The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. This week, Novak Djokovic emerged from a stacked field at the Shanghai Masters and Victoria Azarenka blitzed the field in Linz.
Novak Djokovic: A-plus. How good of a week was it for Djokovic? His resilient comeback victory over Andy Murray in the Shanghai final was only one of a series of achievements. By making the final, Djokovic became only the second active player to do so in all nine of the current ATP Masters 1000 tournaments as well as the four Grand Slams. The other? Roger Federer. But if catching Federer on that metric wasn’t enough, the Serb’s Shanghai title moved him past Federer as the first player to win seven of the current Masters 1000 titles. This may just be one of the most underrated accomplishments of Djokovic’s career. (That can happen when, you know, you go on a 46-match winning streak). The only two Masters shields eluding him are Monte Carlo — aka Rafa’s sandbox — and Cincinnati. Given his hard-court prowess and the fact that he’s made the final of Cincy four of the last five years, it’s hard not to think he has eight in the cards.
Needless to say, it was a strong two weeks for Djokovic, who won back-to-back titles in Beijing and Shanghai and closed within a mere 195 points of Federer’s No. 1 ranking. It couldn’t have gone any better for the 25-year-old, who’ll get two weeks off before the final push at the Paris Masters and World Tour Finals.
Victoria Azarenka: A. After all these years of WTA No. 1s who must go out of their ways every week to prove that they deserve their spot in the penthouse, how nice it is to see Azarenka take her No. 1 ranking and practically shove it in our faces. One week after winning Beijing without dropping a set, Azarenka rolled through the Linz field to tie Serena Williams with her sixth title of the year. How’s this for domination: Azarenka has lost an average of just under two games per set since the U.S. Open.
Andy Murray: A-minus. Five championship points came and went against Djokovic and an hour later Murray looked physically wiped as he trudged through the third set on his way to losing another close match where he held match points (he had two match points in his loss to Milos Raonic in Tokyo). While it’s easy to spin this result in another “Oh, look at Murray choking again” narrative, that’s simply not the sense I got watching the match. Four of the match points were on Djokovic’s serve and ended with winners, while Murray served for the fifth and Djokovic — shocker — clipped the line with a forehand.
“It’s not like I threw the match away,” Murray told reporters afterward. “I didn’t make any real glaring errors or anything. When I had my chances, he just served very well and hit a couple of lines when he needed to.”
So, yes, I’m inclined to give Djokovic all the credit for the comeback rather than pile on Murray.
Roger Federer: B. The Swiss assured himself the No. 1 ranking for at least another week by making the semifinals of Shanghai, and did so while dealing with some unnecessary distractions in the form of an online death threat. That effort means he’ll begin his 300th week at No. 1 on Monday, an astounding achievement considering all the chatter of his demise a year ago. But he was surprisingly flat against Murray in the semifinals, serving horribly in the 6-4, 6-4 loss. Want to see tennis’ version of a unicorn? Here’s video of Federer serving three straight double faults to essentially hand Murray a pivotal break in the first set.
Heather Watson: A. There will be no more talk of droughts when it comes to British tennis after what has been a watershed year for the Union Jack. Murray snaps the 76-year drought for British men at the Slams; Laura Robson becomes the first British WTA finalist in 22 years; and now Watson is the first British woman to win a WTA tournament in 24 years after capturing her first career title, in Osaka. The victory moves Watson into the top 50, which means she’ll be the No. 1 Brit heading into 2013.
Tomas Berdych: B-plus. Give credit to Berdych here. Bumped up to the No. 4 seed after the absence of Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer, the U.S. Open semifinalist responded by making the semis in Shanghai. His straight-set win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters was surprisingly routine, though he couldn’t get past an in-form Djokovic in the semis. This is the consistency that has eluded Berdych for much of his career and I’d love to see it continue into 2013. He’s a perfect fit for the gaping hole left by Robin Soderling.
Kai-Chen Chang: A. I don’t know what’s in the water in Taiwan but the WTA needs to start bottling it. A few weeks after Hsieh Su-Wei won the title in Guangzhou, the 134th-ranked Chang had a week to remember, beating Laura Robson and Sam Stosur to make her first WTA final. The moment understandably got to her, as she squandered four match points to lose to Watson. But it’s been one heck of a month for Taiwanese tennis.
Bernard Tomic: F. Bernie needs to take a timeout. Here’s hoping he spends his offseason working on his communication skills.
John Isner: C. Not since the quarterfinals of Winston-Salem in August has Isner played a match that ended in straight sets, win or lose. Of the nine matches he’s played since then, six have gone the distance and four have needed a final-set tiebreaker. Last week in Shanghai he saved three match points to beat Kevin Anderson 7-6 (3), 6-7 (8), 7-6 (7) to make the third round, where he lost to Radek Stepanek in three. If you’re as exhausted after reading this as I am writing it, then maybe we’ve caught a glimpse into how Big John must be feeling these days.
Radek Stepanek: B-plus. OK, fine, I’ll admit it: I’ve always secretly been a fan of Stepanek’s game. It’s crafty tennis designed to get under his opponent’s skin and the 33-year-old still has the ability to pull off a string of upsets. He’s a dangerous guy on quick courts, so kudos to Steps for beating Lleyton Hewitt, Richard Gasquet and Isner to make his first Masters quarterfinal in singles since Paris 2009. Add a doubles title in Shanghai and I’d call it a successful week.
Leander Paes/Radek Stepanek: A. The Shanghai doubles final turned out to be a bit of a grudge match, as Paes faced off against Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna for the first time since their very public spat with the All India Tennis Association before the Olympics. “Today was a bit more of a personal match for us three Indians,” Paes said. Stepanek and Paes came out on top, rallying from a set down to win their third ATP title of the year.
Sam Querrey: B. Another strong week for Querrey, who ousted Tokyo champion Kei Nishikori and gave Berdych a scare before losing 6-4 in the third set.
Sam Stosur: D. Losing to No. 134-ranked Chang Kai-Chen in the Osaka semifinals? With all due respect to Chang, what is that about, Sam?
Tommy Haas: A. The Ageless One is back into the top 20 thanks to his week in Shanghai, where he beat two seeds — Nicolas Almagro and Janko Tipsarevic — to make his second Masters quarterfinal of 2012. Reminder: The 34-year-old began the season ranked outside the top 200. Super fantastische.