The First Trimester of Tennis Year 2013 now ends, having brought Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, and dozens of lesser events reaching into the minor leagues of pro tennis. Plots and counter-plots abounded at many levels.
The drama began at the top. At the start of the period Novak Djokovic was #1 atop the ATP list. Novak then won the Australian Open crown in January and despite several losses in the month of March, remained the official #1 through trimester's end. Meanwhile the women's official leader at the start was Victoria Azarenka, thanks mainly to her remarkable run nearly a year ago. Vika preserved her top ranking by triumphing at Melbourne Park 2013 and at Doha in February. Meanwhile Serena Williams lost in the quarters at Melbourne and to Vika in the final at Doha. But despite Vika's greater immediate success, Serena took over the #1 ranking, as her ranking points earned in January and February 2013 were much greater than those she lost in the official rolling-12-month calculation from the same period one year earlier.
Meanwhile our unofficial game of tennis king-of-the-hill takes a different approach. With an objective of current primacy, it chooses its top player by using the most recent major outcome or, at most, the last few weeks of results. Typically our Il Primo of pro tennis (and also our La Prima) is the player who won the latest premium tournament, especially if that triumph included a head-to-head victory over our previous incumbent.
Thus even though Azarenka was the official #1 at the end of 2012, there was then little doubt that Serena Williams, not Azarenka, was the current La Prima, Serena having swept the second half of 2012 including the year-end finale in Istanbul. But Serena failed to hold the hill in January, losing at Australian Open 2013 in the quarter-finals. The Australian champion, Azarenka, now became our La Prima, at least provisionally, and Vika soon erased her provisional status by beating Serena in the final at Doha. Thus by late February the official rankings and our scheme had produced opposite reversals -- the top place had shifted from Vika to Serena in the rolling-12-month reckoning, but from Serena to Vika in ours.
INDIAN WELLS AND MIAMI
The March prime tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami drew top fields male and female. Both events took place on outdoor hard courts amid magnificent facilities for players and attendees. Both came with unstable springtime weather, bringing abrupt changes in wind, temperature, and humidity. These added to problems for the players already faced with adjusting from recent clay-court or indoor play.
Although Serena Williams was not present at Indian Wells, form held strongly among the women, where seven of the seeded favorites reached their expected places in the final eight. The one intruder was Maria Kirilenko, who is a favorite here in Arlington from her occasional no-nonsense practice sessions at a local club. Serving and stroking with crisp accuracy and moving superbly, Maria defeated Agnieszka Radwanska and Petra Kvitova in three-setters and provided good resistance to Sharapova. But there was no stopping the taller Maria, whose rocketry dominated all opponents enroute to the crown, including Kirilenko in the semis and Caroline Wozniacki in the final. On those few occasions where an opponent mustered the initiative during a point, Sharapova showed excellent movement in getting to the corners and extreme power in her replies, typically turning matters around quickly.
Wozniacki had defeated higher-seeded Angelique Kerber in a semi-final match that included spells of archaic moon-ball tennis -- a curiosity featuring soft and arching semi-lobs, both players well behind baseline. Both seemed equally comfortable in staging this tactical horror, which may have contributed in the shift on the scoreboard away from Kerber, who had won the first set. It seemed more likely, however, that the reason for Wozniacki's win was Caroline's superior stamina.
By winning Indian Wells, Sharapova now became our La Prima, albeit provisionally. Our incumbent, Azarenka, had withdrawn after winning her first three matches. A few days later Vika withdrew from Miami because of ankle injury.
Coloring the early rounds in Miami was the success of Belgium's Kirsten Flipkens, 27. In reaching the fourth round, Kirsten won consecutive three-setters, including over higher-seeded Kvitova. Her opponent on Tuesday evening, March 26, would be the tournament's defending champion, Agnieszka Radwanska.
