Springtime in North America brought the wondrous tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami. The dry desert air of the California desert contrasted with the usual humidity in Florida, but otherwise the two events seemed like twins -- together equal in importance to a Slam.
Amid superb weather except for the final weekend, events at Indian Wells were spoiled only by a nasty virus strain, which forced withdrawal of more than a few players including the top-seeded Bryans in men's doubles. Weather was even more cooperative in Miami though winds were sometimes annoying. Especially in Miami, ball travel and bounce were said to be on the slow side.
Victoria Azarenka's march to the trophy at Indian Wells was impressive. It was her fourth tournament triumph of 2012 without defeat. Hers is a power-based ground game that creates persistent pressure against any opponent, backed by Vika's excellent mobility and her capability for winner-striking when opportunity arises. Victoria's game is big but it also yields few errors.
The start was inauspicious for Victoria, who faced near-defeat at the hands of rising German player Mona Barthel. Victoria was not at her best, perhaps weakened by recent virus symptoms and not yet fully comfortable with local playing conditions. But after squeezing past Barthel, Victoria became dominating in her successive victories over Kuznetsova, Goerges, Radwanska, and Kerber.
Perhaps only left-handed Petra Kvitova had the firepower required to defeat Victoria at her best. At Indian Wells Kvitova started off strongly against American teenager Christina McHale, Petra won the first set by nailing the corners regularly with rockets scarcely touched by Christina. But the American's resistance stiffened in the second set, and when Petra found herself no longer winning easily, her accuracy suddenly vanished. Amid a growing sequence of unforced errors, even as Christina continued to improve in her countering, the result was a dismal three-set loss for the reigning Wimbledon champ.
Azarenka's final-round opponent was Maria Sharapova, who had lost to Victoria in their Australian Open final. Now, at Indian Wells, Maria played well, serving and driving with characteristic forcefulness. But Azarenka answered nearly every thrust by Maria, moving well to the corners, replying with firm pace and safe placement, holding down errors. Meanwhile whenever Maria offered something soft, there was Victoria to strike with full force, almost always finding a corner. Behind by a set and two breaks, Maria exploited a late tailwind to reduce the margin on the scoreboard, but upon the change of ends, Victoria's superiority resumed. Azarenka d. Sharapova, 62 63.
It was hard to envision any of the fallen at Indian Wells suddenly defeating Azarenka at Miami. The second, third, and fourth seeds at Miami -- Sharapova, Kvitova, and Wozniacki -- had all been clearly outclassed by Victoria the week before. Present in Miami, however, were three superstars who had been absent at Indian Wells. Now returning to action after long injury-related or illness-related absences were Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters, and Venus Williams. All three were past champions at Miami, together having triumphed there a total of ten times. High drama seemed likely.
Surprises came early. Of the 32 seeded players, nearly half lost their first match. Petra Kvitova lost to Venus Williams, who had been away from tournament action since U.S. Open but now shredded Petra's serving games in winning the third set at love. Kim Clijsters, far from top form and seemingly bothered by an injury, was dismissed by Belgian countrywoman Wickmayer. Azarenka had trouble with undersized Dominika Cibulkova, who won the first set and led 51 in the second, showing surprising power and excellent mobility. Almost too late, Victoria closed the margin and finished strongly. Meanwhile the primary intruder into the middle rounds was Spanish wild-card entrant Garbine Muguruza Blanco, 18, who scored victories over seeded Vera Zvonareva and Flavia Pennetta.
Order returned thereafter, so that the final eight included six who were seeded to that level. The two intruders were Serena and Venus Williams. But the quarter-finals proved unkind to the sisters. Serena lost to Caroline Wozniacki, who produced a surprisingly potent and aggressive ground game to go with her customary excellent consistency and mental strength. Caroline's backhand became the dominating stroke of the evening. Venus then exited the next afternoon, her stamina insufficient for overcoming the controlled play of her highly mobile opponent, Agnieszka Radwanska.
