When Dominic Thiem beat Andy Murray 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 in the semifinals of the Barcelona Open on Saturday, a commentator remarked that the Austrian had just upset the No. 1 player in the world. It was somehow a bit of a surprise, based on his play so far in 2017, to be reminded that Murray is indeed No. 1. But come to think of it, lately no one has really been performing like a convincing No. 1 except Roger Federer – currently on hiatus until the French Open – and Rafael Nadal as he emerged the past two weeks as his customary dominating self on clay.
The flux at the top similarly applies on the women’s tour where Serena Williams is pregnant and gone for the year. Victoria Azarenka won’t be back after giving birth until July, Petra Kvitova is still recovering from a December knife attack that damaged her left (racquet) hand and Maria Sharapova is too early in her comeback to assess her accurately. In the meantime, erstwhile No. 1 (now No. 2) Angelique Kerber has lost her aura after going 17-10 (no titles) at nine events in 2017.
With more than a third of the new season in the books, it’s a bunch of thirty-somethings – Federer, Nadal, the Williams sisters and Sharapova – who have been responsible for most of the excitement.
Murray, on May 15, and Djokovic on May 22, will hit the 30 mark themselves and they are the main question marks among the men.
Last fall after the US Open, Murray was 24-0 at tournaments, winning five titles and vaulting to No. 1 in the rankings. So far in 2017 he’s 15-5 and has only won the ATP 500 event in Dubai in March.
One year ago, Djokovic was 21-2 to this point, with three titles – Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami. The two losses were almost inconsequential – a retirement after one set in Dubai against Feliciano Lopez due to an eye problem and then to Jiri Vesely in Monte Carlo in his first event on clay after his grueling grind to win the ‘Sunshine Double’ for the third year in a row on hard courts in California and Florida.
Murray and Djokovic both missed the Miami Open in March with elbow issues and that must partially explain their subpar performances. In the ATP Race, based on 2017 results, Murray is No. 11 and Djokovic, who it was revealed this week will become a father for the second time, is No. 20.
The upcoming Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome should help clarify how close Murray, who looked more like himself in the Barcelona semifinal loss to Thiem, and Djokovic are to regaining the form that made them so dominant a year ago.
In the meantime the No. 9-ranked Thiem, 23, has established himself as a credible threat while 22-year-old Nick Kyrgios, away since playing impressively at Indian Wells and Miami, took a bit of a break and then had to withdraw from this week’s Estoril, Portugal, ATP 250 tournament because of the death of his paternal grandfather.
Sascha Zverev, 20, viewed in tandem with Kyrgios as the best of the young guns, has suffered one-sided losses at his last two events – 6-1, 6-1 to Nadal in Monte Carlo and 6-1, 6-4 to fellow 20-year-old Hyeon Chung of Korea in Barcelona.
Add the absences of No. 6-ranked Milos Raonic (right hamstring) and No. 7 Kei Nishikori (right wrist) as well as the in-and-out form of No. 4 Stan Wawrinka and it’s a rare unsettled state of affairs, in view of recent history, on the men’s tour.
In the women’s game, the last four winners of WTA Premier level tournaments have been Elena Vesnina (Indian Wells), Johanna Konta (Miami), Daria Kasatkina (Charleston) and Laura Siegemund (Stuttgart). None of them were ranked in the Top 10 – Vesnina (15), Konta (11), Kasatkina (42) and Siegemund (49).
Players such as No. 2 Kerber, No. 4 Simona Halep, No. 5 Dominika Cibulkova, No. 6 Garbiñe Muguruza and No. 8 Agnieszka Radwanska have not won a title this year. Only No. 3 Karolina Pliskova, with victories in Brisbane and Doha, and Konta – Sydney and Miami – have actually held up trophies at the end of a tournament week in 2017.
That brings the conversation to Sharapova. She had an excellent opportunity to reach the final in Stuttgart in her first tournament back from her drug suspension. There were three break points on the Kristina Mladenovic serve leading 6-3, 5-5 in the semifinals, but the Frenchwoman survived and prevailed 3-6, 7-5, 6-4. Sharapova seemed to tire and get sloppy on the forehand side as the match wore on.