Kirsten brought a style featuring strengths and tactics of a kind seldom successful in the current game. Her backhand was usually delivered one-handedly with underspin and mixed amounts of sidespin -- a defensive and temporizing stroke. Her forehand came with little or no spin, delivered with minimal backswing and moderate power though with excellent accuracy and deception, behind which she often moved forward to net. Her forecourt skills were excellent, built about good quickness and accurate volleying. It added up to a big problem for Radanska, as Kirsten won the first set and kept up the pressure thereafter. Radwanska gradually adjusted to the softish rallies wrought by Kirsten's slices, meanwhile stepping up her own attacking slightly, and the scoreboard gradually turned to favor the eventual winner, Agnieszka.
Still in the Miami tournament were co-favorites Sharapova and Serena Williams, both on opposite halves of the draw, apparently on course for a final-round meeting. Sharapova arrived there without losing a set, repeating her run at Indian Wells. Meanwhile Serena alternated between spells of total brilliance and others of hard-to-understand mediocrity. But she survived a three-setter against Cibulkova and then defeated Li Na in two close sets.
For much of their Sunday final, Maria performed fiercely and evenly with Serena, challenging her opponent for dominance during points with full power and aggressive placement, meanwhile showing excellent court mobility to the sides and corners very nearly equal to Serena's. But with Maria ahead by a set and a service-break, Maria began to lose her severe forcefulness. Perhaps the prospect of victory played its sometimes preposterous tricks. As Maria's dominating play faded, Serena found the relentless concentration that seemed often to lift her at such times. As Serena claimed her victory and the tournament crown, it seemed to me that it was Serena's rising confidence and Maria's loss thereof -- i.e., the mental edge -- that turned matters.
Having overthrown the incumbent in head-to-head action in a foremost championship in Miami, Serena now became, once again, our La Prima. She also led in the official rankings, and her triumph at Charleston the next week kept her ahead in both schemes. Sharapova was now second in both as April and the principal clay season loomed.
The top-seeded males at Indian Wells likewise allowed only one outsider into the final eight. That was South African Kevin Anderson, age 27 at height 6-8, who knocked out David Ferrer in an early round and Gilles Simon later. In the quarters against Berdych, Kevin's serving prowess and forceful backcourt game kept matters exciting, but the Czech star prevailed in two close sets.
Also exceeding expectations in the desert was Ernests Gulbis, 24, whose large promise had been seen years ago but seldom fulfilled. Ernests had won the recent tournament at Delray Beach after advancing out of the qualifiers. Now, having risen from the qualifiers and winning his first three main-draw matches at Indian Wells, Gulbis captured the first set from Rafael Nadal, Ernests serving and driving the ball from both sides with excellent power and control. Rafa, who was in his first hard-court tournament in many months, ultimately managed to win the next two sets closely. But Gulbis, who is capable of excellent finesse as well as brutal power, had shown himself ready to establish himself at new heights.
Rafa seemed stronger in his next match, winning in two sets over old rival Federer, who may have been bothered with back trouble. But the more riveting quarter-final came on Friday evening, when Juan Martin del Potro defeated Andy Murray in three sets. There was much hammering away in long, full-blooded backhand-to-backhand exchanges. Murray won the first-set tiebreaker but fell behind early in set two, not again to find his lost momentum as Juan Martin stepped up his power and severe slicing. The third set went quickly, del Potro prevailing.
In the Saturday semis Nadal defeated Berdych in two close sets, and del Potro defeated Djokovic in three, Juan Martin's potent serve and forehand outweighing Djokovic's below-form artillery. Thus Juan Martin had now defeated two members of the Big Four and would now face a third member -- Rafael Nadal -- in the final round. Once again it was the extreme serving and stroking power of the tall Argentine against an opponent capable of extreme court quickness and mobility and whose thunder was almost as potent as Juan Martin's. Probably tired from his recent efforts and with his backhand softened amid a wrist problem, Juan Martin stayed close but lost in three sets. Nadal became our new Il Primo.
A few days later in Miami, del Potro lost to Kamke, his forehand betraying him often. The week's bigger story was that of Tommy Haas, 34, who now defeated Djokovic in the round of 16. Showing no flaws throughout the evening, Tommy moved about the court every bit as swiftly and athletically as Djokovic, meanwhile delivering steady firepower that exceeded Djokovic's in penetration, deception, and, especially, in accuracy. In the many long and violent rallies, it was usually Djokovic left shaking his head at his opponent's play. Only for a brief spell in the second set did Djokovic seem the better player. It was hard to believe that Haas, once world #2, had ever played better.
