The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. Last week featured titles for Rafael Nadal, Venus Williams, Ernests Gulbis and Marin Cilic.
Venus Williams: A-plus. Since being diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome in 2011, Venus frequently stated that she just needed time and matches – time to learn how to best manage her body to practice and prepare for tournaments, and matches to get back to her competitive best. That two-and-a-half-year process has been marked by a number of tight three-set defeats, including a trio of them for her three losses this year.
Given that history, Venus’ dominant run to the Dubai title as a wild card was both unexpected and completely logical; she’s come close to breaking through many times over the last six months. The quality has been there in spurts — she reached the semifinals of the Pan Pacific Open last fall, where she lost to Petra Kvitova, and she lost to Ana Ivanovic in the final of the ASB Classic to start 2014.
All the pieces finally came together in Dubai. The 33-year-old defeated Alize Cornet 6-3, 6-0 in the final for her fifth straight-set victory of the week, completing her biggest title since Dubai in 2010. She’s back into the top 30 and will now be seeded for both Indian Wells and Miami. Given her form, that’s good news for her and the rest of the field.
Rafael Nadal: A. It wasn’t the usual romp to the title that we’re used to seeing from Nadal, but it was the week he needed, competing in his first tournament since losing the Australian Open final. Playing with with supportive tape on his back, which he injured in Melbourne, the top-ranked Nadal defeated No. 54 Alexandr Dolgopolov 6-3, 7-6 (3) to win the inaugural Rio Open and collect his 62nd career title. His toughest task all week was a nearly three-hour match against Spanish countryman No. 40 Pablo Andujar in the semifinals; Nadal saved two match points in the final-set tiebreaker and escaped 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (10). That result served as a wake-up call for Nadal, who rebounded to play a more contained match in the final.
“Pablo played a great match, playing very aggressive,” Nadal said after winning the title. “I played too short yesterday and I gave him the chance to have control of the point from inside. I’m not very happy with the way I played yesterday, but I think today I was able to play with a little bit more calm, play a little bit longer and go a little bit more for the points. I played a more solid match today.”
Marin Cilic: A-plus. Cilic is back with a vengeance. It’s easy to forget that the Croatian was on the verge of breaking into the top 10 last season before a failed drug test sidelined him for four months. The suspension dropped him to No. 47, but after making three straight finals and winning his second title in the last three weeks, Cilic is back into the top 25 and playing some of the best tennis of his career. He beat big servers John Isner in the semifinals and Kevin Anderson in the final to win the Delray Beach Open, raising his victory total to a tour-leading 18 this year.
Ernests Gulbis: A-plus. Gulbis has a knack for buckling under pressure, but that has never fazed him in finals. Gulbis defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 (5), 6-4 at the Open 13 to improve to 5-0 in finals and jump to a career-high No. 18. Now that he’s cracked the top 20 for the first time, the big question is how long he can stay there. Playing in the Mexico Open this week, Gulbis has more than 350 points to defend through the end of the North American hard-court swing. The good news for Gulbis is that he’ll be seeded through the those three tournaments.
Kurumi Nara: A. The Japanese No. 1 broke into the top 50 thanks to her first WTA title, at the Rio Open, where she beat Klara Zakopalova 6-1, 4-6, 6-1 in the final. Nara, 22, has had a steady rise over the last 12 months. She began last season ranked outside the top 150, but behind back-to-back third-round appearances at the Slams, her first WTA semifinal (the Japan Open last October) and this title, she’s up to No. 48.
Serena Williams: C-plus. Serena took a late wild card into Dubai because she got bored on the practice court and wanted to play some matches. The rustiness was evident from her first match, when she rallied from a break down to beat Ekaterina Makarova 7-6 (8), 6-0. And she just couldn’t get herself going against Cornet in the semifinal, losing 6-4, 6-4 and breaking up an all-Williams final. It was a long way to fly for just three matches, but the decision to enter was the right one considering she won’t play another tournament until next month’s Sony Open in Miami.
Alize Cornet: A-minus. After stunning Serena in the semifinals — the “best sister,” as Cornet described her — to record her first victory against a top-four player, the Frenchwoman had nothing left in the tank for the final against Venus. That reality led to an emotional breakdown during a changeover late in the first set. The tears were flowing, which wasn’t a good sight.
Simona Halep: B. A few days after winning the Qatar Open, Halep wisely retired from her first-round match in Dubai to rest her injured Achilles. But even with the retirement she rose to a career-high No. 7 to tie Irina Spirlea as the highest-ranked Romanian in WTA history. It won’t be long until she becomes the sole owner of that distinction.
Pablo Andujar: A-minus. In addition to coming within a point (twice!) of handing Nadal his 22nd career loss on clay in 318 matches, Andujar also beat No. 16 Tommy Robredo 6-1, 6-1 in the quarterfinals.
Alexandr Dolgopolov: A-minus. He made his first final since 2012 with a strong week at the Rio Open, defeating clay stalwart Fabio Fognini 6-1, 6-1 in the quarterfinals and upsetting top seed David Ferrer 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals.
Steve Johnson: A. The former USC standout went into Delray Beach as a qualifier ranked No. 142 and had the best week of his career to make his first ATP semifinal. He upset top seed Tommy Haas 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (2) and Feliciano Lopez 6-3, 6-2 before losing to Anderson 6-2, 6-4. In fact, it was a good week for collegiate tennis, with Johnson (a two-time NCAA champion), Anderson (University of Illinois) and John Isner (University of Georgia) reaching the semifinals.
John Isner: B. In his first tournament since retiring from his first-round match at the Australian Open with an ankle injury, Isner won three three-set matches to make the Delray Beach semifinals, where he lost to Cilic.
Teliana Pereira: B-plus. Brazil’s No. 1, ranked No. 98 last week, gave the home crowd at the Rio Open something to cheer for, earning her first WTA main-draw win of the season and advancing to the semifinals.
Roberta Vinci: F. The WTA’s No. 14 is still winless in 2014. She dropped to 0-6 with a first-round loss to Sorana Cirstea in Dubai.
Jelena Jankovic: C-minus. We appreciate Jankovic’s love for putting on a show, but there comes a point when the schtick gets old. Once again she let Serena get under her skin for no good reason, and again it involved Serena harmlessly holding up her serve. As you can tell from the exasperated British commentator in the clip, it’s time to move on, Jelena.
This post has been updated to correct Venus Williams’ results at the Pan Pacific Open last year and Marin Cilic’s schedule.