The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. Last week, Rafael Nadal won his second straight event in his comeback, Novak Djokovic stayed undefeated in 2013 and an outspoken Latvian took Delray Beach by storm.
Rafael Nadal: A-plus. Are you kidding me? In his third tournament after a seven-month absence, Nadal blazed through his toughest test yet. He won the Mexico Open without dropping a set or being pushed to a tiebreaker, culminating in a 6-0, 6-2 beatdown of No. 4 David Ferrer in the final. That scoreline is as much a tribute to Nadal’s form as it is to the acreage of real estate he occupies in Ferrer’s head, earned over the course of the last nine years during which the 11-time Grand Slam winner
hasn’t lost has lost once to his Spanish countryman on clay.
So is Rafa back? It’s still difficult to gauge his level, given Ferrer’s lackluster performance in the final. But Nadal feels physically well enough to confirm his intention of playing Indian Wells, which is a great sign. I don’t think he’ll win the tournament, but a quarterfinal run would be proof to me that he’s as close to being back as we could expect one month into his return.
Novak Djokovic: A-plus. The Super Serb is on an 18-match winning streak after bagging his second title of the year, in Dubai, where he didn’t drop a set and beat Tomas Berdych 7-5, 6-3 in the final. The title was Djokovic’s fourth in Dubai (he and Roger Federer have won all but two of the titles dating to 2003) and 36th overall.
Ernests Gulbis: A-plus. He’s been knocked for his work ethic but says he’s turned over a new leaf, eschewing the late nights out that have been his calling card. So in perhaps a perfect statement to his renewed commitment, Gulbis came through qualifying at Delray Beach to win eight matches and his first title in two years to launch himself back into the top 100 at No. 67. He came back from a 0-4 deficit against Sam Querrey in the second round to win in a tiebreaker, then got his first top-20 win since Wimbledon by upsetting Tommy Haas 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (2) in the semifinals. His final win came over Edouard Roger-Vasselin, 7-6 (3), 6-3. A lot of people want to see Gulbis back in the mix, and for good reason. He gives good quotes and is tremendously talented. Fingers crossed he keeps it up.
Tomas Berdych: A. It speaks volumes about both Berdych and Roger Federer that it seemed disingenuous to label the Czech’s 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4 win in their Dubai semifinal “an upset.” Berdych believes he can and should beat Federer, and he’s done it over and over and over again. In the last three years he’s defeated Federer at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and two Masters tournaments, holding a 5-3 edge in the head-to-head during that time. So, yeah, Federer probably doesn’t want to see this guy on his side of the draw anymore. But tennis is all about matchups, and though Berdych seems to have the upper hand on Federer, he’s now 0-12 against Djokovic on hard courts.
David Ferrer: C-plus. Ferrer is the model of consistency, with a tour-leading 21 wins this year to just three losses. But consistency can also serve as a buzzword for “underpowered,” and for as much ink as has been devoted to Ferrer’s fight and persistence that have propelled him into a solid No. 5 player and now, thanks to Nadal’s lengthy absence, No. 4 in the world, Ferrer is prone to looking like the guy who simply doesn’t belong. He took a 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 beating from Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals in January and now a 6-0, 6-2 drubbing from Nadal in Acapulco, a tournament he had won three straight times.
Sara Errani: A. Don’t tell anyone, but Errani has already made three finals this year. She won her first title of 2013 and defended her Acapulco title last week, beating Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0, 6-4. I can’t help but be impressed by how the Italian has handled this season as she attempts to follow up last year’s breakthrough. She leads the tour in match wins with 18.
Monica Niculescu and Karolina Pliskova: A. The WTA got two first-time winners as the 25-year-old Niculescu defeated Olga Puchkova 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 to win the Brazil Tennis Cup and the 20-year-old Pliskova overcame Bethanie Mattek-Sands 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 to win the Malaysian Open.
John Isner: C-Minus. He had a nice win over Kevin Anderson in the Delray Beach quarterfinals and then lost to 105th-ranked Roger-Vasselin 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 in the semifinals. Though his knee injury may contribute to some rust, Isner, who switched coaches during the offseason, just doesn’t look like he’s playing with much clarity. That’s bad news for a guy going into Indian Wells defending finalist points from last year. A poor showing in California and he could fall out of the top 20.
Roger Federer: B-minus. ”Obviously, I leave this match with a lot of regrets,” Federer said after squandering three match points against Berdych and losing. The shanks came at all the wrong times for Federer, who grew erratic as the match got tighter and tighter. He’s now 0-2 in title defenses this year and will go into Indian Wells once again as the defending champion, where he could lose the No. 2 ranking to Andy Murray. If he fails to play well there, you have to wonder if he’ll regret his decision to play a lighter schedule this year.
Venus Williams: B. Fatigue seemed to nip her in the end, as Venus struggled against Puchkova in the semifinals in Brazil, losing 4-6, 6-4, 7-5. By the time the third set began, Williams was aiming in serves at 60 mph and moving slowly between points. It was a tough way to lose — Williams avoided questions about her health and simply told reporters she “gave her best” — but credit her for making the trip to promote the inaugural tournament.
Ryan Harrison: D. Harrison hasn’t won a match since the Australian Open and is on a five-match skid after losing to Spanish qualifier Daniel Munoz-De La Nava in Delray Beach. With 115 points to defend in Indian Wells and Miami, he’s dangerously close to falling outside the top 100 if he can’t turn it around.
Sam Querrey: D. Querrey served for the match against Gulbis in Delray Beach and double-faulted on break point. Then in the third-set tiebreaker he served back-to-back double faults to lose the match.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands: A. Big week for Mattek-Sands, who eliminated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Hsieh Su-Wei en route to her first WTA final since Hobart in 2011.
Justin Gimelstob: A. Respect the hustle. The “hardest-working man in tennis” is putting in the work to promote his L.A. Tennis Challenge exhibition at UCLA this week, and it’s paying off. Getting Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Bob and Mike Bryan and Mardy Fish to participate has been a boon. Gimelstob could see the payoff in a few years, as he wants to bring an ATP tournament to Los Angeles during this week in the calendar. If he can deliver the stars and fill the seats, he’s more than halfway there.
Alize Cornet: B-plus. Though she lost to Errani 6-2, 6-2 in the Acapulco semifinals, Cornet gets a shout-out for saving nine — NINE! — match points in the quarterfinals to beat Lourdes Dominguez Lino 3-6, 7-6 (10), 7-6 (2).
Jack Sock and James Blake: A. Talk about an underrated doubles team. In their first tournament together, they made the San Jose final. In their second, they won Delray Beach by beating a quality team in Max Mirnyi and Horia Tecau 6-4, 6-4.
Caroline Wozniacki: D-plus. After two strong weeks in the Middle East, Wozniacki flew all the way to Kuala Lumpur and proceeded to lose in the first round to a 186th-ranked Chinese qualifier, Wang Qiang. Wozniacki actually led 6-2, 3-1 before the Malaysian heat began to sap her energy and Wang seized her moment, coming back to win 2-6, 7-6 (1), 6-1 for her first WTA main-draw win. But to Wozniacki’s credit, she stuck around for a few days and helped promote the tournament, appeasing fans and sponsors.