Andy Murray won the Miami tournament in a difficult final-round victory over David Ferrer, who had beaten Haas. The affair stretched nearly three hours amid suddenly high temperatures, where both men neared physical collapse toward the finish. Andy's energy seemed utterly depleted, Andy often bending over in fatigue after long points, while David struggled with leg cramps. Throughout, neither player had been able to impose his serve on the other, nor was either able consistently to strike winners with enough authority to defeat his opponent's defenses. Thus many points were decided by unforced errors, typically after long and wearying exchanges.
Should Andy be deemed Il Primo after so narrow a victory in an event not entered by our incumbent, Rafael Nadal? The call is a close one but clear. Though he skipped Miami, Rafa, who won at Indian Wells where all members of the Big Eight participated, remains our king-of-the-hill. Djokovic remained atop the official rankings.
RISERS OF THE FIRST TRIMESTER
The most notable rise among the male pros during First Trimester was that of ace-producing Matthew Barton of Australia, 21, height 6-1, at official rank #206 at the end of the period. (His was the best ratio comparing each player's ranking for the trimester against his previous best official ranking.) In January Matt collected match wins in the qualifying rounds at Sydney and Australian Open, and he then achieved a W-L record of 13-3 in Challenger tournaments of February and March. Among his victims was Ivo Karlovic, then the world #103.
Meanwhile the leading female riser was Kirsten Flipkens, 27, at height 5' 5", of Belgium. Kirsten, during the trimester, compiled a W-L record of 14-8, emerging at rank #12 for the trimester (my count) against a previous-best official ranking of #54. Her best achievement came in reaching the quarters at Miami, defeating Kvitova and extending Radwanska, noted above. She also reached the final 16 at Australian Open. With an official 12-month rank of #23, she is now eligible for direct entry everywhere and for seeding at the Slams -- i.e., she is positioned for earning brighter glory.
NEW WATCH LIST OF RISERS
To the raw values used in making the just-noted calculations, we now add adjustments for player age, height, and statistical regression. Our purpose is forward-looking -- to predict the most successful risers of the coming 12 months. The top seven male and seven female players emerging from the expanded calculations compose a fresh watch list of expected risers. Here is that new list, showing predicted target rankings 12 months hence.
Teenagers dominate our new women's watch list, more so than in the past. Missing the new list closely is Kirsten Flipkens, 27, just noted as the leading riser of the trimester. (The bias in our calculations favoring younger players hurt Kirsten's score.) The seven selectees are from seven different nations.
-- Karolina Pliskova, 21, 6-1, Czech Republic. Unseeded at Kuala Lumpur in February but benefitting by a favorable draw, Karolina won all five of her matches to capture the tournament. She advanced through the qualifiers at Sydney in January and at Miami in March, winning a main-draw match at the latter event before losing to Wozniacki in three sets. Right-handed, she is twin to lefty sister Kristyna. The two compete in many of the same events including until recently as doubles partners. Current ranking #81, Predicted target #34.
-- Kristina Mladenovic, 19, 6-0, France. After a strong career as a junior, Kristina moved into the top hundred in 2012, reaching the final 32 at U.S. Open, finishing the year at #76, and breaking onto our November watch list. Her rise continued in First Trimester 2013 when she reached the semis in Paris, quarters at Memphis, and semis at Florianopolis, all main-tour events. Current official rank #50, Predicted target #28.
-- Luksika Kumkhum, 19, 5-5, Thailand. Having risen markedly in ITF Pro action to reach #216 at year's end 2012, Luksika made further improvement in the recent trimester, including W-L record of 9-1 in main-tour action against players ranked in the second hundred. Her record of 2-3 against players in the first hundred included losses in split sets to Kirilenko and Morita. She plays two-handed on both sides. Current official rank #130. Predicted target #69.
