Nishikori stuns Novak

Had he not secured the title of Newcomer of the Year for 2008, it would seem this year has been the breakthrough season for Japan’s Kei Nishikori.

Back then he claimed his first and only ATP World Tour trophy at Delray Beach but even though he’s yet to add any silverware to that collection he’s been to two finals including the Swiss Indoors this week.

In getting there, Nishikori did the rarest of feats for a male player in 2011 by beating current world number one Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals. If getting to his first Masters 1000 semi in Shanghai last month wasn’t enough of a landmark, then the 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-0 victory over the formidable Serb will certainly give him some attention.

Djokovic had only lost three matches on tour all year, with two of them retirements. The reigning Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open champion struggled with a shoulder injury in the final set so don’t read too much into the bagel.

Nishikori won’t care though. He’s now one of only four people to say they beat Djokovic in his historic year and only one of two outright, the other being Roger Federer.

Federer was Nishikori’s opponent in the final in Basel and although the 21-year-old lost comfortably in the Swiss’ home country he’s been given special discretion to enter the Paris Masters.

Anything Nishikori does from this point is a bonus for his home nation. Having become the first Asian to win the Newcomer of the Year award, his solid 2011 season including a final in Houston to go with Basel means he’s the highest ranked Japanese player of all time.

It comes after he missed most of the 2009 season through injury. He’ll now be looking to avoid another breakdown after a record season and kick on next year with a place in the top 50 secured.

Advertisements

Shanghai Heights

Andy Murray wins Japan Open 2011 over Nadal Following the conclusion of the Shanghai Masters, Andy Murray will rise to number three in the world after taking the title in China as part of his immense end-of-season form.

The Brit has now won three consecutive titles to surpass Roger Federer as the world’s third best player. It’s the first time Federer has been outside the top three since winning Wimbledon in 2003.

If Murray can build on that and finish the year-end rankings at No.3 then it could be hugely significant for the future of men’s tennis.

Federer is clearly in decline having not won a Grand Slam title since the 2010 Australian Open and the chances of him adding to his 16-strong tally are getting exceedingly unlikely at the age of 30.

For 24-year-old Murray, he is now in a very strong position. Should he make the third spot his own, his opponent in any future Grand Slam semi-final will most likely turn out to be Novak Djokovic.

Though playing the current world number one sounds daunting Murray has had a decent record over the Serb in the past. Djokovic was something of a surprise package this year having only won two majors in his career before 2011 to now holding three of the four.

That surprise element won’t be at his disposal next year and Murray can learn from Djokovic’s ability to convert a No.3 spot in the world to the top during the winter break.

The ultimatum of winning a major is still a great one with Djokovic’s currently unstoppable form and Rafael Nadal waiting in the wings but at least the greatest player of all time looks to be going in the opposite direction to help him out.

Elsewhere in Shanghai, there was a great run from Japan’s Kei Nishikori – a player Ace of Baseline has been tracking all year.

The 21-year-old reached his first Masters semi-final after wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Alexandr Dolgopolov before being beaten by Murray.

Nishikori will now become the highest ranked male Japanese player of all time beating Shuzo Matsuoka’s record of No.46 which he’d already equalled. He’s now expected to be just outside the top 30.

Another player who’s enjoyed success this year is Bernard Tomic who defeated the second top 10 player of his career when he took out Mardy Fish in the second round.

Ryan Harrison lost at the same stage to Matthew Ebden having beaten Viktor Troicki in the previous round.

Post-Wimbledon Blues

In my early youth I believed June was the worst month of the year for sport; then I became a tennis fan and quickly realised July tops it by a long stretch.

Summer sports like golf and cricket don’t fill the void left by the football season’s conclusion and, besides the first week where the Wimbledon schedule spills over, tennis doesn’t either.

All the top players disappear for two to three weeks once Sue Barker’s wrapped up the closing ceremony on Centre Court and, due to my UK residency, so does the coverage of the sport.

