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April 7, 2015 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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First Trimester 2015
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

The new tennis year actually began in late 2014, just after the ATP and WTA finales and the deciding of Davis and Fed Cups. The women's tournaments of the ITF Pro Circuit that ran through November to late December thus fell into tennis year 2015. Meanwhile a new venture emerged -- International Premier Tennis League, featuring team competition at several Asian cities. Several high-level players participated -- Tsonga, Berdych, and Monfils were regulars among the men, and Federer, Murray, and Djokovic played at least twice. Ivanovich had the most wins among the women, nine, while Serena Williams won all four of her appearances.
Main-tour action for both men and women resumed in January offering substantial rewards in prize money and ranking points, counting down to Australian Open at mid-month. There were also men's exhibition events at Abu Dhabi and Kooyong, plus Hopman Cup for both men and women, all given moderate weight in our tallies of results though not in the official counts. February brought a steady diet of main-tour play -- a clay circuit in South America, an indoor sequence in Europe, and several events in the Persian Gulf region, along with early Davis Cup and Fed Cup action. The splendid two-week tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami followed in March, both played on hard courts.
First Trimester, the Men
Throughout the trimester, the long-standing Big Four in men's tennis held up fairly well under strong challenge from below. Novak Djokovic won the biggest event, defeating his long rival and close contemporary, Andy Murray, in a four-set final at Australian Open. Less successful at Melbourne Park had been the other members of the Four -- Federer lost to a resurgent Italian star, Andreas Seppi, while Nadal, who was returning from appendicitis, lost to the powerful Czech Berdych in the quarters. Last year's surprise champion at Melburne, Stan Wawrinka, made it close in this year's semis, battling Djokovic to five sets. But Novak won the deciding set at six-love, and then won the fourth, final set against Murray by the same score. It was an impressive run by the world's current #1.
February brought an ATP 500-Series event in Dubai -- the trimester's fourth richest in ranking points. Roger Federer defeated Djokovic in a two-set final. Roger's game was ever aggressive, probably encouraged by the erstwhile net artist Stefan Edberg, now helping coach Roger. Aggressiveness seemed a correct strategy for Roger, whose main rivals were getting close to surpassing Roger in every aspect of the game except in forecourt skills.
Early March in the California desert brought the first of the year's 1,000-Series Masters tournaments. The warm and dry conditions at Indian Wells were welcomed by those players coming from the winter indoor circuit in Europe. Although the courts at Indian Wells had always been deemed slow-bouncing, this year they seemed more so than usual, encouraging spectacular shot-making. Three of the Big Four males made their way to the tournament's semis, only Nadal failing after his opponent, Raonic, saved three adverse match points. Federer then squeezed out Raonic in the semis, Roger toning down his net-attacking in the face of his opponent's extreme power in stroking, while Djokovic at his best comfortably defeated Murray.
The stage was thus set for another Djokovic-Federer final, where on a cloudy and wind-free Sunday the heavier conditions along with the slowish courts slightly benefitted Djokovic. Novak indeed seemed in command, ahead by a set and a service break. But as sunshine replaced the clouds, Federer, now attacking more boldly and amid countless heavy and thunderous exchanges, captured the second-set tiebreaker. It seemed that Djokovic's confidence was wavering, especially when Federer again came from behind to reach two-games-all in the third. But the extreme effort in his comeback seemed to weaken Roger, and Novak relentlessly collected the last four games.
Indian Wells also saw noteworthy performances by several young Australian risers -- Tomic, Kyrgios, and Kokkinakis, who together give that tennis nation dominance in the sport's rising generation. Bernard Tomic, 22, showed that his early-career soft game was now capable of plenty of mustard plus excellent accuracy. Bernie reached the tournament's final eight by closely defeating Kokkinakis but then withdrew with wisdom-tooth and back problems. The United States too showed strength for the future. Jack Sock, 22, returned from injury absence to win three main-draw matches in singles and, with Canadian partner Pospisil, collect the doubles crown. Pospisil-Sock defeated the Bryans enroute and Bolelli-Fognini in a close final.