The way things now stand, with her No. 262 ranking she didn’t make yesterday’s French Open qualifying cut-off. Last year the cut-off initially was No. 197 but wound up at No. 212 after withdrawals. (Note: that means Canadians – No. 191 Bianca Andreescu and No. 193 Francoise Abanda – will be in the qualifying that begins on May 22nd at Roland Garros.) Sharapova now has to depend on a wild card from the French Tennis Federation for the qualifying or possibly the main draw – a decision that is to be announced on May 16th.
Also intriguing will be the question of whether she can have good enough results in the upcoming WTA Premier events in Madrid and Rome to get down to the approximate cut-off of No. 108 for the Wimbledon main draw by the entry deadline of Monday, May 22nd.
No one knows for sure whether Wimbledon will award Sharapova a qualifying or main-draw wild card. But the committee at Wimbledon can be expected to be selective and unswerving. So getting her ranking down to No. 108 with her results in Madrid and Rome could be crucial for an assured spot at the Big W this year.
It looks like a semifinal in Madrid (390 points) would be close or good enough to get into the Wimbledon main draw. A combination of quarter-finals (405 points) in both Madrid and Rome would also appear to be adequate to make the Wimbledon main draw.
— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) April 29, 2017
As good as Sharapova looked in Stuttgart in ideal indoor playing conditions, moving outdoors for Madrid and Rome with more varied conditions could make things problematic for her low-margin-of-error game, as could tougher draws than the one in Stuttgart because she is, of course, not seeded.
The 30-year-old Russian is just another of the unpredictable elements in a current situation that makes the competition on both the men’s (exception made for clay-king Nadal) and women’s sides more ‘open’ than it has been in a long while.
Serena out and awaiting childbirth has removed the most intimidating presence among the women, while Djokovic’s form so far in 2017 – a record of 13-4 at tournaments and no titles since Doha in the very first week of the year – has created opportunities that did not exist for ATP players 12 months ago. Hard as it would have been to imagine at this time last year, when Djokovic was about to win the French Open to become the first man to hold all four Grand Slam titles since Rod Laver in 1969, by the end of this year’s Roland Garros on June 11th he could have none.
Milos Raonic, the top seed at the TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Op
en this week in Turkey, will be playing for the first time since withdrawing before a third-round match against Jared Donaldson at the Miami Open in March. He hasn’t played a match in 39 days – his last being a 6-3, 7-5 win over Viktor Troicki in his opening round in Miami.
So far in 2017 – bothered by recurring right adductor and hamstring issues – Raonic has played 13 matches and is 11-2 compared to 2016 at this time when he was 20-4 and had won Brisbane (Roger Federer), been a semifinalist at the Australian Open (Andy Murray) and a finalist (Novak Djokovic) at Indian Wells.
In February he did reach the Delray Beach final against Jack Sock but had to pull out after injuring his hamstring during a 6-3, 7-6(6) victory over Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals.
Raonic starts out against No. 58-ranked Aljaz Bedene of Britain, a 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-4 winner on Tuesday over No. 149 Marton Fucsovics, a wild card from Hungary.
Bedene, a native Slovenian, comes in as a form player having won two European Challenger events in a row on clay and then, as a qualifier, reaching last Sunday’s final of the ATP 250 Hungarian Open in Budapest where he lost 6-3, 6-1 to top seed Lucas Pouille.
It will be Raonic’s first meeting with the 27-year-old Bedene. If the ATP 250 draw went according to the seeding, Raonic, now ranked No. 6, would face Bernard Tomic (8) in the quarter-finals, Paolo Lorenzi (4) in the semifinals and Marin Cilic (2) in the final.
Caroline Wozniacki posted this picture on April 29th last week, the birthday of her basketballer boyfriend David Lee of the San Antonio Spurs. The 6-foot-9 American turned 34 and is in his 14th season in the NBA – having previously played for the Knicks, the Warriors, the Celtics and the Mavericks.