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October 7, 2013 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Autumn 2013: A Good Time To Excel
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

Autumn as usual has been a calm time on the pro tennis calendar. The triumphs of Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams at U.S. Open for a while stabilized matters among the top superstars. Meanwhile with the big-payoff Slams now in the books, large swings in the point standings among other contenders have been unlikely. For a few of the leaders, the post-Open period provided an opportunity to lower one's commitment, a time for recovery or physical renewal, perhaps to try new approaches to rebuild a flagging game, or perhaps to seize a life of normalcy however briefly. But any autumn relaxation by the topmost superstars also meant unusual opportunity for the others. Most were eager to test the moment.
ATP and WTA have continued to shorten the tour calendar as a way to expand the year-end break. Thus after the Open this year only six weeks of play remained prior to the women's finale in Istanbul, eight weeks prior to the men's in London. For both men and women, the fall schedule included swings in the Far East. Highest rewards were offered in Shanghai and indoors in Paris for the men, and in high-level Premier events in Beijing and Tokyo for the women.
Upon his grueling triumph over Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, 9 September, Rafael Nadal stood solidly atop the men's year-to date points race, though he remained slightly behind Novak in the official, rolling-12-month standings. Rafa seemed well positioned to finish as the year's official champion even if he skipped some of the coming events, as the many points earned by Djokovic in late 2012 would be gradually removed from the rolling-12-month tally prior to year's end.
Djokovic's fine singles victories in Davis Cup semi-final action soon after the Open carried the Serbian team to a 3-2 victory over Canada and also brought Novak worthwhile ranking points. Rafa meanwhile won his only singles match in Cup playoff action the same weekend, helping Spain win membership in next year's World Group. (Other first-tenners winning semi-final or playoff Cup matches that weekend were Berdych, Murray, and Wawrinka.)
Neither Rafa nor Novak competed in the next two weeks, while several other members of the world's first ten competed among themselves in search of ranking points -- potentially important for entry and seeded advantage at London and for seeding at Australian Open in January. Tsonga gained by finishing second at Moselle Open in Metz,16-22 September. The next week top-tenners Ferrer, Berdych, Wawrinka, and Gasquet entered either Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Berdych managed to reach the final at Bangkok, where Tomas then lost to surging Milos Raonic, whose attacking, all-court game proved an excellent complement to his unmatched serving ability. Raonic nevertheless remained in eleventh place for London -- actually tenth, as Andy Murray had just undergone back surgery and was unlikely to be ready for the finale.
The fourth week after the Open, starting 30 September, brought the 500-pointers at Tokyo and Beijing. Del Potro returned to action in Tokyo. The tall Argentine player improved with every outing during the week, finishing with a close win over Raonic on final-round Sunday. Meanwhile in Beijing Richard Gasquet continued his severe backhand rocketry by knocking out Ferrer. The French star then started well against Djokovic but was soon humbled by Novak's superior defenses and weaponry. Thus del Potro, Gasquet, and Raonic all improved their credentials for London.
Meanwhile Djokovic and Nadal -- the game's current top megastars -- both reached the final at Beijing. Rafa had won their last three meetings. From the outset Djokovic applied more than his customary level of attacking, driving to the sides and corners with excellent pace and consistency, relentlessly seizing the initiative. If Rafa answered well during a point, Novak, moving well, seemed always there to keep the rocketry going. Softish, sliced backhands by Rafa, often effective against other opponents, invited Novak's pounce and forward sally. In both sets, Novak captured Rafa's initial serving game and then stayed in front to the finish.
The outcome produced one of those awkward changes at the top of the sport. Prior to the match, Novak had been officially #1 but now, despite the Serb's victory in Beijing, the top place in the official 12-month rankings shifted to Rafa. (Rafa's new reward at Beijing far exceeded his points in the same week one year ago.) Meanwhile our Il Primo mantle shifted in the opposite direction, Djokovic now unseating Nadal as the sport's current king-of -the-hill, a distinction held by Rafa since Canadian Open in August.
As the Masters Series event began in Shanghai, 8 October, another Nadal-Djokovic final-round meeting seemed possible, indeed likely. Four weeks of play now remained for the men prior to London. Six players including Ferrer, del Potro, and Berdych, now held seemingly insurmountable point totals for London entry, though one of them, Andy Murray, was expected to miss the event. The next three in the race were Federer, Wawrinka, and Gasquet, all slightly vulnerable to a surge by Raonic or Tsonga.
The main tour of ATP is primarily the domain of the top hundred in the rankings. Players of the second and third hundred typically play in the Challenger circuit, competing for prize money and ranking points. The main tour and Challengers are linked by the qualifying events that precede each main-tour tournament, where the qualifiers are entered by higher-ranking players from the Challengers. ATP ranking points, which control entries and seeds, are earned at all three levels -- main tour, qualifiers, and Challengers. (There is also an ITF Pro Futures circuit, offering a starting place for newcomers.) Those players destined eventually to reach championship level typically move upward through the scheme rapidly.
The Challengers calendar is long and busy, except that activity is minimal in those weeks just before the Slams when large numbers of Challenger players enter the expanded qualifiers (128 men and 128 women). The autumn schedule of Challengers is especially crowded, including several meets offering prize moneys of at least $100,000. This year the top eight point-gatherers in Challenger events will meet in Sao Paulo starting 11 November with total purse $220,000.
Currently atop 2013 in points earned at Challengers are Jiri Vesely, 20 at height 6-6, left-handed (Czech Republic) and Pablo Carreno Busta, 22 at height 6-2 (Spain). Both show only a few main-tour performances and a predominance of play on clay. Both emerged recently from ITF Futures and Challengers to now stand inside the world's first hundred. Both appeared on our latest watch list of risers, late July 2013, where Vesely's predicted target was #53 and Carreno Busta's #59.
Watch-List Watching
Seven male players are chosen by our computer at the end of each trimester for membership on our watch list of risers for the next twelve months. Typically about a third of our watch-list members surpass their predicted target rankings at the end of their tenures. Meanwhile another third also improve in the rankings but to a lesser degree, and about one-third slip backwards owing to injury or declining results.
Of the nineteen male players currently on our active lists, five seem on track to surpass their predicted targets. All five helped their cause during the current trimester so far. The foremost rise has been that of Pablo Carrena Busta, just noted, who seems likely to reappear on our December watch list. For the full year 2013, Pablo's W-L record in Challengers was a remarkable 34-8, all on clay except for five wins in capturing the hard-court Challenger at Segovia, Spain, in July. In main-tour action his best success came at Oeiras, Portugal in late April. There he defeated three top-hundred opponents (Benneteau, Goffin, and Fognini) before losing to Wawrinka in the semis. At Garros 2013, he won his three qualifying matches but then lost to Federer in the main draw.
Here are the others apparently on track to reach their 12-month targets.
-- Jack Sock (target #78) attained the final 32 at U.S. Open. Two weeks later he again scored well in marching to the semis at the Challenger in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
-- Evgeny Donskoy (target #55) also reached the final 32 at the Open.
-- Brad Klahn (target #152) won the Challenger in Aptos, California, in August, and then won his first-round match at the Open. He reached the final eight at the #100,000 Challenger in Sacramento in early October.
-- Alejandro Gonzalez (target #128), who won a Challenger in Brazil in August, also scored well at Kaohsiung.
Watch-List Candidates
Several strong candidates for our December list have emerged from third-trimester play to date:
-- Joao Sousa, 24 at height 6-1, currently #49 (Portugal). Sousa won the main-tour event in Kuala Lumpur, defeating Ferrer, Melzer, and Benneteau, mainly behind his strong forehand and eagerness to use it aggressively. At U.S. Open, he defeated two top-fifty players, winning both matches in five sets.
-- Vasek Pospisil, 23 at 6-4, currently #43 (Canada). Pospisil won the Challenger in Vancouver in early August, defeated four top-hundred players in reaching the semis at Canadian Open, and played both singles and doubles in Canada's strong but unsuccessful bid in September to reach the Davis Cup final.
-- Dominic Thiem, 20 at 6-1, currently #146 (Austria). Thiem defeated two top-hundred players at Kitzbuhel in early August. He reached the final at the Como Challenger, losing to Carreno Busta in split sets, and he won the Challenger at Kenitra in September.