Luckily I have a companion who bets and he’s always looking for a tennis punt. He’s been keeping me updated on which players have been making the most of this July tennis drought.

Here’s a summary:

The next big buzz after Wimbledon came from the Davis Cup. Bernard Tomic and Kei Nishikori were in action for Australia and Japan with both helping their respective countries to victory. Japan will next face India with the Aussies taking on Switzerland when the World Group Play-offs commence in September.

Ksenia Pervak continued her recent good form by reaching the semi-finals of the Gastein Ladies and losing out to third in the world Vera Zvonareva at the Baku Cup. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova lost in the quarter-finals of the latter event.

In a tournament where John Isner was the top seed, Grigor Dimitrov couldn’t make the most of another grass court event after his second round exit to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon. He lost to 18-year-old American Denis Kudla in Newport, Rhode Island before travelling to Atlanta and falling to Rajeev Ram in the first round despite being seeded fifth. In the same tournament, Ryan Harrison reached the semi-finals before losing to eventual champion Mardy Fish. Harrison is also well inside the top 100 and improving on his highest ever ranking position all the time while Dimitrov is still at a respectable #57.

Wimbledon semi-finalist Sabine Lisicki continued her remarkable comeback by reaching the same stage of the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, joining 22-year-old Dominika Cibulkova. The German was cast aside by an imperious Serena Williams whilst the Slovakian had to retire before her match with Marion Bartoli but her ranking has improved to world number 16.

Youngsters Tamira Paszek and Irina Falconi both made the semi-finals of the WTA International tournament the Citi Open. Austrian 20-year-old Paszek made the quarter-finals of Wimbledon and has seen her world ranking increase to number 36 in the world while American 21-year-old Falconi is back in the top 100. Bojana Jovanovski made the quarter-finals and Eugenie Bouchard reached the second round as a wildcard.

As the hard court events got underway Ernests Gulbis produced a stunning turnaround from recent form. The 22-year-old ended a five-match slump to win his first round match at the Los Angeles Tennis Open against fifth seed Xavier Malisse. From then on the Latvian seemed re-born, smashing former US Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro 6-2, 6-4 en route to winning the tournament outright 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 against top 10 player Mardy Fish in the final. He’s now rose 29 places to number 55 in the world.

Ernests Gulbis

Serb Your Enthusiasm

On the day former champion Ana Ivanovic crashed out of the French Open, new talent Bojana Jovanovski showed why Serbian tennis still has a bright future.

The 19-year-old is the youngest player in the top 50 of the women’s game and in her first round match against Andrea Petkovic she showed why she’s there.

She did lose 6-4, 7-6 (7-3) but had taken several breaks and even led *5-2 in the second set before eventually being rolled over by the 15th seed. Yet I found her match enthralling and I also think Jovanovski is my new favourite player on the WTA tour.

Let me just point out, I had been subjected to Aravane Rezai’s dour show on Day 2 as well as the appallingly bad match between Patty Schynder and Sorana Cirstea beforehand so that might have played a part but I thought Jovanovski was great.

Her forehand in particular produced some thunderous shots down the line which culminated in her 31 winners but 41 unforced errors along with Petkovic turning up a gear towards the end of the match ultimately lost it for her.

My only qualm is she reminds me of Vicky Pollard (just the hairstyle and earrings). However I’m looking forward to watching her hopefully progress into a future household name.

caroline Garcia

An even younger player did make the second round though. French wildcard Caroline Garcia beat experienced campaigner Zuzana Ondraskova to set up a meeting with Maria Sharapova.

The 17-year-old had also reached the second round of the Australian Open this year and although further progress this week looks unlikely, she could improve France’s underachieving status in the sport with Mary Pierce and Amelie Mauresmo now just memories.

Heather Watson could do the same for British tennis. She’s already become the first British woman to reach the second round at Roland Garros for 17 years. Elena Baltacha may be slightly miffed having won her match against Watson’s close friend Sloane Stephens.