All three super-veterans -- Venus, Serena, and Kim Clijsters -- thus failed to reach the final four. Next, Azarenka was knocked out by the bouncy French star Marion Bartoli, whose energetic attacking countered the effects of Vika's heavy bombardment. Midway in set three Vika became distressed over apparent leg trouble, and the final few games went quickly, Marion now refusing to miss.
In the semis against Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki largely abandoned the forceful tactics that had surprised Serena. Now, the Danish star was content to hit relatively softly, extending points and avoiding errors, allowing Maria to dominate play. Maria misfired often enough to keep the score close, but the tall megastar managed to close out at the finish despite Caroline's late return to heavier hitting. Then in the other semi, Agnieszka Radwamska and Marion Bartoli produced many extended points, but neither was able to overpower the other or was willing to risk trying. Amid many breaks of serve, Agnieska pulled ahead when Bartoli began having leg problems.
Agnieszka Radwanska, age 23, height just 5-8, had lost only four matches in 2012 to date, all of them losses to Azarenka. The stock of the young Polish player was plainly rising -- she had climbed from #14 to #8 during 2011 and was now the #5 seed at Miami. Now, in the final-round match at Miami, Agnieszka faced Maria Sharapova. Maria produced her best serving, generating high first-serve in-court and point-winning percentages and a second serve that Maria sometimes bounced high to Agnieszka's backhand. Throughout the match Maria was the dominant player, seeking and unfailingly taking the offensive, especially in returning Agnieszka's serve. But Agnieszka was skilled in extending points and effective in denying Maria frequent easy winners. In both sets, service-breaks were nonexistent until the final moments. But in both sets, matters were decided in a brief spell of error-making by Maria in moments of high pressure. Radwanska d. Sharapova, 75 64.
Radwanska's triumph lifted her to #4 in the official rankings, displacing Wozniacki. She also was one of the two top overachievers or risers at Miami, exceeding her seeded place in the first eight by attaining the semis, final, and then winning. That equated to three levels of overachieving. Venus Williams likewise achieved three levels by, while unseeded, reaching the rounds of 32, 16, and 8. (The top overachiever at Indian Wells had been Angelique Kerber, who was seeded in the top 32 and attained three levels higher.)
If we combine the two tournaments, the top gatherer of ranking points in singles was Sharapova, who finished second in both events. Next came Azarenka and Radwanska, each winning one of the tournaments and reaching the quarters in the other.
In the doubles, eight entirely different pairs composed the final four at the two tournaments. The Americans Huber-Raymond won at Indian Wells, the Russians Kirilenko-Petrova at Miami. Meanwhile no player at either tournament came close to achieving the "double" (winning both singles and doubles). The closest were Azarenka at Indian Wells and Radwanska in Miami, where in both tournaments the singles champion won one doubles match. There was no mixed doubles at either event.
The tally of match wins by nation produced a surprise at Indian Wells. The Russian women had finished ahead in the previous five years, but this year the Russkayas were outscored by the U.S. women by the margin of one-half win. The Americans were lifted by five doubles victories by Huber-Raymond. Also important, reducing the strong Russian edge in singles, were three main-draw singles wins by Jamie Hampton and two by Christina McHale. Here is the final tally at Indian Wells. (Each winning partner in a doubles match earns one-half credit for her nation.)
U.S.A., 17.5 match wins
Czech Republic, 13.5
With the Williams sisters present in Miami, it seemed possible that the Americans could repeat. But the U.S. pair Huber-Raymond exited in the first round of doubles, and Sloane Stephens was the only American joining the sisters in reaching the third round of singles. The Russians finished far ahead in the count, led by runner-up Sharapova in singles and the champion pair, Kirilenko-Petrova, in doubles. Here is the final Miami tally:
Russia, 21 match victories
A NEW WATCH LIST
Announced here is a new watch list, predicting the most likely risers for the next twelve months. The prediction computations are based primarily on player performance in 2012's first trimester (just completed and thus representing current level of play), compared with the player's previous best-ever ranking, along with adjustments for player age and height. Our selectees are generally younger than those chosen for previous lists. Shown below are player age, height, current official ranking, and predicted target ranking twelve months hence.
