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October 12, 2014 Article

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Home Stretch 2014 -- On the Hard Courts of Asia
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

The magnificent triumphs of Marin Cilic and Serena Williams at U.S. Open 2014 altered considerably the year's pro-tennis picture. That picture, however, was still incomplete. The pro-tennis year was entering its home stretch, looking ahead to two months or so of action in main-tour, Challenger, and ITF-pro-circuit events.
 
The period promised some delicious tennis amid instability in rank among the leading pros. Four different men and four different women had won the year's Slams. Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams were the current leaders in the year-to-date-standings, but a dozen or so other stars remained in contention for the top eight places and entry into the year-end showdowns in London and Singapore. Meanwhile a restless population of younger risers seemed ready to break out upward.
 
The Far East offered a region of expected economic expansion, open to pro tennis's wish to grow. In the five weeks following U.S. Open -- from 8 September to 12 October -- the touring male and female pros would compete largely on the hard courts of eastern Asia.
 
WOMEN'S ASIAN SWING
 
Weeks 1 and 2 -- Hong Kong and Tokyo
 
Most top contenders among the women skipped the first week (starting September 8). Sabine Lisicki won Prudential Open in Hong Kong, defeating rising Karolina Pliskova in the final match. But week two (September 15) brought the Toray Pan-Pacific Open, in Tokyo, featuring most of the stars astride the Singapore cut-off.
 
Earning much attention in Tokyo was the tall, Spanish youth Garbine Muguruza, age 21, who defeated seeded Jankovic and subsequently reached the semis. There, she dueled furiously with Caroline Wozniacki, the former world #1, who Garbine had beaten in their two previous meetings. Garbine was the more aggresssive, heavier hitting player, while Caroline countered using her own mobility, determination, and accuracy, capturing the victory. Wozniacki's wizardry was next tested by another heavier-striking, aggressive opponent, where the weapons of Ana Ivanovic proved stronger than Muguruza's had been. Wozniacki d. Muguruza, 64 26 64, and Ivanovic d. Wozniacki, 62 76.
 
Tokyo cleared slightly the outlook for Singapore. Victoria Azarenka, the former world #1 who was returning from long absence caused by injury, lost early to Ivanovic and remained out of the picture. Angelique Kerber reached the semis but lost ground to Wozniacki. Thus when Li Na's announced her retirement from pro tennis, Wozniacki then took over eighth place and Kerber ninth in the Singapore race.
 
In the same week, Karolina Pliskova, 22 at height 6-1, won the tournament in Seoul, continuing her excellent results, and Monica Niculescu, 27, the one in Guangzhou.
 
Week 3 (22 September) -- Wuhan
 
All the top women came to the new Premier Five tournament in Wuhan, China, home city of Li Na. Serena withdrew during her first match with viral illness, and Sharapova lost in her second match to Timea Bacsinszky, 25, whose results had turned upward during the summer. (A foot injury had derailed Timea's career in 2011 after several years inside the top fifty.) Timea next again showed her fine court movement and stinging attack skills in winning her first set against Caroline Wozniacki. Timea eventually lost to a well-conditioned Wozniacki amid high heat and humidity.
 
Meanwhile several members of the youth brigade knocked out higher-ranked stars, resuming a pattern seen prior to U.S. Open. Vandeweghe and Pliskova scored successes early-on. Muguruza defeated Halep, who was third in the race for Singapore, Caroline Garcia defeated fourth-place Radwanska, and Svitolina beat Kerber, ninth.
 
Bigger tests for the brigadiers came in the semis. Succeeding brilliantly was Eugenie Bouchard, 20, seventh in the race, who overcame the high-riding Wozniacki with a barrage of attacking power, often finishing points at net, all amid excellent avoidance of error. Caroline tried to answer by stepping up matters, but Caroline's heaviest game lacked the weight of Eugenie's now in its full glory. The other semi-final was also won by the heavier attacker -- Petra Kvitova, fifth in the race, who had earlier dismissed risers Pliskova and Garcia. Her current opponent, Elina Svitolina, 20 (Ukraine), kept the score close but was undone by the strength of Petra's serving, which the younger player never solved, and Petra's first-strike rocketry to the corners. Bouchard d. Woniacki, 62 63, and Kvitova d. Svitolina, 63 75.
 
Kvitova's dominance continued on final-round Saturday. Bouchard tried to use her own big game, but the power of Petra in serving and striking captured control of points relentlessly often. Highly accurate in her service placement and often delivering 100-mph second serves, Petra again and again feasted on Eugenie's serve returns, plastering first-strike winners that were safely placed well inside the lines. Kvitova d. Bouchard, 63 64.
 
Petra's triumph at Wuhan guaranteed her one of the eight places at Singapore, Serena, Sharapova, and Halep having already qualified. Petra's latest performance suggested that her chances were good for winning against anyone there.
 
Week Four (29 September) -- Beijing
 
China Open in Beijing was the last of the WTA tour's four Premier Mandatory tournaments, below only the Slams and Singapore in money and points. The cool and dry air of northern China contrasted with the high temperatures and humidity at Wuhan one week earlier.
 
All the big girls were there, including the top nine in the year-to-date race. Top-seeded Serena and second-seeded Simona Halep both won three matches before withdrawing with knee and hip trouble, respectively. The tournament's top overachiever was Roberta Vinci, whose victims included seeded Radwanska and Kerber. Another surprise was Sam Stosur's first-round win over Wozniacki, later followed by Sam's reaching the semi-finals upon Serena's exit.
 
It came down to the two heaviest hitters after Serena -- Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova, earlier the winners at this year's Garros and Wimbledon, respectively. Not surprisingly, there were few strokes on this day that were not struck with full fury. That was especially true of Maria's, whose racket acceleration into every ball-strike was relentless, especially in her serve-returning. That, along with Maria's reach and athletic ability, together denied Petra her usual quota of aces and early point-dominance from serving. It was Maria's fourth tournament triumph of 2014, all won in three-set finals. Sharapova d. Kvitova, 64 36 62.
 
Week Five -- Osaka and Tianjin
 
The line-up for Singapore including the first alternate was now established. A few lesser tournaments remained. Stosur would win in Osaka, American Riske in Tianjin, and Pliskova at Linz. One more week of tour play will be next, followed by Singapore, properly known as BNP Paribas WTA Finals, October 20-26.
 
Shown here are the successful qualifiers and first alternate for Singapore, They are listed in order of their results during the five-week period following U.S. Open -- offered here as an indicator of their prospects at Singapore:
 
1. Kvitova -- won Wuhan
2. Sharapova -- won Beijing
3. Ivanovic -- won Tokyo
4. Kerber (alt)
5. Wozniacki
6. S. Williams
7. Halep
8. Bouchard
9. Radwanska
 
Tracking the Youth Brigade
 
Superstars of coming years can be tracked early-on as they invade the realm of the pros. One method is to compare results of young stars with those of their contemporaries:
 
Here are the top recent performers of Tennis Generation Future -- i.e., members of the female 19-and-under cohort (born in 1995 or after) -- as ranked by their results during Third Trimester 2014 to date.
 
Generation Future -- Top 19-and-unders during Third Trimester 2014 to date
1. Belinda Bencic, 17 (Switzerland)
2. Madison Keys, 19 (USA)
3. Carina Witthoeft, 19 (Germany)
4. Yulia Putintseva, 19 (Kazakhstan)
 
The achievements of Belinda Bencic at very young age are remarkable. Recently this new Swiss Miss reached the final eight at U.S. Open 2014, where she won four main-draw matches, three of them against seeded opponents. Earlier, at New Haven, she defeated Croatian Donna Vekic, the player who had preceded Belinda as the world's top teenager in the previous trimester. In October Belinda reached the final at Tianjin Open in Japan. A firm hitter at an athletic height of 5-9, Belinda long trained with the mother of Martina Hingis.
 
Belinda is the only teenager scoring inside the top group of the women's 22-and-under population (born in 1992 or after), below. These are the members of Tennis Generation Next, the ones most ready to challenge the superstars. They are ranked here by their performance in Third Trimester to date.
 
Generation Next -- Top 22-and-unders during Third Trimester 2014 to date
1. Karolina Pliskova, age 22 (Czech Rep)
2. Elina Svitolina, 20 (Ukraine)
3. Belinda Bencic, 17(Switzerland)
4. Eugenie Bouchard, 20 (Canada)
5. Zarina Diyas, 21 (Kazakhstan)
6. Anna-Lena Friedsam, 20 (Germany)
7. Zheng Saisai,20 (China)
8. Garbine Muguruza, 21 (Spain)
 
Karolina Pliskova, the leader in the above list, is a relative newcomer among the top performers among her contemporaries. Pliskova's upward jump includies a fine Asian Swing when she won the tournament in Seoul and was runner-up in Hong Kong, all followed by winning the October tournament at Linz. A strong server at height 6-1, she is a frequent doubles partner of twin sister Kristyna, who unlike Karolina is left-handed.
 
Asia's Women Pros
 
The strengths and limitations of players from eastern Asia were seen both in the WTA Far Eastern tour, described above, and in the Asian Games, held in South Korea, 24-30 September. Upon the departure of China's Li Na , a dozen other players from the region, seven of them from mainland China, remained inside the world's top 150. Highest ranked were China's Peng Shuai, age 28, and Japan's Kurumi Nara, who will be 23 in December, both in the world's top 40.
 
But it is the newer generation of Asian players that gives strong encouragement for the future. The women's team crown at Asian Games went to Chinese Taipei, led by two stars of prime tennis age. But it was Wang Qiang, 22 at height 5-8, from Tianjin, who won the women's singles event there. (Qiang had marched through the qualifiers and reached the round of 64 at U.S. Open 2014.) Several other young risers from mainland China scored upsets in recent tour action: Zheng Saisai, 20, defeated Jankovic in the second round at Tianjin, Zhu Lin, 20, defeated Pavlyuchenkova at Beijing, and Wang Yafan, 20, defeated Stosur at Guangzhou. Qiang, Saisai, and Lin now resided in the world's top-ranked 150.
 
But if China dominated within Asia's tennis youth, the year-end top-ranked Asian 22-and-under player remained Thailand's Luksika Kumkhum, 21 at 5-6, runner-up to Qiang at Asian Games. Meanwhile a number of Japanese young players populate the world's second 150. Early in age is Naomi Osaka, 17 at 5-11, born in Osaka in 1997, who last summer defeated Stosur at Stanford. Naomi played in the recent qualifiers at Tokyo but lost in the first round.
 
Given the growing interest in pro tennis there, a coming wave of stars from the Orient, especially from China, seems likely. That the fame and achievements of Li Na is having an important role in the emerging scenario is undoubted.
 
THE MEN'S RACE
 
The finish at U.S. Open 2014 left twelve players in serious contention for the showdown in London. Then ahead was Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic who, along with Federer and Garros-winner Nadal had already clinched places in London. Next came the year's other two Slam-winners -- Wawrinka and Cilic. The rest were fairly closely grouped reaching down to Jo-wilfried Tsonga, in twelfth place.
 
Jo-wilfried had been magnificent in winning Canadian Open in August, where he defeated Federer, Djokovic, Murray, and Dimitrov. He then lost to Murray in the round of sixteen at U.S. Open, but he recovered well the next week, winning two meaningful singles matches in France's victory over Germany in the Davis Cup semis. (See Appendix to this column for discussion of Davis Cup weekend.) But a loss to rising David Goffin in Jo-wilfried's second match at Moselle Open the following week left Tsonga still twelfth, now almost beyond contention.
 
The men's Asian Swing began in the third week after the Open (22 September). Only a few London contenders showed up -- Nishikori would triumph at Kuala Lumpur, Andy Murray at Shenzhen (near Hong Kong). But the simultaneous 500-point events in Beijing and Tokyo in week four brought forth all the aspirants except Federer.
 
The winner in Tokyo was Kei Nishikori, who bested Milos Raonic in a closely fought final. Both finalists, at age 24, strengthened their already solid credentials. (Nishikori will turn 25 in late December.) The two had split their two most recent meetings, Kei winning their five-setter at U.S. Open, Milos winning in four at Wimbledon. On this occasion it was again the unparalleled serving ability of the tall Canadian at height 6-5, backed by potent ground-strokes and overall skills, against the superior accuracy and mobility of the Japanese riser, 5-10, backed by an enthusiastic home-nation gallery. Slightly hindered by a back problem, Kei led through most of the final set, managing to answer Milos's thunder to reach and then decisively win the final game. Nishikori d. Raonic, 76 46 64.
 
Of high interest at Beijing was the performance of Rafael Nadal, who had been sidelined since Wimbledon with knee trouble. Rafa won his first match, playing patiently. His next opponent, fellow lefty Martin Klizan, 25, played firmly and aggressively, generally neutralizing Rafa's renowned attacking forehand by his own relentless strikes to the sides and corners largely without errors. Nadal showed flashes of his past brilliance both on defense and in attacking, but too often these efforts ended in unforced errors by Rafa. Rafa won the first set closely and led by a service break in both sets two and three. But Klizan's fine attacking and Rafa's disappointing play turned both sets to the native of Bratislava. Klizan d. Nadal, 67 64 63.
 
The week's prime matchup featured Djokovic against Andy Murray in the Beijing semis. It was the first meeting of two members of the recent Big Four since U.S. Open. Both men began carefully, rallying with moderate pace and placement, seldom forcing matters with high-risk shots, wary of contributing errors. Djokovic profited in this dance, when at deuce in game seven Murray errored consecutively on shots that were neither forced nor forcing. Set one to Djokovic.
 
Murray stepped up his forcefulness to start the second set, quickly gifting away the first game. He persisted, however, equalizing at 3-games all. But Djokovic was now stepping up his attacking, repeatedly winning points by coming to net, answering Andy's strongest blows to the corners with dazzling replies. The final tally showed Novak winning 14 of 18 points at net, Andy only 2 of 5. That Novak was the better player this date was clear. Andy could take satisfaction from having defeated Cilic earlier in the week. Djokovic d. Murray 63 64.
 
One day later Djokovic won his third straight crown at Beijing, routing Berdych in the final. His chances seemed good for success the next week at Shanghai, as Novak had won both events consecutively in both 2012 and 2013.
 
Shanghai 2014
 
All eight players currently in line for London were on hand at the 1,000-point Masters Series event in Shanghai, week five. Nadal, who was contending with a diagnosis of appendicitis, lost his first match. Federer faced five advese match points before finally beating Argentina's fine Leonardo Mayer. Wawrinka lost closely to Simon, Raonic withdrew after falling behind in his first match, and Marin Cilic proved unable to hold off an on-form Ivo Karlovic, whose ability in serving and in serve-and-volley and serve-and-first-strike play was at times unbeatable. American riser Jack Sock defeated Nishikori. David Ferrer defeated Murray and thereby stepped upward in the London race.
 
But the tournament's headline match was the semi-final between Federer and Djokovic. As expected, Roger was the less patient player, moving forward frequently and otherwise forcing play, thereby blunting Novak's recognized edge in extended rallies and probably in stamina. Federer emerged the victor, primarily because of two superior weapons. The first was Roger's often overlooked powerful backhand one-hander, which he unleashed almost to the exclusion of his backhand slice, often outdueling Novak in exchanges and indeed scoring many stunning winners from that side. The second was Roger's unmatched skill in net-attacking, which increasingly dominated play as the match lengthened, especially at crucial stages in closely fought games. Sir Roger was often dazzling in his volleying and overhead work. Federer d. Djokovic, 64 64.
 
Roger's final-round opponent was Gilles Simon, whose recent upward run included a close five-set loss to eventual champion Cilic at U.S. Open. At Shanghai Simon had beaten higher-seeded Wawrinka and Berdych in three-setters and had crushed Feliciano Lopez in the semis behind a diet of medium-paced but highly accurate forehands and backhands to the sides.
 
Probably realizing that a heavier game was needed against Federer, Simon stepped up matters from the start, winning game one on Roger's serve and regularly holding serve thereafter against Roger's raising of his own play. But serving for the set, Gilles gifted away the critical twelfth game. Then in the ensuing tiebreak game Gilles attained set point. But all Gilles's fine play became wasted when Roger seized the next three points including a backhand pass with Gilles in good position at net.
 
Set two saw Roger in fuller command, coming to net more than earlier but often less successfully than against Djokovic the day before. Simon had the greater trouble holding serve, but in game 12 the French star held two set points to break Roger. But with the loss of that opportunity, Gilles's resistance faltered early in the tiebreaker against Roger at his most relentless. Federer d. Simon 76 76.
 
London Outlook
 
Three weeks of tour play remained ahead including Paris Indoors, October 29. The line-up for the finale at the London O2 arena, November 9. remained incomplete. Here were the race's current top ten, listed here as ranked in our calculation Current Playing Results -- used here as predictor for success at London.
 
1. Roger Federer -- won Shanghai
2. Milos Raonic
3. Andy Murray -- won Shenzhen
4. Novak Djokovic -- won Beijing
5. Kei Nishikori-- won Kuala Kumpur and Tokyo
6. Marin Cilic
7. David Ferrer
8. Tomas Berdych
9. Stan Wawrinka
10. Rafael Nadal
 
Players scoring in the first ten but who are not apparently London-bound and not shown here are David Goffin, Jo-wilfried Tsonga, and Feliciano Lopez.
 
Tracking the Youth Brigade
 
Because male players generally reach a given level of pro success about two years later than women, the age cut-offs for our men's Tennis Generation Future and Tennis Generation Next listings are two years older than the women's.
 
Generation Future: Top male 21-and-unders during Third Trimester 2014 to date
1. Dominic Thiem, 21 (Austria)
2. Borna Coric, 18 (Croatia)
3. Nick Kyrgios, 19 (Australia)
4. Thanasi Kokkinakis, 18 (Australia)
 
Like Belinda Bencic among the women, Dominic Thiem and Borna Coric are leaders in both Generation Future and Generation Next. Note that the 24-year-olds, solidly at the top, will move out of Generation Next in 2015.
 
Generation Next: Top male 24-and-unders during Third Trimester 2014 to date
1. Milos Raonic, 24 (Canada)
2. David Goffin age 24 (Belgium)
3. Grigor Dimitrov, 23 (Bulgaria)
4. Jerzy Janowicz, 24 (Poland)
5. Vasek Pospisil, 24 (Canada)
6. Dominic Thiem, 21(Austria)
7. Jack Sock, 22 (USA)
8. Borna Coric, 18 (Croatia)
 
David Goffin, scoring unexpectedly high here, began Third Trimester with world ranking of only #87. But in July he won a Challenger tournament in Finland, defeating Nieminen, beginning a run of success that included a triumph at the main-tour event in Kitzbuhel, defeating Thiem. He reached the third round at U.S. Open, losing to Dimitrov, and he contributed two singles wins toward Belgium's Davis Cup win over Ukraine in September. He then won Moselle Open in Metz, defeating Tsonga enroute to the final, and then won the high-level Challenger in Mons in October. His sudden climb makes him a likely member of our next Watch list of risers, due in November.
 
Note that Kei Nishikori is not listed here, though his age is still just 24. He will turn 25 on December 29 this year, just before the January 1 boundary used in compiling the above lists. That scarcely diminishes the contribution of this budding superstar in the exciting flowering of tennis in his home country and region of the world.
 
-- Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, USA
 
APPENDIX --DAVIS CUP WEEKEND
 
The five weeks after the Open began with a wonderfully tailored Davis Cup weekend, 12-14 September.
 
There are few gaps in the career resume of Roger Federer, whose achievements already assure a perpetual place for Sir Roger in discussions of the sport's greatest players. Occasionally noted in the Federer resume, however, has been the absence of a Davis Cup crown for his nation, Switzerland. Year 2014 saw Swiss countryman, Stan Wawrinka, rise to capture Australian Open in January and then join Federer in winning Cup meetings against Serbia (lacking Djokovic) in January and against Kazakhstan in April. Switzerland thus became one of the four semi-final nations in this year's Cup play, and the Swiss meeting with Italy in Geneva attained special significance.
 
There was no surprise in the outcome. Federer and Wawrinka are both top-ten players, and their lesser-ranked Italian opponents were faced with an unfavorable, hard-court playing surface. Federer won two singles matches and Wawrinka one, all in straight sets, to complete the victory, three matches to one. (The Italians Bolelli-Fognini won the doubles, Federer not playing.) Switzerland thus advanced to the final round, scheduled in late November.
 
There was drama too at the weekend's other semi-final, held before full crowds in the 15,000-seat Chatrier outdoor arena at Roland Garros. On hand was a broad array of French tennis power including Tsonga, Monfils, Gasquet, Benneteau, and Llodra . The visiting opponent was the Cup champion nation of the last two years, Czech Republic, led by Berdych and Stepanek.
 
Again, the verdict favored the host nation, this affair settled in the first three matches. Tsonga and Gasquet proved dominant on the red clay. Both won straight-setters in singles on Friday, beating Berdych and Rosol, respectively, and together won the doubles on Saturday over Berdych-Stepanek.
 
It will be France against Switzerland in the Cup final in late November, the location indoors at Lille, in the north of France, the court surface clay. Some titanic tennis seems likely.
 
The September weekend also brought other high-level Cup tennis. The eight nations who lost in the first round of World Group action in February paired off against the eight surviving nations of Group 1 play. The winners would become members of World Group in 2015, the losers would be members of Group 1.
 
The results largely endorsed the status quo. Only two prospective rising nations were successful -- Croatia defeated Netherlands, where Cilic won the deciding fifth match, and Brazil defeated tennis-power Spain on indoor clay in Sao Paulo. (Bellucci won two singles and Melo-Soares the doubles; Spain's top-tenners Nadal and Ferrer did not play.) Nations successful in defending their World Group status were Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Serbia, and U.S.
 
Finally, the same weekend also entailed meets toward deciding promotion and relegation among Groups 1 and 2.
 

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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