Fellow American prospects Christina McHale and Coco Vandeweghe also lost to Sara Errani and Maria Kirilenko respectively whilst Melanie Oudin couldn’t upset current title-holder Francesca Schiavone.

In the mens’ singles there were also some good results for the emerging players.

Kei Nishikori has reached the second round for the second consecutive year after beating Yen-Hsun Lu. He’ll have to defeat 31st seed Sergiy Stakhovsky if he’s to top his longest run at the French Open.

Ryan Harrison got a place in the first round thanks to a lucky loser spot and almost took full advantage before fifth seed Robin Soderling finished him off. The 19-year-old looked fully out of his depth when his Swedish opponent destroyed him 6-1 in the first set before the American took the second on a tiebreak.

Despite then breaking Soderling many times throughout the rest of the match he couldn’t keep his own service game together and lost a spirited display in four sets.

To summarise, it’s been a great first round for the young tennis players, especially the women. Some of the other selected results are:

MS: Carlos Berlocq (ARG) d. Bernard Tomic (AUS) 7-5, 6-4, 6-2

MS: Michael Berrer (GER) d. Milos Raonic 26 (CAN) 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4

MS: Alexandr Dolgopolov 21 (UKR) d. Rainer Schuettler (GER) 6-3, 6-3, 6-1

WS: Rebecca Marino (CAN) d. Kateryna Bondarenko (UKR) 6-3, 6-3

WS: Simona Halep (ROU) d. Alla Kudryavtseva (RUS) 6-2, 6-1

WS: Gisela Dulko (ARG) d. Irina Falconi (USA) 6-3, 6-4

WS: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 14 (RUS) d. Yaroslava Shvedova (KAZ) 7-5, 6-3

WS: Polona Hercog (SLO) d. Olivia Sanchez (FRA) 6-0, 6-1

Dark Horse Del Potro?

After his recent title victory at the Estoril Open, is it worth a punt on Juan Martin del Potro to win at the French?

Well, yes, it’s certainly worth a couple of pounds, dollars or whatever your currency may be but just don’t bet your mortgage on the 22-year-old Argentine.

Rafael Nadal is still far and away the favourite to claim a sixth crown at Roland Garros at just 24-years-old. And should he lose it’s most likely going to be to Novak Djokovic.

Del Potro is a rare breed though, being one of only four men on the tour who have won a Grand Slam since Andy Roddick in 2003.

That scenario was also true with Djokovic before his unbelievable 2011 form brought an Australian Open title, several other ATP wins and advertising deals aplenty.

Djokovic is now considered by some to be the best player in the world right now after two tour final victories over Nadal when he’d always been living in the shadows of the Spaniard and Roger Federer. So can del Potro get there also?

Another Grand Slam is definitely possible. A French Open success this year may be too much for a man still climbing the rankings after being at number 484 last February following a wrist injury.

Now at #32 the 2009 French Open semi-finalist might not have the stamina to go two weeks on clay with the extended best of five set format.

But players must be wary. A straight sets win over the 2009 and 2010 French Open finalist Robin Soderling last week proves the dark horse tag is suitable.

We’ll learn more from del Potro this week in Madrid, especially with a third round match-up with Nadal on the cards.

Del Potro

Elsewhere in the Mutua Madrid Open:

  • After disappearing from the tennis scene for a while Bojana Jovanovski returned to WTA action with a first round 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 win over Greta Arn.
  • Kei Nishikori lost his first round match to Spain’s Pere Riba 2-6, 2-6.
  • Dutch 22-year-old qualifier Thiemo de Bakker saw off world former world number one Juan Carlos Ferrero 2-6, 7-5, 6-4.
  • Doubles specialist Vania King has aided her cause for a top 100 return in the singles rankings after a 6-1, 7-6 (7-5) win over Nadia Petrova.
  • Wildcard Arantxa Parra Santonja is enjoying a resurgence in form. The 28-year-old beat Flavia Pennetta and Andrea Petkovic in the first and second round respectively.