-- Daniel Evans, 23 at 5-9, currently #155 (Britain). Evans defeated two top-hundred players in reaching the final 32 at U.S. Open. Earlier in the summer, he reached the final at Aptos Challenger, where he lost to Klahn in split sets.
The lead of Serena Williams in both the rolling-12-month standings and in the year-to-date race was so strong after the Open that there seemed little chance of her being overtaken at year's end. Second-ranked Azarenka returned to action at the Pan-Pacific in Tokyo in the third week after the Open, starting 20 September. Vika, however, not feeling well, lost her first match, defeated by Venus Williams at her recent best. Azarenka's loss made it certain that Serena would finish the year as #1.
But Venus was hardly finished in Tokyo. After defeating Azarenka, the veteran American superstar next defeated risers Halep and Bouchard closely and carried Kvitova to a third-set tiebreaker. Throughout her astonishing run, Venus seemed unhindered by her recent illness and back trouble, showing the powerful and accurate backhand two-hander, the court mobility, and relentless power of long ago.
Petra Kvitova would win the Tokyo crown, beating Kerber in the final. One week later in the Premium Mandatory tournament at Beijing, Venus would lose her first match, but Serena would capture the event without loss of a set amid lower-back problems. It was Serena's first action since U.S. Open. The surprise runner-up was Jelena Jankovic, whose well-controlled defenses and counterpunching extended many points and games until she too showed injury. Jelena had ousted Kvitova in the semis and thus lifted herself in the race for Istanbul.
That race seemed almost settled after Beijing. The leaders -- Serena, Azarenka, and Radwanska had long-ago qualified for Istanbul. (Sharapova was also in, but Maria's return from shoulder trouble seemed unlikely.) Li Na qualified in absentia during Tokyo. Then by winning two or more matches at Beijing, three others assured themselves Istanbul berths (Kvitova, Errani, and Jankovic) if Sharapova remained sidelined. Meanwhile Angelique Kerber stood just inside the eligible eight (omitting Sharapova) but still in jeopardy from below, where Wozniacki, Vinci, and Stephens ranked in plausible albeit remote contention. Neither Wozniacki nor Vinci competed in the week starting 7 October, while the. final week before London would feature Kremlin Cup, Premium-700 event won last year by Wozniacki.
What of those many aspirants currently outside the top hundred? There is no WTA Challenger tour, but ITF (International Tennis Federation) operates a schedule of women's pro events, all graded according to prize moneys. Those rated at $25,000 and above, whose regulars often compete upward in the WTA and Slam qualifiers, are essentially comparable in role to the ATP Challengers. Recently started is a growing class of $125,000 joint WTA-ITF tournaments, further linking the WTA and ITF tours.
Watch-List Watching
Six of the nineteen women on currently running watch lists now seem at least narrowly on track to reach their predicted targets.
Just as among the men, one riser seems foremost after strong recent rise. Eugenie Bouchard, 19 at 5-10 (Canada), in September reached the semis in Quebec City before losing to Safarova in three sets. Then in Tokyo, Eugenie again knocked out three opponents, among them Sloane Stephens and Jelena Jankovic, before losing in split sets to a reborn Venus Williams. At Beijing, she rose from the qualifiers but then lost to Stephens in split sets. When she was watch-listed at the end of 2012, Eugenie's predicted target ranking was #95.
Teenagers were also prominent among the other five on-track listees:
-- Donna Vekic, 17, target #66 (Croatia), won first-round matches in the main draw at U.S. Open and at Tashkent in September.
-- Madison Keys, 18, target #69 (U.S.A.), scored two main-draw wins in Tokyo before losing to Kvitova. She lost to third-seeded Radwanska in her second match at Beijing.
-- Ons Jabeur, 19, target #62 (Tunisia), won three qualifying matches along with a first-round main-draw appearance at Seoul in mid-September.
-- Kristina Mladenovic, 20, target #51 (France), won her first two matches at U.S. Open and her first two at Quebec before losing to Bouchard.
-- Simona Halep, 22, target #7 (Romania), won three matches at Cincinnati before losing to Serena Williams, won the tournament in New Haven, defeating two top-tenners, and reached the final sixteen at U.S. Open.
Watch-List Candidates
Bouchard, Jabeur, and Halep could become second-time selectees, to appear on our December watch list. Strong candidates for first-time listing are:
-- Elina Svitolina, 19 at height 5-9, currently #44 (Ukraine). Having risen impressively during her teen years mainly in ITF events, Svitolina began the current trimester by winning the main-tour event at Baku and ITF-circuit triumph at Donetsk. During the trimester to date, she defeated six top-hundred players (including #21 Cibulkova at U.S. Open) against only five total losses.
-- Johanna Konta, 22 at 5-11, currently #117 (U.K.). Konta won consecutive ITF events in Canada to start third trimester. She shows four wins over top-hundred opponents during trimester against four total losses.
-- Alja Tomljanovic, 20 at 5-11, currently #86 (Croatia). Tomljanovic reached the final 64 out of the qualifiers at U.S. Open 2013, having also advanced through the qualifiers at Wimbledon. In September she defeated #46 Mattek-Sands in Quebec.
Two weeks of main-tour action remain for the women prior to the eight-player finale in Istanbul, 22-27 October. The following week will bring the $750,000 event in Sofia, Bulgaria for eight women not qualifying for Istanbul, along with the final round of Fed Cup, pitting the teams of Italy and Russia. Meanwhile, ITF tour action will be at full-speed through October, then taper in November, and almost cease in December.
For the men, four weeks of main-tour play, including Masters Series tournaments at Shanghai and Paris Indoors, remain. The round-robin finale will follow in London, 4-11 November. The Davis Cup final round will be 15-17 November in Belgrade Arena, host-nation Serbia facing Czech Republic. The year's Challengers will end the next week.
Next month we will name Tennis Server's female player of the year. The male player and the overall player of the year along with the tennis nation of the year for 2013 will be honored in December. Meanwhile readers will, I hope, agree with another selection for the year, offered in the Appendix below.
-- Ray Bowers
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
Languages change in response to general use. Unknown amid tennis's first golden age eighty years ago were terms "inside-out forehands," "flat serves," "racket-string snap," "racket-head acceleration," "first-strike tennis," and a player's "balance." These now-familiar expressions reflected the game's evolution and have been valuable additions to our lexicon.
But some other changes in usage should be resisted if they bring no improvement in precision or tang. Indeed, there is one modern usage that screams for reversal.
Arising in that first golden age was the concept of winning all four great international championships in a single calendar year, and the expression "grand slam" was borrowed from the game of bridge to signify that supreme achievement. Budge's Grand Slam in 1938 cemented the expression, and the four great tournaments themselves became known as the four "Slams." These terms were universally used over many decades, along with the easily understood if less elegant "career grand slam" and "non-calendar-year grand slam."
I suspect that it was television broadcasters who started calling the slams "majors," apparently imitating usage in pro golf. Despite avoidance by me and many other writers, the new usage persists and grows.
Meanwhile it also became acceptable to call each one of the slams "grand slams." Thus Wimbledon is now a grand slam. I suppose the change made Wimbledon seem, well, grander. Then in a final perversion, occasionally a broadcaster uses the word "slam" to mean winning all four "grand slams." The classic meaning of the two terms were thus reversed.
If the slams become "majors," what about other leading tournaments -- the historic Italian, German, Queen's and indoor Paris championships, for example, or the year-end finales? Being not among the "majors" in the new language, will they become, horribly, "minors"?
Many tennis players are also golfers. The two sports share in preserving their codes of integrity and in their modern expansion across classes and nations. I applaud golf's long-ago leadership in accepting professionals into "open" competition, and I wish that tennis had promptly followed. But if tennis adhered to its own history and traditions mistakenly in that case, at least there were understandable reasons at the time. But rationality cannot explain our present willingness to borrow from golf and abandon a central piece of tennis's unique and descriptive language. Amazingly, I note that golf writers now sometimes use "grand slam" to mean golf's four foremost crowns. "Career grand slam" and "non-calendar-year grand slam" have also been borrowed by our friends.
The terms "slam" and "grand slam" were expressive, vigorous, indeed lyrical, in their classic tennis meanings. Before it's too late, let's restore and preserve their purity not only for their wonderful flavor but also for our own precision in meaning.

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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.

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