-- Garbine Muguruza, 19, 6-0, Spain. Born in Venezuela of Spanish and Venezuelan parentage, she appeared on our riser list in April 2012, having just won the ITF Circuit event in Clearwater and won three main-tour matches at Miami. She reappears here one year later, reflecting her even greater success this year at Indian Wells and Miami, including a win over Wozniacki. Equipped with a powerful and balanced game, her further rise seems assured, though a second-round loss to Serena Williams at Australian Open 2013 shows the large margin separating her from the top. Current official rank #77. Predicted target #33.
-- Storm Sanders, 18, 5-5, Australia. A lefty with two-handed backhand, Storm had been competing in Australian pro events for several years with ranking only in the 700's. A breakthrough came in First Trimester 2013, starting with a win in the qualifiers at Sydney in January amid extreme heat over Eugenie Bouchard (a resident of our active watch lists). In February she won the ITF Pro Circuit tournament at Launceston, Tasmania, including five victories over players ranked in the top 200 and a final-round win in high winds, which she reportedly handled well using heavy topspin. In March she was runner-up at a similar event in Ipswich, Australia, including two wins over players in the top hundred. Current official rank #306. Predicted target #162.
-- Madison Keys, 18, 5-10, USA. Illinois-born Madison finished 2012 with ranking #149 and a place on our November watch list. She accelerated her improvement in First Trimester 2013, when she competed in seven main-tour tournaments, winning at least one main-draw match in all but one. The seven losses came against top players -- Stosur, Kerber, Li Na, Venus Williams, Lisicki, Davis, and Kumkhum. She reached the final 32 at Australian Open 2013 and the final 16 on clay at Charleston. Current official rank #66. Predicted target #46.
-- Katerina Siniakova, 17, Czech Republic. A solidly built right-hander, Katerina performed in the leading junior events of the past year, winning the Italian Open Juniors 2012 on clay and finishing runner-up in Australian Open Juniors 2013. Moving into ITF and main-tour events, she scored a remarkable month of March 2013, capturing the ITF Pro Circuit indoor event in Frauenfeld, Switzerland. In her first-ever main-tour event in Miami, she won through in the qualifiers, defeating two opponents ranked in the top 120, then forced Garbine Muguruza to three sets. Next, Katerina won three matches at the Osprey ITF clay event in Florida, defeating three top-200 opponents before losing to a fourth. Katerina's record as a pro is brief, but her court energy and movement and two-handed backhand (seen in film clip) appear more than adequate for future rise. Current official rank #424. Predicted target #271.
There are no teenagers on our male list here, probably reflecting the later age of maturity among male athletes. All list members are at least six feet in height, the tallest at 6-4. Most are currently ranked in the second hundred. One nation, Australia, is represented by two selectees.
-- Alejandro Gonzalez, 24, 6-3, Colombia. Alejandro's climb in the rankings had been only gradual following a significant jump in 2009. His presence here comes from good results in South American clay Challengers of First Trimester 2013, including winning the tournament at Salinas, Ecuador in February. Showing little past success in main-tour events or on hard courts, his chances for rising much beyond the target given here seem remote. Current official rank #167. Predicted target #128.
-- John Millman, 23, 6-0, Australia. A shoulder injury in 2011 derailed John's upward climb and caused him to consider leaving the sport. On his return he gradually restored his ranking, and in 2013, with strong fan support, he reached the round of 16 in main-tour events at his home town of Brisbane and then in Sydney, where he defeated Robredo. He then won Challengers in Burnie, Australia and Kyoto, Japan. Current official rank #126, Predicted target #71.
-- Federico Delbonis, 22, 6-3, Argentina. Most of left-handed Federico's past action has been on clay, almost entirely so in 2013. His climb in recent years has been steady, and in early 2013 he won a Challenger in Colombia and later rose from the qualifiers to reach the round of 16 at the main-tour event in Chile. Current official rank #116. Predicted target #64.
-- Marius Copil, 22, 6-4, Romania. The steady rise of Marius accelerated in First Trimester upon his capturing the Challenger in Quimper, France, including four wins against opponents in the top 150, and his winning through in the qualifiers at Miami. Right-handed with a backhand one-hander, his record shows better success on hard courts than on clay. Current official rank #127. Predicted target #92.