Sweet Victory

Ryan Sweeting beat Kei Nishikori 6-4, 7-6 (7-3) at the US Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston to lift the first ATP Tour title of his career.

Upon winning, the American jumped into a pool and he’ll be looking to make more of a splash on the tour now as well (insert groan here).

On his way to the final he defeated fellow American and second seed Sam Querrey as well as former top 15 player Ivo Karlovic.

After losing the first set without gaining a break of serve, Nishikori will be ruing the three set points he missed at 5-4 up in the second as he fell in exactly two hours at the ATP 250 event.

Ryan Sweeting

As the name suggests, Sweeting will now gain 250 ranking points to push him to a career high position somewhere in the 70’s. It’s also the first time a wildcard has won the event since Mardy Fish in 2006. Since then Fish has gone on to become the USA’s number one player so this victory is a great boost for Sweeting and American tennis.

At the age of 23, he’s still got time to improve but any chance of a major title win during his career is unlikely. Still, a resurgence for Fish and Sweeting as well as the progression of teenager Ryan Harrison should increase the level of support for tennis fans in the US.

There’s also some good news for the beaten finalist, a prospect covered on here in the past. Despite the defeat, Nishikori is projected to be in the world’s top 50 once the rankings are out, almost matching the highest ever position of a Japanese player.

That’s currently held by Shuzo Matsuoka who reached #46 in 1992. Nishikori has every chance of breaking that record in the near future to slightly brighten the mood of a country surrounded by devastation following the tsunami last month.

Sweeting became the fifth newest player to win an ATP title this year joining Pablo Andujar who claimed the Grand Prix Hassan II in Casablanca and Milos Raonic amongst others.

Canadian Raonic managed to beat Michael Llondra in the first round of the Monte Carlo Masters and his progress at that tournament shall be watched with an eagle eye over the coming week.

Elsewhere in Monaco, Bernard Tomic lost out in qualification to Julien Benneteau while Ernests Gulbis saw off Alexandr Dolgopolov, a player only just coming to fruition after a fine run in the Australian Open this year.

Gulbis, 22, is a great clay court player looking to recapture the promise he showed last year when he beat Roger Federer on the surface. The Latvian’s next match versus Raonic is set to be a cracker of a second round tie.

Home Thoughts

IMG_3298-nishikori Following the earthquake and subsequent tsunami to hit Japan, several tennis players have tried to raise funds to support the relief effort but none will be hurting quite like Kei Nishikori.

As Japan’s best player, his mind is firmly on those who have lost their lives and helping the survivors rebuild his homeland.

Nishikori’s family and friends all emerged from the disaster unscathed but his thoughts are still with his people, indicated by his continued work off court.

Novak Djokovic has been wearing a taped knee with messages of support for the victims and also set up a charity football match with Nishikori and other ATP tour players involved. Female Japanese players Ayumi Morita and Kimiko Date-Krumm have also felt the effects of the trauma.

At Indian Wells, Nishikori wore a black ribbon during his first round defeat to Igor Andreev but he’s now reached the second round at Miami’s Sony Ericsson Open and is set to take on world no.1 Rafael Nadal on Saturday.

Despite the chances of the 21-year-old beating Nadal being slim, it will be a welcome return to top-class tennis after a succession of injuries kept him out of the last three majors of 2009.

At one stage he was voted the ATP Newcomer of the Year after bursting onto the scene as an unknown qualifier, winning at Delray Beach and finishing 2008 at #63 in the world.

But the next year his progress was halted by injury and he slipped as low as 898 during the beginning of 2010. Now 12 months later he’s back amongst the top 100 and looking to build on where his promising career start left off.

Nishikori may have been able to quickly bounce back from adversity but his fellow countrymen and women face a much greater task than hitting a ball in the service lines.

To help Kei Nishikori in his Japan efforts you can bid for tennis and other sport memorabilia or donate and support the cause via Facebook.

%d bloggers like this: