There was no Novak, Roger or Andy, no Serena, Maria or Venus – not even Milos or Genie – but last week still produced an abundance of compelling plotlines at tournaments on four different continents.
In terms of feel good stories there was none better than the return of Juan Martin del Potro at the ATP 250 event in Delray Beach, Florida.
The 27-year-old Argentine has pretty well been to hell and back with his left wrist problems. In the 15 months from March (2014) until June (2015), he underwent three surgeries at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. His ranking, which had been as high as No. 4 in January 2010, four months after he won the 2009 US Open, was at a low of No. 1045 the week before he played Delray Beach.
In 2015, he won two matches in Sydney in January (Mikhail Kukushkin and Fabio Fognini) before being beaten by Sergiy Stakhovsky and then lost 6-3, 7-6(4) to Vasek Pospisil at the Miami Open in March. That was the extent of his season.
Last week in Delray Beach he equaled that total of matches, defeating Denis Kudla, John-Patrick Smith and Jeremy Chardy before falling 7-5, 7-5 to Sam Querrey in the semifinals.
The three wins boosted his ranking from outside the Top 1000 to No. 420.
It was an encouraging experience for him, partly because he was obviously still vulnerable on the two-handed backhand side. He hit tentative double-handers well below full-force, and mixed in a lot of sliced backhands. But he served great, pounded the forehand as only he can and moved remarkably well.
“I can confirm I will play in Indian Wells (week of March 6),” del Potro said after the loss to eventual winner Querrey, “which is good news for me. I have a few weeks to rest and to train. I will be there to play another tournament and I’m looking forward to the future. I can start to make a plan to play more tournaments. I have many positive things to take from this.”
Summing up his first event in 11 months, del Potro said, “this week I won more than a tournament. I’m glad to play tennis again.”
Although he moved up two spots to No. 26 by reaching the Delray Beach semifinals, Grigor Dimitrov continues to be a mystery to many tennis followers. With a great chance to get to the final by beating No. 89-ranked Rajeev Ram, Dimitrov lost 6-4, 6-3 to the 31-year-old American.
Turning 25 in less than three months, the Bulgarian has not built on the results – including a 2014 Wimbledon semifinal – that got him as high as No. 8 in August of that year. At his last four Grand Slam events, he has a modest 5-4 match record.
It was another disappointing week for Rafael Nadal. Playing on clay in Rio de Janeiro, he was beaten 6-7(6), 7-6(3), 6-4 by Pablo Cuevas in a semifinal thriller. There were more inexplicable and un-Rafa-like moments during the match – including a double fault when he served at 6-4 (double set point) in the first-set tiebreak and a disturbing patch of sketchy misfires after Cuevas broke his serve to lead 4-3 in the final set.
“I lost an opportunity,” said the glass half-full Spaniard. “I have to accept it and keep working to try to change the dynamic.”
As brutal a loss as it was for Nadal, it was inspirational for Cuevas, a 30-year-old Uruguayan. He had knee surgery in October 2011 and was out of action from May 2011 until April 2013 and from May 2013 until August 2013. In the final, Cuevas, father of a 16-month daughter named Alfonsina, won a grueling 6-7(6), 7-6(3), 6-4 victory over Guido Pella of Argentina. “I’m very happy to win my first (ATP) 500 title, especially after winning a special semifinal against one of the greatest players ever on clay (Nadal),” Cuevas said.
Canadian fans might recall his opponent Pella. He played Jesse Levine in the opening round at Wimbledon in 2013 and tore a hamstring in the eighth game of the fifth set and had to be carted of the court.
On the women’s tour at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, the bottom fell out of the draw as the top eight seeds – Halep (1), Muguruza (2), Suarez Navarro (3), Kvitova (4), Pliskova (5), Bencic (6), Vinci (7) and Kuznetsova (8) – were all beaten in their opening matches.
Sara Errani wound up picking up the pieces, winning her ninth WTA singles title with a one-sided 6-0, 6-2 victory over Barbora Strycova in the final.
The 29-year-old Italian, who ranked as high as No. 5 in 2013, was No. 22 when the seedings were done for Dubai and she was four spots from getting one. At $465,480 (US), it was the biggest payday of her career next to the compensation she received for being runner-up to Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros in 2012.
