As someone who regularly writes about tennis, one struggles at times to resist the temptation to find meaning in every development along the sport’s labyrinthine journey through the year. To be frank, this past week contained few morals from which to draw grand conclusions, but it did include some entertaining tennis and some unexpected results. Find out who stood tall and fell short in our review.
Home not sweet home: Early in the second set of her third straight Copenhagen final, Wozniacki suddenly skidded on the indoor hard court and wound up in an undignified tangle of limbs behind the baseline. That jarring moment summed up Sunday for the former world #1, who failed to defend her home title while winning just four of ten service games. Broken at 4-4 in both sets, Wozniacki did not lack her share of impressive retrievals and crisp backhands but displayed her least convincing, most passive tennis when the match hung in the balance. Somewhat similar was the fate suffered in Houston by top-ranked American Isner, unbroken until the final and then threatened on serve repeatedly once he arrived there. Like Wozniacki, the giant from Georgia entered the final as a favorite despite the slow surface. (After all, “Long John” had just won two Davis Cup rubbers on clay against Simon and Tsonga, no mean feat.) Also like Wozniacki, Isner slipped out of focus when the match reached its crossroads. Serving at 3-4, 30-30 in the final set, he netted a makeable volley and then sprayed a senseless backhand wide to give Monaco the only margin that he needed. Both of these results reminded spectators that home crowds and familiar settings can boost spirits, but they can’t win matches.
True grit: On the other hand, the champions in Copenhagen and Houston played significant roles in their title runs. While overcoming top-ranked Frenchwoman Bartoli in Paris to win her first career title, Kerber wobbled and blinked several times in a three-setter more entertaining than exquisite. When she played the top-ranked Dane in Copenhagen, the wobbles and blinks receded after the four straight service breaks that opened the match. Much more able than her opponent to dig out of trouble on serve, Kerber benefited from the pristine indoor conditions while targeting corners with increasing confidence. Disaster loomed when she served for the match at 5-4 and fell behind 15-40, though, for Wozniacki has established herself as a competitor who can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and the German had faltered in a similar position against Bartoli. By closing proceedings without further drama, she took another step forward in self-belief just as the season reaches its busiest span.
For his part, Monaco battled impressively through consecutive three-setters deep in the heart of Texas. Colliding with Michael Russell in the semifinal, he rallied from a one-set deficit and a one-break deficit in the third set. While Russell normally strikes fear into nobody, his march through a draw that included Fish and Harrison infused him with dangerous momentum that the Argentine found himself forced to defuse. Even more daunting was the mental challenge posed by Isner’s mountainous serve, but a stunningly clean first set allowed Monaco to gain the initiative that he never entirely relinquished, swaggering around the court as though he was the favorite rather than the top-10 player across the net. Perhaps that Miami semifinal appearance left a more lasting impact than we had thought.
Second thoughts on Copenhagen: A companion to the “Djokovic Open” in Belgrade, the tournament in the Danish capital owes its origins to one player. During the earliest stages of their existences, one dismissed them all too easily as meaningless coronations for the local superstars. While Djokovic’s tournament still searches for credibility, the Copenhagen event has moved further in that direction by gaining other (somewhat) notable commitments. Among them were former #1 Jankovic and Kerber, whose title victory legitimized the tournament more generally even if it disappointed the home fans. Its relevance also increases after it escaped from its awkward position last year, a hard-court tournament lodged between the clay and grass seasons. Only by continuing along this route will it survive past Wozniacki’s career and become a regular fixture on the Tour.
Tower at the top: A development that seemed like a foregone conclusion since the start of the year, Isner finally reaped the rewards of his relentless upward trend and becomes the top-ranked American man on Monday. Considering his maturity, one suspects that he will handle this status more confidently than previous top-ranked American Mardy Fish, who looked enormously uncomfortable almost from start to finish of his sojourn in the penthouse. As a result, this shift may offer good news to both of these players at the base of the top 10, offering the world #9 reassurance for his exertions and allowing the world #10 a chance to collect himself under reduced scrutiny. The two Americans oddly share the same woeful winning percentage in finals, a statistic that Isner will want to consider as he aims to succeed where Fish feel short.
E for Effort: The second woman to sweep singles and doubles title at the same tournament this season, Sara Errani turned the ultimate double play in Barcelona by surrendering just four games to Cibulkova and just two to her countrywomen Pennetta and Schiavone. (Well, to be fair, her doubles partner Roberta Vinci influenced the latter result.) A surprise quarterfinalist at the Australian Open, where she reached the doubles final, Errani seems not to have learned the Italian translation for “fatigue.” If her busy schedule does not catch up to her in the coming months, she should capitalize upon the clay tournaments where her compatriots always have thrived. As for Schiavone, an opening-round loss continues a frigid 2012 and bodes ill for her hopes of a third straight Roland Garros final.
A beautiful friendship continues: At the age of 26, Pablo Andujar has won two ATP titles, both in Casablanca. Even less plausible than the alliance between Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains at the end of the film is this odd dominance by an anonymous journeyman over an event outside his home country. When such streaks at a single tournament occur, usually they result from a) a lone star who never seems to tire of drubbing a perennially outclassed field (think of Wozniacki in New Haven) or b) a home player who catches fire from the rampant enthusiasm of his compatriot crowds (think of Gonzalez in Viña del Mar). But this phenomenon fits neither of those trends, making it all the more intriguing and, in a sense, commendable. How many players have defended a title on their first attempt? Beware, Bucharest, where Andujar has reached two of his other three finals.