We break down the highlights and lowlights of a busy week in Tokyo, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur.
Petrova: At the end of a tumultuous week, she outlasted the Tokyo defending champion in a rally that encapsulated her startling title surge. Opportunistic but not reckless, Petrova gradually forced Radwanska into a defensive position before opening the court with a backhand and closing into the net for a finish with confidence. That confidence had sprung from two previous victories over top-10 opponents during which a veteran notorious for her meltdowns had kept her emotions relatively in check, as she did in a bizarre rollercoaster of a final. At a +25 differential for aces/double faults in the tournament, Petrova dominated behind her serve even when she failed to muster a strong first-serve percentage. Radwanska, an elite returner, could not create a break point in the two sets that she lost to her. Back in the top 15 for the first time in more than two years, the Russian cannot harbor realistic hopes of an accomplishment more significant than this Premier Five title, which made this week even more memorable not just for her but for those who watched.
Radwanska: Among the measures of a player’s quality is their effectiveness against others who resemble them in playing styles. Radwanska passed that test with flying colors—twice—by overcoming fellow leading counterpunchers Wozniacki and Kerber in matches almost entirely devoid of drama. Seeking to defend an important title for the first time, she rose to the occasion under that pressure despite failing to complete the task against an uncommonly inspired opponent. After she showed poise by recovering from a disastrous start to the final, Radwanska uncharacteristically contributed to her own demise with consecutive double faults that produced the only break point of the final set. Outside that tiny, disproportionately crucial lapse, she demonstrated her ability to compete with the best once again at a tournament that featured nine of the top ten women.
Stosur: Considering the degree to which Sharapova had throttled her over the years, any victory over the world #2 would have come as welcome tidings to the Aussie. Even more notable was Stosur’s ability to conquer her nerves late in each set, when the match plausibly could have tilted in the opposite direction—and almost always did in their previous meetings. Although an apparent abdominal injury hampered her against Petrova, a semifinal appearance at another tournament of consequence suggested that she could build upon a strong effort in New York, an encouraging sign for someone who has struggled to consolidate momentum. With another fine week in Beijing, Stosur could snatch a berth at the year-end championships for the third straight year.
Frenchmen: When he erased a massive semifinal deficit with a surprising display of resilience, Gasquet reached his second final of the second half and secured his first hard-court title in five years (an astonishing statistic) at the expense of his compatriot Simon. Nevertheless, Simon should have felt far from discouraged by the rout that ended his week, for he upset Tipsarevic in two routine sets a day before and should manage to redirect some of the attention from his words to his deeds if he can continue this form. Among his earlier victims in Bangkok, where Frenchmen cannibalized each other ruthlessly, was the long-injured Monfils, whose presence always enlivens the early rounds of tournaments. This showman’s mere return thus offers cause for minor celebration, as did the end of Benneteau’s 14-match, three-year winless streak against top-eight opponents. Still unable to crack the code of a final, the Frenchman remained 0-7 in that regard but battled Monaco courageously through nearly three hours a day after he staved off swarms of break points in his ambush of Ferrer.
Monaco: Scanning his previous titles and finals, his clay origins become apparent immediately. But the Argentine has spent much of 2012 asserting himself as a player of quality on hard courts too, so it felt fitting that he recorded his first title on that surface. Far from easy was his route to the Kuala Lumpur crown, for he saved a match point in the semifinals against a tenacious Nishikori before slipping through a third-set tiebreak decided by a single minibreak. More tension pervaded a final that lasted nearly three hours, as discussed above, so the trivial status of this tournament should not lead one to consider his accomplishment cheaply earned.
Errani: The woman who came closest to defeating the eventual Tokyo champion, she let a substantial lead slip through her fingers. Another quarterfinal appearance in another strong draw, though, continues to suggest against all odds that Errani can sustain an emergence that initially seemed a mirage. By far the least obviously impressive member of the top 10, she may become something like the Ferrer of the WTA: a tireless labor with the consistency of a metronome and a knack for winning the matches that she should win.
Kerber: While a semifinal appearance seemingly would merit praise, two of the four rounds through which Kerber advanced came via a bye and an Azarenka walkover, and another from a victory over the overmatched Urszula Radwanska. More lasting was the memory left by her resounding loss to the more famous of the Polish sisters, not justifiable by any physical woes. Winning only two games from a player whom she has defeated before on a more prominent stage, Kerber looked like someone who has won more singles matches this year than her rivals and for whom the offseason cannot arrive soon enough.
Wozniacki: In the wake of a title in Seoul, her first of the year, the former #1 raised eyebrows by recording her first top-10 victory of the year a few days later. Her three-set comeback over Li recalled the competitive stamina of her more prosperous days, but she reverted to her currently passive, indecisive self a day later against Radwanska, a player whom she had dominated before 2012. Reminiscent of her Miami fortnight that paired a victory over Serena with a loss to Sharapova, this tournament offered modest hope that Wozniacki had reinvigorated herself, only to immediately call that hope into question.
Tipsarevic: A victory over Verdasco, who had troubled him before, must have infused the second-ranked Serb with a sense of relief and revenge. He also unleashed several dazzling bursts of shot-making against Simon’s defenses, but he continues to lack the reliability against lesser opposition that separates the true elite from near-elites like him.
Tomic: Not overly discomfited by his Davis Cup debacle, the future of Australian men’s tennis submitted a sturdy trio of results in Bangkok with a rout of former champion Garcia-Lopez, a three-set comeback over the steady Dudi Sela, and a tightly contested loss to top-20 opponent and eventual champion Gasquet. Which young star appeared to have caught fire at this tournament last year, however? Donald Young. In other words, exercise caution until this arrogant prodigy can string together a few such weeks in the trenches and genuinely abandons his belief that everything will come easily to him.
Top two women: At Premier Five tournaments during a year mostly spent at the #1 ranking, Azarenka won a title, withdrew after winning one match, retired in her first match, withdrew before the tournament, and withdrew after winning two matches. Even despite—or perhaps because of—her current ascendancy, she must find a way to stay healthier during the most important weeks of the calendar. A shadow of her usual self for most of her three matches, Sharapova managed to avoid the injury that she suffered here last year but looked as ready for a respite as Kerber and less disappointed than usual when Stosur excused her. Her talents notwithstanding, her fortunes ebb and flow with her motivation, which must have dwindled to a trickle after an emotionally exhausting year.
Li: In Sharapova’s first match against Watson, the world #2 set the bar for baseline inefficacy exceptionally high with 67 unforced errors. Never one to shrink from a challenge, Li surpassed that mark with a staggering 76 in her loss to Wozniacki, which accounted for three-quarters of her opponent’s total points.
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Raonic: His serve should explode on the indoor hard courts, and the fall season offers plenty of opportunities for a player not too satiated with success to pounce on easy ranking points. For those reasons, Raonic’s loss to the fossilizing Jarko Nieminen represents another disappointment in a generally disappointing second half that has bordered on stagnation.
Ferrer: Normally a model of consistency, he suffered perhaps his worst loss of the year and certainly his worst since falling to Bellucci in his Monte Carlo opener. Having won more matches than anyone in the ATP and as many titles as anyone in tennis during the best year of his career, Ferrer finally may have exhausted the energy that often has seemed inexhaustible.