Rafael Nadal has managed to turn the tables on Novak Djokovic at the time of year when, 12 months earlier, a surging Nole put what was then an unimaginable dent in Rafa's confidence-and reputation-on red clay in Rome. Nadal, who surrendered the No. 1 ranking to Djokovic a little less than a year ago, re-emerged yesterday as the dominant force on European clay, the role the Serb forced him to relinquish last season.
Nadal's claim is backed up with two wins over Djokovic in spring clay Masters events (Monte Carlo and Rome). For Djokovic fans, the most appealing narrative is that their hero has just been treading water, unwilling to invest himself entirely in the run-up to the French Open. If that's true, it's an extremely bold and risky strategy-eggs and baskets and all that. . .
Nadal fans have a more plausible explanation when they argue that last year was something of an abberation, with Djokovic playing at a level that was glorious but impossible to sustain. We once dreamed of potential finals between Nadal and Roger Federer; now the majority of fingers are crossed for a showdown between Nadal and Djokovic at Roland Garros-where Rafa has won six titles and lost exactly one match in his entire career.
Maria Sharapova won another big title Sunday in Rome. She did it by virtue of a performance that can almost be termed emblematic of her career. Her opponent, Li Na, raced out to a 6-4, 4-0 lead, which can be attributed to her terrific attributes as a clay-court player (she's mobile, patient, and armed with very precise, compact groundstrokes) as well as Sharapova's well-documented tendency to fall out of sync at unpredictable times, and far too often for a three-time Grand Slam champion, former No. 1, and current No. 2.
But if Sharapova often loses the plot, she also fights harder than most of her contemporaries to get it back-or even to just win ugly. Her fighting spirit is her greatest asset. Against Li, she dug in her heels and battled back, all the way back, in a match concluded on a rain-drenched battlefield, and which included a two-hour rain delay and a un-converted match point for Li. In what in some ways was a signature performance, Sharapova ultimately triumphed, 7-6 in the third.
Angelique Kerber has cracked the Top 10, rounding out a line-up that is represented by 10 players from 10 different nations. That's extraordinary, given that all it would take is one duplication to ruin the line-up. I suppose we should thank Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for making this scenario possible.
Kerber essentially replaced Serbian-born and frequently injured Andrea Petkovic-who will miss the French Open-as the German representative in the Top 10. Her recent rise from the pack began when she unexpectedly reached last year's U.S. Open semifinals, after which she quickly surpassed her career-high ranking of No. 45, finishing the year at No. 32.
Andy Murray has really struggled ever since he lost the Miami Masters final to Djokovic and left the American shores. He hasn't made a semfinal since then, losing to Tomas Berdych (Monte Carlo), Milos Raonic (Barcelona), and Richard Gasquet (Rome). That wouldn't be enough to earn a thumbs down in and of itself; every pro hits mediocre times now and then. It was the way Murray lost to Gasquet that was so irritating and. . . amateurish.
We all know that Murray gets into funks, screams at his box, beats on himself. But one of the main reasons that former No. 1 and Hall of Famer Ivan Lendl decided to sign on as Murray's coach was to help the world No. 4 develop a greater degree of self-control. And that wasn't merely because Lendl, a hard case himself, wanted Murray to become a more pleasant citizen of the tennis world. Lendl hoped to convince Murray that he needs to show his opponents a tough, professional, preferably inscrutable face. You might even say he wanted to play the father figure who convinced the gifted Murray to grow up. Could it be that Lendl has been wasting his time?
Given the nature of the game, a player is full control of only a few things, the most obvious of which is his serve. But he also can control himself, and the way that the scowling, potty-mouthed Murray has failed to throttle his sour moods and reactions only adds to the growing narrative that he doesn't deserve to be spoken of as part of a Big Four. Maybe this show ought to be called Three and a Half Men.
It's a shame, because Murray is a really compelling player and a very decent, down-to-earth guy.
Victoria Azarenka went after the WTA last week after withdrawing from Rome following her opening-round win over Shahar Peer. The world No. 1 cited a right shoulder injury as the reason. "I was conflicted and disappointed to withdraw from Rome," Azarenka wrote on Twitter. "I tried my hardest but I wasn't healthy going into the tournament. If WTA rules were different then I could have focused on getting healthy but I could not afford another zero pointer on my ranking. Hopefully in the future there will be more protection for players rights."
Hey, isn't that more than 140 characters?
Never mind. WTA spokesperson Andrew Walker later told TENNIS.com (via The Ticker author Matt Cronin) that the WTA Roadmap, introduced in 2009, has already extended the off-season and significantly reduced the commitment requirements for top players. The result was a 33 percent drop in injuries and withdrawals, and a 28 percent increase in participation at top events by the best players. And the players have thus far supported the Roadmap.
If you read between the lines, Walker is asking, "What more can Azarenka want?"
The answer is easy: More latitude. But the question is, how much is enough, given Azarenka's rich history of pulling out of events, and her reputation as a player who never takes a hit for the WTA team? Even her colleague Maria Sharapova-who knows a thing or two about injuries-rebuked Azarenka after the top-ranked player's comments became public, telling reporters in Rome:
"First of all she is probably injured more than any other player. . . I think last year she had more retirements that anyone but played a full schedule and two days after retirement you would see her practicing, so it's tough to know what her state is, and what she is feeling."
Sharapova went on to defend the Roadmap, and said that when she feels too injured to perform, she simply doesn't enter an event, and considers the fines and any other penalty or obligation that she might incur just part of the cost of doing business.
Even if you think Azarenka's actions and intentions have been pure as the driven snow, you have to wonder: Would be fair to the rest of the women to rewrite the rules in order to accomodate one player's particular desires, needs, and even physiological strengths and weaknesses?