Timea Babos, 18, 5-10, currently #68, target #30. Having turned pro in 2011 and then achieving a strong record in the ITF circuit, this 18-year-old from Hungary made a large mark in the main-tour Latin American circuit of 2012. There she reached the semis on clay at Bogota and won the hard-court event in Monterrey, defeating Cirstea and Errani. She previously partnered Sloane Stephens in winning the junior doubles at Garros, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open.
Garbine Muguruza Blanco, 18, 6-1, currently #146, target #62. Born in Venezuela and grown in Spain, this new star unexpectedly won the early-March ITF women's-circuit event in Clearwater, Florida, there defeating three stars ranked in the world's first 130. A right-hander with good tallness and strong physique, Garbine then stunned the tennis world at the main-tour event in Miami, defeating Japanese player Morita, ninth-seeded Vera Zvonareva, and Italian veteran Flavia Pennetta, showing plenty of muscle amid an assertive, attacking game. The amazing run of the newcomer finally ended in the fourth round against Agnieszka Radwanska.
Angelique Kerber, 24, 5-8, currently #16, target #8. Angelique appeared on our watch list of risers at the end of 2011 and is now one of the few to have appeared on successive lists. Her improved results accelerated in the first trimester of 2012, including a W-L record of 8-3 in the Australian Swing, a triumph at Paris Indoors, and a semi-final finish at Indian Wells, where she contended well in losing to Azarenka. She then lost in the first round at Miami.
Mona Barthel, 21, 6-1, currently #36, target #18. Barthel's path here parallels that of Kerber, both players slightly overlooked amid a broad rise in the quality of the new generation of German stars. At Indian Wells, Mona nearly defeated Azarenka, eventually losing their third-set tiebreaker. In Miami she defeated Jankovic but then lost her second match.
Grace Min, 17, 5-4, currently #257, target #114. Grace, the daughter of immigrants from South Korea, is the youngest member of our group. Emerging from the U.S. national tennis program, she won the U.S. Open juniors in 2011 and began 2012 by winning the ITF event in Innisbrook, where the men's singles was won by Jack Sock.
Paula Ormaechea, 19, 5-7, currently #120, target #56. This riser from Argentina emerged from the qualifiers at Australian Open 2012 and scored a main-draw win before losing to Agnieszka Radwanska. Then at Bogota she again rose from the qualifiers, and she then won two main-draw matches before losing to Arruabarrena-Vecino.
Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, 20, 5-5, currently #112, target #54. Although she was unseeded, Lara achieved her first main-tour tournament triumph at Bogota 2012, winning five matches while losing only one set. She has risen impressively in the year-end rankings annually since 2008. Clay appears her best surface, and it will be important for her to improve her ranking in order to qualify for the season's main-tour events on clay.
WATCHING THE OLD LISTS
Of the seven risers listed here one year ago, four have climbed in the rankings since our nomination but only one has equaled or exceeded the target level predicted here.
Petra Kvitova. Last April, this tall and powerful lefty held world rank #19, having reached the semis at Australian Open 2011. Our target for Petra one year hence was rank #10. In actuality, Petra then (1) captured Wimbledon 2011, (2) led the Czech Republic to the Fed Cup crown, and (3) won the year-end finale at Istanbul. Her current world rank is #3 despite disappointing recent results at Indian Wells and Miami.
Andrea Petkovic. From a WTA official rank of #15 one year ago Andrea climbed steadily upward, reaching rank #9 in October 2011 and far ahead of track to reach our predicted target of #8. A back injury, however, has prevented her from competing since early January, and her ranking has declined to #11.
Julia Georges. We calculated improvement to #14 from her then-current rank of #27 last April. She now stands at her career-high rank of #15, helped by a fine clay season 2011 and good results at Australian Open and Dubai 2012.
Peng Shuai. From rank #30 a year ago, Shuai at first climbed strongly toward our predicted target of #11, reaching late rounds at Brussels, Birmingham, Wimbledon, Cincinnati, and U.S. Open. She attained a career-high rank of #14 in August, but she then retreated to a current ranking of #23.
Our other selectees of a year ago -- Rebecca Marino of Canada, Ayumi Morita of Japan, and Bojana Jovanovski of Serbia -- largely upheld their rankings through the second trimester of 2011 but then slipped backward.
Fortunes have been even better for our selectees of August and November 2011, although the 12-month periods envisioned in those calculations are still running. Along with Kerber and Barthel, among those strongly moving upward have been Sabine Lisicki, Sloane Stephens, Polona Hercog, and Christina McHale.
As the next twelve months unfold, will the relatively unfamiliar names listed in our newest formulation become as familiar as the names from our older lists are now?
The prime story among the men at Indian Wells was John Isner's. John had earned world attention in defeating Roger Federer in recent Davis Cup action, and the tall American, now seeded #11, won his first four matches at Indian Wells, thereby joining three members of the game's Big Four in reaching the tournament semis. Behind these victories were John's serving magnificence and a strong net game -- assets known to watchers ever since John entered the pro game several years ago.
But in the seasons since that electric sequence in Washington, John had greatly improved as an all-court player. He was now a fine mover on the court, competent in rallying with patience, variety, and avoidance of error and also skilled in unleashing sudden rocket strikes. His extreme-power forehand remained always a threat to open up points instantly, and his backhand two-hander, delivered compactly, was both reliable and itself sometimes dangerous.
Isner's semi-final meeting with Novak Djokovic represented a severe test for John's tactics and weaponry. John started poorly, losing serve early, but then swung into his preferred mode. Perhaps unnerved by John's tenacity, Djokovic surrendered his early edge and then lost closely the first-set tiebreaker. Matters remained tight thereafter, both men limiting their high-risk bids for winners -- Isner out of respect for Novak's defensive skills, Novak probably thinking of his own superiority in mobility and consistency. Favored by strong home-nation crowd support, Isner prevailed narrowly in the third-set tiebreaker. John Isner, incredibly, had reached the final. Isner d. Djokovic, 76 36 76.
The other semi-final took place amid suddenly cold, damp, and windy conditions. Rafa's overspin blows thus stayed low in bouncing, helping Federer in replying strongly. Roger took the first set and a two-service-break edge in the second. Rafa then nearly recovered before an inconvenient rain forced a stoppage with Federer serving at match point. Upon resumption, Roger ended matters with one blow, a service ace. Federer d. Nadal, 63 64.
The Sunday afternoon final thus rematched Federer and Isner from Davis Cup in February. Shifting winds hurt the quality of the play, making it difficult for either man to attack without making errors. Federer was generally successful in getting Isner's serve into play, while Roger outscored John in ace-making. Isner managed to reach a tiebreaker to settle the first set -- a familiar and favorable situation for John. The tiebreak game became extended, and the winner finally was Roger, but the episode exposed a flaw in the current tiebreak rules, as follows.
Of the 18 points played in the tiebreaker game, Isner was on the difficult side of the net -- i.e., facing a headwind and a seriously troublesome Sun -- for twelve of them. During the first twelve points, each player occupied the difficult side for six points. But with John facing the wind and Sun for the next six points, the verdict went to Federer.
The second set then ended quickly, Federer becoming Sir Roger at his best, sometimes using backspin plop shots to bring John forward. Federer's triumph embellished Roger's superb run since U.S. Open. Federer d. Isner, 76 63.
There were many stories in the earlier matches. Of the 64 matches played in the first and second rounds, the winner was the lower-ranked player in 24 cases. Upsets were less frequent thereafter, but there were several stunners -- Nalbandian's over Tsonga, Istomin's over Ferrer, Almagro's over Berdych, and of course Isner's. Three players exceeded their expected performance by three levels of overachieving, as follows:
--Australian Matt Ebden rose from the qualifiers and then attained the rounds of 32 and 16,
--David Nalbandian, unseeded, advanced to reach the rounds of 32, 16, and 8, and
--John Isner, seeded #11, advanced to reach the rounds of 8, 4, and 2.
Doubles at Indian Wells
The 32-pair men's doubles draw was unusually attractive, featuring a high percentage of same-nation pairs, the entry of nearly all the top singles artists, and nearly all the world's top doubles pairs. The stage was set for confrontations pitting (1) the game's top doubles pairs against (2) pairs featuring the top-ranked singles stars.
The initial verdict favored the doubles specialists, as six of the eight seeded pairs won their first-round matches. But only two of these went on to reach the tournament's Final Four, and none reached the final, where Rafael Nadal and his countryman, Marc Lopez, defeated Americans Isner and Querrey. Except that the Bryans had been eliminated by Mike's viral illness, it seemed that the top doubles specialists had failed to back up their claim to superiority in their favored realm.
Which player came closest to achieving a rare tournament double -- winning both singles and doubles crowns? Two players shared that honor. John Isner was a singles finalist and a doubles runner-up, collecting five singles and three doubles wins. Rafael Nadal also won eight matches -- four in singles and four in doubles.
The Big Four were again expected to dominate in Miami. But Roger Federer -- showing the more aggressive stroking and his usual superb movement, and ahead in points won, games won, and service breaks -- nevertheless lost to Andy Roddick in a Monday-night three-setter. Andy kept matters close as the first and third sets unfolded, and produced his best in the deciding points at the finish of both.
Tsonga then nearly defeated Nadal in the round of four, Jo-wilfried employing his more-penetrating serving and stroking to open the way for brilliant net attacks. Nadal survived at the finish when Tsonga faltered slightly before Rafa's safer, counter-punching tactics. But afterwards, Rafael withdrew from the tournament because of a damaged left knee, presumably cartilage trouble. Andy Murray, who had also advanced earlier by walkover over injured Milos Raonic, thus attained the final round.
Novak Djokovic meanwhile survived meetings with David Ferrer in the quarters and with Juan Monaco in the semis. In both cases Novak won the first set by comfortable score and then won the second after being forced to a tiebreak game. Ferrer showed his usual doggedness throughout, but Novak produced near-perfect tennis in closing out their concluding tiebreaker.
The scoreboard showed the same pattern at the Sunday final. Djokovic took the first set by margin of two serving breaks, although the moving and striking skills of Andy Murray seemed only marginally, if at all, below Novak's. But in the second set, the blistering snap on Novak's ground strokes now softened, his superb down-the-line backhands no longer decisive, and Novak gave signs of tiredness. But even as Murray stepped up his own forcefulness, it was Andy who most often faced trouble in holding serve. The concluding tiebreaker game was close, but after Andy gifted the lead to Novak with a double-fault, Djokovic won his last four serving points with some superbly accurate serves. Djokovic d. Murray, 61 76.
The top singles overachiever or riser at Miami was Juan Monaco, who was seeded to the round of 32 and then reached the semi-finals, thus attaining three levels of overachievement. The champion doubles pair was Paes-Stepanek, confirming the dazzling flair of Leander Paes and the firm stroking and volleying abilities of Radek. Five players tied as the closest to achieving a crown in both singles and doubles. (Five combined match wins were scored by Monaco (4s + 1d), Tipsarevic (3s + 2d), Stepanek (1s+ 4d), and Djokovic (5s).)
Spain led in the count of men's singles and doubles matches won by nation, both at Indian Wells and Miami. It repeated Spain's achievement of two years ago. U.S.A. was second this year at Indian Wells, having been first last year. Serbia and France tied for second in Miami.
Djokovic continues to lead in the official (rolling-12-month) rankings, with Nadal, Federer, and Murray following in that order. Djokovic also leads in the 2012 year-to-date race, having recaptured that honor from Federer in Miami.
THE NEWEST RISERS
Here is our new list of predicted risers -- the seven male players that our equations identify as the most likely improvers of the next twelve months.
David Goffin, 21, 5-11, currently #112, target #54. Born and raised in Belgium, David has climbed the pro ladder via the ITF Futures and ATP Challenger circuits and now, increasingly, in the qualifiers of main-tour events. He surged nicely in recent weeks, scoring well at Miami and winning a Challenger tournament after exiting midway in Miami. The infusion of ranking points completed a trimester wherein David ranked #50 among the pros.