Miami as usual brought higher humidity and milder if sometimes firm winds. Federer skipped the event, and Nadal again departed in an early round, beaten by countryman Verdasco. John Isner, serving at his best, won four matches, defeating Raonic in a serving contest where all three sets were settled in tiebreakers, and then defeating Nishikori in straights. The most successful unseeded entrant proved to be heavy-striking Dominic Thiem, 21, who won four matches and took a set in losing to Murray in the quarters. But on final-round Sunday, the last two standing were members of the Big Four. Both Djokovic and Murray had been well tested enroute, both having survived a couple of three-setters. Their newest meeting proved a grueling affair featuring long and powerful rallies amid temperatures in the 80's and a difficult Sun. The margin remained small between the two but it was the Serbian star who proved tougher at the end, pulling away to win the third set at love despite his own considerable tiredness.
Here is a final rank order for the trimester, made using our own count. The top two are the same if using the official ATP Race-to-London (i.e., year-to-date) tally.
1. Novak Djokovic (swept Aus Open, Indian Wells, and Miami)
2. Andy Murray (runner-up at AusOpen and Miami, semis at Indian Wells)
3. Tomas Berdych (semis at AusOpen and Miami, quarters at Indian Wells)
4. David Ferrer (quarters at Miami)
5. Kei Nishikori (quarters at AusOpen and Miami)
First Trimester -- The Women
Serena Williams's late-2014 triumphs at U.S. Open and at the year-ender in Singapore established Serena as the clear favorite for Australia. Maria Sharapova was second-seeded, and the world's two best-known women athletes indeed marched impressively to the final. There Serena's strength and mobility dampened Maria's all-out offensive approach, and Serena prevailed in straight sets, score 63 76. Venus Williams showed well, reaching the quarters where she was out-hammered by rising Madison Keys, age 20, who had earlier beaten Kvitova. Another, more famous riser, Eugenie Bouchard, 21, lost to Sharapova's heavier game in the quarters.
Relative newcomers also showed well in February. Simona Halep, 23, won the month's richest tournament, the Premier Five event in Dubai, where Karolina Pliskova, 23, was runner-up and Garbine Muguruza, 21, reached the final four. Hardly a newcomer though just 24 was Caroline Wozniacki, the other semi-finalist at Dubai.
Serena rested in February after Australia, but the sport's La Prima returned to action at Indian Wells, warmly welcomed after her absence of many years. Serena won four matches, impressively, and seemed likely to win the tournament, but she injured her left knee in practice and withdrew prior to her semi-final meeting with Simona Halep. Sharapova lost early. Again, risers claimed attention -- Bencic, 18, Tsurenko, 25, Caroline Garcia, 21, and a returnee after several years off the tour, Timea Bacsinszky, 25, who won three three-setters before becoming Serena's fourth victim. In the Sunday final, Halep vs. Jankovic, the first set went to Jankovic, whose forcing shots were more frequent and more accurate than Halep's and whose overhead game was superb. But the penetration gradually faded from Jelena's excellent backhand, and Simona, the fresher of the two thanks to her semi-final walkover against Serena, finally squeezed out the second and third sets.
Serena approximated her best-ever playing level in Miami. Sabine Lisicki made it close in their three-set quarter-final. Then Simona Halep, who had been scorched by a blazing Serena in their first set, came back to equalize at five-games-all in the third. But Serena reignited the heat and closed out promptly. Her win in the Saturday final against Suarez Navarro was one-sided. A possibly significant footnote at Miami was the maturing of Sloane Stephens, 22, whose wonderful mobility and easy power has long indicated future superstardom. Sloane won four matches without losing a set, holding down her errors wonderfully, before losing in the quarters to Halep.
Serena remained comfortably ahead as #1 in the official (12-month) rankings and also slightly ahead in the WTA year-to-date race. Our own count for First Trimester places Halep slightly ahead of Serena:
1. Simona Halep (won Indian Wells and Dubai, semis at Miami, quarters at AusOpen)
2. Serena Williams (won AusOpen and Miami, semis at Indian Wells)
3. Carla Suarez Navarro (runner-up at Miami, quarters at Indian Wells and Dubai)
4. Timea Bacsinszky (quarters at Indian Wells)
5. Maria Sharapova (runner-up at AusOpen)
The Nations
The dominating nations in collecting match wins at men's tournaments in recent years had been Spain, France, and U.S. Thus there was little surprise when the male contingent from Spain claimed first place at Australian Open 2015, led by four Armada members who reached the round of sixteen or better -- Nadal, Ferrer, F. Lopez, and Garcia-Lopez.
But a clear deviation from the recent past came with the second-place finish by the male Australians -- their best result at Melbourne Park since 2003. The Modern Aussies scored a total of 21 match wins, just one fewer than the Armada. Kyrgios, Tomic, and Groth all won at least twice in singles for the host nation, and there was wide Australian first-round strength in both singles and doubles. France finished in third place, led by Simon and Gasquet in singles and Herbert-Mahut, the runner-up pair in men's doubles.
Spain's males prevailed again at Indian Wells, where both Nadal and F. Lopez reached the final eight. Second place went to U.S. when Jack Sock contributed two singles victories and partnered Canada's Pospisil in winning five doubles matches enroute to the men's doubles crown. (U.S. and Canada divided the pair's five wins, each nation credited with 2.5 in our tally.) Tomic and Kokkinakis won a combined seven matches in singles, helping lift Australia to third place.
Things changed in Miami. Sparked by John Isner's remarkable run in singles and excellent success by several U.S. doubles pairs, the Americans rolled up more match-wins than France and Spain combined. (The latter two nations tied for second place.)
Victories in Davis Cup sometimes come by small nations not having high match-win totals at the big tournaments. Examples are recent Davis Cup champions Switzerland and Czech Republic. Switzerland won the Cup last year behind Wawrinka and Federer. Czech Republic won in 2013 and 2012. But neither nation fared well on Davis Cup weekend 6-8 March 2015. Federer and Wawrinka were absent at Liege when Belgium dropped last year's champs, 3-2. The Czechs scored no better, lacking superstar Berdych and losing to Australia when Tomic won twice in singles and Kokkinakis once. U.S. also lost when James Ward of Britain defeated Isner and Andy Murray did the rest, winning twice in singles.
Which nation deserves our nod as the overall men's top nation of First Trimester? The leader in the big tournaments was Spain, but the Armada had been relegated out of the 2015 Davis Cup World Group and did not compete on the recent Davis Cup weekend. Australia, however, won its Cup meeting and scored well at both Melbourne Park and Indian Wells (but was nearly blanked at Miami). The margin is narrow, but we give our verdict to the Aussies, recognizing their upward direction.
Among the women, the winning nation in matches won at the three biggest tournaments (Australia, Indian Wells, and Miami) was U.S. Second place at all three belonged to Russia. Lifting the Americans was the incomparable Serena, amply complemented by broad American depth in the early rounds.
In Fed Cup action in early February the eight nations of Fed Cup World Group 1 reduced themselves to four. Honors went to European nations. Defending champion Czech Republic (without Kvitova) advanced over Canada (without Bouchard), and both Sharapova and Kuznetsova bested Agniezka Radwanska in Russia's victory over Poland. Meanwhile Germany defeated Australia in Stuttgart behind two singles wins by Petkovic. Finally, a close showdown in Genoa was decided in the fifth match, the doubles, when France's Garcia-Mladenovic defeated Italy's Errani-Vinci. Mladenovic also defeated higher-ranked Errani in singles.
But the U.S. women also fared well on Fed Cup weekend, taking a step toward membership in World Group 1 next year, when the Williams sisters produced three singles wins, thereby lifting U.S. over Argentina. The Americans will face Italy in mid-April to decide a place in 2016's World Group 1.
America's Fed Cup win adds to the weight of that nation's excellence in big-tournament match wins. We acknowledge U.S. to be the top nation in women's pro tennis during First Trimester.
Preview, Second Trimester
Ahead lies Second Trimester --the season of pro tennis on soft courts. Its first segment consists of nine weeks of action on clay, including major events in Rome and Madrid for both men and women and in Monte Carlo for the men. Roland Garros, second of the year's Slams, ends the primary clay sequence.
The slower bounce on clay gives baseline strokers extra time to get to shots and prepare for heavy reply. Foot movement on clay requires different techniques than on other surfaces. Players raised on clay (typically in Europe and Latin America) are usually advantaged.
Will Rafael Nadal produce another near-sweep of the big clay events, to follow what has been a disappointing 2015 to date? Rafa has collected nine Garros triumphs in the last ten years, making Rafa unquestionably history's greatest clay-court performer. Novak Djokovic's superb current run albeit on hard courts makes him a co-equal favorite. Novak has never won Garros, but he has won at Monte Carlo, Madrid, and twice at Rome.
Maria Sharapova triumphed at Garros in 2012 and 2014, exploiting the slow bounce to unlimber her heavy artillery. Serena Williams won in 2013 and will be the favorite this year given her recent excellence in movement and weight of shot. In the last three years all primary clay-court crowns (Garros, Madrid, and Rome) have been won by either Maria or Serena.
The second sequence of the trimester -- the grass-court circuit -- starts on 8 June, immediately after Garros. The grass sequence has been expanded by one week, allowing a third week of tournament play prior to the two weeks at Wimbledon. The idea is to help players adjust to the unusual requirements of grass-court tennis prior to Wimby. There will be five men's and four women's main-tour events during the tune-up period, mainly in U.K. but also including both men's and women's events in Stuttgart and the Netherlands. Several grass Challenger and ITF-Circuit tournaments are also scheduled. The annual grass celebration at Newport follows Wimbledon by one week.
A Big-Four male has won every Wimbledon since 2002. Djokovic, Murray, and Federer have divided the last three. Djokovic, last year's winner, should be favored but the other two are capable. Meanwhile heavy hitters abound in the men's ranks, including several young risers capable of winning with extreme serving and first-striking power.
Serena Williams, who strongly desires to enlarge her bag of Slams, has already won Wimbledon five times and should be a strong favorite to win in 2015. Venus has also won five times but not since 2008. Kvitova won last year and also in 2011, while Sharapova won once, in 2004. All will claim attention. Last year's runner-up, Bouchard, has slightly improved her credentials since. Big servers like Pliskova and Lisicki will threaten as well.
It should be a magnificent springtime and early summer in Europe.
-- Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.
Here is our newest list of predicted risers, List XIII, selected on 6 April by our computer mainly based on player results in First Trimester. (In the calculation, a player's rank for the trimester is compared with his best previous 12-month rank and is then adjusted for player age, height, and statistical regression. A predicted target ranking for the next twelve months is reached, as shown below.)
James Duckworth, 23, 6-0 (Australia). James has been slower to rise than I expected when watching him battle closely with Kevin Anderson here in Washington two years ago. But his long tenure in the second hundred finally ended with recent successes in Challengers and in qualifying-round and main-draw victories at both Indian Wells and Miami 2015. His surge adds further depth to Australia's strong rising generation. Official rank now #82. 12-month target #62.
Nikoloz Basilashvili, 23, 6-1 (Georgia). Long a competitor in the Futures and Challenger circuits, Nikoloz broke out upward in early 2015, advancing out of the qualifiers at several main-tour events and winning several main-draw matches therein. He then scored an impressive triumph in early April, winning the $125,00 Raanana, Israel Challenger over an unusually prestigious field. Official rank now #137. 12-month target #85.
Bernard Tomic, 22, 6-5 (Australia). Bernie, then a teenager, appeared on our first two watch lists in 2011. He initially maintained his previous rate of ascent, and in 2012 he attained his career-best 12-month ranking of #27. But injuries and distractions intervened and he dropped temporarily out of the top hundred in 2014. Now, having ranked high in our tally for First Trimester 2015 with strong results at the trimester's big events, he returns to our watch-list scrutiny. Official rank now #27. 12-month target #10.
Borna Coric, 18, 6-1 (Croatia). Borna was Watch Listed last November and now appears again, having maintained his strong play. During First Trimester he won through in the qualifiers at Dubai and Indian Wells and recorded a total of seven wins over top-hundred opponents. That included a victory over Andy Murray in the semis at Dubai. In our column here last month, he ranked as the world's top teenager and also the top 21-and-under player for the preceding six months. Official rank now #55. 12-month target #44.
Thanasi Kokkinakis, 18, 6-5 (Australia). There was plenty of success during First Trimester for this tall teenager from Adelaide, including eight wins over top-hundred opponents and a final-16 finish at Indian Wells. His is a potent backcourt style, showing excellent mobility, power, and talent for more aggressive tactics. He was also watch-listed here when he was ranked as world #150 last trimester, targeted to achieve a 12-month rank of #81. His results since then place him firmly on track to do even better. Official rank now #107. 12-month target #42.
Taylor Fritz, 17, 6-5 (U.S.). Aside from a recent win in the qualifiers at Indian Wells, Taylor shows little exposure to date in main-tour or Challenger events. His rise is measured mainly in junior competition, where during First Trimester 2015 he reached the final eight at Orange Bowl and at Australian Open. His strong results last year included a win over Andrey Rublev, the #1-ranked world junior, in winning Yucatan Cup. A native of California with backhand two-hander, Taylor in early 2015 became world #4 junior. He reached the final of the initial Junior Masters event, 3-5 April 2015, in China, losing to Rublev in three sets. Official rank now #814. 12-month target #483.
Andrey Rublev, 17, 6-2 (Russia). Tall and slender, Andrey is currently ranked the world's #1 junior, having reached late rounds in multiple junior events of 2014 and winning the Garros Juniors in 2014. He won his three matches at the ITF Junior Masters 2015, which assembled eight of the world's top juniors. After defeating American Fritz in the final, Andrey announced his departure from junior play to give full effort to pro competition. During First Trimester 2015 he achieved a 9-3 mark in main-tour and Challenger play, including two wins over top-hundred players. Official rank now #328. 12-month target #178.
The Women
Timea Bacsinszky, 25, 5-7 (Switzerland). As a young riser Timea finished each year 2008-2010 well inside the top hundred. But three injury-plagued years then ensued, reversing her upward climb. Healthy again in 2014 she climbed her way back, scoring wins at three Slams and late-round finishes at several WTA tournaments. First Trimester 2015 was even stronger, when she reached the final 32 at Australian Open, won the main-tour events at Acapulco and Monterrey, and reached the quarters at Indian Wells, showing wins over Makarova, Errani, and Kvitova. Official rank now #22. 12-month target #10.
Madison Brengle, 25, 5-4 (U.S.). Returning to the courts after an alarming cancer scare, Madison attained strong results during the 2015 Australian season (W-L 13-3 including 4-0 in qualifiers and a win over Petkovic at AusOpen). She thus moved inside the world's top fifty -- far higher than at any time previously. Her results declined thereafter but there were first-round main-draw wins at both Indian Wells and Miami 2015, followed by a run to the final at the ITF-circuit tournament in Osprey, Florida. Official rank now #43. 12-month target #30.
Karolina Pliskova, 23, 6-1 (Czech Republic). Tall Karolina repeats from Watch List XII with another strong trimester, including a final-eight finish at Miami, and runner-up finishes at Sydney and Dubai. Among her victims were Ivanovic, Muguruza, Safarova, and Kerber. She leads the 2015 women's tour in total aces and is second to Serena Williams in first-serve points-won percentage, fourth in double-faults. Official rank now #12. 12-month target #8.
Daria Gavrilova, 21, 5-5 (Russia). Daria came through in the qualifiers at Indian Wells 2015 and then won her first-round main-draw match. She then lost to Simona Halep but managed to win a set against the eventual tournament winner. She next defeated Sharapova in a hard-hitting match-up in Miami before finally losing in the fourth round to Pliskova. There were strong results earlier in the trimester as well -- triumphs at two ITF-Circuit events in Australia and a close loss to Svitolina, world #27, in Doha. Equipped with potent serving and stroking weapons, further rise seems likely. Official rank now #76. 12-month target #40.
Jelena Ostapenko, 17 (Latvia). Jelena has scored excellent results in ITF-circuit events, winning a total seven such crowns including the tournament at St. Petersburg, Russia, in January 2015. In March, she was runner-up at the comparable event in Quanzhou, China. Her career-best junior ranking is as world #2. She won the Wimbledon Juniors in 2014 defeating Schmiedlova, whom she also defeated in the final on grass at Roehampton. She competed in the 8-player World Junior Masters in Chengdu this month, retiring from her first match after losing the first set but salvaging a win in consolation play. She contributed two points in Latvia's recent Fed Cup win over Austria. Official rank now #165. 12-month target #96.
Paula Badosa Gibert, 17 (Spain). Paula won two main-draw matches at Miami 2015 last month, defeating Cetkovska and Shuai Peng, thus reaching the round of 32. It was a remarkable entry for a junior onto the big stage. Last year she reached the quarters at both Wimbledon and Garros Juniors and she reached the finals of the European Juniors, held in Switzerland, supporting a career-best junior ranking as world #8. She has moderate experience in ITF Pro Circuit events during 2013 and 2014, showing a W-L record of 27-17 at that level. Official rank now #297. 12-month target #129.
CiCi Bellis, 16, 5-6 (U.S.). Cici made news last summer at age 15 by winning a first-round main-draw match at U.S. Open. In March 2015, still 15, she reached the round of 32 at Miami 2015, winning two main-draw matches. Earlier in the trimester, she scored good results in ITF-Circuit events, including a triumph at Rancho Santa Fe. Limited by her young age in her pro tournament scheduling, she nevertheless should continue her climb following this, her second consecutive Watch List selection. She remained the top-ranked world junior until the end of March. Official rank now #192. 12-month target #97.
List X -- Final Report Card
Of the seven male members of Watch List X, named 6 April 2014, two surpassed their predicted targets during the ensuing twelve months.
--Thanasi Kokkinakis, then #415, target #164, now #107
--Alex Zverev, then #822, target #328, now #119
Two other members improved but not enough to surpass their targets:
-- Dominic Thiem, then #81, target #39, now #43
-- Steve Johnson, then #69, target #33, now #52
Three members declined in their results:
-- Dusan Lajovic, then #76, target #48, now #81
-- Peter Gojowczyk, then #111, target #51, now #146
-- Taro Daniel, then #191, target #89, now #213
The pattern is identical among the women. Two surpassed their predicted targets:
-- Eugenie Bouchard, then #19, target #10, now #7
-- Belinda Bencic, then #91, target #44, now #35
Two others improved but did not attain their targets:
-- Garbine Muguruza, then #40, target #15, now #19
-- Elizaveta Kulichkova, then #205, target #111, now #123
Three members declined:
-- Rebecca Peterson, then #224, target #127, now #240
-- Allie Kiick, then #155, target #84, now #267
-- Jovana Jaksic, then #106, target #49, now #220

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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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