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October 11, 2010
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The 2010 Race, Year-End Swing, And Asian Packages
by Ray Bowers
The Pro Tennis Year can be divided into six great sequences of events, or Swings, starting with Australian Swing each January. Following U.S. Open 2010, we entered the Year-End Swing, now in progress, which is almost entirely played on hard surfaces, outdoors and indoors.
Encompassed within Year-end Swing are the Asian packages -- overlapping sequences of men's and women's tournaments in China and elsewhere in eastern Asia. The Asian packages have been expanded in recent years, reflecting the economic importance of the Far East along with growing interest there in tennis. Their expansion seems a far-sighted, enterprising bid by ATP and WTA to advance pro tennis both as world sport and business.
Year-End Swing also includes the WTA and ATP Tour Finals, assembling the high point-gatherers -- the eight top women at Doha and the eight top men at London. Sometimes the Swing has a large role in deciding who finishes the year's points race as #1, thereby becoming the year's male or female champion. That did not happen this year on the men's side, where Rafael Nadal, by winning three of the year's four Slams, was already too far ahead after U.S. Open to be overtaken in the points race. Among the women, however, at least four contenders still had reasonable chances of capturing the final #1 honor.
Amid the attention to determining the year's champion, relatively little public notice goes to who finishes in positions #2 and below, although the annual top-ten lists are usually given in historical compilations and have large role in summarizing overall achievement. This year, the late sorting-out within the top group promised plenty of volatility, especially on the women's side.
WOMEN'S 2010 RACE
Serena Williams took the early lead in the 2010 race by capturing Australian Open. Sidelined thereafter, she yielded first place to Venus following big-sister's runner-up finish at the Sony Erickson in Miami. Strong showings on the Garros clay lifted Samantha Stosur and Jelena Jankovic slightly ahead of Serena and very close to Venus, who was still first. But Serena's triumph at Wimbledon 2010, where she won all seven matches without loss of a set, restored her to first place in the year-to-date race, well ahead of Venus and several others, all of whom were fairly closely grouped. (Behind Venus were Jankovic, Stosur, Henin, Garros winner Schiavone, and Wimbledon runner-up Zvonareva.) Quietly in eighth place, was Caroline Wozniacki, 19.
Caroline's surge to the top started quietly in early August, when she won her home-nation tournament in Copenhagen. After a quick exit at Cincinnati, she then captured the Premier Five tournament in Montreal, beating Schiavone, Kuznetsova, and Zvonareva. Then in the week preceding U.S. Open, she completed a remarkable month by winning the Premier tournament in New Haven, beating Petrova and Dementieva. Her run lifted her to second place for the year to date, behind only Serena, who had injured her foot and had not competed since Wimbledon.
Wozniacki looked strong at U.S. Open in reaching the final four, but in the semis she was stunned by Zvonareva. Her early-round wins, however, were enough to lift her ahead of Serena for the year to date. (Serena, who missed the Open, remained slightly ahead in the rolling-12-month rankings.) Kim Clijsters, who won the Open, moved up to third place for the year, and Open runner-up Zvonareva was now fourth. Venus and the others who had been grouped behind her followed.
Caroline Wozniacki is not the heaviest stroker on tour, nor is her serve overpowering in its effect. Nor is she the best mover, and if her consistency is an excellent asset, her deliveries lack the precision of, say, the early Martina Hingis. But in tennis, it is not necessary to be the best player in a tournament in order to win that event. It is only necessary to defeat the player across the net on each given day. And by now the evidence had become unmistakable -- the new leader from Denmark has a knack for winning matches.
The women's Asian package began quietly. Moscow-born Kudryavsteva was runner-up in Guangzhou and won at Tashkent, and fellow Russian Kleybanova won at Seoul. Most members of the world's top eight then joined the action at the Pan-Pacific in Tokyo and the China Open in Beijing, ending on 2 and 9 October, respectively. (Injury problems kept Clijsters and the Williamses sidelined.)
The Pan-Pacific semi-finals brought an interesting match-up pitting Wozniacki, 20, and her one-year-older rival, the harder-hitting and mercurial-tempered Victoria Azarenka. The two were of equal height, at 5-10, Victoria seemingly the trimmer. Caroline prevailed in three sets, stepping up her aggressiveness in stroking and placement as if to belie her reputation for defensiveness. Both players showed potent backhand two-handers and willingness to use them in opening up matters. Caroline's serving was the more effective, as Victoria double-faulted excessively and missed too many serve-returns. Caroline in stretches nearly matched Victoria in showing stormy temperament. Wozniacki d. Azarenka 62 67 64.
Wozniacki's final-round opponent in Tokyo was veteran Elena Dementieva, who had advanced by defeating top-eighters Zvonareva and Schiavone and who now, like Azarenka, stood only slightly outside the top-eight group. Elena at once asserted her strong game, dominating the first set while Wozniacki struggled to find her consistency. Caroline gradually improved thereafter, raising her own forcefulness, indeed often holding the inititive over Elena even while cutting down her own error-making. Early in the third set, both players were at their best amid many hard-fought points. But with Elena ahead at 2-3, the Wozniacki backhand became the foremost weapon on court, and the Danish youth captured the last four games over a perhaps tiring and mentally worn Elena. Wozniacki d. Dementieva, 16 62 63.
The cast reasembled in Beijing for the last of the year's four "Premier Mandatory" tournaments, which at 1,000 ranking points for the winner are the richest in points after the Slams and Doha. Again, Wozniacki advanced through the field without loss of a set, though she seemed flat in defeating Shahar Peer in their semi. Meanwhile Vera Zvonareva was more impressive in reaching the final round, beating five opponents, among them Safina and Schiavone. Her semi-final opponent was the Chinese star Li Na, but Li's potent ground game failed badly against Vera amid a nightmare of close errors by Na. Zvonareva d. Li, 63 63.
The rain-delayed final was played Monday evening, October 11. Zvonareva was the player who had humbled Wozniacki in the semis at U.S. Open and had now fought her way upward to #2 in the year-to-date rankings. Caroline had won their previous meeting, in the final round in Montreal in August. The outcome was important for both. A win by Caroline would practically guarantee her first-place finish at year's end, while a win by Vera would leave matters to be decided between the two at Doha.
Zvonareva captured the first break of serve but then lost the first set. Vera recovered strongly to take the second set, scoring impressive winners in stretches and regularly serving with precision. But Caroline's relentless pressure founded upon her superior avoidance of error ultimately told. Aferwards Caroline summed up matters, as reported by writer Hal Spivack, "I tried to keep pressure on her, tried to keep her moving, and I thought we played a really, really good match." The remark seemed to capture not only Caroline's winning tactics but also a seldom-seen sense of how both players contribute in the making of the greatness of a match. Wozniacki d. Zvonareva, 63 36 63.
Here was the year-to-date top-ten list imediately following Beijing, updated here from the previous week's WTA data. (Note that the winner at Doha can earn no more than 1,500 points.)
-- #1. Caroline Wozniacki, 7,270 ranking points. Her almost unbroken stretch of success since early August gives her commanding position in the 2010 race.
-- #2. Vera Zvonareva, 6,098. Vera passed Serena and Clijsters during Year-End Swing to reach #2 in the year's race, comfortably ahead of Serena given only moderate success at Doha by Vera.
-- #3. Serena Willliams, 5,355 points. Out of action since Wimbledon owing to foot injury, Serena's chances at Doha cannot be dismissed, as she shows a history of returning to top form promptly after long absences.
-- #4. Kim Clijsters, 5,295 points. Sidelined since winning U.S. Open with infected foot. Her return is anticipated shortly.
-- #5. Venus Williams. 4,985 points. Will be out of action through the end of 2010 with continuing knee trouble.
-- #6. Francesca Schiavone, 4,594 points. Reached semis at Tokyo and quarters at Beijing. Is clearly on the rise.
-- #7. Sam Stosur, 4,568 points. Lost her first match at both Tokyo and Beijing. Won her first match at Osaka.
-- #8. Jelena Jankovic, 4,236 points. Lost her second match at both Tokyo and Beijing.
-- #9. Elena Dementieva, 4,085 points. Performed well all year belying a mediocre W-L record for the year. Reached finals at Tokyo, carrying Wozniacki to three sets.
If Wozniacki indeed claims the year's points crown, which seems almost certain, and especially if Serena adds the title at Doha to her two Slams of 2010, it will add spice to our forthcoming selection of female nominee for our Player of the Year honor. Caroline will be attractive as the younger and rising star and as the year's official champion. Serena could be irresistable, however, because of her strong upward move during the year in career achievement and in her ultimate status among the game's legends. How well Caroline performs at Doha against Serena and Clijsters, if these superstars indeed participate, will help in making the choice. Caroline's past record against these very strong strikers has been poor.
Is it right that a player be deemed a year's champion without winning at least one Slam? Two years ago, Jelena Jankovic won the WTA crown without winning a Slam and without winning at Doha. How points are allocated in Slams and other tournaments thus comes under examination.
Note that both WTA and ATP award 2,000 ranking points to the winner of a Slam. The runner-up gets 1,400 points in the WTA scheme, 1,200 in ATP's, while losing semi-finalists get 900 from WTA, 720 from ATP. Thus WTA, in comparison with ATP, diminishes the reward for being a Slam champion relative to other late-round achievers. Further hint that Slam-winning is undervalued in points is seen in the usual allocation of prize money, where -- in contrast -- a Slam winner earns double the runner-up.
Improving the point rewards for tournament champions relative to runners-up and other late-round achievers would improve the likelihood that a Slam-winner would become the year's points champion. If now in effect, for example, such a scheme would have kept Slam-winners Serena and Clijsters into plausible contention deeper into the final stretch run.
MEN'S 2010 RACE
Winning Australian Open placed Roger Federer atop the early men's standings for 2010. Then Andy Roddick's runner-up finish at Indian Wells and triumph at Miami lifted the American slightly ahead of Roger. But these fine achievements were soon overtaken by the magnificent 2010 run of Rafael Nadal that came next.
Rafa won all three 1,000-Series clay tournaments -- at Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid -- and he then captured Garros without losing a set. Rafa's total in points earned in 2010 thus became far ahead of all others. (Federer and Soderling were now second and third in the race.) Rafa's lead again grew when he next captured Wimbledon, winning the final against Berdych, who had beaten Federer.
Mid-summer brought Andy Murray's triumph in Toronto and Federer's in Cincinnati. Roger thus strengthened his second-place hold, and Andy moved into third. Next, Nadal's great triumph at U.S. Open further expanded his lead, making Rafa the certain champion for the full year. Runner-up at Flushing Meadows was Djokovic, who lost to Rafa in four sets after beating Federer in five. Djokovic thereby passed Murray into third place.
The aforementioned seven superstars -- The Big Four plus Soderling, Roddick, and Berdych -- were now clearly our elite group, in command of the top seven places in the year's rankings. Three of them played in the early events of the men's Asian package, where all three were beaten by lower-ranking opponents. In Bangkok Nadal lost to firm-stroking Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, while in Kuala Lumpur Berdych lost to David Ferrer and Soderling lost to Andrey Golubev. (Garcia-Lopez went on to win the tournament at Bangkok, Ferrer soon afterwards penetrated the first eight, while Golubev's year ended with injury trouble.)
Early October then brought the China and Japan Opens, featuring six of our elite seven (minus Federer) plus nearly all members of the next echelon. Viewed from afar, the simultaneous 500-Series tournaments seemed like a single 1,000-Series (i.e., Masters Series) tournament but without a final round.
It was mid-afternoon under bright skies in Tokyo, Friday, October 7, the retractable roof fully open, the court surface relatively slick and fast. The two had met seven times in the past, the edge narrowly to Gael Monfils, though Andy Roddick had won three of four on nonclay surfaces. Both men had hopes for a strong finish to the year, and both were playing at their best -- determined, forceful tennis, yet largely error-free. Often it came down to Andy's forceful net approaching and volleying against Gael's lightning speed and counter-punching.
The first-set-ending tiebreaker began with a 46-shot rally that ended when the French player blistered a backhand into Roddick's forehand corner, untouched by Andy. Andy fell further behind but then managed to equalize the tiebreaker at five points all, playing aggressively.The set then ended in thrilling fashion -- a fine backhand pass by Gael and a volley error by Andy under heavy pressure.
The second set produced the only service break of the match, when Andy produced a fine pass followed by an even better net-attack. In the third set, Andy had the greater difficulty holding serve, but in the tiebreak game the American fought to a 5-2 lead. But after that Monfils would win six of the last seven points, three of them with deceptively directed aces. There was a sense that these two would meet again this year on yet larger stage. Monfils d. Roddick, 76 46 76.
Rafael Nadal's path through the first three rounds had been comfortable -- perhaps too much so, as Rafa in the semi-finals seemed unready for the unexpectedly bold game of Victor Troicki. Rafa never really solved the potent serving, the more-than-occasional net attacking, and the intervening blisters to the corners by the sinewy Serb. As the third set reached its climax, the full gallery reacted with spontaneity and noise after every point -- a rarity in Asian tennis-watching. Rafa served for the match, leading 53, but could not withstand Troicki's strong net play. Soon afterwards Viktor served for the match, leading 65, but fell victim to two double-faults and two utter dumps by himself.
Gone by now was any hint of the softish sparring delivered earlier by Rafa, which had only eased Viktor's attacking. Twice in the final tiebreaker, Viktor held match point, once when receiving serve, once when serving. The second opportunity vanished in yet another net dump, and Rafa closed out soon afterwards, before an exhausted gallery. Nadal d. Troicki, 76 46 76.
But in the Sunday final there would be no holding back, no temporizing. Against Monfils, Rafa started out with full aggressiveness, ripping the forehand relentlessly to the sides with superb precision, coming to net occasionally, dominating entirely . The first set ended quickly, as Gael summoned little resistance to Rafa's determined attacking, Gael's serve unable to command points as had Troicki's. The French player fended better in set two, but yielded two errors in serving the eleventh game and Rafa collected two lucky points to settle matters. Nadal d. Monfils, 61 75.
Matters were more subdued at the former Olympics site in Beijing. Ferrer reached the final by defeating Soderling by comfortable scores and then surviving a difficult three-setter against Ljubicic. In the latter showdown on Saturday evening, both Ferrer and Ljubicic played moderately aggressively, and both showed more-than-occasional fine net play. The veteran Croatian had the more penetrating strokes, especially the backhand, which often opened his way to net. At score 4-4 in the third set, Ljubicic faded slightly, becoming outmaneuvered and yielding several forehand errors on critical points. David responded with his usual unrelenting determination. Ferrer d. Ljubicic, 64 46 64.
Meanwhile Novak Djokovic, without losing a set, marched comfortably to his Sunday final-round meeting with Ferrer. Wet weather intervened, however, delaying and halting play after Novak claimed an early break of serve. It scarcely mattered, however, as Djokovic's power game prevailed on Monday in straight sets. After a fine early start, as Djokovic afterwards noted (reported on ATP web site), "I kind of lost the rhythm... and it wasn't really a nice-looking match from both sides. We made a lot of unforced errors." Djokovic d. Ferrer, 62 64.
Here are the year-to-date standings through Tokyo and Beijing, unofficially compiled here. Only the first three have assured themselves places in London.
-- #1. Rafael Nadal, 11,405 ranking points.
-- #2. Roger Federer, 6,105
-- #3. Novak Djokovic, 5,125
-- #4. Andy Murray, 4,135.
-- #5. Robin Soderling, 4,085.
-- #6. Tomas Berdych, 3,570.
-- #7. Andy Roddick, 3.350.
-- #8. David Ferrer, 3,125.
Much action lies ahead before the final reckoning. The 1,000-point tournament at Shanghai is now starting, where the entry list includes all eight of the above leaders. After that, four weeks of men's tournaments in Europe lie ahead, including the historic Paris Indoors, starting 8 November, also offering 1,000 points to the winner. The Year-end Tour Final, formerly Masters Cup, comes two weeks later, indoors in London, featuring delicious match-ups among the elites along with a last sorting-out among the positions behind Nadal. The Davis Cup final occurs two weeks after that, extending into December.
The women, on the other hand, have resolved to shorten the tennis year in order to expand the end-of-year break. Thus the women's Year-End Final, played outdoors at Doha starting 25 October, is almost here. After Doha comes an indoor event in Bali for players not qualifying for Doha, and Fed Cup follows one week after that, all ending in early November. One month from now, the women's pro tennis year will be over, and we will here select our female nominee for Player of the Year. After that, whether the players use the extra break time in order to rest and recover or whether they perform in various exhibitions will be seen.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
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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.