While Errani was the unexpected winner in Dubai, another Italian surprised the tennis world with her win at the International Series level Rio Open in Rio de Janeiro. Francesca Schiavone, generally an after-thought these days, entered the tournament ranked No. 114 and was not seeded. She wound up as the champion with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory over American Shelby Rogers in the final. (The 23-year-old Rogers is best known for upsetting Genie Bouchard at the 2014 Rogers Cup in Montreal in the hometown girl’s first match after being a Wimbledon finalist.)
It was Schiavone’s seventh career title, and her first since Marrakech in 2013. Always one of the more fun-loving, outgoing women on the tour, she provided the Brazilian crowd with a charming speech in Portuguese after her victory. “I’m really happy to be here today,” she said. “I wrote this speech this morning, regardless of the result, because I wanted to share my joy with you.
“Today is a happy day and I’m very emotional because Brazil is such a wonderful country. Your smile fulfilled my days here and I wish you the best for the Olympic Games.
“I want to thank everybody who helped me, and now it’s time to enjoy.”
For the record, Schiavone is 35 years old and her June 23rd birthday makes her six days younger than Venus Williams who won the Taiwan Open in Taipei two weeks ago.
Still on the subject of age, 20-year-old Nick Kyrgios won the first of what are expected to be many titles when he defeated Marin Cilic 6-2, 7-6(3) to emerge victorious at the ATP 250 tournament in Marseille.
Kyrgios, now ranked No. 33, didn’t lose his serve all week and upset two Top 10 players – No. 10 Richard Gasquet and No. 8 Tomas Berdych.
At 6-foot-4, he has clearly, along with 6-foot-6 Alexander Zverev, 18, established himself as the best of the young generation of players.
“I didn’t really expect to win this title this week after having a couple of weeks off,” said the Canberra native, “but from the first round I started playing really well and just gained confidence as I kept winning matches.”
Kyrgios, who has been a controversial figure and can be surly on the court, looked a little uncomfortable amid all the talk going on in French during the presentation ceremony. But he won over the crowd at the very end of his speech when he said in French, “J’adore fromage” (I love cheese).
BOUCHARD ESCAPES IN DOHA
Genie Bouchard made a successful return to competition on Sunday at the Qatar Total Open in Doha. Playing for the first time since losing in the second round of the Australian Open to No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, Bouchard had to save two match points in a tense 5-7, 6-3, 7-6(4) victory over qualifier Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia. Bouchard rallied from a 4-0 deficit in the final set, saving two match points trailing 6-5 – the first with a good kick second serve that Sevastova didn’t return and the second with a big forehand the Latvian couldn’t handle.
Bouchard used emojis to express her feelings after escaping against Sevastova.
— Genie Bouchard (@geniebouchard) February 21, 2016
As was the case in her three tournaments in January – Shenzhen (China), Hobart (Tasmania) and the Australian Open – Bouchard showed few signs of the confidence problems and tentative play that haunted her from March through August last year. There certainly was some inconsistent tennis but she maintained her composure throughout and that has to be a good sign going forward.
She continued her fine play on Tuesday, defeating No. 62-ranked Denisa Allertova of Czech Republic 7-6(0), 7-5 and next will face Zheng Saisai, a surprise 7-5, 6-1 winner over an out-of-sorts Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber. The 22-year-old Chinese is ranked No. 73.
Kerber was the top seed at the $2.8 million (US) Premier 5 event. With the 105 points she has already earned for reaching the third round, Bouchard looks like her current No. 61 ranking will move up to about No. 50.
BEST BUDS DOUBLE UP
Philip Bester and Peter Polansky – pictured above during Davis Cup in Ecuador in July 2011 – have always been great friends. Both are 27 years old and came up through the ranks together – Bester was runner-up at the 2006 French Open junior event while Polansky was the finalist three months later in the US Open juniors.
Last week they combined for the doubles title at the Morelos Open in Morelos, Mexico, defeating Marcelo Arevalo of El Salvador and Sergio Galdos of Peru 6-4, 3-6, [10-6] in the final. It was a $50,000 (US) Challenger tournament.
SEEN IN THE CROWD
Among the spectators at the Delray Beach Open last week was well-known Australian golf champion Greg Norman. A longtime tennis fan, Norman, 61, and his third wife attended a Grigor Dimitrov match.
SERENA IN REPOSE
Not much has been heard from Serena Williams since she lost in the final of the Australian Open to Angelique Kerber. She has pulled out of tournaments in Dubai and Doha and apparently seems to be using the time to catch up on her ‘zzzz’s.’