Denis Kudla, age 19, height 5-11, currently #170, target #87. Born in Kiev, Denis came to Virginia at age one. He reached the final round of U.S. Open juniors in 2010, where he lost to Jack Sock. His upward climb continued in 2012, when he scored well in early-year Challenger events and in the qualifying rounds at Australian Open 2012. Soon afterwards indoors at San Jose, he emerged from the qualifiers to reach the final 16 before losing to Andy Roddick in three close sets.
Albano Olivetti, age 20, height 6-8, currently #330, target #135. Olivetti's presence here rests almost entirely on the young French player's remarkable success at the indoor hard-court tournament in Marseille in February 2012. There, after winning several tough matches, he then defeated Mardy Fish, out-scoring Mardy in aces 23-9. Also he equaled the American in winning percentage of second-served points.
Milos Raonic, age 21, height 6-5, currently #25, target # 9. Raonic's stunning performance in early 2011 placed him on our watch list in April one year ago. A like sequence has ensued again early this year following Milos's recovery from shoulder surgery. His unmatched serving ability and heavy forehand stroking lifted the tall and strong Canadian to tournament victories at Chennai and San Jose 2012. At Indian Wells he carried eventual champion Federer to three sets. A rolled ankle forced his withdrawal at Miami.
Guido Pella, age 21, currently #204, target #111. Guido's pro career has been almost entirely on clay and in Challengers and Futures. This Argentine player's W-L record in 2012 shows a 2-3 record in main-tour qualifiers and 7-2 in Challengers including a tournament triumph at Salinas, Ecuador, where in the final he defeated a player ranked #102.
Marinko Matosevic, age 26, height 6-3, currently #121, target #58. A disappointing stretch changed in February 2012 when Marinko won a Challenger in Australia and then advanced through the qualifiers to reach the main-draw final in the main-tour event in Delray Beach. Enroute, he defeated four players ranked in the world top hundred before losing to Kevin Anderson in two close sets. European-born, Marinko is now Australian.
Yuichi Sugita, age 23, currently #163, target #81. This Japanese riser competed well in early 2012, mainly in Challengers and in qualifying rounds of main-tour events. He thereby established a ranking of #71 for the year's first trimester. At Chennai, after winning three qualifier matches he then defeated two players ranked the first hundred. He then extended world #10 Nicolas Almagro to a third close set.
WATCHING THE OLD LISTS
Our April 2011 list of prospective male risers named seven individuals and predicted their target rankings for one year in the future. One player of that group, Bernard Tomic, now age 19, significantly exceeded our target in the year that has followed.
Tomic is a tall youth with a highly controlled game, backed by good power when required. Since last April he reached the quarters of Wimbledon 2011 and the round of 16 at U.S. Open 2011. From his official rank of #174 last April, Bernard has surpassed our predicted target of #53 and now stands at #36. His age and current ranking place him almost exactly on the median career track of recent world #1's -- the blue-diamond line, described in the previous column here.
One other listee exceeded our one-year target. That was Pablo Andujar, predicted target rank #41, who is now at #39. Two others improved their ranking but did not reach their targets. Milos Raonic following his shoulder surgery recovered his ranking to #25 now, slightly better than a year ago, while strong-serving Kevin Anderson improved marginally during the cycle, from #34 to #33. Meanwhile Alex Dolgopolov indeed reached his targeted #13 rank early, in January 2012, but then slipped backward amid injury problems to #22 now. The other two nominees -- Ryan Sweeting and and Ivan Dodig -- despite moments of good achievement, saw their rankings reverse significantly.
Meanwhile the selectees appearing on our July and November 2011 lists have been somewhat more successful as their 12-month periods of scrutiny have unfolded. On or close to track for meeting their predicted targets are Kei Nishikori, Ryan Harrison, Alex Bogomolov, and Florian Mayer. Others showing improved rankings are Matt Ebden, Martin Klizan, Vasek Pospisil, and Fabio Fognini.
Is our predicting game worth the candle? For myself, it has expanded my interest and familiarity with the competitors in the Challengers and qualifiers, and has given me satisfaction, indeed excitement, in improving the prediction equations using fresh empirical evidence. I hope readers find it interesting to learn of, and then join in following, the careers of prospective risers early-on.