-- Rhyne Williams, 22, 6-1, USA. A former star at University of Tennessee and NCAA runner-up in 2011, Rhyne won the February 2013 Challenger in Dallas and scored a main-draw win out of the qualifiers in main-tour action in Memphis. His rank of #57 for First Trimester compares well with his previous official best of #190. Current official ranking #144. Predicted target #84.
-- Grigor Dimitrov, 21, 6-2, Bulgaria. Following excellent success as a junior in international play, as a pro Grigor moved into the top hundred at age 19. His rise then continued, and, helped by good results this year at Brisbane and Rotterdam, he earned seeding at both Indian Wells and Miami 2013. He successfully defended his seed at both events but lost in the round of 32 at both, to Murray and Djokovic, respectively, after extending both opponents to tiebreak in the first set. His is a firm-striking game built upon talents that have been compared to Federer's. Current official ranking #35. Predicted target #28.
-- Matthew Barton, 21, height 6-1, Australia. Matthew's success in First Trimester, noted earlier here, and his young age together account for his presence on our newest watch list. Current official rank #206. Predicted target #113.
HOW HAVE THEY FARED?
Our new watch list, above, is the seventh offered here. How well have selectees of past lists fared during their 12-month tenures?
The 12-month record of the seven women listed in April 2012 is now complete.
-- Angelique Kerber, now 25 (Germany). Year-ago rank #16. Predicted target #8. Ranking now #6. Watch-listed here in December 2012 and again in April 2012, left-handed Angelique combined strong shot-making skills, good anticipation and mobility, and an excellent match temperament to achieve remarkable success. She ranked in the world's top ten in her results during each of the last two trimesters of 2012 but slipped slightly in First Trimester 2013, falling short of her seeded level at Australian Open and Miami 2013, and losing closely to Wozniacki in the semis at Indian Wells and to Pavlyuchenkova at Monterrey.
-- Mona Barthel, 22 (Germany). Year-ago rank #36. Predicted target #18. Ranking now #28. Mona was unable to extend her strong previous run amid several injury problems in the first two trimesters following her selection. But in early 2013 she resumed her upward movement, reaching the late rounds in the Australian tune-ups, then winning the Paris Indoors, and reaching late rounds at Doha and Indian Wells, attaining a rank of #10 for First Trimester 2013 despite an early loss at Miami. Among her victims were Kerber, Errani, and Bartoli, all then ranked in the top ten.
-- Lara Arruabarrena-Vecino, 21 (Spain). Year-ago ranking #112 . Predicted target #54. Ranking now #72. Lara penetrated the first hundred in 2012 and accelerated her upward movement in early 2013, winning the main-tour event in Cali, Colombia, and reaching the final 16 at Indian Wells, where she then lost to Sharapova after a close first set. But she then lost in the first round of qualifiers at Miami.
-- Paula Ormaechea, 20 (Argentina). Year-ago ranking #124. Predicted target #56. Ranking now #145. There were few bright spots for Paula during the period except for a W-L mark of 7-2 in main-tour main-draw action in South America in February 2013, including three wins over top-hundred opponents.
-- Timea Babos, 19 (Hungary). Year-ago rank #68, Predicted target #30, Ranking now #111. Timea failed to sustain the strong improvement seen in the first months of 2012 amid many withdrawals owing to right-elbow injury.
-- Garbine Muguruza, 19 (Spain). Year-ago rank #146. Predicted target #62. Ranking now #77. Garbine's electric jump in early 2012 was followed by gradually improving results for the tall and strong Spanish teenager. Then at Indian Wells 2013, she won through in the qualifiers and then defeated three main-draw opponents, all ranked in the top 60, before losing to seeded Kerber. At Miami she reached the final 16 before losing to Li Na after reaching tiebreaker in the first set.
-- Grace Min, 18 (USA). Year-ago rank #257. Predicted target #114. Ranking now #164. Grace continued her strong results by winning consecutive ITF Pro events in America in spring 2012 and reaching a career-high #169 in July. She achieved a mix of good wins and encouraging losses in main-tour qualifying-round play in 2013, including a winning-through in the qualifiers at Indian Wells 2013 and at Charleston, where she reached the final 16 in the main draw.
Recounting, five of the seven members named on our April 2012 watch list indeed achieved improved ranking over the next 12 months. One member, Kerber, surpassed her predicted target, and three others rose at least half-way to that target. One member improved less than half-way. Of the two whose ranking declined, at least one was set back by significant injury. Thus as a group, this our fourth class of predicted female risers performed slightly better than the first three during their 12-month periods of tenure.
It currently appears that our fifth and sixth classes, whose watch-list residencies are still running, are also doing better than earlier classes. Among those so far on track to surpass their predicted targets are Sara Errani, Sloane Stephens, and Kiki Bertens from the list of July 2012, and Mallory Burdette, Kristina Mladenovic, Annika Beck, and Madison Keys from the list of November 2012.
Here is the 12-month record of the seven males listed here a year ago.
-- Marinko Matosevic, 27 (Australia). Year-ago ranking #121. Predicted target #58. Ranking now #51. Marinko's heavy game enabled him to surpass his predicted target comfortably, scoring good results in Challengers of summer 2012 and in main-tour events on hard courts in 2013.
-- Yuichi Sugita, 24 (Japan). Year-ago ranking #163. Predicted target #81. Ranking now #138. Achieving a strong run in Challenger events in Asia late in 2012, Yuichi raised his official ranking to a career-high #116, but his successes became few thereafter.
-- Guido Pella, 22 (Argentina). Year-ago ranking #204. Predicted target #111. Ranking now #101. Guido penetrated the world's top hundred upon winning the season-ending Challenger Tour finals, held on indoor hard courts in Brazil in late 2012. Since then his results have retreated, but he finishes his watch-list tenure having surpassed his predicted target.
-- David Goffin, 22 (Belgium). Year-ago ranking #112. Predicted target #54. Ranking now #65. David climbed nicely through most of 2012, attaining career-high rank of #42 in October. His wins have been few in 2013, however, though he rallied nicely at Miami, winning twice to reach the final 32.
-- Milos Raonic, 22 (Canada). Year-ago ranking #25. Predicted target #9. Ranking now #15. Milos's ranking slipped slightly in early 2013 from a career-high #13, even though he again performed well in the early-year hard-court events. Behind his impossibly difficult serve indoors, he scored two critical wins in leading Canada to Davis Cup victories against Spain in February and Italy in April 2013.
-- Albano Olivetti, 21 (France). Year-ago ranking #330. Predicted target #135. Ranking now #300. Tall at 6-8 and wielding a strong serve, Albano scored an impressive run at Marseille in February 2012 indoors, thereby scoring well in our prediction calculations. But after that, he played almost exclusively in Challengers and lower-level events, improving his ranking to a career-high #210 in summer 2012 but not competing in 2013.
-- Denis Kudla, 20 (USA). Year-ago ranking #170. Predicted target #87, Ranking now #137. Born in Ukraine, Denis came to Virginia at age one with his parents. Strong results in early 2012 led to his watch-list selection in April, but successes were few thereafter until late-year performances in Challengers, including a triumph at Charlottesville over a strong field. Comparable success came in March 2013 at the Challenger in Dallas, where he reached the final, losing to Jurgen Melzer in split sets.
All seven members of our just-expired male list achieved better results in their twelve months of tenure than in the preceding twelve months. Two of them surpassed their predicted target ranking for the period (Matosevic and Pella), and two of the others improved at least half-way toward their targets (Goffin and Raonic). The record of the class thus exceeded those of every previous class male or female.
But the incomplete record of the next two male classes, our fifth and sixth, is less favorable, as only 50% of the members thus far show improved results since selection.
Congratulations for their rising achievements to those players selected for our new watch list and to those who have climbed upward as members of earlier lists. I hope readers find it interesting to glimpse prospective risers early-on and then track their progress here.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia