.

Americans in Memphis:  Any realist will recognize that the outlook is not bright for American men’s tennis at the moment.  With only one man in the top 50, and that man battling injury, prospects of a strong home showing in Memphis looked remote at best.  Yet three Americans rose to the occasion, between 35-year-old semifinalist Michael Russell and two younger talents.  Alex Kuznetsov and Jack Sock each charted their course to the quarterfinals, where Sock stood tall for most of his battle against the frustrating Ivo Karlovic. 

Spaniards in Buenos Aires:  The cradle of clay specialists produced six of the eight quarterfinalists and three of the four semifinalists at this South American clay tournament.  David Ferrer recorded his 15th straight victory over Nicolas Almagro at that stage before capturing his third straight title in Buenos Aires.  That triumph may have raised Ferrer’s spirits by mitigating his frustrations of the previous several months.  But Almagro will be content to have reached consecutive semifinals in his first two events of 2014.  Meanwhile, Tommy Robredo bounced back from an early exit in Chile the previous week to threaten the surging Fognini. 

Tomas Berdych

Tomas Berdych:  He may not have defeated anyone of note en route to the ATP 500 title in Rotterdam, a field littered with upsets.  Still, Berdych has fallen victim to ambushes often enough that his ability to avoid them this week deserves some credit.  He fended off two of the ATP’s explosive younger talents in Jerzy Janowicz and Ernests Gulbis before blunting Cilic’s momentum.  Snapping a three-match losing streak in finals, the Rotterdam title marked Berdych’s first since 2012 and most significant since 2011

Jelena Jankovic:  A fourth semifinal in her last six Premier Mandatory or Premier Five tournaments showed traces of the consistency that defined Jankovic’s peak period.  While she fell to the (slightly) lower-ranked Kerber at that stage, her position in the top 10 will remain secure if she can continue to take care of business against the journeywomen of the WTA so efficiently. 

Dominic Thiem:  The young Austrian talent took a set off Murray in an inspired performance at Rotterdam that bodes well for his future.  Austria hasn’t produced a wealth of champions on either Tour, so Thiem might break new ground eventually.


American No. 2s:  In her first match since returning from a wrist injury, Sloane Stephens fell routinely in Doha to an opponent ranked over 100 places below her.  At least the setback confirmed that she could not have contributed effectively to the Fed Cup squad that lost a few days before.  Reeling from his collapse in Davis Cup, Sam Querrey dropped his Memphis opener after holding a match point.  He may need a long time to recover from his embarrassment in that San Diego tie.  To add insult to injury, the loss came against Alex Bogomolov, a former American citizen who changed his citizenship to Russia midway through his career. 

WTA former No. 1s:  The turmoil surrounding Caroline Wozniacki’s coaching situation probably contributed to her tepid performance, riddled with missed chances against a mentally fragile opponent.  Those are the matches on which Wozniacki made her living when she held the top spot.  Less clear is the explanation for Ana Ivanovic’s loss to Zakopalova after winning the first set.  Without discrediting Zakopalova, this second-tier Czech is an opponent whom someone of Ivanovic’s talent needs to finish off in that position.  Her failure to do so leaves open the question of whether she really turned a corner with that quarterfinal run in Melbourne.

Juan Martin del Potro

Top two seeds in Doha and Rotterdam:  Opportunity knocked for Li Na or Agnieszka Radwanska to win a marquee title in a field lacking Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka.  Opportunity also knocked for Juan Martin del Potro or Andy Murray to win a rare tournament that neither Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, nor Roger Federer had entered.  Li, Radwanska, del Potro, and Murray all failed to reach the final, much less win the title, and all but Radwanska fell to unseeded opponents.

Argentines in Buenos Aires:  Most of them bit the red dirt of their nation earlier than they had hoped.  This country has produced plenty of tennis talent, albeit no Davis Cup titles, and a wide range appeared in Buenos Aires.  Federico Delbonis, who has defeated Federer on clay, could not defeat Pablo Andujar.  Former top-10 man Juan Monaco, Davis Cup standout Carlos Berlocq, and Nadal-killer Horacio Zeballos won one match among them. 

Richard Gasquet:  Denied by Gael Monfils in the Montpellier final a week before, Gasquet may have let that disappointment on home soil deflate him.  He could not blunt the shot-making prowess of Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second round of Rotterdam, spurning a late chance to turn around the match.

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova:  In two tournaments, she won the biggest title of her career and lost in the second round to a qualifier.  But her history of peaks and valleys made that sequence all too familiar and embarrassingly predictable.